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Piano Phantoms
see end of review for track listing
Michael Lewin (piano)
rec. Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia 19-21 July 2012
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92168 [65:56]

The ‘preface’ to this fascinating CD sets out the territory - ‘Amidst the endless glories and treasures of the piano repertoire, there is some music that leads a more shrouded and spectral existence - aural figures of the otherworld.’ The music presented on this disc is a ‘journey into the musical imagination of 18 composers featuring pieces that were all inspired by phantoms, goblins, ghosts and spirits.’
 
I have long been of the opinion that concert pianists ought to give more time and thought to pieces of music that are outwith the standard repertoire. This is especially so when the music is written by composers who are less-well known to the average piano music enthusiast. Additionally, I believe that there is an important place for pieces that are not virtuosic or particularly demanding on the pianist’s technical skill, but are nevertheless attractive and interesting works in their own right.
 
The present disc includes eighteen pieces of music that are either unknown or are the preserve of enthusiasts, specialists or those committed to the obscure. A few of the composers are familiar, but most appear to haunt the fringes of the repertoire. All of them are surprisingly good pieces of music: all of them are suitably scary.
 
A good place to begin an exploration of this disc is with ‘The Goblins’ Wedding Procession at Vossevangen’ by Edvard Grieg. This rarely heard piece from the even rarer set of ‘17 Norwegian Dances’ is a revelation. I guess that for every thousand listeners who have heard ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’ only one or two will know the present nuptial piece. It is based on old folk-songs, but is given a late-romantic turn of pianism. There is even a ‘bluesy’ feel to this tune.
 
Walter Niemann is a German composer who has so far eluded me. Seemingly he wrote a wealth of music for the piano. ‘The Ghosts: Night on the Fleet’ is an impressionistic piece that was first published in the Hamburg Suite. It is an impressively well-constructed work.
 
I was bowled over by Carl Tausig’s ‘The Ghost Ship’ which originally saw light of day as an orchestral tone poem. This is a complex, pianistically involved piece that tests the player’s technique. It is hardly surprising that Tausig is regarded by many as Franz Liszt’s greatest pupil: alas he died tragically young. Another virtuosic piece is by the Russian Sergei Lyapunov, ‘Round of Phantoms’. Once again Liszt would appear to be the technical model. The work is part of the composer’s Etude’s which Michael Lewin suggests are one of the most significant set of studies ever written. It is no surprise to read that the music anticipated Ravel’s ‘Scarbo’. Another Russian has contributed a wayward piece called ‘Wood Goblin’. This is one of Nikolai Medtner’s Fairy Tales, Op.34 written in 1916. The story of this particular chap is given in the liner-notes and bears perusal.
 
The ‘Goblin’s Dance’ by Dvořák is a little less hectic that some of the other manifestations in this collection. There is a good balance between the extrovert and the reflective. Maybe this goblin has a heart of gold - some of the time.
 
There are a few treats for the British music enthusiast with works by Eugene Goossens, John Vallier, Harry Farjeon (born Hohokus, New Jersey) and Edgar Bainton. The low registers of Goossens’ ‘A Ghost Story’ from his ‘popular’ suite Kaleidoscope lead to an impressive climax only for the ‘ghost’ to slip back into the ‘underworld.’ Vallier’s ‘The Ghosts of Restormel’ is slightly brighter, with an eclectic mix of trumpet calls, Scottish folk-tunes and eerie chords: it is a fine impression of a haunted Cornish castle. I am an advocate of the piano music of Harry Farjeon. Many of his miniatures are in the gift of amateurs. He also contributed a fine Piano Sonata and there are tantalisingly impressive reports of his Piano Concerto. The present piece, ‘Some Goblins and Gnomes and Things’ comes from his charmingly titled The Three Cornered Kingdom Suite. Edgar Bainton’s rollicking ‘Goblin Dance’ is a rare indulgence. It is derived from a suite called From Faery (1912). The liner-notes are correct in suggesting that this goblin is ‘active and mischievous’.
 
American composers are well-represented too. The composer/pianist Julie Rivé-King’s outgoing ‘March of the Goblins’ was composed in 1879 and is characterised by musical wit and light-heartedness. It is one of those tunes that appears well-known to the listener, but one that they cannot quite place. Another good example is by the ‘first African-American woman to be recognized as a serious composer’ Florence Price. The short, quicksilver ‘The Goblin and the Mosquito’ is an impressive study in glissandi and fractured melodies. William Bolcom has contributed a ‘Graceful Ghost Rag’ which is the first of three numbers in a little suite. It is good example of ragtime, but unlike Scott Joplin tends to disintegrate slightly. It is a million miles away from his more cerebral and ‘spiky’ music. The ‘American Indianist’ Carlos Troyer has contributed a lively ‘Ghost Dance of Zunis’. This music is meant to reflect rituals and traditions of the Zuni tribe in New Mexico. Whatever the intellectual foundation of this music, it is an aggressive, almost Bartókian romp.
 
The short ‘Night Music of the Mountain Goblin’ by the Finnish composer Heino Kaski is more of a ‘scamper’ than anything diabolic. Ferdinand Hiller’s ‘Dance of the Phantoms’ is more of an etude that a tone poem. Good virtuosic stuff.
 
I enjoyed the short ‘Spirit Dance’ by Franz Schubert, represented by that prolific but now largely forgotten pianist Stephen Heller. The original was a song to a text by Freidrich von Matthison. Lewin suggests that the words are like a cross between Edgar Allan Poe and a modern-day horror movie. The ‘Spirit Dance’ is characterised by sudden mood changes.
 
The final (and longest) piece is the ‘Ghost Variations’ by Robert Schumann. It is a little known piece in spite of it being the composer’s last completed piano work written at a time when he was about to be admitted to the asylum at Bonn-Endenich. The Variations were based on visions of things hideous and wonderful that the composer was experiencing. The ‘theme’ is particularly beautiful and surely owes little to demons. The mood of each succeeding variation is that of an introverted spirituality rather than anything ghoulish or sinister. It is as if the composer knew that he had reached the end of his life. This is a beautiful and affecting work that demands to be better known in the recital rooms. 
Michael Lewin is an American pianist who has made a huge reputation for himself. He has a ‘commanding’ repertoire of some 40 piano concertos from pot-boilers such as George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue through Rach. 1 and 2 to Loeffler’s stunning Pagan Poem and David Kocsis’ Piano Concerto: For the New Millennium (1999) which was written for the pianist. Lewin has made a considerable contribution to recorded music. There are wide ranging editions of music by Charles Tomlinson Griffes and Scarlatti on Naxos, interesting recitals of Gottschalk and William Bolcom on Centaur and CDs of Russian music and Franz Liszt.
 
This is a beautifully contrived CD. The notes are excellent, giving as much information about these invariably attractive pieces and their not-so-well-known composers. I was impressed by the vibrant sound quality. Michael Lewin’s playing is flawless. There is no sense of condescension apparent in any of these pieces - even those that the ‘high-brow’ may regard as less-than-worthy of a concert pianist. Each number is given a concentrated, well wrought performance that reveals the composer’s picturesque, creepy and at times macabre musical imagery.
 
This is a fabulous - in more ways than one - new release from Sono Luminus that explores a wide range of musical achievement from a number of talented composers. It is a CD that will be of interest to all those who are young at heart and who relate to goblins, ghouls and things of the night. This disc is a delight for anyone who has enjoyed Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre and has wondered if there is any more ‘scary’ music in the repertoire.
 
John France 

Track listing
Walter NIEMANN  (1876-1953)
Ghosts: Night on the Fleet [3:47]
Sergei LYAPUNOV  (1859-1924)
Round of Phantoms [3:23]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
The Goblins’ Wedding Procession at Vossevangen [2:36]
Carl TAUSIG  (1841-1871)
The Ghost Ship, Op. 1b [9:09]
Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Wood Goblin [3:38]
Antonin DVO Ř ÁK  (1841-1904)
Goblins’ Dance [3:23]
Eugène GOOSSENS  (1893-1962)
A Ghost Story [1:59]
Carlos TROYER  (1837-1920)
Ghost Dance of the Zunis [5:39]
Heino KASKI  (1885-1957)
Night Music of the Mountain Goblin [1:36]
John VALLIER  (1920-1991)
The Ghosts of Restormel [2:24]
William BOLCOM  (b.1938)
Graceful Ghost Rag [4:06]
Harry FARJEON (1878-1948)
Some Goblins and Gnomes and Things [1:47]
Florence PRICE (1887-1953)
The Goblin and the Mosquito [0.59]
Edgar BAINTON (1880-1956)
Goblin Dance [1:11]
Ferdinand HILLER (1811-1885)
The Dance of the Phantoms [2:38]
Julie RIVÉ-KING (1855-1937)
March of the Goblins [2:48]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)/Stephen HELLER (1813-1888)
Spirit Dance [2:33]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Ghost Variations [12:42]

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