Anthology of American Piano Music Vol 5 American Dances Danacord

Anthology of American Piano Music Volume 5: American Dances
Cecile Licad (piano)
rec. 2022, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City
Danacord DACOCD965 [75]

The fifth volume of the Anthology of American Piano Music explores music that is “related to the theme of dance”. The aim is once again to show “the stylistic breadth, high musical quality and great originality” of this repertoire. The recital achieves these aims very well.

Amy Beach’s delightful Tyrolean Valse-Fantaisie explores several different moods. It has been likened to a “Godowskian Strauss paraphrase”, and even said to prefigure Maurice Ravel’s La Valse from 1919-1920. Elements of improvisation lead to a fantasy on three (presumably) Tyrolean folk songs. There is dissonance in these pages and a deliberate distortion of the themes, which only resolve themselves towards the end.

William Grant Still was “the most celebrated African American [classical] composer of his time”. His massive catalogue includes nine operas, five symphonies and four ballets scores. Many of his works have evocative titles such as the American SceneHighway 1, and Lennox AvenueCloud Cradles is the first number from Seven Traceries. The listener is conscious of a winding, evolving sound, more than a touch impressionistic.

Carlos Troyer is best recalled for his arrangements of Native American themes. His dynamic Kiowa-Apache War Dancehas all the fire of Prokofiev’s Toccata written five years after Boyer’s piece. Cecile Licad writes that “one needs to build one’s stamina to play it brilliantly. It is a real wrist breaker.”

Henry F. B. Gilbert believed that American music should not rely on just European models but should explore indigenous sources. Although he was white, he was most successful when he explored African-American and Creole themes. He is best known for his remarkable 1908 orchestral work, The Dance in the Place Congo, later performed as a ballet. From the Five Negro Dances, Cecile Licad has chosen No. 5, which balances light-heartedness and pathos.

Charles Th. Pachelbel was the youngest son of the great Johann, of Canon fame. He emigrated to colonial America in 1733. The liner notes say that Charles was “one of the very few musicians who became rooted in North America, whilst still belonging to the Baroque era”. Cecile Licad plays his Minuet, believed to hold the honour of being the “oldest surviving keyboard work composed on this continent”. For that reason alone, this miniature holds a special place on this disc.

Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs exist in various versions, including one for orchestra and the original for two pianos. Barber’s own words are all one needs to enjoy this delicious suite of pieces: “Had I been a choreographer, I might have imagined a divertissement in a setting reminiscent of the Palm Court of the Hotel Plaza in New York; the year about 1914, epoch of the first tangos.” There are six dances in all: Waltz, Schottische, Pas de Deux, Two-Step, Hesitation Tango and Galop. We are wise to listen to Souvenirs “with affection, not in irony or with tongue in cheek, but in amused tenderness”.

I did not get Micah Thomas’s Rotation, written during one of the Covid lockdowns. It is an “enigmatic dance” that is not sure whether it is jazz or something more classical. For me, the form is vague, but there are some lovely moments in this piece’s progress.

Louis Gruenberg’s Jazz Masks build on music by composers such as Mendelssohn, Offenbach, Rubinstein and Chopin. The present number takes as its source Chopin’s celebrated waltz in C sharp minor op. 64 No. 2. This can be seen as an attempt at “jazzing the classics”, but the composer does not overdo the swing element.

Edward MacDowell’s Hexentanz is the second of Two Fantastic Pieces for Pianoforte, first published in 1884. The first, Legend, seems to suggest a quaint fairy tale. Hexentanz (Witch’s Dance) became a major, if hackneyed, encore. The composer came to “detest its shallow outlook and the appeal it had to the flashy pianist” although he certainly played it himself. Rapid scales and arpeggios compliment a wistful trio section. The title is a bit of a misnomer: there is nothing scary or terrifying about MacDowell’s enchantress. In fact, she is witty and humorous, more in keeping with Mendelssonian fairies than Macbeth’s witches.

If ever there was a challenging piece, it must be Louis M. Gottschalk’s Grande Tarantelle. The tarantelle had its roots in southern Italy. An energetic dance in 6/8 time, it once was believed to cure people of snakebite. Countless composers have penned examples, including Liszt, Weber and Chopin. The soloist writes that it “is a nightmare of technical hazards and is a dazzling piece of froth”. Clearly Gottschalk out-Liszt’s Liszt with this brilliant evocation of the sunny Mediterranean. Licad gives a stunning and technically brilliant performance of this hugely demanding work. It brings an excellent recital to a breathless conclusion.

The liner notes, signed “Cecile”, are most helpful. The sound recording is up to Danacord’s usual exacting standards. There have been so far four volumes of the anthology:
Volume 1 – American First Sonatas (review)
Volume 2 – Music of the NightAmerican Nocturnes (review)
Volume 3 – American Landscapes (review)
Volume 4 – George Gershwin: Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra

As in the previous volumes, I find Cecile Licad’s playing impeccable, illuminating and inspiring.

John France

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Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Tyrolean Valse-Fantasie, op.116 (1911)
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Cloud Cradles, No.1 from Seven Traceries (1940)
Carlos Troyer (1837-1920)
Kiowa-Apache War Dance (1907)
Henry F. B. Gilbert (1868-1928)
Dance No.5 from Five Negro Dances (1914)
Charles Theodore Pachelbel (1690-1750)
Minuet (1744)
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Souvenirs (1952)
Micah Thomas (b. 1997)
Rotation (c.2020)
Louis Gruenberg (1884-1964)
Jazz Masks II, op.30a (1929)
Edward MacDowell (1860-1908)
Hexentanz, from 2 Fantasiestücke, op.17 No.2 (1883)
Louis M. Gottschalk (1829-1969)
Grande Tarantelle, op.67 (1858-1864)