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Exploring Music: Winning Performances/Duncan Stearns

The MHS Review 394 Vol. 11 No. 16, 1987

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Gregor Benko


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Pianists who were also composers were quite common up until World War II; of course we all know the "big three" in this category: Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff. They loom so large in the field that history remembers them primarily as composers (and rightly so), even if Liszt was the greatest pianist of all time and Rachmaninoff's records show him to be one of the greatest pianists of our era. It is their compositions by which history will measure them. But there were dozens, if not hundreds, of other pianists who also composed, for the urge to create and the need to perform went hand in hand.

The compositions of the majority of this crew are lost to oblivion--who today besides a few fanatics remembers Levitzki's Valse arabesque or Sauer's Frisson de feuilles? On the other hand, we have Ed­ward MacDowell, the earliest American composer whose compositions have lasted in the repertoire and who was taken seriously as a composer all over the world, but whose piano playing is only a footnote in today's musical dictionaries. He compos­ed four piano sonatas: "Tragica," "Eroica," "Norse," and this "Keltic" Sonata, with its passionate climax on a theme suspiciously like "My Funny Valen­tine."

As with most of MacDowell's works, this sonata is the result of a musical imagina­tion stimulated by nature and literature, especially poetry, and, according to the New Grove Dictionary, "an intense in­terest in Celtic and Nordic legends." It is difficult to discern anything specifically Keltic here, but the listener's imagination is free to run wild, conjuring up scenes and romantic scenarios. For many of us, this work remains simply a gorgeous, lush ex­pression of the romantic temperament that could only have been written by someone who loves the sound of the piano and all the instrument can do.

Josef Hofmann was certainly a far greater pianist than MacDowell, and his few re­maining records confirm contemporary opinion about his sovereign command of the keyboard. Alas, how sad for him that the world remembers his piano playing but not his compositions, for it was as a com­poser that he wanted to be remembered. As a youth he showed as much aptitude for the one musical talent as the other, and the Theme, Variations and Fugue presented here were composed when the lad was just 14. Moritz Moszkowski, to whom the boy was sent for composition lessons, threw up his hands and declared that he could teach young Hofmann nothing, for this work was already as masterly as any of his own. Cer­tainly nothing to rival the great sets of variations by Beethoven or Brahms, the work is sincere, pleasing, even astonishing--for a stripling.

Kaleidoskop is a virtuoso showpiece of the first magnitude, recently re-popularized by Hofrnann's student Shura Cherkassky. Here, and in Nenien (apparently a musical depiction of an ancient figurine goddess) and The Sanctuary, a strangely compell­ing, even mystical work, we can catch glimpses of the important composer Hof­mann might have become had cir­cumstances been different.

These works are winningly performed by the young American pianist Duncan Stearns, whose beautiful tone and understanding of the romantic style help make him a superb interpreter of these works. Mr. Stearns, who has spent many years researching Hofmann's life and music, is the founder and Director of Philadelphia's Josef Hofmann Piano Competition.

Perhaps there are some reading this who will feel that listening to any but the greatest tried-and-true masterpieces is deleterious to one's musical health, and to them we commend the "Waldstein" and "Diabelli." But then to the rest, who may find delight in novelty and pleasure in the sensuous craft of fine piano writing, we proudly present this unusual recording.

Review of Duncan Stearns Performs Piano Music by MacDowell and Hofmann Pg 49

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