Nathan Williamson gets stuck in to Great American Sonatas

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COMPOSERS: Bernstein,Copland,Harrison,Ives
ALBUM TITLE: Great American Sonatas
WORKS: Works by Bernstein, Copland, Ives and Harrison
PERFORMER: Nathan Williamson (piano)


Applying the adjective ‘great’ to every American sonata here seems an act of inordinate kindness. But the word certainly suits Copland’s rugged and visionary work, completed in 1941 after years of writing populist Americana. Bolstered by the recording’s intimate, warm acoustic and wide dynamic range, Nathan Williamson, an excellent pianist, adds a touch of romance to the most granitic dissonances, though somehow that never saps the Sonata’s strength. He’s especially good at sustaining the work’s slow and spacious landscape vistas – qualities in short supply in Bernstein’s student Sonata of 1938, a clever but brittle piece straining too audibly for significance.

Corseted by its deliberately limited range of intervals, Lou Harrison’s Sonata No. 3 from the same year offers unusually little light relief. But his 1937 Largo Ostinato makes welcome amends with five minutes of solemn balm, pre-echoing this agreeable composer’s later world music explorations with its oriental turns of phrase. American hurly-burly bounces back in Ives’s chaotic Three-Page Sonata, tossed out by Williamson with muscular power. He’s most memorable of all, though, in the quiet reminiscences textured into The Celestial Railroad, reworked from the ‘Hawthorne’ movement of Ives’s Concord sonata – a demonstrably great sonata, that. Maybe there will be a volume two with that work?


Geoff Brown