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American Landscapes
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Down a country lane (1962) [2:30]
Anthony Philip HEINRICH (1781-1861)
The Minstrel’s March or The Road to Kentucky (1817) [3:57]
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
Spoon River (c.1922) [2:38]
William MASON (1829-1908)
Silver Spring, op. 6 (c.1850) [5:48]
Edward MACDOWELL (1860-1908)
Woodland Sketches, op.51 (1896) [23:55]
Arthur FARWELL (1872-1952)
Sourwood Mountain, op.78 no.3 (1930) [4:28]
Leo ORNSTEIN (1892-2002)
A Morning in the Woods SO106 (1971) [6:53]
William Grant STILL (1895-1978)
A Deserted Plantation (1933) [13:06]
Arthur FARWELL
From Mesa and Plain, op.20 (1905) [8:22]
Roy HARRIS (1898-1979)
Streets of Laredo (1947) [2:10]
Charles Wakefield CADMAN (1881-1946)
From the Land of Sky-Blue Water, op.54, no.2 (1912) [2:43]
Cecile Licad (piano)
rec. 2018 American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City
Anthology of American Piano Music - Volume 3
DANACORD DACOCD800 [76:30]

The ethos of this third volume of the Anthology of American Piano Music series from Danacord, is the American Landscape, especially (but not exclusively) as seen and interpreted by American Indians, Cowboys and African-Americans. These experiences are seen through the musical imagination of composers who trained in the European musical tradition, but often took a considerable interest in the indigenous folk-music and folklore of the United States.

I guess that I am disappointed that nowadays Aaron Copland is usually represented by three pieces: ‘Simple Gifts’, ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ and the ‘Hoe Down’ from Rodeo. These feature regularly on Classic FM: virtually everything else is reserved for enthusiasts. So, it is refreshing to discover that this fascinating CD opens with one of his rarities. ‘Down a Country Lane’ was written in 1962, originally for wind band. The work was commissioned by Life magazine. Copland remarked that the piece ‘…is descriptive only in an imaginative, not a literal sense. I didn't think up the title until the piece was finished: …[it] just happened to fit its flowing quality.’

Anthony Philip Heinrich went on a journey during 1817 from Philadelphia to Kentucky. This is musically represented in the ‘Minstrel’s March’ (or The Road to Kentucky) which literally changes its mood every few bars. The score is, apparently, liberally annotated with place names and travellers’ directions. For example, we are encouraged to dash down ‘Market Street Hill’, negotiate ‘The Rapids’, to ‘Cast Anchor’ and make an ‘ad lib’ halt at ‘Lancaster’. As the liner notes point out, this is not ‘great’ music, but it is fun.

Percy Grainger originally set the old American folk-dance ‘Spoon River’ for ensemble and two pianos in 1915. The present (third) version for solo piano was ‘dished up’ in 1922. The melody derived from a dance hall performance heard by a certain Captain Charles H. Robinson at Bradford Illinois back in 1857. The tune was later ‘sent’ to Edgar Lee Masters author of the Spoon River Anthology. This in turn was shared with Grainger. The original ‘work’ was only 16 bars long, but Grainger has turned it into a masterclass on reharmonizing a tune over and again. The music is typically robust with a slightly quieter middle section.

It is not hard to find the overt romanticism of Franz Liszt and Joachim Raff in William Mason’s beautiful filigree ‘Silver Spring’ op.6. This was composed around 1850. The liner notes point out that the work is full of ‘delicate bravura figuration and cadenza-like flourishes.’ Mason’s piano music was at the ‘top end’ of the then fashionable salon pieces. It is stunningly played here by Cecile Licad.

‘To a Wild Rose’ is one if the most famous piano pieces in the literature. It is regularly found in albums of piano music, heard on Classic FM and currently has more than 40 recordings in the CD catalogues. It is unfortunate that the other nine numbers in Edward MacDowell’s inventive and evocative Woodland Sketches, op.51 are virtually unheard in our day. I have loved this entire suite since first hearing it on James Barbagallo’s recording for Marco Polo (1993). My favourite numbers include the wistful ‘At the Old Trysting Place’ (we all have memories of such a place), the exuberant and humorous ‘From Uncle Remus’, the delicately structured tone-poem ‘To a Water Lily’ and the vibrant ‘In Autumn.’ It is played here without a whiff of overt sentimentality.

The source of Arthur Farwell’s Grainger-esque ‘Sourwood Mountain’ is problematic. It seems likely that it originated in Great Britain. Anecdotally, the tune was ‘found’ in Sourwood, Massachusetts, although no-one seems sure if such a locale exists. There are Sourwoods in the USA, but not in The Bay State. Certainly, Google Maps does not seem to have heard of it. All this matters not a jot, as this is a fine, rumbustious piano piece that demands high technical ability, especially with the powerful octaves. ‘Sourwood Mountain’ was published in 1930.

The other work by Farwell recorded here is his suite From Mesa and Plain composed in 1905. The score was subtitled ‘Indian, Cowboy and Negro sketches for pianoforte.’ These ‘Sketches’ commence with the ‘savagely accented’ ‘Navajo War Dance’. The following ‘Pawnee Horses’ is based on an Omaha Indian melody. Two unidentified cowboy songs are transcribed in ‘The Prairie Miniature.’ Farwell found the melody for the ‘Wa-Wan Choral’ in a Study of Omaha Indian Music by Alice C. Fletcher (1893). Finally, the introverted ‘Plantation Melody’ was derived from a melody recorded by Alice Haskell. It certainly sounds as if it nods to the ‘Streets of Laredo!’ (See below). Out of interest, Mesa is a flat-topped mountain, from the Spanish word for ‘table.’

For readers who associate Leo Ornstein with works such as ‘A la Chinoise’ (c.1918), the ‘Danse sauvage’ (1913?), ‘Suicide in an Airplane’ (1918), and the ominous, proto-Messiaenic ‘Impressions de la Tamise’ (1914), the present ‘A Morning in the Woods’ will seems like ‘a walk in the park.’ Yet, it seems that this was just another facet of Ornstein’s creativity. This music is largely impressionistic, tonal in construction and evokes Debussy rather than any avant-garde composer. The liner notes point out that the piece is a nightmare for the pianist, with complex irregular note groupings and many changes of metre, in addition to being written in an uncompromising five flats. Rejoicing in nature is balanced by a more sombre mood which creates a work that, to this listener, is a masterpiece. It is my ‘big’ discovery on this CD. And, yes, Ornstein did live to be 108/9 years old! [His date of birth is disputed, sometimes regarded as 1893 or perhaps, 1895]

The African-American composer William Grant Still wrote a wide-range of music, including operas, ballets and symphonies. He is usually recalled for his 1931 Afro-American Symphony. For several years Still worked as a band arranger for Paul Whiteman and this led to several of his pieces being influenced by the jazz ensemble. The present piano suite A Deserted Plantation had its origins as an orchestral work commissioned by Whiteman in 1933. The inspiration for the music was a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1876-1902) which introduces ‘Uncle Josh’ who was the sole surviving occupant of a dying plantation. The suite presents his thoughts of past times. The piano suite transcribes three of the five movements and majors on a ‘Spiritual’, a certain ‘Young Missy’ and finally a plantation ‘Dance.’ The pieces utilise all the devices of jazz and blues. The work is moving and exhilarating at the same time. It is resourcefully played here by Cecile Licad.

Everyone knows the song ‘Streets of Laredo’. This is more than likely an Irish ballad that moved Stateside and acquired its ‘cowboy’ associations. The present satisfying transcription with its harmonic spiciness and varying temperaments was made by Roy Harris in 1947.

Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946) was an expert on ‘American Indian’ music. The present ‘From the Land of Sky-Blue Water’, Op.54, no.2 is extracted from the prosaically titled Idealized Indian Themes published in 1912. The liner notes explain that this is a transcription of a song composed by Cadman in 1909. The melody was based on an ‘Omaha Indian Love Song’. It is a lovely, thoughtful and sometimes melancholic little number which brings this well-judged CD to a close.

The liner notes by Jeremy Nicolas make interesting reading and provide a great introduction to this diverse programme of music. Included are the texts of some of the songs that formed the basis for some of these pieces. This includes Paul Laurence Dunbar’s ‘The Deserted Plantation’ and the ‘Street of Laredo’.

Aspects of Cecile Licad’s excellent playing and interpretation have been noted in my comments above. She is clearly a technically proficient and hugely inspired performer. Details of her career can be found at her webpage. I previously reviewed her Anthology of American Piano Music, Volume 1: American First Sonatas and Volume 2: Music of the Night: American Nocturnes on these pages. I look forward to Volume 4 of this splendidly imaginative retrospective of American Music.

John France

 




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