Australian pianist William Murdoch (1888–1942) is almost forgotten today but was a major UK Columbia recording artist in the 1920s. A consummate musician, he was known as a chamber player as much as a soloist, as evidenced by many recordings, but was also the first pianist to record Beethoven’s 3rd piano concerto (acoustically in 1925). Amongst his solo recordings, pride of place must go to the two Beethoven sonatas which burst with energy and passion while never descending into superficiality. A little known and fascinating part of his legacy is his recording of the eight test pieces written for the National Piano Competition of 1928 organized by the Daily Express. This unique event was open to pianists of all abilities from beginner toRead more advanced and the specially commissioned pieces, by contemporary British composers, reflected these different levels. Murdoch’s recordings originally came with spoken commentaries on interpretation.
Murdoch’s exemplary pianism and intelligent musicianship consistently make themselves felt. The pianist himself singled out his 1927 Chopin Third Ballade as a favourite. One can hear why: his fluently impassioned yet thoughtfully parsed interpretations ebbs and flows with naturalness and inevitability. Murdoch’s solo Beethoven, however, proves this collection’s prize.
The two Beethoven 'named' sonatas are the most substantial works in Murdoch's Columbia discography and, despite the thin sound and shellac crackle, they stand up to scrutiny very well. The Pathétique opens in solemn and dramatic vein, with sufficient gravitas. The outer movements are briskly paced, with the finale sparkling and extrovert. I like the way the Adagio cantabile second movement is devoid of sentimentality, and the slightly faster tempo he adopts works well. The Appassionata has a wonderful sense of structure and is technically accomplished, with excitement running throughout. The drama of the outer movements is dispatched with burning intensity.
Murdoch draws a warm, rounded tone in the Chopin Berceuse, with the variations embroidered with diaphanous lace. The composer's Third Ballade has a convincing sense of shape, and is imbued with poetic expression. Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.12 is a muscular reading with the trills piercingly brilliant. It has to be one of the finest and most dazzling outings this popular piece has ever had. There are two renditions of the ubiquitous Prelude in C sharp minor by Rachmaninov from 1926 and 1931. Both are rhetorically eloquent, with the later one being in much better sound. The Debussy selection of three pieces showcases Murdoch's myriad tonal palette. The Albéniz and de Falla pieces are shot through with a convincing Iberian zest.