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The Anthology of American Piano Music - Volume 1: American First Sonatas
Alexander REINAGLE (1756-1809)
Philadelphia Sonata I in D major (c.1786) [9:35]
Edward MACDOWELL (1861-1908)
Sonata No.1 in G minor, op.45 (Tragica) (1893) [28:21]
Charles T. GRIFFES (1884-1920)
Sonata for Piano (c.1904) [16:54]
Elie SIEGMEISTER (1909-1991)
American Sonata (Piano Sonata No.1) (1944) [16:13]
Cecile Licad (piano)
rec. 1-3 July 2015, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City
DANACORD DACOCD774 [71:04]

This is a new series from Danacord, designed to reveal ‘the stylistic breadth, high musical quality and great originality of the best American piano works.’ For listeners, who are already attuned to this repertoire, they will not need to be reminded of that fact, and will simply relish the music. However, I guess many enthusiasts of piano music will be unfamiliar with these sonatas and in some cases even the composers. There is a definite (but certainly not absolute) euro-centric perception of classical music in the UK, especially in piano repertoire.

The series presents music from the 18th century through to the present day. Two criteria have been used in selecting works: primarily musical worth and secondly ‘originality and characteristic American flavor’. Danacord have not issued a detailed ‘batting order’ for this series of CDs although I understand that the second disc (for which we will have to wait until 2017) will be entitled ‘Music of the Night’ and will feature a selection of American ‘nocturnes’. I am not sure if it will feature the same pianist.

I was impressed with Alexander Reinagle’s ‘Philadelphia’ Sonata I in D major. It is the only work on this CD that is completely new to me: it is a pure delight. It is claimed that this is the first piano sonata to have been composed in the United States.

Reinagle was born in Portsmouth, England on 23 April 1756 to a Hungarian father and a Scottish mother. His early musical development and alternative career in the shipping trade was spent in London and Scotland with several trips to the States. He met C.P.E. Bach whilst on his travels on the Continent. In 1786 he emigrated to New York and thence to Philadelphia where he had an important role in developing the musical culture of that city, introducing (amongst other things) concertgoers to the music of Haydn and Mozart. He is regarded as the most significant composer from that period of American history. Apart from keyboard works, Reinagle composed a deal of theatre music. Alexander Reinagle died in Baltimore in 1809. There is a danger of confusion with his nephew, Alexander Robert Reinagle (1799-1887), also a musician, but who resided in Great Britain for all his life.

There are three Sonatas for the Piano Forte which are known as the ‘Philadelphia Sonatas’, believed to have been composed shortly after Reinagle’s arrival in the States in 1786. They were immensely popular and received many performances by the composer in the following decade. The musical style would seem be inspired by Haydn, Clementi and C.P.E. Bach. But then, many other composers were influenced by these ‘big names’ as well. The freshness and vivacity of this present sonata is striking. Unusually, this work lacks a slow movement.

Little need be said about Edward MacDowell: there is plenty of biographical detail on the internet and in standard reference works. However, one point needs to be made. If the listener were to judge his career from Classic FM, the assumption would be made that he a) wrote only one piece: ‘To a Wild Rose’ and, based on this hypothesis, if he composed anything else, b) his musical style would be that of miniature character pieces. This is wrong. I agree that there is much piano music that fits this description, but there are also two superb piano concertos, important orchestral tone poems and suites as well as many accomplished songs. In fact, the first piece of MacDowell I heard was his Piano Concerto No.2 played by Van Cliburn and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Walter Hendl (RCA RB16244). It was only then that I put MacDowell and his ‘Wild Rose’ together in my mind.

It is largely forgotten that Edward MacDowell composed four impressive and romantic piano sonatas: No.1 ‘Tragica’, No. 2 ‘Eroica’, No.3 ‘Norse’ and No.4 ‘Keltic’. They were composed between 1891 and 1900. The liner notes quote William S. Newman (The Sonata since Beethoven) that these ‘easily outrank any other U.S. sonatas produced before World War 1.’ On the ‘Tragica’ Sonata in particular, James Huneker, the celebrated American critic, pronounced that this sonata was ‘the most marked contribution to solo sonata literature since Brahms' F minor piano sonata’. Strong praise indeed.

MacDowell’s Sonata lives up to its subtitle, ‘Tragica.’ It was written in memory of composer, pianist and teacher Joachim Raff, who had died in 1882. There are four well balanced movements. The listener will not hear any ‘Americanisms’ in this music. It was written at a time when MacDowell was still in thrall to the European model. It was only later in his career that he began to make use of the parameters and mood of American folk-tunes; he did not collect these in the same manner as Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams. The fact that MacDowell studied in Frankfurt with Carl Heymann and Joachim Raff, and also moved in Liszt’s circle, explains this European influence on the present work. The Sonata was composed in 1893, the first movement was played by MacDowell that year in Boston, and the work was published during the following year. It soon became popular with pianists and recital goers.

Charles Griffes’s Sonata for piano was premiered by the composer on 26 February 1918. Interestingly, it was performed at the MacDowell Club in New York. It is usually regarded as one of the finest examples of the genre written by an American. Maurice Hinson describes it as being ‘a peak of neo-romantic expression in American piano music.’

Griffes is often regarded as an ‘impressionist’ composer. This is usually predicated on the back of works such as the The White Peacock and The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. Much of his music was influenced by Scriabin, Debussy and Japanese folk music.

On the other hand, the Sonata is an abstract work with no literary programme. It was originally conceived as a single movement work, but before the premiere Griffes decided to present it in ‘standard’ three movement form. The Sonata probably represents the beginning of Charles Griffes’s ‘experimental’ period. In this work, Griffes expands his musical horizons to include inspiration from Liszt, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. It balances aggression with lyrical melody and a ‘clearly perceived formal structure’.

Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991) was a New York born composer who studied at the Columbia University with Seth Bingham, had private lessons with Wallingford Reigger and latterly with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Much of his career was spent in New York as a conductor, pianist, teacher and composer. His catalogue is considerable, with some eight operas, nine symphonies, many concerti and piano music. His style is always approachable and eclectic, sometimes making use of jazz and American folk-music.

The first of Elie Siegmeister’s five piano sonatas is hugely impressive. In the composer’s own words it is ‘an American panorama, blending jazzy and folk-like themes with purely classical form.’ The work was completed in Brooklyn in 1944.

I first heard this work in the Kenneth Boulton’s fine performance on Naxos 8.559020. I believe that this is the only other version of this work currently available on CD. The sonata has three ‘classically’ designed movements. The first and last demand highly rhythmical playing from the soloist whilst the middle movement is lyrical, quotes the protest song ‘Sistern and Brethren’ and avoids the use of jazz. The last movement is stunning: Siegmeister contrasts boogie-woogie themes with a typically lilting cowboy song. It is my favourite work on this CD. For my ear, Cecile Licad brings just that little bit more magic than Boulton’s superb reading.

Cecile Licad was born in Manila in the Philippines. She began piano lessons when only three years old, with her mother. Unbelievably, she made her debut, aged only seven, with a performance of a Beethoven Piano Concerto. After moving to the USA she attended the Curtis Institute of Music and studied with Rudolf Serkin, Seymour Lipkin and Mieczysław Horszowski. After the first professional engagement, her career went from strength to strength. In recent years she has developed an interest in playing chamber music. Her repertoire is wide ranging – from Mozart to Gershwin and from Beethoven to Bartůk.

Major recordings of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 and Saint-SaŽns’s Piano Concerto No. 2 began her successful recording career. She has also covered work by Schumann, Chopin and Ravel. In 2003 she turned her attention to the American composer Louis Gottschalk with a CD for Naxos. Her playing was summed up in a review in the Washington Post: "every sound she made was beautiful, every note and phrase the result of intellect warmed by emotion." Most recently, she recorded the Leo Ornstein Sonata for the Danacord Husum Festival Series, 2013.

This is an exciting new release that promises to expand into a collection of American musical masterpieces, albeit at a slow rate. It is essential listening for all who consider the piano as their favourite instrument and who regard the piano sonata as one of the most important and sophisticated forms.

John France




 

 



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