The Virtuoso Piano Music of George Frederick Boyle

01/10/2012
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare II (US)

Like his near contemporary Percy Grainger, George Frederick Boyle (1886–1948) was an Australian-born virtuoso pianist and composer who, after spending some time in Europe, ended up in the United States. There, however, the similarity ends. At least as far as I can tell from the limited sampling of his music here, Boyle was a far more mainstream musician, looking to canonical European models rather than to folk music for his inspiration, and lacking Grainger’s quirky experimentalism. He achieved a modest fame, especially as a teacher (he held important positions at Peabody, Curtis, and Juilliard). But even in his prime, he was sometimes disparaged as a pianist; after his New York debut in 1917, the New York Times praised his musicianship and technique, but pointed out (in a style that epitomizes that period of journalism) that he “did not demonstrate the deepest poetical feeling of a flaming eloquence.” Nor was his contribution as a composer universally admired; the Times review of a performance of the large-scale sonata in 1933 panned it for its “singularly verbose unoriginality.” No surprise that he was quickly forgotten after he died. He doesn’t seem to have left any discs as a pianist (although in his notes, Timothy Young mentions piano rolls); and little of his music has been recorded (although the Ballade showed up a decade ago on Tantara TCD 08991P1; see Fanfare 24:6). I’ll confess that I can’t recall having heard a note of his music before this CD came my way.

Not very auspicious—but augury is not especially reliable, and Boyle is more interesting than you might expect. True, the evidence does not suggest that he stands up with the best of that talented and provocative cohort born in the 1880s (which included Berg, Enescu, Medtner, Stravinsky, and Szymanowski); but he was certainly a solid member of the second rank. As you’re likely to predict not far into the opening of the Ballade—which seems like an out-take from Liszt’s Ad Nos Fantasy—this disc does not introduce us to music with major surprises or an especially distinctive voice. Still, his writing for the instrument is knowledgeable, even if it’s not especially adventurous; his melodies are extremely attractive, even if they’re not quite memorable; his textures are rich, even if Boyle can’t match the contrapuntal ingenuity and intricacy we hear in the music of Medtner (who is sometimes fleetingly evoked) and Godowsky (to whom the Ballade was dedicated); his harmonic practice—which shows some influence of the French Impressionists (and even seems to point briefly to late Scriabin in the central panel of the Five Pieces)—is skillful, even if it rarely seeks to trouble us.

Will you like it? It depends on your standards and your expectations. Certainly, if you turn to music of this period to find the bracing dissonance we hear in the contemporary works of Prokofiev and Bartók or the tonal unmooring we hear in Szymanowski (much less the abandonment of tonality being practiced by Schoenberg and his disciples), you’ll be disappointed. You’ll be disappointed, too, if you expect anything distinctly American: no memories of Gottschalk here, no connections to Ives. But if you’re looking for dark late Romanticism redux, you’ll probably enjoy the Ballade and Sonata, fairly determined works with lots of surging and striving, plenty of momentum, and a stern avoidance of whimsy. There’s more variety in the Five Pieces—the sweet transparency of the Valsette, which may remind you in spots of early Debussy, is especially endearing—but even here, the idioms are familiar and the emotional range restricted. An Australian Bortkiewicz? If that appellation seems to be damning with faint praise (or even worse), you should probably steer clear. But if it sounds at all appealing, then you should definitely check this out.

Timothy Young plays with tremendous commitment and flairhis technique is solid, his tone is voluptuous, and he catches the swells of the phrasing magnificently. The sound is first-rate, too. I only wish his notes were more detailed. I referred loosely to “music of this period”—but it’s not clear precisely what period we’re talking about, since the Ballade and the Five Pieces are identified by date of publication rather than date of composition, and while Young gives both dates for the Sonata, his claim that it was composed in 1915 doesn’t match the newest Grove date of 1921. A minor glitch, though, in an impressive release. Peter J. Rabinowitz