Monday, April 25, 2011

Let's go back in time - to 1899, and meet (and hear) Alfred Grünfeld

It's time we became reacquainted with this man.

Pianist Alfred Grünfeld (1852-1924) was born in Prague, studied at the Kullak Academy in Berlin and eventually moved to Vienna, where he became a popular teacher and performer. He was court pianist to Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany. He knew Brahms, Strauss and Leschetizky.

Based on extant concert programmes, Grünfeld was a pianist of intellect and virtuosic abilities. Famed Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick said of Grünfeld, "He is a musician beyond criticism; in public and in private one of the best known members of Vienna society, and the greatest favorite with all musical people.  By his brilliant playing as well as his sweet expression and gay humour, he understands to perfection the art of charming his listeners in Vienna."  That's high praise from a notoriously tough critic.

He performed many of the major works of Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Schumann, Schubert and Brahms, often including new works by composers of the day, such as Grieg’s Ballade, Op. 24. His brother, cellist Heinrich Grünfeld, was equally well known and made some recordings as well.

He was a prolific composer, mostly of shorter character pieces, and effective transcriptions. He toured extensively in Germany, Russia, Scandanavia, France, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and even the United States.  He recorded extensively, as early as 1899 (on acoustic Berliners).  So why is he forgotten today?

Actually, record collectors never forgot him.  But most pianists think of him as a "salon artist", whiling away the time playing salon paraphrases of this and that.  But he also recorded works by Brahms, Schubert, Grieg, and even something as "modern" as Debussy's "Golliwogg's Cakewalk"!  On these discs it is evident that his style was elegant and charming, just as Hanslick notes.  A pearly tone and tranlucent quality comes through on these recordings, even the earliest ones.

Here I present one of the rare 1899 Berliner recordings (alas, not mine) of the Grieg "Papillon", op. 43 no. 1.

His "Soiree de Vienne", op. 56 is still in the repertoire of pianists such as Evgeny Kissin, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and even Lang Lang has been known to pound insensitively through it.  There are videos of many of these on You Tube, but let us see how Der Meister played it.  If it sounds familiar, it's because it is a transcription of waltzes from Johann Strauss's "Die Fledermaus".

From my collection.  Recorded c. 1905.
Scores of Grünfeld's works may be found at IMSLP by clicking here.  The score for his best-known work, the above-performed Soiree de Vienne, is still under copyright in the United States and can be purchased through the link below.