I first discovered the musical joys of Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) from Capitol Records of Leonard Pennario’s virile performances, especially of The Banjo and Union. Lambert Orkis recorded the eight selections by Gottschalk in 1982 utilizing an 1865 Chickering instrument with a light, quick action and what Orkis calls “a wet sound” issued by small dampers. The effects can be startlingly rich, often suggestively erotic sounds propped by a deep bass. New Orleans ambiance provides the basis for the 1853 Deuxieme Banjo, an ostinato-rich piece with virtuosic ornaments. The 1856 nocturne Solitude smacks of Chopin, cross fertilized by runs that might suggest Tannhauser. La Brise is a concert waltz with Lisztian ambitions, and it shows off the Chickering’s sonority to brilliant advantage. Souvenir de Havane exploits Gottschalk’s Creole temperament while demonstrating a right hand technique that is both treble and bass. The rollicking finale imitates a Caribbean steel band.
The Martyr’s Chant (1854) is a salon piece for gifted amateurs; its rolling arpeggios might remind listeners of the last section of Schumann’s C Major Fantasy. The melodic tissue resembles O Holy Night. It sounds like a pianola roll for an ecstatic scene starring Lillian Gish. The Etude de Concert Manchega literally evokes A Woman of La Mancha, but Orkis’ realization of this unusual etude for left hand solo is anything but quixotic. The wide, chromatic leaps and repeated notes over a steady pulse testify to lightning dexterity. Gottschalk composed his Creole Ballade La Savane in 1845 as an invocation to the swamps and bayous around New Orleans, but also as an homage to the many spirits who found refuge or death there in an attempt to evade slavery. The Creole melody Lolotte definitely resembles a chromatic Skip to My Lou, later to be sung in movies by Ken Curtis in The Searchers. Union is Gottschalk’s show-stopper par excellence, a pre-Ives journey into nationalistic, melodic juxtapositions and bitonality. The Chickering adds a ringing tone to “the dawn’s early light” as Orkis plucks out The Star-Spangled Banner. The double octaves turn the tune into Liszt by way of Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory. Drums and fifes herald the Civil War (the piece was dedicated to the cautious Union General McClellan). Hail Columbia and Yankee Doodle manage appearances, the former reminding us that Vieuxtemps has a similar moment in Souvenir d’Amerique. Great stuff, wonderfully mounted; but why not three more short pieces or so to give us an hour of American bravura?
— Gary Lemco