Gunnar Johansen in Performance and Recording - The Artist Direct
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582 arranged by Gunnar Johansen [12:42]
Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Rondo in G major H.268 Wq.59/2 [3:23]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Après une lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi sonata (1837, rev. 1849) - Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) Deuxième Année: L’Italie (Second year: Italy) S161 (1838-49) [13:29]
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Variations and Fugue on Chopin’s Prelude in C minor, op. 22, K.213 [11:19]
Gunnar JOHANSEN (1906-1991)
Piano Sonata No.2 (‘Pearl Harbor Sonata’) (1941) [18:20]
Johann STRAUSS II ((1825 - 1899) - Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
Künstelerleben [12:39]
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Orfeo ed Euridice - Dance of the Blessed Spirits arranged by Ignaz Friedman (1762) [2:41]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Twelve Études (Studies), Op. 10 - G flat major, ‘Black Key’ Op. 10/5 (1829-32) [1:25]
Gunnar Johansen (piano)
rec. live and on disc

This is a promotional disc, unnumbered, issued by the Gunnar and Lorraine Johansen Charitable Trust and for more information about their work, and the recordings they produce, I suggest you contact the website above.

Johansen was a remarkable pianist. I’ve had the good luck hear a few of the many recordings issued and also to have managed to hear a private recording of a Beethoven cello sonata he gave with his eminent colleague C. Warwick Evans, cellist of the London String Quartet, in the early 40s at Wisconsin-Madison, where they were both then resident. Johansen had been appointed artist-in-residence there in 1939. This necessarily meant a diminution of his career as a travelling soloist, something he did not especially miss.

One of the Great Danes, Johansen (1906-1991) studied with Lamond in Berlin and then Petri, who considered Johansen the best of his pupils. Through Petri, Johansen met Busoni shortly before the latter’s death, and he performed his music extensively. In 1929 he moved to San Francisco, broadcasting weekly, something he continued for many years. He first recorded for Danish Columbia in 1928 but his central undertaking, between 1950 and 1986, was a total of 140 LP albums. His ‘home recording’ projects were astounding and protean; between 1950 and 1961 he recorded nearly the complete solo keyboard works of Bach. Over a somewhat longer period he did the same with Liszt. In 7 albums he recorded the mature solo works of Busoni, to whose memory he had remained devoted. He was also a prodigious composer, having 551 piano sonatas to his credit - he performs one in this disc - though one should add that only 31 were notated, the remainder being improvised onto tape, on which he recorded. He did nothing by halves.

The recordings presented here are but a snapshot of this volcanic productivity but they do nicely illustrate the most significant facets of his recorded art, as preserved. There are two of the 1928 78s. C P E Bach’s Rondo does indeed, as the notes aver, contain Horowitzian elements in its pert syntax and playful refinement. The Chopin Etude is a tantalising glimpse at his playing of the composer. He remembered that at these sessions his use of the pedal had been severely restricted by the recording technicians. The Bach-Johansen Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582 is an astounding edifice, played on his double-keyboard Bösendorfer. The use of the instrument imparts colossal sonorities and this powerful, sublime reading demonstrates awe-inspiring control, and poetry, and is hugely exciting.

It’s appropriate too that we can sample his Liszt in the form of Après une lecture de Dante which he recorded c.1946. The powerful conception is animated by a composer-recreationist mind, insights that reach into the vortex of the music with unremitting passion and sweep. Though the sound is only so-so it hardly matters so graven and impactful is the musicianship to be heard. And so it continues. The Busoni Variations and Fugue on Chopin’s Prelude in C minor attests to his promotion of Busoni and his acute structural imperatives when imparting such. The fugal section is crisp and directional.

The example of his own work is the Pearl Harbor sonata, completed a day before the attack in 1941. It’s in three movements. The first is urgent, portentous whilst the second is grim, the determined roulades persuasively placed, lyric moments present but fugitive. The finale’s jazz elements are gradually corralled into an increasingly terse argument, as if the vernacular elements in the music were being squeezed of life. Johansen apparently said of this movement that it was ‘dancing on a volcano’. The live performance generates strong applause. Finally we have the Strauss-Godowsky in which rubati and rhythmic charge are allied to panache.

My own hope is that the riches in this collection can gradually be issued. One appreciates it may be unrealistic to hope that all the recordings will be commercially available. But I do think that representative chunks of the Bach, Busoni and Liszt recordings - to begin with - should be available to admirers of this remarkable musician.

Jonathan Woolf