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William Murdoch (piano)
The Complete Columbia Solo Electrical Recordings
rec. 1925-1931
APR 6029 [76:09 + 77:37]

Though it’s largely true, as APR’s jewel case comments, that William Murdoch is ‘almost forgotten today’ it’s not been the case that his recordings have been entirely overlooked. It’s just that, with the exception of the Pearl CD devoted to him, which contained both the Beethoven sonatas here as well as the Archduke Trio (Pearl GEMM0044), they have concentrated on chamber music. Thus, the boutique label Historic Records, a number of whose discs have been reviewed on this site, contain a number of his 78s with esteemed colleagues but not his solo discs. This is where APR steps into the breach by focusing on his Columbia solo electrics. It also raises hopes – at least it does for me – that they will go on to disinter his acoustics, especially his first ever recording of Beethoven’s C minor Concerto with Hamilton Harty. Who knows, they may even visit his Deccas too.

As always in APR’s recent recordings the recordings are not presented chronologically but are grouped by composer or largely thematically. Preservation of surface noise ensures the sound is open and convincing. Murdoch combined a lyric singing tone with rhythmic vitality. His Mendelssohn is sensitively shaped though the Spring Song sounds to have had more noise suppression than its disc-mate the Duetto (perhaps the copy used was played more). In any case it sounds a bit hollow, though the performance is characteristically convincing. Murdoch wrote a book on Chopin and there are four examples of the composer’s music here. His Etude has an unostentatious sense of relaxation, though annotator Jonathan Summers complains of his ‘Viennese rhythm’ in the Waltz in F major – it’s that stuttering quality. The Ballade No.3 was one of Murdoch’s favourite recordings and it’s beautifully shaped. He invariably preferred being recorded in the Wigmore Hall, a choice that is often printed on the labels of his 78s and whilst this relaxed him – it was a home-from-home – I sometimes find these in situ recordings just a little distant in terms of presence, though never damagingly so.

One can admire his subtle rubati in Liszt’s Liebesträume No.3 – it’s not an effusive performance and it’s known he was not over-keen on the composer’s music. He recorded the Hungarian Rhapsody No.12 three years before Mark Hambourg for HMV, who recorded them all (also on an APR release) and shows his affinity with Brahms, on whom he also wrote a book, in the sole solo electric Columbia gave him. Decca did better for him in that respect. In 1931 he was given a popular Nordic brace to record, Grieg’s Norwegian Bridal Procession and Sibelius’ Valse triste and one can find, scattered throughout the period of the electrics a quartet of Rachmaninov pieces, though the 1931 Prelude in C sharp minor is a remake of the earlier 1926 version.

His Debussy, of which he recorded three pieces from the books of Preludes, is clear, concise and cogent and 23 November 1925 was clearly a Franco-Iberian day as in addition to two of the Debussy pieces he also recorded some Albéniz and Falla. Two of the most compelling reasons to investigate this twofer however lie in the Beethoven sonatas, the Pathétique and the Appassionata. The former is lithe and vital, its opening movement far more kinetic than Backhaus, Kempff or Schnabel – though Lamond in 1926 is almost as fast - reminding the listener of his similarly rhythmically vivid recording of the Kreutzer Sonata that he made around the same time with his long-standing sonata partner, Albert Sammons. Tonally he is never splintery, always rounded, eloquent in the slow movement, purposeful in a nobly lyric way and full of brilliance in the finale. Even at speed he is tremendously articulate and always clear, never gabbled. Op.57 is similarly compelling, taken at a fast basic pulse, though Lamond’s recording made two months later for HMV is faster still, but controlled via excellent rhythm, with breadth and depth of tone. In the slow movement at around 3:52 he makes a slight rallentando into the end of the side – the join is tricky – and drives into a passionate and exceptionally vivid finale. These are amongst the most clarity-conscious but brilliantly articulated Beethoven sonata performances of the pre-war period.

Lovers of British music minutiae will also be interested in this release as one finds, in their totality, the ten pieces he recorded in June 1928 for the Daily Express National Piano Playing Competition. The intention was to encourage people to play music at home and not to rely on the gramophone or wireless - though ironically perhaps they used recorded music to instruct the player how to perform it at home. Each disc carried Murdoch’s spoken explanations of interpretation and technique, as Jonathan Summers notes in his erudite booklet essay, though for reasons of space none has been included. These are amongst the rarest of Murdoch’s recordings. The music was composed specifically for the competition and the raft of names, bigger and smaller, ranges from George Dyson, York Bowen and John Ireland to Orlando Morgan and Adam Carse. It’s a charming sequence and the highlights are the typically expressive Bowen Reverie, Alec Rowley’s droll The Rambling Sailor, and the Rondo from Ireland’s Sonatina. As Summers notes, it makes one wish Murdoch had recorded more British music; my Ireland wish list would have included the Trios, the Piano Sonata, the First Violin Sonata and the Piano Concerto (he accompanied Sammons and Arthur Catterall in abridged recordings of the Second Violin Sonata).

I don’t know of any surviving live broadcast material but if such exists it would make for rewarding listening, I’m sure. In the meantime - and here I reprise my hope for the acoustic Columbias, the Deccas and also the private recording on the Prowse upright of the Rachmaninov Prelude in C sharp minor - this excellently presented twofer, two CDs priced as for one, sits firmly and rightly in APR’s restoration series.

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

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