Egon Petri Plays BRAHMS: Violin Sonata; Viola Sonata; Rhapsodies and Ballades – with Joseph Szigeti, Samuel Lifschey – Pristine Audio

by | Aug 12, 2018 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Producer Mark Obert-Thorn provides the complement to the recorded Petri Brahms legacy, 1937-1955.

BRAHMS: Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108; Viola Sonata No. 2 in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1; 2 Rhapsodies, Op. 79; 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117; Ballades, Op. 10: No. 1 in D minor; No. 2 in D Major; No. 3 in B minor and No. 4 in B Major (the latter two as a FLAC download) – Joseph Szigeti, violin/ Samuel Lifschey, viola/ Egon Petri, piano – Pristine Audio PAKM 076, 76:59 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Dutch pianist Egon Petri (1881-1962) may well endure more as a pedagogue than brilliant virtuoso, since his teaching, first in Berlin and then both at Cornell University and Mills College, includes a host of luminaries, including Earl Wild, Gunnar Johansen, John Ogden, and Ruth Slenczynska. But Petri’s advocacy of his mentor, Ferruccio Busoni, for example, led to his collaboration in the 1941 Memorial Concert in New York led by Dimitri Mitropoulos.  Between 1935-1938 he recorded for English Columbia, and his recordings of Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Franck, Beethoven, and Brahms won high praise. Recording engineer and producer Mark Obert-Thorn has assembled the Petri Brahms legacy from several sources, 1937-1955, including Petri’s appearance on a budget label, Allegro-Royale, that grants us the late Op. 117 Intermezzi and Four Ballades, Op. 10 in their only form. While the Szigeti partnership in the 8 December 1937 Third Violin Sonata has been available prior (Biddulph LAB 007-8), the 23-24 June 1941  of the Viola Sonata No. 2 has never before appeared in reissue format.  The viola soloist, Samuel Lifschey, served as viola principal for the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1925-1955, and his unique sound graces charcter of Sancho Panza for the Ormandy Don Quixote made for RCA with Emanuel Feuermann (Pristine PASC 168).  When Obert-Thorn compiled his Petri collection for APR (7701), he did not include chamber music as part of the Petri legacy.

Portrait of Egon Petri

Egon Petri

It may not be entirely a coincidence that Egon Petri’s father had been a distinguished violinist who owned the Petrus Guarnerius of Mantua instrument that passed into Szigeti’s possession. Szigeti (1882-1973) and Petri had met in Berlin, 1912, and they quickly formed a recital duo who performed in European capitals. Their rendition of the D minor Sonata proves thoughtful and strikingly ardent, especially in the Adagio, where Szigeti’s otherwise thin, edgy tone assumes a larger vocal breadth. Petri’s playing in the flirtatious Un poco presto e con sentimento third movement enjoys a liquid, diaphanous sense of contour.  The emotional tumult of the last movement lacks nothing for drive, intimacy, and arched momentum, dramatic and lyrically inflamed, at once.

Brahms conceived his 1895 two sonatas, Op. 120, for the clarinet virtuoso Richard Muehlfeld, and their tessitura easily adapts to the viola register.  Brahms exploits the viola’s low range, eventually permitting the sun to shine through in the major mode at the very end. Petri actually sets the tone in his opening bars of the Allegro appassionato, though Lifschey’s entry at measure 5 installs the melodic interest in the dark movement. The coda, Sostenuto ed espressivo, reveals two musicians in perfect sympathy.  The keyboard writing for the Andante con poco adagio remains subdued – piano, dolce, pianissimo – allowing Lifschey to sing ardently, in a melancholy series of drooping figures that often recall Schumann. The delicacy of keyboard figuration invests the ternary Allegretto grazioso, a movement that contains elements of Austrian folk music. The syncopations of the minor-mode middle section offer their own allure. Bell tones pronounce that the last movement Rondo vivace will be a happy affair in F Major. Lifschey and Petri trade colors and shifting moods. The two collaborators proceed in seamless motion, revealing that the elder Brahms could express his ardors and his longings with a force that had remained unabated.

Portrait of Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

The next series of items from Brahms, recorded 1955 for the inexpensive Allegro Royale label, devote themselves to solo piano works.  The opening selection, the two Rhapsodies, Op. 79, suffer a hard, cramped patina and somewhat distant microphone placement in the piano sound. But Petri’s aggressive stance in the B minor Rhapsody resonates with gloomy power. Petri takes the reflective middle section rather quickly. The G minor Rhapsody, too, exhibits a percussive, tragic drive from the outset, especially in the ostinato thematic line in eighth note triplets. The Allegro-Royale disc proffers the only version Petri left of the “three poems to my sorrows” of Brahms, his 1893 Op. 117. I never could understand why another Brahms apostle, Artur Rubinstein, never completed the set with the C-sharp Minor Intermezzo. Petri plays the Scottish ballade, No. 1 in E-flat Major, rather briskly, but with some poignancy. The strength of Petri’s arpeggios in thirty-second notes and shifting metric line in the B-flat minor mark its often dark thoughts. The last of the set has, for me, many an anticipation of Kurt Weill’s Berlin. The music becomes almost funereal just before the middle section, where Petri’s octaves permit some (menaced) light to shine.

We note that Petri had recorded the Op. 10 Ballades in June 1945 (available on APR 7701).  Here, in 1955, Petri imbues the D minor Ballade with a grim urgency, requisite to the poem “Edward” by Herder. Petri’s open fifths and “fate” motif combine to engender a mood of epic tragedy. Contrastingly, the D Major Ballade revels in its relative optimism in its outer sections, at least until the hammering cross rhythms of the 6/4 middle section. The B minor Ballade blazes with pungent demons, much in the style of Liszt. Petri offsets his initial foray into the depths with a middle section that seeks consoling angels. The B Major Ballade, much in the manner of Chopin or Schumann’s nostalgic Romanze in F-sharp Major, Op. 28, No. 2, seems tinged with pensive resignation.  A muted chorale emerges from the welter of active figurations, part love-song, part-requiem. Petri instills a carefree impetus to the dance-like figures near the end, but a ponderous sense of calamity trumps the brief respite.

—Gary Lemco

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