American Dances Licad Danacord DACOCD965

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

Cecile Licad has explored the familiar and, it must be said, the mostly very unfamiliar in her Anthology of American Piano Music series from the concertante works of George Gershwin to the first American piano sonata by a certain Alexander Reinagle. In this fifth volume she visits dance works and though the composers are American only a handful of the dances here can claim to be and are mostly are based on European traditions; waltzes, a galop, a tarantelle and a Schottische amongst them though perhaps this is an accurate reflection of a country that welcomed so many immigrants from Europe and beyond.

Amy Beach’s Tyrolean Valse-fantaisie is in the tradition of grand concert waltzes that culminated in the complexities of Godowsky and the echoes of a glittering past found in Ravel’s La valse. Some of the writing in those can be heard here, though the waltz themes are more modest. The work opens with an introduction so dramatic that when the waltz tune first appears it sounds almost twee in comparison; denser textures and increasing chromaticism dispel this easily enough. It is a lavish work and quite a virtuoso workout. In Cloud cradles, the first of    William Grant Still’s Traceries, seven pieces written for his second wife, there is vague a sense of waltz, but this is a cradle song full of shifting colours and sounds sensed as if through a mist, full of questioning unease. A sharp awakening follows in the shape of a toccata-like Indian War Dance, transcribed by Carlos Troyer, a Frankfurt born musician who settled in San Francisco in the early 1870s and spent the next half a century researching and transcribing the music of Native Americans. He was invited to hear this war dance performed by members of the Kiowa tribe; the original had been used when the Kiowa joined forces with the Apaches for a raid on the Navajo. Licad describes it as a precursor to Prokofiev’s Toccata and it does have some of that brutality and grit. Troyer tries to bring in all aspects of the instruments that were used and while the piece is highly effective as a piano work I can’t imagine the low chromatic octave runs really convey the sound of the howling whizzer, a concave boomerang swung around on a rope to imitate the sound of a storm.

Staying with American inspired dance is the fifth of the Negro Melodies arranged by Henry Gilbert whose field was African-American folk music. It is a vigorous dance in A minor characterised by a syncopated theme although Licad’s laid back performance gives it something of the feel of a spiritual. Travelling back a century and a half brings us to one of the earliest pieces of American piano music, a graceful minuet by the youngest son of Johan ‘Pachelbel’s Canon’ Pachelbel, who arrived in the colonies in 1733. It’s a blink-a-you’ll-miss-it piece; this graceful and minute minuet lasts less than a minute. Samuel barber wrote his suite Souvenirs for piano duet to play with a friend and his later orchestration was used by several ballet companies. Licad plays all six movements of his version for piano solo starting with waltz that even more than Beach’s valse-fantaisie brings to mind Ravel though the opening could easily break out into a Strauss waltz. His Schottische bears more similarity to a polka than anything north of the border; stylistically the knockabout fun of Shostakovich’s Age of Gold polka springs to mind though this is more extended. This is followed by a languid Pas de deux and bustling, humorous Two-step that covers the entire range of the keyboard in its antics. The gloriously evocative Hesitation-tango and frantic galop, so redolent of a busy American city, complete the set. Micah Thomas brings us right up to date with a commissioned work written during lockdown. It’s a moody and lyrical piece and Licad describes playing it as an antidote to lockdown, that time when we were all circling and rotating around something unknown in an enigmatic dance. Its dance connection is I feel lost on me, but after several times through it I found myself responding to its warmth and sense of quiet optimism.

Louis Gruenberg is remembered, when at all, for the Violin Concerto he wrote for Heifetz but amongst his works is the jazz inspired waltz paraphrase on Chopin’s familiar C-sharp minor Waltz, it’s rhythms deconstructed and reassembled into a work that sounds like it could be a Chopin waltz if it had been written by Kurt Weill. Licad ends with two works in the virtuoso tradition, MacDowell’s finger twisting Witches’ dance and Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s finger breaking Grande tarantelle, more familiar in its piano and orchestra version but here played in the version prepared from the manuscript after Gottschalk’s death by his friend, the pianist Nicolás Ruiz Espadero.

This is a terrific collection of pieces and Licad brings her own brand of big-boned pianism to the task with a passion as well as plenty of character and individuality. She doesn’t hold back even in the most taxing music, but I sometimes want more contrast. In Troyer’s War Dance there is a whole host of dynamic markings that Licad mostly tends to ignore and I don’t feel the misterioso and mormoroso markings are given much attention; just a dozen bars in Troyer marks forzando immediately followed by piano then pianissimo, sweetly and murmuring in the following bar, none of which are really observed. She writes that the Gottschalk Tarantelle is harder than the Liszt and parts of the score live up to that but I feel that she holds the tempo back too much for my taste – just listen to Alessandro Marino on Youtube for a well-paced version. That said, Licad’s sense of adventure and exploration is to be applauded and the spirited and exciting music making here is not to be missed.

Rob Challinor

Previous review: John France (May 2023)

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Amy Beach (1867-1944)
Tyrolean Valse-fantaisie, Op 116 (1926)
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
7 Traceries, No 1 Cloud cradles (1940)
Carlos Troyer (1837-1920)
Kiowa-Apache War Dance (pub.1907)
Henry Franklin Belknap Gilbert (1868-1928)
5 Negro Dances, No 5 (pub.1914)
Charles Theodore Pachelbel (1690-1750)
Menuet (pub.1744)
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Souvenirs, Op 28 (1952)
Micah Thomas (b.1997)
Louis Gruenberg (1884-1964)
Jazz Masks II, Op 30a
Edward MacDowell (1860-1908)
Hexentanz, Op 17 No 2 (1884)
Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869)
Grande Tarantelle, Op 67 (c.1858-1864)