Although not the earliest born pianist to record, Alfred Grünfeld (1852-1924) was, as producer Ward Marston points out, the first pianist of note to have made records. His first sides were cut as early as 1899, a few years before Pugno, Grieg and Saint-Saëns made their recording studio debuts. Grünfeld's career was based in Vienna, where he achieved great success charming audiences with Strauss waltzes and other lightweight fare. Claudio Arrau recalled that Grünfeld always played to packed houses and that he played "elegantly and cutely". Josef Hofmann was less generous, describing Grünfeld as having "a velvety tone, but he only played the salon music well". Yet, as this reissue bears out, Grünfeld could hold his own in more substantial repertoire, playing with insight and unfailing taste.
Given the leeway expected from nineteenth century performers, Grünfeld's interpretations are remarkably modern sounding. One can almost dictation from his Chopin mazurkas and waltzes. His brisk and unsentimental Schubert recalls Schnabel's similarly conceived versions, but with cleaner articulation of the triplets in the minor section of the Eb Impromptu. Those who think Glenn Gould invented dry, detaché phrasing in Bach will be surprised to hear Grünfeld do more or less the same thing in the Gavotte from the Sixth English Suite. He weaves the contrapuntal threads of the Wagner-Liszt "Liebestod (shorn of its introduction) with flowing assurance, and manages to make the notorious right hand tremolos at the end ecstatic rather than bombastic. His Strauss transcriptions are stylistically elegant, of course, but are overshadowed musically and pianistically by the concoctions of Rosenthal, Friedman, et al.
As a whole, Grünfeld's records are excellent specimens of acoustic technology, with amazingly forward and lifelike reproduction. Ward Marston has done an exemplary job compiling and transferring these rare originals. It crossed my mind several times that all this music was contemporary music to Grünfeld's generation, indeed the Wagner and Debussy were virtually avant garde. A pianist born in 1852 playing the music of Brahms, born in 1833 might be analogous to myself playing Philip Glass or Alfred Schnittke. Or Grünfeld playing Korngold could be Richard Goode playing the music of someone who wasn't born yet!
(Published in the July/August 1994 Keyboard Classics, now Piano Today)
Copyright © 1997, Jed Distler