Grainger plays Bach and Chopin

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Grainger plays Bach and Chopin

  • Preludes and Fugues, Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV543
  • Toccata and Fugue
  • Preludes and Fugues, Prelude (Fantasia) and Fugue in G minor, BWV542
  • Sonata for Piano No. 2, 'Funeral March'
  • Sonata for Piano No. 3
  • (27) Etudes, B minor, Op. 25/10

''Do you know Chopin's Third Sonata? You don't? Well, I'll play it for you: it goes like this.'' And so the great virtuoso took to the keys, without recourse to the printed text, without troubling over the odd dropped note, or smudged chord, or rhythmic miscalculation. Utterly enraptured, he was his own audience—he and a close friend.
If ever any recordings reflected this fictional scenario, then Percy Grainger's must rank high among them. But if you're at all curious, make sure that you try the B minor Sonata first. Although taken from very early electrical 78s, it serves as an impressive sampling of prime Grainger caught on the wing—an epic, surging edifice, pliable in the extreme, with fistfuls of invading counterpoint crowding the top line and immense rhythmic vitality. Grainger sweeps all before him, rambling enthusiastically about the first movement's exposition, charging through the Scherzo's outer sections, imbuing the Largo with operatic expressiveness and storming the finale with Lisztian exuberance. There are split chords and wrong notes galore—in fact all manner of eccentricities and imperfections that you'd expect of a spontaneous, unrehearsed performance—but it's all so alive, so honest.
The B flat minor Sonata, recorded three years later, is at once more wilful and less convincing. Here Grainger opts for bruising emphases and rhetorical hesitations (try the Scherzo); splayed chords again abound, but rather than enhance the mood (as they do in the B minor), they tend merely to sound arch and affected. It's a choppy reading—clipped one minute, sloppy the next. But then, had we been given just the B minor and loved it, the very existence of Grainger's B flat minor would have aroused our curiosity, even hunger. At least this way, we have instant access to both—plus an intense, tough-fisted account of the great B minor Study.
As if all this isn't enough, Biddulph additionally treat us to three major Bach organ works refashioned for piano by Liszt and Grainger himself. Two of the three items—plus part of the third— were recorded on a single October day in 1931, the rest two days later. The playing itself is dazzling in its brilliance and chest-swelling grandeur. The bold textual embellishments in Grainger's vision of the D minor Toccata and Fugue recall Stokowski's equally extravagant orchestral transcription (the two men actually recorded together), while Liszt's Gothic-style realization of the G minor Fantasia has all the granitic austerity of his own Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H. Grainger despatches these, plus the A minor Prelude and Fugue, with a winning combination of integrity and fervour, and Ward Marston's admirably quiet transfers deliver a clean body of piano tone.
This is the sort of piano playing that only the most courageous virtuosos dared to imagine, and only the most gifted could actually execute. Do try to hear it.'

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