Third volume of Richard Farrell piano recordings a fascinating collection of till-now unreleased treasures

Richard Farrell recordings for Atoll
Volume 3

CD 1: Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 1; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 4 with the National Orchestra of the NZBS, conducted by Andersen Tyrer (1948)
CD 2: Schumann: Piano Quartet in E flat.  Richard Farrell Piano Quartet (Radio Suisse, Zurich, 1956)
Liszt: Transcriptions/reminiscences and original pieces
Bach: Prelude and Fugue in F  minor
De Falla: Ritual Fire Dance
CD 3: William Alwyn: Fantasy Waltzes (BBC 1957)

Monday 16 December 2019

The third volume of recordings of piano performances by Richard Farrell (1926 – 1958) has appeared, nine years after the first volume. Apart from a couple of small pieces, none have been commercially released though Peter Mechen (who was the assistant producer and undertook research) reminds me that the Tchaikovsky concerto was played by the then Concert Programme in the 1980s and the Liszt recital was broadcast as part of a programme marking the 25th anniversary of Farrell’s death in 1983 as well as sporadically since.

The highlights here are the two piano concertos from the one-year-old National Orchestra in 1948, conducted by Andersen Tyrer (who certain local critics were pleased to routinely excoriate); Schumann’s Piano Quartet and Fantasy Waltzes by William Alwyn.

This final instalment, which consists of three CDs, has been slow emerging since it contains mainly music that has not appeared on commercial recordings (as was the case of the earlier volumes), and its unearthing has been a painstaking and sometimes complex process. The sources have been mainly radio networks: the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (as it was then), the BBC and Swiss Radio. In the light of the all-too-common practice by broadcasters of deleting music thought at the time to be unimportant, it is surprising and significant that these recordings have at last been publicly released.

It’s amazing they even survived!

The first two volumes
The first two-CD volume contained a number of Grieg’s piano works including the Piano Concerto and his Ballade in G minor, selections from the Popular Norwegian Melodies and Lyric Pieces; Brahms’s four Ballades, Op 10, and  several other pieces including the Waltzes of Op 39.

Volume 2 contained Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli and six of his Preludes; a number of pieces by Chopin including the first Scherzo; Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Handel and some of the Op 119 piano pieces, Liszt’s ‘reminiscences’, ‘paraphrases’ etc on popular pieces by other composers, including the quartet from Rigoletto and Schumann’s Widmung (which reappear now in Volume 3) and other smaller works: Schumann’s Arabesque and pieces by Mendelssohn, Debussy and De Falla.

Tchaikovsky No 1 and Beethoven No 4
The first disc in Volume 3 contains the two piano concertos, recorded in the Auckland Town Hall by the NZBS in 1948, just a year after the National Orchestra’s first performance. There is nothing disgraceful about the performance or the recording: it showed a 22-year-old Farrell somewhat inclined to overdramatise the music (if that could conceivably be a fault with this concerto!), occasionally disregarding the orchestra, but compared with the not uncommon tendency for soloists to be a little at odds, tempo-wise and in dynamics, with an orchestra, the flaws are very inconsequential. What is much more interesting is to have (for New Zealanders at any rate) this evidence of the very youthful orchestra and a comparably young, though already internationally acclaimed pianist. Tchaikovsky offers the pianist a commanding start and Farrell responds with unbridled ardour. His playing is typically impetuous, allowing little space between phrases, but these are well contrasted with the thoughtfulness and sensitivity in quiet passages. The frequent bravura passages are, nevertheless, not just breath-taking but conspicuously in tune with the music, for example in the episode leading to the peroration at the end of the first movement.

The deficiencies of the recording are perhaps more evident in the meditative second movement where one might have difficulty distinguishing the various woodwinds. I don’t know the size of the string sections in the early orchestra, but the third movement certainly reveals a thinness.

A more successful blending of soloist and orchestra exists in the Beethoven concerto where Farrell clearly responds to the more ‘classical’ character of the earlier work; in fact, I was impressed by the clarity and well-judged high spirits of the Finale, which I found myself thoroughly enjoying.

Schumann Piano Quartet
The recording of the Schumann Piano Quartet by the short-lived Richard Farrell Piano Quartet is very interesting. This recording for Swiss Radio is the only known, surviving recording by the group. The story of the discovery of its existence, the result of the concurrence of people and memories, is nearly as remarkable as the performance itself, which is the only example of Farrell as a consummate chamber musician.

The group was put together by a former member of the Adolph Busch Quartet, cellist Paul Grümmer, in Switzerland in 1956. Remarkably, two of the quartet’s members, violist Eduard Melkus and cellist Ottomar Borwitsky were aged about 90 when this issue was being prepared. They contributed memories of Farrell printed in the CD booklet: interesting, revelatory and amusing.

One might listen to this recording of Schumann’s piano quartet and, given the rarity of permanent piano quartet ensembles, hear the sounds characteristic of string quartets of the era, such as the Budapest or Borodin, the Fine Arts or Amadeus quartets (not to mention the Busch Quartet itself, one of the most famous of all). The sound is partly attributable no doubt to contemporary recording characteristics and quality, and not to be denigrated. So the recording is a treasure; microphones are quite close and the feeling of immediacy, intimacy is enhanced, which would make anything less than perfect articulation and intonation very conspicuous. The opening is warmly meditative, in sharp contrast to the sudden arrival of the Allegro of the first movement revealing admirable ensemble in which no instrument is dominant at any stage; that is no doubt a tribute in part to the engineer almost as much as to the players.

The rest of the second CD is taken by a selection of fairly popular piano pieces: several Liszt transcriptions/reminiscences, the 6th Hungarian Rhapsody and the Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa from the Years of Pilgrimage II – Italy.  Excellent performances, at times almost too perfect.

Alwyn: Fantasy Waltzes
The third disc is devoted to a real rarity: a set of eleven pieces, Fantasy Waltzes, dedicated to Farrell by British composer William Alwyn. They too were discovered somewhat by chance, traced through the William Alwyn Foundation and the William Alwyn Archive in the Cambridge University Library and recorded by the BBC in 1957. I’d never come across this suite of pieces and a first hearing didn’t make much impression: music of the era – the 1950s – that was not dictated by the strictures of the avant-garde, of serialism; but which did at first seem a bit lightweight, feathery, lacking melodic character: somewhat akin to Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer. But on second and later hearings its charming, unpretentious nature has taken root, as the various styles of waltzes are explored, melodies became more appealing and occasional cross-references start to emerge, all creating a more complex and interesting set of pieces.

Exploration of references on the Internet have led me to explore Alwyn’s other music – five symphonies and other orchestral music, four operas, much chamber and piano music as well as around seventy film scores (the NZSO under James Robertson played his second symphony in 1956 in Wellington and Auckland).

You will find an account of the Fantasy Waltzes, inter alia, on a website about a Chandos CD by pianist Julian Milford, in a series devoted to Alwyn; it mentions an earlier recording by John Ogdon, but not, naturally enough, the original dedicatee and first performer, Farrell.

Here is a quote from a review on the website:

“The Fantasy-Waltzes date from 1956-7, inspired by a visit to Grieg’s lakeside home. Almost certainly Alwyn’s best known piano music, this is a dazzling showcase, a work of constant invention which runs the gamut of moods and styles, yet is always unmistakably Alwyn. The pieces do stand alone, even though some end in disconcertingly flippant ways, but become more than the sum of the parts when heard as part of the complete structure. This is a kaleidoscope, a sustained and thoroughly enjoyable work with all the drama, colour and atmosphere one expects from Alwyn. Underneath it all is a smile, the warmth of a romantic who also knew how to have fun, both facets woven together in the spectacular twists and turns of the closing Presto.”

I feel very much the same way about them. The most comprehensive account of the pieces is on the website:

That article lists five recorded performances of the Fantasy Waltzes that were released, which did not of course include Farrell’s which remained in the archive. But it seems to be the only website to mention Farrell and it notes that he had played several of the waltzes in New Zealand before this recording was made (2 June 1957).

All of which confirm one’s impression of their being a rather significant part of the composer’s output that is nowadays rather neglected.

So Volume 3, a very miscellaneous collection of previously unpublished recordings of Farrell’s playing, not only deserves to be better known, but in their different ways reveal performances that are very interesting in themselves: A glimpse of the early NZSO, a fine performance of Schumann’s lovely piano quartet, a group of popular piano pieces that were better known in the 1950s than they are today, as a result of promoters’ avoidance of piano recitals, and the discovery of a group of charming and imaginative pieces by the neglected William Alwyn.

At least one of these diverse aspects should be enough to attract a wide range of music lovers.

This third volume of Farrell CDs can be purchased from Marbecks in Auckland: see their website.

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