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 CHAN10626 [79:01]
This recital of Earl Wild’s major piano works was recorded just five months after Wild’s death in January 2010, at the age of 94. It is an excellent celebration of four of the composer-pianist’s most significant works. It is gratifying to know that Wild’s music will live on in the hands of a pianist as gifted - and as attuned to his jazzy language - as Xiayin Wang.
Earl Wild was always a spiritual neighbor of George Gershwin; he played in one of the early standard recordings of Rhapsody in Blue, with the Boston Pops and Arthur Fiedler. But, especially now that Rhapsody recordings like last year’s dazzling Lincoln Mayorga account abound, Wild’s main legacy to the Gershwin tradition might be his series of compositions based on the older man’s hits: Grand Fantasy on ‘Porgy and Bess’, Seven Virtuoso Etudes (all after songs from the Gershwin musicals), and the Improvisation on ‘Someone to Watch Over Me.’ All are presented here, along with an even more recent work, 2000’s piano sonata - which is not based on Gershwin at all.
The Grand Fantasy on ‘Porgy and Bess’ is an opera fantasy of the sort Liszt used to write, but irradiated through and through with the spirits of Gershwin and Wild. The numbers are given an inspired order, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” held back until the last possible moment to serve as a breathtakingly lyrical climax to the half-hour-long dramatic arc. All the big tunes are here, plus lesser tunes which Wild astutely recognizes would sound terrific on the piano; this is a rollicking jazz suite in which melodies like “I Got Plenty of Nothin’” pop up like old friends.
The Grand Fantasy has been recorded by quite a few artists: Wild himself, Martin Jones on Nimbus, Ralph Votapek on the tiny Blue Griffin label, and now Xiayin Wang. The prospective listener cannot go wrong: although there is always a temptation to call Wild’s performance definitive (on which I’ll say more later), Votapek has great jazzy chops and panache, and Xiayin Wang channels both the big virtuosic Wild style and a soft poetry unique to her account. She has the wit of Votapek’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, for instance, but lacks the sarcastic bite. In return, we get a slightly more classicized vision with lyrical lines opened up. I prefer Votapek, but it is a matter of taste.
Wang is even stronger in the Seven Virtuoso Études, where competition is thinner - Jones did them all, but Votapek only tackled two. She has extraordinary technique, for sure: Wild set about making each into a technical challenge by his high standards, and the result is, in the words of the booklet, “incredible” demands on the soloist. Yet Xiayin Wang clearly fears none of it. This music is in the Chopin tradition anyway, that is, études so attractive that their difficulties seem incidental, and here the flurries of notes and complex rhythms never impede the melodic flow of the original songs. Listen especially for the agile beauty of the runs in ‘Embraceable You.’ The Improvisation on ‘Someone to Watch over Me,’ in its first recording by someone other than Wild, calls for similar traits of note-spinning and subtle elegance, and is another pleasure.
Completing the recital is the only non-Gershwin-themed work: Wild’s Piano Sonata, written in 2000 (at age 84). It’s a work which can stand as one of the more interesting piano sonatas of recent times, in a language that’s spiked with jazz, formal classicism, and percussive writing. Imagine a swung Prokofiev and you’ll have an idea of the outer movements; a perfume of Scriabin and Bill Evans hangs over the adagio’s climax - and the last bars are endearing. The finale is a homage to pop singer Ricky Martin, a rather sad reminder of the transient nature of pop stardom, though the music is anything but sad or fleeting.
Given the excellence of the playing on offer here, and the sheer pleasure of the music itself, all that remains to be said on behalf of this disc is that the sound quality is exemplary and the presentation is too: the booklet includes a very good essay by Lucy Miller Murray and an endearing photograph of Earl Wild’s 90th birthday recital at Carnegie Hall, the titan of American piano-playing looking years younger, with full white hair and hands which could clearly still command the keyboard.
Now, a few words on the looming presence of the composer’s own interpretations. It would be simple to say something like, “Earl Wild’s recordings of his own music remain the standard, of course, but I’m glad to see new pianists championing his work.” I won’t say that. In fact, I’ve tried to avoid mentioning Wild’s own playing at all. Anyone with serious affection for this music will seek out the great man’s recordings, but he composed piano pieces that will (or should) find a prominent home in the recital repertoire. We ought not intimidate any aspiring performers by suggesting that future efforts will only be held up to Wild’s originals for comparison. To do so would be to condemn the music to fossilize, to relegate it to Wild’s own recordings; instead I want it to grow and be adopted by more performers.
Have no fear of comparison to Earl Wild, then, young pianists; that is not the point. Xiayin Wang combines the necessary grand, Lisztian virtuosity with a real talent for the jazzy sensibility. Hers is a superb recital, and it does Earl Wild’s memory proud.
A superb recital of Earl Wild’s jazzy, Gershwin-inspired piano music.