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Griffes: Piano Music / Garrick Ohlsson

Griffes / Ohlsson
Release Date: 05/14/2013 
Label:  Hyperion   Catalog #: 67907   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Charles Tomlinson Griffes
Performer:  Garrick Ohlsson
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 19 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

GRIFFES Piano Sonata. Three Tone-Pictures. Fantasy Pieces. Roman Sketches. De profundis. A Winter Landscape. Three Preludes Garrick Ohlsson (pn) HYPERION 67907 (79:04)

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920), a promiscuous young New Yorker, took the obligatory trip to Europe to study music and returned an avid follower of the French Impressionist school, even though his studies took place in Berlin under Engelbert Humperdinck. A considerable Read more pianist, Griffes wrote idiomatically and effectively for the piano but most of his work would not exist without the towering example of Debussy. Whole-tone scales, distinctive use of the instrument’s extremes and of the sustain pedal, parallel chords, frequent ostinatos in the right hand: All these fingerprints of the French master are present in Griffes’s tone pictures, and are deployed with considerable sophistication to create his scenic impressions.

I have seen Griffes referred to as “The American Impressionist,” and some writers claim he had a special take of his own on the French style, but frankly I don’t hear any great individuality. Perhaps his themes are more diatonic than those of the Gallic masters? Regardless, “Clouds” from the Roman Sketches is entirely indebted to Debussy’s Images ; “The Night Winds” from the Three Tone-Pictures closely resembles “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest” from Debussy’s Preludes; the tolling bell throughout “The Lake at Evening” from the Three Tone-Pictures recalls “Le gibet” from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit , and there are umpteen more examples. This is the work of a young man of skill and promise, besotted with a brand new musical language and anxious to make immediate use of it. Griffes composed all these works between 1910 and 1919, less than a decade after the models he so capably emulates.

His two most familiar pieces are “The White Peacock” from Roman Sketches (which is better known and even more striking in the composer’s orchestral version) and the Piano Sonata. The latter was one of his final works; only the three sparsely textured Preludes postdate it. It is also his most ambitious piano composition, lasting 14 minutes in three substantial movements, and here the composer finally stretches his wings. While he incorporates many of the pianistic devices of his earlier music, he also finds a new strength, energy and impetus. Certain passages, such as an eerily evocative section of the third movement, display a budding Modernist sensibility. On the basis of his sonata it is clear Griffes would have matured into a major 20th-century voice, had he not succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 35.

We have not seen an overabundance of recorded competition in this repertoire. A two-CD set of Griffes’s piano music appeared from Naxos in 1999/2000 played by Michael Lewin, an American pianist who specializes in music of this era. His extra disc is filled out by some juvenilia, plus transcriptions the composer made of his orchestral works and those of his teacher Humperdinck. General consensus is that Lewin is too heavy-handed (if you put any faith in online forums). Fanfare did not review the Lewin set; our critics tended to like a recording of the sonata by the English pianist Peter Lawson (on Virgin), fascinatingly coupled with sonatas by Ives and Sessions. Indeed, Lawson is very good but Ohlsson is in another league. A true virtuoso, he has the power to play the sonata without forcing his tone, and the subtle delicacy so crucial to the success of the tone pictures. He lavishes the same affection, detail, and technical polish on this music as he would if it was actually the work of Debussy or Ravel, and his piano has been atmospherically recorded. This is now the Griffes edition of choice. If you agree that the world sorely needs more musical Impressionism, snap it up.

For true diehards, a recent reissue of excellent 1950s Mercury recordings has restored to us Griffes’s orchestrations of “The White Peacock,” “Clouds,” the Bacchanale from the Fantasy Pieces , and his orchestral masterpiece The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (Pristine Audio PASC315), performed by Howard Hanson and the Eastman Rochester Symphony Orchestra.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott
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Works on This Recording

Tone Pictures (3) for Piano, Op. 5 by Charles Tomlinson Griffes
Performer:  Garrick Ohlsson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1911-1912; USA 
Sonata for Piano, A 85 by Charles Tomlinson Griffes
Performer:  Garrick Ohlsson (Piano)
Period: Modern 
Written: 12/1917-01/1918; United States of Ame 
Roman Sketches (4), Op. 7 by Charles Tomlinson Griffes
Performer:  Garrick Ohlsson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1915-1916; USA 
Preludes (3) for Piano by Charles Tomlinson Griffes
Performer:  Garrick Ohlsson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1919; USA 
Fantasy Pieces (3) for Piano, Op. 6 by Charles Tomlinson Griffes
Performer:  Garrick Ohlsson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1912-1915; USA 
De profundis by Charles Tomlinson Griffes
Performer:  Garrick Ohlsson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1915; USA 
A Winter Landscape by Charles Tomlinson Griffes
Performer:  Garrick Ohlsson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1912; USA 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Profoundly Beautiful June 13, 2013 By Andrew F. (Brockton, MA) See All My Reviews "When I heard Griffes' Piano Sonata for the first time in the 80s, I knew it was one of the three most important American piano sonatas of the 20th Century (the other two being the Barber Sonata and the “Concord” Sonata of Charles Ives). The pianist I heard then was a seemingly obscure Brit named Clive Lythgoe; this seemed to be his only recording for a major label (Philips), and it has never been released on CD. What was remarkable about this version was Lythgoe’s assertion that Griffes had been influenced by jazz; there can be no doubt that since the composer was living in New York at the time he composed this masterwork, he was probably exposed to it. Since then, I have listened to many CD versions of the Sonata subsequently released on CD. While some were technically accomplished, most performers don’t seem to understand the significance of this work in context of the phase in the short-lived development of Griffes, nor its importance in the modernization of American music. Stephen Beus (on Harmonia Mundi) comes close, but since he includes Scriabin on his recording, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that Griffes’ Sonata breaks free of the composer’s former influences. In this stunning recording by Garrick Ohlsson, profound thought as well as technical mastery is very much in evidence. When the music calls for sensuality, Ohlsson provides it in spades; the Notturno of the Fantasy Pieces is lush and erotic. When Impressionism perfumes the music, as in the Three Tone-Pictures, Ohlsson responds with color and sensitivity. But it is also quite obvious that the pianist has given great consideration and study to the Sonata; Ohlsson does understand that this work is revolutionary. The influence of jazz is not overt in this interpretation, but it is obviously a part of Ohlsson’s deliberation. The pianist has completely won me over. The recorded sound is outstanding as well. This collection of works by Griffes is the one to own." Report Abuse
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