Petri came from a Dutch family, his father Henri (1856–1914), being a professional violinist who had studied with Joseph Joachim. Henri’s work as a concertmaster took him and his family to many areas of Germany during Egon’s childhood. At the time of his birth the family was in Hanover where Henri was leader of the Royal Opera Orchestra. Two years later Henri was appointed leader of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Nikisch and later moved to Dresden to take a post at the opera house there. Young Egon was therefore born into an extremely musical environment and took his first lessons from many of the foremost musicians living in these cities. His father’s friends who passed though the family home included Grieg, Mahler, Anton Rubinstein, Brahms, Clara Schumann, Busoni and Teresa Carreño. Egon received tuition in piano from Richard Buchmayer and Carreño, although at this time it was thought that he would become a violinist. It was through the advice of Busoni and Paderewski that Petri eventually decided to concentrate on the piano in preference to the violin.
It was certainly Busoni’s influence that started Petri on his career as a pianist, and he no doubt helped him with his British debut in 1904 and the acquisition of a teaching post at the Royal Manchester College of Music where he took over from Wilhelm Backhaus. He gave many concerts in the area but by 1911 had had enough, realising that Manchester was not the ideal base from which to make a career as a virtuoso. He returned to Europe, finally residing after World War I in Berlin where he became a professor at the Hochschule. During this time he frequently gave concerts and in 1923 toured Russia. During the 1920s his reputation grew and by the 1930s he was firmly established as one of the foremost pianists of the day. Petri had intermittently lived in Zakopane in Poland and unfortunately was there in August of 1939 when the Germans invaded. He fled to America, where he had made his debut in 1932 (apparently giving thirty-three encores!), and took American citizenship. His already considerable reputation as teacher and pianist enabled him to acquire a post at Cornell University in New York State, but he abandoned this, and the life of a touring virtuoso, in 1946 when his health began to fail. He was offered a post in 1947 at Mills College in Oakland, and no doubt the thought of California’s agreeable climate encouraged him to accept. His health did, in fact, improve and he was able to give recitals on campus and local radio.
Petri’s repertoire was enormous; he had a book containing his vast programmes that he would give to concert promoters from which they could select anything, as it was all under his fingers at any time. His friendship with Busoni led him to champion many of the composer’s works, including the Piano Concerto Op. 39, of which he had prepared a two-piano score for publication. He had also helped Busoni edit a complete edition of Bach’s solo keyboard works. In fact, Busoni’s influence on him cannot be overestimated. Petri also championed the music of Alkan and Medtner, and was one of the first pianists in the twentieth century to play all thirty-two Beethoven sonatas in recital, giving the series in Oxford in 1908. A recital given in Helsinki in 1930 shows the size of programme he favoured. After Bach’s Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo BWV 992, arranged by Busoni, Petri played his mentor’s Fantasia contrappuntistica, Liszt’s B minor Sonata, both books of Brahms’s Variations on a theme by Paganini Op. 35 and ended with Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy. Petri had an infallible technique and was as equally at home with the Études d’exécution transcendante of Liszt, which he programmed in their entirety, as he was with the late Beethoven sonatas.
Petri was also an important teacher, passing on the Busoni tradition to John Ogdon, Karol Szreter, Earl Wild, Ruth Slenczynska, Grant Johannesen and Eugene Istomin. Petri’s first recordings were made in Germany for HMV/Electrola in 1929 and are all of virtuoso repertoire: Liszt, and his transcriptions of Schubert and Wagner, plus a rapid Chopin waltz. The recording of Liszt’s Gnomenreigen is technically superb and can only be compared to that of Simon Barere. The main bulk of Petri’s recordings was made for Columbia in England between 1935 and 1938. These sessions produced exciting performances of Liszt’s arrangement of the Waltz from Gounod’s Faust and his Étude d’exécution transcendante: Mazeppa, as well as the famous Brahms recordings: an astonishing performance of the Variations on a theme by Paganini Op. 35 in which the virtuosity never takes precedence over the music, and the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op. 24. For all their virtuosity, Petri’s recordings always have a sobriety and humility. He was neither a miniaturist nor, like Busoni, a conventional Chopin player. As well as some fine recordings from this period of Beethoven’s sonatas (Op. 111, Op. 90, Op. 78, Op. 27 No. 2) Petri committed to disc some of his Busoni interpretations. These authoritative readings include the Sonatina No. 3, Albumblatt No. 3 and the Carmen Fantasie (Sonatina No. 6). Petri’s recordings with orchestra of Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor Concerto Op. 23 and Liszt’s A major Concerto are less successful. He also partnered violinist Joseph Szigeti in Brahms’s D minor Sonata Op. 108. After his move to America, Petri recorded for Columbia from 1940 to around 1951. With Columbia pioneering the long-playing record it is not surprising to see some of Petri’s recordings from 1945 appearing on LP. His only recording of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 10 No. 2 was coupled on a ten-inch LP with the Bach–Busoni Chaconne, whilst one of Petri’s favourites, Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata Op. 106, was recorded in 1951. There was also an LP entitled Schubert in Transcription containing his only recording of Die Erlkönig. It is a pity that a great deal of Brahms’s pieces recorded for Columbia in 1945 have (to date) never been issued: Petri had known the composer, and had regarded his music as ‘modern’, so to consider his perspective on it would be especially valuable and interesting.
However, in the mid-1950s, a few LPs appeared on the Allegro label (subsequently reissued on various labels in various countries), including one of music by Brahms: the Ballades Op. 10, the Rhapsodies Op. 79 and some intermezzi. Beethoven and Liszt were also represented by a few works he did not otherwise record, Liszt by the excellent Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, and Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este, the closest Petri came to playing impressionistic music.
Perhaps Petri’s most important LPs were the five he made for Westminster around 1956. A disc of Liszt’s transcriptions displays the tradition handed down from Busoni, with Petri playing his mentor’s arrangements in most of the works. This disc was recorded when Petri was seventy-five but, giving no hint of his age, it is the best representation of him in his later years. There are two LPs of sonatas by Beethoven, and two of works by Busoni: his Bach transcriptions and, considering Petri’s relationship with the composer, an important reading of the Fantasia contrappuntistica. Since Petri’s death, LPs and CDs have appeared of live performances and broadcasts; a Beethoven sonata recital from Mills College given in 1954 won The Gramophone’s Historic Instrumental Award in 1984, and a private recording from the early 1950s of Alkan’s mammoth Symphony for Piano has also appeared on CD. Perhaps the most important live material to be issued is from 1936. A performance with Hans Rosbaud of Liszt’s Totentanz shows exactly the extraordinary impression Petri must have created at the height of his career.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).