Fanfare Reviews Volume One - by Scott Noriega
Composer Masterworks Volume One received an excellent review in Fanfare magazine in its July/August 2019 issue. The full review is reproduced below.
FEATURE REVIEW by Scott Noriega
Born in Windsor, Ontario in Canada in 1929, Jean Tews was a precocious youth, learning the piano and performing at a high level from an early age. Piano performances at the Stratford and Kiwanis music festivals brought her to the attention of members of the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Conservatory of Music), who put her on an advanced scholarship soon after they heard her. Some of her classmates included the pianist Glenn Gould and the pianist and conductor Mario Bernardi.
Her memory must have been fabulous, as she received a secondary scholarship for performing Bach’s entire Well-Tempered Clavier from memory. Her first marriage to an abusive husband curtailed her playing career for some time, before she left him and married the man who would become the love of her life—Lothar Tews, a young German who later became an executive at Germany’s Eaton Automotives. For years they divided their time between their respective home countries—Canada and Germany. In the late 1980s Tews finally began to record the great piano works, all in hopes of uncovering “the original intentions of each composer, using this information to create what she considered the truest interpretation of their music.” Between 1988 and 1991 she recorded 112 tracks by a wide array of composers: Bach (including the Goldberg Variations), Mozart, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Chopin, and others. She returned to Germany shortly after in 1993 in hopes of touring with these works, but sadly the breast cancer which she developed just a few years prior returned with a vengeance and took her life that very year. These recordings are her legacy.
Though Tews was not a young woman when she began to record the works on the current disc, she was smart in her choices—none of the works are technically easy, but they all benefit from her clean articulation, her careful pedaling, her singing melodic line, and her carefully chosen tempos. Among the best tracks on this disc is the one dedicated to Brahms’s set of Waltzes, op. 39. Each of these dances inhabits its own unique sound world, and she is careful to place slight pauses between numbers to accentuate those differences. In her hands they are charming. Her late Brahms pieces are also lovingly etched and benefit from her deep-key playing of them, creating a full-toned sonority. At times, though, I miss the qualities that her classmate Glenn Gould brought out in these pieces in his recording of 10 Intermezzos made in the 1960s (two of the three overlap on their recordings). In his hands these works were mysterious, improvisatory, impetuous at times, even overtly Romantic—in his own words, his was the “sexiest interpretation of Brahms you’ve ever heard.” And he was right. But Tews’s is the opposite: In her hands they are less enigmatic and more magisterial in their outlook. Her Chopin is also beautifully shaped and carefully shaded—she is here also a deep-key player, as one witnesses in the B♭-Minor Nocturne. But as beneficial as this quality is in the aforementioned works, it is not always welcome: The Chopin Berceuse here sounds a bit too labored when compared with the far more relaxed approach taken by Michelangeli, Pollini, Perahia, Rubinstein, or (one of my favorites) Novaes. Her Mendelssohn too is beautifully shaped and melodically inspired, yet the accompaniment bogs down the overall flow of the movement, especially in the G-Major Song without Words.
Though I may have my quibbles about her playing, the obvious affinity with what she plays is what I most remember long after the recording has ended. What did Tews sound like in the 1940s and 1950s, when one wishes she could have recorded more? We may never know for sure. But from the extremely musical playing of a woman in her 60s, full of musical suavity and technical accomplishment, one can only imagine that it was something truly special. Though at times her playing is labored, what does shine through in the moments of true brilliance—most of the Brahms and select Chopin—is her goal of creating a recording “that elevates, transports and transforms.” At its best, it does just that.
This article originally appeared in Issue 42:6 (July/Aug 2019) of Fanfare Magazine.