COMPOSERS: Percy Grainger
WORKS: The Complete 78rpm Solo Recordings, 1908-1945
PERFORMER: Percy Grainger (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: APR 7501
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Regarding the Grainger legend, there’s only one conclusion to be drawn from this expertly transferred and written-up collection: it’s all true, and then some. The maverick Australian’s choice of recorded repertory is as idiosyncratic as expected, emphasising a small-ish number of individual works. Many turn up more than once, sometimes in strikingly different performances but, for all Grainger’s fabled impulsiveness, more often quite similar ones. Besides his own creations there are items by Bach, Handel, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Schumann, Debussy, Grieg – and others such as the Texas-born David Guion, whose ‘Turkey in the Straw’ was one of Grainger’s roguish party pieces. There are larger statements too, including complete sonatas by Chopin, Brahms and Schumann.
The earliest recordings date from 1908 – among them the cadenza from Grieg’s Piano Concerto, delivered by the 25-year-old Grainger with the supple, flickering poetry that was already a trademark. His playing impresses all the more for never needing to rush – witness a scintillating rendition of Debussy’s Toccata, made six years later. The distant, wrong-end-of-a-telescope perspective of these early acoustic recordings is more than truthful enough to appreciate the gorgeous sound that Grainger evidently conjured from a piano at will.
The later and clearer electrical transfers tell us more. In Schumann’s Second Sonata or Études symphoniques the searching expressiveness, like the virtuosity and verve, surely cannot have been surpassed. ‘Ramble on Love’, Grainger’s paraphrase of the finale of Der Rosenkavalier, and his last take on ‘Molly on the Shore’, recorded in 1945, are both remarkable for playing of phenomenal accuracy. And the expansiveness of Grainger’s Liszt-playing does similar justice to his choice of Grieg and Sinding items. They really don’t make pianists like this now. Let’s be thankful that, once upon a time, they sometimes did. Malcolm Hayes