An Unsung American Master: Arthur Foote’s Complete Piano Music

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Where has this delightful, well-crafted, thoroughly idiomatic, tuneful (though harmonically conservative), and unpretentious piano music been for the past century? Listen to any piece at random, blindfolded, and you’ll agree, although you’ll be hard-pressed to identify the composer. Unknown Brahms? Meatier than usual Mendelssohn? Or Richard Strauss as a prodigious teenager? Not Schumann—the piano writing is not crazy enough—but there’s that same rumbling energy.

Perhaps the D minor Prelude we’re hearing now actually was an unpublished Schumann piece that Brahms reworked while taking a break from composing his Op. 79 Rhapsodies. What about the Toccata that superficially resembles Moszkowski’s La jongleuse, yet with darker, thicker hues more appropriate to the concert hall than the salon? Turning to a group of 20 Preludes in the form of short technical studies, you suspect the hand of Grieg—that is, if Grieg had written piano etudes. Then again, the forceful and texturally rich left-hand study from this group suggests Saint-Saëns blurring the lines between eloquent and pedantic.

Further compositions are characterized by their easy, uncluttered flow and freedom from neurotic angst. Dvorák in a less syncopated mood than usual? Percy Grainger folksong transcriptions without the quirks? The mystery man turns out to be the Boston-based American composer Arthur William Foote (1853-1937), who also was a prominent organist and a long-time New England Conservatory faculty member. Although he was completely educated in America, Foote never swayed from the influence of his European role models, even after younger colleagues like Ives, Griffes, and Copland began to develop a distinct American sound in classical music.

In contrast to his larger, more substantial chamber and orchestral works, Foote’s piano output entirely consists of salon-like miniatures or groups of short pieces that either can be performed integrally or as excerpts. Because most of these works have been out of print for decades, pianist and longtime keyboard rarity advocate Kirsten Johnson had to do considerable detective work in order to obtain the scores. More importantly, she appears to have put in comparable practice hours, borne out by her consistently sonorous virtuosity and tasteful musicianship, abetted by a first-rate Steinway grand and an appropriately resonant yet never muddy recording venue. A major addition to the catalog.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one

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