Piano Sonata No. 1 Tragica (1892) [26.21]
Piano Sonata No. 2 Eroica (1895) [24.53]
Piano Sonata No. 3 Norse (1899) [17.54]
Piano Sonata No. 4 Keltic (1900) [18.54]
Woodland Sketches (1896) [25.10]
Sea Pieces (1898)
Alan Mandel (piano)
rec 4 & 7 Jan 1999, Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress, Washington
PHOENIX PHCD 148 2
CDs CD1 [72.14] CD2
This was a project waiting to happen. Surprisingly this seems to be the first
time that all of the Macdowell piano sonatas have been collected in a single
Alan Mandel is a major name in the performance of American piano music. The
booklet mentions his 4 disc sets of the complete piano music of Charles Ives
and Louis Gottschalk. I seem also to recollect a box of the piano music of
Scott Joplin. Wasn't it on the Desto label?
Macdowell's German credentials served him well on his return to the States.
The major American orchestras were dominated by German conductors and the
likes of Paur, Nikisch and Gericke were quick to include his music in their
concert series. On 5 March 1889 the composer was the soloist in his Second
Piano Concerto with the New York Phil conducted by Theodore Thomas who was
a native of East Friesland.
Macdowell was of Scottish-Irish stock. These Celtic credentials are apparent
in the Scottish snap of the Eroica's first and third movements which
are heroically strenuous pealing out with much the same romantic afflatus
as his British contemporary, Stanford in the Three Rhapsodies
(Francesca, Beatrice and Capaneo). The second movement:
grotesques capering and gibbering in Lisztian cascades. Sonata Eroica
treads the Arthurian legendary track and reaches serenity and tenderness
in the Guinevere movement. That tenderness surely worked its witchery on
Howard Hanson in his Romantic Symphony. The Arthurian character of
the work reflects a by no means isolated interest - his 1888 tone poem, written,
under the aegis of Liszt, in Germany was entitled Lancelot and Elaine.
Later, one of his partsongs, Summerwind, was to set to words about
'Lancelot and Guinevere'. The plangent noble theme of the first movement
strides gravely forward in the finale - reflective of Arthur's triumph in
death at the hands of Mordred.
Both the Norse and Keltic Sonatas are dedicated to Grieg and
it is Grieg's charming pictorialism that is recalled in the Sea-Pieces
and Woodland Sketches. Stormy cloud-hung romance suffuses the
Norse Sonata which in its sonorous nobility at 4.15 (II) reaches out
towards the Grieg concerto and, as in the Eroica, touches some
very Rachmaninovian nerve notes (cf the much later Stanford Second Piano
Concerto). The Keltic has the same strenuous tragi-heroic set to the
jaw, great gestural themes claw upwards and outwards with the commanding
imperious awkwardness of Brahms' First Piano Concerto. The middle movement
stands back from the superheated romantics and leads us naively into a forest
glade but perhaps these are Caledonian trees for the themes have the slowly
recoiling skirl of 'the pipes'.
The Woodland Sketches (1896) and Sea Pieces (1898) are done
with slender charm though the foundations of the 1898 sequence are touched
with oceanic depths. Barbagallo on Naxos has a better line to the Schumann-like
fantasy of these pieces but Mandel is a stronger contender in his muscular
portrayal of the Sonatas. The First Sonata is dedicated to Raff with whom
Macdowell studied in Frankfurt. The Tragica has the battered nobility
of the other works and if the lighter second movement is a cruel crashing
of emotional gears the third and fourth movements banish doubts in a torrent
of masculine majesty.
Mandel is good in the sonatas but is not to be preferred over Barbagallo
in the salon suites. The core of this unique set is the four sonatas. They
are done with confident flourish and with a weighty tone apt to works that
breathe the clean air of heroic endeavour and legendary exploits. Medtner's
Ballades are but a small pace away.
The last three sonatas are perhaps his strongest works; certainly his most
ambitious. Straddling two centuries the sonatas embody nineteenth century
romance in a highly developed idiom. There is a similarity of themes and
a tendency to lapse towards prettiness when he aspires to express beauty
but in these works Macdowell come as close as he ever came to consummation
of his ambitions. The much vaunted second piano concerto lacks the drama
of these works.
Previous recordings of the sonatas include a most impressive version of the
Eroica by Clive Lythgoe (whatever happened to him?). This never made
it to CD but the Philips LP (9500 095) was my initiation into the world of
Macdowell. There are also recordings from James Tocco who recorded numbers
1, 2 and 3 on Kingdom CKCL2009 (originally Gasparo GSCD232/4) but whose disc
was written off in some critical quarters as 'routine'. James Fierro recorded
the Eroica for Delos (on DE1019) with the Virtuoso Etudes and
this was well received. Garah Landes' Koch International disc (37045-2) of
the Keltic (coupled with the Griffes Sonata) was also praised. James
Barbagallo, always a sympathetic interpreter in this repertoire, has given
ample evidence of his commitment to the Macdowell cause in his sequence of
four Naxos 'American Classics' CDs. Sadly he was never to record the quartet
of sonatas but he did set down the Keltic on Naxos 8.559019 replacing
Marco Polo 8.223633 and the Norse on Naxos 8.559011. Lastly Vivian
Rivkin, so it is reported, dashingly recorded Tragica on Millennium
Classics MCD80086. Apart from the Lythgoe and Barbagallo I have not heard
any of these. However, except the Barbagallo and the Landes, they seem to
have dropped out of the catalogue. I am not aware of any other recordings
although I would be very interested to hear of any not listed.
The Phoenix set is rounded out by a neat and substantial (English only) essay
by Mr Mandel himself. The two discs are compactly stored in a single width
case. Design (often miscalculated) is consonant with the music.
Very highly commended both for repertoire and interpretation. Whether factually
right or not I had the impression that Mandel knew these works and more to
the point presents them with conviction.
The baritonal emphasis of the engineering gives a warm halo to the sound.
This is a first class set compelling by reason of the sonatas (the first
complete survey?). There is a quibble over the warm bloom of the recording
but this is a small matter.