Comparisons: Marks/Nimbus, Martin/Hyperion
Louis Moreau Gottschalk was the first United
States piano virtuoso and quite a traveler. His journeys to Europe,
the Caribbean, Africa and South America combined with a French
flavor derived from his mother’s side and a Creole influence from
his New Orleans background ensured a wide variety of compositional
styles. In emotional content, most of Gottschalk’s music is upbeat
and invigorating. I think it would also be reasonable to state
that his music conveys a young and adventurous country hungry
for more territory, more respect … more of everything. Although
the influences of many international factors are present in Gottschalk’s
compositions, the heart of his music is unmistakingly pure ‘Americana’.
I was looking forward to the Cecile Licad program,
given that she has made some excellent recordings for CBS/Sony
such as her Chopin/Saint-Säens Concertos disc. Little did
I know how differently she would play Gottschalk than the European
First impressions are often erroneous, and my
initial reaction to Licad was unfavorable. She was like a ‘jumping
bean’, sharply darting from one spot to another with minimal grace.
Her staccato was too prevalent, and she exuded a harshness that
made it difficult to listen to her performances for an extended
period. Alan Marks, on Nimbus, was a relief after Licad; his even
flow, grace, and charm was very pleasurable.
About two weeks have passed since those first
impressions, and I have made a 360-degree turn. What struck me
as ‘jumpy’ is now invigorating, and more judicious use of audio
controls has eliminated the harsh piano tone. Licad offers us
a pulsating set of performances flowing with life’s vital juices.
Additional listening to Alan Marks only reveals the limitations
of his interpretations. Although they are attractive upon initial
hearing, the even-flowing rhythms and charm eventually become
routine and uninteresting. Licad is adventurous and daring, while
listening to Marks is analogous to relaxing on the back patio
and sipping a glass of Southern Comfort. Licad blazes new horizons;
Marks simply manages the gains made in the past.
Licad begins her program with "Le banjo",
a piece of great exuberance, drive, and virtuosity. Her fast 3-minute
performance is exceptionally presented in an improvisatory manner
with a conclusion that is spellbinding and displays a complete
command of the keyboard. Alan Marks extends the piece to over
4 minutes, obliterating the virtuosity required by the music.
Although enjoyable, his reading can’t compete with Licad’s for
rhythmic energy and diversity.
"Bamboula" is a three-section work
influenced by Gottschalk’s French leanings. The 1st
Section is in the form of an energetic and even raucous dance,
while the 2nd Section features a lovely melody of sad
refrains. The 3rd Section takes us back to high and
cheerful energy. Again, Licad drives the music expertly and also
conveys all the poignancy of the 2nd Section.
"La Savane" will be familiar to listeners
from its similarity to "Skip to my Lou", although Gottschalk
offers the music in ballad form. Licad gives a sparkling performance
without ever neglecting the nostalgic and mysterious elements
that Gottschalk brings into the score.
For exciting music of the perpetual motion variety,
Licad’s performance of "Tremolo" is essential listening.
The piece was one of Gottschalk’s last compositions and requires
that alternate hands play repeated quaver notes. Gottschalk first
performed the work in March of 1868 in Buenos Aires, and audiences
were thrilled by its impact. Licad would have also thrilled the
audiences with her very quick 4-minute performance that shows
tremendous strength, concentration and energy; hers is virtuosity
at peak levels. In contrast, Philip Martin in his Gottschalk/Hyperion
series extends the music to 6 minutes and ends up trotting through
the piece without ever creating any sense of thrill or virtuosity.
Martin takes the ‘easy way out’ as if he isn’t up to a more challenging
Tracks 6 thru 8 are Spanish-inspired pieces.
Licad beautifully captures the Spanish rhythmic snap of "La
jota aragonesa", the driving energy of "Manchega",
and the pulsating sexuality of the fandango theme in "Souvenirs
d’Andalousie". She always displays great rhythmic bounce
and the inherent exuberance of these delightful Spanish-related
"La scintilla" is a lovely mazurka
that flows like silk and will recall the mazurkas of Chopin. Licad’s
reading is very warm and comforting as she eschews her generally
sharp approach to Gottschalk. This tells me that she makes adjustments
when appropriate; one of the signs of an exceptional performing
Licad’s adjustment from sharpness to warmth continues
in "The Dying Poet" which was the most popular piece
of music during the Civil War and for many years thereafter. The
music is lovingly soft and of lullaby proportion. During the days
of silent film, it was often used to accompany a deathbed scene.
The Licad program concludes with Gottschalk’s patriotic "The
Union" which contains a variety of styles ranging from turbulence
to sublime tenderness.
In my readings on Gottschalk, he is often referred
to as a minor figure in the world of classical music. This tag
likely reflects the salon-type nature of his music and the fact
that he never attempted to delve into the core of human thought.
However, I tend to feel that Gottschalk transcends the classical
music category in that he offered the listening public vivacious
music fully in keeping with America’s quest for greatness. In
this regard, he is quite similar to John Philip Sousa whose wind
band music also rose above any particular musical category. Both
composers will indefinitely remain as sterling examples of the
American experience, and we are greatly indebted to them.
As for Cecile Licad, she is now my standard for
future Gottschalk piano recordings. Her exuberance and rhythmic
vitality places her in an exalted position. Other pianists including
Alan Marks and Philip Martin present Gottschalk’s music in a more
sedentary and mature manner. They are enjoyable but missing the
crucial elements of adventure and discovery. Licad’s program is
also a winning one, well mixing the excitement and poignancy of
In summary, I heartily recommend Cecile Licad’s
Gottschalk recording. From a purely musical perspective, none
of his works are essential listening, but anyone wanting to gain
insight into the national psychology of the United States in its
first hundred years of existence will be highly rewarded.