Cecile Licad in American Piano Sonatas through the Centuries

United StatesUnited States  Reinagle, MacDowell, Siegmeister, Griffes: “First American Sonatas”: Cecile Licad ( piano); Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 24.11.2015 (BJ)

Reinagle: Piano Sonata No. 1 in D major
MacDowell: Piano Sonata No. 1 in G minor, Op. 45, Tragic
Siegmeister: Piano Sonata No. 1, American
Griffes: Piano Sonata


In a stimulating Philadelphia Chamber Music Society program titled “First American Sonatas,” the piece by Alexander Reinagle seems to have been the very first piano sonata composed in North America. Born (like Mozart) in 1756 and brought up in Edinburgh, Reinagle wrote it shortly after moving in 1786, first to New York and then to Philadelphia, thenceforth dividing his activities between that city and Baltimore, where he died in 1809 (like Haydn).

The first of the set of three (sometimes known as “The Philadelphia Sonatas”) is little more than a trifle, consisting of just two fast movements, and generally light in texture, with pervasively florid figurations in the right-hand part. Cecile Licad managed those rapid passages with impressively clean marksmanship, but her playing reminded me somewhat of the way, many years ago, I used to type too fast for even my electric typewriter to keep up with my fingers: I will not say she exactly got ahead of herself, but she got far enough in front of a steady beat to make it unclear just where in the measure we were at any particular moment.

Happily, her performance grew steadily in stature through the rest of the recital, and so did the music. MacDowell was at his best in miniature formats, somewhat in the manner of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, and I found the first of his four sonatas, composed in 1893, relatively unmemorable. Half a century later Elie Siegmeister wrote his American Sonata, in this case one of three essays in the genre, and achieved something distinctly more impressive. The work’s best feature is a central movement, marked “Moderately slow, with great dignity,” that does not fall short of that expressive aim. This is music of poise and nobility, vividly realized under Ms. Licad’s hands, and my only negative comment might be that the two swiftly driven movements that surround the slow movement do not seem to have an organic enough connection with it to create a truly unified whole.

The final work took us back to the years 1917 and 1918, and ended the evening on a suitably high note in terms of both composition and performance. Charles Tomlinson Griffes, who died (again, like Mozart) at the age of 35, was by some margin the most prodigally gifted of these four composers. His Piano Sonata is indeed successful in blending strongly personal expressive character with an unmistakable sense of organic unity, and Cecile Licad’s performance captured both those aspects of it with engaging warmth and unfailing virtuosity.

Bernard Jacobson

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