William Murdoch (piano)
The Complete Columbia Solo Electrical Recordings
APR 6029 [76:09 + 77:37]
William Murdoch (1888-1942) is perhaps best known today for his chamber music collaborations, which have somewhat overshadowed his solo career and solo recordings. Until this release came along, I was only aware of him through his partnerships with violinists Albert Sammons and Arthur Catterall, violist Lionel Tertis, and cellists Lauri Kennedy and W. H. Squire. In 1919 he featured in the première of Elgar's Piano Quintet. By all accounts, the recording process, and inevitable engineering tweaking, left him cold and dissatisfied. His two Beethoven Sonata recordings were set down in an empty Wigmore Hall, as he figured this would provide a more natural sound. The lion's share of his solo recordings, mainly short pieces, were made for Columbia between 1917-1931, so his initial discs were made using the acoustic process. What we have here is his complete electrical legacy, made between 1925 and 1931. In 1932 he transferred to Decca.
He began life in Australia, and it wasn't until he was eleven that he became interested in the piano. When he did start lessons, he took to the instrument as a duck takes to water, and progress was rapid. After a spell at Melbourne's Conservatorium of Music, he won a scholarship in 1906 which enabled him to study at the Royal College of Music in London with Fritz Hartvigson. He must have made quite an impression, as Sir Hubert Parry described him as one of the most 'gifted' and 'charming’ students he had encountered. His career was launched in 1910. In the 1920s he undertook several tours of Europe, the USA and Australia. He later became a professor at the Royal Academy of Music.
The two Beethoven 'named' sonatas are the most substantial works in Murdoch's Columbia discography and, despite the thin sound and shellac crackle, they stand up to scrutiny very well. The Pathétique opens in solemn and dramatic vein, with sufficient gravitas. The outer movements are briskly paced, with the finale sparkling and extrovert. I like the way the Adagio cantabile second movement is devoid of sentimentality, and the slightly faster tempo he adopts works well. The Appassionata has a wonderful sense of structure and is technically accomplished, with excitement running throughout. The drama of the outer movements is dispatched with burning intensity.
Murdoch draws a warm, rounded tone in the Chopin Berceuse, with the variations embroidered with diaphanous lace. The composer's Third Ballade has a convincing sense of shape, and is imbued with poetic expression. Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.12 is a muscular reading with the trills piercingly brilliant. It has to be one of the finest and most dazzling outings this popular piece has ever had. There are two renditions of the ubiquitous Prelude in C sharp minor by Rachmaninov from 1926 and 1931. Both are rhetorically eloquent, with the later one being in much better sound. The Debussy selection of three pieces showcases Murdoch's myriad tonal palette. The Albéniz and de Falla pieces are shot through with a convincing Iberian zest.
In 1928 there was a national piano-playing competition organised by the Daily Express, in cooperation with several musical organizations. Its aim was to encourage people to play the piano at home rather than just listening to recordings. Contemporary British composers supplied the repertoire. Murdoch recorded all of the music and supplied spoken explanations. All ten test pieces are included here, minus the explanations. We begin with the sprightly frolickings of Adam Carse's Miniature Scherzo. Legend by Ernest Markham Lee paints a genial English pastoral scene, whilst Orlando Morgan’s Le bal poudre, one of the best of the pieces, is a genteel dance. Alec Rowley's The Rambling Sailor has a nautical flavour. We end with the swirling cascades and sparkling virtuosity of John Ireland's Sonatina third movement. I was interested to discover that Kathleen Ferrier had entered the competition and was one of the 72 finalists who won an upright piano.
Some of the recordings from the earliest days of the electrical process i.e. 1925-1926, were recorded at an extremely low level and this, in combination with surface noise, seriously compromises the sound quality. The producer, Mike Spring, experienced difficulty sourcing pristine copies of some discs. So, some sides are quite noisy, others suffer from a ‘boxy’ acoustic. Fortunately this is confined to only a few of the sides. Nevertheless, these recordings constitute aural documents of significant historical importance, and I’m immensely thankful to APR for making them available.
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf
Albeniz, Isaac; Iberia, Book 1; II El puerto
Bach, Johann Sebastian; Chorale Prelude BWV645 'Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme' (arr. Busoni)
Beethoven, Ludwig van: Piano Sonata no.8 in C minor, op.13 'Pathetique'
Beethoven, Ludwig van; Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor, op.57 'Appassionata'
Bowen, York; Reverie in B major, op.86
Brahms, Johannes; Waltzes (16), op.39; no.15 in A flat major
Carse, Adam; Miniature Scherzo
Chopin, Frederic; Ballades (4); no.3 in A flat major, op.47
Chopin, Frederic; Berceuse in D flat major, op.57
Chopin, Frederic; Etudes (12), op.25; no.1 in A flat major
Chopin, Frederic; Waltzes (19) no.4 in F major, op.34 no.3
Debussy, Claude; Preludes (12), Book 1 no.5 Les collines d'Anacapri, no.12 Minstrels: Preludes (12), Book 2 no.5 Bruyeres
Dunhill, Thomas; Dew Fairies
Dyson, George; Primrose Mount for Piano
Falla, Manuel de; Piezas Espanolas (4) no.2 Cubana, no.4 Andaluza
Grieg, Edvard;Pictures from Life in the Country (3), op.19 no.2 Brudefolget drar forbi (Wedding Procession)
Ireland, John; Sonatina III Rondo
Lee, Ernest Markham; Legend
Liszt, Franz; Grandes Etudes (6) de Paganini, S141 no.3 in G sharp minor 'La campanella'
Liszt, Franz; Hungarian Rhapsodies (19), S244 no.12 in C sharp minor
Liszt, Franz; Liebesträume, S541 no.3 Nocturne in A flat major
Liszt, Franz; Lieder (12) von Franz Schubert, S558 no.9 Standchen von Shakespeare
Mendelssohn, Felix; Songs without Words (Lieder ohne Worte): Book 3, op.38 no.6 in A flat major
Mendelssohn, Felix; Songs without Words (Lieder ohne Worte): Book 5, op.62 no.6 in A major 'Fruhlingslied'
Morgan, Robert Orlando;Le Bal poudre
Paderewski, Ignacy Jan; Minuet in G major, op.14 no.1
Rachmaninov, Sergei; Morceaux de Fantasie, op.3 no.2 Prelude in C sharp minor
Rachmaninov, Sergei; Preludes (10), op.23 no.5 in G minor
Rachmaninov, Sergei; Preludes (13), op.32 no.12 in G sharp minor
Rowley, Alec; The Rambling Sailor
Schubert, Franz; Marches militaires (3), op.51 D733 no.1 in D major (arr. Carl Tausig for solo piano)
Schumann, Robert; Romances (3), op.28 no.2 in F sharp major
Sibelius, Jean; Valse triste, op.44 no.1 (solo piano)
Swinstead, Felix; Serenata
Walthew, Richard; Sun and Shade