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Howard Karp: Concert Recordings 1962-2007
Contents list at end of review
Howard Karp (piano)
rec. 1962-2007
ALBANY RECORDS TROY1492 [6 CDs: 437:00]

Howard Karp? Who he? That was my first response when offered this set for review. Given my total ignorance I hope Kenneth Woods – known to me as a conductor and blogger of singular passion and insight - will forgive me for plundering his excellent liner-notes for more details. Born in Chicago in 1929 Karp studied at both the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Juilliard School of Music. As a Fulbright scholar he went on to Vienna, and thence to Casa Orfeo in Positano, Italy, for Beethoven studies with the great Wilhelm Kempff. Thereafter he combined a 45-year teaching career at US and Asian universities with solo and chamber performances. He died in June 2014.
It never ceases to amaze me that so many performers – the hugely talented Mr Karp included - barely get a mention in the burgeoning annals of cyberspace. Thanks to the advocacy of Kenneth Woods and Albany Records that’s about to change. This 6-CD set, which ranges far and wide, strikes me as a handsome tribute to a pianist/pedagogue who really ought to be better known. That’s rather bold, I hear you cry. Well, having just sampled the first disc in the box I see no reason to recant. What’s more, the sound quality seems pretty decent, despite the number of years and venues spanned. With one exception - the Liszt Ballade No. 2 - these are live performances, taped at campus concerts/recitals; however, the venue for the Kirchner is given as 'Berlin, 1973'. Some applause has been retained.
CD 1 starts with a gregarious, open-hearted account of Schumann’s Op. 17 that pretty much sums up Karp’s strengths as a performer; he doesn’t shrink from grand gestures, yet he’s silkily sensitive when required. I’ve seldom heard the wellspring of Schumann’s talent bubble so freely, not least in the effervescent central movement. Superbly shaped and projected this is a far cry from the prissily precise pianism one hears all too much these days. It’s all about confidence, although in Karp’s case it’s seldom overweening. After all this pant and ardour the bell-like tones and burnished weight of the Fantasie’s final movement are simply glorious.
After all that glow the somewhat limited dynamics, narrow soundstage and peaky treble of Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 3 - his ’Concerto without Orchestra’ - are mildly disappointing. That said, Karp’s magisterial mien is unmistakable - as are his powers of articulation – especially when the music is at its most fulsome. It’s not just about separating the notes and maintaining rhythmic edges, for Karp can be soft and variegated when he needs to be; that’s amply demonstrated in his subtly shaded account of Liszt’s Ballade No. 2. The work’s repeated ‘rolling boil’ theme is darkly turbid and its gentle currents have a wonderful serenity about them. Some may prefer a more patrician playing style – Jorge Bolet and Claudio Arrau come to mind - but Karp’s ease and intimacy make this a treasurable alternative. This was Karp's final recording (2007).
Such felicities of rhythm, touch and phrase ought to stand Karp in good stead when it come to Schubert’s late, great Piano Sonata No. 19, which opens CD 2. He certainly captures the score’s carefree elements, which aresubtly offset by those solemn, hymn-like passages. This really is playing of rare grace and intuition; indeed, Karp’s many insights remind us of the incredible fecundity of Schubert’s musical imagination. His discreet shifts of mood and colour – not to mention the poise of the Adagio - are a source of lasting pleasure; by the way, there are moments in the latter movement when the background noise is a little more intrusive than I’d like. Still, this is a keeper, as they say.
The heavenly lengths and cadences of Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 21 are no less appealing; the recording is somewhat warmer than in the previous sonata and the piano’s upper registers aren’t so brightly lit. The result is a performance of uncommon blush and beauty, its clear countenance unblemished by crudely applied dynamic shifts. After all this spontaneity and charm - not to mention the fine fretwork of the Allegro non troppo - I have no hesitation in declaring this a keeper too. Disconcertingly the Impromptu that ends this disc is weighted towards the left channel. In spite of that - it's also the oldest recording here - the piano sounds quite clean and full; indeed, the pinpoints of light that illuminate the score are beautifully caught. Another keeper? Absolutely.
CD 3 is devoted to works by Chopin and Liszt, both of whom should suit Karp’s ebullient brand of pianism. Well, yes and no; although Chopin’s Sonata in B minor is strongly drawn, its bold peaks nicely contrasted with gentler inclines, there’s a hint of rhythmic inflexibility and a hardened tone. Still, there’s much to enjoy both here and in the Mazurka that follows. I must confess I don’t warm to Karp’s Chopin as readily as I do to his Liszt. These excerpts from Années de Pèlerinage have exceptional body and warmth, as well as thrilling amplitude. There’s a profound nobility to La chapelle de Guillaume Tell, a delicious sparkle in Au bord d'une source, and Vallée d'Obermann has seldom seemed so broad and painterly.
Indeed, I’d say that Liszt plays to all Karp’s strengths as a performer; I particularly relish the dark sonorities here, which make Jorge Bolet and Jenö Jandó – both seasoned Lisztians - seem almost insubstantial by comparison. True, Karp isn’t as pellucid as some, but he’s unerringly evocative and dramatic, and that’s what really counts. Just listen to Au lac de Wallenstadt – what ravishing timbres – and the bright animation of Les cloches de Genève. Karp’s clear bells don’t quite match up to Bolet’s more magical ones, but goodness they come close. Ditto in the plash and play of Les jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este. There’s some audience noise in quieter moments; otherwise this is a rich and resonant recording. The enthusiastic applause, soon faded, is well deserved.
Given that Karp studied Beethoven with Kempff I was intrigued to hear how much of his mentor’s playing style he might have imbibed. His Hammerklavier, which opens CD 4, certainly has the clarity and intimacy of scale that one associates with Kempff. Indeed, there’s a wonderful stroboscope of light and shade pulsing through the first movement that makes for a most refreshing and varied performance. Those reared on the likes of Emil Gilels may feel the sheer rigour of this late work is underplayed; perhaps, but it would be foolish to dismiss Karp’s jewelled narrative as somehow undemanding or lightweight. True, it’s not the only Hammerklavier I’d want on my shelves, but it’s well worth hearing nonetheless. A word of warning though; there are a few small dropouts and a bit of hum, neither of which is distracting enough to spoil the performance.
On the same disc Karp’s reading of Beethoven’s Op. 111 - recorded three years earlier - is a much cleaner and more sharply focused affair. It has many of the characteristics that define his Hammerklavier; there’s a mercurial touch that some may dismiss as superficial or self-serving, yet there’s also a hushed loveliness to the second movement that I find most rewarding. As so often, Karp’s phrasing is unfailingly musical, adding new contours to a work worn smooth by overfamiliarity. The disc concludes with a warmly expressive rendition of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Op. 2 No. 2. Clean of limb and clear of eye it’s very much in keeping with what we’ve heard thus far. The sound on this CD does vary from piece to piece; it’s perfectly acceptable, though.
Most of CD 5 is devoted to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, presented in somewhat ‘tunnelled’ sound (it was recorded at the same time as that Schubert Impromptu). Predictably this isn’t one of the cool – dare one say, rather sanitized – performances of BWV988 that seem to predominate these days; that said, Karp’s extrovert reading of this masterpiece is not without its quirks and quiddities. For instance he takes some of the variations at breakneck speed, and others aren’t as agile as they might be. This Goldberg isn’t for everyone, but listeners used to Glenn Gould’s various traversals won’t mind Karp’s highly individual way with this score.
You’d think after all that declamatory power Mozart’s K576 would come as something of a relief. Not a bit of it, for Karp is just as emphatic here. It’s a bright, upfront performance that's apt to wander a little. Karp’s dexterity is never in doubt, but anyone seeking more light and shade – a little more room to rest and recover between volleys – may find him a tad relentless at times. In spite of so much boldness the Adagio sings to itself most beautifully. Those who prefer the more elegant and finely nuanced readings of Mitsuko Uchida et al may feel Karp’s Mozart is too ‘old school’ for their tastes. The same could be said of the third movement from Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 18, although Karp makes amends with playing of astonishing fluidity.
CD 6 offers an eclectic mix, ranging from Bach to Copland. The latter’s Piano Variations – a work championed by Karp - is a 10-minute piece whose incipient austerity never succumbs to dull catechism. No, Karp is much too lively an artist and intellect to allow that; indeed, his penchant for maximum contrast really pays off here, whether it’s peremptory single notes or bittersweet chords. I haven’t heard the Piano Variations in ages, and those who normally recoil at the merest whiff of serialism would do well to give it a whirl. The recording is full and weighty, which suits the music, although I sense an occasional shift of focus that suggests knob twiddling somewhere along the line. The applause is very appreciative, though.
The other 20th-century piece on this disc, Leon Kirchner’s Piano Sonata No. 1, is compromised to some extent by a cave-like acoustic. As before the quality of Karp’s playing is such that any sonic shortfalls are quickly forgotten. It’s a piece of some sinew, twisted with tendons of near lyricism, and I suspect this is as good a performance of the sonata as you’re likely to hear. It certainly reinforces my admiration for the Copland, which strikes me as a far more inventive and durable work.
The melodic outpourings of Bach’s Partita No. 4 offer some respite after that brief flirtation with pared-down modernity. As with Karp’s Goldberg Variations this is a commendably crisp and dynamic performance whose contrapuntal cascades are handled with aplomb. The music-box delicacy and twirl of Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 17 (fourth movement) which concludes the set, is similarly well done. It’s that rare thing, an alchemical fusion of inspiration and insight that makes it all the more tragic that we don’t get to hear Karp in the complete work.
I can’t possibly end this review on a note of regret, for there is far too much here for which we should be truly grateful. After hours of careful listening I can see why Howard Karp has such a devoted following. I wouldn’t want everything here – I respect rather then love his Bach, Mozart and Beethoven - but his Liszt and Schubert are in another league entirely. Kenneth Woods’ detailed and lively liner-notes round off a most attractive package.
A hidden talent revealed at last; a must for all pianophiles.
Dan Morgan
Masterwork Index: Goldberg variations ~~ Beethoven sonatas ~~ Schubert sonatas
Contents list
CD 1 [77:21]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasie in C major, Op. 17 (1836) [30:07]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 14 ‘Concerto without Orchestra’ (1835) [28:53]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Ballade No. 2 in B minor. S171 (1853) [18:20]
rec. 13 February 1972, Great Hall of the Krannert Center, University of Illinois (Fantasie); 23 April 1967, Smith Hall, U. Illinois (Sonata); Spring 2007, Mills Hall, University of Wisconsin-Madison (Ballade)
CD 2 [75:55]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata No. 19 in C minor, D958 (1828) [31:43]
Piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat major, D960 (1828) [37:47]
Impromptu No. 4, Op. posth. 142, D935 [6:23]
rec. November 1972, 25 February 1977, Mills Hall, UW-M (D958, 960); 2 October 1962, Smith Hall, U. Illinois (D935)
CD 3 [77:55]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58 (1844) [27:23]
Mazurka, Op. 56, No. 3 (1843) [7:24]
Années de Pèlerinage, Première année: Suisse, S160 (1848-1855)
No. 1 La chapelle de Guillaume Tell [6:47]
No. 4 Au bord d'une source [3:56]
No. 6 Vallée d'Obermann [14:05]
No. 2 Au lac de Wallenstadt [3:51]
No. 9 Les cloches de Genève [6:10]
Troisième année: Suisse, S163 (1867-1877)
No. 4 Les jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este [8:17]
rec 18 May 1976, Warner Concert Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music (Sonata); September 1980, U. Colorado (Mazurka); 1972-1980 (Années de Pèlerinage)
CD 4 [74:39]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata in B flat major, Op. 106 ‘Hammerklavier’ (1819) [41:58]
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111 (1822) [26:30]
Piano Sonata in A major, Op. 2, No. 2 (fourth movement) (1795) [6:090
rec. 6 January 1970, Festival Theater, Krannert Center, U. Illinois (Hammerklavier, Op. 2 No. 2); 23 April 1967, Smith Hall, U. Illinois (Op. 111)
CD 5 [67:29]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV988 (1742) [46:56]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Sonata No. 18 in D major, K576 (1789) [15:51]
Piano Sonata No. 18 in G major, Op. 78, D894 (third movement) (1826) [4:44]
rec. 2 October 1962, Smith Hall, U. Illinois (Goldbergs); 13 February 1972, Great Hall, Krannert Center, U. Illinois (K576); 3 December 1974, Smith Hall, UW-M (D894)
CD 6 [64:38]
Aaron COPLAND (1900=1990)
Piano Variations (1930) [10:26]
Leon KIRCHNER (1919-2009)
Piano Sonata No. 1 (1948) [16:40]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV828 (1726-1731) [30:01]
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D major, Op. 53, D850 (fourth movement) (1825) [7:31]
rec. 13 February 1972, Great Hall, Krannert Center, U. Illinois (Copland); Berlin, 1973 (Kirchner); November 1972, 12 February 1971, Smith Hall, UW-M (Bach, Schubert)