Egon Petri. Photo: Ruch Muzyczny

As is the case with so many of yesterday’s great performing musicians, the survival of the playing of the once vastly admired Dutch pianist Egon Petri (1881-1962) has been assured by the reissue of some of his many recordings and by their easy availability, in the past on LP and now on CD. In the 1970s, there was an EMI release in Japan1 of several of Petri’s many 78-RPM pre-World War II commercial recordings, most of them originally issued on the English Columbia label and then released in due course on American Columbia.2 In the early 1950s, Petri recorded the Beethoven “Hammerklavier” Sonata for American Columbia; later in the 1950s, he also made several LP recordings for Westminster, including one of the monumental Fantasia Contrappuntistica3 of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), the Italo-German pianist-composer and Petri’s revered teacher. Finally, a small handful of Petri’s students and admirers were able, with touching dedication, to arrange for the LP issue in the 1970s and 1980s of a number of live performances, including the “Hammerklavier,”4 from the very last years of his life. 

Petri was a remarkable man, both as a wit and as an artist.

Now Pearl, the invaluable English label which has managed to make available excellent transfers of countless treasures of pre-World War II78-RPM recordings, has brought out two Petri CDs, with the promise of more to come. The first to appear (in 1989) was a disc containing Petri commercial recordings from the 1930s of music composed or arranged by Busoni, along with the complete recordings of Busoni himself.5 Late in 1991, Pearl issued what it calls “Volume I” of Petri’s playing, including almost all that was on the earlier EMI (Japan) LP disc, along with live performances taken from a Mills College recital in 1948, and from Petri’s Oakland, California, living room in 1951.6 Taken together, these two Pearl CDs, though hardly amounting to a complete edition of the Petri recordings —there are surely enough of his 78-RPM performances to make up another two CDs— provide material for the beginnings of an adequate conspectus of the pianist’s musical personality and pianistic achievement.

First a word about Petri’s life and career. Born in Germany, he was the son of the violinist Henri Petri. The young Petri studied both piano and violin, and was a member of his father’s string quartet. Under Busoni’s guidance, he concentrated on the piano, and from World War I on was involved in the completion of Busoni’s great edition of the keyboard works of Bach. After Busoni’s death, Petri toured extensively in Europe and Russia. He taught in Berlin at the Hochschule für Musik from 1921 to 1926. During the 1930s, he lived, taught, and played in Poland, but in 1938 he settled in America, where he taught at Cornell from 1940 to 1946. From 1947 to 1957 he taught at Mills, then in its musical golden age, with Darius Milhaud and later Leon Kirchner on the composition faculty, and the Budapest Quartet in residence each summer. As the recorded evidence attests, he played frequently in public until close to his death. In a lifetime of teaching, his many students included Grant Johannesen (a great authority on nineteenth-century French piano music), Earl Wild (one of the most brilliant virtuosos of our time), John Ogdon (the richly versatile but sadly short-lived English pianist), Menahem Pressler (a co-founder of the Beaux Arts Trio), and Alexander Zakin (for many years Isaac Stern’s redoubtable accompanist).

Petri was a remarkable man, both as a wit and as an artist. I was fortunate enough to witness both his wit and his art in northern California just after he came to Mills. In late 1948, Alexander Libermann, my then piano teacher, brought me to play for Petri, whose assistant he had been in the 1920s in Berlin. I was then fourteen, already a former child prodigy and the victim of very poor technical training from Libermann’s predecessor. Though I had been successful as a prodigy in the sophisticated musical world of San Francisco, and though I had already played a concerto with Pierre Monteux, I was hardly prepared for Petri and the aura of intellectual musicianship which surrounded him. He spoke elegant, precise English, even though it was not his native tongue; among the other languages he spoke, as I was later to find out, were German, Polish, and, of course, Dutch. As I played for him in his beautiful living room, overlooking San Francisco Bay and furnished with two splendid Steinway grands, and then later as he talked to my mother and to me, he continually cracked jokes with Libermann. The two of them found the jokes uproarious; unfortunately for my mother and me, the jokes were in a strange-sounding language that proved to be Polish, and was therefore incomprehensible to us. This first time I played for him, he said little about my playing, only complimenting Libermann’s teaching.

But in the following years I played for him several times more, and then I found that, like all great musicians, he possessed a remarkable ear. It was discomforting enough to me—for it reflected badly on my teacher —that Petri found wrong-read notes and rhythmic errors in my playing of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt. What was much worse was that he found these fundamental mistakes in my playing of the Ravel Sonatine, a work written between 1903 and 1905, when Petri was already an adult; furthermore, I am sure that it was a work that he had never himself played. So sharp is my memory of Petri’s many corrections that I no longer remember what he had to say about the musical content of my playing; my guess is that he was much less interested, at least as far as I was concerned, with artistic expression than with textual accuracy.

Petri came from a world in which the music, not the performer’s personality, was the thing.

After the very early 1950s, I no longer played for him, and I only heard his opinions of my playing from my teacher; of these opinions I only remember his objecting strenuously and repeatedly to my mannerism of sometimes lifting my left leg a few inches from the floor while I was playing; Petri suggested, or so Libermann told me, that in my leg I must have a piece of bone from the rear leg of a dog. I need not say that this was hardly a pleasurable manifestation of Petri’s wit. Much more entertaining (at least to me) were the stories Libermann told me of his calling the young people he worked with “stupils,” as a combination of “stupid” and “pupil,” or of Petri’s once telling a pupil who came early to a lesson: “Don’t come early again; when you come late you waste your time, but when you come early you waste mine.”

More constructively important to me than any personal contact with Petri was my hearing him play many recitals at Mills College. In these concerts, I remember his playing the Busoni transcriptions of Bach, Beethoven sonatas—in particular the “Hammerklavier” and the opus 111—and numerous Liszt transcriptions, including many of Schubert Lieder. He had a beautiful piano sound, and an imposing, always straightforward way of demonstrating, rather than interpreting, the works he programmed. His chief virtue as an artist—in addition, of course, to the bright and pellucid sound he drew from the instrument—was his manifest honesty: there was no artifice in his playing, no attempt to substitute what Virgil Thomson called the “wow” technique for the musical values plainly contained in the written notes.

There could be no doubt that Petri was a big pianist, and there also could be no doubt that he was equally happy playing the great chords of Busoni and Liszt transcriptions and the extended quiet sections in the slow movements of Beethoven sonatas. There was also in his playing of lyrical passages—doubtless as a result of his unfailingly direct approach—something of a jerky quality, as if he never allowed the melodic line to fall quite naturally. By comparison with the very artful recordings (and some live performances, too) of Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein that I had heard, Petri failed to make the subtle adjustments in melodic declamation and harmonic pulse, often called rubato, that allow music to sound beguiling and expressive to ears accustomed to what might very loosely be called Russian piano-playing. Then too, I must add that I was often put off Petri’s playing by his frequently messy, often heedless execution of difficult technical passages; I never had the feeling that he couldn’t play these passages, just that he hadn’t troubled to practice them sufficiently.

Now, as I listen to his recordings forty and more years later, I find myself both of the same mind about Petri as I was in my teens, but also, in addition, strangely reverent toward his persona, not as a man, but as a musician. The commercial recordings made when Petri was in his fifties, of course, are much more immaculate than his live playing captured on tape when he was about eighty. And yet the essential lineaments of Petri’s playing are the same in the best recorded takes of the 1930s as they are in Petri’s live playing as I heard it around 1950, and as we can hear it on the posthumous releases of his live playing toward the close of his life.

The two Pearl CDs, it seems to me, have some of the best of Petri that has been available in the last few decades. On the Pearl disc he shares with Busoni are to be found—in addition to Busoni’s remarkably delicate, fleet, and introspective playing of Chopin and Liszt—Petri’s sensitive and communicative performances of the still little-played Busoni original piano music and several rare transcriptions. The very first of Petri’s recordings on this CD is of the Busoni Carmen Fantasy. Here, in a piece both familiar because of the famous passages Busoni has chosen to elaborate and unfamiliar because of the spooky treatment he has accorded this well-known music, Petri displays both his great virtues and his palpable defects. In the very difficult Carmen Fantasy, Petri leaves no doubt that he has a huge technique, and that he has a rare gift for propounding melody—as if melody were a kind of constitutional principle, and Petri were the tribune of the law. Elsewhere in the Busoni pieces, Petri shows them appealingly as serious, wonderfully thought-through works that have yet, perhaps for reasons of their very seriousness, to find their audience.

Yet at the same time, the listener to this Busoni-Petri CD is always conscious that, as far as Petri is concerned, not every demanding note, not every brilliant passage, not every technical challenge, has been fully worked through. Here as elsewhere in Petri’s recorded oeuvre—as in his live concerts—the pianist gives the impression that there are more important things than easy, comfortable execution; what counts is that the performer is on top of the music, and the very expression “on top” allows for a good deal of valuable undergrowth—what Monteux used to call “zee leetle note[s]”—being crushed or at least badly bruised. In The Red Indian Diary, Book I, the Fantasia after Music by Bach, All’Italia!, the Sonatina ad usum infantis, a transcription of the serenade from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Busoni’s arrangement for piano and orchestra of Liszt’s solo piano Spanish Rhapsody, Petri plays the thoughtful music with high seriousness, and the brilliant music with a mostly happy disregard for merely perfect execution. At the end, our verdict on Petri`s service to Busoni as a composer is that both Petri and Busoni came from a better musical world than ours, a world in which the music, not the performer’s personality, was the thing.

The second Pearl CD, devoted to Petri’s playing of works by composers other than Busoni, gives much the same impression of his playing. Here are recordings, from the decade after 1929, of the delectable Sgambati transcription of the sublimely restrained “Melodie” from Gluck’s Orphée, his own charming arrangement of several menuets from the Little Piano Book Bach made for his son Wilhelm Friedemann, the Beethoven Sonata opus 78, the Brahms Variations on a Theme of Paganini, three Liszt etudes (Un sospiro, Gnomenreigen, and Mazeppa), a Liszt transcription of the waltzes from Gounod’s Faust, three Liszt transcriptions of Schubert—the waltz-chain Soirée de Vienne no. 6 and, from a 1948 recital recording, the songs Liebesbotschaft and Die Forelle—and a 1951 living-room performance of the Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue.

This is all quintessential Petri repertory, by turns serious and virtuoso, weighty and brilliant. It is true that Petri’s way of playing melodies and harmonic progressions, as I mentioned earlier, can often strike a listener as slightly unnatural; he has a way of hurrying over the bar line, as if he is fully confident of the listener’s ability to comprehend the music without every melodic and harmonic resolution being underlined by all-too-palpable pauses just before the resolution is allowed to arrive. Once again, the playing is marked by massive technical energy, and a remarkable ability to let the melody sing out, regardless of the technical complications the often thick piano-writing puts in the performer’s way. There is much delicacy in his playing as well, particularly in the Gluck, the Bach menuets, and the Schubert song transcriptions. On these recordings, as in his concerts, Petri had an extraordinary piano-tone, always clear, strong, and bell-like; indeed, his characteristic sound now seems to me to be, along with the very different sounds of Horowitz and Rubinstein, the defining character of the Steinway piano, surely the greatest musical instrument of the modern era—i.e., the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Curiously, some of the very best Petri playing on disc is to be heard in the 1951 living-room recording (made by the composer and Petri student Lee Hoiby) of the Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, played in the Busoni edition. The recording was evidently made on the spur of the moment, and Petri’s piano does not even have the lid up; as Petri begins to play, he says, in a voice laden with mock-irritation, “I do all this under compulsion.” Compulsion or no, this is Bach playing of a sweep and magnificence, enriched by Busoni’s editorial interventions, unmatched today. As always with Petri, his technique is commanding, but on this occasion his technique is also more than usually neat. At Petri’s hands, the famous rolled chords in the Fantasy seem like a force of nature. He makes the Fugue crystal-clear and, as Bach fugues should be but so rarely are, inexorable. Here is Bach presented not as an ineffable contrapuntalist but as a god-like titan; here is Bach conceived as the all-powerful father of our entire music.

Another example, unfortunately no longer available, of Petri’s wonderful playing of large-scale Bach can be heard on a recording of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne made for American Columbia in 1945.7 This work, so central to our musical tradition, is in these fastidious times only played on the solo violin for which it was originally written. But for much of the past century—before the cult of a spurious authenticity began to rule our musical roost—the Chaconne was heard mostly in transcription. In the 1920s and 1930s, there was a vogue for an orchestral arrangement by Stokowski. In the main, however, the work owed its survival to the piano. There are two major piano transcriptions of it. The first is that of Brahms, who made of the violin text a work for left hand alone, thus substituting the difficulties and limitations entailed by playing the piano with but one hand for those of the violin. The second, and very much the better known, is the transcription made by Busoni. It is clear that Busoni’s intention was to fulfill (as he saw it) Bach’s compositional conception; plainly Busoni intended to make manifest not what Bach wrote but what Bach thought. Of course the result is not baroque but late-romantic. It is fashionable now to cut Bach down to what might be called his temporal size; it was Busoni’s achievement to expand Bach from the notes he wrote to what he means to music, not just for his time, not just for ours, but sub specie aeternitatis. Petri’s playing of this grandiose (in the best sense) music is simple and unaffected; all he has to contribute to Bach (and to Busoni) is his honesty. In listening to this beautiful recording, one feels that, in this case at least, honesty is enough.

Petri chose instead to follow in the footsteps of Busoni, and to go no further than his master.

For many the summit of Petri’s art is to be found in his playing of the mighty Beethoven “Hammerklavier.” I am not sure that I can agree. There is indeed, in his realization of this grizzly bear of a piano piece, much emotional and pianistic integrity; there is also an overall hasty quality (both in the work’s innumerable fast passages and in the long, contemplative slow movement), a particular intensification of Petri’s usual matter-of-fact approach, as if here at least, in this most clotted of Beethoven’s writings, even Petri’s gifts of musical explication and proclamation are challenged. Certainly Petri’s Columbia “Hammerklavier” is vastly superior to Schnabel’s ill-considered 1935 recording, in which the pianist was engulfed by the music’s technical demands. Of the recordings of this work in the past, the best pianistically still seems to me Solomon’s 1952 recording.8 Here the virtuosity, always fully under control, is breathtaking, and is allied to an extraordinary musical sensitivity, specially welcome in a work written on this massive scale; it must be said, however, that even when measured against Solomon’s wonderful pianism, Petri’s playing of the slow movement, for all of its straightforwardness, manages to hint at profound simplicities uncommunicated by Solomon.

It is only fitting that any consideration of Petri’s achievement as a great pianist should end with his remarkable performance of Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica (1910-12). This Bach-based work, written by Busoni in three versions for solo piano, and in a fourth for two pianos, comprises five parts: a prelude on the chorale Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr (“Glory to God Alone in the Heavens”), and four three-part fugues, based on the uncompleted final fugue from Contrapunctus no. 19 of Bach’s The Art of Fugue; between the final two fugues are interposed an intermezzo, three variations, and a cadenza, each based on the four fugue-subjects. In this huge work are to be found the full union of the twin loves of Busoni’s life: Bach and the piano. In Petri’s performance of the Fantasia are to be found his own reverence for Busoni and for Bach, for pianism as art, and for Bach (through Busoni) as truth. The Fantasia Contrappuntistica is musician’s music, making no concessions to audience appeal. It is, like all of Busoni’s transformations of Bach, a belief in Bach as the future, not as the past; in its very triumphalism, it attempts to mold the future.

One thanks God that the miracle of recording has enabled Petri’s playing to find a kind of permanence in the ears and hearts of music lovers that could have scarcely been predicted in the last years of his career, clouded as they were by his principled exile from Nazi Europe and by his advancing age. And yet, even considering the interlocking factors of exile and age, it still remains remarkable that, as a great musician-pianist, Petri was never able to gain anything in the United States like the respect and even celebrity that he had earned in pre-war Europe.

Part of the reason for this lamentable state of affairs was no doubt the public ascendancy enjoyed by the very Italian Arturo Toscanini and by many musicians of Eastern European and French origin. The Eastern Europeans would certainly include the pianists Horowitz and Rubinstein, the violinist Jascha Heifetz, the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and, among chamber groups, the Budapest Quartet; the French musicians would include the pianist Robert Casadesus and the violinist Zino Francescatti. And yet the very Germanic Artur Schnabel was a great guru of the American audience, the equally Germanic and hardly pianistically pristine Rudolf Serkin was beginning his great American career, and his father-in-law, the violinist and conductor Adolf Busch, was already something of a saint to elite American music lovers.

I am tempted to say that Petri’s problem was Petri himself, both as man and as musician. As a man, bright and witty, he seemed haughty and even distant, a person in his abilities and in his self-regard superior to those around him, colleagues and audience alike, and not only in musicianship— musical arrogance is always allowed and is indeed often profitable—but also in temper of mind. Petri was smart, and he was cultured; he was well-read, and he was marvelously well-spoken. He was, in intellectual matters, something of a superior human being—and he paid the price for his superiority. It must be said too that Petri lacked a really sure instinct for business: in a sad story contained in Allan Evan’s fascinating notes for the Pearl all-Petri CD, we are told that when Petri was approached simultaneously by the famous EMI producer Walter Legge and by an American company to record Beethoven sonatas, Petri chose the American company, telling Legge that the name Westminster sounded better than the name Angel (the name EMI used for its American releases).

But it would be wrong to leave without understanding that the fault, if fault it be, was not simply, or mostly, Petri’s as a man. Ultimately, what held Petri back in America in the 1940s was the musical choice he had made at the beginning of the century. He did not choose Chopin, as did Rubinstein and Horowitz, or unadorned Beethoven and Schubert, as did Schnabel; he did not, in other words, choose (among pianists) either the unbuttoned romanticism of Horowitz and Rubinstein, or the unadorned (and sometimes weakly executed) Beethoven and Schubert of Schnabel. Petri chose instead to follow in the footsteps of Busoni, and to go no further than his master. What in practice this meant was playing a repertory heavy in transcriptions, and in what might be called a richly embroidered but always cool version of the classics. It meant playing Bach and Schubert in transcriptions, then already suspect to the most fashionable musical taste; it meant playing Liszt not as a composer of crowd pleasers but as a serious musical force; above all, it meant preaching the gospel of Busoni, a man forgotten as a pianist and ignored as a composer. Petri chose to be a musician who found the highest musicality in what for others were seen as merely virtuoso, not to say bombastic, versions of original masterpieces. In this, he looked backward to the nineteenth century, not forward to the twentieth.

In twentieth-century music, Petri, like all his great pianistic colleagues, rejected the music of Schoenberg and Berg, and of their epigones; unlike many of them, he rejected as well Bartók and Prokofiev, and even Debussy and Ravel. His guiding star was Busoni; despite sporadic attempts at Busoni revivals—the New York City Opera, for instance, will be doing Busoni’s Doktor Faust this coming fall—neither large audiences nor famous performers have seen fit as yet to follow Petri’s choice. But whatever is to be Busoni’s compositional fate, it is both heartwarming and fitting that Petri’s performance of the Fantasia Contrappuntistica stands as his own monument. Petri, as Busoni before him, makes clear to us that there is no other choice than to assume that in art, as in life, honesty counts for something.

  1.  EMI (Japan) Great Recordings of the Century GR-2181.
  2.  Columbia LP ML 4479. This recording was reissued in 1977 by Columbia as P 14152.
  3.  Westminster 18844. This LP also includes four short Busoni transcriptions of Bach, as well as four transcriptions by Petri himself, three of which are of music by Bach, the other of music by Buxtehude. This LP was available in the Westminster “Collectors Series” as W-9347.
  4.  Dell’Arte DA 9016.
  5.  Pearl GEMM CD 9347.
  6.  Pearl GEMM CD 9916.
  7.  The original 78-RPM issue of this performance was on Columbia MX 313, and it was briefly reissued around 1950 on an LP as Columbia ML 2049. My own copy is on a 1970s LP, International Piano Library IPL 104.
  8.  My copy of the Solomon recording is in a 1970s Turnabout/Vox LP set, THS 65068/0, containing, in addition to the “Waldstein,” the last five Beethoven sonatas.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 8, on page 45
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