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Gershwin & Wild / Joanne Polk

Release Date: 09/15/2017
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30090
Composer:  Earl Wild Performer:  Joanne Polk Number of Discs: 1

Earl Wild’s Seven Virtuoso Etudes transform Gershwin’s simple popular songs into works that challenge the technical prowess of the best concert pianists without losing the underlying style of the originals. His Variations on “Someone to Watch Over Me” is a free pianistic realization of the tune, much the way that Liszt’s operatic “paraphrases” are free interpretations of vocal music popular in the mid-19th century, perhaps suggesting that the worlds of classical music and American popular song are not as far removed as we think. Wild’s Piano Sonata breathes the same pianistic air as the Gershwin transcriptions, where the influence of jazz and blues is everywhere apparent.

Album Credits:
Gershwin & Wild /
Read more Joanne Polk • STNS 30090
Recorded November 21 – 23, 2016 at The Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York.
Produced and Engineered by Steven Epstein

Executive Producer: Jon Feidner
Art Direction: Jackie Fugere
Piano Technician: Rick Prokop

Earl Wild applied the Romantic virtuoso pianism of Liszt and his successors to the music of George Gershwin, something that no one else has really done and of which, one suspects, Gershwin himself would have approved: the Gershwin Songbook of 1932 is not so far in its treatment of melody from the Wild "virtuoso etudes" heard here. But Gershwin did not approach the sheer technical feats Wild demands from his interpreters (and from himself, for he was a true composer-pianist). A new recording of any works of the underappreciated Wild is welcome, and from American pianist Joanne Polk you get much more than the minimum. For sheer power you might pick the recording of Wild's music by Xiayin Wang, but Polk has advantages as well. First there is an easy familiarity with the jazz idiom that Wild exploits: sample The Man I Love, where real rhythmic flexibility shines through all the fireworks. Second is the presence of an original Wild work, the Sonata 2000, with a final toccata inspired by Ricky Martin. His music has not proven to be as lasting as that of Gershwin, but there are fireworks galore here, and has not appeared on disc since the original recording by the octogenarian Wild himself. Finally, there is the consistently strong sound of the Steinway & Sons label, working at the performing arts center of Purchase College in the State University of New York system. Recommended.

-- James Manheim, All Music Guide

I continue to be impressed by the business savvy of the legendary piano manufacturer Steinway & Sons, which established a few years ago a record label designed to showcase its products. It’s a win-win: top-flight performers get a recording venue; listeners get (what have so far been) consistently great recordings; Steinway gets both sales revenue for the albums and a built-in advertising platform. The latest such release is this performance of two works by 20th-century American composer Earl Wild: the first, a set of variations on familiar themes of George Gershwin (including American Songbook classics like “The Man I Love” and “I Got Rhythm”), all transformed into lushly romantic and virtuosic études; the second a jazz-and-R&B-influenced original sonata. Don’t let the fact that the sonata’s third movement references Ricky Martin fool you: this is highly complex classical music that draws on influences from popular culture but in no way bows to them. Joanne Polk is a thrilling exponent of these works, and this disc would make a great addition to any library supporting piano pedagogy.

-- CDHotlist

When composer-pianist Earl Wild (1915-2010) was 10 years old, he asked his mother how there could be a God when the organist at their local church in Pittsburgh was so lousy. Wild later became an atheist. He went on to become one of the great American virtuoso pianists. New York Times critic Harold Schoenberg said of him, “By any standards, Mr. Wild has one of the great piano techniques of the 20th century, and with it, a rich, sonorous tone.”

Wild began studying the piano at age 4 and when he was 15 he played the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Minneapolis Symphony under Dimitri Mitropoulis. Starting with President Herbert Hoover in 1931, he performed in the White House for six consecutive presidents. He was the orchestral pianist for conductors’ Otto Klemperer, and Arturo Toscanini. Throughout his career he was active as a soloist and performed with many orchestras. His extensive discography includes 35 piano concertos and numerous other solo works. If you love Gershwin, don’t miss his iconic RCA early stereo Gershwin disc that includes Rhapsody in Blue, Piano Concerto in F, An American in Paris, Variations on “I Got Rhythm” and “Cuban Overture”.

Wild also wrote music, writing piano transcriptions of Romantic composers. Included were transcriptions of Rachmaninoff and Gershwin songs. Included on this disc are Seven Virtuoso Etudes, rearrangements of songs from the Great American Songbook. “Somebody Loves Me,” “The Man I Love,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You” and three others are on this CD. Rapid scales, octave passages and virtuoso pianistic feats never obscure Gershwin’s glorious tunes, creating a feast for the ears for 21st century classical music lovers.

The fifteen minute Theme & Variations on Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch over Me” gave Wild a chance to flex his compositional muscles. These free variations include the tremolo laden “Barcarole” that imitates a mandolin—almost two pages of rapid repeated notes. In “Brazilian Dance” Wild juxtaposes a passage from Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier with Gershwin’s tune. The final variation, “Tango” also weaves Bach into the melody.

Wild’s original work, “Sonata 2000” is more classically oriented, yet the influence of jazz and the blues are discernible. The opening “March” is mildly dissonant with a whiff of swinging blues and a smile. “Adagio” is languid and a bit sultry, something that would go well with a mint julip on a hot summer day. “Toccata (a la Ricky Martin)” sizzles with a torrent of sixteenth notes with changing accents. There’s also a brief heartfelt section before the rhythmic energy returns and ends abruptly.

Pianist Joanne Polk is noted for her advocacy of feminist composers. She has recorded the complete piano music of Amy Beach, the solo piano music of Cecile Chaminade and a two CD set of solo piano music of Fanny Mendelssohn. She was named one of Musical America’s Top 30 Professionals of the Year (2014) in an article entitled, “Profiles in Courage” in September of 2014. In these works, Ms. Polk’s warm tone in the softer passages matches the luminous sound that producer and engineer Steven Epstein provides. Yet, she provides enough passion to capture the jazzy essence and virtuosity required in Wild’s transcriptions.

—Robert Moon, Audiophile Audition Read less