Griffes Piano Works
Garrick Ohlsson

If I were a duelling man, I’d be prepared to heft my sabre in defence of the music of the American Charles Tomlinson Griffes. I have heard many recordings of his piano works in the past, all of which have honourably striven to promote the cause of this magnificent and undervalued music, but only now, under the hands of one of the world’s greatest pianists, has Griffes’ music found an interpreter who can really do justice to its marvels.

For a listener whose musical tastes encompass both Debussy and, say, Shostakovich, there is nothing in Griffes output that will offend, and a great deal that will impress. If a single other composer is brought to mind by the earlier works, it is his almost exact contemporary John Ireland; there is a similar finesse of keyboard imagination in the two composers. One can wonder if they knew each other’s work, but Ireland’s most characteristic pieces were written after Griffes death.

The CD opens with the mellow understatement of his Three Tone Pictures, which immediately declare his independence of mind. On the face of it these are self-effacingly simple pieces, but there is an originality to almost every component: harmony, melody, orchestration. The third piece, in particular, is almost spectral in its fleetingness. They could be the last, aphoristic, visionary testament of a nineteenth century master (Nuages gris…). In fact they are his Opus 5.

Listening to the Barcarolle from Griffes Fantasy Pieces, Opus 6,for the umpteenth time I suddenly realised that the music reminds me of another work—all’Italia, from Busoni’s Elegies of 1908. It is unreasonable to expect music from so early in a composer’s career not to be redolent of other works, but because Griffes is thought to have desired to study with Busoni the resemblance is notable. One can only imagine what changes such study might have wrought in his style; that the two works can be discussed as equals says something about Griffes’ level of accomplishment.

After Opus 6 come the famous Roman Sketches Opus 7, the works that have kept Griffes’ name alive since their first recording by Myra Hess in 1929. Consisting of four of the finest piano pieces ever written in America, the White Peacock, Nightfall, the Fountain of the Acqua Paola, and Clouds, this is utterly mature music that manages to wed the European and American temperaments in a brilliant stylistic synthesis. While the shadow of Debussy falls lightly across the soundworld, Griffes’ melodic and harmonic invention is very much his own, and his fastidious voicing and textures have a unique flavour. The last piece, Clouds, draws from Garrick Ohlsson some of the subtlest pianism I have ever heard: the first chord just glows into existence.

The outstanding work on the CD, though, is unquestionably the amazing Piano Sonata from 1917/8, in which we are immediately confronted by a radical change of voice—and it is worth noting that by this stage Griffes has abandoned opus numbers, rather as Busoni did. Gone is the haunting and melancholy restraint and in its place we find a sturdy modernism that has the same defiant post-war stance as Bridge’s Piano Sonata. The enlargement of expressive means and intellectual power is almost confronting—the opening performance instruction is Feroce. Its insistent drama is expertly offset by a newly re-imagined lyricism that retains the haunting quality of the earlier works but in a context of highly energised tension. In the slow movement Griffes empties out his texture of all decoration leaving only a lean and propulsive arioso, marked, quixotically, tranquillo.  The agitated Finale closes a work that has been justifiably called ‘epic’. That it is not in every pianist’s repertoire is barely explicable. I have always thought that this Sonata may have been a catalyst for Elliott Carter’s equally unprecedented Piano Sonata of 1945/6. By the time the work was published, Griffes was dead.

After the Sonata come two posthumously published works, de Profundis, and a Winter Landscape, both inhabiting a muted, sombre, but expressive soundworld; and, to close, the aphoristic Three Preludes, his last piano works. These surviving three of an intended five Preludes illustrate the radical direction Griffes was taking in his last months; I do not think I am wrong in hearing the echo of Scriabin’s Op.74 Preludes in this searching music.

In Griffes, America has its equivalent to the WW1 lost generation in Britain. Although he lived on to 1920, his death at 35 from ‘flu robbed the US of, quite conceivably, its greatest composer. Ohlsson’s tackles the considerable difficulties of the music with his usual flair and intelligence, not to mention staggering technique, and delivers magisterial, insightful—and delectably recorded—performances that allow us to assess this music’s greatness in the best possible light. Like me, I think you will admire, and love it.

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.