Gramophone ~ July 2010 ~ www.gramophone.co.uk
"McCallum takes listeners on a delightful French tour."
"Greg McCallum impresses with a rock-solid technique."
"McCallum attacks this repertoire with boldness and vigour."
Greg McCallum's propensity for imaginative programme-building extends to his latest MSR release. It's refreshing to hear Poulenc's tuneful, harmonically lush 13th and 15th Improvisations as McCallum plays them, with a full-bodied, bass-oriented sonority that differs from the leaner "top of the keys" approach favoured by the composer. The cakewalkers depicted in Debussy's "Minstrels" take a few moments before settling into the very danceable tempo that McCallum sets. The pianist cannily gauges the slow-motion build of "La cathédrale engloutie" and brings plenty of characterful sparkle to the filigree of "Feux d'artifice". Although McCallum does not consistently maintain the three-dimensional melody/accompaniment textures throughout the Franck Prélude and Ravel "Ondine" in smooth perspective, he justifies his slow pace for "Le gibet" by keeping the repeating B flats dynamically uniform and adhering to the composer's expressive directives. "Scarbo" is similarly meticulous and focused, and makes its points through articulation and accent rather than speed, although I prefer Argerich and Pogorelich for their quicker, cutting-edge diablerie. No qualms, however, in regard to the "Regard de l'Esprit de joie" (excuse the bad pun!), with McCallum's driving left-hand bass-lines, slashing treble chords and rock-solid projection of Messiaen's rapid passagework. McCallum's excellent and extensive booklet-notes add value to this fine, superbly engineered release.
Fanfare ~ September/October 2010 ~ www.fanfaremag.com
McCallum’s first disc for MSR received a positive notice in these pages, as much for the outside-the-box programming as for his fine playing. But it is one matter to make an impression on the inquisitive listener with rarely heard works by the likes of Gottschalk, Mills, Still, and Rzewski (as well as one of McCallum’s own works), but it is quite another to jump into a crowded field of brilliant interpreters of Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen. It may take a leap for faith for fans of French piano music to invite a relative unknown to share shelf space with the likes of Thibaudet, Pollini, and Moravec, but devotees aren’t likely to regret the purchase.
In general I would describe his readings as clear-eyed and unfussy (no gauzy washes of impressionist haze here), sensibly paced with rubato applied with a subtle touch, and a dynamic profile that seems more geared to framing the architecture than micro-managing phrases.
McCallum’s program includes a generously wide spectrum of styles, and the listener will be reminded how far-reaching French music traveled in a mere half century. Much of this program is well represented on disc, but there are a few wild cards thrown into the mix, including a pair of Francis Poulenc’s 15 Improvisations. The pianist has a persuasive way with these salon pieces, imbuing them with charm and lyrical grace. The three Debussy preludes show a mastery of color and keen control of dynamic shadings.
I can’t say that I concur with McCallum’s assertion in the notes that Frank’s Prélude, Choral and Fugue is a masterpiece (the long, arpeggiated procession of chords in the second movement are a deal breaker for me), but the pianist makes a strong case.
Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit is undoubtedly one of the sternest tests for a pianist. McCallum’s first movement is a bit careful with regard to tempo, but not so deliberate as to hamper melodic progression. He tends not to separate the myriad voices with exaggerated dynamic layering, an approach that took a bit of adjustment for me, but came to pay handsome dividends. Indeed, there are details of the score that I heard for the first time, no easy feat considering the number of interpretations I’ve heard. There are more impetuous readings of this masterpiece, but few that give the listener a clearer insight into the composer’s exacting craftsmanship.
As in the Ravel, Messiaen’s “Regard de L’Espirit de joie” is imbued with x-ray clarity and technicolor harmonies that shimmer with polished brilliance. While the percussive elements are tamer than in some recorded versions, dynamic contrasts are vividly etched, and the mammoth chords are deftly vanquished. If, like me, you have grown weary of the completeness fetish that has gripped the music world for decades and long for the taste required to fashion a satisfying recital disc, this is for you. Recording quality is first rate. Highly recommended.
Classical Voice of North Carolina ~ January 14, 2010 ~ http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/cd_dvd_book/cd/McCallum.html
After Greg McCallum wrapped up his first musical documentary for MSR Classics, Southern Quilt, he set out on a new adventure, a dream held by many; the keepsake and gift to us was a new recording, Voyage à Paris. Immersing himself in the art, the cuisine, the language, and the landscape, he lived and prepared himself in the very neighborhood where great composers, painters, and writers thrived in fin de siècle Paris. Choosing some of the most beautiful works for solo piano, the collection features works by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) whose "Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune" forever changed the world of Western music; Olivier Messiaen, father of the avant-garde; César Franck (1822-1890); Francis Poulenc, prominent member of Les Six; and Maurice Ravel.
The centerpiece of the album is the monumental Prelude, Chorale and Fugue (1844) by César Franck (1822-1890). Born in Liège, Franck lived and worked as composer, teacher, and organist (mainly at Ste. Clotilde) in his beloved Paris, where he cut loose from an over-zealous father and fully developed as an artist. His most substantial output during his golden years, including this cycle, reflects a richly infused improvisatory technique and chromatic palette that would influence his followers and students. McCallum’s scintillating performance reveals the emotionalism and counterpoint that Franck so skillfully married. And this is just a warm up.
In the well-written liner notes, McCallum describes the following tracks by Ravel as “pinnacle.” The composer was not a virtuoso at the keyboard and, surprisingly, at the instigation of Ricardo Viñes, he set out to pen the most difficult piano work on the planet. Ravel’s early works were influenced by Debussy, but in this case he wove shimmering ninths and elevenths into well-defined structures that set his work apart. Gaspard de la Nuit (1908), based on three poems by Aloysius Bertrand (published posthumously in 1842), is exquisitely crafted; each of the three movements characterizes the descriptive narrative. “Ondine,” says McCallum,” is one of the greatest water tone poems of the Impressionist period.” With the relentless sound of a church bell, "Le Gibet" is a bone-chilling portrait. But the real test for the performer, “Scarbo” is devilishly tricky. McCallum adeptly turns Ravel’s spell-binding compositional response into a thrilling experience that would rival Stephen King’s novels.
McCallum closes with “Regard de l’Esprit de joie” from Olivier Messiaen’s tour de force, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus (1944). Written for his second wife, Yvonne Loriod, a brilliant pianist, the composition presents a myriad of technical challenges. From relentless motoric drive, fiery runs, and cascading sixths, this piece never lets up. Boldly capturing every coloristic nuance, McCallum’s performance is powerful. Messiaen would surely smile!
McCallum also includes two Poulenc Improvisations, both songs without words. Improvisation No. 15 in C Major (1959), titled “Hommage à Edith Piaf,” tips the hat to France’s most popular twentieth-century singer. His musical language is direct but sensuous; lyric and elegant. Of course, no recording of this scope would be complete without Debussy Préludes. You will find these equally magical. And if you hear a bit of Gershwin in the final tracks, you won’t be alone. He was enchanted by French composers, particularly Ravel; the admiration went both ways.
Hands down, this is my pick for favorite 2009 piano recording. So take out your Atlas, pour yourself a glass of Piesporter* and get ready for a winter get-away. Even better, go hear McCallum in recital at Meredith College, Sunday, January 17, at 8:00 p.m.
*wine suggested by Nancy A. Stolfo-Corti, The Other Side of Tuscany
Karen E. Moorman
Audio Video Club of Atlanta – Phil's Classical Reviews ~ May 2010 ~ http://www.mindspring.com/~chucksaudiohome/docs/Phil's%20Reviews%20May%202010.pdf
Greg McCallum is a for-real “American in Paris,” having lived there for several extended stays, soaking up local color and tradition as research for this highly nuanced album of French piano classics. There can, of course, be no such thing as a “French piano school,” the musical aims of such as Poulenc, Debussy, Franck, Ravel, and Messaien being as diverse as they were, so McCallum doesn’t waste any effort trying to identify a common thread in their writing. But with his thinking man’s approach to the music plus his sensitivity to fine distinctions in color, texture and phrasing, he succeeds in presenting the salient qualities of five intriguing composers.
Poulenc: Improvisations 13 &15. McCallum captures the essential lyrical qualities in two pieces that remind us of the imaginative piano accompaniments to Poulenc’s songs. No. 13, with arpeggiated chords and awash with pedal, allegedly was a tribute to Franz Schubert, though I hear something Tchaikovskyan about McCallum’s performance (which may only prove that romantic composers have a lot in common). No. 15 is clearly inspired by the songs of Edith Piaf.
Debussy: Three Preludes. The emphasis here is on vivid sense impressions. “Minstrels” conjures up song-and-dance entertainers in blackface, performing the latest American rags of the day, complete with drum and banjo imitations. “ La Cathédrale engloutie” (The Sunken cathedral) uses parallel chords reminiscent of medieval organum, rising motifs, shifting textures and subtle dynamics to create the image of a fabulous cathedral of legend rising from its grave beneath the waves, climaxing on the lowest C of the piano. Feux d’artifice (Fireworks), true to its name, uses all the pianist’s technical wizardry and the full range of scintillating keyboard colors to paint a musical impression of a fireworks show on Bastille Day: ascending rockets, splashy festoons, and the big boom at the end, followed by a faint echo of La Marseillaise!
César Franck: Prélude, Chorale et Fugue. In its sonority, its virile use of counterpoint and the carry-over of its fugal theme between movements, this magnificent work is as impressive an achievement in keyboard terms as Franck’s D Minor Symphony is in its own genre. McCallum does a wonderful job laying out the architecture of this great work before us, keeping always in mind its ultimate destination. The moment when the fugal theme is launched between the two voices already in canon between the left and right hand is truly stunning. So is the rising mood of exaltation at the end.
Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit. I don’t think I’ve heard a more convincing performance of these exercises in the macabre inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and the prose poems of Alois Bertrand (1807-42). The title, translated literally “Spoiler of the Night,” signifies a nightmare. There are, in fact, three of them. “Ondine” is the nymph that lures her mortal lover to his death by drowning, leading him on with her enticements and then laughing in mockery at his downfall. Alertness to Ravel’s range of shifting textures and arabesques, signifying both the flow of water and the Ondine’s sorcery, is the key to realizing this piece. “Le Gibet” (The Hanged Man) is a grotesque study in light and shade and slowly resolving harmonies set against the incessant tolling of a bell, all requiring the utmost in precision of the performer. Finally, “Scarbo” is the portrait of a shape-shifting demon who seeps into the tormented sleeper’s room with the evening fog, rises in a column of smoke to the height of a bell tower, then dissolves to nothingness. Chilling repeated notes, eerie tremolos, continually shifting textures and registers and a demonic command of dynamics, are part of the pianist’s arsenal brought to bear on this fantastic piece.
Messaien: Regard de l’Esprit de Joie. In this “Reflection on the Spirit of Joy” from Twenty Reflections on the Infant Jesus, Olivier (Don’t call me a “mystic”) Messaien used every means at his disposal, including key clusters, pentatonic modes and chromatic seconds, pedal points, ancient dance rhythms and jazzy syncopations, climaxing with a loud (ffff) statement of the theme and cascading scales that seem to spin off into space, to invoke the spirit of eternal joy. All of this requires, and receives, the utmost of McCallum’s pianistic prowess.
Audiophile Audition ~ March 13, 2010 ~ http://www.audaud.com/article?ArticleID=7108
A very nice idea for turning a recital of 19th and 20th century piano music into a concept album. The two little Poulenc pieces are seldom heard and epitomize a sort of Parisian mood. The three Debussy selections illustrate how that composer revolutionized music for the piano. His masterpiece The Sunken Cathedral creates an impressive programmatic structure using echoes of bells, chants, early organ music, and the rising and falling waters.
The architectural structure of Franck’s work fits in well with the photo of the Eiffel Tower on the CD’s cover. This is the earliest of all the works and was the first composition for piano which the composer had written after 40 years of works mostly for organ or for orchestra. Strongly utilized Franck’s cyclical style, it makes use of variations of the chorale theme and parts of the fugue theme throughout the work. In the third part of the Ravel suite - Scarbo - McCallum deftly brings out the Gothically dark and threatening musical depiction of the diabolical dwarf. The totally individual aesthetic of Olivier Messiaen is sampled in the closing selection from his 20 Regards of the Infant Jesus. From the foundation of his devout Catholic faith Messiaen created music that - in his own words - was iridescent, voluptuous, a theological rainbow, and like a stained-glass window. Bird song is another major element in his music, but this work comes before he ventured into serialism in his later works.
McCallum plays a German Steinway and the sonics are exceptionally realistic and wide range. There is a reference to a special technology used in the recording. Although limited to the 44.1K/16bit resolution of CDs, the final result is a cut above many other piano CDs.