Eton College, Windsor, Windsor and Maidenhead SL4 6DW
Irene Scharrer (2 February 1888 – 11 January 1971) was an English classical pianist. Myra Hess remained unmarried throughout her life and maintained close relationships with other openly lesbian composers and musicians of her day such as Maude Valerie White and Irene Scharrer.
Irene Scharrer was born in London and studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Tobias Matthay. The youngest child of Tobias Scharrer and Ida Henrietta Samuel, Irene was born in London on 2 February 1888, and not long after, her mother, an accomplished pianist, was commuting to Tobias Matthay’s new home on Brighton Road in Purley, at the urging ofher elder sister Maud. As the grandchildren of Liverpool watchmaker Moses Samuel (1795–1860)– whose descendants founded the H Samuel jewellery chain – Maud, Ida, and their seven siblings lived comfortably. Maud had begun lessons with Matthay at the Royal Academy of Music in 1886, and the Samuel family soon became among his most ardent admirers. One afternoon, Irene, then aged six, accompanied Ida on one of her Purley visits, but as Jessie Matthay recounts in her biography of her husband, the child’s attempt to greet the master with a formal bow was thwarted when a rug mercilessly slid across the polished floor, causing her to land feet first. However, she proved remarkably gifted, and after she reached the age of 10, Irene’s beloved ‘Uncle Tobs’ became her only teacher.
In the autumn of 1900, at the age of 12, she won one of the scholarships recently created by the RAM to honour the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, and in subsequent years she also won the (Cipriani) Potter Exhibition and the Erard Scholarship, so that over time her studies were fully underwritten by awards and prizes. She arrived at the Academy on the same day as Arnold Bax – another Matthay pupil –but the student who soon became her closest riend, Myra Hess, did not appear for another two years. The girls met through their mothers, who were already friends, and Ida may have convinced Lizzie Hess to send her daughter to St. Leonard’s, a girls’ school that Irene already attended. Despite the two-year age difference, the girls soon became inseparable, and after Myra also began studying with Matthay (who had now relocated to Hampstead), they sometimes even scheduled their lessons together at his Arkwright Road home.
Years later, Bax remembered them as two ‘very small and eternally giggling girls’, but Irene’s temperament was far more extroverted than Myra’s, and as she blossomed into an extraordinarily attractive young woman, it seemed natural to most that she should devour the thunderous works of Liszt and Chopin with ease. In October of 1904, at the age of sixteen, she made her Bechstein Hall debut while still an RAM student, but The Times was not altogether flattering, suggesting that her virtuosity was still a bit empty, and counselling that ‘music means a good deal more than she now seems to imagine’. Nevertheless, fifteen months later, after she performed both the Liszt E flat and the Saint-Saëns G minor Concertos with Henry Wood and the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, the Musical Times praised her ‘delightfully sympathetic and delicate’ passage work, which she dispatched with ‘fascinating clearness and lightness’, and unflattering reviews soon virtually disappeared. Her self-confident assertiveness was in evidence behind the scenes as well, since despite the fact that she was a mere seventeen, she demanded that Wood, at least briefly, relinquish his baton to her teacher, so that Matthay’s youthful 1882 overture In May could be debuted on the same programme – a work he had been struggling unsuccessfully to premiere for nearly twenty-five years.
Scharrer made her London début at the age of 16, and gave concerts regularly until June 1958, where she appeared for the last time, playing Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos with Myra Hess. They often performed four-handed compositions together. (Scharrer is sometimes erroneously described as Hess's cousin. She was distantly related to another fine woman pianist, Harriet Cohen, the two sharing a great-great-grandfather).
Soon hailed as a rising star, she was particularly acclaimed for her Chopin Etudes, performances that amazed even Vladimir de Pachmann, and she often thrilled audiences with her effortless rendition of the ‘Black Key’ from Opus 10. While still a teenager – aboard a steamer with a small piano – she once accepted a challenge from Alexander Mackenzie, the principal of the RAM, to transpose it a semitone higher, astonishing those present by extemporaneously creating a ‘white key’extrava ganza. Thus, it scarcely surprised anyone that her first commercial recording session made at the Gramophone studios on 23July 1909, shortly after her twenty-first birthday, should include the ‘Black Key’, which she paired with a remarkable rendition of Mendelssohn’s ‘Bee’s Wedding’ (the Song without words Op 67 No 4 known more commonly as ‘Spinning Song’). Landon Ronald, who was also an outstanding pianist, had then been working for the company for nine years, and both he and Scharrer remained with the firm long after it began issuing records under the HMV label that year.
Other collaborators included Arthur Nikisch in Berlin, and Landon Ronald in London. A London music journal reported on the collaboration of Irene Scharrer and her close friend Sir Landon Ronald, three months after the start of World War I. James Little, the Standard’s reviewer, also praised the concert as a beacon to a nation that was then ‘passing through a dark cloud and livingin abnormal times’. And indeed, before, during, and immediately after the War, Scharrer reigned as one of the icons of British pianism, for of all the Matthay pupils, she was far the most recognized for the warmth she imparted to highly demanding, virtuosic works.
Not surprisingly, her earliest HMV collaborative venture, on 14 September 1912, featured Ronald and the New Symphony in an abridged ersion of Liszt’s familiar Hungarian Fantasy– the earliest acoustic recording in this set (all of which appear on Disc 2). Though only twenty-four, Scharrer makes a commanding impression, and her passage work glistens with brilliance, but– heeding Matthay’s advice– a brilliance that always bubbles, and never stings. Five days later, her rendition of the Chopin F minor Etude from Opus 25 (sharing a side with her first recordingof the Etude Op 25 No 1) is nothing short of miraculous. She is completely faithful to the presto tempo marking (as well as to Chopin’s dynamics, which rarely rise above a piano), but – again illustrating Matthay’s tenets–every note is musically intended, and the listener is never captivated by sheer speed so much as by a luminous clarity. The same is true with the familiar ‘Minute’ Waltz, which appeared on the disc’s B side, and which – for those interested – extends here to 1.47, with art again trumping mere athleticism. Despite the distance of nearly a century, the acoustic technology has preserved the extraordinary jeu perlé of her finger-work, which is never blurred by pedal. The same is true with Scott’s popular Danse nègre, which she recorded on 20 September 1915, and which had been published a mere seven years earlier, as well as with her ebullient – if slightly abridged–reading of the Scherzo from Saint-Saëns’ Second Concerto, for which she joined Ronald two months later on 13 November.
On 21 December 1915, about five weeks after she recorded the Saint-Saëns, Irene married an Eton housemaster, Samuel Gurney Lubbock, in a ceremony that occurred just four days after she recorded some of the demanding Tipperary’ variations composed by organist Arthur Goodhart (1866 –1941) – another Eton graduate. Jack Judge’s familiar music-hall song was first published in 1912, and within three years, it had become so popular–especially with British infantry men– that Goodhart published two sets of piano variations from which Scharrer chose five for her recording. The third presented here – loosely reminiscent of Chopin’s F sharp minor Prelude – was even dedicated to her. By then the War had raged for sixteen months, and no doubt both Lubbock (who remained close to his former students long after their graduations) and Scharrer were eager to support the War effort, even partially disrupting their wedding plans so that a favourite ditty might offer a degree of consolation to young men fighting far from home.
Though he was fifteen years Irene’s senior, Gurney Lubbock, educated at Eton and Cambridge, fully supported her career. To many, the pairing seemed an unlikely match, since her marriage required her to relocate to The Manor House on the Eton campus, where, surrounded by the boys Lubbock mentored, she was over an hour away from London. But she took to it well, eventually even teaching privately at their residence, and often per forming for the students – who, from all reports, adored her. On 16 October 1917, she gave birth to their son, Ian Gurney Lubbock, and though travel was soon back to normal after the War, she deferred extended trips for a few more years to accommodate the birth of their daughter, Rachel Gurney Lubbock, who appeared on 5 March 1920. It may bear witness to Lubbock’s strong appreciation of aesthetics – his speciality was classics – that both of his children pursued careers in the theatre.
About a year before Ian was born, on 12 October 1916, she delivered an emotionally powerful reading of the Chopin C minor Nocturne, pairing it with a hauntingly beautiful rendition of the Intermezzo from Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien. One of her specialities was the Chopin B flat minor Sonata, and two months later, she set down the Funeral March, which, at 3.39, precluded a repeat of the sombre march section. But what she did record commemorates the poignant beauty inherent in this often hackneyed work, especially the cantabile soprano line of the trio, where her exquisite rubato nearly overpowers through its emotional intensity –though she rarely rises above a piano. In the same session, she chose Liszt’s Gnomenreigen for the B side, and her seemingly reckless abandon (including some fascinating ornamentation beginning at bar 14) perfectly captures the spirit, if not always the letter, of the composer’s virtuosic etude.
She visited Sir Edward Elgar in 1918 and was promised the first performance of his piano concerto, then being sketched.
In September of 1920, when Rachel was just five months old, Irene recorded a G major Scarlatti Sonata that Myra often performed (and later recorded), and the following July, she offered the C sharp major Prelude and Fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier, reminding us that she excelled not only as a large-scale Romanticist, but as a superb miniaturist. Her mastery of dynamic gradations was unexcelled, as she amply demonstrated three months later in the demanding F sharp minor Chopin Prelude, as well as in the last acoustic recordings which appear in this set – from 4 March 1924 – two of Debussy’s most sophisticated works, drawn respectively from Images I and II. Her Reflets is a miraculous study in shape as well as colour, and her Poissons d’or demonstrates that her tonal palette was so developed that she could have easily carved a niche as a specialist in Impressionist music had she chosen.
Here we may pause to reflect on whatmight have been. Throughout the acousticperiod, but particularly in the last of thesesessions in 1922 and 1924, Scharrer recordeda variety of works that never made it to com -mercial release. Possibly, some of these weremusical or technical failures, but with the laterdates, it’s quite likely that the only reasonthese titles never appeared was that the arrivalof electrical recording made them commer -cially uncompetitive. These sessions included acomplete Schumann G minor Sonata (thelargest work she recorded), excerpts fromthe same composer’s Papillonsand Fantasie -stücke, a d’Albert Scherzo, Rachmaninov’sPrelude Op 23 No 5 and a clutch of additionalworks by Chopin. It is to be hoped that,somewhere, test-pressings of these works maystill survive.
As HMV’s electrical era dawned, Irenewas seriously contemplating an American tour.She had originally planned to go as early as1914, but the War intervened, and since sherefused to leave her children until they wereolder, she did not play in New York untilFebruary 1926. She brought major repertoirewith her– she even played the BeethovenFourth with Klemperer and the New YorkSymphony – but regrettably, many of the worksshe performed abroad were never placed on disc. However, in December 1925, shortlybefore she sailed, HMV did capture a few of hersmaller encores with the newer microphonetechnology. On 13 December, she recordedChopin’s familiar Fantasie-Impromptu (allHMV electrics are on Disc 1), a remarkableessay in colour and sensitivity, and two daysbefore Christmas in an extended session, sherecorded three Scarlatti Sonatas and thepopular Toccata of Domenico Paradies. Whilethe A major tonality of the Paradies introducesthe D minor Scarlatti very effectively, all four ofthese are arguably a bit pushed in tempo bytoday’s standards of Baroque interpretation.Still, the delicacy and control she brings tothem is impressive. At the same session sherecorded a masterful Chopin A flat Impromptu,which HMV released as the A side to theFantasie-Impromptu that she had recorded tendays earlier. When she played the A flat inNewYork about fourteen months later, theNew York Times’s Olin Downes was captivated,observing that she caught not only its ‘lyricismand improvisational character’, but the ‘slowlyvanishing fragrance’ of its ‘elusive’ ending.
As her touring schedule soon becamemore intense, her recording sessions becameless frequent. She recorded little in 1926 andnothing at all until five days before Christmas,when she paired the posthumous ChopinEminor Waltz with the second DebussyArabesque. Eight days later, she beganrecording Mozart’s familiar G major Sonata,K283. For whatever reasons, this became quitean extended project, for although the issuedfirst movement dates from this session,Scharrer returned to the work during sessionsin 1927, 1928 and 1929. The first movement is graceful in its figurations, but purists will nodoubt take issue with her extreme tempo. Theissued matrix of the third movement wasrecorded four days later − on New Year’s Day1927 − and here her prestotempo is far moreconsonant with the composer’s markings,although the large-scale dynamics oftensuggest textures more reminiscent ofBeethoven than Mozart. (Still, it should benoted, her interpretation was not that far out ofline with the approach taken by many pianistswho performed Mozart at this time.) Theandantesecond movement was originallyissued using matrix Cc 9566 -2 from the samesession as the third. However, the set was laterissued using the matrix included here,recorded on 18 January 1929, and this may bethe most successful movement of all, for hereshe delivers a performance that exquisitelycaptures Mozart’s cantabilelines. Whetherthere are any other issued permutations,including material from the 1928 sessionswhere the whole sonata was re-recorded,remains to be seen; during this period it wasnot unusual for the same catalogue number tobe re-pressed using different matrices.
Nearly thirty years after their firstmeeting, Myra Hess still remained her closestfriend, and at the same January session, Irenerecorded the popular Bach-Hess transcriptionof the chorale from Cantata 147, Herz undMund und Tat und Leben, which had beenpublished by Oxford three years earlier as‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’. Myra had firstrecorded it in 1928 for Columbia, and althoughthe several recordings she made of it overtheyears will no doubt remain definitive,Scharrer’s performance is remarkable, especially with respect to the hidden voices shediscovers in the tenor line. Transplantingearlier keyboard music to the piano became avogue in England after the War, as evidencedby Matthay’s student Harold Craxton (1885–1971), who received acclaim in 1922 for aWigmore Hall programme he devoted entirelyto the Elizabethan Virginalists. Craxton soonacquired a reputation as an English Baroque-Classical specialist as well, and in Septemberof 1927, Irene recorded his transcription of theGavotte from William Boyce’s Sonata No 12 fortwo violins and continuo, published only theprevious year by Oxford University Press. Amonth later, she offered an arrangement byGlasgow organist Archibald M Henderson ofseveral Purcell dances, which had been pub -lished by Bayley & Ferguson in 1923. Althoughno attempt is made to replicate harpsichordtextures, both recordings are fascinatingstudies in colour and rhythmic vitality, andcriticisms that today might be lodged concern -ing stylistic authenticity are more than offsetby her extraordinary musical sensitivity.
But Irene Scharrer’s defining legacy as arecording artist may well rest with her ChopinEtudes, which– allowing for the limitationsimposed by earlier technology– comparefavourably with the most esteemed inter -pretations extant. Regrettably, she recordedonly nine of the twenty-four, and they werenever undertaken as a set, but issuedseparately over two decades. Had differentdecisions been made both by the artist and herlabel(s), she might have left a body of work thatwould have seen frequent reissues, but untilnow, even the nine she left have never appearedin a single collection. Her earliest Etude was he 1912 acoustic recording of the F minor fromOp 25 already discussed, and she re-recordedthe ‘Black Key’ study (along with theMendelssohn ‘Spinning Song’ and Sinding’sfamiliar ‘Rustles of Spring’) for HMV in July of1927. Despite a few missed notes, at 1.36, theperformance is a remarkable display of bothfinesse and warmth, as she continuallyengages the ear with a fresh lyricism extractedfrom the alto and tenor voices. The remainingseven Etudes were all issued on the Columbialabel, whose ranks she joined late in 1929. On28 July 1930, she recorded the ‘Winter Wind’,one of her encore specialities, and arguablyone of the most demanding of the 24. But thedifficulties inherent in the right-hand passage -work seem not to exist for her, as one’s ear isirresistibly drawn only to the lyrical cantabilevoicing of her left hand. Her ‘Revolutionary’,recorded over two years later – her only Etudefrom 1932 – is so overpowering that the lastfifteen measures alone might ensure herstanding as a major artist.
The remaining Etudes were all recorded in1933, and on 21 July, she made a masterfulrecording of the ‘double thirds’ study fromOpus 25. Opinions may differ, but this mustsurely rank as one of the finest ‘thirds’ Etudesever committed to disc, and she toys with iteffortlessly, transforming it into a fantasy ofkaleidoscopic colour. In the same session, sheincluded the ‘rolled chord’ E flat from Opus 10,and the C minor (‘Ocean’) from Opus 25. Bothwere great favourites of Matthay, who experi -mented endlessly with their voicing andaccentuation possibilities, and Irene also findshidden vocal lines beneath Chopin’s sopranoarpeggiations. Her last Etudes were recorded about two months later, when she paired theA flat ‘Aeolian Harp’ with the G flat ‘Butterfly’from Opus 25 – both released on a single side.The ‘Harp’ is a miraculous study in voicing andtexture, and her ‘Butterfly’ begins as if floatingon a cloud. At the same session, she recordedtwo of the ‘Nouvelle’ Etudes and both aremasterpieces. Her F minor demonstrates toneproduction as Matthay taught it – that the keyshould always be accelerated and never struck,so that the sound could penetrate withoutharsh ness – and her D flat provides an intoxi -cating array of beguiling voices.
Perhaps Columbia had one day intended toissue more of her Etudes, but Irene made onlyone recording following her September 1933session, when she joined Wood and the LSO amonth later for the Scherzo from Litolff’sConcerto Symphonique, a sparkling, oftenspine-tingling performance that seems to havesold very well. In addition, her other Columbiadiscs were arguably some of the finest shemade. In a single session on 12 November 1929,she recorded two enormous Liszt works, thetwelfth Rhapsody and the Rigolettopara -phrases, both of which are breathtaking intheir execution, and two years later, shevirtually recomposed the often hackneyedMendelssohn Andante and Rondo Capriccioso,creating in essence, a minor masterpiece.Three months later, her B-flat minor Chopin Scherzo (another Matthay favourite) againdiscovers new voices and textures whereothers often see only the obvious, and herre-recording of the Fantasie-Impromptu inthesame session offers improved soundengineering over the HMV version sherecorded seven years previously.
The motivation behind Scharrer’s decisionto abandon a successful recording career atthe height of her powers (she was then onlyforty-five and far from retirement) are notaltogether clear, but some have suggested thatthe Litolff recording—its success notwith -standing – heralded a very difficult period inher personal life. Though all the surroundingcircumstances may never be known, withinmonths, after thirty-six years of service,Lubbock resigned from Eton, the institution heloved, to accept a post at Farnborough Schoolin Hampshire, and eventually the two of themseparated. As always, Irene remained totallydevoted to her two children, who were nowteenagers, but for whatever reason, she beganto tour less and she never recorded again. Buttoday’s audiences can be grateful that thehighpoints of her recorded legacy can now beso readily obtained and appreciated.
Her technique was one of refinement rather than power. Her surviving recordings show her at her best in the smaller pieces of the romantic repertoire, where her impeccable control, fine tone and lack of showiness serve the music well.
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