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Mark L Lehman
American Record Guide, July 2011

Though not much remembered today, Eduard Steuermann (1892–1964) (his given name is sometimes spelled Edward in America) was one of the more significant participants in the Second Viennese School, though more known as pianist than composer. A Polish Jew, he studied with both Schoenberg and Busoni, and (following the familiar pattern) fled the Nazis in the 1930s, becoming a professor of piano at the Philadelphia Conservatory and later at Juilliard while maintaining his career as a touring concert artist. Among his many distinguished students are Alfred Brendel, Lorin Hollander, Lili Krauss, and Joseph Kalichstein.

As an interpreter of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, Steuermann had the tremendous advantage of being “present at the creation”. He premiered the piano works of Schoenberg and Webern under their guidance, and continued to play them, along with the piano parts in their chamber pieces and the solo in Schoenberg’s 1942 Piano Concerto, for decades afterwards, all over the world. He also arranged their music for smaller, more practical ensembles.

Steuermann’s performances of Schoenberg’s piano music are inimitable and authoritative: more shapely, expressive, and nuanced than any other pianist’s—including such luminaries as Rosen, Gould, Jacobs, and Pollini. He simply knew this music so intimately, and identified so completely with its emotional world, that it comes across with a clarity of line, verve, and humane warmth that no one else can match.

Steuermann’s own compositions are obviously influenced by Schoenberg and certainly atonal, but less hard-edged and rugged than his mentor’s; the expressionist extremes and brusque impatience are moderated, and instead the music is more sensuous, graceful, and idiomatic, and often conciliatory or lyrical in character. Recordings, besides the Piano Suite on Tacet, include the Improvisation for Violin and Piano, and another performance of the Piano Suite by the superb Russell Sherman, another Steuermann student on LP…

To this rather scanty representation is now added the Ravinia Trio’s excellent performance (in what is almost certainly the first recording) of Steuermann’s 23-minute Piano Trio from 1954, a representative and particularly significant example of his music. The Trio is in five seamlessly joined sections and plays as a single movement; sharp contrasts of tempo and texture are avoided, the piece moving for the most part along at a moderate pace. Instrumental lines are intricately and cunningly interwoven, and there’s striking and pervasive use of delicate, softly flickering, evanescent tremulos, unforgettable at the Trio’s gentle, mirage-like opening and conclusion. For all its disjunct chromaticism, the music is built from elegant melodic lines layered in ornate counterpoint. The large-scale form has an intuitive, almost stream-of-consciousness logic perfectly suitable for its enigmatic and dreamlike mood. This is a beautifully made, and, for people susceptible to Steuermann’s idiom, a spell-casting and memorable creation, closer in personality to the fully chromatic music written in the same period by Artur Schnabel and (Steuermann’s friend) Roger Sessions than to music of the more doctrinaire followers of Schoenberg.

Schoenberg himself was a far more intense and hyper-romantic personality than Steuermann (or almost anyone else)—evident in all his music, both the early tonal and later atonal and dodecaphonic works. Verklärte Nacht for string sextet, from 1899, is of course the prime example of his early tonal romanticism. It’s presented here in Steuermann’s 1932 version for piano trio, which has only been recorded once before that I’m aware of—…a less than persuasive reading. A piano trio made from this work might appear perverse in that Verklärte Nacht is one of those pieces that seems to constantly seek to expand its boundaries: it’s really a Straussian orchestral tone-poem sized-down to chamber proportions, which is no doubt why Schoenberg himself made a popular string orchestra version. Indeed, you’d think the piece would lend itself more to a full orchestra setting than to a piano trio. But the trio version does have the virtue of much more clarity; it reveals all sorts of details too often muddied by sumptuous but thick string sonorities. And, rather to my surprise, Steuermann’s trio version retains the emotional power of the original, adding refinement, purity, sweetness, and sacrificing very little of the music’s timbral and harmonic opulence.

The Ravinia Trio plays both works with superb musicianship and tonal luster, and Divox’s sonics approach an ideal balance of detail and immediacy with color, fullness, and ambiance. This is an exceptionally valuable and illuminating release.

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