BACH: Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in d; SCHUMANN: Fantasy in C Major; RAVEL: La Valse; BARTOK: Piano Sonata – Joseph Rackers, p. – MSR Classics

by | Jun 15, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

BACH: Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903; SCHUMANN: Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17; RAVEL: La Valse; BARTOK: Piano Sonata – Joseph Rackers, piano – MSR Classics MS 1364, 67:40 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
An Eastman School graduate, Joseph Rackers (b. 1975) claims Natalya Antonova, Evgeny Mogilevsky, and Mischa Dichter among his several pedagogues. Since Mr. Rackers spends much of his time teaching in South Carolina, this 2010 recital originates from the University of South Carolina Music Hall, his Steinway D engineered by Jeff Francis. It marks Mr. Rackers’ debut album.
Rackers opens with Bach’s three-part Chromatic Fantasy and its fierce Fugue. Rackers’ is a thoughtful performance, well paced, and he maintains a taut line on the recitativo section. The brash and aggressive Fantasy yields to an introspective reading of the Fantasy, eminently clear in its parts, a musician’s realization rather than that of a virtuoso per se. Rackers manages to impart a sense of the dancing interplay as the figures move their formal debts to fugal procedure. When the occasional episodes occur, those not directly restating the somber fugal material, the textures open outward to embrace a sunny sky.
Schumann’s mighty Fantasy in C has enjoyed many and diverse proponents, and Mr. Rackers clearly communicates affection for its knotty approach to the Romantic ethos. The poetic impulse often interrupts itself with sweeping gestures or meandered musings that appear randomly episodic. To bind the first movement together as an articulate sustained arch does not come easily, and Rackers occasionally loses the dramatic “legendary” thread, adrift in agogic, contrapuntal, or sequential details. Still, the music’s essential “nostalgia for dream” Rackers preserves with a noble line, integral and articulate. If I hear a sound likeness in Rackers’ playing, he reminds me of Grant Johannesen.
The test of this piece, for many, lies in the syncopated march second movement whose sensibility likewise lies in those maerchen of Schumann that rely on the fairy tale rather than the military impulse. Rackers’ clarion chords and driving power in the movement carry us forward without mannerism, though his technique suggests a more unbuttoned approach lies within his potential. The linear approach to Schumann’s first grand gesture, too, seems to me a mite glib, given the number of poetic nuances possible. The “dancing letters” of the middle section convey Rackers’ implied gifts for Schumann’s Carnaval. The da capo actually invests more of his primal energy into the explosively poetic off-beats. A bit marcato, the coda carries charm rather than dynamite, but the peroration proves effective. Meant as testament to the memory of Beethoven, the Fantasy’s final movement takes its cue from Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. Tenderly wrought by Rackers’ the delicacy and “childlike wonder” of the occasion sound fulfilled, and we might speculate what Rackers will accomplish in this piece twenty years hence.
Ravel’s 1920 La Valse both celebrates the Viennese waltz and marks its apocalyptic demise. Rackers emphasizes Ravel’s atypical Romantic ardor and interior colorations, basking in its alternately leisurely and sudden modulations and savage glissandi. Whirling lights and begowned dancers on parquet floors illuminated by ornamental candelabra insinuate their images on the plastic figures whose delicacy suffers increased dangers of harmonic, percussive, and emotional disintegration until the very dance form itself seems annihilated.
Rackers concludes with Bartok’s 1926 Piano Sonata, a percussive vehicle that served the composer himself as a bravura display in both composition and keyboard technique. The ethos of the Piano Concerto No. 1 dominates the first movement Allegro moderato, in which relentless ostinati, syncopes, and savage tone-clusters compete with parodies of traditional octave registration. Besides the Magyar modal elements, hints of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps linger in the shadows. Rackers manages to imbue a gaudy melos upon the patina of pounded sensibilities. Sostenuto e pesante, the second movement projects a surly mode of the “night-music” affect that haunts later Bartok, especially when he marks a movement mesto. Rackers instills a devotional mood here, a moment in which the piano clearly intones and chants idiosyncratically. The pulverized character of the writing echoes procedures Schoenberg and Webern had made common parlance. The last movement Allegro molto has Rackers’ negotiating asymmetrical meter shifts and jagged accents in the midst of a wild Magyar dance. Even so, we feel an emotional austerity in the ostensibly celebratory gestures, the composer’s natural diffidence to sharing anything like joy in his troubled century.
—Gary Lemco

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