AMERICAN PIANO MUSIC. MACDOWELL: Marionettes Suite, op. 38.* Virtuoso
Studies, op. 46/10 March Wind. CHASINS: Prelude in d, op. 13/5. Prelude
in f#, op. 11/1. GERSHWIN: 3 Preludes. MASON: Country Sketches -- The Whippoorwill,
op. 9/4. CARPENTER: Diversion. GUION: Country Jig. THOMPSON: Song After
Sundown. FREED: 5 Pieces for Piano -- March. DETT: Adagio cantabile. SOWERBY:
The Lonely Fiddlemaker. BAUER: The New Hampshire Woods, op. 12/1 -- White
Birches. BEACH: 5 Improvisations -- No. 2. FARWELL: Navajo War Dance, op.
20/1. Sourwood Mountain, op. 78/3.
*Rudolph Ganz (piano); Jeanne Behrend (piano).
PRISTINE AUDIO PAKM 044 TT: 46:57.
(THIS CD MAY BE PURCHASED FROM PRISTINE
Blasts from the past. Following shifts in audience taste, recital programming
has changed in the past seventy years -- in terms not just of individual
pieces, but of the philosophy of programming. We see it most clearly in
singer and piano recitals. The public wants monuments: Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata vs. a Poulenc Novelette or even the Sonata No. 22; Schubert's Winterreise rather
than Speaks's "On the Road to Mandalay." Unfortunately,
we think of ourselves as normal. Why wouldn't programming be thus, given
the choice? Yet, not too long ago, singers like John Charles Thomas and
John McCormack made a very good living performing salon morceaux. Our foreparents
differed from us. We have learned to take our trash from other sources
and other genres. Classical music is supposed to be, well, classy.
I'm a big fan of trash. I like sweets and junk food. They make my diet
more interesting. I have problems with the new classical regimen. It
tends to keep out miniatures. So we don't get a lot of Schumann, Grieg,
Borodin, Falla, and Tchaikovsky. Miniature, after all, doesn't necessarily
mean inferior. The composers here didn't fob off dreck on an innocent public.
In many cases, they used these pieces to lead listeners to their more ambitious
work. This CD presents a very interesting view of what occurred on the
American music dugout bench while the A Team -- Copland, Sessions, etc.
-- took the field. Of course, nobody really knew how reputations would
shake out. With the exception of Gershwin, all the composers here fell
into neglect, but these little pieces still make a very attractive case
Americans once thought Edward MacDowell their finest composer. For one
thing, he had the respect of European critics, who during his lifetime,
held his Piano Concerto No. 2 in the same esteem as the Schumann Piano
Concerto. We wouldn't go that far today, although MacDowell's concerto
is a marvelous work, well worth reviving. I think it his best, since
I'm allergic to most of his other stuff. I usually find him turgid. In
to the big forms (no symphony) like concerto, tone poems, and sonatas,
the piano suite, often nature-inspired, especially attracted him. Yet
you have only to compare "March Wind" to Chopin's "Autumn Leaves" étude
to discern the limits of MacDowell's idiom. Nevertheless, many of his
hits come from the suites. Normally, I can live without them, but Marionettes delights. MacDowell creates whimsical character pieces on characters from
a puppet theater: clowns, lovers, a witch, and so on. A villain, of course,
menaces the stage, but on a small scale, with no real consequences. These
are puppets, after all. MacDowell manages the considerable task of caprice,
sentiment, and lightness without dousing his characters in treacle. Furthermore,
although you could excerpt individual movements, the suite works best as
an integral whole. I consider these Schumann-worthy miniatures.
Abram Chasins had a high reputation as an all-around musician between the
wars: pianist, conductor, composer, lecturer, and even radio executive,
long associated with WQXR and KUSC. Although Toscanini once championed
his music, it has disappeared from general hearing. Listening to his music,
you'd never know that Debussy or Stravinsky lived. It reminds me a lot
of Medtner, not a bad thing and within its limitations, very well made.
The 3 Preludes of Gershwin have become American classics. Every young
American pianist I've ever met has them down. Gershwin wrote at least
twice as many
pieces he called preludes and winnowed down to the three best for publication.
Pianists usually perform them in a group. The liner notes interest me
because they show received opinion of Gershwin at the time (the Forties)
-- a gifted "natural," not
quite first-rank, with the taint of popularity and success still clinging
to him. In other words, the figure of Gershwin obscures the view of his
music. At this point, the view strikes me as a bit quaint. The three consist
of a hyper-Charleston, a gorgeously smoky, blues-like slow number, and
a blazing "Spanish" finish.
Daniel Gregory Mason, grandson of the hymnodist Lowell Mason, studied
with d' Indy, among others, and taught at Columbia University. Despite
and political reactionaryism, his best compositions remain those based
on Black spirituals and folk music. Other than that, the genteel smothers
him. "The Whippoorwill" falls into the latter bin, but I have
to admit its charm.
Like Charles Ives, John Alden Carpenter was also a successful businessman.
There the similarity ends. He studied with Paine at Harvard and with,
interestingly enough and after much persistence, Elgar in Rome. However,
his mature music
has little to do with either. He got bit by both Impressionism and jazz,
which moved him in the direction of Modernism. Clarity and refinement
mark his music, as well as great wit. "Diversion" shows his
mastery of a certain nature-inspired mood.
David Wendell Fentress Guion was known as the "cowboy-composer." In
many ways, his composing career resembled Cecil Sharp's. He was as much
folk-music collector as composer, and most of his pieces are arrangements
of American folk songs and dances. Growing up on a working Texas ranch,
he heard the songs of cowboys and Black spirituals, when the maid took
him to her church on Sundays. Guion's arrangement popularized a little-known
cowboy ballad, "Home on the Range," in a cowboy show he appeared
in on Broadway during the Thirties. He later had his own radio program. "Country
Jig" meets the title's expectations, with the piano imitating barn-dance
fiddles. It reminds me of Virgil Thomson's take on folk music, but here
the naïveté is anything but faux. It does set the toes to tappin'.
People think of Randall Thompson, if they do so at all, as a choral composer,
since he wrote a ton of it, mostly of excellent quality. His music, at
its best, brims full of memorable tunes. He also wrote a lot for amateurs,
and this has led critics to dismiss him. Through much of his career,
however, he was regarded as a major American talent, with symphonies,
opera, and cantatas to his credit. I keep hoping for a Randall Thompson
revival and have watched at least two attempts fizzle out. Maybe one
day. Thompson composed "Song After Sundown" for an album of
children's piano pieces and later arranged it for string quartet. A meditative
in the Dorian mode, it recalls Thompson's teacher, Ernest Bloch.
Isadore Freed also studied with Bloch, as well as with d' Indy and Boulanger.
He is remembered as a teacher, lecturer, and composer for the Jewish
liturgy. His vigorous "March," part of the larger suite 5 Pieces, resembles
some of Bloch's Enfantines, but is distinguished by the fact that Freed
consciously shaped it as a monothematic piece.
Born in Niagara Falls, Canada, Nathaniel Dett was one of the first Blacks
to graduate from the Oberlin Conservatory as a composition student. Inspired
by Dvorák, he strove to write music based on the African diaspora
in the New World. He never lost his Late Romantic outlook. "Adagio
cantabile" sings like a Spiritual to the extent that you can almost
swear you hear the words.
Best known as a composer for organ and chorus, Leo Sowerby wrote in all
major instrumental genres, orchestral and chamber, as well. From his
Chicago base, he taught a fair number of fine composers and musicians,
Gail Kubik and Ned Rorem. His music has always struck me as a mix of
Schola Cantorum French, caught between the Late Romantic period and the
of Modernism, Impressionism, and Hindemithian neo-classicism (not, of
course, in the same score). After World War II, critics largely forgot
although I find at least some of his music well worth a listen. "The
Lonely Fiddlemaker," part of the suite From the Northland (in this
case, upper Michigan), begins with the fiddler tuning up and then moves
to a gentle jig, which strikes me as similar to a French-Canadian folksong.
Nadia Boulanger's first American pupil, Marion Bauer slightly predates
the first Modernist generation of Copland, Harris, Sessions, and Thomson,
but she soon joined in, even to the extent of a brief interest in dodecaphony
during the Forties. Stokowski took her music up. To me, her music lacks
drive and focus, exemplified by "White Birches," little more
than a haze of sound.
Arthur Farwell belonged to a group called the American Indianists. They
had taken Dvorák's advice on using native sources to heart, but
instead of African-American sources, they turned to Native American. A
student of Humperdinck, Farwell began as a Late Romantic. The Indian connection
made his music more interesting, both melodically and harmonically. I should
say that what's billed here as the "Navajo War Dance" is not
the composition I know under that title, recorded years ago by Grant Johannesen.
Perhaps Farwell wrote two of them. The one I know is definitely wilder,
but the composition strategies are the same, with the chant harmonized
largely in fourths, rather than in the conventional thirds. "Sourwood
Mountain" arranges the traditional fiddle tune. It resembles Guion's "Country
Jig" but takes a much more sophisticated approach.
Amy Beach's place in American music is complicated by her gender. Other
than Ives, she was at one point the best composer in late nineteenth-century
America. But she was also a female and thus not taken seriously, even
though her husband encouraged her composition. As the century progressed,
she had begun to tinker around the edges of Impressionism, her music
grew increasingly out of notice. Her "Improvisation No. 2" evokes
the comfy Vienna of La Belle Époque.
Rudolph Ganz, a student of Busoni, played the piano, conducted, and composed.
At one point, he led the St. Louis Symphony. He was always interested
in the music of his time and as an old man conducted pieces by Pierre
Ravel, in gratitude for Ganz's promotion of his music, dedicated to him
the "Scarbo" movement from Gaspard de la Nuit. Many considered
him the foremost exponent of MacDowell's piano music. On the basis of this
recording, I wholeheartedly agree. As I've said, MacDowell's piano music
seldom spun the propeller on my beanie, but under Ganz's fingers, it does.
Jeanne Behrend, pianist and composer, was a classmate and friend of Samuel
Barber's at Curtis. She premiered early Barber works (later withdrawn)
as well as the full four-movement Excursions. All but ten minutes of this
CD we owe to her enterprise, writing publishers and exploring repertory.
She's at her best in the Late Romantic stuff. I'd describe her Gershwin
as careful. She doesn't really get it, but then again, she's got plenty
of company. My favorite performance remains Oscar Levant's. In the rest,
she's fine, although not particularly exciting.
Pristine's thing is to improve sound quality of historical recordings.
Depending on the state of their sources, the results are often spectacular.
The source here are not masters, but actual commercially-released records.
All things considered, the transfers are clean and clear, although you
still get "historical" sound.
S.G.S. (March 2012)