American Classics. BARBER Piano Sonata. COPLAND Piano Variations. GRIFFES Roman Sketches. WEBER Fantasia

BARBER Piano Sonata. COPLAND Piano Variations. GRIFFES Roman Sketches. WEBER Fantasia

From the photos accompanying this CD, Lori Sims appears to be a rather young pianist. Her bio notes that she was born in Colorado, and now holds a special chair on the faculty of Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo. Yet this new release was recorded in South Africa, and is a product of Austria. Strange. However, one point is clear: Sims is quite an extraordinary pianist, as she demonstrates in this program of landmark works from the American piano repertoire of the first half of the 20th century. In truth, each of these pieces is already represented in superb recorded performances, most on composer-centered compendiums. However, for the collector interested in sampling just these works, this recording is close to ideal, boasting sound quality that is exceedingly vivid, in addition to the pianist’s extraordinary technical and interpretive musicianship.

The Piano Sonata by Samuel Barber is probably the most popular and most often-performed American representative of its genre. It doesn’t really merit such primacy over any number of other equally (or even more) fully realized sonatas, but it is certainly a finely wrought, exciting, and satisfying work. Despite recorded performances by many leading pianists—most notably Vladimir Horowitz, for whom the sonata was commissioned and who gave the premiere—it is only recently that pianists have grasped its expressive dynamics to the point where they perform the work convincingly. Most recently I offered extravagant praise to the English pianist Leon McCawley whose brilliant all-Barber recording on Somm impressed me greatly. I cited him as one of the few pianists able to master the interpretive challenges of this work. Therefore I am surprised to have much the same reaction to Sims’s performance only about a year later. In fact, I would go so far as to say that she exceeds McCawley in rendering the work with tremendous physical, dynamic, and intellectual power. Her traversal of the first movement—the most difficult movement to project effectively—is extraordinary in highlighting the ever-present half-step motif, even when embedded within a complex and busy texture. Sims has a remarkable ability to delineate different textural layers with particular clarity. (I’d love to hear her play Scriabin.) And her mastery of the technically challenging finale is as great as any I have heard. My only criticism of her performance is that perhaps it becomes a little too histrionic at dramatic highpoints.

At the opposite end of the pianistic spectrum from the Barber are Aaron Copland’s path-breaking Piano Variations of 1930. In this work Copland essentially renounced the acoustical principles on which the entire mainstream piano repertoire of Chopin and Liszt through Rachmaninov is predicated: harnessing the reverberation produced by the overtone series. In building a work around spare textures, dissonant intervals, and non-tertian harmony, Copland created a sort of anti-piano sonority that ultimately opened the gate for a wholly different approach to the instrument. In fact, one might say that it is Barber’s venturing a toe into this approach in the first movement of his sonata, but without going the whole way, that makes that movement so difficult to bring off. The Piano Variations begin by impertinently stating the angular, chromatic theme in pugnacious single notes; the casual listener might even mistake it for a 12-tone theme. However, as the variations unfold in a continuous fashion, the theme is always clearly discernible, and the sense of tonality is never in question, making for a very accessible piece, once one has adjusted to its non-triadic language. Once again, Sims’s performance is impeccable, highlighting all the aspects of its musicality while fully embracing the hard-edged sonorities.

Sims also features the Roman Sketches composed by Charles Tomlinson Griffes between 1910 and 1915. Griffes, like Lili Boulanger and Guillaume Lekeu, was one of those composers whose short lives prevented them from leaving posterity with more than a taste of what their talent might have achieved had they lived more normal lifespans. In these four attractive “tone poems” for piano (two of which were orchestrated most effectively) the composer was still under the strong influence of Debussy. Again, Sims performs these pieces beautifully and idiomatically, although I cannot suppress my disappointment that she didn’t choose instead to record the composer’s piano sonata, an excellent work that represents him via a more independent and original compositional voice. I can’t imagine why she would have chosen these pleasant but derivative pieces over what was probably Griffes’s masterpiece.

Ben Weber (1916-79) was, along with Roger Sessions, one of the first American composers to embrace the 12-tone approach, but like so many others, he adapted it to his own purposes. Although he received some encouragement from Arnold Schoenberg, he was largely self-taught as a composer. Even shorter in duration than the Copland, his Fantasia dates from 1946, making it a few years older than the Barber. While avoiding a clear sense of tonality until the end, the work is grandly romantic in gesture and mood, somewhat reminiscent of the Berg Sonata, Op. 1. In fact, I would recommend Weber’s piece to any listener fond of the Berg. The Weber has been recorded handsomely by Stephen Hough, although Sims is no less effective in making a coherent statement of the work, despite moments when a certain hardness or harshness afflicts her tone quality. This is a piece that warrants a good deal more attention than it has received during the nearly 70 years of its existence.

I must end this largely enthusiastic review with one complaint concerning the program notes by Barry Ross. Though he makes a few telling points, his essay begins, “What makes American music ‘American’?” For the past 40 years I have been reading program notes accompanying recordings of American music that hinge on that unbelievably fatuous question. Why is anybody still asking this question? Can you imagine a recording of 19th-century French piano music, with notes that begin, “What makes French music ‘French’?” Or a program of arias from Italian operas with notes that begin, “What makes Italian opera ‘Italian’?” As is patently obvious—and has been stated by countless commentators—American music is music composed by Americans. Why do program annotators find this notion so difficult to grasp? Is it the only premise that occurs to them? In spite of that, this is a marvelous recording, highly recommended to those looking for a varied program of distinguished American piano music. Lori Sims is as convincing in this repertoire as any pianist I have heard. I’d love to hear a “Volume II.”