Classical CD Reviews

IVES: Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass.”; BARBER: Piano Sonata – Nicholas Zumbro, piano – Kritonos

Fine performances of these two epic American sonatas, but the engineering is less than ideal.

Published on September 20, 2013

IVES: Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”; BARBER: Piano Sonata in E-flat Minor, Op. 26 – Nicholas Zumbro, piano – Kritonos Records, 67:22 [Distr. by Phoenix Classical] ***:

Even though the work has been recorded by a number of today’s most adventurous piano virtuosos, it’s still a feat to play the Concord Sonata. This is a piece that was regarded as “unplayable and unmemorizable” until pianists took it up in the 1960s in the wake of Leonard Bernstein’s Ives crusade in the concert hall and on records. That despite the fact pianist John Kirkpatrick performed the work publicly in the late 30s. (But then again, the notes to this recording tell us that Kirkpatrick dedicated nine years to learning the sonata.)

Nicholas Zumbro was apparently one of those pianists who tackled this grizzly bear of a work back in the ‘60s; the notes include a quotation from a German critic who lauded Zumbro’s Berlin performance in 1968. The performance on this disc was recorded in London in 1992, probably following a concert performance. Zumbro’s website quotes the London Times, praising him for grasping the Concord Sonata’s “transcendental vision with heroic force and [hurling] it at our heads like one of Emerson’s thunderbolts.” Indeed, this is a powerful performance, as big and burly as the work itself, and Zumbro certainly has the stamina and steely technique needed to pull it off.

While nowhere near as monumental in scope, Barber’s Piano Sonata of 1949—premiered by Horowitz, no less—is just about as grueling to perform. Highly dissonant, capped by a massive fugue that sounds like it requires three (or four) hands to play, the work has not lacked for performances or recordings despite its challenges. Again, Zumbro gives a rock-solid reading, the huge chords in the last movement thunderous in their impact.

My chief reservation about this release has to do with the engineering. The recording was apparently set down in a resonant acoustic, and while the piano is somewhat distantly miked, the resonance contributes to a certain clangor and fierceness to the piano tone, and these two works have enough native clangor and fierceness not to benefit not to need any more. The uncredited flutist, who plays a brief obbligato solo in the last movement, does his or her work well enough but is seemingly miked more closely, which means that breath intakes are captured with the same fidelity and volume as the music.

Zumbro’s recording comes into direct competition with that of Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion), a modern classic. Unfortunately (maybe unforgivably!), I haven’t heard this release, but it’s gotten universal praise, and knowing the usual quality of Hyperion’s engineering, I think that can be trusted to be superior as well. What’s more, both these works have been widely recorded separately, so there is competition from many quarters. Given that fact, I can recommend Nicholas Zumbro’s recording only provisionally.

—Lee Passarella




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