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Charles Tomlinson GRIFFES (1884-1920)
Fantasy Pieces, Op. 6 (1912-1915) [16:37]
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Piano Sonata No. 2 ‘Concord, Mass., 1840-1860’ (1912-1914)
III. The Alcotts [5:08]
Elliott CARTER (1908-2012)
Piano Sonata (1945-1946) [22:05]
Judith Lang ZAIMONT (b. 1945)
Attars (2016) [9:26]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Piano Sonata, Op. 26 (1949) [20:42]
Drew Petersen (piano)
rec. September-October 2017, Steinway Hall, New York
Reviewed as a 24/192 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
STEINWAY & SONS STNS30095 [73:58]

Steinway, makers of the world’s finest pianos, are now producing first-class recordings as well. I’ve reviewed three so far: Stewart Goodyear playing his own arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (one of my top picks for 2017); Gábor Farkas’s Liszt transcriptions; and Jenny Lin’s Prokofiev and Zaborov. Apart from being technically superior productions, all feature young artists of considerable promise. Now we have the American pianist Drew Petersen, who won fourth prize at the 2015 Leeds Piano Competition. Since then, he’s collected a fistful of awards and has embarked on a well-received concert career.

This new album offers an enticing slice of Americana, including a very recent piece by the Memphis-born pianist, composer and pedagogue Judith Lang Zaimont. She is new to me, but Elliott Carter and Samuel Barber certainly aren’t. Happily, their piano music is fairly well represented in the catalogue, so the task of finding comparative versions is easy enough. For the Barber and Ives I’ve selected Marc-André Hamelin’s superb coupling, which my colleague Scott Mortensen recommended ‘without reservation’ (Hyperion). Ursula Oppens is my choice for the Carter (Cedille), Garrick Ohlsson for the Griffes (Hyperion). The latter, a landmark album in so many ways, was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2013.

And that’s where we start, with Griffes’ three Fantasy Pieces. Petersen brings a pleasing tilt to the Barcarolle, his playing both lucid and lyrical. The atmospheric little Notturno is no less accomplished, its pensive character nicely caught. Indeed, he navigates this music with a certainty and skill that belies his years, spontaneity and insight one’s abiding impression here. His rhythmic control is also impressive, the ‘rolling boil’ at the start of the Scherzo well articulated. This flourish-filled finale – what a glittering corona of sound Petersen draws from the instrument’s upper reaches – is suitably propulsive, too. As for the presentation, it’s full and rather forward, with plenty of colour and ballast.

Ohlsson’s recording may be less weighty – the Hyperion balance is more natural – but his performance is no less engrossing for that. He’s intensely poetic, especially in the Notturno, and the more pleasing perspective adds to a wonderful sense of intimacy. In turn, this reveals a degree of nuance and dynamic calibration that Petersen simply can’t match. His lively Scherzo is particularly revealing, the composer’s sound world explored with an ease and authority that makes the entire recital so memorable. Petersen’s performance is still compelling, and I daresay his response to this repertoire will deepen with time. However, if you’re new to Griffes – and even if you aren’t – Ohlsson’s CD is a must have (the 24/88.2 download is even more desirable).

Speaking of mandatory listening, Charles Ives’s ‘Concord Sonata’, premiered in 1938, is one of those pivotal 20th-century piano pieces that everyone should hear. Petersen, who plays the third movement, is very forthright indeed, every note registering with crystalline clarity. He can be interior, too, his phrases intuitively shaped and inflected. In short, a tantalising glimpse of the riches that a complete traversal might yield. Hamelin, although more distantly recorded – the audio image is relatively narrow, too – gets to the nub of this work in a way that few rivals do. In particular, he underlines its striking modernity; that said, he and Petersen sketch the Alcotts with real affection and skill.

As always, comparisons are intended to offer some context for newcomers and ‘old hands’ alike. At this stage, Petersen seems a safe bet, although in some works – Carter’s rather spiky sonata, for instance – ‘safe’ can so easily slide into ‘worthy but dull’. Oppens, well-known for championing 20th-century American piano music, clearly rejoices in the dynamic and colouristic challenges this two-part piece presents. In that respect, Cedille’s detailed and believably balanced recording serves the work well, adding precision to its perk and personality. This sonata really is a peacock display, a fantail of fun, and unsuspecting pianophiles should investigate it without delay.

So, how does Petersen fare in such distinguished company? He certainly has all the notes – and a gloriously full tone, especially in the bass – but I longed for a more carefully considered approach rather than such a big-boned, rather impetuous one. In mitigation, the witty baroqueries that permeate the Andante are delivered with a panache that’s sure to win this pianist a whole raft of new admirers. Ultimately, though, prowess and the sheer range of this up-to-the-minute recording aren’t quite enough. By comparison, Oppens’ performance is more subtle, varied and, yes, more interesting; indeed, her all-Carter programme, presented in very decent and engaging sound, is a must have, too.

On paper, Barber’s four-movement Op. 26 seems an ideal vehicle for Petersen, since it plays to all his strengths. In the first instance it’s percussive attack and propulsion, the Allegro energico dazzlingly done. In the Allegro vivace leggiero, it’s rhythmic flair – those lurking dance tunes are a delight – and the imposing aspects of the Adagio mesto are despatched with thrilling weight and reach. And while he does delicacy, at this stage he can only aspire to the quiet luminosity that Hamelin finds here. As for the dervish-like finale, it highlights – in spectacular fashion – Petersen’s inexhaustible supply of energy and passion. ‘Wow!’ seems the most appropriate response, such is the impact of this performance. True, it may be wanting in some ways, but the Barber’s probably the best thing on this album.

As its title implies, Zaimont’s Attars – commissioned by the American Pianists Association for their 2017 awards, in which Petersen took the top prize – is all about fragrance. These five miniatures, sensibly placed between the uncompromising Carter and Barber pieces, suggest a variety of influences – mainly European, I’d say – even if the flowers/plants themselves are found much further afield. Roses is a heady little number (Debussy and Messiaen), Musk is somewhat quirky (shades of Satie), the scent of Pink Lotus is more cloying and complex (Scriabin, perhaps), the harder-to-categorise Jasmine is eager to please, and the bright, dancing rhythms of Frangipani strike me as distinctly Ravelian. Petersen, who has a parfumier’s instinct for alluring blends, does the work proud.

That this pianist, at the start of his career, can be compared with those who are well advanced in theirs, bears witness to the scale of his accomplishments thus far. I look forward to his Ives in years to come, and I’m certain his reappraisal of the Carter will be worth the wait. But, here and now, his Barber stands up well to others in the catalogue. My only caveat is that the recordings, made over two months in New York’s Steinway Hall, are a little too close; then again, such presentation certainly adds to the immediacy – nay, the total immersion – of Petersen’s Op. 26. Decent notes complete the package.

Fearless playing, with recordings to match; this pianist is destined for great things.

Dan Morgan



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