A drawing by G. S. Vereisky; 1927.
On 26 June 1932 Prokofiev left Paris for London to make a recording of his Third Piano Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra for “His Master’s Voice” (HMV). This recording company, from humble beginnings at the turn of the century in the UK as “The Gramophone and Typewriter Company”, with a small studio in Maiden Lane, off the Strand, had flourished under the inspired leadership of the American Fred Gaisberg (1873-1951), and from 1912 was known as “His Master’s Voice” from its famous trademark painting of the terrier, Nipper, listening to a Gramophone. Gaisberg had little interest in French repertoire and in 1923 was happy to hand over responsibilities of artistic administrator for the French section of HMV. His successor, an Italian composer/conductor based in Paris, Piero Coppola (1888-1971), would conduct the recording of the Third Concerto.
In 1931 HMV had merged with a number of other recording companies to form “The Electrical & Musical Industries (EMI) Ltd”, turning it into the largest recording organisation in the world. By removing competition, in spite of world-wide economic depression, the company was able to embark on a programme of expansion, including the purchase of 3 Abbey Road in St. John’s Wood, London, which was converted into studios. Equipped with the latest in recording technology, the studios opened to considerable media coverage in November 1931 with Sir Edward Elgar recording his Overture Falstaff with the London Symphony Orchestra. (In the 1960s the Abbey Road studios would achieve further fame when the Beatles recorded there.) This is where the memorable recording of Prokofiev’s concerto would take place.
Prokofiev kept an account of the recording in his diary, which offers a fascinating insight into the recording methods at the time:
I am making a record for the first time in my life, and what’s more with the orchestra immediately, so I have tried to go over the Third Concerto particularly carefully over the last two weeks. This was the sequence of events today: the orchestra and I first rehearsed for between an hour and an hour and a half, and then we started to make a test. If there are wrong notes, it’s not important; what is important is the balance between piano and orchestra, and between the various orchestral instruments. We made a test and found that in places the piano sounded weak, and that in the orchestra the second violins, bassoons and oboes could not be heard. We moved the bassoons and oboes a metre forward, and partly mixed the second violins with the firsts – and made a second test.
This sounded so good that it really was a pity that it was spoiled (if it’s played on a wax disc, it’s ruined). In places my playing came out very well, sounding energetic, but a bit mannered; that’s where there is a little insincerity or artificiality. In general, insignificant artificiality which is unnoticeable in performance, is immediately emphasised by the gramophone.
We started to make the second, real [recording]. Naturally, there is nervousness and I didn’t play completely steadily, but with great tension. The first recording came out well, only the second clarinet played some wrong notes. We did it again; the clarinet played the right notes, but my playing was worse. It went on like this for three hours. It was very interesting work but I was glad when it was over, because I was worn out with concentrating.
The second three hours. It is very difficult playing a whole side of a record. i.e. for four minutes, without playing a single wrong note. And when you start playing with greater caution, the playing becomes more artificial and loses its spontaneity. Prince George,(1) the King’s second son, came in towards the end of the session. He was interested in the recording process and first had been in the jazz department, then in a studio where an actress was declaiming. As the actress was pretty, he stayed on while the orchestra and I were sitting and waiting, because we had been told not to start a new disc before the Prince arrived. Because of the heat I had taken off my jacket and waistcoat and let down my braces so as not to hinder my movements. Collingwood,(2) who had set up the recording and had previously studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, said to me in Russian: “Perhaps it would be better to take off your braces.” When the Prince arrived and we were taken to be presented to him, I had unfastened my braces, but I was allowed not to wear my jacket.
The Prince is young, well-bred, not bad-looking, although small. He shook hands with us all and obviously at the start didn’t know what to say. He selected me to make conversation and asked when the Concerto was written, had I already played it in England and where I normally lived. I answered cheerfully, but I prevaricated when asked where I lived – I would have said “In Paris, but I frequently go to Soviet Russia”. However this would have been embarrassing and as I’m a guest and he’s the host, I had to confine myself to Paris. I recorded a single phrase while the Prince was there, they immediately gave approval and the Prince moved on and we continued recording.
Each small section was recorded two or three times. Now they are to make negatives by the galvanic method and then send them to Paris for them to choose.
After working I was exhausted and in order to relax, I walked about the city on foot, had a meal, did some shopping and went back to Paris.
Piero Coppola also gave an account:
“I conducted [for Pasdeloup] a Festival of Russian music with Serge Prokofiev. After Borodin’s Symphony in B Minor, I accompanied this astonishing Russian, who performed the piano part of his Third Concerto with amazing ease and verve and I then conducted the first performance of his Sinfonietta. Serge Prokofiev was a force of nature. I had previously admired him as the creator of the Scythian Suite, which is, in its own way, a masterpiece. Working with him, I was filled with wonder at the talent that nature has lavished upon this Slavonic artist. When Russians put their mind to it, they are genuinely incredible.
This fair-haired man, with lively eyes and remarkable hands, with a passion for bridge and children’s toys, was an enfant terrible. Uniquely gifted, stubborn and quick to anger, he was profoundly musical. His whole being was musical: perhaps more in his sense of rhythm and dynamism than in expressiveness, but he was an exceptional character.
The success of his performance of his Third Concerto had come to the knowledge of the gentlemen from ‘His Master’s Voice,’ and we were invited to London to record the work.
The recording equipment was highly developed and new studios had been built in St. John’s Wood. At our disposal we had the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom I had already recorded Massenet’s Scènes pittoresques and the Overture to Le Roi d’Ys, and as I had made my London début with them in 1923, we were well acquainted […]. We worked well together.
The Duke of Kent (3) was due to make an official visit to the ‘His Master’s Voice’ studios the day of the recording; he arrived while we were recording a section of the concerto with Mr Prokofiev at the piano, and he left immediately, perhaps astonished by the slightly aggressive style of the music.”(4)
BACK TO SUMMARY
(1) Prince George (1902-1942) was, in fact, the fourth son of King George V and Queen Mary. He was made Duke of Kent on the occasion of his marriage in 1934 to Princess Marina of Greece, who was, on her mother’s side, a direct descendant of Tsar Nicolas I of Russia. On her father’s side, she was grand-daughter of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, one of Tsar Nicolas II’s uncles.
(2) Lawrance Collingwood (1887-1982) had studied with Nikolai Tcherepnin and Maximilian Steinberg in Russia, and had been an assistant to Albert Coates. On his return to the UK he joined the music staff of the Old Vic and in 1931 became principal opera conductor at the newly opened Sadler’s Wells Theatre in North London. In 1935 he conducted the first performance outside Russia of Musorgsky’s original version of Boris Godunov there. He recorded for HMV from 1922 to 1971.
(3) See Note 1.
(4) Coppola, Piero, Dix-sept ans de musique à Paris 1922-1971, (Lausanne, 1944), 134-136.