What a Devilishly Clever Idea!
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 12/20/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Programming a CD takes a certain creativity and pianist Philip Amalong has scored a coup. He has found a CD's-worth of piano toccatas written by American composers and recorded them. A 'toccata', of course, is a 'touch piece' (as translated from the Italian) and has come to mean, at least for keyboard works, a piece which is fast, driving, muscular and showy. Toccatas are extrovert and rhythmic. They leave the audience gasping at the virtuosity of the performer and are often chosen as an encore because they tend to leave the audience impressed and invigorated. Amalong must have looked long and hard to find the pieces on this disc.
The composers of the toccatas featured here make up a Who's Who of American composers of the 20th and 21st century: Ned Rorem, George Antheil, Lee Hoiby, Irving Fine, Leo Sowerby, Lowell Liebermann, Benjamin Lees, Roy Harris, Gian Carlo Menotti, Robert Muczynski, Emma Lou Diemer, Raymond Lewenthal, Wallinford Riegger, Vincent Persichetti and James Bastien. The booklet annotator, Mark Louis Lehman, also added a charming two-voice toccata with surprising metric complications. Most of the music here could probably be classified as neoclassic in style, but within that rubric there is a wide variation of construction. Not surprisingly, for instance, Rorem, best known as one of the most inspired composers of American art songs, wrote a toccata that contains lyrical sections. Vincent Persichetti, the composer of probably the finest set of piano sonatas by any American composer, contributed three 'toccatinas', none lasting much over two minutes, which manage to be very different from each other: the first scurries, the second has sharp edges, and the third is impressionistic. Wallingford Riegger's Toccata is a study in chords of the fourth and fifth in moto perpetuo. George Antheil is represented by two toccatas, the first with nonstop alternating left and right hand chords, the second is even faster with breathless melodic notes hidden amongst nonstop chords.
Gian Carlo Menotti wrote a Ricercare and Toccata on a theme from his opera 'The Old Maid and the Thief'. The Bachian Ricerare is an island of achingly beautiful melodic repose in this program of otherwise frantic toccata-ness. The following Toccata cleverly continues the theme of the Ricercare with an overlay of brilliant figuration. Lee Hoiby, one of our best opera composers, has, unlike Menotti, written a great deal for piano, being a marvelous pianist himself. His Toccata, Op. 1, is a marvelous combination of grandeur, rhythmic invention and intriguing structure. Strangely this is the first recording of this wonderful piece. Irving Fine's 'Little Toccata' is a one-minute elfin, spare and neoclassic charmer. (It is also known in an orchestral version.) Leo Sowerby's 1941 toccata is marked to be played 'defiantly' and contains dissonant full chords that sometimes evoke the sounds of the organ. Lowell Liebermann's Toccata is from his 'Album for the Young' and is intended for young performers. It is sprightly and sassy and not at all 'simple' sounding.
Benjamin Lees is one of our underappreciated composers who, I'm happy to say, is getting a bit more attention now. His Toccata reminds one at times of the piano music of Prokofiev with its tongue-out sarcasm. This is one of my favorites on this album. Roy Harris enjoyed huge acclaim during his life but his music has tended to take a back seat to others' music in recent times. His Toccata is polytonal and metrically complicated and evokes the wide open spaces of his native Oklahoma and adopted state of California. Robert Muczynski's Toccata appears fairly often on recital programs. It is a spiky moto perpetuo that usually brings audiences out of the seats. Emma Lou Diemer has been best-known to me for her choral works, but her piano writing in her 'Serenade/Toccata' is impressive indeed. The 'Serenade/Toccata' begins lyrically and builds to a grand and stirring finale. Raymond Lewenthal is best known, of course, as a virtuoso pianist who, among other things, introduced many of us to the marvelous piano music of Alkan The Legendary Pianist Raymond Lewenthal plays Alkan & Liszt. His Toccata alla Scarlatti is a charming faux-baroque whirlwind in 5/8. Robert Bastien's pounding Toccata ends the disc with 'Indian' warpath music.
One must say a word about not only the cleverness of Philip Amalong's programming but his invigorating playing on this disc. I'd not known of him before but am definitely signing up for any further discs he decides to make.