Notes and Editorial Reviews
Sonetti del Petrarca
Mosonyi’s Funeral Procession.
Andante in c. Andante in C. Sonata in B?
Charles Szczepanek (pn)
SOUNDSET SR1037 (74: 19)
Flirting with the Dragon: Sonnets and Serpents
, this recording
marks the debut of American pianist Charles Szczepanek. First things first: I do not understand Szczepanek’s apparent obsession with dragons and serpents, nor do I understand why an obviously serious musician would choose to write in the notes that accompany his disc puzzling stuff like, “This is a journey through love and death, through brooding horror, and through the reawakening of The Dragon in all its glorious smoke, flame, and brutality as it eagerly waits to devour your soul. Can you hear?”; “Drawing his sword and leaping to and fro it is a miracle the soul still lives”; or “Szczepanek is your guide through earthly life and beyond. Who will be the victor? Listen closely, and Charles will tell you.” Now that I have gotten that part off my chest, here is the good news: Szczepanek’s keyboard prowess more than makes up for the downright bizarre liner notes and their videogame imagery.
Despite his youth, Szczepanek seems to draw his inspiration from pianists of the Golden Era. Thus, his performance of the three Petrarca Sonnets is vocally inflected, declamatory, and filled with rolled chords and grand romantic gestures. There is a great deal of rubato, many tempo shifts, impetuous flights of fancy, and some occasional tinkering with the notes Liszt marked in his score. While Szczepanek’s old-fashioned approach will most likely not appeal to everyone and there are other pianists who find considerably greater depth in these works (for instance, in the third sonnet I miss the subtlety and ravishing tonal beauty brought to bear by Eugene Choi in her all-Liszt recital I reviewed in the last issue of
), those who like their Liszt uninhibited will probably enjoy these performances. The aforementioned qualities also abound in Szczepanek’s performance of the famous
. This is beautiful playing, although like many other pianists Szczepanek seems to forget that Wagner’s score depicts
, rather than Tristan’s, demise, and thus the virile, outsized dynamics he brings to the closing pages strike me as a little over the top. The last piece in the Liszt selection is the rarely played funeral music Liszt composed in 1870 for Mihály Mosonyi, a little-known Hungarian composer. This score is visionary, late Liszt, light years away from the Sonnets, and perhaps paradoxically, this austere work inspires Szczepanek’s most memorable playing on this disc.
Szczepanek dedicates the remainder of his recording to three works by contemporary American composer (and radio personality) Paul Harvey Aurandt Jr. Aurandt writes in an old-fashioned, romantic idiom reminiscent of Charles-Valentin Alkan, Alexander Scriabin, and Sergei Rachmaninoff (no wonder that Aurandt and Szczepanek seem to be kindred spirits!), but there are also pop elements in his music. While, at least to my ears, Aurandt’s music is neither particularly interesting nor memorable, it is fiendishly difficult to play. Szczepanek rises to the occasion and, to the extent that this music entails a confrontation with one or more dragons or serpents, I hereby pronounce Szczepanek the winner.
The recording was produced by Szczepanek himself, and the quality of the sound is very good if very resonant. Szczepanek plays a bright instrument with a booming, bass-heavy voice reminiscent of Vladimir Horowitz’s legendary pianos.
FANFARE: Radu A. Lelutiu
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