Grünfeld received his first lessons in musical education at the Prague Conservatory but soon went to the Kullak Academy in Berlin to study composition with Richard Würst and piano with Kullak himself. He made his debut at the age of twelve and in 1873 settled in Vienna where he became extremely popular, playing at soirées and parties for the aristocracy, astonishing the public with his ability to sight-read and improvise. His brother Heinrich was a cellist and together they played a cello sonata by Anton Rubinstein in Vienna in 1874. Here, Grünfeld also met Leschetizky, Brahms and Johann Strauss, of whose works Grünfeld made popular transcriptions. Vienna’s eminent critic Eduard Hanslick said of Grünfeld, ‘He is a musician beyond criticism; in public and in private one of the best known members of Vienna Society, and the greatest favourite with all musical people. By his brilliant playing as well as his sweet expression and gay humour, he understands to perfection the art of charming his listeners in Vienna.’
Grünfeld was made Court Pianist to the Emperor and began travelling in 1876. On a visit to London in 1879 he was disappointed by his reception in both private and public and decided not to return. During the 1880s he toured extensively in Germany, appearing also in Russia in 1883, and in Scandinavia, France, Hungary, Poland, Romania and America in 1891. Whilst in Russia Grünfeld was made a member of the Order of St Stanislas by Tsar Alexander III.
The first pianist of note to make recordings, Grünfeld began in 1899, some ten years before other gramophone pioneers Mark Hambourg, Wilhelm Backhaus and Percy Grainger. He made around ninety 78rpm sides over a period of fifteen years. Grünfeld’s style was elegant and charming, just as Hanslick notes. A pearly tone and translucent quality can be heard in his recordings, all of which were made by the acoustic process between 1899 and 1914. Most of the music recorded was of his own compositions of the salon type for which he was famous, including his transcriptions of Strauss which are pianistically simpler and more transparent than those of Moriz Rosenthal and Leopold Godowsky. Although he programmed Schumann’s Fantasie Op. 17, Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV 903, Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor K. 466, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 110 and the B major Sonata of Schubert, it was the shorter more popular works that were recorded.
Two compact discs have appeared featuring Grünfeld. One, from APR, includes ten works recorded in 1905 of which all are by Grünfeld except one mazurka by Chopin. In 1993 a compact disc was issued on the Opal label which gives an excellent view of Grünfeld’s art as it contains works by Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Grieg, Debussy and Korngold. The very first recording from 1899 is of Grieg’s Butterfly Op. 43 No. 1 in surprisingly good sound for its age, whilst Grünfeld’s talent is evident in both Wagner’s Isoldes Liebestod arranged by Liszt and also in his delightfully-played Strauss paraphrases. It is clear from these recordings that Grünfeld was an excellent artist possessing an ability to charm with his sound and style.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).