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Robert Nathaniel DETT (1882-1943)
My Cup Runneth Over - The Complete Piano Works
Magnolia (1912) [19:47]
In The Bottoms (1913) [15:33]
Enchantment (1922) [18:50]
Nepenthe and the Muse (1922) [4:19]
Cinnamon Grove (1928) [17.40]
Tropic Winter (1938) [37:45]
Eight Bible Vignettes (1941-43) [21 47]
After the Cakewalk (1900) [3:29]
Cave of the Winds (1902) [3:01]
Inspiration Waltzes (1903) [6:08]
Clipper Erickson (piano)
rec. December 2014, May 2015, Reitstadl Neumarkt, Oberplatz, Germany
NAVONA NV6013 [76:09 + 72:10]

This is not the first recording of Dett's piano works but it is the first to present this composer's complete piano music.

The earlier all-Dett disc is on New World 80367 where the pianist is Denver Oldham. That piano music survey offers Magnolia Suite, Dance-Juba and Eight Bible Vignettes. Other recordings of the Dett piano works in mixed anthologies include an LP that never made it to CD. It was issued as one of a pair of Philips albums devoted to American solo piano music in 1975 and was played by Clive Lythgoe. Dett's In the Bottoms was coupled with Griffes' piano sonata on LP 9500 096. Dett was born in the same year as fellow composer-pianist Percy Grainger and Grainger recorded several of Dett's piano works. His masterwork (The Ordering of Moses) has now been recorded and extremely impressive it is too. His life has been documented in a full-length study Follow Me by Anne K Simpson (Scarecrow Press, 1995).

Turning now to this pair of discs: Magnolia Suite is in five pieces. The lulling Magnolias is anchored to a deep romantic-impressionistic sea-bed. The Deserted Cabin did not defy my expectations of a Macdowell-like and slightly chilling forest scene. The jaunty My Lady Love swings by, a beau with his light-of-love on his arm. Mammy is a thing of fragile sentiment most touchingly put across by Clipper Erickson, as are all these pieces. The little suite ends with The Place Where the Rainbow Ends. It's not a thing of slender poetry; rather there is a military discipline about it.

In the Bottoms (1913) is from a year after The Magnolia suite. The Prelude - Night experiments harmonically with a falling figure suggesting "slowmo" vertigo. This is before something that sounds positively ethnic - like a calypso. From the fulfilling bell sounds of His Song we move to the shimmering Honey - Humoresque with its Chopin influences. Caribbean flavour reappears in the Barcarolle which, in its slow pearly display, also reminds us of Gottschalk. Dance Juba - a popular display piece with the air of something written with an eye on promotion via the pianola - concludes the suite.

The four movement suite Enchantment is far less familiar and dates from a decade after In the Bottoms. It was dedicated to Percy Grainger. The music is steeped in mysticism but has not entirely left behind the quasi-salon manners encountered in the two earlier suites. The third piece Dance of Desire keeps one foot in the supernatural and the other in lighter confectionery. It's more of a spectacular war-dance than a dance of seduction. Beyond the Dream echoes Grieg.

The hyper-romantic, nodding and inwardly reflective Nepenthe and the Muse - from the same year as Enchantment - has a title that Cyril Scott would have coveted. It's a most marvellous mood-evocation.

The four part Cinnamon Grove is from 1928 and like the Nepenthe piece was written following studies at Harvard with Arthur Foote. For a change each piece carries a time-mood signature rather than a fanciful title. The first draws on Donne's "The Dream" - it is a gentle rather than a passionate effusion. The poetry of Rabindranath Tagore was an inspiration for, and was set by, quite a few composers: Zemlinsky, Bridge, Carpenter, Foulds, Garbizu, Kallstenius and Landon Ronald. The second piece was sparked by Tagore's "Gitanjali" and gradually unwinds its poetic charge. The partly more vigorous yet more conventional third piece owes its inspiration to the "Epimetheus" of Longfellow. Lastly comes an Allegretto which plays charmingly with Negro spiritual material from Dett's 1927 volume of choral settings.

Tropic Winter (1938) is the first work on CD2. The heroic confidence of Daybreak Charioteer is irresistible - well up there with the piano music of Rachmaninov, Roger Sacheverell Coke and William Baines. This extended collection of seven pieces, each with a poetic title, is deeply impressive. Written by a then 66 year-old composer within five years of his death the scores show a composer in the full bloom of his maturity. Only Pompous and Fans and the final Parade of the Jasmine Banners show any DNA strands from his lighter pieces of the 1920s. Legend of the Atoll subtly suggests the colours of reef and coral. The chiming serenading of To a Closed Casement is insistent but finally breaks out of the closed window into freedom. The rocking motion of Noon Siesta suggests one of Cyril Scott's mood-pieces.

Eight Bible Vignettes are individually shorter than the seven episodes that make up Tropic Winter. Father Abraham has majesty as well as elements of spirituality and the poetic impressionism of the Vignettes. That last quality is there in abundance in Desert Interlude which is by no means stark; rather this again is Scott-like. As His Own Soul sounds hymn-like while the uncertainties reflected in the moods of Barcarolle of Tears imply the unstemmed dripping of tears rising to defiance. Martha Complained introduces some soft dissonances and a sense of emotional frustration comparable with To a Closed Casement but without the sense of release. Other sheep has a cool underpinning ostinato in the centre of the keyboard and a icily high-chiming meditative descant. The dignified and freely travelling processional that is Madrigal Divine was inspired by Psalm 23.

The harmonic world of these last two collections can be lavishly convoluted and make a good match for the piano music of Cyril Scott.

The comparatively frivolous After the Cakewalk and Cave of the Winds return us to the Joplin style and to the dance halls of the 1900s. Inspiration Waltzes have more gravitas at first but soon whirl the listener into those very same dance halls.

The performances are attentive. Clipper Erickson is more than match for these scores both in terms of musical sympathy and technically. He has an empathy for music of this mood and era - try his Scott/Quilter disc and his very recent Affetto collection of Scott's violin sonatas. We must hope for more.

The Navona recording tends towards warmth rather than pingingly exposed clarity but that is a good match for the music.

The liner booklet is in English only and is by the pianist. It also draws deeply on the composer's own commentaries.

This collection of Dett's regrettably neglected piano music is a strong entry into the world of early twentieth century piano music recordings.

Rob Barnett

 

 




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