Wednesday, 29 July 2015

La grotte engloutie

Edison Bell VF 674 [X 1576] label 5DII   125, 12-Jul-15

Debussy Préludes, Book 1 - (x) La Cathédrale engloutie
Chopin Etude in e minor Op.25 No.5
Marie Novello (piano)
(rec. c. May 1926, issued July 1926)
Edison Bell VF 674

(My wonky framing of the label, above, is so you can see the matrix number.)

I bought this record back in January – but, as usual, I’ve had to rely on the kindness of others to enable me to share it with you. Generous and patient as ever, Jolyon has sprinkled some of his legendary Fairy Fluff on these two sides, giving me several versions to choose from. Although they’re acoustic recordings, and although the piano wasn’t too well in tune, I think they sound good – I’ve not tired of listening to them, repeatedly, as I took out some recalcitrant noises.

The estimated recording date is courtesy of the eminent British discographer William Dean-Myatt, author of the fascinating Beltona: a label listing and history (2007) and the monumental A Scottish vernacular discography, 1888-1960 (2013), which can be consulted on the website of the National Library of Scotland. Mr Dean-Myatt is currently preparing a discography of Edison Bell, a difficult task which he says will take him many years yet. It promises to be another invaluable work of reference.

My prompts for sharing this disc are twofold: guilt at not posting more often, mixed with shame at the constant streams of treasures from Shellackophile, Satyr, Buster and (not quite so constant, as he himself admits) Jolyon; and some good news which I’ve long been hoping for. The enterprising Japanese specialist label Sakuraphon has announced that it will issue a complete transfer of Marie Novello’s disc recordings, including the uncommon VF of Tausig’s transcription of  Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d BWV 565.

The Bach-Tausig will be offered as a ‘bonus track’: Sakuraphon bought the very copy of the original disc which I’d been eyeing on >ahem< ‘an internet auction site’. It was clearly being sold by a total tyro, and it reached Japan broken in two. I’m sorry for Sakuraphon, but glad that I trusted my instinct (and my meanness, baulking at the price plus postage, which were too high), and that someone more expert than me is picking up the pieces.

Sakuraphon, in case you’re not familiar with the label, is the successor to DIW Classics, which explored audio and piano-roll recordings by overlooked, underrated pianists, and issued such wonderful CDs as ‘Hounds of Ecstasy’ – two volumes of rare historical recordings of music by Scriabin; two of Chopin titled ‘Spoonful of Chopin’s Secrets’; a disc of Beethoven sonatas recorded for French H.M.V. by Aline van Barentzen; and another of Fauré played by French women pianists.

DIW Classics DICL-1001 booklet front

Hounds of Ecstasy vol.1
DIW Classics DCL-1001 (p.2007)

Sakuraphon is continuing this exploration, in CD and CDR compilations which you can see here. I don’t know when the Novello disc is due – I’ll try to keep you posted.

As for Novello herself, she was born Marie Williams in the land of my forefathers, and took her professional surname from her teacher, mother of Ivor Novello. She also studied with Theodor Leschetizky, apparently, although that can’t have been for long, since he died when Marie was 17. Anyway, you’ll find a decent biography and discography on Wikipedia, which also relates the sad story of her early death from cancer, aged around 30 (depending on when exactly in 1898 she was born).

Someone whose expertise and taste I respect – and who actually plays the piano, unlike me, and very well – doesn’t rate this disc very highly. Fair enough; I’m not ashamed to admit I know nothing about piano technique. Both Novello’s technique and her interpretation drew criticism in the September 1926 issue of The Gramophone:

La Cathédrale Engloutie will not stand being played at this pace; its magic atmosphere evaporates and nothing remains but a stark, empty shell. […] The delightful Chopin Etude (from Op.25) is rather better, but here again I should have liked more delicacy and a less percussive effect.

(The reviewer, Peter Latham, liked her Bach-Tausig rather more.) Well, call me cloth-eared, but I really enjoy Novello’s way with both pieces: her refusal to linger over details in the Debussy (though they’re all there), which instead she dashes off like a water-colourist painting en plein air; and, on the contrary, her unhurried, almost parlando phrasing in the Chopin, which sounds really improvised, especially in the middle bit - a quality modern pianists aspire to but rarely achieve. As for La Cathédrale, I just listened to an extremely famous pianist’s 1978 recording and found it catatonically slow, dully grey and almost totally devoid of atmosphere.

Last night I played Jolyon’s transfers to a friend who, again, is much more musical than me, and she likened the Debussy to a ‘charcoal drawing’, exactly the simile I’d thought of using above, instead of the water-colour. She did find the Chopin a bit lumpy. All right, but I think that’s on purpose: Novello lends the outer section an almost Bartókian grotesquery – or should that be Chaplinesque?

Two mono FLAC files, fully tagged, in a .rar file here.

Thanks again to Jolyon and William Dean-Myatt!


  1. Hi Nick - It's always a pleasure to have one of your posts! Thanks to you for the mention above, and to you, Jols and Mr. Dean-Myatt for the recording and information.

    1. Hi Buster, Thank you very much for your kind words! Lovely to hear from you. Best wishes, Nick

  2. Starting my day listening to the files you kindly uploaded for us. Thanks Nick. So good !!!

  3. Thanks Nick

    Well donw Nick, nice disc and I will try and live up the plug you gave me!


  4. Hello, I am an old friend of Bryan Bishop, and I noticed a link to your blog in his latest Coolidge Quartet posting on The Shellackophile. Clicking through, I found this about a Marie Novello recording that I don't know. Thank you for the posting. If you would like to hear the Bach/Tausig, I have a copy and would be glad to send you a dub. (I'm rather a fan of this pianist and wrote much of that Wikipedia article you referenced, including adding the record list.)

    1. Hello, Thank you for your kind comment - and your generous offer! Of course, I would love to hear the Bach/Tausig. I will contact you through Bryan. Very best wishes, Grumpy

  5. For about a year, I studied piano with Wendel Diebel, former head of the Colorado State University music department. He told me that he had studied with Olga Samaroff, a student of Leschetizky's. Leschetizky had studied with Czerny, a pupil of Beethoven. Thus, there were three links between him and Beethoven, and four between Beethoven and me. I know Beethoven would be honored to know this. Anyway, now you know it too.

    1. Thank you very much! The wonderfully named née Hickenlooper... I must dig out that old CD of her complete records. Best wishes, Grumpy

    2. Bennett Cerf, in Try and Stop Me, told a story about her family back in Texas; that a kid (possibly Olga) was sent to the pharmacy for a dime's worth of asefetida, and when she gave the druggist her name, he said, "Here, just take it. I ain't writin' "asefetida" and "Hickenlooper" for no ten cents."

      I've been working on her piano setting of Bach's "little" fugue in G. I have Leschetizky's left-hand extravaganza on Lucia too. For a very rainy day.