by Walter Simmons
J. POWELL: Sonate Psychologique. Variations and Double-Fugue on a Theme of F. C. Hahr. Roy Hamlin Johnson, piano. CRI SD-505, produced by Carter Harman.
John Powell belongs to the generation of American composers that also produced Charles Tomlinson Griffes and Wallingford Riegger. Like Riegger, Powell was born in the South, but, unlike Riegger, he remained there (in Virginia) for most of his life, until his death in 1963 at the age of 81. There he developed a reputation as one of Virginia’s leading musical figures, known as a composer of works infused with the flavor of Anglo-American (and, to a lesser extent, Afro-American) folk music.
Like Griffes and Riegger, Powell spent the early years of the century in Europe. In Vienna he studied piano with Leschetizky and composition with Navratil, garnering some praise as a pianist. During these pre-World War I years Powell wrote a number of large-scale piano works, thoroughly European in stylistic orientation and accompanied by ponderous philosophical commentaries. (Powell seemed to have some strange interests: He founded a Fresh Air Society, dedicated to a doctrine of “Oneness,” supposedly epitomized by the Teutonic character, and a Society for the Preservation of Racial Integrity; he also achieved some note as an amateur astronomer for his discovery of a comet.) In recent years, pianist-musicologist Roy Hamlin Johnson has devoted much energy toward bringing this music to light. The culminating work of Powell’s early period is his enormous Sonata Teutonica, completed in 1913 and introduced in London by Benno Moiseivitch. Johnson abridged the work to a modest 42 minutes, recording it for CRI (SD-368) in 1977. Now Johnson offers two more of Powell’s ambitious piano compositions, the Sonate Psychologique of 1905 and the Variations and Double-Fugue on a Theme of F. C. Hahr of 1907.
These two works, displaying the same qualities found in the Sonata Teutonica, are consistently serious in tone, dense in texture, and expansive in scope, inhabiting a style formed from the languages of Liszt and early Brahms. Traces of Rachmaninoff may also be heard in the Sonate Psychologique, a work prefaced by the motto, “The Wages of Sin is Death.” What first strikes the listener is how thoroughly irrelevant and unrelated are Powell’s portentous philosophical appendages to the content of the music, which, despite its unrelieved solemnity, is utterly prosaic. At its best, in the more lightly textured passages, moments of authentic prettiness emerge, revealing faint traces of American melodic phraseology within the Lisztian filigree. Nor can one deny Powell’s competence in exploiting the full range of romantic piano figuration. But the overall effect is of thundering banality, overly labored, and devoid of personal flair.
F. C. Hahr was a student of Liszt and Scharwenka, who came to the U.S. to fight in the Confederate army. One of Powell’s piano teachers, Hahr was memorialized in a set of variations with double fugue hewn with the dogged diligence reflected in the composer’s other works of the period. Similarly Germanic in style, the work was also performed by Moiseivitch in Europe, where it was received favorably.
Though these works cannot be said to prompt a major reassessment of the artistic stature or importance of John Powell, their historical value lies in further illuminating the still largely unknown repertoire of American concert music—past as well as present. In that context, Powell’s contribution holds some interest and, in bringing it to our attention, Roy Hamlin Johnson serves as a useful, informative authority. Powell’s music is not easy to play, however, and, though Johnson labors valiantly to bring it to life, his performances lack dynamism and contrast, emphasizing the music’s plodding quality and its tendency toward textural monotony.