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Arthur de Greef - Solo and concerto recordings

Arthur de Greef (piano)
4CDs Download only
Label: APR
Recording details: Various dates
HMV, United Kingdom
Release date: April 2014
Total duration: 264 minutes 41 seconds

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

Belgian pianist Arthur de Greef studied with Franz Liszt and also became a close friend of Grieg, who strongly admired his playing. He was a mainstay of the HMV catalogue in the 1920s and this set brings together for the first time his complete recordings, save for acoustic versions of concertante works he subsequently recorded electrically (the Liszt Hungarian Fantasia and abridged versions of the Saint-Saëns and Grieg concertos) and two electric chamber recordings with violinist Isolde Menges.


‘Dedicated pianophiles need not hesitate’ (Gramophone)
Arthur de Greef was a pianist whose musicianship shone through performances of urbane restraint. His playing is clear and lucid, free from indulgence and rhetoric, yet he seems to get to the heart of the composition he is playing. He was highly regarded by contemporary musicians and when he performed Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in G major, Op 30 No 3, with violinist Joseph Joachim on his first visit to London in 1890 his playing was described as ‘unostentatious and refined’.

Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saëns held him in high regard, but perhaps his most famous association was with Edvard Grieg – the two musicians became great friends and Grieg conducted performances of his own Piano Concerto choosing de Greef as soloist. In a letter to violinist Ole Bull the composer said of him:

De Greef is the best interpreter of my music I have met with. It is surprising how he understands my meaning. Whether I roam over the mountains or through the valleys, whether I am refined or vigorous, he follows me with a wonderful instinct. I feel happy and honoured by his sympathy for my art. He is a real Master; that I see more and more, just one of those whom you may look for with a lantern all around the musical world.

Marie-Francois-Arthur de Greef was born on 10 October 1862 in Leuven (Louvain) Belgium. His father and grandfather had lived in Leuven working as shoemakers, and the family business was handed down to Arthur’s elder brother Jules who was also an excellent pianist. From the age of nine de Greef attended the music school in Leuven studying piano with Emile Mathieu (1844–1932), himself a student of August Dupont (1827–1890) of the Brussels Conservatory. After winning first prize from his class in 1873, Mathieu recommended that the young de Greef study with Louis Brassin (1840–1884) at the Conservatory in Brussels. Six years later de Greef won first prize from Brassin’s class and in 1881 was awarded a diploma from the Conservatory. It was around this time that de Greef went to Weimar to study with Franz Liszt. There is very little information on de Greef’s studies with Liszt – the precise length of duration, how he was introduced to the great pianist, and why he is not mentioned in any of the published reminiscences of others who attended Liszt’s masterclasses.

Although previous writers have stated that de Greef met Liszt in 1877 when he was fifteen, it seems that this was not the case. De Greef obtained his first prize from the Brussels Conservatory in 1879, when he was seventeen, and his Diplôme de capacité in 1881 when he was nineteen. Confusion has arisen as evidently a circulated press report of the time stated that he gained the latter honour when he was seventeen.

There are very few interviews with de Greef in English, but in 1899 he spoke to a correspondent of the Evening Telegraph. Referring to his first meeting with Liszt he cites it as taking place at the time he had just been awarded his Diplôme de capacité, which was in 1881:

I remember playing at a friend’s house one evening when quite a young man, and, shortly after I had won my Diplôme de capacité at Brussels Conservatory. Among my host’s guests was one old, venerable-looking man who interested me greatly. ‘That,’ whispered my friend ‘is the Abbé, and you must play tonight.’ When I moved to the pianoforte and felt the keen glance of those deep, searching eyes fixed upon me, I experienced the sensation of nervousness for the first time in my life. When I ceased playing the old gentleman crossed the room, tapped me on the shoulder, and with the most winning smile thanked me in words of encouragement and sincerity. That is how I first met Franz Liszt. I shall always remember the fine enthusiasm with which he spoke of Wagner’s genius. Later on I received the honour of dedication of one of his compositions.

De Greef’s friendship with Brahms has also not previously been referred to and although he did not often perform his music he was obviously very fond of him:

My friendship with Brahms reminds me of one of the most amiable and loveable of men. I first met him in Vienna and we travelled together in Italy. Brahms’ company was always worth the seeking. He was not only a good friend but also an entertaining companion …

After his studies with Liszt and Saint-Saëns, de Greef returned to Brussels to take up a teaching post (Chargé de donner le cours de piano) at the Conservatory in 1885, becoming a professor two years later at the comparatively young age of twenty-five. Alexander Bull (son of violinist Ole Bull) became his manager and arranged tours of Norway in 1887 and 1888 and it was in November of the latter year that de Greef met Edvard Grieg for the first time. The following year the Belgian government sent him to Italy to represent his country at the Bologna Exhibition, and in December of 1889 Grieg visited Belgium to conduct performances of his Piano Concerto with de Greef as his chosen soloist. They repeated the concert in Paris the following year.

De Greef first performed in London in 1890 where he ‘once proved himself a pianist of the first rank’, although another critic expressed his disapproval of his teacher: ‘It should be added that M. de Greef was a pupil of Brassin, from whom he may have gained his excellent technique, but who could not have given him the higher qualities which mark the artist as distinguished from the virtuoso.’

De Greef often included in his programmes one or two virtuoso works by Liszt such as the Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli or the Hungarian Rhapsody No 12, but he also liked to perform works by Mozart, particularly the piano concertos. When, in 1892, he played the C minor, K491, George Bernard Shaw wrote, ‘I have to congratulate M. de Greef on having come triumphantly through the ordeal of taking Mozart’s own place at the pianoforte in the C minor Concerto’. During the First World War de Greef was in voluntary exile in England, presumably with his wife Emilie and daughters Cécile (born 1891) and Frédérique (born 1893). In 1915 he played Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, K466, with Henry Wood while a performance in the same year of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto was described as ‘accurate, refined and rather didactic’.

De Greef led a busy life of teaching and touring. He visited Britain almost every year between 1918 and 1936. During this time, he made thirty-four appearances at the Proms performing the Grieg Piano Concerto no fewer than eleven times, twice on the First Night (in 1927 and 1930). His popularity, and the public’s familiarity with his recordings, led him to be asked to play Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasia nine times and Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No 2 three times. He played Liszt’s Second Concerto on five occasions and twice played Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No 5. He was, however, asked to perform his own Piano Concerto No 1 at the Proms only once. Like many pianists, de Greef tried his hand at composition and the Concerto, written in 1904, was first performed in Brussels in 1914 and later published by Schott in London in 1922. The critic of The Times observed:

There was nothing at all original or striking in Mr Arthur de Greef’s pianoforte concerto, of which he played the solo part earlier this evening. This music, however, has the merit of being capably put together, and as the piano part is one of great brilliance, Mr de Greef’s fine technique won him a most cordial reception. (The Times, 7 September 1921)

When he had previously played it in London during the First World War the orchestral parts had to be rewritten as the originals were ‘in the hands of the Germans’. Presumably a different critic of The Times reviewed the concert on this occasion:

Mr de Greef’s concerto is beautiful rather than strong; it speaks of loving toil and quiet mastery … there are several ‘reminiscences’, some of which could be named; but the concerto stands firmly on its own feet. If it is not quite in the newest fashion, we are not made to feel that any old clothes are good enough. (The Times, 20 March 1917)

De Greef also toured Britain playing chamber music and accompanying local singers. On one occasion in Birmingham he accompanied Miss Amy Carter, a contralto, played Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos with ‘a talented local pianist’, and performed his calling card, Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses: ‘… the performance of which on this occasion recalled the wonderful reading Anton Rubinstein gave here in 1881, and later Paderewski’s’. He had played the Mendelssohn work at his London debut where it was noted that he played with a ‘mature and musicianly style’ but gave a ‘steady refusal to grant an encore’.

By the time of his last appearance at the Proms in 1932, de Greef was seventy years old. He continued to visit Britain playing the Grieg Concerto at the London Palladium in 1933, in Liverpool in 1934 and with a Municipal Orchestra in Brighton in 1936. In his mid-seventies, de Greef ceased his extended tours and retreated to his home at Rue Defacqz, St Gillis, where he had lived since 1927. Arthur de Greef died on 29 August 1940 at his home. He was buried in Elsene cemetery, not far from the grave of the great Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe.

The recordings
De Greef made his first recordings for HMV on 27 December 1917. Of the six sides recorded, five were released. It appears he had difficulty with Chopin’s Nocturne in F sharp as he recorded two more takes at his next session on 21 April 1920, but again it was not issued. That second session produced no released sides, which was unfortunate because he recorded two titles, Tarantella, Op 27 No 2, by Moszkowski and Le Bal, Op 14a, by Anton Rubinstein, that were never attempted again. Over the next few years HMV had de Greef record most of his repertoire for piano and orchestra except Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto which they recorded with Beethoven specialist and fellow Liszt pupil Frederic Lamond in 1922. Between October 1920 and September 1922 de Greef recorded Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy and Piano Concerto No 1, the Symphonic Variations by his compatriot César Franck, and abridged versions of the Grieg Concerto and Saint-Saëns’s Second. All of these works were recorded again by the superior electrical process in the late 1920s with the exception of the Franck (Alfred Cortot made the second of his three recordings for HMV in 1927) and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 (which was recorded for HMV by Mischa Levitzki in 1929) plus the addition of the same composer’s Piano Concerto No 2.

Perhaps de Greef’s most important recording is of the Piano Concerto in A minor by Grieg. It was de Greef’s teacher Louis Brassin who gave the first Brussels performance of the work in March of 1874. Keen to promote young composers and their work, Brassin played the Piano Sonata, Op 7, the following year and gave further performances of the Concerto in Hamburg, Wiesbaden, Cologne, Leipzig and Frankfurt. It was at just this time that the young de Greef would have been studying with him at the Brussels Conservatory. This probably being the impetus for de Greef to learn the work, it was of course his meeting with Grieg and the composer’s support and selection of the young pianist to perform the work under his baton that gives de Greef’s recording its historical prestige. The clarity of the performance and the solid tempi give the recording a convincing coherence, while the downward scale that sets off the third movement has rarely been produced with such aplomb.

The early electric recording of Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B flat minor, Op 35, was the first complete recording of the work and de Greef’s first by the new method. Probably due to technical reasons, five sessions were needed between September 1925 and March 1926 to complete the recording, and at the same time, de Greef also recorded five takes of Chopin’s Étude in E major, Op 10 No 3, but none was issued. De Greef does not seem to be the ideal Chopin player from his recordings. He avoids sentimentality and extravagance leaving, for some, Chopin that is rather cool and uninspired. This may be acceptable and even preferable for some listeners, but the recording of the Sonata can come across as rather earthbound with a lack of long phrase lines. The shorter works such as the four Waltzes suit de Greef better, but the expressive nature of the Nocturne leaves something to be desired. However, it is in solo small-scale works that de Greef is most effective, particularly those by Grieg and Moszkowski.

Whatever the extent of his association with Liszt, de Greef certainly played the great Hungarian’s compositions with a solid sense of authority. Perhaps the best is the recording of the Piano Concerto No 2 where the superior sound allows us to hear all the details and nuances of the sixty-eight year old de Greef’s interpretation. Of all his solo discs, the finest are those of the Polonaise in E major and the Hungarian Rhapsody No 12.

His last record, the only one issued on HMV Red Label, was a curious collection of works by Raff, Grétry (arranged by the pianist) and Prokofiev. The first few takes were recorded on 10 December 1930, but it was at his last session on 27 March 1931 that the issued takes were made. Also at this session, de Greef recorded again the last two sides of the Chopin Piano Sonata in B flat minor, Op 35, five years after the complete recording was made. The ledgers show that it was specifically to replace the published disc on D1222.

It is to be regretted that two major works recorded by de Greef were never released. He often programmed the Caprice on themes from Gluck’s Alceste by Saint-Saëns. It was a work he chose to play at his first appearances in London in 1890: ‘From his rendering of Saint-Saëns’ Caprice on some of the ballet airs from Gluck’s Alceste, it became at once evident that he has wonderful command of the keyboard. The showy music was given with all possible brilliancy and decision.’ The October 1923 recording covered three sides and the fourth was of the same composer’s Valse mignonne. At the same session de Greef recorded the piece he played on his first visits to London and many subsequent ones too – the Variations sérieuses by Mendelssohn. Unfortunately, an electrical remake of this from December 1928 also remained unissued and one can only speculate that de Greef was not satisfied with it. When he played the work on ‘a somewhat irresponsive Pleyel’ at his London debut, ‘it was impossible not to admire the variety, the energy, and the thoroughly strong mastership of the reading’. Another critic thought that the variations were played ‘with a larger amount of poetic feeling that it might be thought possible they would be able to bear. Some of the variations were placed in a new light, and all of them were played in the style of a master who has formed his opinion concerning the significance of the music, and has no difficulty whatever in giving it expression.’

A curiosity appears in the 10 December 1930 sessions for retakes of the Liszt Concerto No 2. At the end of the session de Greef recorded three takes of his own arrangement for piano and orchestra of the Chopin-Liszt Chant polonaise ‘The Maiden’s Wish’. It was played from manuscript as de Greef had only orchestrated it in October 1930. Sadly, this also remained unissued.

De Greef’s compositions included works for voice, piano, orchestra and chamber groups, but we only have recordings of him in his arrangements of two of the seven Danses villageoises by André Grétry (1741–1813) that he published in 1901. Obviously favourites of de Greef, he recorded No 3 Danse en rond de ‘Colinette à la Cour’ and No 5 Entr’acte de ‘L’épreuve villageoise’ in 1923 and again recorded No 3 at his very last recording session in 1931.

Remembered as a pupil of Liszt, de Greef was more than that. He obviously had the type of musicianship and character that composers and performers found engaging, and it may be that his direct style of approach to music making was an expression of his personality. After a London recital in 1919 a critic wrote:

His playing is criticism in the best sense. He has no blind faith in a name, he examines each work in your presence in order to discover what there is in it. It is no act of faith or of worship, there is no pose or stereotyped attitude; it is not a question of what the composer might have meant by it all, but just – what did he say, and how are we to give ourselves an account of the plain sense of his words? Thus he manages somehow to get behind the glib amenities of Mendelssohn to the warm-hearted man and graceful companion. Or in Chopin he strips off the mysticism with which generations of players have overlaid his style, and lays bare the pitiless logic underneath. He can do this because his playing is like thinking. (The Times, 28 March 1919)

Jonathan Summers © 2013

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