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Louis Moreau GOTTSCHALK (1829-1869)
Le Banjo - Fantasie grotesque, op.15 (1854) [3:56]
The Last Hope - Méditation religieuse, op.16 (1854) [8:14]
Pasquinade - Caprice, op.59 (1869) [4:22]
Berceuse, op.47 (1860) [5:31]
Grande Fantasie triomphale sur l'hymne national brésilien, op.69 (1869) [10:27]
Le Songe d'une nuit d'été (Caprice élégant sur l'opéra de A. Thomas), op.9 (1849) [4:06]
Fantôme de bonheur (Illusions perdues), op.36 (1859-1860) [8:44]
Reflets du passé - Rêverie, op.28 (1847) [6:47]
La Nuit des tropiques - Symphonie romantique: Andante (arr. Mayer) (1858-1859/2013) [12:50]
Steven Mayer (piano)
rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 14-16 April 2014
NAXOS 8.559693 [64:57]

The usual take on the 19th century American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk is that he was essentially a crowd-pleasing entertainer, a showman who wrote essentially inconsequential pieces on the hoof to impress the enormous audiences he attracted on his extensive tours as a piano virtuoso. His most popular compositions are often put into one of two categories. On the one hand there are barnstorming, flashy, foot-tapping pieces, often characterised by their use of South American or Caribbean rhythms or even incorporating genuine native melodies themselves (Creole eyes; Souvenir de Porto Rico; Bamboula). On the other, there are vacuously sentimental musical pictures, carefully crafted to exploit his adoring audiences' sensibilities - especially the mid-19th century's fascination with death - and, in so doing, to jerk from their eyes a veritable tsunami of tears (The dying poet; The last hope; The maiden's blush; Morte!!) But, however pigeonholed, it has generally been assumed that Gottschalk's works are trifles, insufficiently intellectually challenging to justify any special measure of artistic interpretation.

Those already familiar with Gottschalk's piano music will quite possibly have encountered it in recorded performances from Eugene List or Philip Martin. List was a pioneering enthusiast who became well known for re-staging the composer's bizarre "monster concerts". His 1950s accounts have intermittently resurfaced on CD over the years in various incarnations; my own is a 1992 Vanguard Classics release, 08 4050 71. The early 1990s also saw the Hyperion label initiating what would eventually become a series of eight CDs of Gottschalk's works recorded by Philip Martin (Hyperion CDA 66459, 66697, 66915, 67118, 67248, 67349, 67478 and 67536) (review). Widely praised, they continue to hold an honoured place as critical benchmarks on many collectors' shelves.

Those List and Martin performances are likely to be the ones most familiar to anyone already acquainted with this repertoire. But, if that's the case, this new disc from Steven Mayer is likely to come as something of a surprise. Quite simply, many of his accounts will seem, in comparison to those other earlier ones, rather eccentric or even downright perverse.

Examining a few timings will effectively make the point. Eugene List may take 5:59 over The last hope and Philip Martin 5:11, but Steven Mayer's time is a whopping 8:14. A similarly large discrepancy can be found in Fantôme de bonheur, with Philip Martin completing the piece in 5:49 but Steven Mayer timed at no less than 8:44. Meanwhile, in Reflets du passé they take, respectively, 5:06 and 6:47. Of the other tracks where comparison can be made, most also show Mr Mayer's performances as markedly slower than those of his rivals.

I know people who refuse to read CD booklets. They say that they want to come to a piece of music with an open mind, uninfluenced by what others - even expert commentators - may have to say. If that's the approach they take to this disc, they're going to be none the wiser about those slow tempi. Instead, they really will need to read the booklet notes in which Steven Mayer himself explains with great cogency exactly what's going on. The argument that they advance is sufficiently thought-provoking that it’s worth summarising here.

Mr Mayer’s thesis has two parts. The first puts forward the proposition that Gottschalk was utterly antipathetic to the bravura of Liszt - with whom other performers, past and present, have generally chosen to align him. In a brief space Mayer makes a convincing case. He quotes, for instance, Gottschalk's own withering assessment of Liszt's compositions as mere displays of virtuosity for virtuosity's sake: "[Liszt] piles up difficulty upon difficulty, as if he only wishes to defy other pianists". In similar vein, the Hungarian's music was brutally characterised as "the constant effort of one seeking to hide the sterility of his ideas beneath the mantle of the unusual, the eccentric and the obscure".

Mayer's second and parallel proposition is that, while rejecting the influence of Liszt, Gottschalk aligned himself closely to the more contemplative and introspective style of Chopin who thereby became his "most important role model". The American is known to have considered Chopin the outstanding pianist of his age and to have expressed special admiration for his "delicacy, reserve and sensitivity". Mayer considers that Gottschalk remained, throughout his composing career, consistently "loyal to an aesthetic quite close to that of Chopin, and one that was in some respects in opposition to that of Liszt". As a result, when he writes about the various pieces - and, more importantly for our purposes, when he performs them - Mr Mayer emphasises their links to Chopin's piano style and eschews the alternative approach that seeks to tie Gottschalk to what he calls "Lisztian excess".

Ironically enough, incidentally, Steven Mayer himself is no Lisztophobe. He has recorded several albums of the composer's music (review), one of which won the Grand Prix du Disque Liszt, and only this year performed at the International Liszt Festival. Nonetheless, the conclusion to be drawn from his ideas is that Gottschalk's apparently slight and inconsequential scores are not as superficial as sometimes supposed; that they are, indeed, worthy of considered interpretation; and that Mr Mayer's way of so doing, minimising the influence of Liszt while stressing that of Chopin, is, naturally, the right one.

Having clarified Steven Mayer's approach to Gottschalk, how are we to rate his execution of the music? My colleague Dan Morgan has already reviewed this disc on these pages and was not terribly impressed. He was critical of the programme, the performances and even - quite unusually for a Naxos production - the disc's sound quality.

On that final point, I must beg to differ. On my own domestic equipment - which, having read his MusicWeb International reviewer's profile, I suspect may be a rather more modest affair than Dan's - the sound quality seemed more than acceptable. But, I do have some sympathy for the suggestion that the disc's programme could have been a little more varied. With a running time just short of 65 minutes, there's clearly a missed opportunity to have added two or three more tracks that could certainly have broadened our appreciation of Gottschalk's oeuvre.

When it comes to the performances, however, I'm not so sure. Firstly, while they may arguably lack the last ounce of élan and joie de vivre, they do thereby avoid the risk of emphasising musical elements that, to modern sensibilities, can sound more than a little camp. Relentless jollity might have worked successfully in whipping up huge open-air crowds at monster concerts, but for private, domestic listening it is sometimes a little too much: let's not forget just how greatly Gottschalk admired those qualities of "delicacy, reserve and sensitivity". In the second place, as already noted, Steven Mayer's intention is to emphasise certain of the scores' other characteristics and, as he's taken the trouble to explain his approach in some detail, it's respectful to judge his performances on his own terms. One may or may not ultimately be convinced by the results, but at least one knows exactly what's being attempted - as well as what, quite deliberately, isn't. After listening to this disc several times alongside other accounts, I've come to appreciate Mayer's artistic restraint and his disinclination to throw everything at the music bar the kitchen sink. It makes, at the very least, an interesting change from all that passionate Latin American overdrive, though there's certainly a place for that too.

Even so, the pieces representing the foot-tappingly jolly side of Gottschalk's output go rather well. A forthright, direct account of Le banjo makes an impressive start to the disc and, though relatively brief, demonstrates the pianist's considerable technical skill. Meanwhile, Pasquinade bounces along with a nice degree of swagger without overdoing the effect. You'll certainly recognise the Grand fantasie triomphale sur l'hymne national brésilien's big tune, for it's belted out somewhat tunelessly on TV every few years by the Brazilian national football team's pre-match line-up. I can't help thinking that that main theme is simply too strong to be the basis for an effective salon fantasy; the underlying bombastic anthem just keeps coming through. While it's an interesting listening experience, I ultimately prefer the way that it thunders out dramatically and unapologetically in Samuel Adler's very effective version for piano and full orchestra: Eugene List and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra under Mr Adler himself give an outstanding - and quite literally, I suppose, upstanding - performance on Vox Box 1154842.

Turning briefly to the pieces representing the less obviously extrovert and more contemplative side of Gottschalk's output, I especially enjoyed Mayer's distinctively measured account of The last hope. The slower tempo certainly creates something more atmospheric than in other accounts: Mr Mayer's notes suggest that it's "an almost celestial calm", though I'd venture to suggest that it's something less religieuse than sentimental. Among the other tracks, Berceuse, Le songe d'une nuit d'été and Reflets du passé are, if less remarkable, well enough executed. I enjoyed Fantôme de Bonheur rather more: it’s a rather more ambitious yet subtle piece, successfully creating an atmospheric picture of sadness that's only temporarily relieved by a snatch of Chopinesque waltz before returning wistfully to its original mood.

The final - and longest - track on the disc is Steven Mayer’s own piano arrangement of the opening andante movement of Gottschalk's first symphony La nuit des tropiques. This world premiere recording is a very fine one. In spite of the absence of the fuller and more varied resources of a full orchestra, it convincingly depicts the oppressive stillness of a tropical night, followed by a dramatic thunderstorm that ultimately clears the air and restores calm. This was a piece in which I felt that the orchestra could be dispensed with successfully - though Mr Mayer was probably wise not to attempt an arrangement for solo piano of the symphony's second and concluding movement with its veritable battery of percussion, including a bongo, maracas, bamboulas and other Afro-Caribbean instruments (review).

As a globe-trotting jobbing pianist, Gottschalk was, of necessity, a consummate showman. Putting on grand spectacles for enormous audiences was how he made his living. By all accounts, on such occasions he played to the gallery and pulled out all possible viscerally-exciting and emotionally-draining stops for his listeners. This new Naxos release seeks to demonstrate, though, that Gottschalk the composer was a somewhat less one-dimensional figure and one who deserves more serious consideration. In so doing, it demonstrates pretty convincingly that we don't always need to treat his scores as if they're best suited to a Liberace performance at Radio City Music Hall.

Rob Maynard

Another review ...

It was through Eugene List’s recordings I first got to know the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk and he has remained my favourite pianist in this repertoire. His recordings are still available in a 2-CD Vanguard box (ATMCD1906 or VCD72026 also Musical Concepts MC133). Soundwise they may not be in the top-league — they were recorded back in the early 1970s I believe; neither the booklet nor the box cover give any information — but the playing is so full of life and exuberance that criticism is silenced from the first bar of Le Banjo. That piece is also track 1 on Steven Mayer’s new disc, and he has been provided with a much more sophisticated recording. Sadly the playing sounds lifeless, compared to List’s. The obvious reason is that Mayer is as sophisticated as the recording, and Gottschalk in his most ebullient form needs a more down-to-earth treatment to make his mark. At identical tempo List is far more engaging, more dynamic. This is even more obvious in The Last Hope, where Mayer adopts a much more leisurely approach. At 8:14 the work seems almost interminable whereas List’s reading is more than two minutes shorter and has far more contrasts.

Generally speaking the programming concentrates on less showy music, with too many slow, inward pieces, resulting in a certain kind of monotony, however skilfully played. The best way of enjoying this disc is probably to play one piece at a time and then there are many things to admire. The Berceuse (tr. 4), for instance, restrained and beautiful, is ideal late night listening, as is the Chopin-influenced Fantôme de Bonheur (tr. 7).

Gottschalk’s background and constant travelling led to his assimilating impulses from a lot of sources. His last years of life were spent in South America and he died in Brazil, aged 40. One of his last compositions was the Grande Fantaisie triomphale (tr. 5) based on the Brazilian anthem, and here Mayer is more overtly grandiose, making this one of the highlights of the disc. The concluding La Nuit des tropiques (tr. 9) is one of Gottschalk’s best known compositions, a two-movement symphony with a riveting samba as the second movement. Mayer states however that Gottschalk’s original intention was that the first movement only should carry that title. Mayer then made his own arrangement of the movement for piano which here is recorded for the first time. Without doubt this is Gottschalk at his most innovative, harmonically speaking.

Steven Mayer is a highly qualified and versatile musician with rock-solid technique, but I don’t feel that he has caught all facets of Gottschalk’s music on this disc.

Göran Forsling

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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