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American Piano Sonatas Vol. 2
Charles Tomlinson GRIFFES (1884-1920)
Piano Sonata in F sharp minor (1919) [17:32]
Roger SESSIONS (1896-1985)
Second Sonata for Piano (1946) [15:21]
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Sonata No. 1 for Piano (1901-1909) [39:22]
Peter Lawson (piano)
rec. January-February 1991, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, UK
EMI AMERICAN CLASSICS 2344692 [72:16]
Experience Classicsonline


EMI are past masters at the art of recycling old material – this disc was first released as a two-volume set on Virgin Classics – but that’s not to say there isn’t some wheat among the chaff. A quick glance at their American Classics series reveals a number of popular works by Barber, Bernstein, Copland and Grofé, laced with more adventurous ones from Cage, Carter, Reich and Sessions.

Pianist Peter Lawson is new to me, so I was disappointed that EMI’s meagre booklet didn’t even offer the briefest of artist biographies. However, a quick Google reveals that he is a Mancunian who combines teaching at Chetham’s with a varied concert career. I suspect Griffes is also new to most listeners – again the CD booklet won’t be very helpful here – but at least Martin Cotton’s notes on the music are reasonably informative.

Born in New York City, Griffes went to Berlin in 1903 to study with Humperdinck. He returned to the US four years later to teach at a boys’ prep school, where he stayed until his death in 1920. Cotton describes him as ‘one of the might-have-beens of American music’; that doesn’t really apply to Griffes’ derivative, orchestral works but it certainly does to the Sonata in F sharp minor. Cast in three linked movements it opens Feroce – perhaps with hints of Scriabin – but for all that one senses a work of some substance and originality.

The reflective second movement may be more French than Russian – Griffes spent some time in France – but there is a tautness, a muscularity, below the music’s supple surface that is very different. Fortunately that doesn’t preclude some inward writing – Lawson is wonderfully poised in these quieter moments – before the music returns to its more sinewy self in the final Allegro. And what a lovely transition Griffes achieves in the second half of that movement – track 5 – its gentle, rocking melody leading to a lugubrious central section and a powerful close.

This isn’t the only version of the sonata on record – see Naxos 8.559023, for instance – and listeners may be surprised to learn that there are around 80 recordings of Griffes’ works in the current catalogue. And anyone who wants to sample the composer’s earlier pieces, including The White Peacock, Three Tone Pictures and The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan, should try Naxos 8.559164 (see RB’s review). These unashamedly Romantic scores are well performed by JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Symphony.

It’s sobering to note that fellow New Yorker Roger Sessions was born just 12 years after Griffes, yet outlived him by 65 years. Sessions embraced serialism in his later works – including the Second Piano Sonata – which tends to give these pieces a concentrated, tightly argued structure. But while the animated, contrapuntal Allegro couldn’t be more different from the sensuous, free-flowing world of Griffes, there is a pleasing energy and variety to this music that covers its compositional tracks rather well. Indeed, anyone who is allergic to atonality will be pleasantly surprised by the gentle Lento, whose outward calm is ruffled only by the occasional dissonance.

Lawson has the measure of this work which, to my ears at least, he essays with even greater conviction than he does the Griffes. There is a sense of engagement here, not to mention an unfolding narrative that also belies the work’s serial underpinnings. Even the spikier final movement is warm and characterful, the piano a little close but always sounding clear and natural.

Probably the most formidable work here is the seven-movement Ives sonata, a series of reminiscences on Connecticut rural life in the 1880s and 1890s. On first audition these ‘programmatic’ elements – if one can call them that – may be hard to grasp, but lurking behind the gruff Ivesian façade are the usual ballads and hymn tunes that make his work so distinctive. Even the competing musical strands are present, all played with considerable brio. But Ives is also capable of tenderness; just listen to that passage beginning at 8:12 in the first movement and to the first half of the fourth. 

As a musical magpie Ives brings many scraps to the nest, including ragtime, which he then weaves into a structure that’s all his own. Lawson is alive to these borrowings and modulates between them with disarming ease. Even the untamed passages come across with conviction – in the third and fifth movements, for instance – and Lawson doesn’t falter in the bravura writing of the fourth, either.

So often one hears the criticism that Ives’s music is too perverse to enjoy – inexpert, even – yet it is that very quality that makes his music so exhilarating to listen to. The runaway sixth movement is a case in point, the mad dash followed by a little coda of great simplicity and charm. The final movement is a summation of all that’s gone before, but it’s also permeated by a sense of genial good humour. Lawson plays like a committed Ivesian, vaulting over the music’s many technical hurdles and underlining its originality at every turn.

EMI must be commended for their new American Classics series. That said, they are a long way behind Naxos, whose discs of American music – several of which I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing – are well worth collecting. And although some of these Naxos discs contain previously released material many are new to the catalogue. Also, EMI could take a leaf from Naxos’ CD booklets and try for more comprehensive liner notes and artist biographies. If Naxos can do it at this price point then so can they.

Dan Morgan
 




 


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