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Piano Music by J.S. Bach, Bartók, Ravel and Schumann

Johann Sebastian Bach, Bela Bartók, Maurice Ravel, Robert Schumann




“[Rackers] is clearly an artist of impressive capabilities… Rackers tackles this rigorous tour de force [Bartok] with communicative aplomb…”
Howard Smith, Music & Vision [January 2013]
“…an impressive recital of intriguing heavyweight display pieces played as if he means it. He digests the music spontaneously as if he were a method pianist along the lines of a pianistic James Dean… The results are consistently compelling, each in a different way, as if Racker’s response was primarily due to his relationship with the composer as some sort of kindred spirit.”
Laurence Vittes, Gramophone [October 2012]
“This is a beautifully played program of four important piano works… I appreciate his unflappable virtuosity in the Ravel and Bartok and the highly expressive accounts of the Bach and Schumann. In every case, [Rackers] seems committed to letting the composer’s voice—as he hears it—come through more clearly than any particular interpretive idiosyncrasy of his own. It’s refreshing.”
Haskins, American Record Guide [September/October 2012]
“This debut disc is an adventurous one, and he must be commended for its variety and linked theme of the fantasy. All of these pieces have a somewhat fantastical nature about them, and each in its own way leads us down the romantic path of juxtaposed contradictions and conformities, beginning with the well-known Bach work… And it is perhaps the best Baroque piece that could have been chosen for such a recital as this; Bach’s madcap invention flows freely in this work, a piece that had no precedent in his output, and one that falls into a category of few-named pieces of the same type. He simply did not write a lot of fantasies, and when he did the improvisational aspect of the work pushes its way to the fore. Rackers does a fine job setting the tone for this album, and this is one of two pieces he plays here that stand out. The other is the Bartók Sonata, a work of high dissonance and maintained tonality, and one that follows a strict sonata-form structure. But in a good performance what suggests itself to the listener is not the structure but the sense of freedom within a confined space, lending the ears to a truly fantasy-like experience, and any performer worth his or her salt realizes this and projects its percussive strata to the hearer. This is probably the best performance on the disc. “
Steven Ritter, Fanfare Issue 35:6 [July/Aug 2012]
“Rackers’ [Bach] is a thoughtful performance, well paced, and he maintains a taut line on the recitativo section. The brash and aggressive Fantasy yields to an introspective reading of the Fantasy, eminently clear in its parts, a musician’s realization rather than that of a virtuoso per se. Rackers manages to impart a sense of the dancing interplay as the figures move their formal debts to fugal procedure. When the occasional episodes occur, those not directly restating the somber fugal material, the textures open outward to embrace a sunny sky… Schumann’s mighty Fantasy in C has enjoyed many and diverse proponents, and Mr. Rackers clearly communicates affection for its knotty approach to the Romantic ethos… the music’s essential “nostalgia for dream” Rackers preserves with a noble line, integral and articulate. If I hear a sound likeness in Rackers’ playing, he reminds me of Grant Johannesen… Rackers’ clarion chords and driving power in the movement carry us forward without mannerism, though his technique suggests a more unbuttoned approach lies within his potential… Ravel’s 1920 La Valse both celebrates the Viennese waltz and marks its apocalyptic demise. Rackers emphasizes Ravel’s atypical Romantic ardor and interior colorations, basking in its alternately leisurely and sudden modulations and savage glissandi… [In the Bartok] Rackers manages to imbue a gaudy melos upon the patina of pounded sensibilities... Rackers instills a devotional mood here, a moment in which the piano clearly intones and chants idiosyncratically…”
[ * * * * ] Gary Lemco, Audiophile Audition [June 2012]
"American keyboard artist Joseph Rackers has it all. Let this review put concertgoers and home listeners on the alert. In a demanding program of works by Bach, Schumann, Ravel and Bartok, he gets top points for compelling power, rhythmic persuasiveness, style, and a surprising amount of lyricism that takes you by surprise because you don’t always expect it.

He shows his immense prowess right from the beginning of the program with J. S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, a work so far ahead of its time in terms of its dissonance and chromatic harmony, it seems more a part of our world than of Bach’s. From the swirling figurations at the opening of the Fantasy to the muscular fugue that concludes the work, Rackers shows himself to be in complete mastery of Bach’s high-profile counterpoint and his complex and often surprisingly subtle rhythms.

If anything, Rackers gives an even more impressive account of Robert Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17. This work has an opening movement marked by rhapsodic, passionate lyricism, a march in the middle movement that culminates with sensational back-rhythms and syncopations that still have the power to astonish no matter how often ones hears them, a rich harmonic structure that becomes as scintillating as a star-filled night in the finale movement, and dynamics that range from thumping fortes to the almost inaudible repeated notes that conclude the opening movement, leaving us in a mood of breathless expectation for what is yet to come.

Ever the rhythm king, Rackers scores yet more points with Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, the composer’s own transcription of his famous tone-poem. That the solo piano version of this work should be performed less often than the orchestral and piano four-hand versions should come as no surprise, since its fatalistic, whirling rhythms in the base, high degree of harmonic dissonance, and frequent changes in meter and texture ought to discourage all but the hardiest of concert pianists. Rackers overcomes the work’s technical difficulties with consummate style.

Finally, we come to Bela Bartok’s Piano Sonata (1926), a seminal work of the 20th Century. An often violently percussive work with tone clusters in the bass, powerful outbursts of octaves and chords, and relentless high-energy rhythms, it was Bartok’s way of making known to the world the folk music of the Magyars, the authentic ethnic Hungarians, as opposed to the more colorful “Gypsy” music that had long passed as Hungarian. (To judge from the unrelenting rhythms of the opening movement, Bartok’s earliest audiences must have responded with a request for “More Gypsy music, if you please”). Yet even in this work, there is an underlying lyricism in the central movement, Sostenuto e pesante, if you care to blast for it, and Rackers takes pains to bring out this element, too."
Phil Muse, Audio Society of Atlanta [March 2012]
This recording contains four important solo keyboard works, each of which occupies a unique place in the genre in which it was conceived.

The Baroque keyboard fantasia was one of the freest forms of the time, generally featuring several contrasting sections, an improvisatory style and frequent, often sudden, changes of mood. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue is one of the boldest and most striking works in this genre, employing extensive dissonance and chromaticism that points forward to later composers. Likely written during Bach’s Cöthen period in the early 1720s, the Fantasy consists of three sections. The first contains dramatic and virtuosic writing based on figuration. The second section emulates the vocal recitative style often heard in Baroque opera and the third combines the two with virtuoso passages and recitative in alternation. The fugue is one of Bach’s longest and most difficult and is one of his freest approaches to fugue development among his many works. The fugue subject itself contains ten of the twelve chromatic pitches, leading many to wonder whether the title Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue refers to the intense chromaticism of the Fantasy or the subject of the Fugue - or possibly both.

Schumann’s Fantasy in C major was originally conceived as a single-movement work, an homage to Beethoven written to support the unveiling of a monument to the composer in Bonn. Schumann himself considered the first movement one of his finest works and wrote to Clara Wieck, his future wife, that it was “a deep lament for you”. Ms. Wieck, however, was more taken with the second movement of the work (added later along with the third movement), a massive, heroic march with virtuoso outer sections and one of the most difficult endings in the piano repertoire. The final movement represents one of Schumann’s poetic peaks, a large-scale structure full of beauty and atmosphere that evokes quiet and contemplation. This Fantasy, then, is an homage to both Beethoven and to Clara Wieck. This dual influence is most striking near the end of the first movement, when Schumann quotes a melody from a Beethoven song (No. 6 from the cycle An die ferne Geliebte) with the words “Take, then, these songs, that I to you, beloved, sang”.

Ravel’s fondness for the Viennese waltz is well known from a letter he wrote to Johann Strauss in 1906, stating: “You know of my deep sympathy for these wonderful rhythms, and that I value the joie de vivre expressed by the dance...” Ravel’s La Valse, however, combines fundamental elements of the Viennese waltz with technical display, harmonic dissonance, sudden contrasts and a broad structure that simmers with drama and emotion, leading Ravel to describe this work as “a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz” and “a fantastic, fatal whirling”. It began as a work for ballet, but became a popular concert piece for orchestra and Ravel created versions both for solo piano and two pianos, four hands. About the opening of La Valse, Ravel described the following in the introduction to the score: “Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees at letter A an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo at letter B. Set in an imperial court, about 1855.”

Béla Bartók’s Piano Sonata was written in 1926 and fuses a percussive treatment of the piano, non- diatonic tonality and folk melodies and rhythms in a relentless display for the instrument. No other sonata at the time drew so heavily on folk influences while rigorously maintaining the traditional forms of individual movements and sonata structure as a whole. The first movement takes on a violent quality as tone clusters in the extreme bass register pound alongside outbursts of octaves and chords in the treble. The second movement is desolate, sparse and deeply powerful, utilizing chant-like motives that often consist of just one note. The third movement is an exuberant, celebratory dance teeming with rhythmic energy, register shifts, meter changes and sudden accents. The Sonata was premiered by Bartók himself in December, 1926 and was a showcase of his ability as a distinguished virtuoso pianist and composer. [ Joseph Rackers, December 2011]

Joseph Rackers has performed for enthusiastic audiences in major musical centers of the United States, Bulgaria, Canada, China, France, Germany, Spain and Ukraine. Performance highlights include the Dame Myra Hess Concert Series in Chicago, Central Park of Culture in Kiev, Shanghai and Sichuan Conservatories of Music and Yantai International Music Festival in China, Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada, music festivals throughout Europe including Burgos International Music Festival, Varna International Masterclasses, Moulin d’Andé Arts Festival and Sulzbach-Rosenberg International Music Festival, Chernigoff Symphony Orchestra and Society of Composers International Conference, in addition to performances as soloist with orchestras, on concert series and at colleges and universities in every region of the United States. A Steinway Artist, Joseph Rackers holds the Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees in piano performance from the Eastman School of Music, where he was also awarded the Performer’s Certificate. His primary teachers were Natalya Antonova and Raymond Herbert with master classes with Julian Martin, Misha Dichter and Blanca Uribe, among others. Also active as a chamber musician, Rackers has performed widely as a member of the Lomazov-Rackers Piano Duo. The duo was awarded Second Prize at the Sixth Ellis Competition for Duo Pianists in 2005, the only national duo piano competition in the United States at the time. As advocates of modern repertoire for duo piano, they have given regional or national premieres of numerous works across the United States. Rackers is currently Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of South Carolina and serves on the faculty of the Southeastern Piano Festival and Burgos International Music Festival in Spain. He has taught at the Eastman School of Music and Hochstein Music School and has given master classes throughout the United States, Europe and China. He is active as an adjudicator of piano competitions across the United States, including the Hilton Head International Piano Competition in South Carolina.


Durchaus fantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen
Mässig. Durchaus energisch
Langsam getragen. Durchweg leise zu halten

MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937)
Transcribed for piano by the composer

BÉLA BARTÓK (1881-1945)
PIANO SONATA, SZ.80 (1926)
Allegro moderato
Sostenuto e pesante
Allegro molto

MSR Classics
for Piano Four Hands …