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Arthur de Greef: Solo and Concerto Recordings = Volumes 1 thru 4 – acoustic & electrical recordings – APR (4 CDs)

Arthur de Greef: Solo and Concerto Recordings = Vol. I: Acoustic HMV Recordings, 1917-1923, 62:57; Vol. II: Acoustic and Electrical HMV Recordings (LISZT), 1922-1930, 72:25; Vol. III: Electric HMV Solo Recordings, 1925-1931, 56:16; Vol. IV: Electric HMV Concerto and Solo Recordings, 1927-1931, 73:14 – Arthur de Greef, piano/ Royal Albert Hall Orch./ London Sym. Orch./ New Sym. Orch./ Landon Ronald – APR 7401 (4 CDs) (3/31/14) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***:

Belgian piano virtuoso Arthur de Greef (1862-1940) achieved well-deserved fame for his deliberate, restrained but often fleet musicianship, particularly in the works of composers Saint-Saens, Beethoven, Franck, Mendelssohn, and especially two – Grieg and Liszt – both of whom admired de Greef openly and enthusiastically.  Having graduated from the Brussels Conservatory class of Louis Brassin, de Greef went on to Weimar in 1881 to study with Franz Liszt, although the nature and extent of those studies remain unknown. In 1888, after de Greef had established himself as a professor of piano at his own Brussels Conservatory, he met Grieg, who led from the podium performances of his Piano Concerto in A Minor with de Greef as soloist. While Grieg lauded de Greef as “the best interpreter of my music” and “a real Master,” other assessments tend to be more reserved, crediting de Greef as a “mere” virtuoso who could be “accurate, refined and didactic.”

The four generous discs here provided by APR and Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn provide evidence of a musical “truth” for de Greef that lies between the two extremes of rapture and grudging praise. The two concertos on Disc 4, the G Minor Concerto No. 2, Op. 22 of Saint-Saens (26 June 1928) with the New Symphony Orchestra and Landon Ronald, and the Grieg Concerto in A Minor (18 January 1927) with the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra and Landon Ronald quite impress me, especially De Greef’s opening Andante sostenuto from the former, in which de Greef’s muscular but genuinely flexible figures do splice Bach with Offenbach. The Grieg betrays – more in the conducting than the keyboard part – the romantic indulgences of the period, especially in the slides that realize upward scales. Still, the performance possesses gusto, dramatic power, and decided verve, and the electrical process even in its early stages does more justice to the liveliness of the pianist’s rich tone than the acoustic records.

Obert-Thorn then addends six Grieg Lyric Pieces recorded 1927-1929, beginning with the Arietta, Op. 12, No. 1. Here, de Greef’s parlando style can be delicately persuasive, as witnessed immediately following in To the Spring, Op. 43, No. 6 and Butterfly, Op. 43, No.1. One could make positive comparisons with Walter Gieseking in this music. Both Norwegian Bridal Procession and Wedding Day at Troldhaugen capture the rustic, festive atmosphere in fine panoply, both pieces rife with village bells. The Album Leaf, Op. 28, No. 3 (10 December 1929) has become more fleet in de Greef’s conception than in his acoustic inscription (27 December 1917), when its laendler qualities had a heavier tread and the reprise fluctuated into a whimsical waltz.  With the stately Gavotte from Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and de Greef’s re-recording – the first from 30 October 1923 – of his arrangement of Gretry’s Round Dance from Danses villageosies, both recorded 27 March 1931, this lively disc concludes, having represented a sixty-nine-year-old artist whose powers remained alertly facile.

Disc 2 devotes itself entirely to the de Greef experience in Liszt, beginning with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, inscribed over the course of one year, 1922-1923 with Landon Ronald and the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra. The distant acoustic sound seriously detracts from the sonic image, but we perceive the poet as well as the comfortable virtuoso in the proceedings.  The orchestral colors have been rendered impotent by the acoustical horn, but we have the power of the forte passages.  There does come through the shellacs a veiled intimacy in the Quasi adagio that recommends a sympathetic hearing. Vive le difference for the electrical recording of the (slightly cut) A Major Concerto (9-10 December 1930)! Full and warm piano tone, clear orchestral definition from the LSO, and a sure sense of the Liszt style each contribute to a reading of suave motion and pearly transitions. Besides fire and militant passion, the performance generates moments of exalted poise and reflection, the kind of intimate musing that adherents of Liszt cherish for their expressive candor.

De Greef performs in grand form for the Liszt Hungarian Fantasia (18, 23 January 1927), once more with Landon Ronald’s leading the responsive Royal Albert Hall Orchestra.  A flamboyant combination of bravura and folk wit, the piece has de Greef’s milking his trills, cimbalom effects, glissando runs, and legato arpeggios in a most persuasive, caressing mix that would have won the epithet, “playing for the ladies.” Liszt’s grand style extends into de Greef’s towering, even gripping, Polonaise No. 2 in E Major (7 November 1927), the fluent wrist action alone worthy of awe. De Greef’s sports a long line here in Liszt, which seems at odds with his readings of Chopin, which suffer a kind of perfunctory or detached affect.  Having inscribed the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-sharp Minor acoustically (26 September 1922), de Greef attacked it again (24 March 1926 and 17 November 1925) in the same elegant and monumental proportions, with improved sound.

While Disc 3 opens with an articulate moment of Viennese salon music, the Schubert-Liszt Soiree de Vienne in A Minor (10 November 1927), the predominant composer, Chopin, has six works inscribed, including the first complete electrical inscription of the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35 (16, 27 November 1925 and 24 March 1926). De Greef certainly captures the nervous tension and tautly tragic poignancy in the Sonata, but the scale of realization – despite the first movement repeat – remains direct and plain-spoken in small phrase-units, but still capable of sudden torrents of energy.  Critics of the period characterized de Greef’s Chopin as “stripped of mysticism,” but de Greef’s passion for the composer’s first movement remains undeniable. The Scherzo seems precious and glib in its execution, rather prosaic as a presentation of balanced phrases and roulades.  The eponymous Funeral March conveys dignified solemnity and a rare simplicity of affect in the trio section. The Presto displays pert, clear fingering at an efficient, if not blinding pace. Of the salon Chopin pieces – one nocturne, that in F-sharp Minor, Op. 15, No. 2 and four waltzes – I find the Op. 18 Waltz in E-flat Major (24 March 1926) limpid and thoroughly charming. Of the remainder – all recorded 10 November 1927 – the 2/4 Waltz in A-flat Major has bravura personality but not the sheer abandon Hofmann imparts to this wizardly piece.  A music-box sonority infiltrates the G-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 1, totally captivating. The “Minute” Waltz in D-flat Major sparkles and pirouettes lightly, a real gem. From his last session in the recording studio, 27 March 1931, de Greef plays Joachim Raff’s La Fileuse as a quicksilver etude that anticipates some Debussy colors. The Moszkowski triptych includes the strummed Serenata, Op. 15, No. 1; the fleet Etude in G Major, Op. 18, No. 3; and to conclude, from 10 December 1929, the expansive and sentimental Valse, Op. 34, No. 1.

Disc 1, devoted to acoustic records, reveals the expanse of de Greef’s repertory, despite limited sound reproduction. The musical intrigue comes in the form of selected Schumann, such as his truncated but poignant Arabeske in C and the virtuosic finale from Carnival-Jest from Vienna (27 December 1917). Four more entries from friend Grieg provide the “symphonic” March of the Dwarfs, Tempo di Menuetto, and the whirling Puck, besides the aforementioned Album Leaf. The “antique” sound of Tempo di Menuetto makes us wish de Greef had inscribed some Ravel. A bright Spanish landscape does grace the disc in Seguidillas by Albeniz. Even conductor Landon Ronald (1873-1938) receives attention as the composer of Pensee musicale (27 December 1927), a tenuous nocturne of moody sentiment. With Landon Ronald and the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra (15 May and 13 September 1922), de Greef pays tribute to Cesar Franck with the Symphonic Variations.  The performance has thought and sensitive pacing, but for shellacs, we have to wait for Gieseking and Henry Wood to enter the scene with their electrical version.

As Mark Obert-Thorn explains, the heading “Complete” Acoustic and Electric Recordings has some omissions, but for the musically adventurous, Arthur de Greef adds significant performances of repertory of which he had intimate knowledge.

—Gary Lemco

 

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