AMERICAN CLASSICS

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Piano: Lori Sims
Cat. #: TP1039152 | Single CD
Label: TwoPianists Records
Recorded at: Endler Hall, Stellenbosch University, South Africa, 16 – 18 January 2012

ABOUT

What makes American music ‘American’?

Aaron Copland, whose Piano Variations is featured on this recording, spent much of his career promoting what is called ‘American music’. But even in 1973, when he was in his seventies, Copland didn’t seem to be quite sure what American music really was.
Her delicate touch, nuanced phrasing and expert pedaling make these memorable.
Scott Morrison, Amazon.com
Copland’s quandary is indicative of precisely what is American about American music: its extreme cosmopolitanism. Throughout the majority of the twentieth century, this cosmopolitanism can be found in every avenue of American musical life, across multiple genres: from the European-style folk music in rural areas to the imported music of the slaves; from European art music to the network of musicians that support its creation; from popular song to the esoteric avant-garde. Even the music of Spain finds its way into the United States, infused with the sounds native to Latin America. If there ever was a melting pot of musical cultures, it was the United States of America. And it was during the twentieth century that this heady mixture of musical cultures made itself well-known on the world stage. Would it be too much of a cliché to have an American artist perform an all-American recording? Not when it’s Lori Sims, gold medalist of the 1998 Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition. This recording the monumental Samuel Barber Sonata, Charles Griffes Roman Sketches Op.7, Ben Weber Fantasia (Variations) Op.25 apart from the mentioned Copland Variations.
Lori Sims is a forceful performer, strong in her ideas, yet immensely elegant in style. Following the success of a recent recording featuring European composers, Lori Sims’ American Classics recording highlights the fact that American art music could not escape the heritage to Europe.

TRACK LIST

AARON COPLAND (1900-1990): Piano variations
BEN WEBER (1916-1979): Fantasia (Variations) Op. 25
CHARLES GRIFFES: Roman Sketches, Op. 7
The White Peacock
Nightfall
The fountain of the Acqua Paola
Clouds
SAMUEL BARBER (1910-1981)
Piano Sonata in E-flat minor, Op. 26

REVIEWS

S. P., Clavier Companion, Oct 2013
Lori Sims' new release in the South African label TwoPianists Records includes three well-known American masterpieces and a first-rate performance of Ben Weber's less familiar Fantasia (Variations), op. 25. In Copland's steely Piano Variations and the outer movements of Barber's ferocious sonata, the playing is marked by rhythmic incisiveness and fine technical control. The second movement of the Barber sounds elegantly fleet and effortless, while the third movement is suitably poignant. In short, this outstanding release is well worth investigation.

★★★★
Ritmo, July 2013

Gramophone talks to Lori Sims on her ‘American Classics’ recording

Jed Distler
Gramophone, June 2013
The superb musicianship and flexible virtuosity Lori Sims reveals both in recital and in her off-the-cuff masterclass keyboard demonstrations manifest themselves throughout this release. She captures the Copland Variations’ stark and stern idiom with wide dynamic contrasts and strong rhythmic focus.
By contrast, Sims positively devours the Barber Sonata, yet is smart enough to remember to chew well and savour the music when appropriate, such as in her straightforward and well-sustained Adagio mesto. Her perky, characterfully accented Fugue and delightfully leggiero Scherzo count among the best on disc, while the Allegro energico’s opening pages have rarely conveyed such a combination of ferocity and longing.

AllMusic, Rovi
James Manheim
This release by the unjustifiably unheralded American pianist Lori Sims, a professor at Western Michigan University, brings together pieces that share two characteristics. First, all but one flirt with serial technique. And second, they start at the level of pianistic showpiece and go up from there. Samuel Barber's Piano Sonata in E flat minor, Op. 26, is one of the most difficult of all works of American piano music, and Sims' competition here comes from the likes of Marc-André Hamelin, John Browning, and the work's first performer, Vladimir Horowitz. It is to her considerable credit that she does not come up short; if the final fugue has a somewhat light touch, the opening Allegro energico has perhaps unparalleled ferocity. The abrupt idiom of Copland's Piano Variations, the young composer's ambitious masterpiece, is precisely rendered; the variations are continuous, but the entire structure, developing from a chromatic cell that clearly bespeaks Copland's acquaintance with serialist currents, emerges clearly in Sims' hands. The other two works might not yet merit the "classics" label, but the Fantasia (Variations), Op. 25, by Ben Weber, the first American serialist, is a neglected work that follows quite closely on Copland's accomplishment. Though delving into serialism, it is strongly Romantic in conception, and Sims switches gears effectively for the less stringent middle of the program, which also includes the Impressionist Roman Sketches, Op. 7, of Charles Tomlinson Griffes. The program as a whole is difficult for the listener as well as for the pianist, but Sims leads her audience through it in a masterful way. She is aided by fine engineering from South Africa's small TwoPianists label; the album was recorded in a university recital hall in South Africa. Support for recitals of this kind has not been abundant in the U.S. or even in Europe, and it is encouraging to see it spring up in a place far from those musical centers. The graphics for the album also merit mention; the close-up, startlingly intimate portraits of the artist suit the material well.

Audio Video Club of Atlanta, May 2013

American pianist Lori Sims was Gold Medalist at the 1998 Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, and has since performed with distinction in the U.S. and abroad. She brings all her expertise to bear on the present program of “American Classics.” That includes her feeling for the style, rhythm, and contour of the music she plays, and especially the utter precision with which she sounds each note cleanly and with the utmost clarity. That last-named quality is important because three of the four composers heard on this program – Aaron Copland, Ben Weber, and Samuel Barber – are revealed here as exponents of serialism (12-tone or otherwise). “What difference does that make to me?” the average listener may ask. “How would I know if the pianist dropped an occasional note here or there?” Believe me, pal, you’d know! This type of music is so tightly structured that it is highly unforgiving of error by the executant. Copland’s Piano Variations (1930) uses the tone row E, C, D-sharp, C-sharp as the basis from which the entire composition derives. Since it may also be interpreted tonally as a statement in C-sharp minor, there is an ambiguity here, which Copland explores through the length of a very intense 11-minute work. Sims is highly cognizant of its generally somber mood, as well as the way in which individual variations flow into one another without clearly demarcated lines between them. Weber, like Copland, shows both American and European influences in his music. In his 1946 Fantasia, Op. 25, he uses serialism for expressive purposes. As annotator Barry Ross explains it, “Weber employed as far as possible the language of Romanticism, dispensing with the angular melodic motion of European serial music.” [Aside: I’m always amused at the way annotators will go out of their way to assure the nervous listener that “After all, it isn’t as bad as Schoenberg.”] Bringing out the unique character of Weber’s music isn’t easy, but Lori Sims does it with economy and style. Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata in E-flat minor (Op. 26, 1949) is one of the most difficult works in the modern American canon to perform. Serial melodic fragments are expressed within the context of traditional sonata form. Shifting rhythmic patterns and highly dissonant chord progressions, contrapuntal technique that is not just restricted to the final movement (which is a fugue in four voices, and a strongly accented one at that) combine with the overall dark, serious mood of the work to demand the utmost concentration from Sims and the application of every aspect of her technical skill. Contrasted to the rigors of the other works heard on this program, we have Roman Sketches by the short-lived Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920). Griffes remains the principal (almost the only) American proponent of Impressionism. Consisting of four pieces in the style of tone poems (several have, in fact, been successfully orchestrated and performed as such), the Sketches have a breadth that extends beyond the keyboard, as their titles indicate: The White Peacock, Nightfall, The Fountain of the Acqua Paola, and Clouds. Sims takes pains to express the character of each of these pieces: the languid movement of the peacock and its distinctive chain of notes, the clouds slowly drifting to a point of disappearance in the gradually deepening blue of the sky at dusk. As opposed to the high energy of most of the music on this CD, the Griffes pieces are slow, unhurried, and listeners are given plenty of white space between tracks to meditate on the beauties they’ve just heard.

Scott Morrison
Amazon.com, Feb 15, 2013


This is a special recording in many ways. First, it includes works from the summit of American piano compositions. Aaron Copland's 1930 Piano Variations is modernist and yet has found a secure place in the pianist's repertoire. The Fantasia (Variations) of Ben Weber, written in 1946 and dedicated to pianist William Masselos, has points of reference with the Copland in that it is quasi-serialist as well. Sims, so to speak, hits it out of the park. This is a very special, wide-ranging performance that emphasizes both the work's mysticism and lyricism.
The much earlier American impressionist, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, is represented with the four pieces of his Roman Sketches (1915). Best known are The White Peacock and the Fountain of the Acqua Paola, lusciously played here. The other two pieces are the darkly evocative Nightfall and the ethereal Clouds. Sims is truly in her element here. Her delicate touch, nuanced phrasing and expert pedaling make these memorable.
Finally, there is Samuel Barber's magisterial Piano Sonata (1949), which was premiered and recorded by Vladimir Horowitz. Sims's performance faces stiff competition, recordings by Horowitz, Cliburn, Hamelin and Browning among others. But she holds her own. The whirling fugal finale is a little more gentle than some recordings but it shines a new light on the movement.
I'm giving this recording four stars, but really wish I could give it four-and-a-half. I've downgraded it from a five-star rating because I don't particularly care for the Copland, but don't let that stand in your way of hearing it.
One side note: I found a review of a recital Sims gave in New York two years ago that contained precisely this program and the reviewer raved about how good the Copland was. So, at the very least there is some difference of opinion about her performance of it.