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Louis Moreau GOTTSCHALK (1829-1869)
Piano Works

Le Bananier/The Banana Tree, RO 21 [3’02]
Souvenir de Porto-Rico, RO 250 [5’56]
Bamboula, RO 20 [7’39]
Le Banjo, RO 22 [3’53]
Danza, RO 66 [6’55]
Pasquinade/Caprice, RO 189 [3’54]
Union: Paraphrase on National Themes, RO 269 [7’55]
Le dernier espoir/The Last Hope, RO 133 [5’23]
Sixième ballade, RO 14 [5’38]
Le poète mourant/The Dying Poet, RO 75 [6’25]
Noël Lee, piano
Recorded at the Salle Adyar, Paris, September 1984
WARNER APEX 2564 61183-2 [56’46]

Comparisons: Licad/Naxos, Martin/Hyperion

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was a travelling man. Born and raised in New Orleans, he spent time in Europe, Africa, the Carribean, and South America. Absorbing all these influences, Gottschalk’s music uses a wide range of styles, but it always has the stamp of ‘Americana’.

A few weeks ago I read a review of the Cecile Licad recording for Naxos of Gottschalk piano works that put forth the premise that Gottschalk’s music is played either as a representation of the early American experience or as a reflection of European culture and sensuality.

I largely agree with the above view, and my comparison recordings are at opposite poles of the spectrum. With Cecile Licad, we have the dynamic energy of a young nation hungry for expansion and greater world stature; her tempos are fast, rhythms are sharply etched, and exhilaration is in the air. In complete contrast, Philip Martin conveys a suave Gottschalk full of warmth, luxury, and sensuality. Martin’s approach is certainly attractive and often delectable, but I find he generally misses the indigenous character of Gottschalk’s music. In addition, Gottschalk was quite an adventurer, and it is Licad who conveys that spirit in her performances.

Warner Apex has now reissued a 1984 recording of Gottschalk piano music performed by the veteran pianist Noël Lee. Does Lee present the American experience or the more cosmopolitan and sensual approach? Neither really, as he inhabits an indistinct world where Gottschalk’s musical personality is neutral. The readings are certainly not invigorating but also not warm and inviting. They strike me as dry and clinical, essentially dutiful in fulfilling the task of playing music from a score. Lee’s interpretations never take flight, the excitement offered being just a small fraction of what Licad has to convey. Although I’m not smitten with the Martin recordings, his elegance definitely has the advantage over the rather literal performances from Lee. Further, Lee displays a rhythmic rigidity and minimal changes in dynamics which sap much of Gottschalk’s music of its life-enhancing properties.

Concerning particulars, Pasquinade/Caprice is a good example of Lee’s inflexible rhythms that make listening rather boring. The Union has a Star Spangled Banner section that should touch the heart, but Lee doesn’t appear to realize its uplifting values.

Even in a religious meditation such as The Last Hope, Lee makes me wonder why the piece has been a mainstay in many hymn-books; he simply does not radiate any spirituality.

Well, the list of readings gone astray applies to every piece of music on Lee’s program. The recorded sound is quite good for the time period with my sole reservation being a tendency for shrill higher notes. The competition is not huge for this repertoire, but Lee falls well below the norm. My best recommendation is to take a pass on this disc and go straight for the Licad recording. If you’re not particularly interested in the early American experience and prefer warmly sensual music, the Martin series on Hyperion should be very rewarding.

Don Satz


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