Saturday, December 16, 2017

Performing Arts Review: Superlative performances all, pianist Clipper Erickson has resurrected an American master. [R. Nathaniel Dett]

R. Nathaniel Dett is featured at

Performing Arts Review:

Pianist Clipper Erickson has devoted an enormous amount of thought, preparation time, energy, and virtuoso pianism crafting this remarkable 2 CD set (over two hours of fascinating music) comprising the complete piano works of Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943). A member of the teaching and adjunct faculties at Westminster Conservatory in Princeton and Temple University in Philadelphia, Erickson’s beautifully packaged and superbly performed compilation, My Cup Runneth Over: The Complete Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett is offered by Navona Records (NV 6013), a PARMA Recordings company.

Exquisite sound engineering at Reitstadel, Neumarkt in Oberpfalz, Germany under the world-class recording supervision of Dirk Fischer ranks this set as arguably one of the most significant releases of neglected piano repertoire since the revelatory Nonesuch recordings in the 1970s of Scott Joplin’s piano music. Those releases thoroughly transformed performance practice regarding ragtime and other popular music of the turn of the last century. This recording of Nathaniel Dett’s piano music presents to the world for the first time, an important and essentially fresh portfolio of major piano works by a significant North American composer of African descent.

Nathaniel Dett is admired as the first American composer to incorporate Negro folk music into the European art music tradition. Born in Canada, the composer spent most of his life and career in the United States, graduating from the Oberlin Conservatory majoring in piano and composition in 1908. His education continued at Harvard with composer Arthur Foote (1920-21) and in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. He earned his Master of Music from the Eastman School of Music in 1932. Dett was a polymath; not only composer, choir leader, pianist, and teacher but recognized poet and writer. His, The Emancipation of Negro Music, won an important literary prize at Harvard in 1920 and his volume of poems, The Album of a Heart, conveys Dett’s transcendent message of human oneness – a notion revolutionary then, as now.
Unerring prescience and stunning technical prowess are Clipper Erickson’s interpretive tools as he unravels without fuss, the subtle mysteries of the composer’s deep and often melancholic musings. The evocative titles on these two discs offer a richly rewarding and audibly discernible progression through Dett’s intellectual, moral, and musical life over four decades, from the turn of the last century to the mid 1940s. His piano suites Magnolia (1912), In the Bottoms (1913), Enchantment (1922) Cinnamon Grove (1928), Tropic Winter (1938), Eight Bible Vignettes (1941-43) and his other descriptive musical snapshots After the Cakewalk (1900), Cave of the Winds (1902), Inspiration Waltzes (1903), and Nepenthe and the Muse (1922) are masterpieces of form and structure. Dett’s passionate but private world view, which he held tightly, is discreetly channeled through Erickson’s poignant interpretations.

The most moving and prophetic work on this one-of-a-kind collection was also Dett’s last. Eight Bible Vignettes [tracks 8-15 on disc two] composed over a span of three years before the composer’s death in 1943 is a masterful example of compositional maturity, conflating virtuoso writing in the tradition of Liszt or Brahms with 20th century harmony. Erickson’s performance of each Vignette glitters with finesse and erudition. Likewise, the pianist’s approach to a much earlier suite, In the Bottoms [tracks 6-10 on disc one]. Careful stylings and cheerful panache are brought to the keyboard by Erickson for the lighter pieces After the Cakewalk and Inspiration Waltzes but even these reveal a serious and thoughtful curation of Dett’s profound musical mind that will satisfy scholars for years to come. My Cup Runneth Over: The Complete Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett is a must own for those who love hearing the piano captured exquisitely on disc. More importantly, this thoroughly researched set (the program notes are fabulous) is an important reference resource for pianists and programmers alike. Superlative performances all, pianist Clipper Erickson has resurrected an American master.

 Daniel Kepl | Performing Arts Review

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