Please discover these discs! From the spectacular young lion of the 1908 and 1914 recordings to the 1945 Deccas, Percy Grainger at the piano even in the recording studio played like a legendary bard. He unwaveringly projects a storybook hero quality that enthralls the listener. His playing always, always sings. Of course there are also the amazing tone colors (listen to how his Bach sounds uncannily like an organ on the piano, much more so than Horowitz), the always fierce, "gangway I'm coming," yet infectiously lilting rhythm, the idiosyncratic rubato, the delicate touch alternating with trumpet-clarion tone, the heart-on-sleeve yet guileless poetry, all delivered with a sheer joy of projection and power of expression which one seldom hears on the concert stage any more.
Like all the grand manner pianists of yore, Grainger altered the score sometimes for expressive purposes (listen to the heady emotion of his manic speed-up of a transitional section in "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen"). His unique habit of arpeggiating (or as he called it, "harping") unbroken chords can be heard not only in his playing of his own works on this set but in his Chopin, MacDowell, Cyril Scott, and others. Calling it arpeggiation doesn't do it justice; under Grainger's extraordinarily supple fingers, it's a plangent, "non-piano" sonority, as if some cosmic Orpheus with polydactylous hands strummed a zither. His dazzling yet earthy "harping" of the big chords in "Molly on the Shore" makes you understand why Gabriel Fauré said upon hearing Grainger play, "It's as if a whole people were dancing." Grainger's own arrangement of Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" is an inspired gem of keyboard polyphony and treble register magic, playable only by pianists comfortable with elevenths, and in his recording of it here he sounds three-handed. On the other hand, he endows the Grieg folk pieces with a naive, almost vacuously artless peasant quality, as if to divest himself of the professional concert platform musician. Grieg without a tuxedo.
Josef Hofmann's and Leopold Godowsky's timbral magic at the keyboard was achieved with the soft and damper pedals alone; they eschewed the middle pedal. Grainger, like Ferruccio Busoni, composed for and played the middle pedal treating it as an essential musical resource. Busoni and Grainger understood that the sostenuto (middle) pedal enables the pianist to lift the dampers on isolated notes like pedal points in the organ foot pedals or orchestral horns or strings, while the rest of the dampers can continue to be freely manipulated on other keys. To hear but one example on the APR set of Grainger's use of simultaneous middle and damper pedals, listen to his performances of his own sea shanty arrangement, "One More Day, My John." Deploying his signature "harping" of chords while C sharps in 3 octaves are held with the middle pedal, Grainger's playing of this piece actually makes the piano sound- to mix metaphors- like a lyre going "wa-wa." (You can hear other examples in "Jutish Medley" and his arrangement from Rosenkavalier.)
The merry foot-stomping "feel" is abundantly evident above all in his own pieces. Grainger's insouciant romp through his dense and difficult "Gumsucker's March" somehow sounds relaxed and driving at the same time (at a sustained breakneck tempo no one else has ever equaled). Just as often he can be wistful and nostalgic, frequently bringing out the tenor line as the melody from the middle of the piano texture (listen to "Irish Tune from County Derry").
Sure, once in a while his playing can be clunky, messy, bangy. But who cares about Cortot's and Schnabel's wrong notes? Or Harold Bauer's and even Gieseking's occasional sloppiness? The sheer beauty and power of expression of Grainger's playing of the Brahms Sonata, of the Chopin Ab Prelude, even of his Liebestraum - how could such playing ever go out of fashion? A large, indomitable musical personality is all over these five CDs. The sound mastering by Ward Marston is superb, a significant improvement over his previous transfers for Biddulph; Marston has here magically restored the underlying pentimento layer of amazing high fidelity of the 1920s and 30s Columbia electrics. This is an essential library item for all people who love great piano playing.