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Review: A Crazy Quilt of American Piano Music

The MHS Review 396 Vol. 11, No. 18, 1988

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Richard Taruskin, Opus (December 1986)


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Ives: The Alcotts (from the Concord Sonata); Fine: Hommage l Mozart*; Copland: Three Moods•; Cage: Dream; Thomson: Aaron Copland (from 13 Portraits for Piano); Smit: Ostinato (from 7 Characteristic Pieces)*; Gottschalk: Ossian, Op. 4, No. 1 (Ball􀀂de); Johnson: Zero Hour; MacDowell: In Deep Woods, Op. 62, No. 5; Bernstem: For Lukas Foss (from 5 Anniversaries); Shapero: Adagio (from Sonata No. 2); Gershwin: A Foggy Day; Talma: Pastoral Prelude•; Kubik: Whistl­ing Tune*; Barber: In Slow Blues Tempo (from Excursions, Op. 20); Farwell: Song of the Deathless Voice*; Schuman: Dynamic (from Three Piano Moods)*. Leo Smit, Piano. *First Recording

The Fine, Copland, Smit, Talrna, Kubik, Farwell, and Schuman patches in this Crazy Quilt of American Piano Music are first recordings, but the predominating mood here, well set by the opening "Alcotts," is one not of novelty but of nostalgia. The latest piece in the collection, Schuman's, was published in 1958; most come from the '30s and '40s, when a bluesy pastoral lyricism was the typical, or stereotypical, "American" mode in concert music. And while Smit's playing is equal to any challenge and commands a wide ex­pressive range, it's in the bluesy and pastoral pieces that he seems to feel especially at home, and it is that gentle vein of feeling that haunts the inner ear when the record is over.

The major find here is the delightfully naive bit of Copland juvenilia (written for Boulanger and originally titled Trois es­quisses)--typical adolescent modernism (i.e., five years behind the avant-garde), beginning with simplified Scriabin and en­ding with complexified Joplin. John Cage's Dream (of Bali, evidently, though he wakes up back home in G minor) was a particularly delectable discovery for me. It's for the Harold Shapero Adagio, though, that I really want to thank the pianist and producer. What has happened over the past two-to-three decades (!) to make this prodigious talent, still active as a teacher at Brandeis University, dry up as a com­poser? Though he used to draw flak as an alleged pasticheur (of the Viennese classics, of Stravinsky), with the passage of time and the settling of the dust, Shapero's remains one of the really beautiful and distinctive American voices of the '40s. The works he wrote in his 20s sound like classics--real, not ersatz--today.

To say that Leo Smit, personal friend of practically every composer he has record­ed here, and ardent champion of American piano music for well-nigh half a century, performs this repertoire with authority and insight would be merely to propose a tautology. He was literally present at the creation, and as composer is a native speaker of the idioms he interprets as keyboard artist. This record is one of tomorrow's collector's classics. Be smart and buy it today.

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