Thanks to the tenacity of Bridge Records and pianist Steven Beck’s devotion to the repertoire, George Walker’s five, succinct piano sonatas (none of them longer than 15 minutes), can finally be heard all in one place.
Spanning 50 years (1953 to 2003), it’s fascinating to hear through his own work how this composer’s art evolved.
Sonata No. 1 (1953, rev. 1991)
The Allegro energico more than lives up to its name utilizing confident, busy lines, given respites with effective calmer contrasts and an unerring sense of balance. As an opener, it clearly states, “I’m here!”
Beck delivers an always engaging fluid flow while maintaining a convincing push-and-pull in Theme and Six Variations. Walker exploits all registers while also proving that variety is the spice of variants.
The “fire” in the concluding Allegro con brio, takes a few measures to light after the opening, but then burns with real heat as the beautifully voiced drama builds towards a very satisfying conclusion.
Sonata No. 2 (1956)
In just nine minutes and four movements, Walker demonstrates the notion that many other composers ought to consider: Less is more.
Theme and Ten Variations is imbued with a searching quality from the first note…but for what? (It is to discover.) At times edgy and fun, Beck fills every bar with ideal punctuation. The ensuing Presto is impish, somewhat jazzy and engaging at every turn.
The gem of the lot is the Adagio—a thoughtful reflection on all that came before. Wisely, Beck never hurries and makes several powerful declamation moments that will linger in memory far after the first hearting.
Allegretto tranquillo is rendered with deceptive ease and knowing strength.
Sonata No. 3 (1975, rev. 1996)
After a hiatus of 19 years, there is no doubt that Walker has expanded his sense of style, tone and colour.
Fantoms is a magnificent combination of introspection, boldness, caution and dissonant pain with just a hint of a scale along with a dollop of Baroque to purposefully muddy the musical waters.
Bell deftly begs the proverbial question: “For whom does it toll.” as Beck masterfully builds and decays the intriguing lines.
The concluding Choral and Fughetta—infused with a compelling “discourse” between longing legato and super-dry punctuation, initially, would have Bach puzzled, but then a proponent (everything in its time), Beck proves to be a master of control as the soundscape constantly shifts before vanishing into the ether…
Sonata No. 4 (1984)
Completed in George Orwell’s prophetic year, this work explodes and quiets like never before.
Maestoso—certainly majestic—but overflowing with more pain, anger, and petulance than usual while it searches for meaning amongst the copious styles and ideas. At times “busy” declamations contrasted with stealthy advance-and-retreat (alongside a couple of acknowledgments of music long past), a few bits of extra-dry “points” keep everything marvellously in balance. A welcome unison brings collective relief before driving to the double bar, then sending the final “bap” into memory for years to come.
The concluding pensive, brooding Tranquillo at times defies its name with Stravinsky-like excursions that gave his Rite such power. Happily, “calmo” prevails with much-appreciated breath, followed by a beautifully rendered, quiet adieu, thanks to Beck’s superb sense of timing and touch.
Sonata No. 5 (2003)
A fond farewell to the oeuvre—incredible study of texture and hue—Walker says more in nearly five minutes than many others can offer in an hour.
Revel in its every measure; wonderfully delivered thanks to Beck’s innate understanding of the subjects at hand. JWR