Desert Island Discs: Ernest’s Picks – Summer 2022

Pianists are often blamed for having a myopic view of music history, in that we all-too-often focus only on piano repertoire. This is not an article to dispute any of that. Unremorsefully guilty, as charged. 

Ernest So
Special Guest Columnist, pianist Ernest So

Being a pianist and an all-round consummate lover of the piano, I approach the repertoire with dog-like dedication, and with an awe-inspiring admiration towards an never-ending array of composers who manage to juice every ounce of love, lust, and allegiance on this wooden machinery. I learn of new composers and new works on a daily basis, which expand on and enrich the repertoire of the classics. This process is both tedious and gratifying – you could end up catching a big fish or chalking it up as a wild-goose chase – it could really go either way. Discovering new or little-known repertoire that makes its way to my permanent collection is what brings us to this little discussion corner. 

“Ernest’s Picks” began as impromptu articles on my Facebook page, and will hopefully grow into a quarterly engagement here at Liner Notes. I encourage active feedbacks from you, as I have much to gain from my readers and audiences. The discs featured here are mostly rarely heard repertoire but still accessible, available, attainable, and will hopefully make their way into your collection as well, enriching our collective understanding of piano music. 

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” This oft-quoted dictum from John Donne cannot be more apt when discussing composers from the 19th century onwards. The emergence of music salons, advocated first by the generation of Beethovens and Hummels, grew into a social phenomenon by the time Schumann and Brahms came into the picture. Later on but no less prominent: the Mighty Five, Les Six, Frankfurt Group; gatherings at Godowsky’s two New York homes at the Ansonia Hotel and later at Riverside Drive; Alexander Goldenweiser and his band of outstanding pupils – to name but a few, were all collectives that were looked upon as frivolities at their times but superlatively important in shaping the musical landscape. Outside of textbooks and treatises, no one was original and everyone was original, in their own merits and rights. In the free-market economy that dictates much of the 19th and 20th century Western countries, some of them were bound to excel more than others commercially. The less successful members of these groups were sometimes more influential than protagonists of billboard headliners. 

A case can be made, for instance, with Leopold Godowsky (1870 – 1938). His superhuman virtuosity and boundless creativity went into obscurity in large part due to his reticent, unassuming character. His own playing left few recordings, although all his writings have never ceased to appear in print. He is now only regarded, at the highest degree, I might add, by a close-knitted circle of pianists, where opposing and contemptuous criticisms can still be heard. For this issue, I have selected 3 discs that spin regularly on my turntable. 

Girod plays Chausson,
D’Indy, and Magnard
FY 116 Girod plays Chausson, D’Indy, and Magnard. The cover art reproduces a detail from “Promenade dans un parc” by Gustave Moreau (1826-1898).

1.) Chausson, D’Indy, Magnard – Marie-Catherine Girod, piano. 1984, RCA Records, FY 116. 

Contents: (Face A) Vincent D’Indy, Sonate en Mi, Op. 63 (Sonata in E major); (Face B) Ernest Chausson, Quelques Danses Op. 26 (A Few Dances); Alberic Magnard, Promenades 
Recorded in Paris on July 30 & 31, 1984
Piano Bosendorfer “Imperial”
Front cover painting: Gustave Moreau, Promenade dans un parc
Liner notes: Jean Galois (French), Susan Landale (English translation)

Favorites: Chausson’s Quelques Danses and Magnard’s Promenades 

The French piano repertoire exists – thrives, in fact, outside of Debussyan and Ravelian circles, with each composer having a unique voice. Introduced here are three names rarely associated with piano music: Vincent D’Indy (1851 – 1931), Ernest Chausson (1855 – 1899), and, one of my personal favorites, Alberic Magnard (1865 – 1914). D’Indy was well grounded in Germanic traditions, as shown in this monumental sonata of 1908. Hard to imagine that following Debussy’s La Mer of 1903 such a Brahmsian work could flow out of a French pen. Chausson was more impressionistic in character, a musical cousin to early Debussy. Magnard’s Promenades is an ambitious set (lasting some 20 minutes), drawing from the sound bank of the late-romantics and early-impressionists but displayed more complexities in its harmonic language. To put into perspective, the Promenades of 1893 were written barely two years after Debussy’s Arabesques, a year before Pour le Piano, and long before Ravel had any major works under his belt. 

RCA LSC-3016. Jacob Lateiner plays Beethoven.
RCA LSC-3016. Jacob Lateiner plays Beethoven.

2.) Beethoven Sonata No. 32, Op. 111, Bagatelles, Op. 126 – Jacob Lateiner, piano. 1968, RCA Victor, LSC-3016.
Contents: (Side 1) Sonata No. 32 in minor, Op. 111, First & Second Movement; (Side 2) Bagetelles Op. 126
Cover photo: Jacob Lateiner 
Liner notes: Jacob Lateiner (English only) 

Favorites: Beethoven Bagatelles Op. 126 

I have had the privilege of studying under Jacob Lateiner (1928 – 2010) in the 1990s at Juilliard, with whom I worked on (too many) Beethoven Sonatas, Brahms, Mozart, alongside Bartok, Prokofiev, and Morton Feldman. Lateiner commissioned and premiered Elliott Carter’s Piano Concerto in the 1960s, long before he established his name in the Beethoven quarters as both a performer and a scholar. At about that same time he started teaching at Juilliard, imparting his own findings to a handful of students, many of whom, myself excluded, have gone on to become important voices in the piano circle, such as Bruce Brubaker and Robert Taub. 

Interestingly, he was often critical of his own recordings, although they were important references during student days. He disliked his own Op. 111 on this disc, but spoke with a tender love of the Bagatelles Op. 126, which were one of the last works I played for him. There were “secrets”, as he said, hidden in these final works of Beethoven, which are complex works of art in disguise. They are concise and precise, a holdall of the most intimate expressions. Great rewards come with repeat and intent listening to these Bagatelles, and of the superb pianistic control exhibited here by Lateiner. 

Finnadar 90298-1. Antony Rollé plays 4 concert paraphrases after Johann
Strauss II by Leopold Godowsky
Finnadar 90298-1. Antony Rollé plays 4 concert paraphrases after Johann Strauss II by Leopold Godowsky

3.) Johann Strauss by Leopold Godowsky – Celebrated Concert Paraphrases for Piano: Fledermaus, Wine, Woman and Song, Gypsy Baron, Artist’s Life. Antony Rollé, piano. 1985, Finnadar 90298-1. 
Recorded in New York on February 7, 14, 28, 1985
Liner notes: Sorrel Doris Hays (American composer and pianist) 

Favorites: Artist’s Life (Künstlerleben), Gypsy Baron (for the left hand alone) 

The unassuming and reticent character of Godowsky has allowed historians to overlook his name and works, when he was possibly one of the most respected figures in the New York circle of pianists and composers in the early 20th century, prompting Rachmaninoff to address him as the “Buddha of the Piano”. Among all of his virtuosic transcriptions such as re-writing all of Chopin’s Etudes – the four Strauss Paraphrases, or Metamorphosis as he had called them, were the hardest, the most fearsome, and the most intricate. Hardly anyone in history has attempted to perform all four, and Antony Rollé was most probably the first ever. The Artist’s Life went above and beyond any piano writing up to this point, while the Gypsy Baron (spoiler alert) is performed entirely with the left hand alone. The level of virtuosity here is enough to light our turntable on fire, and Rollé managed to keep his head cool amidst handling the themes in multiple voices. 

See more in the Summer 2022 issue (available in subscriber accounts) on Page 148!