Monday 28 December 2015

My cup runneth over - Piano music of Robert Nathaniel Dett

My Cup Runneth Over - R Nathaniel Dett
Robert Nathaniel Dett - complete piano music; Clipper Erickson; Navona Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 24 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Friend of Grainger, musical romantic and the first to fuse Negro folk-music and art music, the composer Robert Nathaniel Dett

The composer Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was a name that was new to me, yet he was one of North America's finest composers of African descent and he forged a significant career for himself as composer, choir-leader and teacher. On this new disc from Navona Records, Clipper Erickson has recorded Dett's complete music for solo piano, notably a series of suites Magnolia, In the BottomsEnchantment, Cinnamon Grove, Tropic Winter and Eight Bible Vignettes which stretch from 1912 through to the year of Dett's death.

If you read about Dett's music then one of the first things which people say about him is that he was one of the first composers to fuse Negro folk-music with European art music. This can, perhaps, give the wrong impression of Dett's style and a more useful thing to bear in mind is that the Australian pianist Percy Grainger was a friend and supporter of Dett's and recorded Dett's music (you can hear Grainger's Duo Art piano roll recording of Dett's Dance - Juba on YouTube). The music where Dett incorporates Negro songs, such as the suite In the Bottoms (1913) which depicts five scenes from Negro life in the reiver bottoms of the Southern sections of North America, uses the folk-music very much in the way that Grainger uses European folk-music in his own music.

In fact, listening to this disc it was the sound of Grainger's music and that of his friend Cyril Scott which kept coming back to me. Dett writes with a rich romantic idiom which recalls theirs, and the way he paints powerful tone-pictures combining this harmony with a memorable melodic idiom recalls both Grainger and Scott, especially in the production of small scale yet strongly characterised pieces. Such 'characteristic pieces' have fallen out of fashion somewhat and I certainly hope that this disc will encourage pianists to explore Dett's legacy.

The disc starts with his 1912 suite Magnolia, written just after his completion of his music degree (he studied at Oberlin Conservatory of Music). This has some big romantic moments, but also still a salon-ish element and it is with the next work, In The Bottoms from 1913 that Dett really finds his feet. His use of Negro folk music was inspired partly by hearing the music of Dvorak at Oberlin and finding the composer's folk-idiom recalled melodies Dett's grandmother had sung.

None of the other suites use Negro folk-music in such a large way, but it remains one of the elements in Dett's compositional armoury. His dreamy, hypnotic writing in Nepenthe and the Muse certainly recalls the music of Cyril Scott and others.  The suite Enchantment (1922) was dedicated to Percy Grainger and invokes the influences of Liszt and Grieg (not surprisingly if Grainger was an influence), but the swaying motions of Song of the Shrine, and the rhythms of Dance of Desire clearly owe something to Negro music.

Cinnamon Grove (1928) reflects Dett's poetic interests, with movements based on poetry by John Donne, Rabindranath Tagore and Longfellow as well as a Negro song. Tropic Winter (1938) is his most experimental piano suite. The titles of the movements such as A Bayou Garden, Pomons and Fans, Legend of the Atoll,  evoke distant exotic worlds but Dett's music also reflects his interest in what was happening in music at the time, whether more modernist elements or popular music. Eight Bible Vignettes was Dett's final piano suite, written 1942-1943, with each movement inspired by a biblical episode. These inspire music of great complexity and dramatic power.

Clipper Erickson plays the music with sensitivity and a nice flexibility. The technical demands of the more complex movements never phases him, and more importantly he brings out the distinct character of Dett's piano writing. If the 20th century tradition of romantic piano writing interests you at all, then I can highly recommend this disc.

Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) - Magnolia (1912)
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) - In The Bottoms (1913)
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) - Enchantment (1922)
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) - Nepenthe and the Muse (1922)
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) - Cinnamon Grove (1928)
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) - Tropic Winter (1938)
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) - Eight Bible Vignettes (1941-43)
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) - After the Cakewalk (1900)
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) - Cave of the Winds (1902)
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) - Inspiration Waltzes (1903)
Clipper Erickson (piano)
Recorded 4 7 5 December 2014, 26 & 27 May 2015, Reitstadt, Neumarkt i.d. in Oberpfalz, Germany
NAVONA RECORDS NV 6013 1CD 76.09, 72.10]

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