What are we to make of Gottschalk, that Caribbean Liszt whose brief biography reads like a fantasy travelogue concocted by Gabriel García Márquez? The Vox label introduced our “Chopin of the Creoles” to the wider world in a series of orchestral and solo LPs, most of which showcased the bravura pianism of Eugene List. Since then seekers-out of unconsidered classical trifles have cherished Gottschalk’s music for its flashy high spirits, tunefulness, and that buoyancy drawn from the Creole and Cuban rhythms which more academic-minded commentators point out as his “serious” contribution to American music.
The solo piano music is the centre of Gottschalk’s surviving output: but is he any more than a cult miniaturist, an eccentric along the lines of Satie, Lord Berners, or even a down-market Ives? Certainly the famous Symphonie romantique “A Night in the Tropics” welds a mildly fragrant Mendelssohnian first movement to a percussive, Cuban party-finale in a way which still seems as provocative as it is funny. The Tarentelle – perhaps the composer’s best inspiration – has a jazzy joie-de-vivre which never fails to get the foot tapping, even if in Michael Gurt’s rendition it sounds amusingly like a maiden aunt gingerly lifting her skirts for a temperance knees-up. The Symphony No.2 (formally more like a French overture) and the variations on the Portuguese National Anthem outstay their welcome. Maybe the performances are to blame, because I don’t remember feeling that way about the – admittedly highly doctored – Vox performances under Igor Buketoff, sublimely over the top as they were.
The particular interest here is the first truly complete recording of Gottschalk’s sole surviving stage work, of all things a Spanish tonadilla. Escenas Campestras Cubanas presents a generic love-triangle of tenor, baritone and soprano: the men pay court, the woman dismisses the pair to dance a zapateado before rounding off proceedings with a coloratura showpiece extolling life, love and music. Fortunately the music’s fabulously catchy, Gottschalk’s orchestral writing making great play with the kind of improvisatory, solo woodwind writing he’d heard from Havana danza bands. This is a fuller text than we had from Vox, the soprano’s singing more pleasurable if not so idiomatic as on the much rougher earlier version, the orchestral playing just about serviceable. There’s a heroic riff during the zapateado on what sounds like a tres, the Cuban three-string guitar. Altogether I recommend it with scarce modified rapture.
Richard Rosenberg’s subfusc Night in the Tropics has been issued before, but the rest is new and a notch punchier. I wish he hadn’t marred his informative programme notes by dissing the Vox opposition and blowing his own trumpet quite so fortissimo, but then I suppose all that’s very much in the fairground-barker tradition of the composer himself. Gottschalkians won’t be offering up their Vox sets to Ebay just yet, but for decent performances in ambient modern sound this is going to give the fans plenty of fun.
© Christopher Webber 2007
2 October 2007