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Grete Sultan (piano): The Legacy – Volume 1
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1894-1951)
Funf Klavierstücke, Op. 23 (1923) [13:19]
1. Sehr langsam 2. Sehr rasch 3. Langsam 4. Schwungvoll, mässige 5. Walzer
Klavierstücke, Op. 33a (1928) [1:51]
John CAGE (1912-1992)
7. Music of Changes, Part I (1951) [8.10]
8. The Perilous Night for prepared piano; the original first recording (1944) [13:34]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
from: Douze Etudes, Book II (1915) [21:21]
9. No. VII - pour les degrés chromatique [2:15]; 10. No. VIII - pour les agreements [5:05]; 11. No. IX - pour les notes répétées [3:27]; 12. No. X - pour les sonorités opposes [5:49]; 13. No. XI - pour les arpèges composés [4:28]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations [78:03]
Grete Sultan (piano)
Recorded 1959 (Bach) to 1990 (Schoenberg)
LABOR RECORDS LAB 7037 [55.53 + 78.03]

Grete Sultan (piano): The Legacy Volume 2
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120 (1819-23) [52:14]
Six Bagatelles, Op. 126 (1823) [17:27]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Piano Sonata (1939-41) [22:48]
Episodes for piano 14:25
Ben WEBER (1916-1979)
4. Episode I; Interlude (1957); 5. Episode II (1957); 6. Episode III: Adagio (1957)
Stefan WOLPE (1902-1972)
Form for Piano (1959)
7. Remote and restless [3:34]
Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
Yenovk (The Troubadour), Partita for Piano (1951) [6:26]; 8. No. 1 Fantasy [3:02]; 9. No. 5 Gamelan. [1:05]; 10. No. 2 Canzona [1:48]; 11. No. 3 Pogh [1:24]
Tui St. George TUCKER (b.1924)
Tantum Ergo for piano [13:43]
12. Adagio with solemn ecstasy; Moderato; 13. Im Paradies: Allegro Moderato; 14. Amoroso: Adagio molto espressivo; 15. Laudate Dominum: Allegro; 16. Moderato; with Majestic Jubilation; 17. Moderato; Adagio
John CAGE (1912-1992)
Etudes Australes (1974) [15:34]
18. Book I, No. 8 [3:27]; 19. Book II, No. 12 [3:47]; 20. Book I, No. 6 [4:04]; 21. Book IV, No. 32 [4:13]
Grete Sultan (piano)
Recorded between 1969 and 1973 except the Cage, recorded c 1980s
LABOR RECORDS LAB 7038-2 [2 CDs 69.41 + 75.10]


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A few words about a pianist who will be little known. Johanna Margarete (Grete) Sultan was born in Berlin in 1906 and studied with Leonid Kreutzer in the Hochschüle fur Musik, continuing studies with Richard Buhlig and Edwin Fischer, who remained a lasting influence. She was as devoted to contemporary music even then – Schoenberg, Krenek, Stravinsky – as to Bach and Beethoven and built a solid career before the rise of the Nazis. She escaped extremely late, in 1940, and the details of her visa complications make for hair-raising reading - she left Europe via Lisbon with fifteen minutes of her visa time remaining. She made a new career in New York where her teaching and performing were extensive though not without difficulty. It’s here that she became best known and if she achieved a measure of renown – and if you recall her name – it will doubtless be because of her promotion of the music of her pupil John Cage. He wrote Etudes Australes for her, a work she performs in this edition of her live performances.

Her joint piano recitals with the likes of David Tudor were also important features of her New World status but she maintained a strong interest in presenting series of classical concerts of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, performing the Goldberg and Diabelli variations as well, at a time when programming them in concert recitals was rare – both are included in this four disc tribute of two double albums, available separately. She died, having happily lived to see the release of these discs during the later 1990s, at the advanced age of ninety-nine in July 2005.

Her Goldberg Variations was recorded in concert in 1959 and is the earliest item here. She takes all repeats, an unusual enough procedure then, and she used to demonstrate her “schema” for this work on a board for the audience to see; it’s reproduced in the booklet notes and is a structural diagram of her conception of the variations (keyboard etude/canon/free imitation/overture/fughetta and the like). She takes a generally steady approach and when one bears in mind that it was recorded live the achievement becomes plainer. There are times when she is contrapuntally clear but also moments of muddied voicings (variation.3) and a certain stolidity enters into her playing. Variation 9 is certainly slow, even for the time, and 11 not ideally clarified in left hand or right. Later she becomes rhythmically unsteady but the variations from Landowska’s so-called Black Pearl on are excellently realised and buoyant. 

On this first disc we have a contrasting selection of her pioneering work on behalf of her contemporaries. Her Schoenberg was recorded as late as 1990, when she was eighty-four, and though she can still rise to something of the ferocity of the second, the sheer animation of her younger years was clearly some way in the past. Cage’s Music of Changes wasn’t written for her but it’s still of some importance to hear her play his music, so allied with his name has she become, and so influential a figure was she in propagating some of the piano works. This is equally true of the 1969 The Perilous night, for prepared piano. The selections of Debussy Etudes from Book II sits rather oddly here.

The second disc follows the formula of the first; here it’s the Diabelli Variations that represents her classical credentials. This is to me a rather hard-bitten traversal dating from a 1969 Town Hall performance, rather heavy and textually thick though not without its moments of real illumination. On balance though this is a forcefully conceived, rather craggy and relentless conception, occasionally exploring moments of Beethovenian tonal crudity to good effect though too often ironing out dynamic contrasts – which may be, at least in part, a product of the live recording.

Of more significance, despite her reputation as a pioneering “variation” recitalist, is the music of her contemporaries. Her Copland is again rather hard though tonally effective and the Weber has some outsize Mussorgskian chording in the second Episode though the moments of expressionist contrast are ear catching as well. There’s a single, very slight example of her way with Wolpe and Hovhaness’s six-minute 1951 Yenovk whose fascinating sonorities survive the rather sub-fusc recording. It was good to hear Tui St George Tucker’s Bachian Tantum Ergo for piano – plenty of limpid and grave nobility here though the recording accentuates a clangour in Sultan’s approach. Finally we have a timely and valuable offering in the shape of a selection from Cage’s Sultan-dedicated Etudes Australes. Written in 1974 and performed by her at an unidentified location some time in the late 1980s there are only four but they make an invaluable contribution to Cage studies.

The booklet notes are full of detail and though the recordings fluctuate they’re never less than perfectly adequate. Sultan’s playing as preserved here is variable, though at its finest it has a powerful sense of authority and its intellectual strengths can’t be gainsaid.

Jonathan Woolf




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