PERCY GRAINGER–The Complete 78-rpm Solo Recordings

Review by: Jed Distler

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 4

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Percy Grainger’s death, APR has brought out a five-disc compilation that contains the pianist’s complete 78-rpm recordings, many of which now appear for the first time on CD–or in any long-playing format for that matter.

Even in an era flush with keyboard luminaries, Grainger’s individuality stood out. True, he could be slapdash and cavalier at times, but the best of Grainger’s shellac efforts retain their vividness and communicative immediacy. Even if Grainger had never met and befriended Grieg, his interpretations of the composer still would bear an “authentic” imprimatur for their rhythmic verve, nervous energy, and bold projection of melodies. In other words, no “bon-bons wrapped in snow!”

When my late composer/pianist friend Robert Helps suggested that composer/pianists pay special attention to bass lines, he could have been discussing Grainger’s big-boned Bach transcription discs from 1931, or his highly-charged, polyphonically rich Chopin B minor sonata. By contrast, Grainger’s Chopin B-flat minor sonata comes off cautious and wooden next to the two composer/pianists who recorded it next, namely Godowsky and Rachmaninov. Grainger’s Schumann G minor sonata lacks the overall finesse of Mischa Levitski’s contemporaneous version, while the Symphonic Etudes, although solidly played, are workaday next to Alfred Cortot’s bolder, more ecstatic 1929 version.

Yet Grainger’s 1926 Brahms F minor sonata (the work’s first recording), if far from note-perfect, conveys impressive ardor and forward sweep, especially in the flexibly shaped Andante espressivo, not to mention a volcanic Scherzo that makes Julius Katchen’s volatility seem comparatively pale.

Of course Grainger “dishes up” his own music with great flair, and he knows better than anyone how to balance the tunes and thickets of inner voices in perfect perspective, even if he occasionally glosses over difficulties (the Jutish Medley, for instance). And it’s instructive to hear Grainger take his gorgeous “Blithe Bells” (based on Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze) at an ideal “walking” tempo, as opposed to modern pianists who drag on the side of caution.

Ward Marston’s realistic, properly pitched transfers are comparable to Seth Winner’s slightly fuller yet noisier restorations for several out-of-print Grainger collections. Donald Manildi’s meticulous programming, Grainger biographer John Bird’s annotations, and APR’s modest cost add further value to a long overdue and much welcome reissue.



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Recording Details:

Album Title: PERCY GRAINGER--The Complete 78-rpm Solo Recordings (1908-1945)
Reference Recording: None for this collection

Works by Grainger, Chopin, Debussy, Schumann, Brahms, Grieg, Bach, Liszt, Scott, others -

  • Percy Grainger (piano)

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