Charles Tomlinson GRIFFES (1884-1920)
Three Tone Pictures, Op.5 (1. The Lake at Evening [2:48]; 2. The Vale of Dreams [3:09]; 3. The Night Winds [1:56])
Fantasy pieces, Op.6 (4. Bacarolle [6:38]; 5. Notturno [5:56]; 6. Scherzo [4:21])
A Winter Landscape [5:23]
Piano Sonata [15:17]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Nocturne, Op.33 [3:37];
Ballade, Op.46 [5:15]
Piano Sonata, Op.26 [18:19]
Lodewijk Crommelin (Piano)
rec. 29-31 March, 31 July 2010, Koepelkerk in Renswoude, Netherlands.

Up until I received this disc the only work of Griffes that I knew was his Two Sketches based on Indian Themes of 1917 for string quartet. This was from a two CD set entitled Unknown String Quartets Vol.1 (VoxBox 1157742) a little treasure trove of undiscovered delights: see also Vol.2, (VoxBox 1157752) and Chamber Works by Women Composers (VoxBox 1157452) for a thrilling and surprising experience. Therefore I was intrigued by the prospect of hearing more by this American composer whose death at just 35 from influenza robbed us all of a real talent if this disc and the Sketches are anything to go by. These pieces are just so beautiful you want to replay them over and over again. Romantic? Certainly but so lush they are irresistible.

Before turning to composition Griffes had studied the piano and performed regularly as soloist, accompanist and chamber musician and it certainly shows in his writing. The composer who came most readily to mind on listening to these works was Szymanowski with even a whiff of Scriabin thrown in. There are piano works by Bax that have elements similar to those I found in these pieces. This is the case with all the works other than the Piano Sonata. They are so very evocative, coming as they do from the pen of a composer who also had a love of literature and poetry. The titles are poetic in nature, which led to their publisher encouraging Griffes to attach snatches of poems as if to help explain their origin. There is in fact no specific connection and certainly no need whatsoever to have their content explained. They are so totally expressive; their title is sufficient.

The Three Tone Pictures are truly delightful, short but so perfectly formed they need not a single extra note. The three Fantasy Pieces are slightly longer but just as brilliant in their economy, as is A Winter Landscape. The Piano Sonata dating from 1917-1918 is much more powerful. It is considered Griffes’ most original composition, regarded by some critics at the time as being a little too experimental for their liking; of course it doesn’t sound that way today. The Swiss pianist Rudolph Ganz, who had introduced both Debussy and Ravel to American audiences, said of the Sonata in 1918 that it was “... free from all foreign influences. He is going his own way ...” There had been a concerted attempt in the early years of the century, and even before, to establish an “American” sound. This was certainly achieved by the likes of Copland, Ives, William Schuman, and later by Bernstein. It continues with the minimalist school of Reich and Adams, but I’m not sure this sonata can be said to be a contribution to that. I can’t discern anything in it that is “American”. However, I appreciate it for what it is: a wonderful piano work which I’m sure will find favour with any lover of piano music.

Samuel Barber, by comparison with Griffes, is just about the most well known of all American composers, certainly of the last century. He continues to be so today. His first orchestral work was the Overture to the School for Scandal, completed at the age of 23. He was firm in his beliefs that the phase of atonality was one he did not want to pursue. In 1971 he wrote, “I think that what’s been holding composers back a great deal is that they feel they must have a new style every year. This, in my case would be hopeless ... I just go on doing, as they say, my thing. I believe this takes a certain courage.” How very true! It is probably the orchestration for string orchestra of the slow movement from his string quartet that has become one of the best known pieces of music for strings of all time. It regularly tops the charts of people’s favourite works. It is one of those pieces that people know though very often are unaware of who composed it. Barber’s music is generally very approachable and this certainly goes for his piano works. Those on this disc are a good example of them. Like Griffes’ works they are delicately beautiful and extremely atmospheric. Maybe the fact that he began as a singer helps explain this. Indeed, he wrote a lot of songs and choral music and the Nocturne and Ballade are full of ‘singing’ lines. This is so even though he was suffering from depression when he spent nine months composing the barely six minute long Ballade, though it does bear evidence of restlessness. The Sonata for Piano of 1948 is by contrast very ‘modern’ in sound. Like Griffes’ earlier sonata this is a powerful work that puts considerable demands on the pianist. Not that this would have presented any problem to Horowitz who premièred it in Havana in 1949. He said that despite its having been written “... in the modern idiom ... Barber has put warmth and a heart into the work that the ultra-modern compositions, with their mechanical pyrotechnics, lack”. It will, no doubt, come as a surprise to most people, as it did to me, that it was commissioned by none other than Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers. It took him two years to complete. It has its dissonant moments. Barber used twelve tone rows as a tool in the work though not to the same extent as those composers who wrote their works using that scale alone, like Schoenberg and Webern. It has found favour amongst pianists who enjoy the challenge of playing it. As the booklet explains, it fills a gap between the purely romantic and the avant-garde. It is a work that rewards repeated listening and one is left in an excited mood when the immensely powerful final Fuga: allegro con spirito comes to a thunderous conclusion. Anyone who, like me, knows too little of Barber’s piano music (48 opus numbers in total), is left wanting to hear more of this exciting and expressive music.

All the music on the disc is played with considerable power, panache and obvious reverence by Lodewijk Crommelin. It is to be hoped he will record more American piano works as there is much left to discover.

Steve Arloff

Considerable power, panache and obvious reverence.