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The American Piano

June 2024
1min read

The American Innovator

Alan Feinberg, piano, Argo 430 330-2 (one CD)

Alan Feinberg, piano, Argo 436 121-2 (one CD)

Alan Feinberg, piano, Argo 436 925-2 (one CD)

If the long, broad legacy of American piano music doesn’t have much of a public audience, it’s partly because this country long seemed a concert-music backwater far from the European mainstream in which the instrument arose. The pianist Alan Feinberg has been exploring this backwater, finding it a rich, complex ecosystem of its own, and recording his discoveries on CDs—three of them so far—filled with surprises. The first, titled The American Romantic , offers the works of three prominent composer-pianists of three separate eras: the New Orleans-born matinee idol Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-69), portraying now the delicacy of falling leaves and next the splash of dazzling variations on “God Save the Queen”; America’s first woman symphonist, Amy Beach (1867-1944), offering hushed late-Romantic intimacy; and Robert Helps (b. 1928), a New Jersey native whose brief pieces engage in a kind of musical dialogue with the European Romantic past. The second CD, The American Virtuoso , highlights six masters of keyboard display from Gottschalk through Gershwin; its pleasures include the former’s Civil War rouser “The Union,” the latter’s “The Man I Love,” taken to the pianistic hilt in an arrangement by Gershwin’s contemporary Percy Grainger, and two glittering, sentimental turn-of-the-century showpieces by Edward MacDowell. The third CD, The American Innovator , turns to Americans who have taken the piano to new frontiers, and it is filled with wonders. Henry Cowell, around 1923, has the performer strum the piano’s strings to eerie effect in “The Aeolian Harp”; Ruth Crawford Seeger, in 1930, has him pound out a jagged succession of octaves in a brisk, harsh number without bar lines; John Cage, in 1940, makes the piano into a one-man percussion band with a surprisingly exhilarating sound. The album ends with Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby My Dear,” transcribed to follow one of the many ways he performed it, and after all the variety preceding it, this step into pure jazz seems nowhere out of place.

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