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Louis Moreau GOTTSCHALK (1829-1869)
Le banjo, Op. 15 (1854) [3:56]
The Last Hope, Op. 16 (1854) [8:14]
Pasquinade, Op. 59 (1869) [4:22]
Berceuse (Cradle Song), Op. 47 (1860) [5:31]
Grande fantaisie triomphale sur l'hymne national brésilien, Op. 69 (1869) [10:27]
Le songe d'une nuit d'été, Op. 9 (1849) [4:06]
Fantôme de bonheur (Illusions perdues), Op. 36 (1859-1860) [8:44]
Reflets du passéRéverie, Op. 28 (1847) [6:47]
Symphonie romantique: La nuit des tropiquesAndante (1858/2013) (arr. Mayer) [12:50]*
Steven Mayer (piano)
rec. 2014, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, USA
Pdf booklet included
*World premiere recording
Reviewed as a 24/96 download

One of my most treasured ‘finds’ of recent years is the music of the ‘Creole Chopin’, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. A travelling performer and composer of prodigious talent he died far too young; at least he left a fairly substantial musical legacy, much of which is contained in Philip Martin’s 8-CD box of solo piano pieces (review). That Hyperion set – magnificently played and recorded – is the cornerstone of any self-respecting Gottschalk collection; indeed, Martin’s traversal is the benchmark against which all rivals must be judged.

There are other recordings to consider, among them one from Cecile Licad and a heart-lifting twofer from Alan Marks and Nerine Barrett (review). As for the orchestral music A night in the tropics, it's included on a CD from the delightfully titled Hot Springs Festival Symphony under Joshua Rosenberg (review). Now we have this new release from Steven Mayer, a pianist and teacher who’s said to be just as adept at Art Tatum as he is at Mozart, Liszt and Ives.

Le banjo, subtitled Fantaisie grotesque, is one of Gottschalk’s cleverest creations. In it he expertly mimics the sound of the instrument in writing that’s as astonishing as it is exuberant. Although Mayer plays it reasonably well his phrasing isn't as natural as, say, Martin’s, and he seems a tad self-conscious at times. That said, I still found myself grinning at Gottschalk’s audacity and skill. The balance is fair to middling, but the Naxos sound is rather dry compared with the liquid loveliness of Hyperion’s. Also, the treble isn’t as clean and clear, which is particularly noticeable in Le banjo.

The Last Hope, subtitled Méditation religeuse, can seem lachrymose at times, but Mayer is commendably clear-eyed throughout. Trouble is, he’s measured with it, and that deprives the piece of essential lift and character. Then there’s the question of phrasing in Pasquinade, in which Mayer is far less fluid than either Martin or Marks. The latter is heart melting here, a description one could hardly apply to Mayer’s unyielding account of the piece. Happily Mayer’s Cradle Song is much more to my liking, although he doesn’t quite capture the composer’s gentle spirit. Not only that, there’s little of the telling nuance or affection that makes the Marks version so utterly beguiling. Also, there's a curiously dulled quality to the Naxos sound that, together with the occluded treble, robs the music of transparency and sparkle.

Gottschalk’s fantasy on the Brazilian national anthem is more extrovert, and Mayer does convey something of its grandiosity. I remain frustrated, though, by his lack of spontaneity - of sharp-eyed irreverence - which, to the newcomer at least, might suggest competence rather than flair. As if that weren’t dispiriting enough, the piece loses momentum and interest early on. I’m afraid the remaining items – the last of which is Mayer’s arrangement of the Andante from A night in the tropics – are just as disappointing. Anyone familiar with Martin’s unstoppable energy and general joie de vivre will surely find Mayer’s performances much too literal and humourless; also, the latter’s unvaried programme is poorly chosen, and that sells this vivid and versatile composer short.

Lacklustre performances and sound; Mayer’s Gottschalk is no match for the best in the catalogue.

Dan Morgan



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