Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Eat your heart out Lang Lang


'When you wrote that Philippa (Schuyler) would approve of both conductor and soloist in the Americas concert, the thought, quite unbidden, "A black woman pianist?!" came into my mind. Just reflecting, I can think of not one living, but I can recall one who left us in 1983: Winifred Atwell. I think she deserves a mention in the context of this thread, for surely fewer and fewer today remember her, and hardly any know that, born in Trinidad and Tobago, she went in the early 40s to study with Alexander Borowsky in Boston. (As an aside, Borowsky's recordings very much need to be reissued.) In 1946 she went to London and was taken into the Royal Academy of Music, where she was the first female pianist to receive the highest grade for musicianship (a point relevant to what follows).

So much for Wiki plus a little surfing. Whether she did, as claimed, say that she "...starved in a garret to get onto concert stages",I'm not sure. However, what this bit of research certainly didn't tell me was whether my notion that Atwell recorded the Grieg Piano Concerto was correct, but I had only to search for her name and Grieg Concerto than I was looking at a site called Pristine Records and their remastered reissue of that very thing on the Pristine Records label, a label certainly new to me.

Atwell recorded the Grieg with the LPO conducted by Stanford Robinson on Decca (LF1026). It was released in 1955 in mono, but the Pristine site mentions that it was, in fact, one of the first classical recordings made in stereo in the UK. The site also provides a description of the system used (Roy Wallace's 'Decca Tree').

Trevor Harvey, I'm afraid, just savaged the performance in Gramophone. I can't find the outer movements on the net, but the Adagio may be heard on the Pristine site, and I have to say it moved me not a little. First, it was very obvious that the LPO did not regard this occasion as tantamount to accompanying Liberace in the first half of the first movement of the Tchaik with half the notes left out. Their playing in the opening is intense and contains some lovely sounds, notably from the first cello. Listening to Atwell in that one movement, no, this is not Solomon or Curzon or Bachauer, or whoever else TH mentioned, but here too is intense and serious playing and at certain points a quite lovely tone. TH wrote of a lack of preparation and some strange ideas in the performance, and re preparation, that may be a valid point. Atwell was staggeringly popular and, a truly lovely woman, much loved in the mid-50s, so how much time she could devote to the project is a question.

In regard to Atwell's popularity and how loved she was -- there was not an iota of the 'celebrity' about her, no side or airs or graces -- there was an exception: the United States. Her first US appearance was to have been on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. She was in New York ready to do her bit when she was told they had decided the segment wouldn't be recorded for fear of reaction in the South hurting Sullivan's ratings. She went back to London and performed at a private party for the Queen (who asked her to play Roll Out the Barrel, but still...). Funny old world, ain't it?'
My Philippa Shuyler thread has sent us down some interesting new paths and I thought it worthwhile reblogging the comment above which Philip Amos added today. The YouTube video provides striking evidence both of Winifred Atwell's virtuosity and of the racial stereotyping that was prevalent when the film was made in 1953. And what's wrong with classical musicians having fun?

* October is Black History Month in the UK.

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2 comments:

Frank H Little said...

In broadening the field of African-American piano virtuosi, one should mention Nina Simone who could not make a living by piano alone, a circumstance which embittered her.

M R said...

Many thanks for recalling Winifred Atwell, whose playing of 'The Poor People of Paris/La goualante du pauvre Jean' was a wireless favourite when I was a child. At the RAM she had been taught by Harold Craxton, who also taught my own piano teacher, Beryl Hawker (of Norwich). Incidentally, Trevor Harvey (who is also mentioned in the posting) conducted the first week-long holiday course for the Norfolk Youth Orchestra about fifty years ago.