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Miscellaneous, Music Media Review



Three Recent CDs of African-American and African Piano Music

May 9, 2022 - Easthampton, MA:


Fantasie Nègre; The Piano Music of Florence Price (1887-1953); Samantha Ege, piano (make, model, & serial # unknown; recorded at the University of Surrey PATS Sudio); Lorelt (Lontano Records Ltd., "an independent classical record label […] formed in 1992") LNT 144, © 2021, TT 53:56; $15.75 from Presto.

African Pianism: Ayo Bankole (1935-1976), Nabil Benabeljalil (b. 1972), David Earl (b. 1951), Akin Euba (1935-2020), J.H. Kwabena Nketia (1921-2019), Fred Onovwerosuoke (b. 1960), Christian Onyeji (b. 1967), Rebeca Omordia, piano (Menuhin Hall, Stoke d'Abernon, Surrey, UK, Steinway D, Hamburg, 2020, serial # 610 953), with Abdelkader Saadoun on unspecified percussion in trs 18 & 19; Somm SOMMCD 0647, © 2022, TT 77:30, $13.75 from Presto.

Ekele; Piano Music by African Composers: Ayo Bankole (1935-1976), African Suite, Nigerian Suite, Piano Sonata No. 2 in C: 'The Passion' (1956-59), Variations for little Ayo, Ya Orule,; Fred Onovwerosuoke (b. 1960), 8 from 24 Studies in African Rhythms; Christian Onyeji (b. 1967), Ekele (Greeting), Echoes of Traditional Life, arr. of a traditional choral piece, "Chineke Diri Ekele" ("Thanks be to God"); Rebeca Omordia, piano (make, model, & serial # unknown, recorded in the Radio Hall of Romanian Broadcasting Corp., Bucharest), Heritage HGTDT 188, © 2019, TT 63:26, $17.00 from Presto.

Listings in alphabetical/bibliographical, not chronological or performance orders.

All of these are world première recordings, performed by Black pianists living in the UK, and all are products of the UK, not the USA. Florence Beatrice Price was American, born in Little Rock, AK, but the major part of her career was in Chicago, where she had a number of firsts. Most impressively, she was the first African-American to have a symphony (her first of four, but No. 2 is lost) performed by a major orchestra (Chicago, under Frederick Stock, who 'put it on the map,' on 15 June 1933). She received numerous awards for her works, and found a supportive network of Black musicians in her South Side neighborhood. Other Black musicians, like composer Margaret Bonds and her mother, Estella, who both ultimately moved to NYC, and Marian Anderson supported her as well; but she was never truly accepted in the national and international classical mainstream (p. [6]). Dr. Ege, of Nigerian-Jamaican heritage, who first discovered the existence of music by composers of African heritage as an undergrad during her second year of college abroad at McGill University in Montréal, wrote her dissertation on Price at the University of York in the UK; hence her notes in the accompanying booklet are detailed, thorough, and authoritative. She is now Junior Research Fellow in Music at Lincoln College, Oxford.

Although Price was a pianist herself (a well-known photo of her composing at a piano is reproduced on p. [4]); another of her with her daughter looking at flowers in a garden is on p. [10] in the accompanying un-numbered 12-pp. booklet, whose pp. [11] has the credits and [12] has Ege's bio), and a graduate (1906) with majors in piano teaching and organ of New England Conservatory (Boston), it was thought that she did not write much music for keyboard, because, while some works were performed, none were published until recently. A trove of manuscripts was discovered in 2009 in her summer home in St. Anne, IL, that included many of the works on this CD, a few (e.g., Fantasie No. 3) re-constituted from the MSS by Ege, and revealed numerous unknown works, including one thought lost.

The music is quite varied, using classical Romantic forms, but often wandering slightly from their conventional shapes and incorporating African-American spiritual melodies, using the pentatonic scale: E, G, A, B, D, and other similar ones, although Price also created melodies that feel like/seem to be traditional ones, and many resemble songs without words; she also wrote many songs (pp. [7-8]). It is warm and charming, and often sounds familiar, although it is unlikely that you have heard it before. The four c. 8-10-minute-long Fantasies Nègres (1929 [1] & 1932 [2-4, the latter revised 1937]) are spread across the program, the first two opening it, the third in dead center, and the fourth closing it. Price was of "mixed cultural background"; her spelling of the titles displays that: 'Fantasie' is German, 'nègre' is French, and her music is distinctly American (p. [3]). Ege's notes are good, with the biographical and compositional information.

The first group of three miniatures of c. two-minute Sketches between Fantasies Nos. 2 & 3 was assembled by Ege, who discovered them while piecing together No. 3, and felt they were intended to be together because their standard tempi indications were numbered 2-4; the titles are Ege's. The second of c. three-minute Snapshots, that separate Fantasies Nos. 3 & 4, was assembled as a suite by Price in 1952, not long before her death. They had been composed earlier, given the titles by her, and performed individually in a different order by her and a fellow pianist. They are more Impressionist, like Debussy's and Ravel's music, conveying "auras, atmospheres, colours[,] and contours" (p. [9]); this is also in the vein of Charles Tomlinson Griffes' (1884-1920) piano music, which is beautiful, if you are not familiar with it (I wonder if Price knew it?). Ege's playing is excellent, crystal clear, precise, and magical throughout.

Omordia's CDs take us across the Atlantic to the West Coast of Africa; she's of Nigerian-Romanian heritage. Most of the composers are Nigerian, including Onovwerosuoke, born in Ghana of Nigerian parents; others are Nketia, being Ghanian, Earl, from South Africa, and Benabdeljalil, Morrocan; all of those on the Ekele album appear on the African Pianism one, but no works are duplicates, so we get a broader view of their work. A few works use European forms, but most use indigenous/native styles, often evoking or suggesting indigenous/native percussive instruments, with some using indigenous/tribal melodies/tunes: Bankole's (who was murdered at age 41 along with his wife) charming Egun Variations on African Pianism smoothly blends the tribal song with the ages-old and widely-used classical form. Some of the works, including Euba's Three Yoruba Songs, have "Without Words" in their titles, but are real tribal ones. Some of the works have notes in the accompanying booklets by their composers revealing such information.

Unsurprisingly, in view of the composers' life dates, this music is all much more modern than Price's, more jazzy, upbeat, more rhythmic, some of it making you want to get up and dance: Onyeji's Ufie has "Igbo (name of a tribe) Dance" in parentheses after its title, meaning that it's a real tribal dance. The percussive nature of the instrument is more dominant – the covered head of a hammer strikes the string, rather than plucking it, as happens with a harpsichord's plectrums, launched upwards with their jacks when a key is depressed, while an organ's keys open the access to tuned pipes so the air propelled by a blower can pass through them. (It's a kind of large mechanized woodwind instrument.) The syncopated nature of the rhythms of the melodies is more prominent; they tend not to be quiet and soothing, and motifs are, more often than not, repetitive, but have nothing dissonant or unpleasant in them.

Bankole's "Passion" sonata doesn't sound like anything you have previously heard that is based on its subject, but is really quite lovely, and somehow very appropriate for it. Benabdeljalil's "Nocturnes" on the African Pianism CD do not sound like Chopin's or Fields', nor do the 8 #'s selected of Onovwerosuoke's 24 "Studies" (= Études) on Ekele sound like Chopin's or Debussy's. Bankole's Nigerian Suite's titles look like various things, natural occurrences and human activities, but not dances, and his African Suite's titles are in the tribal language, with their English translation in parentheses. The 1/3 of Nketia's African Pianism's; 'Twelve Pedagogical Pieces' don't sound like practice exercises. Onyeji has a piece named "Ekele," that means 'Greeting,' (thus being a good title for the album), but has also arranged a piece that is one of his choral works, that is a specific tribal language one for 'Thanks be to God' and has become popular continent-wide (p. 6). Robert Matthew-Walker's notes in both accompanying booklets are very informative and well written.

Omordia's playing is wonderful throughout, though feels as if it's a bit more confident and energetic in the more recent African Pianism disc. Its music is also a bit more varied than that of Ekele's, providing a broader/wider perspective, sampling, and insight for the continent as a whole. Both her pianism and this music grow on you very easily and quickly! The addition of the (presumably authentic) percussion adds another pleasant and positive effect to the atmosphere. Both are magnificent eye-&-ear-opening CDs!