Percy Grainger: The Complete 78-rpm Solo Recordings, 1908-1945 – APR (5 CDs)

by | Aug 30, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Percy Grainger: The Complete 78-rpm Solo Recordings, 1908-1945 – Columbia Concert Band (Hungarian Fantasia, 1918)/ Percy Grainger, piano – APR 7501 (5 CDs) 79:09, 77:12, 76:19, 77:37. 79:48 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
The life and times of Australian piano virtuoso and composer Percy Grainger (1882-1961) would likely make a fine dramatic film. [They already have…Ed.]  Originally trained by his mother Rose to be a fine pianist, Grainger found inspiration in the playing of Ernest Hutcheson, and teachers like Louis Pabst, Adelaide Burkitt, Carl Friedberg, James Kwast, and briefly Ferruccio Busoni. The emotionally twisted relationship Grainger had with his possessive mother Rose–as well as her eventual suicide in 1922–warrant Freudian interpretation from a cinematic master like Ken Russell. [And got it…Ed.]
Grooming himself to be a composer, Grainger found intellectual stimulation in the works of Rudyard Kipling and generally in the folk traditions of Britain and Scandinavia. Bach for Grainger bordered on a religious exercise, a composer whom Louis Pabst had introduced to Grainger as “a wonder of richness and complexity.“ Anti-Semitic, pro-Nordic, sexually adventurous, and sado-masochistic, Grainger–who remained astonishingly physically attractive most of his life–contained within himself any number of discords in his personality, which rejected the hero-worship Busoni demanded but found comfort in the relatively simple affection Edvard Grieg and his wife showed him in their time together, 1906-1907. Grainger’s often daring ideas on composition rival the experiments of Ives and Scriabin; and his willingness to forego traditional stave and bar lines and indications of meter quite anticipate the aleatory school that overtook music in the 1970s. Yet his ultimate self-assessment speaks a denigrating remark, “I have never been a true musician or true artist.” Those who audition this APR legacy may well deny the composer’s utterance.
The Chopin Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58 (10-11 June 1925) seems an excellent starting point, since represents the first set of instrumental music produced by the electrical process. The playing retains a monumental muscularity, relishing Chopin’s polyphony as well as his distilled melodic purity of line. The elastic rubato in the linear flow, the elegant trills, the poetically breathed phrases: each testifies to a comprehensive grasp of Chopin’s style in Grainger’s own terms. A blistering Scherzo leads to a deftly controlled Largo, suave and deliberately nuanced in its rounded periods that dissolve into sensuous space. The last movement elicited the epithet “seismic” to describe Grainger’s relentless vehemence and sizzling fioritura, a breathtaking passion we would hear again in the likes of William Kapell. The lilting Chopin Prelude in A-flat Major (1 April 1926) conveys sweep and poetry in its concentrated syncopes. Staggering octave work marks the Etude in B Minor, Op. 25, No. 10 (9 October 1928), the punctuations explosive, almost brutal. Yet the middle section relents and opens up a world of soft reverie. The so-called “Ocean” Etude in C Minor, Op. 25, No. 12 (31 March 1926) represents merely one of a number of colossal inscriptions Grainger made this day. Here, one feels a titanic undercurrent surging well in anticipation of Hurricane Irene, inevitable, implacable, numinous. If Debussy’s Clair de Lune (31 March 1926) offers us Grainger’s “water piece” ethos to rival Gieseking‘s realization, so does his utterly charming Brahms Waltz No. 15 from Op. 39 (31 March 1926). This day of recording ends with a virile eagle’s rendition of the Debussy Toccata from Pour le Piano, a worthy rival to that of Moiseiwitsch. The one “pure” Bach moment–the Gigue from the Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825–comes from the 1 April 1926 session, a dragonfly’s wing controlled by velvet marionette strings.
Grainger began to record for the first time on 16 May 1908–and despite my own reluctance towards the acoustic process sound–there are some mighty gems in his catalogue, beginning with a torrential cadenza for the Grieg Piano Concerto, with which Grainger became eternally identified. Despite intrusive swish, the second half of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 enjoys elegantly fluid panache, especially in the upper registers. The knotty Irish March-Jig: “Maguire’s Kick” after a piece by Charles Villiers Stanford demonstrates how much élan the relatively youthful Grainger could impart to his colorful palette. The year 1914 produced only three inscriptions, of which two are Grainger’s own, spirited arrangements of Shepherd’s Hey and Mock Morris. Despite the sonic limitations, the Debussy Toccata travels at pulsar speed, the patina hard but dazzling, with lightening shifts in the metric current. For the charming clarion Hornpipe from Handel’s Water Music we must skip to 28 February 1924. The 29 October 1923 arrangement of Gluck’s Gavotte (arr. Brahms) proves–in its music-box sensibility–as striking as those made by Elly Ney and Josef Hofmann.
Anyone might mistake Grainger’s schwung-rich A-flat Waltz, Op. 42 by Chopin (3 December 1917) for Hofmann, the dragonfly sparks flying as they do. The two recordings of the A-flat Major Prelude (7 June 1918), at nine seconds difference, project an astonishing array of colors and harmonic depth, and we might assume Josef Lhevinne were at the keyboard. Patrician aggression marks even abridged versions of the Heroic Polonaise (2 January 1918) and the B-flat Minor Scherzo, Op. 31 (25 February 1924). Grainger’s rubato could enlighten many a contemporary virtuoso. Grainger’s three-voiced Schumann makes its presence felt early in Warum? from Op. 12 (27 February 1927).  Grainger relished Schumann and brought subtle hues to his music through deft pedaling, especially sostenuto, a factor Grainger stressed for his Steinway performances. Canny use of appoggiaturas make his Liszt Second Hungarian Rhapsody (29 August/19 September 1917) ethnically pert while the explosive friss section proves tailor-made for Grainger’s personality. Grainger’s Twelfth Rhapsody (10 February 1920) challenges the Mischa Levitzky inscription for sheer transparent finesse. Grainger’s 15th Hungarian Rhapsody (4 August 1922) never had a 78 rpm shellac issue, so its fiery rendering of the Rakoczy March makes a welcome addition to the Grainger legacy. The huge E Major Polonaise (29 November 1921) enjoys a grand scale and heroic temper, a veritable flood of ethnic emotion that takes time to muse on the tragedy of nation-states.
Grainger performs Bach in transcription, opening with the ubiquitous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 (13 October 1931), as arranged by Carl Tausig, Ferruccio Busoni, and Grainger himself. Grainger inscribed three major Bach works that fateful October day, including the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 as arranged by Liszt and the Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542 in the same arrangement. Idiosyncratic but eminently potent, the realizations seem to draw from an infinite fount of color effects. The conscious desire to rival the full sonority and resonant diapason of the organ remains a constant, especially when Grainger’s Vesuvian double octaves assume massive proportions. A pity we don’t have Grainger’s conception of Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Chorale et Fugue, which exploits the same character. Schumann benefits from an explosive reading (1 June 1927) of his G Minor Sonata, Op. 22, whose indication “as fast as possible” and “even faster” Grainger takes quite literally, but without sacrificing the Schumann melodic gift. No repeats, but the intensity of the reading burns itself into one’s memory banks. Then ensues the 28 May 1928 Op. 13 Symphonic Etudes, whose counterpoints obviously draw from Bach but graced by Schumann’s own innate lyricism. Grainger offers a brisk but intelligent reading–sans the posthumous etudes–that relishes the hugely arched melos and magisterial coda that arise from the original theme. Grainger’s bass line warrants a close hearing, and his silken accents, however personal, make for enthralling listening. Grainger added the lovely F-sharp Major Romance from Op. 28 as a filler, its three staves likely a metaphor for the father Wieck’s opposition to the marriage of the true minds of Robert and Clara. The disc ends with a sweeping hymn to love in the Liszt third Liebestraum from that same 1 June 1927 session that produced the inflamed Schumann G Minor Sonata.
Grainger’s is the debut recording of the Brahms F Minor Sonata, Op. 5 (30 January and 2 February 1926), and a towering monument it remains. Alternately enmeshed in turbulence and wistful tranquility, the performance dictates every emotion in between, rife with nuance and personality. The reflective passages radiate a warmth quite rare even among our modern keyboard masters. The influence of Schumann in the antiphonal soft choirs in the Andante espressivo mark the occasion as special for the Brahms recorded tradition. A molten Scherzo leads to the reflective, Beethoven-infused  Andante and “ruckblick,” the dramatic looking-backwards. What an imperious realization Grainger provides! A deliberately-slowed approach to the final movement soon unleashes the tiger from the depths of the jungle. The Brahms Lullaby (15 June 1927) that ensues, moreover, occupies a special place in the history of the transcribed art-song. A music-box charmer, the Ramble on ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’ or Blithe Bells (15 October 1931) projects the same loving intricacy we expect from a Godowsky etude. This sense of superfluous layering prevents Grainger’s Ramble on Love: Paraphrase of the finale from Der Rosenkavalier (21 January 1929) from achieving unbridled success other than as a baroque curio. We might mistake Molly on the Shore (1 June 1927) for a piece by Gottschalk or Joplin, but Grainger himself authored its busy saunters. Grainger’s 13 April 1945 recording of this piece varies only by three seconds’ length. Grainger’s Jutish Medley (21 January 1929) collects Danish folk song into a series of tricky exercises in metrics and articulation.
That Grainger, like Liszt, granted Tchaikovsky one paraphrase–the latter from Eugene Onegin–might be a concession to popular taste, but the Flower Waltz Paraphrase (2 January 1918 and later that month) in two versions imbues the Russian with that Vienna charm via Godowsky methods that transcend the mere etude medium. At last, consider Grainger’s forte, his Grieg. Grainger remarked, “I had wanted to be Grieg’s prophet. . .but I became his protégé. And who believes in the impressionableness and criticalness of a protégé?” The Wedding Day at Troldhaugen (15 June 1927) moves ferociously, perhaps due to the constraints of the 78 rpm medium, but the playing astonishes. After such blistering articulation, it proves equally awesome to hear the degree of repose Grainger projects in the middle section. His earlier inscription of Wedding Day at Troldhaugen (5 February 1921), though faster, enjoys a greater freedom of rhythm. To Spring (15 June 1927) shimmers with a holy light we likewise hear in Gieseking’s Grieg.  The earlier recording (17 June 1919) proves diaphanous but not so mystical. Grainger’s two traversals of the Norwegian Bridal Procession (19 September 1917 and 18 February 1921) again demonstrate a tendency of the later inscription to speed up, but the articulation gains clarity and lightness. So, who believes in gifted protégés or at least in this gifted one? I do.
— Gary Lemco

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