A Brief Encounter

Image © Tully Potter Collection

Image © Tully Potter Collection

Brief Encounter Piano legend Eileen Joyce’s dazzling 1946 WAH17 performance unearthed by Decca in time for Valentine’s Day

Listen to the clip available for the first time on Decca Sound: The Piano Edition.

Australian pianist Eileen Joyce is famous for playing the devastating Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 2 which features in Brief Encounter – voted the most romantic film of all time and the nation’s favourite piece of classical music.

At the height of her fame, Joyce recorded soundtracks for and appeared on screen in a series of 1940s films, enjoying enormous critical acclaim and popularity performing to euphoric audiences after the declaration of peace in Europe. Joyce performed at Walthamstow Assembly Hall (WAH17) in 1945 during the bombing raids on London. She returned in 1946, the year Brief Encounter was released to record at the Hall.

Decca, who had enticed her away from Columbia, had recorded her famous Rachmaninoff interpretation at the Riverside Film Studios in Hammersmith – it was something of a coup for Decca to lure her to the label and now they were embarking on a special relationship with WAH17 where they had found a very special acoustic. Decca were to go on to record some of the first stereo recordings at the hall.

However the recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 2 was never to see the light of day. Notorious perfectionist and marathon performer – playing as many as four concertos in a single evening – Joyce was to suffer from a nervous breakdown in 1953. When asked what she thought of her debut Decca performance Joyce had replied “Don’t be silly”, implying no performer was ever entirely happy with their own performance, especially those ‘preserved’ forever on record.

Decca did not issue Joyce’s 1946 WAH17 performance, giving unspecified technical faults as their reason but it is likely she pulled the plug because she was dissatisfied with her performance. Independent judges who have heard the test pressings cannot detect any ‘technical faults’. In terms of audio quality, the recording is perhaps one of the most impressive things to emerge from Decca in the 1940s. And indeed the performance is outstanding. For Philip Fowke, Joyce’s performance of the concerto is “one of the finest I have heard; a performance of sparkle, passion and bravura.”

Until now, posterity has been robbed of this recording. But now it has been unearthed and made available by Decca on a stunning box set The Piano Edition, along with other outstanding performances from WAH17 aficionados including Dinu Lippatti.

WAH17 is renowned for its outstanding acoustics. Walthamstow Assembly Hall was completed in 1943 as part of the beautiful Waltham Forest Town Hall complex, hosting classical music concerts, operas and ballets as the bombs fell. With its stunning gold doors and William Morris quote “Fellowship is Life and the Lack of Fellowship is Death” emblazoned across the front – it was a beacon of hope.

Other names to record and perform at the Hall include Benjamin Britten who recorded his masterpiece Peter Grimes at the hall, Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story, On the Waterfront), Julie Andrews (Sound of Music, Mary Poppins), The Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols.