"American Piano Sonatas"
COPLAND:  Piano Sonata.  IVES:  Three Page Sonata (ed. Cowell). Sonata No. 1 for Piano.  CARTER:  Piano Sonata.  BARBER:  Piano Sonata, Op. 26.  GRIFFES:  Sonata for Piano.  SESSIONS:  Second Sonata for Piano.
Peter Lawson, pianist

VIRGIN CLASSICS 61928  (2 CDs) (B) (DDD) TT: 75:30 & 72:14

NOT for Rollos, as Charles Ives scornfully labeled listeners who found "modern" music repellent - "modern," that is, by the barrier-breaking, often anarchic measure of avant garde-ism before and after World War 1. But for those with grown-up palates, who don't mind some grit in their spinach, this collection is a treasure - in the EMI Virgin vault since 1989 (CD-1) and 1991 (CD-2), respectively. They may have been issued previously in Britain, but not here that I've been able to track down.

Why not? Probably because Peter Lawson isn't a Big Box-Office Name. He's a helluva pianist, all the same, and as idiomatic a player as you'll find anywhere in these seven sonatas large and small on generously filled discs. Powerfully recorded, too, as well as naturally by producer John Wise and engineer Mark Vigars in trusty Studio No. 1 on Abbey Road, which has been in use since the advent of electrical recording. As for Lawson, he is a Mancusian of undisclosed years who still teaches at Manchester, in Chetham's School of Music, and is said to be at home in jazz as well as the classics, although "early 20th century American and contemporary British music" fascinate him most. He studied stateside on a Churchill Fellowship awarded in 1993 (note, after recording these two discs). Otherwise, on Electric Candle (a Brit company I suppose) he's also recorded "New British Piano Music," plus a CD of Satie for EMI/Classics for Pleasure in 1989, and "Michael Nyman The Piano Concerto"on Tring.

In the repertory here he challenges some stiff competition: the late William Kapell, for instance, in Aaron Copland's self-consciously austere Piano Sonata (as well as the composer himself). Competition in the 1949 Barber Sonata ranges from Horowitz who commissioned, premiered and first recorded it, to John Browning and Van Cliburn, with Garrick Ohlson a heavy-handed fourth - fifth, actually, given Lawson's suave interpretation, outstandingly poignant in the Adagio mesto slow movement, and outright blithe in a finale that has taxed the resources of more celebrated pianists. He does right by Ives, too, in both pieces - although Henry Cowell "edited" the 1905 Three-Page Sonata posthumously. It still lasts 7'18"with wisps of folk and hymn tunes leavening a lot of thrashing and bashing. Sonata No. 1 (worked on between 1902 and 1908, but not published until 1954, the year of Ives' death) is way longer, full of self-quotation, and for me a chore to parse - Ives would have damned me as a Rollo, and I'd have replied that he was a pretentious humbug when the mood seized him. Lawson plays it without qualm or misstep; his performance is masterful.

So is his unraveling of Elliott Carter's gnostic Piano Sonata from 1945-46, revised almost 40 years later - for a long time the province of Charles Rosen. Roger Sessions' second of three sonatas, dating from 1946, is a holy relic of American Schoenbergism - unyieldingly serious of purpose, albeit with a clangerous passion for intervals of the second (as in C and D played together). That sonata I don't expect ever to play again (or the Carter, and probably not the Ives No. 1), but it has value as a point of reference.

Finally there is short-lived Charles Griffes' surprisingly sculptured Piano Sonata ,written in the end month of 1917 and the first one of 1918. No White Peacock or Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan here, but instead a tightly organized, frequently dissonant essay in one movement, welcomely met and decidedly worth revisiting at a later date. All this and at budget price! Notes are basically informative but three pages too brief (in the despicable cause of trilingualism), amounting to arcana for the untutored. Perhaps, though, Virgin never expected the untutored to buy American Piano Sonatas.

They should, though, and get some of the wax out of their ears. In sum, one of the waning year's major events. Bravo, Lawson! Come back in person and rescue us from the same short list of pianists year-in, year-out in the same shopworn repertory - Manny Ax, AndrČ Watts, the aforesaid Ohlsson. But you know who I mean if you look at the symphony and recital ads in your local paper. Somebody, please, throw open the shutters, raise the windows, and let fresh air in.

R.D. (Dec. 2001)