The American pianist Earl Wild (1915-2010) is primarily remembered as a super-virtuoso who played and recorded neglected, fiendishly difficult works by both first- and second-rate composers. But his repertoire was huge (which – given the extraordinary length of his career – his limited discography doesn’t entirely reflect). He was also a composer, arranger and conductor, who set a world record by performing for six consecutive American presidents and was the only US pianist to be invited to play with Toscanini and the NBCSO (in Rhapsody in Blue).
So the prospect of hearing his entire RCA LP output was very enticing. Then the box arrived, with only five CDs (and but for the need to preserve the original sleeves, it could have been four) which seemed rather odd.
What is missing are the celebrated 1960s’ Readers Digest discs that were recorded by RCA in London using Decca equipment (which featured Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos and the Firsts of Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Grieg, with the Royal Philharmonic and Horenstein, Sargent, Leibowitz and Fistoulari), three RCA Record Club recitals (again in association with Readers Digest, although the labels very distinctively highlight the name if RCA name) and a 1977 LP of Mozart with Zaidee Parkinson (RCA Red Seal RL 25125).
One does have some sympathy for Sony in that the Readers Digest recordings are available on other labels and one presumes that they hold the rights; but you do feel that the Club and Mozart discs should have been part of this collection.
The discs are arranged in chronological order and the first two, which feature works by the great George Gershwin, date from 1959 and 1961, with the Boston Pops Orchestra under Arthur Fielder. As you would expect (given that the Pops is the Boston Symphony in off-season guise) the playing is wonderful. In Cuban Overture and An American in Paris Fielder revels in Gershwin’s glorious melodies, rhythms and orchestration; indeed these masterworks have never been done better. Turning to the Piano Concerto, ‘I Got Rhythm’ Variations and Rhapsody in Blue, Wild doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to play Gershwin with jazz-like swing (when classically trained musicians do this the effect is usually stiffly unidiomatic). Instead he treats all three works as though they are Rachmaninov with effortless rubato, tempo and dynamic changes, immaculate, limited use of the sustaining pedal, a dazzling range of tone colours and – yes – breathtaking virtuosity, which means everything sounds totally effortless. So, virtually definitive performances: well not quite. Turn to Leonard Pennario and the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra under Felix Slatkin in Rhapsody in Blue (Capitol) and from the wonderfully sleazy clarinet solo onwards you enter a world that does perfectly combine classical and jazz and makes Wild sound rather detached. Nevertheless his are powerful performances that should be heard.
Wild’s next main-label RCA release was a 1969 oddity coupling Scharwenka, Balakirev, Medtner and Eugen d’Albert. Xavier Scharwenka was Polish and given the quality of his First Piano Concerto it was somewhat distressing to find that he wrote another three prior his death in 1924. The work opens with an eminently forgettable martial theme and a slow movement is replaced with a bombastic Allegro assai followed by an even more vainglorious Finale. But Wild’s imperious command and expressive largesse make light of the huge technical demands and the playing of the Boston Symphony under Erich Leinsdorf is elegantly patrician. On what was side two of the LP there are solo showpieces, which make ideal background music for doing the housework. The performances however are ridiculously good. In Balakirev’s Reminiscences of Glinka’s opera A Life of the Tsar you catch your breath at the evenness, crystalline precision and lightness of some of the right-hand runs. This is old-world virtuoso pianism at its finest.
A year later in London Wild essayed further obscure works, this time by Paderewski with the LSO and Fiedler. It is perhaps worth remembering that in the 1960s and 1970s works by second- and third-rate composers usually languished in well-deserved obscurity and that it is only relatively recently that performers and record companies have persuaded people to part with money to listen to them, so Wild playing Scharwenka and Paderewski was a genuine novelty. The latter's A-minor Concerto is no masterpiece, but its thematic material and orchestration are more original than Scharwenka’s, the slow movement is very beautiful and the huge peroration featuring the Finale’s main idea is wonderfully kitsch, although one tires of hearing so many runs, arpeggios and passage-work in place of true inspiration, and much the same can be said of the more tub-thumping, but fun, Fantaisie Polonaise. In both Wild is his usual brilliant, ebullient (he dances through the Polonaise) yet sensitive self, the LSO and Fielder provide an immensely authoritative accompaniment.
Finally, from 1972, there is Liszt’s First Concerto and Hungarian Fantasy plus an earlier-recorded miscellany of pieces by Handel, Mozart and Max Steiner. In the Liszt, Wild is partnered by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra under Andre Kostelanetz (ten years earlier Wild had recorded No.1 with Sargent). Kostelanetz does his limited best with a score that has defeated more illustrious names, but Sargent did a far more incisive and imaginative job, where Wild was more romantically expansive (his trilling in the slow second section almost matches that of Richter with Kondrashin, which is saying something) and quixotic. In essence the later version is brilliant (there are seemingly no technical difficulties) and more classically restrained, but doesn’t capture the grandeur of the previous version. The immensely entertaining Hungarian Fantasy gets a powerhouse performance with a few added embellishments in the slow central section where the delicacy of the playing is exceptional. Solomon’s account of this much-maligned work remains definitive, but Wild runs him close.
The fill-ups are a slow, lushly romantic account of the celebrated (Elvira Madigan) slow movement of Mozart’s K467, where the Philadelphia Orchestra’s crushed-velvet strings and woodwinds are a joy, as are Wild’s immensely civilised, beautifully warm tone, rubato and occasional ritardando. Max Steiner’s Symphonie Moderne derives from the 1939 film Four Wives and is mercifully short. The most interesting thing one can say about it is that the conductor is Charles Gerhardt, one of the great RCA producers who oversaw Wild’s Readers Digest recordings. To conclude there is a stylish and cultivated 1947 rendition of a Handel Oboe Sonata from the distinguished Robert Bloom.
In terms of the sound, the transfers are adequate. The valve/tube RCA Living Stereo series from which the Gershwin discs derive are ranked alongside Decca by many audiophiles and no compressed 16bit transfer has ever re-created their depth, brilliance, presence, richness, and ability to capture instrumental timbres and an acoustic signature. What you get here is excellent sound minus the naturalness of the originals.
With regard to the later solid-state LPs, first-label British pressings were used for comparison and once again the CDs lack the body, presence and power of the originals – in effect the piano has been dried out. This is particularly damaging on the Paderewski, where the sound – which is rather thin anyway on the LP – has become overly metallic.
Given that increasingly large numbers of music-lovers are able to play high-resolution downloads, it would be very interesting to hear the 24bit/96kHz masters that Sony boast these discs derive from, as they always bring a marked improvement in all of the aforementioned factors, but they are not available, which isn’t acceptable.
As with all of these Sony complete RCA and CBS boxes, the LP sleeves are reproduced, with details on the production team, matrix numbers, et al, and there is an excellent note by Jed Distler. Unfortunately there is no information on the music other than that found in tiny print on the back of each sleeve: Sony should provide downloads of so that one can magnify the words.