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Thanks to Mike Spring’s indefatigable industry, his APR series of great pianists of the past continues with this 7-CD album of Egon Petri. A pianist of monumental strength and grandeur Petri scorned easy glamour. The reverse of, say, Rubinstein or Horowitz who enslaved and, indeed, seduced their capacity audiences, Petri kept them at arm’s length, forbidding more than passing intimacy. There was, to quote from John and Anna Gillespie’s superb Notable Twentieth-Century Pianists, ‘a manifest honesty; there was no artifice in his playing’. Moreover, Petri was always true to his own lights, reflecting in the grandeur and occasional severity of his performances the presiding spirit of his beloved teacher, Busoni.

On the debit side, Petri’s Chopin is less than revelatory or beguiling. Why is the Prélude No 2more Allegro than Lento (a familiar failing, almost as if the pianist wished to erase Chopin’s morbidity as quickly as possible)? He can be matter-of- fact when he should be magical: it’s hard to correlate this performance of Prélude No 23 with James Huneker’s description of music that is ‘aerial, imponderable and like a sun-shot spider’s web oscillating in the breeze of summer, its hues changing at every puff’. Such things are not for Petri; a tough reasonableness backed by an awe-inspiring technique was his calling card. Yet there is no lack of underlying poetry in his way with Liszt’s second concerto. Considered and mature, his playing is free from arrogance.

There is tremendous mastery in both the Brahms Handel and Paganini Variations: try Variations 3, 9 and 11 from the second book of the Paganini (Clara Schumann’s ‘witch’ variations) for an imperious authority that can make even Michelangeli sound yielding by comparison. Petri’s approach to the slow waltzes of Variation 4 also offers a radical alternative to Géza Anda’s dewy-eyed response. By contrast, Brahms’s Four Ballades are disquietingly brusque, straightforward to the point of bluntness.

Petri’s mix of the terse and the giving, of the severe and the devotional are at their height in Franck’s Prélude, choral et fugue. There is Busoni’s piano and orchestra version of Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody where glitter is added to glitter and where, to quote one critic, Petri’s playing ‘packs a mighty wallop’. Most of all in Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, you are reminded that Petri was at his greatest in music of a Himalayan scale and grandeur. This is an invaluable album for all lovers of a musical greatness that survived many trials and tribulations (as detailed in Bryan Crimp’s notes). Inexplicably, Petri was omitted from Philips’ Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century,’ the letter ‘P’ represented by André Previn, who must have been astonished to find himself next to the likes of Arrau and Michelangeli. Petri’s towering if formidable stature remains incontestable.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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