DETT My Cup Runneth Over
The piano works of Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) span his entire creative life, from early ragtime influences to the complexity and substance of his final works for the instrument. Given his importance as one of the first composers of African descent to achieve a sophisticated and serious fusion of Negro folk music and spirituals with European art-music traditions, not to mention his skills as a concert pianist, it’s surprising that no one until Clipper Erickson has essayed Dett’s complete piano output on disc.
However, the wait was worth it, for this music is simply wonderful, while Erickson’s idiomatic, colourful, technically adroit and caring interpretations do the repertoire full justice. While one easily perceives Dett’s stylistic influences, the music’s consistent creativity always holds interest, even in such early pieces as the Magnolia Suite (1912); it’s hard not to get pulled into The Deserted Cabin’s brooding atmosphere and dark bass-register chords or the quirky virtuoso outbursts that keep you guessing in The Place Where the Rainbow Ends. No less a figure than Percy Grainger championed In the Bottoms (1913), from which he recorded the sprightly yet demanding Juba Dance that Erickson so dashingly tosses off.
With the two four-movement suites Enchantment (1922) and Cinnamon Grove (1928), Dett’s harmonic and textural palette considerably expands, while Tropic Winter (1938) conveys both charm and contrapuntal refinement. However, Dett’s valedictory Eight Bible Vignettes digs deepest of all. The seventh piece, ‘Other Sheep’, is a nearly-10-minute masterpiece packed with intensely lyrical polyphony, jagged declamatory unison statements, percussive passages and the kind of gravitas one finds in Brahms’s late piano pieces.
This historically and musically important release not only fills a crucial catalogue gap but sets reference standards. No serious aficionado of the history of American piano music can afford to miss it.