The art of violin playing was about to be revolutionized when Maud Powell stepped into the Victor recording studio for the first time in 1904. The unparalleled standard for violin performance that Powell engraved on the spinning wax ushered in the modern age of violin playing and marked the historic marriage of recording technology to the highest achievement in violin playing.
The Victor Company's choice of Maud Powell to be the first solo instrumentalist to record for its newly inaugurated celebrity artist series (Red Seal label) was no surprise. Maud Powell was internationally recognized as America's greatest violinist who easily ranked among the supreme violinists of the time -- Joseph Joachim, Eugène Ysaÿe, and later, Fritz Kreisler. A popular favorite as well, she won the affection of the American public with her unabashed enthusiasm for the violin.
In November 1904, Maud Powell was ushered into a small, acoustically "dead" room and strategically placed before a large funnel that appeared like the gaping mouth of a dragon. The nearer one could stand to this mechanical monster, the better the recording. The music's vibrations agitated a needle in an adjoining room that scratched impressions of sound waves on the soft, spinning wax from which a record could then be molded.
"I am never as frightened as I am when I stand in front of that horn to play," Maud Powell once explained. There's a ghastly feeling that you're playing for all the world and an awful sense that what is done is done."
Acoustic recording was a wholly mechanical process; electrical recording (with microphone) began in 1925, five years after Powell's death. The limited technology which permitted less than 3 minutes of music on a ten-inch disc and less than 5 minutes on a 12-inch disc prevented her from recording entire concertos and sonatas. She did manage a few brief excerpts of concertos by Wieniawski and Bériot and sonatas by Bach and Leclair. Yet allied with the impeccable art of Maud Powell, the primitive technology revolutionized the way we hear music.
At a time when music was heard live or not at all, the pioneering Powell welcomed the new technology, knowing that classical music would become popular as it became more familiar through repeated hearings. By January 8, 1917, Powell could give a recital in Carnegie Hall based solely on her recorded repertoire, dramatically demonstrating how her alliance with the talking machine had transformed musical taste.
Powell's 1907 recording of Drdla's Souvenir became the "best seller" of all violin recordings, European and American. Her recording of "Méditation" from Thaïs was a close second.
Maud Powell's last recordings, made in 1919 eleven days before her death, were never released. All of her published and two unpublished recordings have been reissued by Naxos on compact disc.