The Complete Solo Studio Recordings
Harriet Cohen (piano)
APR Recordings APR7304
I will not be the first person to have fallen into the trap of regarding Harriet Cohen as being merely a ‘pendant’ of Sir Arnold Bax. To be fair, I first heard of her through my early ‘study’ of Bax back in the nineteen seventies. The received wisdom suggested that for three decades, she ‘pursued a tempestuous affair with this composer’. When she suddenly discovered that she was not slated to become Lady Bax on the death of his wife, she had an ‘accident’ and cut her wrist whilst carrying a tray of glasses…
Certainly, her colourful personal life has distracted attention away from her achievements in the ‘recital room’ or recording studio. Stephen Siek, in the liner notes, suggests that Harriet ‘as a young woman was beguilingly beautiful, and [that] she rarely hesitated to advance her career through charm and even seduction.’ He mentions her liaisons ‘real or imagined’ with ‘men ranging from H.G. Wells to Ramsey MacDonald.’ Another issue that causes the biographer problems is Harriet’s tendency to fabricate –Siek notes that her autobiography is filled ‘with self-aggrandizing inaccuracies that must be carefully sifted from the truths that it also contains.’
The ‘gossip’ has partially obscured a pianist who was not only great but inspired. Her interpretation of Bach would have been sufficient to have established her reputation for all time. However, as this present collection of recordings proves, her achievement extends in many directions.
Out of interest, W.S. Meadmore quotes a story in the Gramophone Magazine from 1929: ‘When Busoni met Harriet Cohen he looked at her hands and said: "These are the smallest and worst, hands I have ever seen. It would be impossible to play the piano with them. You must give music up." Miss Cohen played to him. He was astonished. He could hardly credit that such hands could make such fine music.’
A few highlights of Harriet’s life and achievements may be of interest to those who have not come across her before. Harriet Pearl Alice Cohen was born in Brixton, London on 2 December 1895 into a largely musical household. Her father, Joseph, was an amateur cellist and composer and her mother, Kathleen Irene, was an accomplished pianist. After piano lessons with her mother, Harriet attended the Tobias Matthay Pianoforte School. Other pupils at that time included Myra Hess. In 1908, she gave her first recital – a Chopin Waltz at the Bechstein Hall! Shortly after this, she won an Ada Lewis Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music where she was one of the star pupils. Harriet won ‘a string of awards’ including the Sterndale Bennett, the Edward Nicholls and the Hine prizes. She continued her studies with Felix Swinstead and Matthay himself. Whilst at the Academy she was introduced to Arnold Bax and became part of the ‘set’ that adored all things Russian in the wake of Diagalev’s ballet triumphs in London.
One of Harriet Cohen’s achievements was the ‘discovery’ of the significant vein of keyboard music by Tudor and other ‘early music’ composers. This included works by Orlando Gibbons, William Byrd and Henry Purcell. Another important interest was of Spanish music: she gave the second performance of Manuel da Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and subsequently performed it many times.
However, her major achievement must be regarded as her exposition of J.S. Bach. The German critic Adolph Weissmann stated that ‘…so deeply has the spirit of the master entered into her that she has few, if any, equals as a Bach player’ and no less a person than Alfred Einstein insisted that ‘she is one of those chosen few who stand among the elect.’ The Times obituary writer notes that Harriet played Bach ‘with great musicianship, precision, buoyancy and an emotional tact which refuses ever to aim at effects outside a true Bach style.’
Over the years, Harriet gave the first performances of a number of important works by contemporary British composers. These included the Piano Concerto by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Bax’s Symphonic Variations. William Walton’s Sinfonia Concertante was introduced by her to France, Spain, Germany and Austria. European composers including Ernst Bloch and Bela Bartok dedicated works to her. The Soviet composers Kabalevsky and Shostakovich provided her with new pieces: they are represented on these CDs.
Harriet officially retired from public life in 1960. Thereafter she devoted much of her time to the Harriet Cohen International Music Awards and the writing of her autobiography A Bundle of Time. She died on 13 November 1967.
It is not my intention to discuss every number on this superb three CD set – there are 58 tracks each deserving comment and analysis. However, I will mention a few highlights – at least from my perspective.
The lion’s share (32 tracks) of this recording is given over to the music of J.S. Bach. There are three main groupings here. Firstly, there is the important keyboard concerto – No.1 in D minor (BWV1052). This is presented here in two versions – one dating from 1924 and the other from 1946. Both are beautifully stated performances; however the later one is naturally clearer and casts more light on the contrapuntal working out of the piece. Lewis Foreman has noted that Harriet was ‘celebrated in her day’ for performances of this work. Once one makes the ‘mental leap’ of hearing this work on the piano as opposed to the clavier, it can be appreciated as a most enjoyable execution. I feel that this music is perfectly poised and ultimately cool in mood.
The ‘pioneering recordings’ of part of Book 1 of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier are critical to Harriet’s career. Apparently, Columbia proposed to issue the entire ‘48’ however, the project never got beyond the first nine. Her playing of these pieces is pretty near perfect. I accept that there have been many fine interpreters of these works – my current favourite is Andreas Schiff. However, Harriet’s commitment to these masterpieces of the keyboard art is impeccable and combines a superb technical approach to the music with a ‘lofty intellectual perception’, which is outstanding. It is only a pity that the set was never completed.
The last element of the Bach recordings is probably less-popular these days – the transcriptions. Perhaps the most famous transcriber of Bach’s music is Busoni; however many other composers turned their hand to this form of arrangement, including Franz Liszt, Max Reger and Sergei Rachmaninov. Harriet also contributed to this genre with a number of pieces including the lovely ‘Beloved Jesus, we are here’ (BWV731) and the stately ‘Sanctify us by thy Goodness’ from Cantata No.22.
It may seem a heresy to many readers when I admit that I am not a huge fan of Mozart’s and Brahms’ piano music. Naturally, I accept that they are both masters of the keyboard, and concede that it is just the fact that I have not got to grips with their music. However, I enjoyed the classical and ‘unsentimental’ rendering of the Mozart’s C major Sonata K330. The liner notes rightly admit to the somewhat ‘erratic’ tempos of the first movement – one might call it ‘eccentric.’ However, the slow movement is beautiful and the concluding rondo is perfectly paced.
I am convinced that other reviewers will extoll the virtues of Harriet’s Chopin and Brahms recordings. Certainly, I found her interpretation of the Études attractive, if not revelatory.
The Brahms Ballade in D minor is a ‘big’ work that was inspired by a grisly Scottish ballad tune, ‘Edward’. Harriet’s performance is expansive and well-balanced. The closing bars of pianissimo are in perfect contrast to the macabre earlier pages. The Intermezzo in B flat minor is a little lighter in mood, but is still introspective.
I noted above that Harriet took up Falla’s Nights: alas, there is no recording of this work available. However, this collection includes three pieces for solo piano from his pen. I have always sworn by Alicia de Larrocha for my Spanish piano music; however, Harriet’s performances of ‘Andaluza’, ‘The Fisherman’s Tale’ and ‘The Miller’s Dance’ are beholden to no one. The balance between the fire, the passion and the sultry heat are all ‘present and correct’. These performances are amongst the highlights of a set of CDs full of highlights!
Stephen Siek notes that Harriet’s favourite ‘a cappella’ work was William Byrd’s five-voice mass: Elizabethan music certainly appealed to her as can be heard in the five short pieces from Orlando Gibbons – ‘Ayre’, ‘Alman’, ‘Toy’, ‘Coranto’ and ‘Mr Sanders his Delight’. I have to admit that I prefer these pieces played on the piano than on the virginal - irrespective of musicological mores. There is a wistful and melancholic beauty about these timeless pieces that defies analysis. I do wish that she had recorded more music from this period. These pieces were taken from Margaret Glyn’s groundbreaking edition of the composer’s works, first published in 1922. Harriet also included Ralph Vaughan Williams heart-breaking Hymn Tune Prelude on [Gibbon’s] Song 13. I feel that this is one of the most moving pieces that RVW composed.
It is naturally good to have everything that Harriet recorded from the pen of Arnold Bax. The powerful and demanding Paean (Passacaglia) certainly gives the lie to those critics who suggested that her small hands limited her technique. She brings a magic to the ‘Hill Tune’ and to ‘A Mountain Mood’, which is quite simply perfect. Harriet underscores both works’ largely impressionistic nature. The Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex) which was dedicated to Princess Elizabeth on her 21st birthday is one of Bax’s lighter pieces. Like many of his late works, it has been considered as lacking in inspiration. However, for me it is a delight and manages to portray the idealised landscape, which seemingly inspired it.
One of the pleasures (for me) of the entire set of discs is the highly charged, romantic and very overblown – but gorgeous Cornish Rhapsody from the Gainsborough picture Love Story starring Margaret Lockwood. This performance was used on the film soundtrack.
The liner notes by Stephen Siek are excellent and constitute a major essay on Harriet Cohen’s recording career. It certainly bears careful study both before and after hearing the music. It would have been nice to have had dates for Messrs. Gibbons, Bax, and Bath et al: they were given for many of the other composers. There are some excellent photographs of Harriet of both the studio and the ‘snap’ variety. The CDs themselves are crammed full of music. I guess that they only just managed to fit in all this music on the three CDs. They are superb values for money -the three discs are available for around £19.
I have never been a great enthusiast for ‘historical recordings.’ For one thing, I never know quite what to expect from the sound quality. Listeners are so used to a pristine reproduction of sound and look askance at any clicks or hiss. The present three CDs certainly have some hiss. Could it have been removed? I guess not. However, I was impressed by the general sound, the pitch seems to be ‘perfect’ and there is little evidence of where the 78 r.p.m. records would have needed to be ‘turned over.’
Yet to possess these three discs I am prepared to forgo my usual reticence to listen to historical recordings. In fact, I would go as far to say that I would give an arm and a leg to hear these tracks – complete with a bit of surface noise.
The reader may well divine that I am still half-in-love with Harriet some 40 years after first discovering her: that may well be true. However, I would challenge any person to listen to her performance of Debussy’ Clair de Lune and not be impressed, challenged and moved.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published
Track Listings Dates given are when piece was recorded.
J. S. BACH (1685-1750) Keyboard Concerto No 1 in D minor BWV1052 Orchestra /Sir Henry Wood (1924)
J. S. BACH The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I: Preludes & Fugues Nos. 1-9 BWV846 - BWV854 (1928)
BACH/RUMMEL Mortify us by thy grace, from Cantata No 22 (1928)
BACH/COHEN Beloved Jesus, we are here BWV731 (1928)
J. S. BACH Keyboard Concerto No 1 in D minor BWV1052 Philharmonia Orchestra/ Walter Susskind (1946)
J. S. BACH Prelude & Fugue No 4 BWV849 from WTC Book 1 (1947)
BACH/COHEN Sanctify us by thy goodness; Beloved Jesus, we are here BWV731; Up! Arouse thee! from Cantata No.155 (1935)
BACH/PETRI Fantasia (Praeludium) in C minor BWV921 (1935)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Piano Sonata No 10 in C major K330 (1932)
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849) Nocturne Op 15 No 1; Trois Nouvelles Études Nos. 1 & 3 (1943); Étude Op 25 No 7 (1928)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Ballade in D minor Op 10 No 1; Intermezzo in B flat major Op 76 No 4 (1930)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Clair de lune, from the Suite bergamasque; La cathédrale engloutie, No 10 from Préludes Book I (1948)
Manuel DE FALLA (1876-1846) Andaluza, No 4 from Pièces espagnoles; The Fisherman’s Tale, from El Amor Brujo; The Miller’s Dance, from The Three-Cornered Hat (1943)
Dmitri KABALEVSKY (1904-1987) Sonatina in C major Op 13 No 1 (1943)
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Prelude in E flat minor Op 34 No 14 (1943)
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625) Ayre – Alman – Toy – Coranto – Mr Sanders His Delight (1947)
GIBBONS/Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Hymn Tune Prelude on Song 13 (1947)
Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Paean (1938); A Hill Tune (1942); A Mountain Mood –Them & Variations (1942) Arnold BAX Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex) Orchestra/ Dr Malcolm Sargent (1947) Arnold BAX ‘The Oliver Theme’ from the film Oliver Twist Philharmonia Orchestra/ Muir Mathieson (1948)
Hubert BATH (1883-1945) ‘Cornish Rhapsody’ from the film Love Story London Symphony Orchestra/ Hubert Bath (1944)