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Sounds of Transcendence
Charles GRIFFES (1884-1920)
Piano Sonata A.85 [14:11]
The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan, A.72 [8:57]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Vales in A flat, Op.38 [6:09]
Fragilité, Op.51 No.1 [2:12]
Enigme, Op.52 No.2 [1:26]
Piano Sonata No.7, Op.64 – “White Mass” [13:47]
Vers la Flamme, Op.72 [5:42]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Prelude, Choral et Fugue [19:17]
Reed Tetzloff (piano)
rec. 2017, Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York
ROMÉO RECORDS 7323 [72:09]

Adopting the numbering created by Donna Anderson in her 1984 catalogue of Charles Griffes’ work, Reed Tetzloff gives us the three movement Piano Sonata (A.85) of 1917-1919 and the single movement piece The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Kahn (A.72) of 1912. For a composer who died in his mid-30s and produced (in Anderson’s catalogue) a total of 140 works, most of them songs, Griffes has attracted a considerable amount of interest from American scholars, but his impressionistic and often mystic language has not attracted similar numbers of pianists. An entire programme of Griffes might be a bit ambitious for a debut disc from a little-known American pianist, so it certainly makes good sense to pair his piano music with that of his Russian contemporary, Alexander Scriabin, although I am not so sure about the logic of including the César Franck work. But this is a debut disc, and Reed Tetzloff is clearly very passionate about the Franck work, and presents what is unquestionably a fabulous performance of it, so we can overlook any incongruity in the programming.

As this is a debut disc, a few words of introduction about Reed Tetzloff would be appropriate. He himself introduces the music in a sensible booklet essay, and adds copious dedications which extend beyond teachers and family to friends and even the sound engineer, Ryan Streber – who has engineered a sound which is so immediate and forward that the phrase in-your-face leaps to mind. Born in 1992 in Minneapolis, Tetzloff has run the usual gauntlet of teachers and competitions, winning (in 2011) the concerto class at the Beijing Festival and in 2015 winning through to the semi-finals at the International Tchaikovsky Competition. With this debut disc he is throwing down a gauntlet all of his own, and one which sets him apart from the great mass of young pianists who, on paper, seem his equal.

Who, in their right mind, would present Griffes as the headline act on their debut disc? The music is complex, the idiom elusive, and the range of interpretative possibilities vast. Yet from the very decisive gestures which open the Sonata, it is clear that Tetzloff has thought long and hard about the music, has taken possession of it, and, with the kind of opulent technique we regard as pretty near obligatory in young pianists today, delivers a performance of immense individuality and conviction. Here, that full sound engineered by Ryan Streber, reveals every nuance, every small detail of Tetzloff’s playing; and everything feels considered, controlled and, above all, convincing. Big waves of sound, small intimate whisperings, intricate inner balances and florid passagework all combine to create a most extraordinarily assured performance of an equally assured work. Better known in its later orchestral manifestation, Tetzloff’s account of the original piano solo version of The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan captures the remoteness and atmospheric beauty of the piece, but it does highlight a tendency to over-pedal, allowing generous pedal usage to cloud the texture a little too much. This is only exacerbated by this very closely miked recording.

If the Griffes works showed Tetzloff very much taking possession of rarely trodden territory, ploughing an interpretative furrow which delves down to the very heart of the music, he is also thoroughly imbued with the idiom of Scriabin, capturing the thrusting, surging waves of feeling, the opulent sound world and the touches of extreme delicacy. He presents a delightfully nostalgic performance of the Valse, its Chopinesque touches all beautifully integrated into a most fulsome and expansive performance. Tetzloff himself describes Vers la Flamme as “volcanic” and his performance lives up to the promise. Between the two we have the delicate little flights of fancy in Enigme as a kind of delicate moment of repose before the white heat of the Seventh Sonata. The turbulent opening gestures, which seem to dissolve as soon as they flare up, the fragmentary themes which stir up all manner of passions which, once again, fade away almost as soon as they appear, and the fragile grip on the reality of tonality, all combine to create a work to which a sense of coherence is at best elusive. Yet one senses that Tetzloff is looking way beyond the minutiae of the music, and he delivers a performance as visionary and unified as anyone could reasonably expect.

We might expect Franck’s Prelude, Choral et Fugue to sound positively conservative in such exotic (not to say erotic) company, but not a bit of it. Tetzloff sinks his teeth into Franck’s major piano solo work with gusto, highlighting its almost impressionistic leanings and its emotional intensity in a way which seems positively sensual. Always tantalisingly poised with the main theme never once failing to soar out ecstatically, Tetzloff maintains a powerful sense of the overall architecture. In the Prelude that heavy right foot on the pedal does become obtrusive. I can understand that the intention is to evoke a vast quasi-ecclesiastical acoustical space, but with the piano placed so far forward in the sonic spectrum, it fills all the space leaving the pedal simply to blur the edges.

Marc Rochester

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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