Griffes’ Piano Music Revisited by Torquati

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THE VALE OF DREAMS: PIANO MUSIC / GRIFFES: 3 Tone Pictures. Winter Landscape. Fantasy Pieces, Op. 6. Rhapsody in B min. De Profundis. Roman Sketches. Piano Sonata / Emanuele Torquati, pianist / Brilliant Classics BC95349

There was a time, around the mid-1970s, when the music of Charles Tomlinson Griffes had its first and, to date, only real Renaissance, thanks largely to a superb album on the New World label. This album featured Griffes’ German-influenced lieder sung by the great baritone Sherrill Milnes, along with his Song of the Dagger; it featured his French-influenced songs sung by mezzo-sopranos Olivia Stapp and Phyllis Bryn-Julson; it featured his chamber orchestra recordings of the 3 Tone Pictures by the New World Chamber Ensemble; and it also featured his greatest orchestral piece, The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan, by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It also had terrific and informative liner notes giving us a full bio and artistic development of this great artist.

And…nothing happened.

Oh, yes, since then we’ve had a recording of his once-very-popular piece, the Poem for Flute and Orchestra, conducted by Gerard Schwarz with the Seattle Symphony, his great chamber-group masterpiece The Kairn of Koridwen recorded by Ensemble M (a record that went nowhere, figuratively speaking), his masterful Piano Sonata recorded by James Tocco and others, and baritone Thomas Hampson has recorded some of his songs. But where has his music gone? Why isn’t it performed in concert halls?


Charles T. Griffes in his pre-moustache days

I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that although Griffes was an indisputably great composer, he lacked a definite “American” style, instead being influenced by the late-Romantic Germans, Impressionstic French composers, and Oriental styles. It was only towards the end of his tragically brief life (he died in the flu epidemic of 1920 at age 35) that he began to establish a personal musical profile that was quite different. The Kairn of Koridwen, The Pleasure-Dome and the Piano Sonata synthesized the best elements of both worlds, the French and the German, into a remarkable and quite personal style all his own. But his wealthy family had stopped supporting him because they saw his career going nowhere. He had to pay for one performance of Koridwen himself, in a rundown New York City rehearsal hall, playing the piano part. He premiered his Piano Sonata in 1919 only to receive insults from critics who said “it drifted into nothingness and was bereft of all beauty” (according to the liner notes), though it is now considered one of his supreme masterpieces. His only real success was The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan (1912), premiered by the Pierre Monteux and the Boston Symphony in 1919 and creating a sensation. But it was too little, too late. Griffes had been teaching music since 1907 at the Hackley School for Boys in Tarrytown, New York, and between spending his days teaching, his evenings grading papers and then burning the midnight oil trying to compose new masterpieces, his health collapsed and he ran out of luck. He began suffering migraines which affected his vision and died virtually penniless. Within a few years he was forgotten except for occasional orchestral performances of the Poem or The White Peacock (which even Toscanini admired and programmed once).

Thus this CD may very well be an introduction for many listeners to Griffes’ unique sound world. Although the earlier pieces here are indeed French-influenced, once can also hear traces of Alexander Scriabin in his work as things progress, and indeed I believe that eventually the Scriabin influence was the one that inevitably helped him create his late, great works. This CD actually covers a lot of ground in Griffes’ career, and some of the pieces included, such as the piano versions of the 3 Tone Pictures (which impressed Ferruccio Busoni so much when he toured the U.S. that he helped Griffes get them published), the Winter Landscape, De Profundis and Rhapsody in B minor are far from common.

Pianist Emanuele Torquati immerses himself deeply into these pieces, giving them life and lift. Griffes became fascinated in the music, art and poetry of the East, which is what influenced so much of his music from 1910 onwards, and it shows. Torquati has the requisite lightness and transparency for the French-influenced pieces, yet also good drive and power for those works like the “Barcarolle” and “Scherzo” of the 3 Fantasy Pieces (the lattter was orchestrated in 1919 under the title Baccanale) and the Piano Sonata to drive the music home. He is also recorded exceptionally well, his piano tone sounding crisp and clear throughout. Winter Landscape, it turns out, is a piece very much in his Impressionist style, but the Rhapsody is a more varied, substantial work, and the the 1915 De Profundis is, surprisingly, in a quasi-Wagnerian vein.

One reason why Griffes had so little posthumous reputation was that he was involved in the gay lifestyle, not just for sexual relations but also because he found sympathetic and encouraging people there who understood what he was driving at, and after his death his sister, revolted by the letters and memorabilia revealing this, had most of his papers destroyed and discouraged revivals of his work. Hopefully we are past that by now, and can simply appreciate Griffes’ music for what it is.

As this CD proves, he was consistently interesting and high-minded; he never wrote a single piece that was cheap, common, or purposely aimed at popular tastes; and thus his music remains fascinating because it communicated something deeply touching and deeply human about this sad and often lonely man who lived his life for art and beauty. I found it particularly interesting to hear the original piano version of The White Peacock, the first piece in the Roman Sketches, as well as works like The Fountain of Acqua Paola with its Scriabin-like falls through the chromatic scale and its creative use of passing tones (including, towards the end, an augmented 5th that immediately reminded me of Billy Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train). Will this be enough to encourage other pianists, and orchestras, to start programming Griffes? Probably not. He’s still one of those hothouse flowers of the classical world who apparently only appeals to the most high-minded, but this is truly great music that shouldn’t be missed.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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