GEORGE WALKER (1922-2018): Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-5.
Catalogue Number: 01X010
Description: Walker's piano sonatas, written over a span of half a century - roughly one per decade - chart the stylistic range of an important figure in American music. When he wrote about his music, he could sometimes come over as self-congratulatory, though it seems more likely that he was aware of the weight of history on his shoulders as a breaker of boundaries and ceilings in social contexts irrelevant to, yet heavily impinging upon, his achievements as a musician. Likely for the same reason, he was always a "serious" composer, perhaps wary that any apparent frivolity would diminish perceptions of his worth; these sonatas are typical in being meaty, tersely argued, and full of content but light on incidental "prettiness". The first two sonatas are tonal, rather astringently so, especially the taut, sinewy First. The Second comes closer to neo-romanticism, its expression fuller and more generous, its emotional range wider, its harmony richer. Rhythmically and metrically unsettled, and expertly pianistic, it reflects the composer’s status as a true composer-pianist. After this he bade farewell to tonality and flirted with dodecaphony, though by 1975’s Third Sonata his vocabulary had become more freely and rhapsodically atonal. Interestingly, despite its relative modernism, this is the only sonata with evocative movement titles - "Fantoms" and "Bell", the latter a sonorous study of one chord in various articulations and pedalling. Pianistic ingenuity continues in the chorale of the third movement, entwined with a knotty little contrapuntal tangle of gestures. The imposing opening "Maestoso" of the Fourth Sonata, with its abrupt, guttural declamations, is still atonal, though the harmonies are fuller and the writhing contrapuntal lines of the early works make a partial return. The composer seems restlessly ill at ease with extended repose - in any case, such as there is is tensely expectant - and much of the "Tranquillo" second movement is actually a motoric toccata with shades of Prokofiev (and it gives the game away when Walker the virtuoso pianist fleetingly alludes to the ferocious finale of the Russian's 7th Sonata). Walker's style was still evolving in his 80th year, and the final sonata belies its brevity in seeming more expansive than its immediate predecessors; the harmony is noticeably fuller and more colouristic than ever before, even evoking Messiaen at times; bravura passage-work and a sense of melody make this a most satisfying conclusion to the cycle. Steven Beck (piano).