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Walker: Five Piano Sonatas

Walker: Five Piano Sonatas

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George Walker is one of the few leading American composers of the 20th century to produce as many as five piano sonatas. Taken together, they securely chart a lifetime of stylistic change. Walker managed many other feats, a number of them connected to being the first Black person to break through various glass ceilings: the first to be accepted at the Curtis Institute of Music, the first to study with Nadia Boulanger, and the first to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music. Walker is also one of the only major composer-pianists to have recorded worthy performances of virtuoso standard repertoire including Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto” and the Brahms second piano concerto.


"This beautifully played (and beautifully recorded) set of George Walker's piano sonatas by pianist Steven Beck is especially valuable. The sonatas trace Walker's development as a composer, from a sort of post-Copland style through an approach to serialism (he only rarely adopted it wholesale, but the mark of Webernian economy is all over the second and third sonatas here), back to a broader free atonality deepened by rigor."

Walker generally resisted the use of African American vernacular material in his essentially modernist style, but he might then introduce it when it is least expected, in entirely original ways. Anyone interested in this giant of African American classical music but not knowing where to start could easily choose this release." (James Manheim)

There is a strong tradition of American piano sonatas. Off the top of my head I can think of examples by Ives, Copland, Barber, Sessions and Carter and there are, no doubt, others. To these we can add the five sonatas of George Walker, an impressive contribution to the medium, which fit neatly onto one disc.

I had not heard of George Walker until a few months ago, when he was composer of the week in the BBC Radio 3 series. I was impressed by what I heard and so was glad of this opporunity to hear these sonatas. He had a long and successful career in the USA, despite the difficulties caused by his being African-American. He always intended a life in classical music, which I note as some African-American musicians, despite being classically trained, gravitate towards jazz. There are occasional jazz references and references to spirituals and folk songs in his works, but no more than one might expect in any other American composer, Copland for example.

Despite these sonatas being composed over a period of fifty years, they have more in common than what sets any of them apart. Walker has a fondness for sinewy counterpoint and somewhat angular harmonies, rather in the Hindemith way. He also likes strong single lines and chord sequences. His idiom is clearly twentieth century but is not particularly dissonant, and he likes a good deal of rhythmic vitality.

The first two sonatas, the closest together in time, have much in common. The fondness for counterpoint and for variation form is common to them. However, the first is consistently more playful, even jaunty, while the second conveys a sense of disaster being just round the corner. The second is also the more compact, despite being in four movements rather than three, and its Scherzo is only one minute and twelve seconds long.

The third sonata has two brief movements before a longer one and here we find a new riuchness of harmonic vocabulary, even suggesting Scriabin at one point. The second movement, titled Bell, is simply a succession of slow chords. The finale features constant changes of mood and texture.

The fourth sonata, in two movements only, is more angular than the earlier works. there are many ideas, among which leaping single lines, bell-like chorales and a fugal toccata are noteworthy.

The fifth sonata is in one movement only and is a formidable work, tightly wrought and intense. Perhaps it is the finest of the five.

Steven Beck is a contemporary music specialist and offers committed performances. The recording is excellent. Walker’s music is well worth getting to know.

--MusicWeb International (Stephen Barber)


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Product Description:

  • Release Date: January 07, 2022

  • UPC: 090404955426

  • Catalog Number: BCD9554

  • Label: Bridge Records

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: 20th Century

  • Composer: George Walker

  • Performer: Steven Beck


  1. Sonata for Piano No. 1

    Composer: George Walker

    Performer: Steven Beck (Piano)

  2. Sonata for Piano No. 2

    Composer: George Walker

    Performer: Steven Beck (Piano)

  3. Sonata for Piano No. 3

    Composer: George Walker

    Performer: Steven Beck (Piano)

  4. Sonata for Piano No. 4

    Composer: George Walker

    Performer: Steven Beck (Piano)

  5. Sonata for Piano No. 5

    Composer: George Walker

    Performer: Steven Beck (Piano)