American Record Guide

I gave Murray McLachlan a rough review a few years ago for his lack of phrasing and dynamic subtlety (John Williamson piano music — Diversions 24143, M/J 2010), but this program is much better than anything I’ve heard from him. There’s a lot of slow- to mid-tempo music (the resulting lack of variety is a weakness in the set) that requires cantabile playing, and he doesn’t disappoint me.

Ronald Stevenson wrote about 25 pieces collectively called L’Art Nouveau du Chant Applique au Piano , and his Society has published two volumes of them so far. The songs are by Coleridge-Taylor, Meyerbeer, Rachmaninoff, Ivor Novello, and others. Stevenson was inspired by Thalberg’s cycle of the same title. They are more than mere transcriptions, of course, and are enjoyable and sometimes stunning.

There are several other transcriptions: Bach (‘Komm, Susser Tod’), Mozart (Fantasy for Mechanical Organ, K 608; Romance from Piano Concerto 20), and Purcell (three grounds, a toccata, and ‘Little Jazz Variations on the “New Scotch Tune”‘. The last comes nowhere close to rewarding the curiosity pro­voked by the title.) They are enjoyable, but don’t listen to them all in a row unless you’re already melancholy; there should be a ‘Ritual Fire Dance’ in the middle of them for a change of pace. The Mozart Fantasy is a straightforward transcription of what sounds like a conservative Baroque fantasy and fugue in the first half; the second part is more like the Wolfgang we know and love. There are some very difficult figurations for the pianist, and he handles them with what sounds like enviable ease.

Stevenson transcribed Ysaye’s six violin sonatas in the space of three months, and the first two are played here. They are impressionist heavyweights that expand and amplify the material. 1:I is a grand and sonorous experiment that rather makes me want to hear it as Ysaye wrote it. 2:IV does the same: it belies its ancestry and isn’t quite convincing as a piano piece. The movements in between are better; 1:II, a fugue; sounds very natural on the piano, a festival of augmented chords. 1:III is a fascinating baroque-romantic hybrid. Sonata 2 is almost an extended set of Theme and Manipulations on the Dies Irae, grotesque and sometimes downright looney.

‘Canonic Caprice on The Bat’ is a humorous, schmaltzy Strauss romp that Horowitz would’ve turned into encore gold. The Thoughts on the Preludes of Chopin (one of which is a strange combination of Chopin with ‘The Flight of the Bumble-Bee’) and the Three Contrapuntal Studies on Chopin Waltzes are similar expansions and elaborations.

Le Festin d’Alkan , a concerto for solo piano, is a bit like Sorabji, but less dense; passages of polytonal chords veer off into moments of unexpected quiet. II has a stuttering theme, embellished to sound like a cross between a Rachmaninoff etude and a Scriabin prelude; I know it’s a contradiction in terms, but “mid-day nocturne” is the description that comes to mind. Ill is schizophrenic, rhapsodic, and sometimes frustrated sounding, a pastiche of composers from Chopin to Bizet to Rimsky-Korsakoff to Stevenson himself. McLachlan grumbles and murmurs winningly, but some of the louder parts sound clangy. None of Stevenson’s works presented here are as powerful as the Passacaglia on DSCH , though.

This release will be required for followers of Stevenson, of course, and listeners interested in Sorabji, Alkan, Busoni, et al., should consider it as well. The sound is a little on the thin side, but not bad; notes in English.

—Stephen Estep