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Egon Petri (piano): The Complete Columbia and Electrola Solo and Concerto Recordings 1929-1951
APR 7701 [7 CDs: approx 9:00:00]

Quite why Egon Petri’s reputation never achieved the high profile of some of his contemporaries is surprising when one hears the quality of performance offered here. Maybe his modest, self-effacing manner, never seeking publicity, gives us part of the answer. In his book ‘The Great Pianists’ Harold Schonberg states that Petri was ‘a superb technician, and a musician of intellect, refinement and strength.’

I have long been a devotee, treasuring my 4 CD set of concert and broadcast performances (1954-1962) released over twenty years ago by Music and Arts (CD-772). Then there’s the well-worn Hammerklavier LP on Westminster – another old friend. In the early nineties APR released three 2-CD sets of Petri’s recordings set down between 1929-1942. Now they have corralled these together, adding some the pianist made for American Columbia between 1943 and 1951, into this 7 CD box, where the recordings are presented more or less chronologically.

Egon Petri (1881-1962) was born in Hannover, Germany of Dutch parentage. Both parents were musicians. His father, who at one time led the Gewandhaus Orchestra under Arthur Nikisch, had been a pupil of Joachim. Egon’s musical abilities showed themselves early. He became proficient on the violin, horn and organ, but it was the piano that eventually won out, with the encouragement of Paderewski and Busoni. His teachers included Ferruccio Busoni, who was also a family friend. In 1905, Petri succeeded Wilhelm Backhaus as Professor of Piano at the Royal Manchester College of Music. In addition to teaching he forged a parallel career as a performer with repertoire focusing on Bach and Beethoven. By 1911 he was beginning to feel hemmed in by what he saw as his provincial existence in Manchester. He aspired to an international career. He went on to combine teaching and playing on the Continent with a post in Berlin at the Hochschule für Musik and, from 1925 to 1939, taught in Poland. When war broke out he fled to the States, where he taught in Boston and New York. In 1946 a heart attack compelled him to give up concertizing and concentrate solely on teaching in California. Egon Petri’s students included Victor Borge, Eugene Istomin, John Ogdon, Ruth Slenczynska and Earl Wild.

From March 1951 comes Petri’s first recording of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. He recorded it again for Westminster in 1958, one of five LPs he made for the label. Comparing the two recordings I noticed that they are cast in the same interpretive vein, with similar tempi. They are big-boned readings with a compelling sense of structure and architecture. The later Westminster recording is in better sound, with a deeper sonic perspective. There are four Beethoven Sonatas included from 1935-1937: nos. 14, 24, 27 and 32, and no. 6 from June 1945. Petri’s affinity with the composer is evident in these captivating and persuasive accounts. He never imposes his personality on the music but lets everything emerge naturally and speak for itself. The only sonata I would take issue with is the briskly rendered Op. 27 No. 2, so called Moonlight, whose first movement I found rather prosaic. Late in his life, Petri asked Walter Legge if he could record a complete Beethoven cycle for EMI, but was turned down – a regrettable loss.

Although he generally tended to shun virtuoso showpieces in favour of a more intellectual approach to repertoire, there are some impressive Liszt recordings to be found in his discography. He was not one for technical exercises, preferring to isolate problems from the music and work out the solution in the context of a particular piece. He had large hands, an advantage in Liszt playing, and could span an eleventh. Whatever his methods, his technique was prodigious, and the Liszt works here showcase his outstanding virtuosity. The Verdi/Liszt Rigoletto paraphrase is every bit as fine as the stunning account by Byron Janis. Ricordanza from the Transcendental Etudes, which Busoni described as ‘faded love letters’, is both wistful and melancholic, and doesn’t resort to sentimentality. His sensitive pedalling imbues it with a wealth of tonal colour. Likewise Un sospiro is awash with rich sonorities. Mazeppa is a virtuosic tour de force with dazzling octaves and dexterous runs, a performance which truly evokes the dark, demonic undercurrents. The Gounod/Liszt Valse from Faust is a delight, displaying some pristine filigree finger-work. I’m pleased we have the less well-known Beethoven/Liszt Adelaïde transcription. Unfortunately it doesn’t match the version by Joseph Villa, whose lyricism and poetic insights are unequalled in this piece. Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 shows Petri on top form technically. More intimate than the First Concerto, the section between piano and solo cello in the second movement is captured exquisitely. The success of the recording is also attributable to the sympathetic conducting of Leslie Heward.

As a Busoni pupil Petri acquired a formidable technique and outstanding intellectual interpretive ability. He played a substantial role in championing the master’s compositions, whether it be in concert or in the studio. As well as original Busoni works, there are several Bach/Busoni arrangements, including the perennial Chaconne. A monumental performance of great nobility and grandeur, Petri negotiates the ebb and flow of the work infusing it with power and drama. The four Chorale Preludes are equally well-managed, imaginatively phrased, yet have a striking simplicity and directness. He savours the charm of the Sonatina super Carmen, injecting zest and brio. It contains a plethora of recognizable melodies and proves an enjoyable listen. The Elegie No. 2 ‘All’ Italia is exhilarating and is delivered with verve and vigour. The Liszt/Busoni Rhapsodie Espagnole is a scintillating tour de force, ably partnered by the inspirational Dimitri Mitropoulos, another of the composer’s pupils.

Brahms is represented by two sets of variations, both set down in Abbey Road London. They lie a year apart, the Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel, Op. 2 from June 1938, and the Variations on a theme by Paganini, Op. 35 recorded a year earlier in 1937. Both give testimony to Petri’s technical prowess, with the Paganini certainly giving Michelangeli a run for his money. The remaining works by Brahms were recorded in the States. Petri’s Brahms is notable for the outstanding musicianship which informs the readings. The only disappointment is the A major Intermezzo, Op. 118 No. 2, which is rather four-square and pedestrian. The Ballade in G minor, which follows it has plenty of energy, gusto and passion, and couldn’t be bettered.

Petri’s Chopin Preludes don’t work for me. The performance lacks the poetry, elegance and eloquence of Cortot. No. 10 in C sharp minor is heavy handed, and the famous ‘Raindrop’ is matter of fact. Listening to No. 21 in B flat, you get the impression he was playing it under protest. The Tchaikovsky Concerto is serviceable; Walter Goehr doesn’t exactly inspire the soloist or his players to lofty heights.

The twenty-three page booklet notes include comprehensive track-listings and contributions from Bryan Crimp and Mark Ainley, which provide a biographical portrait of the pianist plus detailed background and context to the recordings. The excellent re-masterings have been carried out by Mark Obert-Thorn, whose source material includes the three 2-CD sets I have already mentioned, transferred by Bryan Crimp and published by APR in 1992-1994. Also included are some more recent transfers by Seth Winner for IPAM of American Columbias. Credit goes to Obert-Thorn for the transfer of the Bach/Busoni Chaconne, the Chopin Preludes and the Brahms Rhapsodies (American Columbias). These transfers breathe new life and vitality into this valuable recorded legacy.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

Full track-listing

CD 1 [76:25]
Electrola Recordings 1929-1930
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Waltz in a Flat Major, Op. 42
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Paganini Étude No. 5 in E Major, S141/5
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) (arr. Liszt)
Der Fliegende Holländer - Spinning Chorus, S440
Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828) (arr. Liszt)
Die Forelle
Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen, S558, No. 2
Liebesbotschaft, S560/10
English Columbia Recordings 1935-1938
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) (arr. Petri)
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787) (arr. Sgambati)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 24 in F sharp major, Op. 78
Piano Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111

CD 2
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor Op. 27/2
Franz Peter SCHUBERT (arr. Tausig)
Andantino and Variations in B Minor
Franz Peter SCHUBERT (arr. Liszt)
Der Lindenbaum, S561/7
Gretchen Am Spinnrade, S558/8
Soirée de Vienne No. 6 in a Major, S427/6
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) (arr. Liszt)
Rigoletto Paraphrase, S434
Valse De L'opera Faust, S407
Un Sospiro
Fantasia On Beethoven's, 'Ruins of Athens', S122

CD 3
Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S125
London Philharmonic Orch/Leslie Heward
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23
London Philharmonic Orch/Walter Goehr
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel, Op. 2

CD 4
Johannes BRAHMS
Variations on a theme by Paganini, Op. 35
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Fantasia After J.S. Bach, BV253
Giga, Bolero E Variazione
Sonatine No. 3 Ad Usum Infantis, BV268
Sonatina No. 6 Super Carmen, BV284
Indianisches Tagebuch 1, BV 267
Albumblatt No. 3, 'In Der Art Eines Choralvorspiels', BV289/3
Elegie No. 2, 'All' Italia!', BV249/2
American Columbia Recordings 1939-1951
Franz LISZT (arr. Busoni)
Rhapsodie Espagnole
Minneapolis Symphony Orch/Dimitri Mitropoulos

CD 5 [76:44]
Johann Sebastian BACH (arr. Busoni)
Ich Ruf' Zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV639
In Dir Ist Freude, BWV615
Wachet Auf, Ruft Uns Die Stimme, BWV645
Nun Freut Euch, Lieben Christen G'mein, BWV734a
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Piano Sonata No. 6 in F major, Op. 10 No. 2
Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, ‘Hammerklavier’, Op. 106

CD 6 [78:04]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (arr.Liszt)
Adelaïde, Op. 46, S466
Franz Peter SCHUBERT (arr. Liszt)
Die Forelle, S564
Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen, S558, No. 2
Gretchen Am Spinnrade, S558/8
Der Lindenbaum, S561/7
Der Erlkönig, S558/4
Liebesbotschaft, S560/10
Soirée de Vienne No. 6 in a Major, S427/6
Andantino and Variations in B Minor
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Preludes, Op. 28

CD 7 [75:13]
Frédéric CHOPIN
Polonaise in a Flat Major, Op. 53
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Prélude Choral et Fugue
Johannes BRAHMS
Rhapsody in B Minor, Op. 79, No. 1
Rhapsody in G Minor, Op. 79, No. 2
Rhapsody in E Flat Major, Op. 119, No. 4
Four Ballades, Op. 10
Six Pieces, Op. 118



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