Notes and Editorial Reviews
Petri was in his youth something of a multi-instrumentalist. We remember him as Busoni’s greatest pupil and a Lisztian of coruscating brilliance but he was also a violinist – not surprising as his father, Henri, was an internationally renowned performer and teacher – but also, less predictably, as a French horn player good enough to take a place in the Dresden Symphony. Petri was a musician of the utmost clarity, distinction and directness with a technique remarkable even into old age and whose conception of space and tonal value gave him a persuasive insight into music of intellect and weight. As a Beethovenian he was distinguished - as a Chopin player he maybe reflected something of his teacher Busoni’s own professed ambiguity and duality of response. Petri’s pre-War Columbias have been collated on APR and demonstrate his strengths in abundance. Music and Arts has here brought together his concerts and broadcasts from the period covering 1954 to 1962, the year of his death. His reluctance to travel, his physical lack of flamboyance, indeed his active distaste of extravagance and extraneous gesture and detail, meant that audiences didn’t much clamour to hear him. Their loss is evident from this uneven but nevertheless exceptionally significant series of survivals.
There’s a caveat to be made about the actual piano sound on some of these off-air and private recordings; it can be rather harsh but it’s not at all unlistenable. There are also some imperfections to be expected – some wow and distortion (minimal and fleeting) some dropouts (ditto) as well as pitch distortion. These are all honestly noted in Music and Arts documentation and I should mention them here; they didn’t unduly trouble me. The repertoire is very much Petri’s canonical one – the last Beethoven sonatas, Busoni, Chopin as well as Bach-Busoni and Bach-Petri. He was always a charming exponent of Gluck, a more unexpected one here of Medtner. Of Liszt there’s but a fleeting glimpse – Venezia e Napoli, taped in the last year of his life.
We start with his Chopin Preludes Op. 28. Well, best to get this over with I suppose. I find his Chopin rather disappointing. His rubati in the Agitato opener are well judged if unexceptionable (he was known to scorn the emotive exaggerations of some of his colleagues) but he is very, very cool in No. 4, the Largo in E. There’s a dispassionate control in No. 6, a Lento from which, however, he seems to wish to expunge feeling. He is fine though in another Largo, No. 9 in E – his truly noble sound is affecting – but there isn’t enough distinction between the hands in No. 11, where he fails to differentiate the melody line in the right hand. There’s even a distribution between hands – something that seems to me afflicts No. 13 in F sharp as well. The Sostenuto in D flat (No. 15) is very dry playing indeed – Petri adamantine in his refusal to indulge colouristic potential; in addition his left hand covers the right at some crucial moments. He improves considerably for the B flat Presto and the power contained within as he does for the virility and energy of the Allegro appassionato conclusion (he omits Nos. 21 and 22 for some reason). Throughout I felt him most comfortable with the athletic, technical side of the Preludes and rather less indulgent towards the lyrical side that Busoni himself felt most ambivalent about. Of his Busoni indeed I could hardly say anything other than that it is magnificent. The Song of Victory from the Indian Diary is 1.16 of powerfully sustained pianism of an exalted level whilst the eloquence of the Bluebird Song shows that what he failed to do so glaringly in Chopin he could manifestly do in Busoni. The final dance shows off Petri’s superb rhythmic control, his colour and his sheer depth of tone (never overdone). He was seventy-seven when he was taped in Busoni’s All’Italia – sheer virtuosic panache. The disc finishes with twenty-five minutes of Petri with the eminent pianist Carlo Bussotti in a stratospherically impressive Fantasia Contrappuntistica; the two men seemingly joined at the musical hip so intense and marshalled their decisive vision.
The second disc is rather more bits and pieces – but what bits what pieces. The Medtner is very impressive playing indeed if not quite in the Moiseiwitsch or Medtner class. The Danza Festiva is rather heavier than the composer’s own recording but the Op. 20/2 Fairy Tale in B has some seismic attacks. The Schumann Fantasiestücke are in somewhat splintery sound but he plays them with rather more overt affection than he did the Chopin; the Allegro con fuoco second is sonorous, the third is affecting, without affectation, and the Vivacissimo, Dream Visions is full of filigree drive, albeit one accompanied by a degree of tape distortion. His own Bach Chorale arrangements are justly famous as are his recordings of them. Sheep may safely graze is nourishingly intimate and beautifully adept with its sudden pianissimi, whilst I step before Thy Throne grows in authority and grandeur. There’s little real difference between Petri’s 1930s recording of the Minuet (from the W.F. Bach Notebook) and this one, made in 1958. His Schubert-Liszt is duly frolicsome and the Nocturne in D flat has quite a lot more vivacity and colour than he lavished on the Préludes, albeit his rhythm is rather heavy.
The third disc gives us his trademark Gluck-Sgambati Melodie – and this time he must cede to his earlier self; he’s heavier, more emphatic, less treble oriented preferring to concentrate instead on the middle voicings. The captivating beauty of that earlier recording has been replaced by a philosophic depth that does seem rather alien to it. His Beethoven Op. 90 Sonata is characteristically plain speaking and strong; the second of the two movements is especially buoyant and decisive. The Chopin examples here, the Sonata in B and the Nocturne in F sharp, are vitiated by choppy rhythm. Petri was seventy-eight when these performances were taped so maybe that has something to do with it but whilst there are tonally delightful glints in the opening Allegro of the Sonata it sounds as if, like a mathematician, Petri were actively breaking the movement – and indeed the work as a whole – into units. The algebraic-philosophic-contrapuntalist approach here renders much of this very disappointing. I liked the lento much more though and whilst the presto finale again suffers from rhythmic insistence there are still compensatory features of colour and vivacity.
The final disc is in many ways the most consistently elevated in musical terms, principally because it finds Petri addressing Beethoven. There are some technical frailties in the opening of Op. 109, it’s true, but more important by far is the sense of powerful direction. Again the tiny Prestissimo second movement taxes him for a moment but we should concentrate on the Andante finale. Here Petri is very direct, almost casual, but as the movement advances and his architectural priorities become clearer we are aware of a mind of illuminating integrity at work. By the later variations he develops a degree of metrical flexibility that one would not have earlier suspected. There is no undue sentiment and I would certainly understand those who hold this to be a logician’s Beethoven. My own instincts are for something more overtly expressive but I can but admire the tremendous concentration of his approach. The A flat Sonata, Op. 110, again taped in 1954, certainly lacks to my ears the molto espressivo in the first movement requested of the performer. But Petri is careful to reserve the weight of his intelligence and tonal resources for the first, Adagio section of the finale. He keeps this moving with an almost Arietta delicacy, though he certainly employs weight and shading. The Fuga is strong and determined. In Op. 111 his Maestoso is fast, strong, with no great tonal beauty to it. I have to say I found it inflexible, on one level and rather superficial. It’s a performance that seeks to divide and fracture still further, rather than reconcile, the character of both movements. With a pianist such as Solomon the seemingly disparate and oppositional movements take on congruence and a retrospective sense of rightness. With Petri the implacably oppositional nature of the Sonata is starkly delineated. In that Arietta finale Petri is flexible without coming to a stop; his syncopated passages are driving, even a little peremptory, but he never seeks to extract huge weight of left hand tone or to indulge abstraction. This is intelligent, lean, technically adept and impressive playing, whatever ones view of its ability to move, which I happen to find relatively limited.
Documentation consists in the main of an interview between annotator Frederick Maroth and Petri’s English pupil, Claire James who had attended the famous Busoni-Petri two-piano London recital of 1921. They deal with the central features of Petri’s pianism with acumen, as one would expect, with some quietly revealing information disclosed along the way. This is a set of some real importance in capturing Petri’s art at a time when he was given considerably less than his due. Even at his most phlegmatic his brand of musical stoicism added an imperishable page to the annals of pianism on record in the twentieth century.
-- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International