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Percy Grainger - The complete 78-rpm solo recordings

Percy Grainger (piano)
5CDs Download only
Label: APR
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: February 2011
Total duration: 390 minutes 5 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.


‘Here’s something a little bit special to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Percy Grainger … Grainger was a charismatic pianist and also a discographic pioneer. He was entrusted with some important ‘first ever’ recordings … this set will appeal both to collectors of historic piano recordings, but also to admirers of the composer … the transfers have been effected with great skill by Ward Marston [and] the fine booklet note is by that doyen of Grainger biographers and scholars, John Bird. So, a wonderful set’ (MusicWeb International)» More

‘The best of Grainger’s shellac efforts retain their vividness and communicative immediacy. Even if Grainger had never met and befriended Grieg, his interpretations of the composer still would bear an 'authentic' imprimatur for their rhythmic verve, nervous energy, and bold projection of melodies’ (Classics Today)» More
It is curiously ironical to ponder the fact that had Grainger himself been asked to produce an article about his life and work, he would only have written about his legacy as a pianist with extreme reluctance, for he looked upon his career as a touring virtuoso largely with bitter distaste and mainly as a source of income enabling him to buy the time needed for composition. It was as a composer that he really wanted posterity to remember him and though he sometimes expressed a sneaking sense of victory after a good recital or concert, he mostly poured scorn upon the piano as a vehicle for his own musical ideas and he often used a woefully self-deprecating turn of phrase when he talked about himself as a pianist. But when we hear the unique sound of Grainger at full tilt at the keyboard, it is hard to believe that he was not actually having a whale of a time.

Grainger’s highly personalized phrasing, his control of dynamics and rhythm, the clarity with which he handled a multitude of voices, his fearless attack and massive fortissimos, his occasional ability to draw upon an almost childlike innocence of approach and, yes, even his wrong notes were all as much the marks of a Grainger performance as the bowler hat and the walking cane formed that of Chaplin.

The story of his career as a pianist all began, like most things with Grainger, with his mother, Rose, a competent pianist who would sit by him at piano practice for a few hours daily from the age of five. Later, Grainger wrote of the ‘rhythmic robustness of her piano playing’ and how her ‘naive and almost saucy gracefulness of nature endowed her playing in the softer passages with an irresistibly winsome lilt – at once gentle and vivacious’. He also remarked upon the amazing amount of strength that she had in her small body and the volume of tone she could draw from the piano.

Next in Grainger’s career, we encounter a remarkable doctor by the name of Robert Hamilton Russell. English-born, blond, blue-eyed, and a life-long bachelor, as a young man he had served as surgical dresser to Lord Lister, the pioneer of antiseptic surgery. Russell arrived in Australia in 1889 to take up a general practice in Melbourne where his patients included the Graingers. Russell was also a fine musician and Grainger described him as ‘the first exquisite pianist in my life’ – remembering, above all, his interpretations of Schumann.

In 1890, Sir Charles Hallé, a man who had personally known Chopin and Liszt and who had been the first pianist to perform the thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas, stormed into Australia and Russell, anxious that Percy should be exposed to what was then thought to be the best in music, took the young but some­what reluctant Grainger to hear him. Grainger’s presentiments were confirmed when he found Hallé’s playing thoroughly distasteful; in fact, he called Hallé an ‘Anglicized-German stick-in-the-mud’, and told Russell that he much preferred his (Russell’s) playing.

Russell also took Percy to hear the young Australian pianist Ernest Hutcheson, who as a lad had toured Australia with Melba and who, after studying with Reinecke and Stavenhagen in Europe, went on to become Dean and President of the Juilliard School of Music. Hutcheson made a deep impression on Grainger and as late as 1945 Grainger wrote: ‘My memory of the beauty, perfection & smooth­ness of his Bach playing has never dimmed.’ In later years Grainger often sent his own students to work under Hutcheson.

When it was felt that Percy had outgrown his mother’s lessons, he was sent on to Louis Pabst who was then living in Melbourne. Pabst had come to Australia in 1884 from a musical family in what was then Königsberg in East Prussia (now Kaliningrad in Russia) and he brought with him impeccable credentials, the most important of which was that he was one of a handful of private pupils of the formidable Russian pianist and pedagogue Anton Rubin­stein, one of the rare nineteenth-century pianists whose name was ever mentioned in the same breath as that of Liszt. Until the end, Grainger never wavered in his view that his mother and Pabst had been his most influential teachers. It is strange to reflect that if indeed it can ever be said that this wild Australian boy belonged to a ‘school’ of piano playing, a good case could be argued that from Rubinstein and through Pabst he had assimilated the Russian style.

Pabst had established a series of concerts first at his home and then at Melbourne’s Masonic Hall. Percy was taken along to a few and later wrote:

I remember in particular a Concerto of Bach for two pianos and strings, the string part of which being played on a third piano, that struck me as a wonder of richness and complexity. Pabst was the first to reveal to me the glories of Bach, thereby opening the doors to the only realm of music – the many stranded melodies [by which, of course, Grainger meant ‘counter­point’] that I have ever deeply loved & hearing his magnificent renderings of Bach gave me whatever is good in my Bach playing.

From this point on, Grainger became obsessed with Bach; this obsession never left him, and once when Pabst suggested that the boy might vary his musical diet by working on pieces by Grieg and Chopin, Percy declared them to be maudlin and debased and accused his teacher of having no taste. Tough talking for a ten-year old!

Nevertheless, his studies progressed well, and on the evening of Monday 9 July 1894, the day after his twelfth birthday, the flaxen-haired youth marched on to the stage of the Masonic Hall to make his debut. In this concert he played the Gigue from Bach’s First Partita in B flat, a work which he recorded some years later in America on the Columbia label. Though his performance is of rare beauty it is far removed from the way Bach is played today but it was certainly in the tradition to which Grainger and many of his contemporaries had fallen heirs. The accents and ornaments are played in what we might call today the ‘wrong places’ and he slows off at phrase endings. Grainger saw Bach as a man of passion as well as piety, so he was not in any way afraid to use a little rubato in his Bach. Grainger hated what he called the ‘sewing-machine’ school of Bach playing.

A critic who attended this recital declared:

The youth has a touch so firm, a technique so nearly faultless, a musical perception so acute and an aplomb so surprising that one would say that he cannot fail to win for himself name and fame in the career that has been so carefully mapped out for him.

In the same year, 1894, Pabst decided to return to Europe, but he was so keen to keep his favourite Australian pupil that before he left he asked Rose if he could take Percy with him to Europe to make of him a ‘real virtuoso’ as he put it. When Pabst went on to explain that he would have to forbid him to compose until he was sixteen, Rose replied:

But if Percy is to have to wait till then, it will be too late. I should rather he gave up music alto­gether than see him become a mere pianist.

Percy’s only comment on this many years later was: ‘So I became instead the passive vehicle of a mother’s aesthetic will.’

When Pabst left Australia, Grainger took lessons from one Adelaide Burkitt – herself a Pabst pupil and a teacher of whom Grainger always spoke warmly. She groomed him for further performances and soon it was decided that he should go to Europe to further his general musical education, but before he left Australia in 1895 a benefit concert was mounted at the Melbourne Town Hall. The concert raised £50 for the Graingers (which, as he said some years later, was ‘very much better than nothing’) and with this in their pockets, they sailed to Italy and thence on to Frankfurt-am-Main by train where he enrolled at Dr Hoch’s Conservatorium in the piano classes of the Dutchman James Kwast, a former pupil of Reinecke, Richter, Gevaert and Louis Brassin.

During these years, Grainger began to concentrate on composition and though his piano repertoire was certainly broadened, he never spoke well of those years with Kwast and often maintained that the six-year exercise had been an utter waste of time.

Outside the Conservatorium, however, he took in some invaluable musical experiences which radically transformed his attitude to piano playing. At the Frankfurt Opera House he once heard a recital given by another Rubinstein pupil, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, and Grainger was deeply moved by his elegant and poetic style. But when he heard the volcanic Eugène D’Albert (a favourite Liszt pupil) the experience was shattering:

When I saw D’Albert swash around over the keyboard with wrong notes flying to the left & to the right & the whole thing a welter of recklessness, I said to myself, ‘That is the way I must play’. I’m afraid I learnt his propensity for wrong notes all too thoroughly.

In those Frankfurt years, he also took a few lessons from Carl Friedberg (a pupil of Brahms and Clara Schumann who had also studied with Kwast) and Frederic Lamond (a Liszt pupil); although the Graingers’ friend Nellie Melba had offered to give Percy an introduction to the redoubtable Theodore Leschetizky, it seems it was never pursued.

In 1900 Grainger began giving private lessons and he also made some public appear­ances as a soloist and accompanist in and around Frankfurt. At the time this had become somewhat urgent as his mother, hitherto the bread-winner, had fallen seriously ill.

In 1901 Grainger moved to London with his mother and, by now armed with an impres­sive technique and a breezy disregard for musical conventions, he made a sensational debut at Steinway Hall on Tuesday 29 October of that year. He quickly became a great favourite with London audiences and soon gained royal patronage with commands to play at Buckingham Palace. More important, as far as income was concerned, he began to receive invitations to play at the fashionable salons of the rich and aristocratic – something he quickly grew to loathe.

In February 1903 Grainger was introduced to Ferruccio Busoni who was in London giving concerts. Busoni immediately wrote to his wife:

I have made the acquaintance here of a young musician called Percy Grainger, an Australian. A charming fellow, highly gifted and a thinker. He played me a very good Toccata by Debussy.

The friendship between the two musicians began cordially enough with Busoni expressing what seems to have been a genuine admiration for Grainger’s music and inviting the Austra­lian to join his Berlin master classes gratis. So in the summer of that year Grainger travelled to the German capital but it was not long before Busoni’s admiration and friend­li­ness turned sour and soon he began to make Grainger the butt of his sarcasm. In his master classes, Busoni would purposefully call upon Grainger to play an octave study (not one of the Australian’s strongest technical points) and soon Busoni would begin laughing at Grainger’s efforts until the tears rolled down his face. But when Percy was allowed to play other pieces of his choice which suited his technique, the other students responded by giving him the nickname of the ‘Kreisler of the Piano’ – which, according to Grainger, made Busoni furious and very jealous. But Grainger disliked most of all the way Busoni would feel the need to surround himself with an almost Byzantine court of admirers and lackeys.

After some disagreement about the repertoire they should work on, they turned their attention exclusively to the interpretation of Bach on the modern concert grand – studies which were to reap handsome dividends. Some years later Grainger summarized the relation­ship as follows:

I admired him without reserva­tions of any kind & revelled in everything he did pianistically. He was not a ‘normal’ player unfolding the composer’s music straightly and faithfully. Busoni was a twisted genius making the music sound unlike itself, but grander than itself, more super-human. I cannot recall ever hearing or seeing Busoni play a wrong note. He did not seem to ‘feel’ his way about the keyboard by touching adjacent notes – as most of us do – he smacked the keys right in the middle. Busoni got brilliant results with next to no effort. I was slow and peg-away. Busoni impressed people immensely, but pleased few. I was able to please almost everybody including Busoni, but impressed nobody. Busoni was a big-town artist. I, a small-town artist. My patience and humble stamina must have been just as annoying to Busoni as his flashy pretentiousness was to me.

In 1906 Grainger met Edvard Grieg in London. At their first meeting Grieg had presumed Grainger to be a composer and was surprised to learn that he was also a concert pianist and even more astonished to learn that his repertoire featured the Norwegian Folk-Songs, Op 66 and the Norwegian Peasant Dances, Op 72. ‘I have never heard them played!’ said Grieg. These difficult and ‘modern’ arrangements had received a cool reception when they were first published, so naturally Grieg was ecstatic to learn of Grainger’s enthusiasm. This private perform­ance was the seal to a firm friendship. Later, Grainger travelled to Hop in Norway to stay with the Griegs (he was the last guest at Troldhaugen before Grieg’s death). Here they worked on the Piano Concerto and many other piano and choral works. Grieg immediately wrote to various newspapers throughout Europe and to Mengelberg and Siloti (a Liszt pupil and Rachmaninov’s cousin and teacher and then a conductor in St Petersburg) singing Grainger’s praises and hailing him as the Rubinstein of his age. (Grieg had known the Russian and heard him perform.) It was Grieg’s encomia that helped establish the Australian’s reputation as a pianist on the continent of Europe; indeed the two had planned making a joint tour of Europe with Grieg conducting and Grainger performing the Piano Concerto. It was a plan thwarted by Grieg’s death not long after Grainger’s departure from Norway.

When, however, Grainger later told the story of his friendship with Grieg, he wrote:

I had wanted to be Grieg’s prophet. I had wanted critically and impersonally to proclaim the still unsuspected far-reaching importance of Grieg’s compositional innovations, but instead I became his protégé. And who believes in the impersonalness and criticalness of a protégé? So in a sense, it would have been better if I had never met the Griegs, sweet and dear though they were to me.

Like every other aspect of his life, Grainger’s concert repertoire was different from those of most of his contemporaries. After his student days, not a single bar by Mozart got so much as a passing reference and even the three or four pieces by Beethoven he had grudgingly programmed were dropped by about 1905. Of course, he often featured the big Romantic works, but he also played much Bach and pre-Bach music (almost always in arrangements for the modern concert grand piano, but, even so, quite rare in those days) and twentieth-century music from Gershwin through Cyril Scott to Henry Cowell (some of which was dedicated to Grainger). Grainger was, as far as one can tell, one of the first pianists to perform the keyboard works of Debussy, Ravel, Albéniz and Granados in England, Australia and South Africa – often when the ink was scarcely dry.

Throughout much of his career, Grainger took on private pupils. He also taught master classes at the Chicago Musical College and the Interlochen National Music Camp in Michigan during the summers of various periods in his life. Always laying great stress on the contra­puntal elements of the works his students were working on, he would set them lots of Bach and pre-Bach music to study. To help compre­hension, he would sometimes re-arrange the various voices of a fugue amongst six or more students on different pianos. Another task he would set was to require a few of them to practise wildly different pieces on different pianos at the same time in the same room. He himself would try to demonstrate practising a work and reciting poetry at the same time. This, he said, improved concentration!

Early on in his career, he preached the gospel of stiff fingers, wrists and arms, though he found as he grew older that this did not matter quite so much. He never believed in pampering his hands, but felt they should be constantly subjected to hard, even harsh work, which is why, for example, he would always carry his own heavy suitcases – all part of his obsession with physical fitness. Grainger never took the fingering recommended by editors or even by the composers themselves as holy writ, but rather he suggested that each pianist should find the fingering that suited his or her own hands best, and though doubtless this produces different sounds in performance, he tried wherever possible to encourage his students to think out and explore such things for themselves.

He believed that scales were idiotic exercises and felt that the music itself provided the best material to practise on. He always laid great stress on the various uses of the pedals – ‘half-pedalling’, ‘pedal-fluttering’ and an exten­sive use of the sostenuto pedal on Steinway pianos.

In 1908, Grainger made his first com­mercial recordings for the Gramophone and Sister Companies – soon to change its name to ‘His Master’s Voice’. With the three splendid records coming from the first session of 16 May and made perhaps at the peak of his technical powers, we have a chance of hearing the young Grainger. Outstanding of those issued is the delightfully entitled but prodigiously difficult Irish March-Jig: ‘Maguire’s Kick’, one of the four piano arrangements he made of the Irish Dances for Orchestra by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. This record has preserved Grainger at his most scintillatingly exuberant.

With his move to America in 1914, Grainger became an almost instant success both as pianist and as composer. He started at the top and stayed there with the exception of his two-year stint in the Army and until his mother’s suicide in 1922 – an event which changed his life drastically, not least his career as a performing artist.

Between August 1917 and October 1931, he recorded exclusively for the Columbia Graphophone Company, an association which produced some of the glories of recorded piano playing. His partnership with American Columbia began in the era of the ‘acoustic’ recording and moved well into the days of the electrical system. During this period he made recording history when in June 1925 he was engaged to produce the Chopin Sonata in B minor, Op 58, which became the first set of records of instrumental music in the electrical era. This is also the recording which can be played with confidence to doubting Thomases in the event of Grainger’s powers as a pianist ever being questioned. Where piano playing was con­cerned, Grainger lived dangerously and the last movement is truly seismic. It is a relentless display of dazzling bravura charged with an almost murderous ferocity and can be looked upon as his one-way ticket to pianistic immortality.

His recorded performance of the Chopin Sonata No 2 in B flat minor, Op 35 sounds strangely uncommitted and cautious. It never actually ‘frightens’ the listener as does, say, Rachmaninov’s or Cortot’s. His very sparse use of pedal combined with somewhat unyielding accents leave some passages sounding dry and literal. Phrasing which called for the lightest of fingerwork and extreme legato sometimes eluded Grainger.

In such instances the line of the melody is chopped and ultimately lost. And whilst he never got bogged down in the sickly rhetorical mannerisms so common with pianists of his day, he did sometimes lay too heavy a stress on ritardandos.

With the Columbia sets of Schumann’s Études symphoniques, Op 13, and Sonata in G minor, Op 22, and the set of Bach Organ Transcriptions, however, we return to truly patrician performances which are memorable for their commanding sweep and energy, the architectural clarity and rich­ness of tone. Though the Bach is served up in transcription form (Busoni, Liszt, Tausig and Grainger), purists need not twitch, for the ones used here are models of fidelity to the original texts.

The Brahms Sonata in F minor, Op 5 is, for the most part, a magisterial performance and, as with the Chopin Op 58, the Schumann Op 22 and other works, Grainger’s was the first performance of this work ever committed to disc. The opening movement is taken as an impera­tive call-to-arms whilst occasionally linger­ing in the appropriate moments of reflective calm. The sonata as a whole is given a robust, big-boned performance which is invested with great warmth and insight from which the student can learn much.

Having to fit longer works within the time restrictions of the sides of a 12-inch 78-rpm record sometimes put undue pressure on musicians and record producers of this period and may explain in part why some sections seem unnecessarily hurried. Grainger hardly ever observes repeats but the textual excisions are few, minimal and judicious.

Of the shorter works he recorded, perhaps the most outstanding would include his own piano arrangement of the ‘Hornpipe’ from Handel’s Water Music, the Schumann Romance in F sharp, Op 28 No 2, the Juba Dance by Nathaniel Dett and the Polish Dance in E flat minor, Op 3 No 1, by Xaver Schar­wenka. Most particularly rewarding, of course, are his recordings of Grieg’s music and his own compositions and the arrangements of music by others. His own works require very con­siderable technical assurance and finger control, the slow and sentimental pieces no less than the faster, more boisterous works. His 1945 American Decca performance of Irish Tune from County Derry is a triumph of transcendingly beautiful phrasing as well as careful voicing of the melody which comes mainly from the inner notes of each chord. The fabulously rare Columbia recording of Jutish Medley is a fiendishly difficult kind of mini-suite for piano of Danish folk-songs collected by Grainger and his friend, Evald Tang Kristensen and is dispatched with puckish humour and manly fire.

His Liszt recordings, most especially the Polonaise No 2 in E major, are marked with a grandeur and eloquence that often escape pianists who too easily fall for the temptation to play everything too quickly – a temptation which Liszt himself most emphatically warned against.

Some ‘live’ and ‘off-the-air’ recordings have sur­vived of Grainger conducting and perfor­ming at the keyboard. This precious legacy gives us a unique picture of the artist in public performance as opposed to Grainger in the studios of the commercial record com­panies, restricted by the many limitations of the recording processes of the day. The list includes no fewer than four mighty perform­ances of the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor. Particularly interesting too are the live recor­dings of his playing more Bach. We still hear the same volcanic climaxes and the tender slow passages played with subtle rubato and the other Grainger stylistic trade-marks. We also hear him playing with all the clarity and panache so noticeable in the spectacular commercial recordings but now it is with an enhanced nobility and spaciousness.

It has long been rumoured that a live recording of Grainger playing the Delius Piano Concerto is unmovably lodged in the private archives of an American collector. It has yet to surface, but it is tempting to speculate what his performance of this work, which he loved so much, would have been like.

Whilst listening to Grainger’s recordings it must be remembered that he was brought up and trained in the dying years of the Romantic era, yet his career reached well into what might be termed as the ‘post-Horowitz’ period when it took real courage to play wrong notes. Grainger and other pianists from the same period managed to bridge these generation gaps because of their essential musical integrity and markedly individual styles.

Some years ago a letter appeared in an American musical journal which ran in part:

For years I’ve been telling friends about the best and most amazing solo-piano concert I ever attended, which Percy Grainger gave in Detroit’s Masonic Temple some time between 1936 and 1938. Grainger was at his best, and his interaction with the audience was a real experience also. He didn’t tire of playing encores until 11.30pm. Grainger then held up his hands, disappeared for a few minutes, and returned with a saxophone. He proceeded to play the wildest music on that saxophone that anyone has ever heard. We loved it and roared with appreciation until 2.30am.

This is but one of hundreds of stories that decorate Grainger’s history as a concert artist, yet in the telling they need never be taken as a cheapening of either Grainger or his music. This side of him was part of his belief that music should communicate and not preach. Perhaps it also speaks of his dislike of the concert-hall atmosphere where people dress like penguins and sit around in an atmosphere of hushed reverence listening to works which were, as often as not, written for less formal occasions. It may also have been part of his natural defence against a world which he felt misunderstood him. This is perhaps one reason why, as time passed, he much preferred to perform in the more relaxed surroundings of universities, colleges and schools.

Grainger performed in the great concert halls of the world to tumultuous accolades from audiences and critics alike. He worked with Siloti, Damroch, Stransky, Stokowski, Wood, Goossens, Beecham, Richter, Andreae and Mengelberg. His career as a pianist was to take him from Oslo to Durban and from St Peters­burg to Havana, playing one week, say, before an audience of school children and the next week before the crowned heads of Europe. In 1938, he made one of his many visits to the White House to play, this time, for President Roosevelt. Elisabeth Schumann shared the programme and Grainger’s offering included Turkey in the Straw by the West Texan cowboy-composer and Godowsky pupil, David Wendel Fentross Guion. Grainger’s own 1921 Columbia recording of this work is one of the treasures of his legacy. He also recorded (in 1926) another piece by Guion entitled Sheep and Goat Walkin’ to the Pasture. Whilst both works are joyously toe-tapping they present the pianist with complex difficulties of rhythm and counterpoint. Doubtless these were the very reasons why Grainger took on the challenge and indeed why he triumphs so gloriously.

It was once said of Grainger that his career forced us to reflect upon that obscurity caused by the wrong kind of fame and indeed throughout his life we can see that he became increasingly tormented by the cruel dilemma caused by the fact that, whilst he lived, his fame as a pianist eclipsed his reputation as a composer which, at best, had had him irreversibly typecast as the court jester of twentieth-century music. Grainger is not by any means unique in having his name associated with a small number of not-always-repre­sentative works which almost wholly over­shadowed the rest of his repertoire as a pianist and, more important, his output and true worth as a composer. Alas it is only posthumously that, for Grainger the composer, justice is slowly beginning to come limping after him. But whilst we wait for Grainger’s day to come as a composer, let us give thanks for the invention of the gramophone which enables us to hear this Golden Pianist from the past.

John Bird © 2011

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