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Above all and beyond the often phenomenal brilliance of the playing, Eileen Joyce performances are life-affi rming and original. Small wonder that her playing had even the greatest pianists by the ears. Her admirers included Claudio Arrau, Glenn Gould (enraptured by her Mozart), Leon Fleisher, Earl Wild, Ivan Davis and, more recently, Leif Ove Andsnes (enchanted by her Grieg). Alas, today’s public remember little beyond clouds of silk and sequins, of cascading red hair, an inborn dazzle and facility eclipsed by a publicity-seeking glamour engineered by her entrepreneur husband/partner.

A familiar presence and household name, Joyce’s celebrity spread like wildfire and as recital followed recital, concerto-marathon followed concerto-marathon (four and even five in one evening) there came an increasing sense of a pianist who, Icarus- like, flew too close to the sun. After several nervous breakdowns Joyce retired from concert-giving while still in her forties quietly, symbolically closing the piano lid after her last recital in Scotland. Her final years were spent in a state of confusion and dejection (‘I’ve had a funny life, I haven’t liked it much’ and, more alarmingly, ‘My career has been like a ride on a tiger’s back’). There have been few more sad and in many ways tragic instances of overkill leading to decline and fall.

Yet contradicting her assertion, ‘Once you stop playing you are forgotten’, her recordings are for the most part of an astonishing quality, their wit and sparkle experienced on every re-hearing. Her discs of the Paul de Schlözer Etude in A-flat and Fauré’s second Impromptu are among the most scintillating of all virtuoso records. Though her repertoire centred largely on short show-pieces, she made you aware that she was the most nimble-fingered of all pianists with a no less special sensitivity: you only have to listen to her in the slow movements of several Mozart Sonatas and in Schubert’s Andante D604, where there is absolutely no sense of a pianist ‘on autopilot’, as claimed by her many detractors.

Failings or off days are few and far between. She is rushed and unseemly in Debussy’s ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, full of stop-go rubato in Chopin’s Etude in E major Op 10/3, and her Brahms selection suggests a less than ideal outlet for her prodigious gifts (why so fast and lacking in grandeur in the Rhapsody in E-flat, Brahms’ heroic farewell to the keyboard?). Elsewhere, her precision, achieved long before the days of heavy editing, is something to marvel at. She can be witty and engaging (listen to that mischievous ‘Viennese lift’ in Moszkowski’s Waltz in E major), and in Stefan Bergman’s Polka-Caprice and Himmelgesang there is a wicked, teasing air of camp worthy of Noël Coward. Her selection of Grieg Lyric Pieces makes you long for more: has any other pianist come close to her in the dipping and soaring gyrations of ‘Butterfly’?

Turning elsewhere for relief from the ever-increasing rigours of her life, Joyce found joy in the harpsichord, joining such distinguished and scholarly colleagues as George Malcolm, Thurston Dart and Denis Vaughan for a renewed sense of meaning in performance. Much of the shine of her playing has left her in her later Saga discs (her perfunctory way with Grieg’s ‘Nocturne’ tells you that disillusion has set it) and her few concerto recordings (she played 73 works for piano and orchestra) are not among her finest readings. Even her legendary Rachmaninov Second, famous via The Seventh Veil, has not worn well, despite flashes of her former bravura.

Lavishly presented and outstandingly re-mastered, this set should be in every musician’s collection, a startling reminder of a pianist whose early career was touched by genius and charisma. Sheer talent does not come bigger than this.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2018 - ©Rhinegold Publishing