GERSHWIN & WILD: WILD: Virtuoso Etudes after Gershwin—Theme and Variations on Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch over Me”—Sonata 2000—Joanne Polk, piano—Steinway & Sons 30090, 60:04, ****:

When composer-pianist Earl Wild (1915-2010) was 10 years old, he asked his mother how there could be a God when the organist at their local church in Pittsburgh was so lousy. Wild later became an atheist. He went on to become one of the great American virtuoso pianists. New York Times critic Harold Schoenberg said of him, “By any standards, Mr. Wild has one of the great piano techniques of the 20th century, and with it, a rich, sonorous tone.”

Wild began studying the piano at age 4 and when he was 15 he played the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Minneapolis Symphony under Dimitri Mitropoulis. Starting with President Herbert Hoover in 1931, he performed in the White House for six consecutive presidents. He was the orchestral pianist for conductors’ Otto Klemperer, and Arturo Toscanini. Throughout his career he was active as a soloist and performed with many orchestras. His extensive discography includes 35 piano concertos and numerous other solo works. If you love Gershwin, don’t miss his iconic RCA early stereo Gershwin disc that includes Rhapsody in Blue, Piano Concerto in F, An American in Paris, Variations on “I Got Rhythm” and “Cuban Overture”.

Wild also wrote music, writing piano transcriptions of Romantic composers. Included were transcriptions of Rachmaninoff and Gershwin songs. Included on this disc are Seven Virtuoso Etudes, rearrangements of songs from the Great American Songbook. “Somebody Loves Me,” “The Man I Love,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You” and three others are on this CD. Rapid scales, octave passages and virtuoso pianistic feats never obscure Gershwin’s glorious tunes, creating a feast for the ears for 21st century classical music lovers.

The fifteen minute Theme & Variations on Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch over Me” gave Wild a chance to flex his compositional muscles. These free variations include the tremolo laden “Barcarole” that imitates a mandolin—almost two pages of rapid repeated notes. In “Brazilian Dance” Wild juxtaposes a passage from Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier with Gershwin’s tune. The final variation, “Tango” also weaves Bach into the melody.

Wild’s original work, “Sonata 2000” is more classically oriented, yet the influence of jazz and the blues are discernible. The opening “March” is mildly dissonant with a whiff of swinging blues and a smile. “Adagio” is languid and a bit sultry, something that would go well with a mint julip on a hot summer day. “Toccata (a la Ricky Martin)” sizzles with a torrent of sixteenth notes with changing accents. There’s also a brief heartfelt section before the rhythmic energy returns and ends abruptly.

Pianist Joanne Polk is noted for her advocacy of feminist composers. She has recorded the complete piano music of Amy Beach, the solo piano music of Cecile Chaminade and a two CD set of solo piano music of Fanny Mendelssohn. She was named one of Musical America’s Top 30 Professionals of the Year (2014) in an article entitled, “Profiles in Courage” in September of 2014. In these works, Ms. Polk’s warm tone in the softer passages matches the luminous sound that producer and engineer Steven Epstein provides. Yet, she provides enough passion to capture the jazzy essence and virtuosity required in Wild’s transcriptions.

—Robert Moon