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American First Sonatas – Sonatas by REINAGLE, MACDOWELL, GRIFFES & SIEGMEISTER – Cecile Licad, p. – Danacord

Cecile Licad embarks on a fine tour of first American piano sonatas, our home-spun answer to European models. 

American First Sonatas – REINAGLE: Philadelphia Sonata No. 1 in D Major; MACDOWELL: Piano Sonata No. 1 in g, Op. 45 “Tragica”; GRIFFES: Sonata for Piano; SIEGMEISTER: American Sonata (No. 1) – Cecile Licad, p. – Danacord DACOCD 774, 71:04 (6/6/16)  [Distr. by Albany] *****: 

Danacord has initiated “The Anthology of American Piano Music,” a series designed “to show the stylistic breadth, high musical quality and great originality of the best American piano works. The series contains underrated, neglected or forgotten masterworks of the American literature for solo piano…selected primarily for their musical worth.”

Philippines-born Cecile Licad (b. 1961), a pupil at the Curtis Institute of such luminaries as Rudolf Serkin, Seymour Lipkin, and Mieczyslaw Horszowski, employs her prodigious gifts (rec. 1-3 July 2015) in the service of four such neglected works, of which the Sonata in D by Alexander Reinagle constitutes the first piano sonata to be composed in North America (1786). Reinagle (1856-1809) shares a birth year with Mozart and the year of his death coincides with that of Haydn. Educated in music at Edinburgh, Scotland, he became a member of the Society of Musicians in London. Reinagle emigrated to the United States in 1786, and he soon composed his sonatas in D, E, and C. The opening movement of the two-movement “Philadelphia” Sonata in D, Allegro con brio, quite sparkles with light energy, the style easily transparent in the manner of Clementi and Haydn.  The runs from Licad frolic in debonair ease, the harmonic moves secure within the typical sonata-form framework. Licad possesses a hard, biting patina, quite effective in staccato passages.  The second movement Allegro offers two themes, the second legato, with a taste for turns and trills in the manner of Galuppi.  Half way through, we hear a decided shift into a more serious affect, but the repeated groupings dispel the temporary shade.

Edward MacDowell (1861-1908) composed his “Tragica” Sonata in 1893. From its outset, Largo maestoso; Allegro risoluto; Allegro appassionato, the first movement resounds with serious intent, its secondary theme haunted by nostalgia. The more fluid motions of the movement often suggest a fantasia in the manner of Brahms even more than Liszt, given MacDowell’s commitment to sonata-form. The emotional tenor ranges from a pungent and stentorian declamation to a kind of pastoral relief we find in Grieg. The sudden transition to the coda proves dissonant and darkly potent. The ensuing Molto allegro, vivace, bears a slight resemblance to the later Grand Canyon music of Grofe. The quirky character of the syncopations contains a bit of humor as well as knotty agogics.  At times, we feel that we are auditioning a toccata or competition test-piece. The third movement, Larga con maesta, bears a weight that makes us think of Liszt by way of Mussorgsky. Big block chord wrestle with glissandos and dark bass lines that we know from Universal horror films. Licad endows this music with some light despite the dirge-like gravitas of its progressions, which to my mind do not flow with natural spontaneity. The last movement, Allegro eroico; Maestoso immediately conjures up the second of MacDowell’s sonatas, Sonata Eroica. Bell tones open the movement, then angry trills, and a series of stretti, all moving with Lisztian authority to MacDowell’s big gesture, a sort of ornamental march that would like to gain the propulsion Chopin achieves in the last movement of his b minor Sonata, Op. 58. The music seems to labor more than it should, perhaps because MacDowell’s true forte lies in lyric moments. If power and keyboard clangor suit your taste, this music may find in you an ardent supporter, where Ernest Newman found it too consciously dutiful to established forms.

Charles Griffes (1884-1920) has often found admirers for what listeners suppose to be his “impressionistic” pieces and tone-poems.  The Sonata for Piano (1918) marks a departure from “pleasing” forms into something of Scriabin’s experimental world. Essentially in one continuous movement, the piece divides into three sections – Feroce, Molto tranquillo, and Allegro vivace; Lento; Presto – with chordal progressions and passing dissonances that take no prisoners. Rudolf Ganz called the sonata “the finest abstract work in American piano literature.”  The harmonies and metric pulses shift so rapidly in the first movement, the tenor eludes our sense of form, a la Scriabin: Virgil Thomson certified this music “shockingly original.” One can easily imagine Busoni having a high regard for this engaging exploration in music. The second movement owes its unique sound to the pair of tetrachords – spaced a perfect fifth apart – upon which much of the music is based.  A vague sort of “orientalism” permeates the slow movement; the fact that each of the sections derives from a basic scalar grouping binds the music to Liszt’s influence. We might consider the third section a rondo, with its repeated – even manic, phrases and pounding rhythm.  The bursts of polyphony play in the manner of a percussive toccata – akin in spirit to Prokofiev’s wartime sonatas –  here in a unique tonal syntax entirely Griffes’ own. Licad gives us a performance to make us awe and wonder why this work does not glean the same accord we bestow to the Berg Sonata, Op. 1.

Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991) first came to my attention via my much-admired conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, who led the composer’s Ozark Set. Of his five sonatas for solo piano, this American Sonata dates from 1944, and it revels in boogie-woogie and folk tunes in a flighty, optimistic, and thoroughly energetic spirit. The influence of Southern or Black music enters the scheme, somewhat elegiac and lyrical, though the feverish bounce prevails. After the first movement, Fast with fiery energy, the middle movement appears Moderately slow, with great dignity. The African American ‘protest’ song, “Sistern and Brethren,” appears to imbue the music with a poignant nobility of spirit, an American ‘Bach chorale.’  Siegmeister wants the last movement Lusty and joyous, returning to the vivid optimism of the first movement, now adding a secondary melody of great beauty. Tin Pan Alley meets Nadia Boulanger seems to describe the several musical impulses in this vivacious movement. Licad imparts a shimmering elegance and majesty on this music, a vital contribution to the American absolute-music legacy.

Licad’s Hamburg Steinway D has been resonantly captured by Judith Sherman.

—Gary Lemco

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