I was recently given the ‘The Complete Electric and Selected Acoustic Recordings’ of Irene Scharrer as a Christmas present. Much could be written about this stunning release from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd., however it was one piece that immediately caught my ear - Cyril Scott’s ‘Danse nègre’
Irene Scharrer was born in London on 2 February 1888. She studied at the Royal Academy of Music under Tobias Matthay. Her debut as a concert pianist was in 1904 when she was only 16: she played Chopin’s Rondo in E flat Op. 16 ‘…with wonderful finish and very remarkable technical skill’.
Irene was to continue her public career until 1958 after which she disappeared from public view. Her final appearance was at a Matthay Centenary Concert held at the Royal Academy of Music when she played the Mozart two-piano sonata with her friend and fellow-Matthay pupil Myra Hess. At the height of her career she toured in both the United States and in Europe, playing under conductors such a Nikisch and Richter. Scharrer was not deemed (by contemporary critics) to have a powerful pianistic style: she had a sensitive, intimate technique that favoured the Romantic music of the 19th century with Chopin being one of her favourites. Irene Scharrer died on 11 January 1971.
The ‘Danse nègre’ must be one of the most recorded of Cyril Scott’s works with more than 20 versions listed in Laurie J. Sampsel’s Bio-bibliography of the composer. The composer himself issued a number of ‘piano-rolls’ of this work. Irene Scharrer recorded the piece on HMV D84 (78rpm) in 20 September 1915. It was coupled with Frederic Chopin: Etude op.25 No.6. (which is not included on the APR CD release.)
Cyril Scott wrote his ‘Danse nègre’ Op.58/5 (W89) in 1908: it was dedicated to the composer Norman O’Neill and his wife Adine. The sheet music was published in the same year by Elkin & Co and in 1935 the work was issued in a two piano, 4 hands version.
This brilliant, lively piece owes much to the pianistic styles of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. However, Scott has added a ‘well accentuated rhythmic swing’ and a ‘sparkling’ harmonic accompaniment to his work Leslie De’ath has noted that the title will immediately remind listeners of Debussy’s ‘Le Petit nègre’ in spite of it not being a cake-walk. Interestingly, Scott’s work was composed before Debussy’s! It also reminded me of the opening Prelude from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and the concluding movement of his Sonatine.
I was unable to find any contemporary reviews of Scharrer’s recording of this piece, however Jonathan Woolf reviewing the APR release has suggested that ‘her Cyril Scott piece, ‘Danse nègre’ is wittily vivacious’. In fact I would go beyond this and suggest that it is a stunning performance by a pianist who has shown herself to be competent with the music of Debussy as witnessed by her superb recording of ‘Poisson d’Or’ and ‘Reflets dans l’eau’. Irene Scharrer manages to balance the exoticism of ‘Danse nègre’ with the technical intricacy of the piece and the impressionistic harmonies.
‘Danse nègre’ is recorded on ‘Irene Scharrer: The Complete Electric and Selected Acoustic Recordings’ APR 6010 A large part of this piece can be heard as a sample on this webpage (penultimate track). For a modern comparison I recommend Leslie De’ath on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7224 There is a recording of a piano roll made by Cyril Scott on YouTube.