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ELIE SIEGMEISTER 1909-1991 Piano music - Vol. 1    Kenneth Boulton (piano) rec 1995-1997 Naxos American Classics 8.559020 [73.51]
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American Sonata (1944) On This Ground (1971) Theme and Variations No. 2 (1971) Piano Sonata No. 4 (1980) Piano Sonata No. 5 (1987)

Elie Siegmeister was a New Yorker whose name is probably known (if at all) to most listeners for his two orchestral suites: Ozark Set (1943) and Western Suite (1945). I have heard tapes of his symphonies 3, 4 (premièred by Maazel) and 6 and the violin concerto; the latter pioneered by Cho Liang Lin and manyu of these are in an argumentative avant-garde style.

Siegmeister's musical style is often dyspeptic and challenging. The most immediately approachable piece on the CD is the American Sonata with its explosively tumbling jazziness gambolling through territory to which Lambert, Walton and Gershwin had already laid claim. There is also a totally charming touch of Arthur Benjamin's Jamaican Rumba. The second movement is plangently melancholy with more than a suggestion of Peter Warlock and William Walton (middle movement of his under-estimated Sinfonia Concertante). The joyous and ripely syncopated finale is decidedly Stravinskian (Petrushka-era). A sweet Mediterranean semplice (2:12) relieves the headlong rush. The sonata is not especially American to my ears. It is however extremely attractive and well worth hearing.

The remainder of the works on this well-filled disc are challengingly atonal. On This Ground has the piano protagonist wandering under lichen-strung forest boughs amidst mild discords, battering cascades of notes (Ariel) and clammy caves during a rather dank summer. Mr Henry's Monday Night alternates rip-roaring sprint with slower sections.

Theme and Variations inhabits a tough school and it is one which, to my ears, yields very sparse rewards. The 4th sonata has a Petrushkan prelude, a bluesy - andante with a Celtic lilt and, to round off, a poundingly chaotic allegro vivace. The fifth sonata first movement suggests very slow singing with the notes softened and diffused atonally. The anarchically hammered finale reeks of the 1920s but this fast driven storm is contrasted with a slow dreamy bridge passage.

The insert is good although the central two pages were left blank in my copy and I would guess that this will be put right in future printings.

This Naxos series continues to spill out bountifully every month. It promises to be THE series of US classical music. When New World and Delos ran out of stamina Naxos slipped naturally into the scene and are doing a job of historical value. If that was all it might seem rather an ascetic exercise. In fact it already yields some wondrous treasures, much enjoyment and discovery after discovery.

My star marking reflects my reaction to all but the American Sonata. The performances are, as far as I can tell, excellent as also is the recording.


Rob Barnett


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