or not, American classical music of the 1800s has received minimal
attention on record and in concert halls. If any record company
can redress the matter, it is Naxos which has already issued over
100 recordings in its American Classics series and plans to release
more than 200 discs by the time the project is complete.
composer William Mason does not have a major reputation in the
United States; actually, he hardly has any reputation at all.
Born in Boston in 1829, Mason had his performing debut at the
Boston Academy of Music in 1846 and had already begun his compositional
career. As was typical for the time period, he went to Europe
in 1849 and spent six years studying under a variety of teachers
including Ignaz Moscheles and Franz Liszt.
the European influence fully absorbed, Mason returned to the United
States in 1854 with full intentions of becoming a concert pianist.
Although successful, he did eventually branch out into teaching
and composition, making New York City his home base. Mason also
published writings about piano performance and clearly loved his
liner notes to the disc bring up the influence that Chopin, Schumann,
Fauré, Brahms, and Liszt had on Masonís musical personality.
As such, you wonít hear a significant degree of ĎAmericanaí from
Mason whose music is steeped in the imitation of European models.
You also will not hear much intensity, power, or great emotional
depth as Mason tends to entertain in a salon-type atmosphere.
However, the Naxos program reveals that Mason does become more
introspective and emotionally diverse/incisive as he takes on
a greater number of life experiences.
compositions can be broken down into three categories. In the
earliest period, which ends in the mid-1850s, his works are brilliant
and virtuosic along the lines of the public Liszt; the music is
light in mood and consistently sparkles. The middle period extends
to 1890 and adopts a Chopinesque style with a strong touch of
melancholy. In the final period, Mason fully matures as a composer
of ample emotional variety and some sense of harmonic adventure.
Boulton is at the controls and is joined by his wife for the duet
"Badinage". Born in Seattle, Mr. Boulton performs often
as a soloist and chamber musician. He has toured Europe and specializes
in American music; another Naxos disc finds Boulton performing
the piano music of Elie Siegmeister. Boulton and his wife have
performed as a duo for many years in the four-hand repertoire,
and their duet well displays the bonds of intimacy and shared
a little, how we react to the music of obscure composers often
depends on our expectations. Hoping for and expecting another
Liszt or Chopin will invariably lead to disappointment. I can
fall into this trap as easily as the next person, but it is beneficial
for all concerned to simply judge obscure composers and music
on their own merits.
to do just that, I am very pleased with Masonís piano music and
my time spent on it. Masonís a lyrical man with a penchant for
catchy themes and phrases. His music has a silky quality and tends
to be light in nature, although melancholy often enters to provide
most important consideration that shows throughout the disc is
that Mason was born to compose for the piano. Every piece flows
beautifully, the sonorities are exceptional, and spacing is about
perfect. Masonís artistic inspiration might no be in elite company,
but I always find it a pleasure to encounter a composer for piano
of such natural abilities as Mason.
am not aware of any other recordings of Masonís piano music on
the market, but Kenneth Boulton doesnít simply win by default.
He excellently captures the essence of each of Masonís three compositional
periods. Boulton imparts the best of the salon tradition to the
early period, giving up sparkling music at every turn. The melancholy
of the middle period is fully realized, and Boulton also captures
the increased complexity and richness of Masonís late period.
Best of all, Boulton provides the fluidity and lightness that
are integral parts of Masonís delightful music which often veers
into the dance mode.
recorded sound is exemplary. Its richness is equally matched by
its clarity, and I love the balanced bass response. Naxos has
greatly improved its piano sound in recent years to the point
where it now usually contributes to the listenerís enjoyment.
Mason, Boulton, and those obtaining this new Naxos disc surely
are getting the benefits of the upgrade.
more item before moving on to a few specifics. With the exception
of "Trois Préludes", the programmed works are
not miniatures. Each is over three minutes, and "Valse de
Bravoure" extends to over nine minutes in length. Therefore,
Mason canít simply come up with a nice theme, repeat it, and begin
on the next piece. The musical length mandates introductions,
interludes, 2nd sections, and secondary themes. In
other words, Masonís music requires variety and he does not disappoint.
are a few particulars to note:
disc begins and ends with early-period Mason works. Considered
his signature piece, "Silver Spring" is an enticing
confection that sparkles throughout. It begins with a Lisztian
introduction replete with flourishes, arpeggios, and strong declarations.
Without transition the primary theme enters, and itís a lovely
and soft-spoken one built on the subtlest shades of heroism and
triumph. After its repeat, an extended interlude takes over that
instills strong and public drama. Then, the primary theme returns
and ends the piece in uplifting fashion. I can hear why "Silver
Spring" is Masonís signature piece; it sticks in the memory
and has abundant variety for its six-minute length.
last track, "Valse de Bravoure, is the longest work on the
program. A caressing introduction built mainly on shimmering descending
lines opens into an old-fashioned waltz that definitely keeps
my foot tapping with its infectious rhythm and good cheer. Also,
Mason instills sufficient variety to maintain interest throughout
the nine minutes.
of the music on the disc comes from Masonís middle period. We
find that the exuberance of the earlier works is toned down greatly
and replaced by an exquisite melancholy. This music is very good,
but I have a slight problem with its connection to Chopin. From
my view, Mason is so wrapped up with Chopinís style that he neglects
to further the individual voice that was starting to emerge in
his early works. "Lullaby", "Valse-Caprice",
and "Ballade et Barcarolle" are Chopin sound-alikes
except at a lower level of inspiration. Unfortunately, emulating
others is usually not a good way to fire up the creative juices.
However, even in these three pieces, Mason always delivers finely
honed products revealing his affinity for piano writing.
makes some major strides forward in his late period. He extricates
himself from Chopin and takes more adventurous paths in his compositional
style. Particularly effective is his harmonic stretching which
adds layers of meaning and complexity to his music.
conclusion, the new Mason disc of piano music is highly entertaining
and sure to please piano enthusiasts. Mason is not some hack composer
who gains through little competition with his countrymen. He is
a fully accomplished composer of the European strain who offers
delightful and expertly crafted music. With exceptional sound
and performances added to the mix, I strongly urge you to consider
a disc that just might be the perfect antidote to a stressful
day; you can even grab a partner and dance till dawn.