I have to confess – until I was recently offered this set of recordings – that the name of Chicago-born pianist and pedagogue Howard Karp was unknown to me. My first bit of investigation before delving into these performances was to discover that Karp had died on 30 June this year at the age of 84. He has been described as the “patriarch of a prolific musical family” and was equally regarded as a professor and as a performer.
For those already admiring of Karp I have no doubt that this six-disc set will be a wonderful souvenir. And for anyone new to Karp, there is much to discover in these concert performances recorded between the years stated (but, unsatisfactorily, none of the accounts are individually dated or their locations specified). Karp is to be heard in demanding and much-aired repertoire, including some gold-standard stuff such as the Goldberg Variations, the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, and heavyweight Schubert and Schumann. Given the wealth of talent that has paraded these pieces over such a long period of time (in concerts and as recordings), and also the other works performed here, there is ‘no hiding place’ for Karp in terms of competition.
Yet, from nowhere (for me at any rate), here is Karp giving readings of these masterworks that are of the first rank, at once seriously good renditions of the chosen pieces and also acting as a ladder of enlightenment as to the interpretative and technical skills (the latter serving the former) of the now-late musician. Inevitably, given that these are recordings made at concerts and over a 45-year period (nevertheless the set is branded DDD!), the sound-quality is variable, so too the instruments that Karp had at his disposal. And while one may have some reservations about both, the authority of Karp’s playing is such that doubts are banished by his excellence.
Rather than write in detail on the performances here, it would be more pertinent to simply say that, especially if you are new to Karp’s musicianship, for anyone who cares about the great art of playing the piano, and also about penetrating musicianship – and allying the two – then you need to hear these performances; there is much that is illuminating and rewarding, and such revelations are complemented by conductor Kenneth Woods’s extensive essay for the booklet.
So, a whistle-stop tour of six well-filled CDs begins with Robert Schumann’s magnificent Fantasy in C (Opus 17) – very well recorded – full of poise, impulse, romantic ardour and touch-sensitive yearning lyricism, with the technically-challenging second movement heroically brought off. Then more Schumann, his Sonata in F minor (Opus 14), the so-called ‘Concerto without Orchestra’, has its entanglements clarified without denuding its whimsy and personality; the reams of notes in the finale is a tour de force from Karp. Finally, Liszt’s majestic B minor Ballade thunders and contemplates.
And “majestic” sums up Schubert’s Sonata in C minor (D958), which opens the second disc, a searching but not overblown account, quite impulsive, expressively charged, spontaneous-sounding and always controlled. Karp observes the first-movement exposition repeat, which is more than he does in the sublime opening movement of the B flat Sonata (D960), but his idea of the Molto moderato marking is convincingly spacious, and flexible; the heart of this performance is the time-taken slow movement, hypnotically sustained as to suggest a lonely wanderer; and what helter-skelter Karp brings to the scherzo and what endeavour to the finale. As an encore, as it were, is the last of the Four Impromptus, D935; the murky sound not able to disguise Karp’s fresh way with it.
Disc 3 opens with Chopin, the B minor Sonata (No.3, Opus 58), slightly too emphatic at times, rather meaty (which those who hate prettified Chopin will welcome) and without sentimentality; again, the exposition repeat is eschewed. Anyone wondering about the agility of Karp’s fingers will be assured by his rendering of the scherzo, if lacking what might be considered an essential light and mercurial touch; the trio is expressively burdened. The Largo third-movement is suitably spacious, again without sweetening the pill, and the finale is like a stallion freely roaming the countryside. A Chopin Mazurka (Opus 56/3), needing some sonic tolerance, follows, and which seems just a little foursquare. Six movements from Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage follow, mostly from the ‘Swiss’ leg, wholly absorbing as music-making, if sometimes suggesting that Karp could have played more quietly had the recording allowed him so to do.
Disc 4 embraces Beethoven at his greatest, the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata (B flat, Opus 106) and Opus 111 (C minor), the latter being Beethoven’s farewell to the genre. The former opens in imposing and impetuous style, and Karp is just a little meandering, his fingers slightly stiff (but by now even a Karp greenhorn such as myself can say that this is not typical of him). The scherzo flies by, the trio a ménage of possibilities and bluff. With the (to my mind) enigmatic slow movement Karp moves into solemn mode and then whips up the fugal finale into something delirious. Not the greatest ‘Hammerklavier’ (Richter takes that palm in London 1975, now on ICA Classics) but a fibrous and thought-provoking one. Opus 111, recorded in an acoustic difficult to define and with exaggerated stereo spread (almost suggesting two pianos!), is full of expectancy, striving and drive, and rounded-off with an ‘Arietta’ (a theme and variations) of soul-searching depth and ensuing variety, not least an anticipation of jazz, which Karp fully exploits. The disc ends with another ‘encore’, the finale of the Opus 2/2 Sonata (A major), if not as gracefully as Beethoven’s marking might suggest.
Disc 5 moves from the sublime to the sublime, J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a concentrated no-repeats outing (a stratagem that was also fine for Glenn Gould’s first recording of it). One might find ‘Variation I’ rather heavy-handed and, maybe, overall the whole account too exact, even inflexible, if a textbook version with which to get to know the incomparable workings of this insomnia-inspired magnum opus. It’s rare that there is room on a Goldberg disc for more music (and the CD’s total playing-time is but 67 minutes), but there follows a nicely balanced reading of a Mozart Sonata (in D, K576), quite impish in the first movement, poetic in the second, and with robustly courtliness in the finale. And we’re not done, for there is another snippet, the third movement of Schubert’s Sonata in G (D894), a forceful and serious Minuet; well, that’s how Karp saw it.
The ultimate disc opens with Aaron Copland’s Variations (1930), a tough cookie of a piece, and later orchestrated by the composer. However rigorous and severe the music, it satisfies the intellect, and Karp makes a strong case for it in this reading of unbending dedication and, when required, dazzling virtuosity (although changes of perspective suggest that more than one performance was used). There follows the Piano Sonata (1948) by Leon Kirchner, a continuous three-movement affair, as rigorous as the Copland, but yielding suggestion and atmosphere, and volatility, in the first movement, nominally slow but soon developing a coruscation and a musical argument that, like a good book, is difficult to put down. Then, back to Bach, the D major Partita (BWV828), just a little rigid in places, even in the meltingly beautiful ‘Allemande’, although faster-dance movements have more of a spring in their step. Finally, finally, another excerpt, the finale of Schubert’s D major Sonata (D850), which is a breath of fresh air and closes this survey of Howard Karp’s artistry (something of a well-kept secret to many of us) with palpable joy in music itself and being able to perform and share it.