Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:

Piano Sonata No. 1 Tragica (1892)
Piano Sonata No. 2 Eroica (1895)
Piano Sonata No. 3 Norse (1899)
Piano Sonata No. 4 Keltic (1900)
Woodland Sketches (1896)
Sea Pieces (1898)
Alan Mandel (piano)
rec 4 & 7 Jan 1999, Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress, Washington DC
PHOENIX PHCD 148 2 CDs CD1 [72.14] CD2 [61.37]
Amazon US


This was a project waiting to happen. Surprisingly this seems to be the first time that all of the Macdowell piano sonatas have been collected in a single set.

Alan Mandel is a major name in the performance of American piano music. The booklet mentions his 4 disc sets of the complete piano music of Charles Ives and Louis Gottschalk. I seem also to recollect a box of the piano music of Scott Joplin. Wasn't it on the Desto label?

Macdowell's German credentials served him well on his return to the States. The major American orchestras were dominated by German conductors and the likes of Paur, Nikisch and Gericke were quick to include his music in their concert series. On 5 March 1889 the composer was the soloist in his Second Piano Concerto with the New York Phil conducted by Theodore Thomas who was a native of East Friesland.

Macdowell was of Scottish-Irish stock. These Celtic credentials are apparent in the Scottish snap of the Eroica's first and third movements which are heroically strenuous pealing out with much the same romantic afflatus as his British contemporary, Stanford in the Three Rhapsodies (Francesca, Beatrice and Capaneo). The second movement: grotesques capering and gibbering in Lisztian cascades. Sonata Eroica treads the Arthurian legendary track and reaches serenity and tenderness in the Guinevere movement. That tenderness surely worked its witchery on Howard Hanson in his Romantic Symphony. The Arthurian character of the work reflects a by no means isolated interest - his 1888 tone poem, written, under the aegis of Liszt, in Germany was entitled Lancelot and Elaine. Later, one of his partsongs, Summerwind, was to set to words about 'Lancelot and Guinevere'. The plangent noble theme of the first movement strides gravely forward in the finale - reflective of Arthur's triumph in death at the hands of Mordred.

Both the Norse and Keltic Sonatas are dedicated to Grieg and it is Grieg's charming pictorialism that is recalled in the Sea-Pieces and Woodland Sketches. Stormy cloud-hung romance suffuses the Norse Sonata which in its sonorous nobility at 4.15 (II) reaches out towards the Grieg concerto and, as in the Eroica, touches some very Rachmaninovian nerve notes (cf the much later Stanford Second Piano Concerto). The Keltic has the same strenuous tragi-heroic set to the jaw, great gestural themes claw upwards and outwards with the commanding imperious awkwardness of Brahms' First Piano Concerto. The middle movement stands back from the superheated romantics and leads us naively into a forest glade but perhaps these are Caledonian trees for the themes have the slowly recoiling skirl of 'the pipes'.

The Woodland Sketches (1896) and Sea Pieces (1898) are done with slender charm though the foundations of the 1898 sequence are touched with oceanic depths. Barbagallo on Naxos has a better line to the Schumann-like fantasy of these pieces but Mandel is a stronger contender in his muscular portrayal of the Sonatas. The First Sonata is dedicated to Raff with whom Macdowell studied in Frankfurt. The Tragica has the battered nobility of the other works and if the lighter second movement is a cruel crashing of emotional gears the third and fourth movements banish doubts in a torrent of masculine majesty.

Mandel is good in the sonatas but is not to be preferred over Barbagallo in the salon suites. The core of this unique set is the four sonatas. They are done with confident flourish and with a weighty tone apt to works that breathe the clean air of heroic endeavour and legendary exploits. Medtner's Ballades are but a small pace away.

The last three sonatas are perhaps his strongest works; certainly his most ambitious. Straddling two centuries the sonatas embody nineteenth century romance in a highly developed idiom. There is a similarity of themes and a tendency to lapse towards prettiness when he aspires to express beauty but in these works Macdowell come as close as he ever came to consummation of his ambitions. The much vaunted second piano concerto lacks the drama of these works.

Previous recordings of the sonatas include a most impressive version of the Eroica by Clive Lythgoe (whatever happened to him?). This never made it to CD but the Philips LP (9500 095) was my initiation into the world of Macdowell. There are also recordings from James Tocco who recorded numbers 1, 2 and 3 on Kingdom CKCL2009 (originally Gasparo GSCD232/4) but whose disc was written off in some critical quarters as 'routine'. James Fierro recorded the Eroica for Delos (on DE1019) with the Virtuoso Etudes and this was well received. Garah Landes' Koch International disc (37045-2) of the Keltic (coupled with the Griffes Sonata) was also praised. James Barbagallo, always a sympathetic interpreter in this repertoire, has given ample evidence of his commitment to the Macdowell cause in his sequence of four Naxos 'American Classics' CDs. Sadly he was never to record the quartet of sonatas but he did set down the Keltic on Naxos 8.559019 replacing Marco Polo 8.223633 and the Norse on Naxos 8.559011. Lastly Vivian Rivkin, so it is reported, dashingly recorded Tragica on Millennium Classics MCD80086. Apart from the Lythgoe and Barbagallo I have not heard any of these. However, except the Barbagallo and the Landes, they seem to have dropped out of the catalogue. I am not aware of any other recordings although I would be very interested to hear of any not listed.

The Phoenix set is rounded out by a neat and substantial (English only) essay by Mr Mandel himself. The two discs are compactly stored in a single width case. Design (often miscalculated) is consonant with the music.

Very highly commended both for repertoire and interpretation. Whether factually right or not I had the impression that Mandel knew these works and more to the point presents them with conviction.

The baritonal emphasis of the engineering gives a warm halo to the sound.

This is a first class set compelling by reason of the sonatas (the first complete survey?). There is a quibble over the warm bloom of the recording but this is a small matter.

Rob Barnett

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