Music from America’s First and Second Cities = ROBERT MUCZYNSKI: Toccata; GERSHWIN: 6 Preludes; LEO SOWERBY: From the Northland; DAVID DEL TREDICI: Ballad in Yellow; JOHN LA MONTAINE: 6 Dance Preludes; BARBER: Sonata – Steven Graff, p. – Centaur

by | Dec 29, 2009 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Music from America’s First and Second Cities = ROBERT MUCZYNSKI: Toccata, Op. 15; GERSHWIN: 3 Posthumous Preludes; 3 Preludes; LEO SOWERBY: From the Northland (Impressions of Lake Superior Country); DAVID DEL TREDICI: Ballad in Yellow (after Lorca); JOHN LA MONTAINE: 6 Dance Preludes, Op. 18; BARBER: Sonata, Op. 26 – Steven Graff, piano – Centaur 2997, 67:54 **** [Distr. by Qualiton]:

You never know what resides in our universities these days. Though Steven Graff is hardly unknown, he is presently on the piano faculty of Hunter College and Head of the Piano Department at the Diller-Quaile School of Music, and resides in New York. His playing is studied, intelligent, and fluent, all in the good sense of these words.

And he was born in Chicago, giving us the first clue as to the origin of this disc’s program. While Chicago may have the more famous title—”Second City” is quite common, while few would ever call New York “First City”—the composers on this release all either hail from one or the other, or cross-pollinated both. All of the music is first-rate, and Centaur’s sound realistic and flattering to the piano.

Of course no one—NO one—will ever play the famous 3 Preludes like Oscar Levant did, not even Gershwin himself. [Still on a Sony Classical CD reissue…Ed.] That said, this one is very nicely done, though the second movement is too fast. A nice inclusion are the posthumous 3 preludes, new to my listening, and most ingratiating, the composer having introduced them on a concert with the more canonical three in 1926. It is nice to have them here. The Muczynski Toccata makes for an inspired and rambunctious opening to this recital. Leo Sowerby was once one of the most-played American composers, though of late he seems stuck in the choral/organ world. That’s not a bad thing, but there is so much more, as these inventive and impressionistic vignettes From the Northland, written about a trip to Canada, show.

I have been paying a lot of attention to David Del Tredici the last few years, and am beginning to consider him one of our greatest living composers. The Ballad in Yellow, starting life as a song and here reworked, does nothing to change my opinion. John La Montaine is a name on my listening periphery, but that should change if the Six Dance Preludes are any indication of the quality of the rest of his work. This Hanson student won a Pulitzer in 1959 for the first of his four piano concertos; I can believe it.

Samuel Barber’s Sonata, despite its aggressive support from Horowitz (and his recording of it) has had better readings than even this master, notably by Garrick Ohlsson and Earl Wild, the latter turning in the greatest reading of it I have ever heard (Ivory Classics 71005). Just listen to the quicksilver glistening of the second movement vivace compared to Graff’s reading and you will see what I mean. But all is not lost; Graff has some things to say here, and his blistering Fuga last movement makes for a fine conclusion, even if he finds himself in some pretty formidable company.

I can’t complain about this one—terrific music in clear and open sound by a performer of obvious accomplishment. Recommended.

— Steven Ritter