Society for American Music

Bulletin, Volume XXVII, no. 1 (Spring 2001)

Reviews of Recorded Materials

Edited by Orly Leah Krasner, City College, CUNY

Ivo Kaltchev, piano. Gega New CD 123, 1998. One compact disc.

Of all the might-have-beens in American music, few are more poignant than the case of Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920), who died after a short and undeservedly obscure career in music. Although trained in Germany, Griffes turned increasingly to French models for inspiration during his brief maturity, producing some fine works with a certain originality. Originality, however, is not the first impression left by Ivo Kaltchev's Griffes disc. The first two of the four Roman Sketches, Op. 7, "The White Peacock" and "Nightfall" are overly indebted to Debussy. "The Fountain of Acqua Paola" opens with a fine American-sounding melody, but then descends into standard late-Romantic note-spinning. Things pick up considerably with the last piece in this set; "Clouds" is music of genuine beauty, of wispy and a bit lightweight.

"The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan," in its orchestral setting, was among the few works of Griffes to achieve some attention in his lifetime. In the original piano version, its dark opening brings Mussorgsky to mind, and Griffes works this idiom effectively with some ominous left-hand passages. Bulgarian pianist Kaltchev digs deep into the Slavic darkness of these measures, and to great effect. So, too, in the brooding "A Winter Landscape," heard here in its world premiere recording. "Legend" has a strong individual stamp; "De Profundis" is a less compelling, if still craftsmanly, essay in the Romantic style. The most ambitious work on the disc, the Piano Sonata, is written with great sophistication of technique, has moments of considerable power, and, as Kaltchev notes, deserves to be a cornerstone of the American piano repertoire.

Kaltchev plays all this music with great conviction and elegance. His dedication to Griffes is palpable in every note, an impression reinforced by the strenuous advocacy of his liner notes. This is a considerable and recommended addition to the small body of Griffes recordings; however, it is unlikely to replace Denver Oldham's New World disc, which contains some of the same repertoire and is more readily available.

WIlliam Grant Still: Three Visions; Seven Traceries. Howard Swanson: The Cuckoo. Robert Nathaniel Dett: In the Bottoms. Ulysses Kay: Three Inventions. John Wesley WOrk, Jr.: Big Bunch of Roses. Oscar Peterson: The Gentle Waltz. Duke Ellington: Come Sunday. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Valse-Suite, Opus 71. Monica Gaylord, piano. Music & Arts CD 737, 1998. One compact disc.

This appealing retrospective of African-American piano music covers much of the twentieth century. The Valse-Suite, Op. 71, is a strong set by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), a composer of mixed English and West Indian extraction who was widely viewed in his time as the great black hope of cultivated music. John Wesley Work, Jr. (1901-1967), the scion of an eminent musical family, drew heavily on black themes, musical and otherwise, in his work. "Big Bunch of Roses" from his Appalachia is charming. "The Cuckoo," by Howard Swanson (1907-1978) is overly repetetive, with an obvious two-note cuckoo figure throughout, but manages to be infectious just the same. Ulysses Kay (1917-1995) held an honored place in mid-century American music, and it is clear why the three brief Inventions here (in G minor, A Minor and C Major). The most abstract, lesst folkish music on the disc, these pieces are gems.

The central figure on this disc is William Grant Still (1895-1978), represented by Three Visions and Seven Traceries, both from the first full decade of his maturity as a composer. "Summerland," the languid, central movement from Three Visions, shows him to particular advantage. This set is more effective overall than the Impressionistic, later Seven Traceries, although it also has admirable moments: central passages from "Mystic Pool," parts of the brooding "Wailing Dawn," and the brief, skittering "A Bit of Wit."

R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) is widely remembered for his spirituals arrangements as well as his original compositions. His five-movement In the bottoms is great American music, the work of a genuine master of classical form rooted in the vernacular. This is as true of the dark, mysterious "Prelude: Night" and the dignified "His Song" as it is of hte flirtatious, ragtimey "Honey" and the joyous "Juba Dance." In the Bottoms absolutely steals the show here.

Pianist Monica Gaylord is capable in all this music, evincing fine technique and a sure sense of the varied idioms involved in this diverse collection. The disc has good sound and is generously programmed at seventy-seven minutes. All told, this is a valuable contribution to the African-American classical music catalog.

Samuel Barber: Sonata for Piano, Op. 26. Aaron Copland: Piano Sonata. Elliott Carter: Piano Sonata. John Owings, Piano. Koch 3-7622-2H1, 1999. One compact disc.

This recent CD by John Owings features sonatas by three giants of twentieth-century American music. Samuel Barber's compelling four-movement Sonata opens with a fierce Allegro energico. The Allegro vivace e leggiero, is a sparkling scherzo, while the third movement, Adagio mesto, evinces a deep anxiety. The concluding Fuga, Allegro con spirito is particularly memorable, somehow melding a scholastic method with a hint of Broadway sensibility. (This is fitting, as the piece's League of Composers commission was funded by Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers.)

Aaron Copland's terrific Piano Sonata begins with a characteristic mixture of very open sonorities and plangent dissonances; it creates a strangely insistent, yet still, mood. The fun second movement has rhythms reminiscent of the Piano Variations. The final movement ranks with the best of Copland's piano solos; it derices much of its power from a very simple two-note gesture in the bass, a descending fifth, that comes to carry a beauty and emotional weight all out of proportion to its elements.

Elliott Carter's Sonata is less ingratiating than the other two works. Although it comes from the earlier, more accessible end of his long career, this music demands a lot of the listener. Yet it is original, well written, and will reward repeated listenings by those with a high tolerance for the spikier aspect of musical modernism. John Owings plays all this music extremely well, and the disc is a good representation of American piano music at the midpoint of the century just past. The booklet comes with fine program notes by Michael Meckna.

Randall Hodgkinson, piano.
Robert Helps, piano.
Randall Hodkinson, piano. New World CD 80546-2, 1998. One compact disc.

This New World reissue of works by Roger Sessions (1896-1985) and Donald Martino (b. 1931) puts us firmly in the aesthetic orbit of hard-edged mid-century abstraction. Sessions was among the most honored composers of his generation, if not one of the public particularly clasped to its collective bosom. He is represented here by his second and third piano sonatas. The second Sonata, among the composer's finest achievements, is cast in one long movement with a fast-slow-fast structure. The outer sections in particular are filled with impressive ideas that grip the ear immediately, without resort to repetition or easy sequence. It would be difficult for any open-minded, musical person not to respond to this great music. Would that I could praise as highly the more ambitious Sonata No. 3. This music expects more from the listener, perhaps too much. The first and second movements exemplify the insular modernism that has turned off so much of the music-consuming publis. Those still nostalgic for John F. Kennedy may be able to imagine some emotion into the final movement, Lento e molto tranquillo "(In memoriam: November 22, 1963)."

Donald Martino's Fantasies and Impromptus feels even colder than the mature Sessions, an essay in relentless musical assault. Though doubtless well crafted, it offers little for the ordinary mortal mind to remember. (Next to these two pieces, the Carter sonata mentioned above is positively cuddly!) The performances are exemplary, as are the soudn and liner notes, but this disc is primarily useful as a reference tool, the earlier Sessions Sonata emphatically excepted.

David Macdonald: Suite for Piano. Jonathan Faiman: Piano Sonata. Ken Sullivan: Maracaibo. Eric Samuelson: Sonata for Piano. David Shohl: Dynamophone. Derek Bermel: Three Funk Studies; Dodecaphunk. Ricky Ian Gordon: Winter Again; Desire Rag. Johnathan Faiman, piano. Musicians Showcase CD 113098,1999. One compact disc.

The most important and impressive disc of this review is Hie Up the Mountain, music by composers between the ages of about thirty and fifty, now just reaching the height of their creative powers. Not for them the hard edges of mid-century modernism, yet there is considerable craft in the pieces, which leave the listener satisfied, and with a good deal to think about.

Pianist Jonathan Faiman's own Piano Sonata shows a ready technique, and has some interesting passages. His collection of miniatures, Five Vaults, is quite diverse and mostly delightful. The opening movement, "First," has an irresistible rhythmic figure that returns in two later movments. "Poise" and "Float" are especially charming. David Macdonald's Suite for Piano, inspired by French Baroque harpsichord music, varies greatly in mood and style over its three movements. The lovely "Menuet" hints somewhat of Ravel, adn there are carillon-like sonorities reminiscent of Federico Mompou, yet Macdonald's music has a beauty, and a toughness, all its own.

Ken Sullivan's Maracaibo is predictably tropical and lush, but has some surprises and memorable moments. Eric Samuelson's five-movement Sonata for Piano opens with a tough Allegro movement that hints at some of the many earlier masters this very good composers acknowledges. Two fine waltzes frame a magnificent chorale, entitled "Sanctus," the centerpiece of this excellent sonata. The last movment, "Lost Shadow Rag" (a reference to Peter Pan?), is a study in rhythmic displacement, reminiscent of William Bolcom's piano rages, but with a wayward quality that suggests Satie.

David Shohl's Dynamophone -- tough, muscular piano usic, and genuinely exciting -- puts Faiman's considerable technique to the test. Derek Bermel's Three Funk Studies makes a lively impression, particularly the last, which is funky indeed. His Dodecaphunk, described by the composer as a twelve-tone jazz fugue, is jaunty and never sounds academic. Ricky Ian Gordon, the best-known of these young masters, is represented by two wonderful pieces, the intense, moody Winter Again and the brief, creamy Desire Rag. This Musicians Showcase disc is a major contribution to the available body of music by the generation now making its mark in American music. IF you only afford one of these five discs reviewed here, then Hie Up the Mountain is unquestionably the one to get.

--Elliott S. Hurwitt
Hunter College, CUNY

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