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).

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, Fauré, 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 for them.

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 addition 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 his musical 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, chamber music, 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 piece 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, including 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 beginnings of Modernism, Impressionism, and Hindemithian neo-classicism (not, of course, in the same score). After World War II, critics largely forgot about him, 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, although 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 Boulez. 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)