Gottschalk: Piano Music (CD review)

Cecile Licad, piano. Naxos 8.559145.

People used to call the American pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) the "Chopin of the Creoles," and for good reason. He was not only a sensation in the U.S., he was the toast of Europe and much acclaimed by Frederic Chopin. Gottschalk's New Orleans upbringing and Paris schooling were a perfect combination for the kind of then-new piano music he presented to his audiences, a half century foreshadowing ragtime, Scott Joplin, and jazz.

Of the one hundred or so short piano pieces Gottschalk wrote, this disc includes sixteen of them, representing a varied roundup of his most-popular and most-influential works. Filipina classical pianist Cecile Licad plays them with vigor, vivacity, and sensitivity, yet it's a performance style that may or may not have been what Gottschalk had in mind since there is no clear tradition of playing the man's music. By comparison, Alan Marks on a similar collection from Nimbus plays many of the same pieces at a slightly more traditional pace. In any event, Licad's sometimes leisurely, sometimes highly animated manner seems well suited to Gottschalk's more-lyrical and more-outgoing compositions.

"Le Banjo," the piece that opens the recital, stands out for its expressive manner. So does "The Dying Poet," very well executed here for two reasons: Because the booklet note says it was the most-famous piano work of the Civil War era, an interesting facet of American musical life; and, as important, because it bears an uncanny resemblance to "After the Ball," the popular song Charles K. Harris wrote in 1892 using virtually the same melody. Well, copyright laws were nonexistent in those days and Gottschalk was long dead, so who was to complain?

Among the other pieces in the collection are "Pasquinade," a forerunner of twentieth-century jazz tunes, and "The Union," a paraphrase of national airs like "The Star Spangled Banner," "Yankee Doodle," and "Hail Columbia." Ms. Licad plays them all with intelligence and grace, although, as I say, it remains a question whether pianists of Gottschalk's day would have played them as she does.

The sound is very good, too, and one cannot go wrong for the modest price Naxos charges. However, while the Naxos disc sounds like a very good piano recording, the Nimbus disc I mentioned earlier sounds like a very good piano, period. There's more air and more natural sparkle to the Nimbus recording, elements that set it apart from the ordinary, even if the disc does cost considerably more than the Naxos product. Decisions, decisions, all of them good ones.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa