GOTTSCHALK: Deuxieme Banjo, op. 82; Solitude, op. 65; La Brise; Souvenir de la Havane; Le Chant du Martyr; Manchega; La Savane; Union. Bridge 9206. 44 minutes. Reissue of a 1982 recording.
Performed by Lambert Orkis on an 1865 Chickering Concert Grand from the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.
I am generally a fan of period instrument recordings as they can lend insights to the literature which may not be found using modern technology. Being generally non-plussed by the music of Gottschalk, I was wondering if the Chickering instrument would persuade and convince me that my experiences with Gottschalk’s music were tainted by hearing them on modern instruments. The short answer is: no, it didn’t. Gottschalk’s music still sounds perpetually cheesy and fluffy, even though it requires enormous technical demands of the performer.
Deuxieme Banjo is a quasi-sequel to Le Banjo and, while sparkly and perky, never really sounds like anything more than accompaniment. It sounds like there should be something else happening or that Gottschalk intended to add a melody and simply forgot. Souvenir de la Havane contains all of the stereotypical features one would expect from the title combined with all the piano fireworks and showmanship expected from Gottschalk. I was impressed by the more mellow Le Chant du Martyr which has a much simpler texture and less bombast, but of course there has to be some bombast in Gottschalk eventually. Union is not only bombast, but overly patriotic and sugary bombast, which never sits well in my ears (or stomach).
I also found it difficult to take La Savane very seriously. While the piece is based on a Creole melody, the tune is almost identical to “Skip to my Lou.” The program notes for the piece admit this similarity but it can’t erase the aural cues from my brain. A serious, minor key exploration of “Skip to my Lou” just makes me chuckle. Mr. Orkis plays it with, of course, all seriousness and that almost makes me laugh more. It is the kind of piece I could imagine Victor Borge playing with all sorts of facial expressions that would have the audiences rolling in the aisles.
My dislike of Gottschalk’s music should not detract from Mr. Orkis’ exceptional performance skill. Every piece sounds completely effortless and natural and he uses the Chickering to its fullest potential. The bass notes are thunderous when necessary and the bright timbre of the upper strings is used with great skill. He is able to bring out the playful, dramatic, or solemn nature of each piece with equal ability. If you are a fan of Gottschalk’s music, this is an excellent interpretation of well known and some lesser known literature. If you are a fan of period instrument recordings, then you will enjoy the sounds of the Chickering. No matter who hears the disc, we should be able to agree that Lambert Orkis’ piano skill is of the highest level.