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John Powell (1882-1963)
Early Piano Works

In the South Op. 16 (1906) [19:00]
Hummingbirds [4:34]
Love Poem [3:24]
Negro Elegy [6:44]
Pioneer Dance [4:12]
Sonata noble Op. 21 (1907/08) [27:12]
Allegro moderato [7:26]
Tema-Andante con moto [8:27]
Minuetto [2:52]
Allegretto sostenuto [8:21]
At the Fair: Sketches of American Fun for Pianoforte (1907) [19:10]
Hoochie-Coochie Dance {4:04]
Circassian Beauty [4:37]
Merry-go-round [1:45]
Clowns [1:41]
Snake-charmer [3;09]
Banjo-picker [3:52]
Nicholas Ross (piano)
rec. 3-4 January 2006, Louisiana State University Recital Hall, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Text by the performer included

Experience Classicsonline

John Powell is one of those America composers who fits chronologically between the New England School (Chadwick, Parker, Beach) and the "classics" (Copland, Thompson, Harris). Although well-known in the mid-years of the century he has been mostly forgotten since then, partially because of his reactionary political and cultural views. Regardless of the latter he did produce some interesting music, which the soloist on this disc, Nicholas Ross, seems anxious to revive.

Powell spent a number of years in Europe touring as a pianist before the First World War but had started composing before this. This recording contains three of those early works, written almost simultaneously. They demonstrate Powell’s preoccupations with the American South, Anglo-Saxon folk music and the pianistic style of Liszt. As a composer Powell became well-known with In the South, the first section of which combines slightly salon-style music with American folksiness. However the degree of pianistic difficulty is amazing. Love Poem is a similar mixture, with a little ragtime thrown in. It could be described as gracious but not especially stimulating. The Negro Elegy is based on both black and Anglo-Saxon material and proves more substantial than its two predecessors. The Pioneer Dance is based on "The Arkansas Traveler" and the old tune "Soapsuds". It proves lively and inventive.

At the Fair explores different types of American music of the time and is somewhat simpler in style but more original in development than In the South. The first two sections especially show Powell developing as a composer. The third, Merry-go-round is slight, but Clowns is definitely the most original section of the suite with its mixture of blues and ragtime. The Snake-charmer contains a lot of charm but I couldn’t find the snakes. Powell’s handling of the three well-known folk-melodies in Banjo-picker again demonstrates his growing compositional ability, to be further demonstrated in the Sonata noble and its two companions, as well as his most famous work, the Rapsodie Negre of 1917.

Having heard the old LP recording of Powell’s Sonata teutonica I expected something rather heavy and bombastic from the Sonata noble. Nothing could be further from the truth. The first movement is simple in tone and almost Bachian in its purity. It suggests folk music without actually quoting any folk tunes. The theme of the second movement is even simpler with a very imaginative second variation and a third that is Schumannesque. The last two variations are the only instances of more conventional pianistic bravado. The third movement is a minuet that has some fascinating manipulation of the original material in its middle section. I would have to say that the last movement is the most interesting in the piece - the manipulation of the material is quite striking, accompanied by trills and repeated figures in the bass. The overall feeling is one of nostalgia, which seems to be Powell’s favorite emotion.

Nicholas Ross’s playing and advocacy are both to be applauded. He handles the entire range of emotional and technical expertise required by these works almost effortlessly. It is obvious that he finds Powell not only unjustly neglected, but possessing real qualities of originality. The sound quality on this disc is also commendable: much more life-like than many piano recordings that come my way. I assume from the excellent notes that Mr. Ross is planning another disc of Powell’s music and while I am not as convinced as he is regarding the composer’s stature, I will definitely be interested to hear such a disc, both from the point of view of the music and for the qualities Mr. Ross contributes.

William Kreindler





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