Media Reviews

FANFARE MAGAZINE CD Review: Historical Piano Series, Volumes III and V. March 1, 2013

“When the Editor asked me if I was available to review two discs titled “Historical Piano Series,” I enthusiastically accepted the assignment. I did so because, based on the aforementioned title, I assumed that pianist Steven Spooner would be performing on instruments made by the venerable houses of Bösendorfer, Bechstein, Steingraeber, Blüthner, Steinweg, Ibach, and so on. As it turns out, my assumption was at least in part incorrect—while some of the featured repertoire is indeed performed on historical instruments (including an 1886 Bechstein that allegedly once belonged to Liszt), most of it appears to me to be performed on modern pianos, some of which are frankly not very good. I suppose I would have been within my rights to feel at least somewhat disappointed after listening to Spooner’s recordings, but much to my surprise I was not. That is because, whether played on old pianos, new pianos, good pianos, or bad pianos, the featured repertoire receives consistently fresh and inspired performances.

Let me begin with some general observations. Spooner is a pianist in the tradition that many believe died with the likes of Horowitz, Arrau, Bolet, Cziffra, and Wild. He has a very secure and seemingly effortless technique, and a cast bronze, bass-centered sound that maintains its texture, richness, and depth across all dynamic levels. He also has remarkable lyrical gifts and a keen appreciation for the underlying architecture of the works he plays. Finally, it is also plain that Spooner likes to have fun behind the keyboard and think outside the box. These qualities are reflected throughout Spooner’s performances of the diverse works included on these discs.

Spooner’s ability to paint large-scale musical canvasses is best showcased in the Liszt Sonata, which is performed on the aforementioned 1886 Bechstein, and Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie. In many respects, Spooner’s grandly-conceived reading of the Liszt Sonata reminds me of Richter’s in its unflagging concentration and frequent clashes between demonic surges and mystical respites that threaten to break the integrity of the work’s architecture but paradoxically only serve to underscore it. It is a vision that rejects surface thrills, but one that will undoubtedly have its detractors. (See, for instance, Adrian Corleonis’s dismissal of Richter in Issue 32:2.) Carl Bechstein famously set out to build instruments able to weather Lisztian storms. Given that Spooner’s instrument is now 130 years old, it is perhaps not surprising that it no longer operates as it once did. Thus, there are times when the piano sounds overpowered and, likely due to a loss in the soundboard’s crown, its top frequently fails to project and sustain. That said, there are also moments, particularly in the Andante sostenuto, where the instrument glows miraculously.

Spooner’s bel canto tone is on full display in the Schumann Romance (who isn’t this work more frequently performed?), the Chopin mazurkas, which are delivered with masterful gusto, and the Schubert transcriptions (particularly the famous Serenade), which are gorgeously shaded and heartbreaking in their irrepressible melancholy. As far as I am concerned, this is simply what great piano playing is all about. Those attracted to pyrotechnics will also find plenty to cheer about, including Spooner’s unflappable romps through the Hungarian Rhapsody, various Liszt transcriptions, and the Argerich-inspired Spooner etude.

The quality of the recorded sound is semi-professional but nonetheless acceptable. In his liner notes, Spooner notes that these are live performances that took place in various venues and on various instruments. While the lack of expert engineering is a bit of a drawback, it will not eclipse the quality of Spooner’s playing.

Two discs that will no doubt lead to endless hours of delight for pianophiles. Highly recommended.” Radu A. Lelutiu

FANFARE MAGAZINE CD Review: Historical Piano Series, Volumes III and V. March 1, 2013

“I have said many times in these pages that the great majority of young classical musicians who win prizes at prestigious competitions and are described by their high-powered publicity as “one of the most exciting and dynamic (fill in instrumentalist or conductor’s name here) of their generation” are usually no match for the great names of the past, many of whom won no major competitions or, if they did, only managed to do so after they were established. Sometimes political circumstances interfered with them, especially those who had the misfortune to emerge just as Fascism and Nazism were engulfing the world in darkness, but in many cases it was simply a matter of not being able to afford to go to all the really big competitions. Yet there were giants in those days.

These CDs, and a DVD reviewed below, are proof enough that there are still superb musicians who manage to win prizes and have nice careers without attaining a high profile. Steven Spooner (b. 2/3/1970) is one such example. He entered and placed well in several competitions, among them the New Orleans, Hilton Head, and Artlivre International Piano Competitions; the most internationally prestigious was probably the well-known Franz Liszt Piano Competition in 1999. He has concertized in Carnegie Hall, as have hundreds of others, as well as in Holland, Moscow, Paris, Budapest, Geneva, and cities in South America. But insofar as high-profile recognition goes, Dr. Spooner is not well known. He is assistant professor of piano at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Yet his talent, to my ears, is easily the equal of most major pianists of today and far superior to a large number of those “most exciting and dynamic pianists of their generation” whose discs fill the new record catalogs to overflowing.

This series of self-produced CDs, bearing the title Historical Piano Recital Series, reflects the programs of Spooner’s attempt to replicate the long series of “historical recitals” given by Anton Rubinstein in 1885, in which he played a broad range of romantic composers and thus set the boundaries for the “standard piano repertoire.” Spooner says that in trying to replicate Rubinstein’s feat, he immersed himself “in the composer’s world with hours of listening to their chamber, vocal, orchestral music (if applicable) and reading as much as I could about their lives, loves, and legacies.” The CDs are not necessarily recordings of the actual concerts involved, but in many cases performances recorded at earlier concerts that happened to have better fidelity or which are better realizations of the music. Spooner begs the listener’s indulgence with occasional audience noise or less than perfect sound reproduction. On these discs, at least, I had no real complaints.

His performance of the Schumann Romanze is beautifully poised, the tone deep in the keys (this seems to be a hallmark of his playing) and the dreamy mood sustained to perfection. Although I am not normally a big fan of the Liszt piano transcriptions of others’ songs, I have to admit that the way Spooner performs Aufenthalt conforms with my vision of the work’s dramatic content, and the famed Ständchen is turned by Liszt into a sort of love duet, with the pianist’s two hands managing, through some strange magic, to actually play three different lines of music simultaneously (the chorded bass line, the melody in the mid-range, and an answering voice an octave higher). Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13appears to be a favorite piece for Spooner because it’s based “not only on Gypsy and/or Hungarian themes but features Jewish themes in the extended Lassan opening.” Here one is able to compare Spooner directly to some of the most famous Liszt pianists of all time, such as Gyorgy Cziffra (one of many examples who fit my description in the first paragraph—what competitions did Cziffra win?), and though his technique is not as dazzling it is certainly good enough to encompass the most difficult passages in this work, and his sense of melodic phrasing is every bit the equal of Cziffra’s.

I was a little less pleased with his performances of the Chopin mazurkas, but only because I felt he didn’t quite capture the correct mazurka rhythm. I admit, however, that this is a difficult rhythmic “feel” for a non-Eastern European pianist to achieve. Of Western pianists, the late Antonio Barbosa was one of the very few who got the rhythm right. Aside from this technical problem, however, Spooner plays them with obvious affection, and I had no such reservations about his playing of the long Polonaise-Fantaisie which is quite fine.

Of Spooner’s two original Etudes, the one dedicated to Keith Jarrett, though requiring the performer to improvise freely and eventually quote from the tune My Funny Valentine, seemed to me rather ruminative and low-key although a fascinating piece. The second Etude, Toccata à la Argerich, is a dazzling showpiece capturing her intensity and Latin roots while quoting briefly from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Prokofiev’s Toccata op. 11.

Although I’m pretty familiar with William Bolcom’s opera and all of his recordings of Scott Joplin pieces for Nonesuch, I did not previously know “The Serpent’s Kiss,” but it’s an enormously entertaining and well-constructed piece which calls for foot stamping, piano tapping, and tongue clicking effects, all of which could easily be made to sound tawdry in the hands of a lesser composer. Bolcom is a fine writer, however, and thus this piece emerges as a good one that also happens to be entertaining. Spooner is obviously having fun with it as well as the appreciative audience. This is an excellent introduction to the piano world of Steven Spooner, and I heartily recommend it to you.

Moving on to Vol.5, this too seeks to replicate (but not entirely duplicate) the legendary Anton Rubinstein’s 1885 traversals of what was then the standard piano repertoire. As far as I can infer from both the booklet to this CD and the pianist’s own website, which list the entire repertoire that Spooner presented at his concerts, Vol. 5 seems to be a mere pausing point for what will undoubtedly be a set of roughly 15 CDs. To date, the other volumes include the following pieces:

Vol. 1:
Mozart: sonatas K 132, 141, 184, 213.
Haydn: Sonata in AI, Hob XVI/46
Schubert: Sonata in a, D 537

Vol. 2:
J. Strauss-Dohnányi: Zigeunerbaron: Schatz-Walzer
Chopin: Mazurkas, op. 24/1-4, Etude op.10/1; Waltz op. 69/1
Wagner/Liszt: Rienzi Paraphrase
Brahms: Intermezzo op. 116/6, Capriccio, op. 116/7
Debussy: La cathedrale engloutie, Etude: Pour les octaves
Rachmaninoff: Etude, op. 39/9 in D
Bartók: from 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs, Burlesque no. 1
Spooner: Etude-Toccata (à la Argerich)

Vol. 4:
Liszt: Piano Sonata, Il penseroso
Schubert: Sonata in BI, D 960

I’m not sure why several pieces are duplicated in the five CDs issued so far, particularly the very long Liszt sonata, but there you are. The remaining CDs to come in this series will include Scriabin’s Preludes and Etudes, Scarlatti sonatas, more Haydn, several Brahms pieces including the difficult Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel,Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6, Beethoven sonatas, Debussy, Schumann, Bartók, and Ligeti. It appears to be quite a prodigious project.

Spooner plays the Liszt sonata on the composer’s own 1886 Bechstein grand piano, so undoubtedly this comes from a recital in Hungary. There is good energy to the performance, and Spooner holds the unusual structure of the sonata together quite well, though it seldom reaches the emotional heights of Annie Fischer’s remarkable performance of it (few do). The paraphrase from Wagner’s Rienzi is remarkable for its musical invention, and Spooner acquits himself well here, fully entering the spirit of the piece’s energy. I felt that this version of the Schubert-Liszt Aufenthalt was a bit more intense than the one on Vol. 3, but the interpretation of the Ständchen is virtually identical. The Liszt transcriptions ofMut and Loreley, new to this release, are also played exceptionally well. Needless to say, the Meyerbeer-Liszt Valse infernale is a real tour de force, yet even here the overriding quality of Spooner’s conception is to reveal the structure of the piece, not merely to dazzle the listener with keyboard pyrotechnics.

In a certain way—that way being tone, touch, and range of colors—Spooner’s playing put me in mind of Leonard Shure, one of my recent discoveries. They share a love of romantic scores, a deep-in-the-keys touch, and a way of coloring the music, in addition to outstanding phrasing. It’s a hard quality to put into words, but Spooner almost seems to be “allowing” the piano to make music rather than forcing it to do so. This is the mark of a first-rate musician who puts his or her talent to the service of the composer rather than the other way round.

My review of Spooner’s DVD follows below. I look forward to hearing his Beethoven, Schubert, Scriabin, and Prokofiev in future releases of this series.” Lynn René Bayley

THE STRAITS TIMES, Recital Review, Esplanade Hall, Saturday, May 12, 2012

“Originally entitled a Sviatoslav Richter Commemorative Recital, American pianist Steven Spooner, piano professor at University of Kansas, gave his audience a choice of four different recital programmes to choose from. This element of serendipity, interaction, and ultimately spontaneity, was an unusual departure from the norm of a concert pianist having a fixed recital programme that is played to death within a given season.

It also harked back to the halcyon era of great pianists (the likes of Anton Rubinstein, Josef Hofmann and Rachmaninov come to mind) who had such wide repertoires that the entire length, breadth and depth of piano literature is explored over a series of evenings. As it turned out, the audience voted out the austere Richter recital, favouring instead programmes inspired by Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Spooner’s own arrangements.

Thus a Chopin group opened the evening, with a Polonaise, four Mazurkas, a Waltz and the Second Scherzo, all exhibiting a sensitive ear for gradations of sonority, and an intuitive feeling of rubato. For the Polish dances, the lilt was delicious, lingering ever so slightly but not overdone. Outright virtuosity came to the fore in the Scherzo, but there was never a forced or ugly sound.

Three short works that Horowitz loved came next, first a delicate Scarlatti Sonata in D minor, Rachmaninov’s melancholic Prelude in G sharp minor and the lovely cantabile of Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Serenade. In the latter, the intimate voices became so intertwined in a tender love duet that was simply hard to resist.

Spooner then played two of his own Virtuoso Etudes, first an improvisation on My Funny Valentine in the manner of Keith Jarrett, followed by a Latino toccata that interpolated Scarlatti’s repeated notes with Ginastera’s cascading chords as if it were played by Spooner’s idol, the ageless Argentine Martha Argerich. The operative word here is “if”.

The recital was so absorbing for both pianist and audience that the customary quarter-hour intermission was completely forgotten when Spooner offered to play requests. Most votes went to Liszt’s Thirteenth Hungarian Rhapsody with Horowitz’s elaborations, last heard here played by Arcadi Volodos in 2005. If anything, Spooner displayed a greater sense of freedom in the slow lassu introduction, and more than matched the regaled Russian in the furiously fast friss to close.

Then there were calls for Liszt’s B minor Sonata and the hymn Amazing Grace. Amazingly, Spooner played the descending G minor octave scales that open the 30-minute long Sonata. Settling comfortably in G major, the famous John Newton hymn later emerged from the mist and was subjected to the full gospel treatment. That cunning little act of “preluding”, a practice of old and now almost forgotten, lives again!”

THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER, Interview, Saturday, November 26, 2011

The National Gallery of Art’s Sunday evening concerts are among Washington’s favorite events. Avid devotees queue up patiently, no matter the weather, to await admission to the free concerts by renowned artists.
This week, pianist Steven Spooner will celebrate Franz Liszt’s bicentennial by performing some of the composer’s masterworks. During the first half of the program, he will present the Washington debut of Mohammed Fairouz’s four-movement sonata titled “The Last Resistance.”

“I like contrasts, which is why I chose these two very different composers,” Spooner said. “I wish to present all aspects of Liszt’s work so listeners can re-evaluate him, but I try to avoid his chestnuts. Mohammed’s piece was commissioned by the Reach Out Kansas Foundation. I first performed it at the University of Kansas, where I’m on the faculty, and I’ll give the New York debut at Carnegie Hall in January.”

Spooner grew up in New Orleans hating piano lessons until his teacher introduced him to Chopin. With Van Cliburn as his model, Spooner pursued his dream of studying in Russia by memorizing the International Tchaikovsky Competition prize winner’s book. Armed with training at Paris Conservatory, Moscow and Tbilisi conservatories, Spooner won all seven of the international competitions he entered.

Mohammed Fairouz, one of today’s most prolific young composers, writes symphonies, oratorios, operas, art songs, song cycles, chamber and solo works. As a New Yorker and an Arab-American who watched 9/11 transpire, he was inspired to take the title of this commission from Jaqueline Rose’s “The Last Resistance,” a collection of essays.

“The first movement is the prophesy of difficult times ahead,” he said. “It’s emotionally charged with idioms of hollow sounding, contrapuntal, percussive Arabic music. My source was a quote by Osama bin Laden prophesying a time ahead when a force would sweep evil from the peninsula. Did he refer to his homeland from which he was exiled, or Manhattan?

“The second movement is post-9/11 Manhattan filled with retro recollections and overly nostalgic concepts. It lampoons the era of Gershwin and Cy Coleman music, punctuated by big octaves that offset the high seriousness of the first movement. The third movement is a lamentation [“Freud Goes to Abu Ghraib”] played with one hand straight out, slow and eerily high before plunging to the piano’s lowest note, an A. It is asking how we can rebuild an image from this sorry state.

“The fourth movement is what I call a vicious finale, a musical portrait of men and women in dark times. I use over the top percussive sounds, octave displacement and counterpoint to show diversity and the musical cosmopolitanism of our time.”

CLASSICAL SONOMA, Recital Review, Sunday, February 27, 2011

“Mr. Spooner’s Chopin pianism featured subtle meter shifts and equally subtle colors, both central to an artistic Mazurka reading. His rubatos were many and old fashioned, a la Paderewski. The two-movement (Haydn) Sonata received the pianist’s close attention to the improvisatory opening’s slowly-unfolding theme, and the closing second movement was effervescent with Haydn’s ubiquitous humor, clear scale playing…Wonderful music, expertly played.

Liszt’s sweeping Second Legend (St. Francis Walking on the Waves), from 1863.. Mr. Spooner had the endurance to push the broken octaves in the left hand to maximum volume and the feeling of rolling waves was palpable. This is program music that demands a bravura technique, the religious ecstasy evident at the end when the pianist created the great saint on his cloak crossing the roaring ocean… the glittering fast-speed octaves and orchestral chord playing are the result of long work and thought on the Sonata (Liszt Sonata in B Minor). The bucolic chorale sections interrupting surging parts of the single movement were a transfiguration, calling a listener’s attention to celestial space and repose. He was never in a hurry to get anywhere and his rhythmic mastery was complete. Mr. Spooner’s chordal weighting and pedal control was superb, the music sonorous but fleeting, and there was a ten-second hush beyond the final bottom B note.

If an encore was demanded, and it was, it had to be something diametrically opposed to the storms of the Legend and Sonata. Mr. Spooner presented Chopin’s “Farewell” Waltz in F Minor, Op. 69, No. 1. It was an understated performance, perfectly capturing the melancholy and nostalgia.”

THE WASHINGTON POST, Review of the American Liszt Society National Festival.
Washington D.C. 5/2008

“At the same time, there was already plenty to listen to — and watch — during a performance Saturday at Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre of the composer’s transcription of Schubert’s “Erlkoenig.” Anything added to Steven Spooner’s dazzling, blurry-handed sweeps of the entire piano would have been dizzying.”

THE MANHATTAN MERCURY, Review of Schubert’s Winterreise, 1/18/10.

“And pianist Steven Spooner was as near perfection as it’s possible to get. I’ve not witnessed such collaborative finesse since watching Oleg Maisenberg help Robert Holl deliver a near-flawless Die Schone Mullerin in Vienna’s Musikverein back in 1997.”

SAVANNAH TIMES, Review of Hilton Head International Piano Competition winner’s recital.

“American Steven Spooner had everything: polished technique, musical intelligence, innate sensitivity, and a personality that reaches across the keyboard. Spooner’s Scarlatti (Dominico, Sonatas K. 213 and 184) were perfectly sketched pieces of understatement highlighting the 26-year-old’s clarity, sensitivity and simplicity of statement. But Spooner has plenty of what Maestro Claudio Abbado calls the Big Utterance. Spooner used pedal technique rather than force to coax immense sound, achieving dense volume from the middle voice, and a growling resonance in the low voice. Accuracy was commendable throughout.”

THE HERALD TIMES, Review of all Liszt concert. Bloomington, IN

“Spooner, victor in the Liszt Competition in Russia, took on music of what was referred to as the ‘virtuoso Liszt,’ music of the composer as a young man…There were flourishes galore and chordal clusters and runs and resounding climaxes…One heard phenomenally agile pianism along with temperamentally sensitive musicianship.”


“The competition (The International Liszt Competition) on Thursday afternoon was ruled by the very professional, serious, and beautiful performance of Steven Spooner from the U.S.A. His playing was thought through to the finest detail from the beginning to its perfect conclusion. His Transcendental Etudes, Wilde Jagd and Harmonies du Soir were virtuosic and emotionally stirring. The Schubert Serenade in Liszt’s transcription was both lyrical and clearly conceived.”

THE HERALD TIMES, Review of duo concert with violinist Leor Maltinski. Bloomington, IN

“Following a break, Maltinski turned to Beethoven and Franck. The Beethoven A Minor Sonata for Violin and Piano, Opus 23, brought forth an appropriate energy mixed with reserve. From both the violinist and pianist Steven Spooner one heard a warmth of touch and temperament that gave the sonata just the right adornment. Here was well-executed Beethoven.”

“The Franck Sonata in A Major sounded just as embracing Sunday as it did Friday. What a delicious musical confection it is, and what a test for both instrumentalists. Maltinski’s interpretation was a winning one, generous in floating tones as well as flaming passage work, where called for. In total, his reading – beautifully complemented by Spooner – left a dreamy impression, almost other worldly in nature.”

THE HERALD TIMES, Review of Bellini/Liszt “Norma” Paraphrase.
Bloomington, IN

“The final pianist of the evening was Steven Spooner. He played Liszt’s reminiscences of Norma, a clever summary of music from Bellini’s most famous opera. And a complex one too. Spooner gave no ground to the challenges posed. Every trill, every sweetness, every climax was brought forth crisply and with sweeping authority.”

CAROLINA MORNING NEWS, Review of Hilton Head International Piano Competition winner’s recital

“Louisiana-born Steven Spooner, 26, rounded out the program with enchanting interpretations of two Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti–some of the most interesting pianistic characterizations of these harpsichord compositions one is apt to encounter… enchanting.”

Reviews from distinguished pianists.

ALAN WALKER, British pianist, musicologist and renowned author of the three-volume biography of Franz Liszt:

“I always enjoy hearing Steven Spooner play the piano. He is a born musician. Too many pianists know only how to play the piano fast and loud. Spooner makes you listen to the nuances. And that makes him interesting. It is also what places him among the best interpreters of Franz Liszt.”

MAURICE HINSON, concert pianist, renowned author, Review of CD Steven Spooner Plays Liszt Transcriptions Schubert Sonata D. 537. 2002.

“Absolutely gorgeous playing–Bravo! I have no favorites–they are all superb!!!”

EMILE NAOUMOFF, concert pianist, Sony recording artist, composer, Associate Prof. Indiana University, from letter of recommendation, 2002.

“It is an honor and almost a duty for me to be able to fully recommend Steven Spooner. He is among more than the top 1% of his generation as an auspicious pianist, musician, scholar. His stage presence is striking, his ear and his fingers have an amazing complicity. He has the enlighted touch of a Lipatti, the power of a Richter, both mental and physical, the articulation of Michelangeli…he becomes ‘one’ with the instrument, carving the sounds into meaningful rests as well. He is an inspiration to all of us around him.”

VIKTOR MERZHANOV, concert pianist, Professor, Moscow Conservatory, from letter of recommendation, 2002.

“His performance possesses the deep understanding of the contents of Liszt’s works, organic and instinctive feeling of form and outstanding virtuosity. His programs for the first and second rounds of the competition were very demanding, requiring not only technical perfection but the ability to create colorful artistic images. The crystal-clear enunciation of each tone and the feeling of phrasal climaxes and structure are also worth mentioning. All of the above made Mr. Spooner’s playing very memorable. His pianistic art must attract more attention from concert organizers around the world.”

DALTON BALDWIN, concert pianist, EMI recording artist, Review of CD Steven Spooner Plays Liszt Transcriptions Schubert Sonata D. 537. 2001.

“I haven’t heard such “flair” for that composer (Liszt) since Jorge Bolet–Bravo!”

TON HARTSUIKER, Jury Chairman, International Liszt Competition, Director of Amsterdam Conservatorium, 2000.

“The first time I could listen to Steven Spooner’s piano playing was in my position as chairman of the 5th International Franz Liszt Competition 1999 in Utrecht. At that occasion he made a very good impression on me and aroused my interest because of the personal characteristics of his interpretations. In my opinion he was one of the most interesting participants of the competition…”

RUTH LAREDO, concert pianist, review of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata, op. 36. 1996.

“Bright, colorful, well phrased…he plays with interest and conviction-very gifted performer.”

GYOERGY SANDOR, concert pianist, Prof. at the Julliard School, review of a Masterclass, 1995.

“Thank you, Steven for a most impressive Liszt B Minor Sonata!”