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William MASON (1829-1908)

Piano Music
  1. Silver Spring, Op. 6
  2. Capriccio Fantastico, Op. 50
  3. Rêverie Poétique, Op. 24
  4. Improvisation, Op. 51
  5. Valse-Caprice, Op. 17

  6. Deux Humoresques de Bal, Op. 23
  7. Polka-Caprice
  8. Mazurka-Caprice
  9. La Sabotière: Danse aux Sabots, Op. 33
  10. Lullaby, Op. 10
  11. Badinage, Op. 27 *
  12. Caprice Grotesque, Op. 22
  13. Ballade et Barcarolle

  14. Trois Préludes
  15. Con spirito
  16. Agitato
  17. Vivace
  18. Amourette, Op. 48
  19. Valse de Bravoure, Op.

Kenneth Boulton, piano
JoAnne Barry, piano *
Recorded at Sonic Temple, Roslindale, Massachusetts, February/May 2001 and January 2002

Deserved 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.

The 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.

With 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 teaching career.

The 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.

Masonís 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.

Kenneth 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 experiences.

Digressing 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.

Trying 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 effective contrast.

The 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.

I 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.

The 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.

One 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.

Here are a few particulars to note:

The 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.

The 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.

Most 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.

Mason 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.

In 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.

Don Satz

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