TOUCH: The Toccata Project

PERSICHETTI Three Toccatinas. MENOTTI Ricercare and Toccata. HOIBY Toccata. DIEMER Serenade/Toccata. HARRIS Toccata. ANTHEIL Toccatas Nos. 1 and 2. ROREM Toccata. I. FINE Little Toccata. SOWERBY Toccata. L. LIEBERMANN Toccata. LEES Toccata. M. L. LEHMAN Toccatina. MUCZYNSKI Toccata. R. LEWENTHAL Toccata alla Scarlatti. RIEGGER Toccata. BASTIEN Toccata. Philip Amalong (pn) •ALBANY TROY1142 (57:00)

An hour of post-1900 toccatas for piano: Actually, this new release is but the first volume of what pianist Philip Amalong describes as “hundreds of exciting touch pieces that deserve to be played and heard.” An intriguing idea? Perhaps. With some of the pieces I am already familiar, and of some I am very fond, and some have never been recorded before; but all are given excellent readings by Mr. Amalong. However, as I listened to the program, I found myself thinking: The whole is less than the sum of its parts. Now why should that be? After all, varied anthologies of tangos and of waltzes come to mind as comparable collections; these have been popular and successful. I think the answer is that the toccata—described by Amalong as “percussive and motoric, splashy and fleeting…. all momentum and spinning motion, like a locomotive, rarely stopping until reaching its destination”—is somewhat more limited as a genre than the waltz—or even than the tango. All the toccatas offered here fit the pianist’s description pretty well, so you have a wide range of composers—from celebrated modernists like Wallingford Riegger and George Antheil to pianist Raymond Lewenthal and piano pedagogue James Bastien—hammering away at their “percussive and motoric” thing. And you know what? They all sound an awful lot alike. With that given, I then listened for distinguishing features: What sets them apart? Which stand out and make the strongest impressions?

So rather than a dull description of each one, I will offer some observations that occurred to me while listening—partly because the program notes were written by Mark Louis Lehman, who also composed one of the pieces. Lehman, composer and novelist, is also a music critic, who covers essentially the same “beat” for the American Record Guide that I do for Fanfare. His writing about music is so lucid and perceptive that there is little I can say about this program that he hasn’t already said—and more acutely than I could. 

Most of these pieces would serve best as recital encores. Most are in the 2-3 minute range, so they wouldn’t really hold their own on a recital program, unless they were part of a group of short pieces—and not all toccatas, please! There are a couple of exceptions to this generalization: Vincent Persichetti’s Three Toccatinas are part of a single opus number that lasts about six minutes. Much of Persichetti’s keyboard music—the fast movements, in any case—is toccata-like, with simple-textured running figures divided between the hands. This little group was written in 1979 for a piano competition, and they display the composer’s utter mastery of writing for the keyboard. Each is a moto perpetuo built largely of diatonic scale passages and triadic arpeggios, which makes them a little easier to play than they sound. They add up to a substantive recital group. Other more meaty selections are Lee Hoiby’s Toccata, Op. 1, dating from 1949, when he was 23. At five minutes, this exciting piece makes a statement of enough weight—with real development, and a progressive design—that it could hold its own on a recital program. Similarly, Emma Lou Diemer’s 8-minute Serenade/Toccata has the expressive variety and developmental scope—not to mention appealing materials—that provide autonomy and substance. For me this was perhaps the biggest discovery on the disc. Probably the best known piece on the program is Gian Carlo Menotti’s Ricercare and Toccata, based on a theme from The Old Maid and the Thief. This too can hold its own on a program (and often does), although the Ricercare is a lot more interesting than the Toccata.

Several of the pieces call Prokofiev to mind: most notably, the Liebermann (true of much of his music), the Bastien (all perfect fifths in the left hand), and the Lehman (which, built around subtle and witty rhythmic tricks, is no less polished or professional than the offerings composed by better-known figures). 

Despite the brevity of the pieces, some—such as those by Roy Harris (which manages to include some pensive and rhapsodic moments) and Ned Rorem (another based on a delightful interplay of irregular rhythmic patterns)—successfully convey their composers’ personal fingerprints.

Irving Fine’s tiny morsel is brilliant as far as it goes. Benjamin Lees’s entry captures his characteristically gruff, demonic drive, but is spoiled by a blatant V-I ending. Raymond Lewenthal’s Toccata alla Scarlatti is exactly what its title suggests: an affectionate 20th-century knock-off of the Baroque master.

As you can see, virtually each piece is quite enjoyable and successful in its own right. The only ones that failed to meet the standard set by the others were those by George Antheil and Leo Sowerby.

In summary, a useful resource for pianists looking for interesting encores; for others, some pleasant listening experiences, but not to be taken all in one dose.