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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

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Edward MACDOWELL (1860-1908)
Piano Sonatas: No. 1 Tragica (1891-2) Op. 45 [24.23]; No. 2 Eroica Op. 50 (1895) [24.13]; No. 3 Norse Op. 57 (1899) [26.28]; No. 4 Keltic Op. 59 (1900) [19.42];
Charles Tomlinson GRIFFES (1884-1920)

Four Roman Sketches Op. 7 (1915-16) [19.31]; Three Preludes (1919) [4.45]; Rhapsody in B minor (1912, rev 1914) [6.53]; Fantasy Pieces Op. 6 (1912-15) [16.10]; De Profundis (1915) [5.33]; Sonata (1917-18) [15.13]; The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (1912) [8.47]; Three Tone-Pictures Op. 5 (1910-12) [8.28]; Legend (1915) [5.33]
James Tocco (piano)
rec. Musical Arts Center, Indiana University, early 1980s
GASPARO GALLANTE GG4-1007 [4CDs: 54.18+42.47+45.17+45.00]

Macdowell and Griffes are only companions in the sense that they are both American composers born in the nineteenth century. Their music subsists in contrast rather than in similarity.

The Macdowell piano solo production comprises four sonatas and a myriad pleasingly personable water-colour nature pictures. The latter are salon and piano stool Schumann rather than anything terribly volatile or commanding. His orchestral tone poems are made of sterner stuff. He died, demented, in 1908.

Griffes is a tragic figure. While Macdowell died at the age of 48 Griffes only survived to 36. His small legacy tends towards the Gallic-Slav stream in American music (Farwell, Loeffler, Coerne and Burlinghame Hill) and is highly original. The Pleasure Dome and The White Peacock are fantastic, impressionistic and fruitily spiced works for orchestra. The Piano Sonata is a work to stand with the Liszt and Ferguson sonatas.

Any pianist juxtaposing the piano works of these two composers needs to be as adept with the impressionistic hesitation and lambent suggestion of Griffes as with the Germanic romanticism and drama of Macdowell.

Tocco was in good form when this cycle was set down. Having lived with this set for more than two years I would favour this set over the Phoenix set by Alan Mandel. You are more likely to come across Barbagallo in his incomplete survey of the sonatas (3 and 4 only) on the very extensive Naxos American Classics Macdowell series. Tocco is recorded in fearlessly close proximity and Gasparo deserve credit for giving us what I take to be Tocco's full dynamic range.

The pieces include a Rachmaninovian Rhapsody and the drizzling winter waters of Notturno, the Bartók-style zithering of the Scherzo of the Op. 6. The Pleasure Dome started life as a piano piece although it is likely to be better known these days amongst CD collectors in its orchestral garb (either Charles Gerhardt on Chesky or Ozawa on New World). Its fragrantly suggestive power focused on Taylor Coleridge's drug-induced poem and must surely have fuelled Arthur Farwell's Vathek or Burlingame Hill's Prelude. It certainly belongs in the Oriental exotica category more closely attuned to the French school than to the Germanic although Humperdinck wrote an excellent Oriental Rhapsody. Here Tocco is not quite the magus necessary to lift the piece from the page and leave it floating in a suggestive haze. This really needs a Gieseking, a Garvelmann (witness his recording of the Sorabji transcriptions on Bis), or an Earl Wild. Tocco's Griffes lacks the out and out hum and blur of impressionism. The recordings are not the last word and in this connection the New World recordings by Denver Oldham are preferred as are the two Griffes volumes of Michael Lewin on Marco Polo and Naxos. Tocco. Tocco is by no means poor it is simply that his strengths lie in the imperious heroics and romanticism of Macdowell rather than the Pierrot world of Griffes.

The concise (between 20 and 25 minutes each) Macdowell sonatas have been compared by Colin Scott-Sutherland with the much later and equally concise four Bax sonatas written during the three decades after that in which Macdowell wrote his four. The titles have a strongly Baxian flavour but the idiom is different - Schumann into Rachmaninov but with a convincingly superheated romantic volatility alternating with lambent reflection and macabre prestidigitation as in the troll-dance of the Eroica. There is nevertheless something about these four sonatas that places the music with the mid-nineteenth century landscapes of the American wilderness. Macdowell is to Griffes what Parry and Stanford are to Baines and Bax.

Tocco brings a pesante quality to the first movement of the Keltic and the Largo of the Tragica which is his last piano sonata. It is a work of resolute power - rather Grieg-like and not shying from the gentler muses as in the 'with naive tenderness' movement even if the shafts of sunlight are sometimes interrupted by hints of some troll-fate. It is dedicated, as is the Third Sonata Norse, to Grieg and is inspired by Celtic legends in the epics of the Cycle of the Red Branch. This is the most convincing of the four sonatas.

These recordings were originally made in the early 1980s during the twilight of the LP era and as the timings indicate moved across direct to silver disc. The four CDs were initially issued by Gasparo as GSCD-231, 232, 233 and 234. They were issued in this boxed form in 1995 and as a set have received scant attention.

This is not the first time that the two composers have been yoked together. In circa 1971 Clive Lythgoe recorded the Griffes Sonata with the Macdowell Eroica and Robert Nathaniel Dett's suite In the Bottoms for a Philips LP (never reissued on CD). Tocco catches the shattering cut-glass quality of the Sonata - a work described by Virgil Thomson as 'shockingly original'. Written during the last two years of the Great War its explosive outer movements betray a familiarity with the work of wild men such as Ornstein and Cowell.

The Rhapsody and the orchestral version of The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (which Gasparo persist in spelling Kahn) are first recordings.

Repertoire-wise this is an instantly appealing package offered at an attractive price. The Macdowell sonatas, the earlier more Germanic Griffes works and Griffes own Sonata come up extremely well. The Macdowells are still market leaders. However the trademark exotica of Griffes require a more subtly imaginative approach in which humid suggestion and diaphanous impression replace sharply focused drama and heroism.

Tocco brings explosive volatility to the Lisztian bravura of the Macdowell works but is not quite as successful with the elusive Griffes pieces. An extremely useful survey of a substantial selection from the piano music of these composers. Much here to challenge assumptions especially in the Macdowell sonatas.

Very good notes by Allan Kozinn and a very forward recording from producer Roy Christensen.

Rob Barnett

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