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Reviews: A Crazy Quilt of American Piano Music

The MHS Review 388 Vol. 11 No.10, 1987

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Kyle Gann, Fanfare (May,/June 1987)


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A Crazy Quilt of American Piano Music

The Alcotts (from the Concord Sonata); Fine: Hommage a 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. l (Ballade); Johnson: Zero Hour; MacDowell: In Deep Woods, Op. 62, No. 5; Bernstein: 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)*. *First Recording. Leo Smit, Piano

The sampler is becoming a hot marketing strategy lately, not only to show off the wares of a given label, but also to explore obscure corners of a repertoire. Despite the word crazy in the title, this is actually as homogeneous a collection of American piano music as I could imagine. Leo Smit's musical proclivities are very clear: he prefers rhythmic, diatonic music in one of two veins, gentle or jazzy. Even Dream by John Cage, contrary to your knee-jerk ex­pectations (don't give me that sour look), is a calm, steady-rhythmed tonal fantasy from his "quiet period" in the I940s. Smit's playing, too, tends to elicit these qualities from everything he plays, with the result that the less distinctive pieces here--Bernstein, Talma, Shapero, Fine­--tend to blend together into an American diatonic soup. Seven of the pieces--those by Fine, Copland, Smit, Talma, Kubik, Farwell, and Schuman--are listed as first recordings, and many of the others one would be hard put to find elsewhere.

Gershwin's song A Foggy Day, in piano arrangement by Smit, stands out for its suave harmony and period charm. So do Virgil Thomson's clever, mild-mannered portrait of Copland and Louis Moreau Gott­schalk's surprisingly tender salon piece. Copland's own Moods (one of the several pieces omitted from Smit's "complete" Copland album) are juvenilia from l 921, and provide no hint of the startlingly original style he was to develop only a half­decade later. The MacDowell, as usual, is devoid of content; aside from his Colony, I don't understand why history hasn't forgotten him. Schuman's Dynamic is gratifyingly thorny, if not his best work, while Pete Johnson's Zero Hour is a sleekly risque reconstruction of some 1938 boogie-woogie. The most striking piece on the recording, though, may be Smit's own brief Ostinato, full of exciting 1920s syncopations.

The sore thumb here is the Ives move­ment, too granitic for Smit, if mild by Ives' own standards. Of all the recordings I've heard of the Concord (and I have most of them), this is the least poetic and most rhythmically inflexible performance. It couldn't be more obvious that Smit's heart isn't in it, but I suppose Ives would have been too conspicuous an omission.

None of which is to deny that this recor­ding is thoroughly delightful from begin­ning (or almost; skip the Ives) to end. The point isn't to familiarize with specific com­posers, but to distill the milder side of a uniquely American flavor, and that aim is superbly achieved. It's no shame to Smit's quilt that it is colored by his personality. Part of the enjoyment is that the recorded sound is excellent, remarkably lifelike. Timings aren't given, but who cares? You're supposed to sit back and savor this music, not worry about which piece is which.

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