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Edward MacDOWELL (1860-1908)
Piano Sonatas:
No. 1 Tragica Op. 45 (1891-2)
No. 2 Eroica Op. 50 (1895)
No. 3 Norse Op. 57 (1899)
No. 4 Keltic Op. 59 (1900)
Charles Tomlinson GRIFFES (1884-1920)
Four Roman Sketches Op. 7 (1915-16)
Three Preludes (1919)
Rhapsody in B minor (1912, rev 1914)
Fantasy Pieces Op. 6 (1912-15)
De Profundis (1915)
Sonata (1917-18)
The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (1912)
Three Tone-Pictures Op. 5 (1910-12)
Legend (1915)
James Tocco (piano)
Recorded Musical Arts Centre, Indiana University, early 1980s
GASPARO GALLANTE GG4-1007 [4CDs 54.18 + 42.47 + 45.17 + 45.00]

This is a very useful box – no, that sounds pedestrian; this box collates the work of two important musicians in fine performances that shed no real light one on the other, but it serves instead to point to the divergent strands in American piano music between 1890 and 1920. MacDowell of course was the bardic upholder of Germanic traditions and Griffes the hothouse embracer of the new music; impressionism, the Russians and the diaphanous.

By a programming decision the MacDowell Sonatas are presented in reverse chronological order, one to a disc. The First, Tragica, opens intensely, with powerful Germanic pull. Its remorseless incline to the overwhelming is immediately undercut by a very skittish Scherzo (and the notes aver unconvincing in the context of the Sonata as a whole, with which opinion I have to agree). The re-imposition of Schumannesque-Lisztian power comes in the romanticised legato of the slow movement, topped by an "eroico" finale of rather more energy than real direction. The Second Sonata is genuinely subtitled Eroica. It opens pensively, then grows in declamatory power with heavy pounding chordal drive. This time his Scherzo, whilst winsome, is far more congruous in its Grieg-like elfin lightness. Does he quote from Pictures at an Exhibition in the finale, after the touching slow movement? Conscious or not, he certainly summons up a noble peroration; for all that MacDowell has been written off as a tireless pianistic note spinner in these sonatas, there is something laudable about his compass and his ambition. No. 3 the Norse is, like the Fourth and last, in a more concise three-movement form. Amidst the nobility and grandeur of the first movement there is an admixture of tenderness and the familiarly striving themes of the finale are touched as well by pensive moments. The last sonata, Keltic, swims in lapping insistence and bardic strength; there is a tensile strength to the opening movement and a reiteration of mood that gives the Maestoso opening a real sense of continuum. The restatement of themes is in the grand late nineteenth century tradition but Tocco’s dynamics emphasise the bigness of gesture for which MacDowell strives. The alternating semplice and violence of the slow movement convey an ambivalence reinforced by the dramatic repeated chords at the end. We can be sue we are in the grip of some form of narrative but never quite sure how deep we’ve gone, and that’s always the more challenging feeling.

Griffes’ only Sonata is a powerfully and intermittently convincing one. In three movements it embraces tense drama, melodic seriousness, diffuse and hidden reflection, and in the finale a toccata-like eruptive drive. In MacDowell’s case this would have been a direct descendent of Schumann – but not with Griffes whose musical sympathies were broader and more flexible. Griffes’ Four Roman Sketches, so evocative and so beloved by titanic colourist conductors such as Stokowski remains one of his best know works. Nightfall crests Debussyan waves and Ravel haunts the opening of The Fountain of the Acqua Paola before some visceral and taxing writing dissipates the influence. In Clouds Griffes evokes diaphanous impressionism with the most acute of touches; the sense of time and motion is palpable, the listless movement above almost visual. His three tiny Preludes are full of the deepest impressionism and concision.

Griffes’ rather Brahmsian Rhapsody is certainly full of rather splintery rhetoric but he is more himself in the Fantasy Pieces where the gentle rocking of the Barcarolle takes on a slight and unsettling insistence despite its descriptively innocent name. It’s a pity that the recording here proves to be somewhat hard and unyielding. The acoustic contains MacDowell’s poetry-and–drama but is not quite so receptive to the tracery and ambiguity of Griffes. I was slightly surprised by De Profundis which is rather more winsome than one would expect of a piece with that title. The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan probably offers so many chances for exoticism for a composer that it’s difficult to know how to contain oneself. This is a piece better known in its orchestral raiment though it was originally written for piano. Griffes offers ripple and evocation spiced with glorious impressionist languor, as in his Three Tone Pictures he gives us chromaticist swirl. The 1915 Legend, not published until 1972, completes this set.

There are none of MacDowell’s bonbons here, just the big Sonatas and they contrast forcefully with his compatriot’s works. Tocco is leonine in the bristle of MacDowell but the up-front recording does him fewer favours in Griffes. Still – don’t forego the experience of these two streams of American piano composition in all their individual power.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Rob Barnett

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