Regular readers know that this site is often used to draw attention to recordings of significant historical interest with particular attention to conductors and pianists. In the latter category the site has been well served by the British company Appian Publications & Recordings (APR), which has compiled valuable anthologies of recorded performances by pianists such as Myra Hess and Guiomar Novaes. Exactly two weeks ago APR released a seven-CD collection of all the solo and concerto recordings made by pianist Egon Petri on the Columbia and Electrola labels. These recordings were made between 1929 and 1951, based on sessions held in both the United Kingdom and the United States.
Petri’s name tends to be recognized by those with a fanatical interest in the history of keyboard performances but remains unfamiliar to just about everyone else. One possible way to describe him would be as the greatest pianist to be neglected by Harold C. Schonberg’s book The Great Pianists, which first appeared in 1963, the year after Petri died in Berkeley, California. (Schonberg names Beverley Hills as the city of his death.) However, Schonberg’s book was based heavily on articles written for HiFi/Stereo Review; and, while Petri clearly made a healthy number of recordings, most of them predated “high fidelity” technology.
For my part I first came to know Petri as one of the few pianists with a reputation for performing the music of Ferruccio Busoni. Indeed, his earliest teachers were Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Busoni; and, according to the author of his Wikipedia page, Petri “considered himself more of a disciple of Busoni’s than his student.” Petri’s repertoire was thus influenced by not only Busoni’s music but also those composers that most interested Busoni, such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Liszt. This led to a “second-order” interest in the art of transcription, which included Busoni’s reconceptions of Bach compositions for the modern keyboard and the many transcriptions and paraphrases that Liszt composed to further his own career as a recitalist. (It is thus no surprise that Busoni’s students in the United States included Earl Wild, who acquired similar respect and enthusiasm for the art of transcription.)
It would thus be fair to begin a discussion of the new APR collection with the generous number of Busoni selections, which consist primarily of original works, along with a few Bach arrangements (the best known being that of the Chaconne movement from the BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor) and even one arrangement of Liszt (his “Rhapsodie Espagnole”) for orchestra and solo piano. What often strikes listeners as problematic about Busoni is the thickness of his embellishments. In this respect Petri’s recordings are particularly valuable, because, even when confronted with limitations in recording technology, Petri always seemed to know how to reveal what was being embellished to the attentive listener.
That talent is equally effective in his performances of Liszt, particularly when they involve that composer’s own efforts at transcription or paraphrase. It is important to remember, for example, that Liszt’s transcriptions of songs by Franz Schubert tended to keep the words of the text in the score, even if the vocal line itself was no longer present explicitly. Petri plays these transcriptions as if he can hear the vocalist in his own mind. The result is that those listeners familiar with Schubert are just as likely to hear that voice, albeit only in a virtual sense.
However, Busoni and Liszt are far from the only pillars that supported Petri’s recital programming. He brought particular sensitivity to his interpretations of piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven. Indeed, his talent for distinguishing the embellished from the embellishing served him particularly well in the recording of the Opus 111 sonata in C minor, whose approach to variations in the second Arietta movement remains one of the most imposing challenges in mastering the Beethoven repertoire.
A similar capacity for perception can be found in his approach to Johannes Brahms, particularly in that composer’s own approach to variations on themes by George Frideric Handel (Opus 31) and Niccolò Paganini (Opus 35), respectively. Frédéric Chopin, on the other hand, receives far less attention, although all of the Opus 28 preludes are included in this collection. Far more interesting is Petri’s interpretation of César Franck’s Opus 21 with its three movements of prelude, chorale, and fugue. Petri plays this with that same unerring sense of embellishment and counterpoint that distinguishes his approaches to Bach and Busoni.
The orchestral recordings in this collection are far more modest. The “Rhapsodie Espagnole” performance is the only one recorded in the United States, with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. The other recordings are with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Leslie Howard conducts two Liszt selections, the second piano concerto in A major and the fantasia of themes from Beethoven’s incidental music for The Ruins of Athens. The remaining performance is of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 (first) concerto in B-flat minor with Walter Goehr conducting.
Petri continued to give public performances during the last years of his life. Music & Arts Programs of America released a three-CD collection of recordings from both concerts and broadcasts made between 1954 and 1962. This is, in many ways, a first-rate “continuation of the story” told by the new APR release. However, the shear size of that new release makes it a major addition for both those familiar with Petri’s work and those who know about him only through hearsay and rumor.