This new release of American Piano Sonatas from SOMM reminds the listener of 20th-century America's achievements in music as in so much else. SOMM's new collaboration with pianist Nathan Williamson who has been steeped in American music since his years as a student of piano and composition at Yale has produced an exhilarating album brimming with dynamism and energy. The release includes sonatas by four very different American composers writing under very different circumstances: Leonard Bernstein, a charismatic, ambitious all-round musician in his student years; Aaron Copland, an established master at the height of his powers; Lou Harrison, an inveterate experimentalist setting himself a new problem; and Charles Ives, a dogged individualistRead more insisting on his own way of doing things. In each case, the composer chose not to fit his music into conventional forms, but to rethink the whole idea of the sonata. America is after all the land of the clean sheet, the fresh start – of making things fresh, exciting and new. Nathan, who leads a diverse and varied career as pianist, composer and artistic director studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Joan Havill and Malcolm Singer, at Oxford University with Robert Saxton, and at Yale with Martin Bresnick and Joan Panetti and American composer Ezra Laderman Dean of the Yale School of Music and President of American Academy of Arts and Letters, who died in 2015 at the age of 90. Nathan has dedicated this recording to Laderman as a tribute to a great teacher whose far-reaching influence has inspired him to study the work of American composers in great depth.
Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata doesn’t exactly lack in first-rate recordings, yet there’s certainly room for Nathan Williamson’s commanding interpretation. Any pianist would be happy to claim Williamson’s supple facility and suavely navigated rapid interval leaps.
Williamson’s expansive, full-bodied phrasing throughout the second movement of Bernstein's 1938 Piano Sonata imbues some of the sparser textures with magisterial sustaining power and timbral heft, abetted by the concert-hall realism of the recording. Listeners familiar with the joyful exuberance and generosity of Lou Harrison’s music from the 1970s onwards will find a less defined creative personality in the 1938 Third Piano Sonata’s craggier music. But the 1937 Largo ostinato is simple and beautiful, and Williamson’s big sound envelops the room.
The pianist unfolds the exposition of Charles Ives’s Three-Page Sonata with straightforward calm. Williamson takes the clotted chords, ragged runs, and discombobulated harmonic game plan of Ives' Celestial Railroad in easy, virtuoso stride.