TOUCH: THE TOCCATA PROJECT VOL. 1–AMERICAN COMPOSERS

Review by: Jed Distler

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 7

Philip Amalong launches what promises to be a fairly comprehensive survey of piano toccatas, starting with post-1900 works by American composers. The pianist’s lively booklet notes imaginatively describe the toccata’s component parts as “vaulting arpeggios, pinwheeling ostinatos, tumultuously cascading chords, rapid-fire repeated notes, spring-loaded rhythms, incisive articulations, extremes of dynamics and register, and every other imaginable keyboard device to ignite, sustain, and intensify momentum, urgency, excitement.” These words ring true in regard to the works on this disc, as well as to Amalong’s extroverted, engaging, and stylistically sympathetic performances.

I decided to listen “blindly” at first, identifying the composers afterward. For instance, Track 8 imitates the first movement of Prokofiev’s Seventh sonata, and very well at that–but which American composer? Benjamin Lees. And the exciting if slightly crude recital closer in fifths and fourths? James Bastien is the culprit. By contrast, a paired Ricercare and Toccata by Gian Carlo Menotti boasts greater musical substance and textural variety. What about three brief, idiomatic, skillfully symmetrical “Bach-meets-the-Debussy-Etudes” called Toccatinas? No less than Vincent Persichetti’s undervalued handicraft.

If you fancy facile, generic, inoffensively “modernist” toccatas, a pair by Lowell Liebermann and Robert Muczynski surely will satisfy. Irving Fine’s Little Toccata builds upon Copland’s populist style with sly bitonal touches, unpredictable phrase lengths, and strategically placed silences. The first movement of Emma Lou Diemer’s Third piano sonata works as a stand-alone piece and contains enough quirky accents and ornaments to offset the regularity of its scale-and-arpeggio traffic. Ned Rorem’s Toccata explodes with wit, vitality, and dazzling bravura, while Lee Hoiby’s no less masterful example relishes the melodic and percussive potential of the piano’s lower register. Perhaps my personal favorite is the one selection not penned by a full-time composer: it’s a loopy, harmonically pungent Scarlatti pastiche by the late, great pianist Raymond Lewenthal. The sonics are a bit close-up and dry, and a few piano notes slip out of tune in the heat of battle. All told, this is a fascinating project, and I look forward to further volumes.



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Recording Details:

Album Title: TOUCH: THE TOCCATA PROJECT VOL. 1--AMERICAN COMPOSERS
Reference Recording: None for this collection

Works by Rorem, Antheil, Hoiby, Fine, Sowerby, Liebermann, Lees, Harris, Lehman, Menotti, Diemer, Lewenthal, Riegger, Persichetti, & Bastien -

  • Philip Amalong (piano)

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