RICHARD FARRELL The Complete Recordings Volume One
Music by GRIEG, LISZT and BRAHMS
Richard Farrell (piano)
The Halle Orchestra / George Weldon
Atoll ACD 208/1-2
The exhumation of mostly long-invisible recordings by New Zealand’s greatest pianist has been a slow and laborious exercise. Richard Farrell who died aged 31 in 1958 left only a small number of commercial recordings, although there is other evidence of his career surviving in the Radio New Zealand sound archive which I hope will also soon reach the light of day. I heard Farrell play more than once though I can pin-point only one concert in 1951 when I was a 6th former at Wellington College, as I still have his signed recital programme from the Wellington Town Hall.
Atoll Records are in the process of releasing three double albums of the extant recordings. The first has just appeared and contains an interesting variety of music, and with playing that emerges as so revelatory, so commanding, so effortless yet dazzling in its virtuosity and entrancing in its musical feeling. The first disc opens with the Grieg Piano Concerto. It’s a long time since I sat and actually listened to the work, either live or on recording and I was quite beguiled both by its charm and its high level of musical inspiration. Grieg of course has fallen out of fashion for many listeners more concerned with being in tune with what is critically a la mode than to listen to music through their ears and to respond with their emotions. Words that have been used often to describe Farrell’s playing are ease, naturalness. The Grieg concerto may not be among the most challenging in technical terms but the sound, the flawless playing and the timeless quality of Farrell’s interpretation remove it from any hint of being a restored vintage recording. Interpretation is the wrong word too, for this a simply a glorious, lyrical many-coloured performance of Grieg without any sense of the pianist’s own mannerisms or ego interventions.
Next come the Brahms Ballades Op 10. Farrell plays these not-so-familiar early pieces with a simplicity and feeling for their singing qualities that we are more familiar with in the last groups of piano pieces from Op 116 onwards. No 3 in the set is particularly interesting. There is a concentration and imagination in the playing that is not common. It is a bold and somewhat dark fairy-like piece in which Farrell makes magic out of its fleeting emotions. The fourth ballade is the longest and owes more perhaps to Chopin and foreshadows the mature piano pieces; Farrell holds the attention with the poised delicacy of his playing. Given the age of the recording – in this case 1958 – the piano tone that he draws is warm and opulent and remarkably varied. The rest of the first disc is taken with the 16 Waltzes. Brahms himself adapted his original duet version for solo piano and again Farrell displays his gift for investing rather slender music with eloquence and charm if not actually grandeur. The second disc starts with Grieg again. The Ballade in G Minor, a kind of keyboard tone poem, 20 minutes long, is one of Grieg’s finest works but because of cyclical musical fashion, little known. Farrell offers a delicate and quite entrancing rendering that establishes a sympathetic disposition for the group of Popular Norwegian Melodies and Lyric Pieces that follow. From few pianists since Farrell (perhaps Emil Gilels, or Leif Ove Andsnes) have we had such profoundly sympathetic Grieg performances. These are far from trivial pieces – in sophistication, artistry and plain musical inspiration, they are in the class of comparable music by Schubert, Chopin, Debussy, music quite simply of the greatest beauty whose neglect has been a real loss to the last generation.
For me, these recordings have done far more than reawaken my huge admiration for Farrell, but have renewed my affection for Grieg, understanding why a couple of generations ago he could be classed among the great composers. The First Piano Concerto of Liszt was originally issued with the Grieg on a Pye LP and later, in stereo, on the American Mercury label. Accompanying was the Halle Orchestra conducted by George Weldon, one of Britain’s finest conductors of the post-war period, the conductor who first made the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra into a great ensemble. The concerto is a model of discretion, orchestral and piano clarity, yet it does not lack excitement and rhetoric; the contemplative character of the first section allows the subsequent dramatic passages to make greater impact. Both conductor and pianist are clearly at pains to show Liszt’s poetic and lyrical qualities, and they take time to dwell on these aspects to an unusual degree. There is a joyousness, a youthful buoyancy, clarity of detail yet dazzling virtuosity in the piano, as well as a beautifully balanced orchestral presence in this performance.
This re-issue of recordings long out of circulation, the work of Wayne Laird of Atoll Records, ought to be embraced wholeheartedly by New Zealanders, finally able to appreciate the great gifts of the one pianist of undeniable international stature that we have produced.