Piano Music of Gene Gutchë = Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2; C Minor Fugue; Utilitarian Fugue; Theme and Variations – Matthew McCright, p. – Centaur

by | Jul 2, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

Piano Music of Gene Gutchë = Sonata No. 1, Op. 32; Sonata No. 2, Op. 32; C Minor Fugue; Utilitarian Fugue; Theme and Variations – Matthew McCright, p. – Centaur CRC 3150, 51:54 [Distr. by Naxos] [10/11] **1/2:

Gene Gutchë (1907-2000) is a German composer who came to the United States and studied at the Universities of Iowa and Minnesota. A winner of the Guggenheim prize, his music was played often and by numerous ensembles across the county, such that he was able to make a living solely on composition, no mean feat. However, there are very few recordings of his work, despite there being six symphonies, any number of occasional works and tone poems, five string quartets, and a miscellany of other pieces in many genres, which should mean that we are lucky to have this one.

But I am not convinced on hearing this one recording, my first exposure to his music. Despite his experimentation with polytonality, serialism, and microtones, his heart was basically that of a romantic with some modernist bents, and his piano music reflects this. The Theme and Variations, considered his primary piano opus, is a work that flirts with Scriabinesque harmonies and the technical bombastic faculties of Liszt—lots of pedal, thundering lower octaves, and a sense of clarity emerging from the chaos. But while Liszt gets somewhere, or at least leaves us dangling in a sensuous sound world, Gutchë seems unable to progress beyond the fascination of his own timbres. Detecting variations in this work is quite difficult, and the piece too often falls under the weight of its own stasis.

The two fugues are interesting for an audacious craftsmanship and rigorous construction, though the composer seems unable to bring any sort of emotional content to the music in the way that a composer like Shostakovich did, whose music this resembles.

The two sonatas from 1963 bring the spirit of Prokofiev into the ears, haunted by his rhythmic generosity and bass-driven contrapuntal activity, with quirky melodic lines hovering over self-absorbed lower bass parts. The pieces each end differently, though they definitely have a lot in common, repeated motifs and lots of minimalist-like repeating of phrases with slight variation. These two sonatas are easily the most interesting pieces on the disc, though even here I detect a loss of direction, certain qualities of rambling.

With the addition of the Third Sonata from 1963 (that shares the same opus number) and the Two Part invention from 1947 we could have had the complete piano music of Gutchë, and that would have made the disc a little more interesting. At least there was room for the last sonata. As is there is not a lot of interest here musically speaking, and I don’t think this is a good representation of Gutchë’s overall work. Matthew McCright, member of the faculty of Carleton College where this was recorded, really smacks this music with a lot of verve and technical perfection. But Centaur’s sound is cluttered, especially at the top end, where my headphones illumined some distortion and static in the louder passages, and in general seems a little claustrophobic. Despite the fine playing, not generally recommended unless you are collecting Gutchë.

—Steven Ritter

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