Miklos Rozsa’s Piano Sonata dates from 1945, which makes it contemporary with Elliott Carter’s substantial sonata (1945 —46), while MacDowell’s Fourth Sonata dates from 1901. Yet the Carter sounds as far ahead of the Rozsa as that work does from the MacDowell. So, if nothing else, this is an illuminating juxtaposition of some important works in the American 20th-century piano repertoire. At well over half an hour, with much fast music, and played on a Bosendorfer Imperial concert grand (of which more later), the Carter is an exhilarating listen. Structurally, at the macro level, the music is deceptively simple. The first movement is in something like sonata form, while the second is a magnificent fugue flanked by a slow, Coplandesque opening (around the 3:00 mark) and a transcendent epilogue. However, at the micro level, the music is far more complex. Metrically, it is highly fluid. Tonally, Carter makes use of harmonics, asking the player to silently depress piano keys whose open strings are then resonated by other notes subsequently played staccato. Anyone drawn to this CD by the other works and perhaps squeamish at the thought of half an hour of Elliott Carter should rest assured this is highly approachable. One reason for this is that Carter’s underlying thematic material is essentially a semicircle of fifths, starting at B and ending on Alt, so it often sounds highly consonant (because it is), the harmonic overtones adding a richness to the sound palette as well as reminding one coincidentally (?) of Copland, whose own piano sonata had been recently premiered (1943). And the way that the fugue grows organically out of the preceding five minutes or so of slow music can be felt intuitively even if not fully understood intellectually. In the final slow section, the music is gradually disassembled until all that is left is a halo of B.
Peter Seivewright is surely completely on top of the music. He prints in the CD booklet a glowing endorsement from the composer of a performance of this work that he gave in 1983 in the lat-ter’s presence. His attention to detail, particularly regarding the harmonic overtones, is superb, and he has a piano and recording engineer (Andrew Graeme) able to do justice to his interpretation. The recording (for example, at 13:37 in the first movement, where there is a sudden pause) doesn’t add any artificial reverb; that pause is a split second of dead silence. All the wonderful reverberations elsewhere are generated only by the piano. I only have one reservation, which crept in when I read on the Internet that, whereas Seivewright takes 31:38, Ursula Oppens needs less than 24 minutes to perform this work. I don’t have her recording but, thanks to YouTube, one can hear it. Sound quality from my PC aside, this immediately shows the viability of much faster tempi, to the point where I have had to revise my opinion of Seivewright’s interpretation (though not his performance). He himself says, “Much of the music is fast or extremely fast”; well, it isn’t extremely fast in his reading and, if that is a necessary requirement of the composer, I should add that caveat.
Turning to the Rozsa, here is a work the composer felt was one of his best. Before the Second World War, Rozsa had been considered the successor to Bartok and Kodaly, and I feel that this work is essentially retrospective. As the first movement progresses, one is constantly reminded of these composers, and no bad thing; Rozsa is building on what he has learned and absorbed. But as the music progresses, I get a sense of the composer trying too hard. Whereas with the Carter work one is continually delighted, or at least intrigued, by what happens next, in Rozsa’s sonata I felt bludgeoned too often (for example, in the passage from 4:35 in the first movement). I suspect that this is partly down to the choice of piano; what went so well in the Carter might now be a liability in this music, which is quite often exceptionally strident.
Although an American citizen, MacDowell had Scots-Irish roots, he was steeped in 19th-century German Romanticism, and his fourth sonata is inspired by Celtic mythology. In his day he was celebrated as the great American composer, though with all these European inclinations, his music is much more redolent of Liszt, Grieg, Wagner even than it is American. The style of the “Keltic” Sonata is highly declamatory in the outer movements to the point of parody and, in the first particularly, it is impossible at times not to see images from jerky melodramatic silent films in one’s mind’s eye. Of course, this music came first and it is as likely that both MacDowell and early theatrical improvisers were drawing on the same sources. Peter Seivewright gives the music an impassioned performance, rising to such markings as “With great power and dignity,” and that Bosendorfer is suitably rich. The pianist, who also produced this disc, contributes lengthy, fascinating notes, mostly beside the point (for example, we learn virtually nothing about the Rozsa Sonata other than that it has no greater admirer than he), and the booklet cover is dire. I do admit an admiration for Seivewright’s pianism, for the sonics, and for the piano. Recommended, with a few reservations.