Review: American Record Guide, March/April 1998 by Mark Lehman

DARK FIRES: 20th Century American Music”, Karen Walwyn: Pianist
Albany Records

Dolores White: Toccata; Lettie Alston: 3 Rhapsodies;Tania Leon: Ritual
Hale Smith: Evocation; Roger Dickerson: Sonatina; Jeffrey Mumford: Fragments
Adolphus Hailstork: Sonata #1

I won’t even bother to disapprove of the marketing strategy behind this disc- a program of piano music by 20th Century Black American Composers : “Dark Fires”- get it? With the sultry black pianist on the cover in fetching pose and low-cut dress. Despite all this positioning and posturing, Walwyn is a confident and impressive pianist, and her well-recorded program (almost all first recordings, surely) is varied and interesting, the pieces unsullied by cheap compromise or shallow gimmicks.

Three are by composers new to me and no doubt very seldom (if ever) before represented on disc. Dolores White’s Toccata is angular, chromatic, and steely in a Prokofief war sonata vein-a forward-driving show piece of real substance and urgency. Lettie’s Three Rhapsodies are also fairly chromtaic, but exotic in flavor and more improvisatory in form, though still clean-lined in texture, Roger Dickerson’s Sonatina on the very different other hand, is tuneful, suave, flowing, and calmly diatonic, as much like early Rorem as Richard Cumming’s music reviewed earlier in this issue. The first movement is especially winsome.

The remaining four composers are, if not widely celebrated, then at least known among those of us who make it our business to know the music of as many living composers as we can: all of them have had several other works recorded. Two are represented by short but characteristic pieces. Tania Leon’s Ritual is intended to conjure up a barbaric ceremony: it consists almost entirely of frenzied repetition of a single jagged gesture and sounds to me more like a furiously deranged robot than any human ceremony. Hale Smith’s Evocation is a study in quiet, atonal fragments that achieves a gnomic mysteriousness.

Two longer works complete the program. Jeffrey Mumford’s Framgents from the Surrounding Evening is an atonal -impressionist tone- painting similar in mood to Smith’s flights of fancy. Finally, at nearly half-an- hour in length, Adolphus Hailstork’s First Sonata is much the biggest and most ambitious piece here-a powerful and virtuoso four- movement work in a dense, chromatic, often dissonant but never pointillist idiom. It ranges from the unpredictable volatility and violence of the opening sonata-allegro and the catchy jazz inflected rhythms and blusey harmonies of the scherzo, to the dreamy remoteness that wells up into monumentality of the nocturne and the rugged, heroic transformations of the old spritiual that generate the work’s finale.
This is a disc that I will return to with pleasure and admiration, particularly for the White, Dickerson, and Hailstork pieces. And maybe, I might as well admit, for another look at the cover, too.