Earl WILD (1915-2010)
Grand Fantasy on Porgy and Bess (1976) [28:39]
Seven Virtuoso Études (1976) [20:35]
Improvisation on Someone to Watch over Me (1990) [12:32]
Piano Sonata (2000) [17:15]
Xiayin Wang (piano)
rec. 24-25 June 2010, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, New York, USA
CHANDOS CHAN 10626 [79:01]

When Earl Wild died just over a year ago he was ninety four years young. I had deferred listening to this disc imagining that my review would become a rather pedantic comparison between the patrician Wild’s definitive performances and the young usurper Xiayin Wang. That’s preconceptions for you – I loved this new disc and more to the point I would bet a substantial amount of money that Earl Wild would love it too. Wild’s own recordings will remain a superb testament to his own phenomenal technique and mercurial musical wit but I have been stunned by the quality of this new disc on every level. So no more comparisons in this review just utter admiration for Wang’s achievement.

Chandos have made the marketing decision bravely but correctly to promote this as The Piano Music of Earl Wild with the qualification below in much smaller type ‘featuring the Gershwin arrangements’. In playing time terms, over sixty of the seventy-nine minutes worth of the disc is on themes by Gershwin. But Wild’s approach as a composer is very much along the lines of a 19th Century virtuoso creating potpourris or ‘grand fantasias’ on themes of currently in-vogue operas. If we are happy to refer to Liszt’s transcriptions of operas, why not Wild’s? These works were created primarily as vehicles for Wild’s near-superhuman technique but his enormous skill as a composer was to find a balance between outrageous virtuosity and honouring the simple beauty of many of Gershwin’s themes. These are not jazz arrangements of popular songs but neither are they indifferent to the inflections and feel of popular American culture. Don’t forget another great Wild transcription is his treatment of themes from Disney’s Snow-white. What I respect most about Wild the all-round musician was his ability to recognise the inherent quality of a piece of music regardless of the genre from which it derived. The opening episode is big in every respect – about a minute short of half an hour of continuous playing weaving together themes from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. As an opera this still divides opinions as to its inherent worth. I think it is a work of genius and Wild’s Grand Fantasy a fitting tribute. Compositionally Wild creates a musical arch of brilliant sophistication with the well-known melodies overlapping, recurring and flowing together with enormous skill. The problem for the performer, once the minor detail of the terrifying technical hurdles has been negotiated, is to link the differing moods and styles of the work’s twelve sections into a coherent whole. Xiayin Wang is simply magnificent here – her balance between a beautifully natural ‘vocal’ phrasing and the virtuosity of the keyboard writing is perfection. Songs like Summertime and Bess you is my woman now have been played and arranged in so many styles that it is incredibly hard to get back to the innocent sublime beauty of the original. Wang does just that – not for her any arch, coy or mannered phrasing. As someone once said, “play it like you’d sing it, like you meant it” – and she does. Time and again I was struck by the way she was able to honour the spirit of the original work while staying true to the demands of the transcription. Absolutely key to the success of works of this technical complexity is that they should not sound hard. A great part of the delight a listener has is in hearing the gleeful ease with which the virtuoso tosses off the trickiest passage. That kind of easy virtuosity was a trademark of Earl Wild the pianist and it is a characteristic that Wang possesses too. I notice that Wang’s biography in the liner highlights a New York Times review which amongst other things points out her “... ability to maintain and illuminate a strand of melody within the thickest texture”. I would concur with that opinion wholeheartedly and it is a vital talent when textures become as complex as here. In this she is helped by the very clear and immediate recording quality and the tonal beauty of the Steinway she plays. The production team have opted for quite a close sound but this suits the style of the music perfectly; never does it become oppressive let alone clangourous. Much of the credit for the latter must go to Wang again. She plays with a wonderfully wide dynamic range but by always having a sense of power and technical facility in reserve her playing never sounds forced or even the slightest bit harsh.

The Seven Virtuoso Études date from 1976 which is the same year as the Fantasy but they have a very different function. These are more shamelessly a vehicle for overt display. Wisely though Wild limits the scale of these pieces to two to three minutes each and varies the virtuosic demands from song to song. With Wang’s total keyboard command now a given what strikes me again and again is the beautiful and elegant fluency of her phrasing. Take the first of these studies Liza [track 13] – ignore if you can the absurd amount of pirouetting filigree work enveloping the tune. Wang keeps her musical eye firmly on the linear demands of the melody so you end up with the ideal – a beautiful interpretation of a beautiful tune all wreathed in the most extraordinary iridescent gossamer accompaniment. Or try the very next etude – Somebody loves me and hear how Wang moves seamlessly from the opening smooching and sexily simple phrase to a climax of Lizstian power before sinking back to a nocturnal shadowland. It’s all brilliantly conceived by Wild and executed to perfection by Wang. I still probably prefer Percy Grainger’s take on The Man I love. Wild’s transcription verges more towards a lounge style albeit of the very very highest order. The bluesy Oh lady be good! is much more interesting as a treatment and again Wang finds the perfect balance between style and technique. Not surprisingly a highlight of this sequence is the version of I got rhythm to which Wild gives the character of a moto perpetuo music-box with a cog loose. The way it slips through keys and rhythmic side-shifts is wonderfully witty and capricious – all conveyed to perfection by Wang.

The last of the Gershwin-inspired works dates from 1990 by which time Wild was a spritely seventy-five. It is a tribute to his remarkable energy that he could write this work - and the original Sonata that follows ten years later - let alone perform it at that age. In this work Wild focuses on a single Gershwin theme, Someone to watch over me and treats it as a theme and three variations. Normally I am rather averse to the interpolation of ‘serious’ music onto something lighter as if the simpler music is not able to sustain one’s interest without the stiffening sinew of something altogether more weighty. But Wild gets away with this. He overlays the Sarabande from the Bach Second Partita in the third variation Tango for the simple reason that he obviously delights in the combination/juxtaposition of the two widely differing pieces. Time and again Wild’s love and respect for the original music shines through and this impression is amplified by Wang’s astounding pianism.

I had never heard Wild’s Piano Sonata previously but it makes an excellent companion to the rest of the programme. It shares, unsurprisingly, an idiom with the transcriptions and is instantly accessible and enjoyable. Obviously it abounds in extreme technical demands although surely, by now, I do not need to say Wang is serenely unruffled by any of them. I particularly enjoyed the closing Toccata written as a homage to the Puerto Rican pop singer Ricky Martin. Are there many eighty-five year olds who would embrace youth musical culture so enthusiastically or even be aware of its existence? How remarkable that Wild was able to produce a piece of such vigour and bright-eyed joy. The heritage of Martin gives Wild the excuse to produce a movement full of the rhythmic vitality and earthy energy that is associated with Latin American dance music. There are echoes of Ginastera’s piano writing here and it makes for a fittingly exciting close to a simply superb disc. Icing on the cake comes with a very good liner-note by Lucy Miller Murray and superb value with a playing time of nearly eighty minutes. I had missed Wang’s disc of Scriabin on Naxos but as a consequence of her playing here I will be seeking that out immediately.

Unless you are congenitally opposed to the art of the keyboard transcription or Gershwin in toto this is a disc of sensational quality that demands to be heard both as a tribute to the much-missed art of Earl Wild and a herald of things to come from the remarkable Xiayin Wang.

Nick Barnard

see also review by Brian Reinhart

A tribute to the much-missed art of Earl Wild and a herald of things to come from the remarkable Xiayin Wang.