Classic CD: Griffes: Piano Music

By William Dart

CD cover: Griffes
CD cover: Griffes

Garrick Ohlsson is a prince among today's pianists, securing his reputation by winning the 1970 International Frederic Chopin Competition.

A Warsaw critic, coining the description "bear-butterfly" in a review, caught the paradox of this tall American, with the build of a stevedore, creating music of infinite delicacy and refinement.

Ohlsson's latest CD, playing fellow-American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes, is a generous 79 minutes of music that might have been written expressly for this pianist's talents.

Griffes' career was cut short when he was felled by the influenza epidemic of 1920 at the age of 36.

Yet his was a significant voice for American composers who followed.

Aaron Copland praised him as always having a sense of adventure in his composition and being thoroughly alive to the newest trends of world music. Griffes is often hailed as the American Impressionist, with luscious orchestral canvases such as The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan evoking the worlds of Debussy and Scriabin on the other side of the Atlantic.

He would also orchestrate his piano piece The White Peacock, although such is Ohlsson's performance of the work on this disc, one does not feel at all short-changed by the Steinway's palette.

Michael Lewin recorded Griffes' complete piano works for Naxos 13 years ago. This project expanded to two CDs, including small sketches and transcriptions, one being a two-piano version of the overture to Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel.

Ohlsson avoids esoterica, giving more cohesion to this pared-down single disc. He enjoys revealing Griffes as a spiky modernist in the Three Preludes of 1919 and takes to the 1918 Sonata with a punchy abandon often reserved for Bartok.

The lushly romantic De Profundis, not published until 56 years after the composer's death, could be a soundtrack for your favourite film noir.

Ohlsson's disc is also superior in sound, thanks to producer Andrew Keener working at the Nimbus Foundation's Wyastone Estate Concert Hall. Throughout there is a sonic subtlety and clarity that seems to echo the title of the Edward Robert Hughes painting on the booklet cover - Pack Clouds Away and Welcome Day.

Classic CD: Griffes: Piano Music (Hyperion)
Stars: 5/5
Verdict: A prince of pianists brings subtlety and clarity to an American Impressionist

- NZ Herald

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