Friday, November 17, 2017

Earl Wild the Composer

The pianist Earl Wild had a significant impact on both my listening skills and my struggling efforts to explore repertoire through my inadequate piano skills. Unless I am mistaken, he came to my attention as the first pianist to get me really to listen to a recording of George Gershwin’s “Concerto in F.” However, I did not get a chance to experience him in performance until after my move to Connecticut at the end of the summer of 1981. I came across an announcement that he would be presenting a program entitled The Art of the Transcription at Carnegie Hall; and, since my Santa Barbara piano teacher had gotten me interested in transcription, I could not resist getting tickets. (This turned out to be my “first date” with the woman who would later become my wife.) Further opportunities to listen to Wild came after moving to Los Angeles, when Wild would come in from his home in Palm Springs to give recitals at Loyola Marymount University.

With those many experiences I never gave much thought to Wild as a composer. He had included one of his transcriptions on his Carnegie program, the “cygnets” pas de quatre from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake score. It was a dynamite account (I think the whoop I gave at the end is audible on the CD of that concert); but I knew little about any other efforts. As a result I gave little thought to Wild the composer until the fall of 2013, when I heard a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music play an étude that Wild had composed based on two distant points of departure. The thematic material came from George Gershwin’s song “Embraceable You;” but the treatment (and technical challenges) had much more to do with the concert étude that Franz Liszt had called “Un sospiro.” (Wild was clearly playing with the idea that the first notes of Liszt’s theme for his étude could be shunted in the direction of “Embraceable You.”) I learned that this was one of seven such études that Wild had composed, and my curiosity was piqued.

courtesy of Naxos of America

My curiosity remained unsatisfied until I recently learned that the Steinway & Sons label had released an album entitled Gershwin & Wild, a solo album of performances by pianist Joanne Polk. (Note that the cover, shown above, includes a portrait of Gershwin by the recently-cited caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.) This recording includes all seven of the Gershwin études, as well as the 1989 set of variations on “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Wild’s only piano sonata, which he composed late in life in 2000. (Wild died at the age of 94 on January 23, 2010.)

The full set of études is as impressive as I had anticipated. Like any good composer choosing to work in this genre, Wild begins with a clear sense of the technical skills that the piece intends to cultivate. He can then use the “Gershwin tune” (thank you Burton Lane and Ralph Freed) to provide the pupil with a clear sense of how the piece has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The familiarity of that tune just sweetens the deal.

When it comes to writing variations, however, Wild takes his imagination to a higher level. In his notes for the accompanying booklet, Jeffrey Langford is as quick at catching the many references to Johann Sebastian Bach as can be expected, while also calling out the appearance of “O Sole Mio.” However, what Langford calls Wild’s “Italianate mood” also seems to include at least one passing reference to Giacomo Puccini (which is over before you know it). As a result the full set of variations is a delightful mix of originality and cross-references. Originality is much more evident in the sonata in which cross-referencing never goes further than establishing a mood.

Taken as a whole, this is a delightful reminder that Wild was much more than a thoroughly engaging pianist and that his capacity for invention deserves more recognition.