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John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951)
Collected Piano Works

Sonata in G minor (1897) [22.00]
Diversions (1923) [13:55]
Nocturne (1898) [4:21]
Polonaise Américaine (1912) [2.25]
Impromptu (1913) [4.37]
Tango Américain (1920) [4.36]
Minuet (1893) [2.29]
Little Dancer (1917) [2.42]
Little Indian (1916) [3.05]
Twilight Reverie (1894) [5.56]
Danza (1935) [4:47]
Denver Oldham, piano.
rec. American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Auditorium, New York, January 1985.
NEW WORLD RECORDS NW803282 [72.05]

 

The first thing to say is that listeners must not expect music like Krazy Kat or Skyscrapers on this disc. The prevailing style owes more to Edward MacDowell than to Gershwin. But this does not mean that we should ignore these largely derivative piano works. It is a common fallacy that composers must continually break new ground. It is truly possible to write well in the prevailing style and be successful.

The Sonata which is the major work on this interesting CD is a student work. It was composed in Carpenter’s senior year at Harvard under the supervision of John Knowles Paine. The cover of the holograph is inscribed with ‘Graduation Exercise, Music Department 1897.’

We must avoid making two mistakes here. The first is to forget that it is a young man’s music – and secondly to criticize it for its obviously derivative style and conservative sound-world. There is little in this work that suggests he would become one of the leading American composers of his day. However we cannot deny that the craftsmanship and musical invention is all present and correct.

The first movement is the most interesting aspect of this sonata. The slow introduction gets the work off to an impressive start. Soon other more interesting and involved tunes begin to compete for attention. All the fingerprints of the romantic tradition are present here although, as the programme notes rightly point out, it is tinged with the soberness of the academic setting for which it was conceived.

The second movement owes most to MacDowell. It is actually quite an introspective ternary movement into which the light hardly breaks. The middle section is more approachable. The last movement is the most forward-looking. Here we glimpse the future direction that Carpenter was to take. Of course there is no jazz here, nor even ‘cakewalk,’ however there is an interesting example of 5/4 metre which the composer was to use so effectively in the Concertino for Piano and Orchestra and Skyscrapers.

The Diversions are five short sketches that were published in 1923. This is music that has been well thought out and fully worthy of the composer’s reputation. The first piece, a Lento is a perfect and gorgeous example of a purely impressionistic piece. Debussy could not have done better! Perhaps it is the one piece on this disc that I would want on my Desert Island. The short allegretto con moto is an interesting experiment in combining two disparate melodic ideas into a miniature toccatina. The ending is hypnotic. The animato is written very much in a Spanish style – as imagined by an American! The moderato is a little faster than I expected. There is an oom-pah accompaniment to an interesting little phrase in the opening section. However the piece develops into something a little more up-market, with hints of jazz and a touch of dissonance that makes this piece bitter sweet. The last diversion is an adagio which again seems to be faster than ‘adagio’. It is an exploration of Spanish and American idioms and is completely successful.

No-one claims that these ‘Diversions’ are masterpieces, but they form an attractive little set of pieces that deserve to be aired every so often.

The remaining works can quite easily be categorized as ‘salon’ music. This is most certainly not to belittle them, only to concede that typically they would not really be at home in the concert hall or recital room.

The Nocturne (1898) is particularly attractive. I accept that it may not quite come up to the standards of Chopin or more appropriately Fauré. However there is a gorgeous tune running through the four minutes of this work that never ceases to impress. In fact there is almost a ‘pop’ feel to the melody. I feel that I have heard it before!

The Polonaise Américaine (1912) makes some use of Spanish rhythms, though not in the sense of an Albeniz or Granados. There is even a little touch of the cakewalk here.

The Impromptu (1913) is a much more introverted work. The chromatic nature of this music makes it sound more involved than it actually is. Carpenter uses a variety of exotic scales which tend to further confuse the sound-world of this work. This being said it is an enjoyable piece.

The Tango Américain was written in 1920 and has the most obvious nod to Hispanic melodies and chords of any piece on this CD. This could certainly feature as an encore in a piano recital.

The Minuet (1893) is a lovely miniature that has memorable tunes. It is one of those pieces that stay in the mind long after the last note has fallen silent. A small treasure.

The Little Indian and the Little Dancer are two very short pieces that were written in 1916 and 1917 respectively. These are relatively simple and most competent pianists could play them quite well. Yet the subtlety is in using this straightforward material and producing two perfect miniatures that, although not related, sit well with each other when played back to back.

The Twilight Reverie (1894) is like so many salon pieces that were composed at this time. The present offering was written by the 17 year old composer along with the Minuet. Somehow this reminds me neither of dusk nor of reveries. It is a little too lively for that! But a pleasant offering all the same.

The last piece is the Danza. It is the latest work for piano having been composed in 1935. One of its features is the complex changes of metre. The programme notes cite 35 changes in 190 bars. Use is made of 5/4 meter and apparently a bar in 3½/4 time. I was not able to identify this rhythmic anomaly. However in spite of these mannerisms, this is totally enjoyable; full of good tunes and interesting harmonies. This is a good work with which to close the recital.

So where does this CD fit into the canon of Carpenter’s works? His most famous pieces are, as noted above, Kit Kat and Skyscrapers. These are undoubtedly masterpieces. His Concertino for piano and orchestra is not less accomplished. I have still to fully absorb his two symphonies.

This present CD is not critical to an understanding of Carpenter’s music. However it does fill in a few gaps and allows us to form some idea as to how the composer developed over the years. The earliest work is the Minuet from 1893 and the latest is the Danza from 1935. So we witness a trajectory of the composer’s style over a period of about 42 years. None of these works are essential listening for the majority of listeners, yet all are attractive and certainly enjoyable. What is important, vital even, is the fact that New World Records have chosen to record this part of American musical history. There was always a great danger that these ‘minor’ items would be lost in the mists of time and that would have been a huge pity.

Denver Oldham plays well. At no time is he patronizing with what is mainly salon music. However this is probably the one and only recording that will be made of the ‘Collected Piano Works of John Alden Carpenter.’ And as such it deserves the attention of all those who love American music.

John France



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