Fanfare

Though I’ve not had occasion to review any of Jill Crossland’s releases myself, I’ve enjoyed her Goldberg Variations on a Warner Classics CD, now reissued on the budget Apex label. As it turns out, there’s not that much of Crossland on disc to enjoy. This British pianist, who made her Wigmore Hall solo debut in 2004, has not been all that frequent a guest in the recording studio, and, as far as I’m aware, her few recordings were made mostly between 2003 and 2006, the one at hand being no exception. It was made in 2003 and first issued by Calico Classics. Crossland’s repertoire, based on the handful of her available discs, has been limited to Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti. This transfer by Divine Art/Diversions is her first venture, to the best of my knowledge, into composers of a later period.

The F-Major Sonata by Mozart that we know as No. 15 is, or originally was, two separate entities conjoined at the request of the composer’s publisher, Anton Hoffmeister. This is what accounts for it having two Köchel numbers. K 494 was written first as a stand-alone Rondo in June 1786. A year and a half later, Mozart produced the two-movement F-Major Sonata that now bears the Köchel number 533. To pad the Rondo a bit so as to make it more suitable as a finale, Mozart added a 27-measure cadenza.

Crossland’s clean fingerwork and her ability to play off the exchange of passagework between right and left hands with exceptional clarity are no doubt attributable to her experience in Bach and Scarlatti, and they serve Mozart well in this particular sonata. The recording helps, too. It’s a bit on the dry side, but that actually works in favor of keeping the textures transparent and the lines clearly delineated.

Crossland’s “Tempest” Sonata by Beethoven is not as winning a proposition. Perhaps because of some recent accounts by pianists who whip up a real fury in the piece, we’ve come to expect a more brutal assault on the keyboard and a more electrifying performance. The storm warnings are posted in the Largo introduction, but the Allegro turns out to be a tropical depression that never materializes into a full-blown hurricane. For one thing, Crossland’s tempo is just too slow and deliberate, but it’s also her interpretive approach that robs the music of its storm surge. I’m sure it’s not a deficit in technique that led Crossland to this reading; it strikes me more as an attempt on her part to exact the same clarity of line and transparency of texture that she does in the Mozart. Likewise, her last movement is apt to elicit a “huh?” from listeners familiar with other performances, though Crossland may actually be closer to the mark in adopting a significantly slower tempo than we’ve grown accustomed to. The movement, after all, is marked Allegretto. But the impression one receives from Crossland’s reading is almost that of a student taking the piece at practice speed.

I wish I could say that the pianist’s approach is more effective in Beethoven’s penultimate sonata, the No. 31 in A ? -Major. It does seem to pay dividends in the opening Moderato, where Crossland delivers some very lyrical, expressive playing, but the scherzo-like Allegro molto that follows is again on the slow side and wanting for more fleetness and lightness in the central section. It’s mainly the fugue episodes in the tripartite concluding movement where Crossland’s Bach credentials again come to the fore, illuminating Beethoven’s strange harmonic counterpoint in a way that is both communicative and satisfying. Overall, though, competition in this work is so stiff that I’m not able to place Crossland’s reading on an equal footing with Pollini, Kempff, and half a dozen others out of the 150 or so that fill the catalog.

Therefore, I end where I began. Jill Crossland is a pianist who, thus far, has demonstrated her skill and musical insight on record in limited repertoire mostly of 18th-century music. She needs to get into the recording studio more often and offer us more of what she does best, even if her best is that of a Baroque specialist. Also to the point, we need a more recent update from her than three or four recordings that now go back almost 10 years. Where is Crossland and what is she doing now? Inquiring minds want to know. Her official website (jillcrossland.com) is woefully out of date, announcing a 2010 concert schedule and a new recording of Book 2 of Bach’s WTC , “forthcoming in June, 2008.” Those ships have sailed. This sort of thing always gives me pause to wonder if an artist is still active.

The CD under review is recommended primarily to Crossland fans. I can’t honestly say it would hold its own swimming in the open sea with the big fish.

—Jerry Dubins