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Egon Petri - The complete Columbia and Electrola solo and concerto recordings

Egon Petri (piano)
7CDs Rights no longer controlled by Hyperion
Label: APR
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: October 2015
Total duration: 540 minutes 38 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.

Egon Petri (1881-1962) studied with Busoni and was perhaps his greatest disciple. In his fusion of intellect with an astonishing virtuoso technique he echoed his master and gives us today the clearest idea of Busoni’s own legendary pianism.

The current collection features Egon Petri’s entire commercial solo and concerto recorded output for German Electrola and both the UK and US Columbia labels, and covers the later 78rpm era through to the early LP. Although never fully at ease with the recording process, this disciple of Carreño and Busoni recognized the need for his artistry to be preserved in the emerging technology. Having privately recorded a few cylinders for Joseph Block in Vevey in 1923, Petri eventually agreed to making commercial records, starting in 1929—somewhat late for an artist already active on the stage for a quarter century (his London debut had been in 1904). He would continue to make discs for some three decades. The current collection features Petri moving from the peak of his pianistic prowess into the twilight of his career, all the while keeping his formidable technique and musical intelligence intact.

Electrola Recordings (1929–1930)
Petri’s first 78rpm discs were made for German Electrola—seven titles on eight sides featuring some of his most stupendous playing. The first item recorded at his first session in Berlin on 17 September 1929—and the sole Chopin work—is the Waltz in A flat Major, Op 42. This features Petri in swashbuckling mode, displaying clear finger work and tremendous momentum, while the remaining Liszt pieces reveal his remarkable fusion of transcendent virtuosity and sensitive musicality. Throughout, one marvels at his even articulation, sparkling tone, subtle pedalling and gloriously shaped phrasing. The Paganini/Liszt/Busoni ‘La chasse’ Étude is delightfully spry with dazzling runs, the Gnomenreigen fleet and effervescent, and the Wagner/Liszt ‘Spinning Chorus’ crisply articulated while still being lyrically phrased.

Three Schubert/Liszt songs—Die Forelle, Auf dem Wasser zu singen and Liebesbotschaft—round out these Electrola discs. While the first is perhaps a touch rushed it is beautifully voiced; the second demonstrates Petri’s capacity for melodic lines that are shaped with tensile strength, passionate yet without exaggerated inflections. The last of these three transcribed Lieder is the sole work recorded on 13 January 1930 and finds Petri phrasing with more pliancy and playing with greater spaciousness. These Schubert transcriptions put on disc in Berlin and later in the UK would be rerecorded for American Columbia in 1951; these versions are released together in this compilation for the first time, affording a fascinating opportunity to compare performances recorded up to two decades apart.

English Columbia Recordings (1935–1938)
Petri would resume his commercial recording ventures five years later for the UK branch of Columbia at their London studios, under the watchful eye and ear of legendary producer Walter Legge, who was then in the early years of his long career. The pianist made recordings whenever he was in London, from late 1935 up until 1938, with repertoire ranging through shorter solo works and transcriptions, sonatas by Beethoven, Brahms’ Handel and Paganini Variations, a selection of Busoni works, and three works for piano and orchestra.

Petri’s first session on 11 December 1935 demonstrates his artistic principles by starting with Beethoven’s final sonata, the C minor Op 111. This was an audacious choice: while representative of Petri’s musical tastes it was not particularly ‘commercial’, added to the fact that Columbia’s sister company HMV had not yet finished its Beethoven Society project of recording the complete Beethoven Sonatas with Artur Schnabel, the subscription format of which had been Legge’s brainchild. The recording was completed on 3 January 1936, and then on 9 and 10 June that year Petri recorded two more Beethoven Sonatas, again of limited commercial appeal, No 24 in F sharp major, Op 78, and No 27 in E minor, Op 90, before finally recording a more ‘popular’ entry in the form of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, Op 27 No 2, on 15 February 1937.

The four Beethoven Sonatas receive interpretations that are at once architecturally clear and forthright, powerful without being weighty in the echt Germanic manner. Op 78 reveals Petri’s transparent layering and glowing sonority, with seamless transitions and accenting that does not break the line, while in Op 90 the pianist’s skilled dynamic control allows him to create contrasts without producing a harsh tone. Petri gives a decidedly large-scale reading of Op 111, with clear polyphonic textures (how those masterfully projected bass notes create tension as Beethoven creates new harmonic worlds) and delicately employed rubato that ratchets up harmonic and dynamic tension. If he occasionally sacrifices the last degree of precision in favour of emotional expressiveness, Petri nevertheless succeeds in creating both an intense and reverent atmosphere. The so-called ‘Moonlight’ Sonata is not as ‘straight’ as it initially seems—its slightly brisker tempo is offset by Petri’s noticeable but controlled rubato, which adds to the harmonic and structural tension in the lyrically phrased first movement. The second movement has the requisite rhythmic lilt and controlled accents, while the third’s momentum does not com promise clear articulation and beauty of tone.

On the current compilation, prior to Petri’s Beethoven we hear his marvellously fluid approach to less ‘serious’ music in the form of a Bach/Petri Minuet (recorded the day after his first session devoted to Op 111) and the Gluck/Sgambati Mélodie (recorded the day he completed Op 111). Both are beautifully pedaled and lyrical, played with exquisite tonal colours, graceful ornamentation, remarkable dynamic control and flowing legato.

Petri recorded a significant number of transcriptions for UK Columbia, among them many of Schubert, in addition to setting down original works by Liszt. His attentive voicing, clear phrasing, discreet rubato and polished tone serve these works ideally. In his traversal of the Schubert/Tausig Andantino and Variations in B minor, Petri’s unobtrusive technical facility enables him to play with remarkable subtlety while also navigating the towering octave-filled passages. The two transcribed Lieder not recorded earlier for Electrola—Der Lindenbaum and Gretchen am Spinnrade—both feature elegant lines and skillful highlighting of harmonic shifts, the former work particularly notable for the incredible trills in its final section, the latter for the hazy pedal effect and dramatically forged melodic phrases.

The Soirée de Vienne No 6 loses none of the charm present in the original Schubert dances as Petri relishes the rich harmonic accompaniment while navigating Liszt’s elaborate figurations with a gorgeous sonority and ease. Similar is his reading of the Rigoletto paraphrase, where glistening runs never obscure the melodic line (what beautifully coordinated articulation in the left-hand accompaniment to the elegantly phrased main theme in the right). The Gounod/Liszt Faust waltz also features stunning technical feats without sacrificing the lyrical nature of the source material or quality of tone.

Three original Liszt titles demonstrate Petri’s standing as a major interpreter of this composer’s works. The pianist was clearly in fine form at his 16 February 1937 session, when he set down superlative accounts of both Un sospiro and Ricordanza, his marvellous pedalling enveloping the melodic lines in a luminous glow while keeping a strong rhythmic momentum. While it may not be surprising to hear the occasional wrong note in recordings made in the 78rpm-disc period, even for a pianist with as comprehensive a technique as Petri, his reading of Mazeppa features an uncharacteristic number of dropped notes and splashy moments (Petri himself was apparently not satisfied with the performance, yet he somehow consented to its release). There is no shortage of drama or excitement however, as Petri refuses to adjust his breakneck speed, clocking in at just over 6 minutes when the two 12-inch 78rpm sides of the record would have afforded him closer to 9 minutes, had he so chosen.

Petri would only make four studio recordings with orchestra, three of them with the London Philharmonic during his contract with UK Columbia. On 22 September 1938 he recorded two works by Liszt: the now rarely heard Fantasia on Beethoven’s ‘Ruins of Athens’ and the better known (if not at that time frequently recorded) Piano Concerto No 2. Both capture the fusion of lush phrasing, dramatic emphasis and technical fluency abundantly present in the preceding solo recordings—Petri’s polished tone, legato lines and attentive left-hand support never cease to impress. However, his 10 November 1937 reading of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 is rather less fluent than other recordings from this period, and the drier acoustic framework found here does not capture well Petri’s sonority or the subtlety of his phrasing. One wonders whether Walter Goehr’s conducting of the LPO was less to his liking than Leslie Heward’s in the two Liszt works the following year: Goehr and Petri are certainly not in sync in the closing measures of the first movement. Nevertheless, there are moments of beauty, particularly in the second movement and the fleet, rhythmically vibrant, third movement.

Petri’s readings of Brahms’ two most popular sets of variations—the Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel and the Variations on a theme by Paganini—are among his most admired performances on disc. In his youth Petri had met Brahms (the pianist’s father knew the composer and other musical luminaries of the time) and Petri considered the composer’s music ‘modern’. While these are perhaps sonically the least successful of his European recordings, Petri’s soundworld is nevertheless beautifully proportioned, highlighting Brahms’ unique harmonic language from the inside without being unnecessarily muscular or weighty. The Handel set may be rhythmically tauter than the readings by some of Petri’s contemporaries, yet it excels with his poised weighting of chords (how rich Brahms’ textures sound!). Petri’s titanic reading of the Paganini Variations features more overtly astounding technical feats—his fleet pacing while sustaining beauty and fullness of tone is exceptional—while also impressing with transparent textures, crisp articulation and a sense of architectural cohesiveness. Here too Petri’s pulse is somewhat less flexible than in his readings of works by Liszt, yet his phrasing and nuancing are not compromised.

Petri was a prime exponent of Busoni’s music, having worked closely with the great pianist and composer as a pupil, colleague and friend for over two decades. The Italian master’s works were even less commercially viable at that time than they are today, so it seems likely that Petri would have had to record works requested by Walter Legge in order to be indulged with this repertoire. How ironic that when Legge received significant funding a decade or so later from the Maharajah of Mysore, who had a profound interest in modern composers (Busoni among them), he would struggle to satisfy some of his wealthy donor’s requests for recordings of obscure repertoire. Petri was in America by that time and it appears that Legge asked no less than Dinu Lipatti to record Busoni’s Indianische Fantasie (the ill-fated pianist had apparently agreed but the 1949 session was cancelled due to illness).

Petri recorded eight Busoni works between 1935 and 1938, one of which was unissued until the CD era, and these readings capture some of his most inspired playing. The Fantasia after J S Bach features rich, organ-like sonorities, with a reverberant bass and magical pedalling, the solemn harmonic progressions clear beneath a soaring melodic line, while the short Serenade is full of charm, its singing line, detached articulation and poised chordal voicing revealing Mozart’s inspiration. The Giga, bolero e variazione comes from a dub of a test pressing from Petri’s own collection: despite two takes having been listed in the recording ledgers, there were three separate pressings, marked ‘No’, ‘Bad’, and ‘Better—but not good’. Alan Leach taped the latter courtesy of the Petri family in the mid 1950s and this is the version included here (it is not known which ‘take’ this reading is). The playing is more than serviceable – there’s one slightly smudged passage—with wonderful dynamic and tonal control, a steady rhythmic pulse, and an operatic quality to the music-making.

The Sonatina No 3 is played with great clarity, with the melodic line distinct from accompaniment, while the Sonatina No 6 ‘super Carmen’ is played with tremendous lightness, even the rapid-fire octaves not sounding showy, but rather serving the music. The famous Bizet themes are attentively presented, with some dazzling runs and silky pedal effects. Indianisches Tagebuch 1’s more abstract writing is served by Petri’s tonal shadings and skilful characterization of the shifting moods while Albumblatt No 3’s solemn atmosphere is shepherded by Petri’s resonant bass and refined nuancing of dynamics and tone. The impressionistic flavour and harmonic shifts of Elegie No 2 ‘All’ Italia!’ are highlighted by Petri’s pedalling, impassioned phrasing and dramatic surges, with sparkling tone in upper registers.

American Columbia Recordings (1939–1951)
In 1939 Petri moved to the United States, where he wasted no time in contacting representatives for the US Columbia label referred to him by Legge. The pianist would record for the label from late 1939 until 1951 (a break between 1945 and 1951 was likely due to curtailed activities after a heart attack in 1946). Not all of these recordings reveal him at his most expressive: the acoustic in some of these discs is noticeably more wooden and constricted than their European counterparts, and Petri’s playing too seems at times somewhat lacking in warmth and expansiveness. It has been postulated that the pianist’s sudden departure from his native Europe after the invasion of Poland (where he had a home) for an unclear future in the US might have had an emotional impact that is discernible in his playing. But there is some remarkable pianism to be found, particularly in the post-War recordings, some of which are reissued here for the first time. Of particular interest are two sets of previously unissued Brahms recordings from 1945, a significant addition to Petri’s discography.

On 27 December 1939 Petri was in the studio with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and the great conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos to make his first recording on US soil (he had arrived just a few months previously): the Busoni transcription of the Liszt Rhapsodie Espagnole. This performance unites two meticulous and fiery performers in a reading that features impassioned, rhythmically vibrant playing from both soloist and orchestra. Even though the piano sounds somewhat set back from the orchestra, Petri’s glistening runs, subtle pedalling, and natural rubato are well captured.

Petri’s love of Bach and Beethoven is evidenced in his US recordings. He set down five Busoni transcriptions of Bach—four Chorale Preludes (all of which he would record again for Westminster in 1956) and the titanic Chaconne—though Petri’s rich sonority is compromised by the flat-sounding acoustic of the set. In this 15 June 1945 account of the Chaconne, his large-scale conception and attention to line show his penchant for putting the music before technique. The Chorale Preludes recorded on 26 June 1942 also suffer from dry sound, and the playing too is somewhat matter-of-fact. Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ is rather straightforward, both rhythmically and tonally, though In dir ist Freude has towering octaves and an organ-like sonority. In Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme Petri chooses rhythmic steadiness and light phrasing, whereas Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein features remarkable fingerwork and plenty of enthusiasm, even if at times the performance is less rhythmically precise.

A 15 June 1945 account of Beethoven’s Sonata No 6 in F, Op 10 No 2, is a more vibrant-sounding recording that captures Petri’s richness of tone combined with a rhythmic pulse and sensitively shaped phrasing. What a full-bodied sound, with idiomatic bursts of contrast, yet with subtle inflexions in equal measure! In his 14 March 1951 reading of the titanic ‘Hammerklavier’, the enormous scope of Petri’s pianism comes to light: the higher fidelity recording helps us to appreciate his varied tonal palette, subtle polyphonic voicing and his consistency and attention to harmonic shifts, both in detail and in the overall architecture of this massive composition.

Petri’s transcription recordings continue with an additional Beethoven work in the form of Liszt’s adaptation of Adelaïde, Op 46, recorded on 19 June 1945 with magnificent chordal playing and seamless phrasing. At his 16 March 1951 session Petri recorded seven Schubert/Liszt titles, six of which he had previously committed to disc in the 78rpm era, a day later also redoing the Schubert/Tausig Andantino and Variations in B minor, all of which appeared on the LP ‘Schubert in Transcription’. Petri’s playing is inspired, the improved acoustic revealing his subtle balancing and tone. Particularly noteworthy is Petri’s only recording of Der Erlkönig, with impassioned phrasing and remarkable dexterity and force (listening to those octaves, one would never guess that he was already 70 at the time of this recording).

Petri’s less overt emotionality at the keyboard may not make him seem the most natural choice for Chopin’s Op 28 Preludes, but while his tone is not well served by US Columbia’s recording technology, there is great beauty in this cycle, with subtle phrasing and some unexpected use of rubato (although in some of the Preludes he almost eschews such fluctuations). This is a highly individual reading with impressive fingerwork and some surprising touches.

The final disc in this compilation features a selection of Romantic works, of particular interest being some 1945 Brahms recordings issued here for the first time. A 19 June 1945 reading of Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat, Op 53, is not quite as idiomatic and free as the Preludes, with the rhythm being too rigid to successfully capture a dance-like feeling (once again the dry sound doesn’t do Petri’s tonal capacity justice), though the middle section is more impressive. The Franck Prélude, choral et fugue features some remarkably sensual phrasing, expansive bass sonority, refined dynamic control and a wonderful sense of ebb and flow. The Choral in particular has some breathtaking moments.

Petri’s readings of Brahms are—as with the Brahms Variations—direct, rich and powerful without becoming bogged down. The two Rhapsodies of Op 79 are forthright yet sensitive, rhythmically driven yet beautifully pedalled and filled with dramatic tension and a massive bass sonority, as is the Op 119 No 4 Rhapsody. On 15 and/or 19 June 1945, Petri recorded two sets of works that have been unissued until now: Brahms’ Four Ballades, Op 10 (which he later recorded for an Allegro LP in the 1950s), and the Six Pieces of Op 118. It is unclear why these readings were not sanctioned for release, as the playing is consistent with—if not better than—other recordings from this period. Most likely it was a purely commercial decision. Petri succeeds in highlighting Brahms’ harmonies with transparent voicing and a warm sonority that is clearly not quite captured in the acoustic of the recording.

In the Four Ballades, particularly noteworthy are the impeccably balanced chords in the first, whereas the second is a little straight in the outer sections while enjoying fluid phrasing in the middle. The third is notable for clear tone even in the loudest fortissimo and for the simultaneity of dynamic and tonal nuances, and if the opening of the fourth lacks some suppleness, the lilting accompaniment and semidetached phrasing balances with Petri’s magical highlighting of harmonic progressions.

The Op 118 set features more full-bodied playing, the opening A minor Intermezzo impressing with its rhythmic vitality. The A major Intermezzo has a disarming directness at odds with current performance practice, but often applied by Brahms’ contemporaries, while the weighty sonority of the Ballade in G minor is offset by judicious application of rubato and meticulous voicing. The scant pedalling in the Intermezzo in F minor helps Petri highlight the harmonic framework of the piece, while the Romanze in F features creative inner voicing with both lyrical lines and chords. The final E flat minor Intermezzo’s mysterious melodic line is judiciously pedalled and voiced with a wide array of colours, in contrast to the impassioned phrasing in the middle section of the work, a most satisfying close to this significant addition to the Petri discography.

After leaving US Columbia, Petri would go on to record three LPs for Allegro and five for Westminster, including another reading of the ‘Hammerklavier’ and three other Beethoven Sonatas. It appears that this ended up limiting what else he may have left us for posterity: in the late 1950s, when he was already approaching 80 (yet with many pianistic powers left intact, as evidenced by existing broadcast recordings), Petri wrote to Walter Legge suggesting a complete Beethoven Sonata cycle for EMI. Alas, Petri’s having recently recorded Beethoven Sonatas for Westminster led to Legge declining the pianist’s request—a true loss, as Petri had in fact played the entire cycle admirably well at the age of 79 in San Francisco.

Whatever else we might wish for in Egon Petri’s discography, the records we do have of this unique musical personality stand as a testament to his tremendous musicality and towering pianism.

Mark Ainley © 2015

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