American Record Guide

This varied program of American piano sonatas opens with Elliott Carter’s early essay in the form to mark the composer’s 100 th birthday, a granitic piece that should appeal to those who find his mature work rough going. Like Carter’s orchestral music from the 40s, it has wide, open intervals, exciting fugal writing, and a dignified profile. It sounds a bit like modernist Copland. British pianist Peter Seivewright played it for the composer 25 years ago; Carter called the performance “breathtaking”, and so it sounds here. The recording is big and weighty but a bit dry. I like more reverberation after a loud chord, more sense of space.

Carter’s sonata is often played, but Miklos Rozsa’s is a fascinating rarity. Full of tension and yearning, it’s an eloquent statement from a Hollywood master who, like Korngold and other Golden Age movie figures, longed to be taken seriously as a concert composer. It is more severe than his film noir scores but full of emotional urgency. As in the film scores, Rozsa favors an open sound and lots of parallel intervals. Does it have an “American sound” as well? Yes, as long as we qualify that by saying it is the sound of a homesick migrant. In addition to a strong melodic profile, it offers lively, barbed syncopation, especially in the rich finale, which Seivewright calls “Bartok goes to Hollywood”. Best of all is the eloquent slow movement, exquisitely lyrical but acerbic and unsentimental. Seivewright’s performance is lucid, expressive, and a bit stark; the slight dryness is again a function of the recording. Rozsa’s ringing, bell-like chords at the end are beautifully played but have little room to breathe.

MacDowell’s Sonata 4 puts these modern American sonatas in perspective by showing us what came first. MacDowell was a fervid, unapologetic exponent of German romanticism, and that’s what we get here. Again, Seivewright seems to revel in works with big, rolling sonorities, and he makes the most of the sonata’s heart-on-sleeve directness. He also offers detailed, authoritative notes