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Hugo WEISGALL (1912-1997)
Sonata for Piano (1982) [17:52] Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Ludus Tonalis (1942) [51:46]
Martin Perry (piano)
rec. March 2016, Studzinski Recital Hall, Bowdoin College. BRIDGE RECORDS 9487 [69:43]
Hugo Weisgall is unlikely to be a familiar name to most readers. He is best known for his operas, fragments of one appearing on the Naxos label (review). There are some vocal works that have also been recorded, but while acknowledged as a significant composer Weisgall could hardly be considered mainstream.
Allan Kozinn’s booklet notes considers this Sonata for Piano an “undiscovered gem,” and it certainly is a work with a powerful effect. Weisgall’s idiom is ‘post-tonal’ though not dogmatically serial. The result is one of intellectual rigour mixed with a keen sense of the dramatic. There is a logical sense of flow, and once you become acclimatised it becomes clear that each movement has an architecture that builds in ways not entirely dissimilar to classical examples. The ‘difficulty’ here is not so much grappling with angular fistfuls of notes, but Weisgall’s apparent freedom with rhythm. We are gifted greater clarity in this regard in the opening of the final Rondo quasi presto, but not for long. With greater extremes in all directions, one can hear this as an extension of something like Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1, and returning to Weisgall there is quite a hefty dose of the Romantic to be heard, especially in the first movement. The second Adagio molto movement has a quietness of atmosphere and a melancholic beauty that builds to intense climaxes – a masterpiece of emotional landscaping that can take you anywhere your imagination fancies, though where you end up is unlikely to be all sunshine and rainbows. This sonata is the kind of feverishly expressionist and imaginative work that grows on you the more you discover about it, and is certainly a remarkable creation for a composer of 70 – you would probably place it as an intensely youthful tour de force if encountering it on a blind hearing.
Paul Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis – Studies in Counterpoint, Tonal Organisation & Piano Playing is certainly another tour de force, composed while the composer was living in the United States after escaping Nazi persecution. The work is a set of fugues and interludes, framed by a Praeludium and Postludium which might seem like an intolerably dry academic exercise, but Hindemith’s sense of character and feel for wit and generous if complex harmonic deliciousness makes this into a feast of surprisingly approachable piano music. If you like Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 then you are likely to respond well to Ludus Tonalis, which is ironic since it was in part written in response to that composer’s Seventh Symphony, seen by both Hindemith and Bartók as loathsome in its nationalist character.
Ludus Tonalis has some competition in the record catalogue, but Martin Perry’s can stand comparison with any I’ve encountered. Boris Berezovsky on Warner Classics (review) is harder-hitting and more extreme in terms of dramatic characterisation and tempi if you want a more spectacular performance, as indeed you will find with Olli Mustonen on the Decca label, though he seems determined to break at least one string during the recording session, such are the accent peaks on some notes. John McCabe is worth looking out for on Hyperion (review). Martin Perry doesn’t allow pianistic flourishes to get in the way of Hindemith’s score, and this recording is all the better for it. This is an intelligent and very well- proportioned performance that seeks to draw out the longer line in a work designed to be heard complete rather than a collection with highlights. Bridge’s recording is excellent.