The Virtuoso Piano Music of George Frederick Boyle

Adrian Corleonis
Fanfare (US)

It would be possible to write an entertaining book on the shift from postromantic to Modern as seen by three Australian pianists arriving in London at the turn of the 20th century. Percy Grainger (1882–1961) is first to come to mind, both as a creative force and as a pianist whose recordings still loom with considerable impact, though he was just making his way in that era. Ernest Hutcheson (1871–1951), by virtue of studies with Bernhard Stavenhagen, was one of many carrying the Lisztian flame into the 20th century. A critic, his opinions are still encountered in “the literature.” Arriving in the United States in 1914, Hutcheson established himself as a pianist and joined the faculty of the burgeoning Juilliard School of Music, becoming dean (1926–37) and president (1937–45). George Frederick Boyle (1886–1948), a Busoni protégé, followed a similar course, concertizing widely while taking posts at the Peabody Institute, on Busoni’s recommendation, where, at age 24, he took over for Hutcheson as head of the piano department, then at the Curtis Institute (where Hutcheson was a colleague), finally teaching at Juilliard until 1940.

Encountering the young Boyle during an Australian tour in 1903, Paderewski suggested that he study with Busoni, and Mark Hambourg, with whom Boyle was touring, effected the introduction in 1905. Boyle was to recall Busoni as “the greatest single influence to which circumstance or my own design have ever subjected me.” The peculiar phraseology is symptomatic and paralleled in Boyle’s music. On the other hand, Boyle’s name occurs once in E. J. Dent’s Ferruccio Busoni, where it is noted that the Italian secured an engagement for Boyle with Henry Wood, conductor of the popular Promenade Concerts, in autumn 1908. Boyle’s studies with Busoni seem to have lasted from 1905 to 1910. By a curious chance, Grainger’s few abrasive piano lessons with Busoni had taken place in 1903. Probably dating from 1909, Busoni’s edition of Liszt’s Polonaise No. 2—a magnificent piece marred by a perfunctory coda Busoni replaced with a brilliant cadenza and coda commensurate with the foregoing—is dedicated to Boyle. That is, one catches tantalizing glimpses of Boyle amid an ever-growing crowd of also-rans whose works are cropping up with increasing frequency on disc.

In his time, Boyle was an esteemed composer whose music was widely performed and published. Hutcheson, for instance, gave the premiere of his Piano Concerto, a work available online for download in a two-piano transcription for those wanting a hands-on tilt at his keyboard manner. Meanwhile, the present CD, with its program of two substantial works and five miniatures—the first recording of any of Boyle’s music—is a fine introduction to a body of work wholly unknown to all but connoisseurs of the most recherché persuasion. Boyle’s style is eclectically postromantic. The gestures of Liszt and Chopin are assumed to be still potent and available. Chopin’s scherzi, in particular the Scherzo in C♯-Minor, lie behind much of the action. Composed in 1921, the Ballade’s template—annunciatory octaves giving way to chromatic muttering and stalking left-hand octaves—is the third of Busoni’s Elegies, the chorale prelude Meine Seele bangt und hofft zu Dir (though the piece is dedicated to Leopold Godowsky), while, harmonically, anything goes. The chordal clotting and occasional acerbic dissonances of the beginning offer a harmonic welter that promises an elucidation that never arrives. As in the Sonata, from 1915, Boyle’s deadpan material does not develop as it’s subjected to grandiose flights set off by sweeping arpeggios and swooping scalar passages, that is, improvisatory flourishes leading nowhere. Granted, breathtaking moments rise from, and sink back into, streaming clichés. Or, one might say that everything relies too much on brilliant passagework against which ecstasy-lite oddments loom, lending the smaller pieces an air of much ado about nothing and underlining a failure to make a cohesive, conclusive statement, for all the pother, in the ambitious works. Adding to his stylistic olla podrida, juicy harmonies from salon fare and popular song come winging through, not as allusions but as bird-bower “finds.” The more one listens, the curiouser (if you’ll permit) Boyle becomes. For the musical anatomist, this is fascinating stuff; for the historian it’s a niche we had yet to suspect splendidly filled.

As the dust settles and blood dries on the sand, the equivocal impression left behind is not to be blamed on the pianist. For Timothy Young, this is an obvious labor of love, animated by tremendous energy, muscular aplomb, and complete identification. In fairness, the gist of these pieces may have come across somewhat differently in their own time, while we’re hearing not even a tithe of Boyle’s prolific output, including nine orchestral works, an opera titled The Black Rose, eight chamber works, in excess of 70 piano pieces, and more than 30 vocal compositions. Context might tell a different story about these works. Sound is immediate, vibrant, transparent. And Young’s notes, while more than adequate, ultimately tantalize. Admiringly recommended.