GRIFFES: Piano Music = Three Tone-Pictures; Fantasy Pieces; Roman Sketches; Piano Sonata; De profundis; A Winter Landscape; Three Preludes – Garrick Ohlsson, p. – Hyperion

by | Apr 27, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

CHARLES TOMLINSON GRIFFES: Piano Music = Three Tone-Pictures Op. 5; Fantasy Pieces Op. 6; Roman Sketches Op. 7; Piano Sonata; De profundis; A Winter Landscape; Three Preludes – Garrick Ohlsson, p. – Hyperion CDA67907, 79:04 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

Griffes, who lived until 1920, was at the turn of the 20th century regarded as one of the leading American composers. His music was a very American take on Impressionism. He had studied in Berlin, with Humperdinck, among others. He was fascinated by the sounds of the French Impressionists, and also studied Scriabin and other Russian composers. In addition to the French and German, Oriental influences are heard in his works. He was involved with Asian music long before Partch, Harrison, Cowell and John Cage. He kept in touch during his short life with famous composers such as Busoni, Prokofiev, Henry Cowell and Varese. He was director of the music department at Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York. The gay world was part of his everyday world, though he kept it hidden from his straight associates. He died at age 35, probably of the infamous Spanish Flu.

The great quality and amount of the music created during his short lifetime is quite surprising, and much is still performed today. His Opera 5, 6 & 7 are colorful piano pieces which seem to continue and advance the ideas of Debussy’s pathbreaking piano preludes. Griffes’ Piano Sonata (14 minutes) in three movements, is an amazing work (described as “shockingly original”), which reveals a new turn in his compositions.

These are glorious performances of the various Griffes piano pieces by the versatile Ohlsson. In the last movement of the Roman Sketches, Griffes gets into the language of modernism – a very prophetic work. The sonics are ahead of the earlier Naxos release by Michael Lewis of similar works, plus the Rhapsody in B minor, Barcarolle from “The Tales of Hoffmann,” and Legend in F sharp minor.  Ohlsson exhibits a somewhat more appropriate phrasing of the works, altho the Naxos is just Vol. 1 of a 2-volume pair of Griffes’ complete piano works. De profundis (“Out of the Depths”) of 1915 was inspired by the poetry of William Sharp and is full of Scriabin-like harmonies. Along with A Winter Landscape, it wasn’t published until recently, and seems in the style of late Romantic piano pieces, with an influence of Rachmaninov.


Fantasy Pieces, Op. 6
Roman Sketches, Op. 7
Piano Sonata in F sharp minor
De Profundis
Winter Landscape
Three Preludes

—John Sunier


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