GRIFFES Piano Music
Charles Tomlinson Griffes died in 1920 at the age of 35. He’d spent four years studying in Germany and came back to a teaching post near New York. His absorption of Strauss, Debussy and Scriabin into a personal idiom made him one of the most prominent American composers of the time. His work is grounded in the piano (he was a good pianist), and – with an important Piano Sonata to his credit – has something in common with John Ireland. But Griffes’s hypersensitive temperament drove him towards an expressionist idiom of sometimes excruciating power. I was only a few seconds into listening to this CD – the mesmeric repeated notes of ‘The Lake at Evening’ – when I realised it was going to be very special indeed. Hyperion’s immaculate piano sound helps, too. But Ohlsson’s phrasing is perfect: no exaggeration, simply rapturous harmonic textures projecting elegant melodies.
The main competition is from Michael Lewin in a 1996 two-CD set called ‘Complete Piano Music’ (now on Naxos); Lewin also bravely put on an all-Griffes programme at the Wigmore Hall in 2009. Griffes fans may have obtained that set, also containing arrangements, but Ohlsson has made his own selection in a generous 79 minutes. He scores over Lewin in his finely controlled continuity in the Sonata, always melodic and immaculately paced, and in the recorded quality. All Ohlsson’s much-admired distinction in the Romantic piano repertoire is on display here, and Griffes can never have sounded better.