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Leo SOWERBY (1895–1968)
Selected Solo and Duo Piano Works
Three Summer Beach Sketches, H109 (1915) [8:52]
Suite for Piano Four Hands H371 (performed on two pianos) (1959) [17:25]
Passacaglia, Interlude and Fugue H207a (1931, orch. 1933) [16:37]
Prelude H212 (1932) [6:26]
Fisherman’s Tune (1935?) H161b [2:46]
Synconata H176b (1924) [10:04]
Gail Quillman (piano)
Julia Tsien (piano 2)
All world premiere recordings.
rec. 1997, Ganz Hall, Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University, USA

Gail Quillman studied with Leo Sowerby in the 1950’s and until she retired in 2016 was the strongest advocate for his piano and chamber music, in addition to establishing the Leo Sowerby Foundation in 1989, Ms. Quillman recorded several discs of Sowerby’s music in the 90’s, but this new disc, although also recorded in that decade, seems not to have been released until now.

These recordings span almost the entire length of Sowerby’s career, from the age of 20 to 64. In the works for two pianos, Ms. Quillman is ably assisted by her former pupil Julia Tsien, a fine pianist in her own right. The Three Summer Beach Sketches (presumably the beach on Sowerby’s beloved Lake Michigan), are written for solo piano, and each has a single-word, “natural”, title, not unlike the Sand or Stars of Sowerby’s near-contemporary Mary Howe.  Light draws one in with a dramatic opening which is harmonically quite advanced for a 20-year-old in 1915. Water demonstrates the recently-discovered influence of Delius, which stayed with Sowerby for the remainder of his career, but it also has all the “down-home” American charm of much early Sowerby. In Sowerby’s Sand, we hear the lake water lapping against the beach, prefiguring in some ways the music of Virgil Thomson in the 1940’s.

From the other end of Sowerby’s career, we have the Suite for Piano-Four Hands of 1959. This is not to be confused with the Suite for Piano of the same year which Ms. Quillman recorded in 1998. Interestingly, the composer left the order of the movements in the four-hand suite up to the performers. Ms. Quillman and Ms. Tsien use their own order in their performance and also play the piece on two pianos. We first have a slow movement marked “Sadly and very quietly” which is dominated by an underlying figure that generates a feeling of anxiety, almost as if the composer was lying awake at night with the sounds of Chicago around him. Nb. Sowerby learned to use untraditional tempo markings from his friend Percy Grainger. In complete contrast is the fugue, marked “With verve”, a bright and cheerful piece that reminds the listener that no matter how many fugues Sowerby wrote each was unique. This jolly piece is no exception. I found the slow movement that follows the least interesting, at least at first. In the second half of the movement, some of the drama of the first movement returns with discordant passages leading to a solemn coda. “Fast and Glittering” is the marking for the last movement and exactly describes it. According to the notes by Francis Crociata, long-time President of the Leo Sowerby Foundation, this section was written after Sowerby’s first visit to San Francisco and is intended to evoke the up and down progress of the city’s cable cars.

In 1932 Sowerby wrote the Passacaglia, Interlude, and Fugue for solo piano, showed it to his friend the pianist Frank Mannheimer, and set it aside when Mannheimer didn’t bother to perform it. Two years later, with the successes of the Symphony No. 2 and the tone poem Prairie, Sowerby orchestrated the piece and it proved to be quite popular in its orchestral version (review). The passacaglia was the composer’s favorite form and in this work he explores all its possibilities but in an idiom that is totally his own, combining French Impressionist and American popular elements. The short Interlude again evokes Delius while the Fugue combines the emotions of the its two predecessors but with the gentleness of the Interlude predominating in a very quiet ending.

The remaining works on this disc are all played on two pianos. The Prelude is a striking work, idiomatically written for the medium, progressing from solemnity to storminess to quietness. Arnold Bax would certainly have approved. The Fisherman’s Song is an ebullient piece and would make a fine encore for a two-piano recital.

In 1924, Sowerby returned from three years at the American Academy in Rome and almost immediately received an offer from the bandleader Paul Whiteman to tour the Midwest with the Whiteman Orchestra and the composers George Gershwin, Zez Confrey, and Ferde Grofé. The idea was to have the four composers intermingle with the Orchestra to produce the “symphonic jazz” then in vogue. Sowerby wrote two works for Whiteman, the Monotony-Symphony and the work recorded here-the Synconata. Both pieces can be heard in their original versions on YouTube but the Quillman-Tsien performance compares favorably in energy and emotional range, not to mention sound quality, with the originals. This is especially true in the super-dynamic finale to the work.

Gail Quillman’s authority as an interpreter of Sowerby’s music is unquestioned, but we should not let this obscure the technical brilliance and emotional range of her playing. In these, she is ably seconded by Julia Tsien. The sound quality on this disc is about what one would expect from a university auditorium, but as all these works are world premiere recordings, they will be essential for all Sowerby devotees as well as those of American piano music.

William Kreindler

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