EMI are past masters at the art of recycling old material – this
disc was first released as a two-volume set on Virgin Classics
– but that’s not to say there isn’t some wheat among the chaff.
A quick glance at their American Classics series reveals a number
of popular works by Barber, Bernstein, Copland and Grofé, laced
with more adventurous ones from Cage, Carter, Reich and Sessions.
Lawson is new to me, so I was disappointed that EMI’s meagre
booklet didn’t even offer the briefest of artist biographies.
However, a quick Google reveals that he is a Mancunian who
combines teaching at Chetham’s with a varied concert career.
I suspect Griffes is also new to most listeners – again the
CD booklet won’t be very helpful here – but at least Martin
Cotton’s notes on the music are reasonably informative.
Born in New York
City, Griffes went to Berlin in 1903 to study with Humperdinck.
He returned to the US four years later to teach at a boys’
prep school, where he stayed until his death in 1920. Cotton
describes him as ‘one of the might-have-beens of American
music’; that doesn’t really apply to Griffes’ derivative,
orchestral works but it certainly does to the Sonata in
F sharp minor. Cast in three linked movements it opens
Feroce – perhaps with hints of Scriabin – but for all
that one senses a work of some substance and originality.
second movement may be more French than Russian – Griffes
spent some time in France – but there is a tautness, a muscularity,
below the music’s supple surface that is very different. Fortunately
that doesn’t preclude some inward writing – Lawson is wonderfully
poised in these quieter moments – before the music returns
to its more sinewy self in the final Allegro. And what
a lovely transition Griffes achieves in the second half of
that movement – track 5 – its gentle, rocking melody leading
to a lugubrious central section and a powerful close.
This isn’t the
only version of the sonata on record – see Naxos 8.559023,
for instance – and listeners may be surprised to learn that
there are around 80 recordings of Griffes’ works in the current
catalogue. And anyone who wants to sample the composer’s earlier
pieces, including The White Peacock, Three Tone Pictures
and The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan, should
try Naxos 8.559164 (see RB’s review).
These unashamedly Romantic scores are well performed by JoAnn
Falletta and the Buffalo Symphony.
to note that fellow New Yorker Roger Sessions was born just
12 years after Griffes, yet outlived him by 65 years. Sessions
embraced serialism in his later works – including the Second
Piano Sonata – which tends to give these pieces a concentrated,
tightly argued structure. But while the animated, contrapuntal
Allegro couldn’t be more different from the sensuous,
free-flowing world of Griffes, there is a pleasing energy
and variety to this music that covers its compositional tracks
rather well. Indeed, anyone who is allergic to atonality will
be pleasantly surprised by the gentle Lento, whose
outward calm is ruffled only by the occasional dissonance.
Lawson has the
measure of this work which, to my ears at least, he essays
with even greater conviction than he does the Griffes. There
is a sense of engagement here, not to mention an unfolding
narrative that also belies the work’s serial underpinnings.
Even the spikier final movement is warm and characterful,
the piano a little close but always sounding clear and natural.
Probably the most
formidable work here is the seven-movement Ives sonata, a
series of reminiscences on Connecticut rural life in the 1880s
and 1890s. On first audition these ‘programmatic’ elements
– if one can call them that – may be hard to grasp, but lurking
behind the gruff Ivesian façade are the usual ballads and
hymn tunes that make his work so distinctive. Even the competing
musical strands are present, all played with considerable
brio. But Ives is also capable of tenderness; just
listen to that passage beginning at 8:12 in the first movement
and to the first half of the fourth.
As a musical magpie
Ives brings many scraps to the nest, including ragtime, which
he then weaves into a structure that’s all his own. Lawson
is alive to these borrowings and modulates between them with
disarming ease. Even the untamed passages come across with
conviction – in the third and fifth movements, for instance
– and Lawson doesn’t falter in the bravura writing of the
So often one hears
the criticism that Ives’s music is too perverse to enjoy –
inexpert, even – yet it is that very quality that makes his
music so exhilarating to listen to. The runaway sixth movement
is a case in point, the mad dash followed by a little coda
of great simplicity and charm. The final movement is a summation
of all that’s gone before, but it’s also permeated by a sense
of genial good humour. Lawson plays like a committed Ivesian,
vaulting over the music’s many technical hurdles and underlining
its originality at every turn.
EMI must be commended
for their new American Classics series. That said, they are
a long way behind Naxos, whose discs of American music – several
of which I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing – are well worth
collecting. And although some of these Naxos discs contain
previously released material many are new to the catalogue.
Also, EMI could take a leaf from Naxos’ CD booklets and try
for more comprehensive liner notes and artist biographies.
If Naxos can do it at this price point then so can they.