Eileen Joyce Complete Parlophone & Columbia Solo Recordings, 1933-45
Eileen Joyce (1912‑91) was an astonishing Australian child prodigy who was born in a tent, grew up in squalor and could not read or write until she was 12. Her story is the stuff of legend (it was even filmed under the title Wherever She Goes in 1951 starring Joyce as her older self). Glamorous and immensely popular, she would think nothing of playing three or even four concertos in one evening, wearing a different dress for each work. It was not for nothing that she was chosen to play Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto for the soundtrack of Brief Encounter. She gave her last recital in 1960, burnt out and disillusioned.
Of course, these 87 pieces were never designed to be heard in (roughly) chronological composer order, as here, in five sequences each lasting well over an hour, but listening to Joyce is strangely addictive. One cannot wait, as it were, to read the next chapter. She shares with Kreisler and Tauber the same unteachable ability to elevate the second-rate to the first-rate, and to illuminate familiar masterpieces with a convincing and unmistakable voice.
This is such a cornucopia of good things it is hard to know where to start, what to mention, what to omit. Disc 1 begins with a rarity (on piano, at least): Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV944. Apart from the typically unusual repertoire choice, one is immediately struck by an individual touch and sound, the kind of playing which might not suit all tastes but one to which one cannot listen with half an ear. Joyce’s deft, sparingly pedalled light touch, her nonchalant speed and fluency and a palpable enjoyment of the task in hand are characteristic of her approach as a whole, which serves well the dizzying pace of the Fugue in particular. It does, too, in Paradies’s Toccata, an elegantly paced account of Mozart’s Sonata facile and the Rondo in A major, K386, the latter conducted by Clarence Raybould in 1936 (her only other Parlophone recording with orchestra was Turina’s Rapsodia sinfonica with the same forces). Who else has taken up Mozart’s Suite, K399, and Schubert’s Andante in A major, D604? Not many. It is also uncommon to hear such unselfconscious repose as evinced by the two Chopin Nocturnes and Berceuse. Then there are the three Schumann pieces: in the last, ‘Stücklein’, No 1 of Bunte Blätter, you’ll hear the nearest thing to a string portamento on the piano.
And that is a brief overview of just the first CD.
Disc 2 has eight pieces by Brahms, a rare example of a composer to whom Joyce seems unconnected, but they come after 11 by Liszt. These alone make the set worth buying and include ‘La leggierezza’, her first recording (June 1933), originally coupled with Paul de Schlözer’s staggeringly difficult Etude in A flat, Op 1 No 2. It is undeniably one of the greatest piano discs ever made.
Sometimes you wish that she would dig into the keyboard more, but then in Rachmaninov’s D flat Prelude, Op 32 No 13, she overdoes it (frighteningly so); sometimes she simply plays too fast and her impeccable articulation disintegrates into a blur (the two Moszkowski pieces, d’Albert’s Scherzo). But the disappointments are few, vastly outweighed by such joyous and justly celebrated accounts of six of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, Palmgren’s En route and Fauré’s Impromptu No 2. Disc 5 and the last six tracks of disc 4 have her Columbia recordings. I cannot praise these too highly – I love the two exuberant Mozart sonatas – but it is Scriabin’s little E major Prelude and Chopin’s Etude in the same key that will persuade anyone who thinks of Joyce as a mere note-spinner of the fact that they are listening to a great artist.
The last time I enjoyed a set of CDs as much was one from the same label and was, by happy coincidence, devoted to Joyce’s compatriot Percy Grainger, who set her off on her fabulous career. Bryce Morrison, whose friend Eileen Joyce was, contributes an essay con amore; Mark Obert-Thorn is responsible for the superb transfers and compilation; Mike Spring has produced. Full marks all round for an early Award contender.