George Walker played by Steve Beck, Scott Joplin played by Lara Downes, and a little Benny Golson

Recently released on Bridge Records: The five piano sonatas of George Walker, complete, played by Steven Beck.

I wrote the notes for this release and recommend it unreservedly. Excerpt from my notes:

A sequence of piano sonatas offers one of the most direct looks into a composer’s most private and most practical obsessions, not to mention one easy way to measure the evolution (or lack of evolution) of their compositional techniques. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert turned them out by the dozen. The romantics were much more cautious, with Chopin, Brahms, Schumann writing only three apiece. In the 20th century, certain Russians regained ground in terms of sheer numbers, such as Mednter (14), Scriabin (10), Prokofiev (9) and Ustvolskaya (6). 

As for the prominent Americans, Copland, Carter and Barber wrote one, Ives wrote two, Sessions three and Wuorinen four. 

George Walker is one of the few leading American composers of the 20th century to produce as many as five piano sonatas. Taken together, they securely chart a lifetime of stylistic change. Walker managed many other feats, a number of them connected to being the first black person to break through various glass ceilings: the first to be accepted at Curtis University, study with Nadia Boulanger, win a Pulitzer Prize for music, etc. But Walker is also the only major composer-pianist to have released worthy performances of virtuoso standard repertoire like the Beethoven Emperor Concerto and Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto.

Walker’s own recordings of the first two sonatas are important historical documents but also are a shade unyielding in pianistic texture. We are past due for a flexible modern master like Steve Beck to survey Walker’s vital contribution in a single serving. 

For years I’ve thought the first sonata a masterpiece, but the last one (no. 5) was a real surprise and must be one of the very best 21-century piano sonatas so far. Both should be standard repertory.

(Related DTM: Interview with George Walker.)

Lara Downes’s brand new album Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered is a provocative and enjoyable listen. The set list is full of surprises, including several pieces I’d never heard before. Downes’s arrangement of the prelude from Treemonisha is gorgeous.

There is a refreshingly free approach to the original text throughout the program. Collaborators include mandolin, choir, and even DTM stalwart Kevin Sun on clarinet.

Will Liverman, baritone
Joe Brent, mandolin and vihuela
Adam Abeshouse, violin
Brooklyn Youth Chorus
Judy Kang and Chiara Fasi, violin
Tia Allen, viola
Yves Dharamraj, cello
Kevin Sun, clarinet and saxophone

From Downes’s liner notes:

To reflect on Joplin’s music and life is to consider the cross-currents of American history – how fast they move, how abruptly they collide. He was born in Texarkana just five years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. His parents were musical – his father, a former slave, had played the violin for plantation gatherings back in North Carolina; his mother sang and played the banjo. As a little boy, he was allowed to play the pianos in houses where his mother worked as a cleaner. He taught himself the basics, and at age 11 he started piano lessons; his teacher was a German Jewish immigrant who had ended up in Texarkana as the private tutor for the children of a wealthy lumberman. Those lessons, offered without charge, instilled a love of classical music so deep as to compel Joplin to write not one, but two, operas in a lifetime that most definitely did not welcome a Black composer into the business of writing operas. By the time he was in his teens, he was making a living as an itinerant musician, shaping a new sound called ragtime.

Ragtime exploded onto the American scene at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, visited by some 27 million people. The saloons, cafés and brothels that surrounded the fairgrounds resonated with the melodies of traveling ragtime musicians, including Joplin, who was there with his own band. By 1897, this music that the St. Louis Dispatch described as “a veritable call of the wild, which mightily stirred the pulses of city-bred people” had become a national craze. It was mainstream America’s first encounter with the simple but radical trick of syncopation, that displacement of the beat that causes a propulsion, a swinging of the hips, a feeling that anything might happen. Ragtime was the overture to the music of the  20th century: first jazz and swing, then soon enough R&B and rock-and-roll.

A true coup: Benny Golson has written two formal piano pieces for Lara Downes, “Classical Dreams” and “The Baby Sleeps.” Both are reserved and melancholic, and aid Downes’s quest to diversify the “classical” piano repertoire.

Most DTM readers know Golson well as one of the essential jazz greats. Listening to Downes reminded me that Golson prepared a piano folio of 15 pieces including “I Remember Clifford,” “Stablemates,” “Whisper Not,” “Along Came Betty,” “Killer Joe,” and “Blues March.” It’s the real deal, as Golson indicates in his preface:

For some of the pieces Golson writes out a hard-bop style improvisation on the changes. I’m not kidding!

This folio should probably be better known. It’s not so easy to find except in libraries. My copy is called The Genius of Benny Golson but I believe that it has come out under other titles.