Robert Pritchard, Pianist

Title: Robert Pritchard, Pianist

Artist:  Robert Starling Pritchard

Label:  Smithsonian Folkways Special Series

Formats:  CD, MP3

Catalog No.:  SFS60002

Release date: March 29, 2011

Smithsonian Folkways has recently remastered and reissued this little gem of an album, originally released as an LP by Spoken Arts, Inc. in 1962.  The performer, Robert Pritchard, was one of the first successful African American concert pianists in the United States. He also toured in the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Africa, including a stint as artist-in-residence for the Liberian government.  His extensive training with pianists at Julliard, Mannes, and Manhattan schools of music is evident: his rendition of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in C minor is swift, precise, and engaging, and his performance of Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses and three of Chopin’s etudes are technically strong, lyrical, and compelling.

Pritchard’s gifts as a pianist, however, are matched by his drive to foster cross-cultural musical exchange and understanding.  Aside from his work in Liberia, Pritchard helped found the PanAmerican PanAfrican Association whose goal, according to their website, is to “promote, encourage and foster better understanding and good will among and between peoples of the United States, the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Middle East through the interchange of ideas and persons.”  Pritchard fostered just this sort of interchange, advocating for musical works from Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly by Pan-American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, whose “Le Banjo” from his Fantasie Grotesque is included on this album.  Pritchard’s interpretation of “Le Banjo” is bright and technically solid, though it lacks some of the whimsy and humor that the piece seems to demand.  Finally, Pritchard’s recording of his own composition, “’Ti Jacques’ Suite sur Melodie Folklorique d’Haiti” provides listeners the opportunity to hear a composer play his own work, influenced by the music he experienced during his travels in the Caribbean.

While the underlying performances are excellent, even this newly remastered version presents some auditory problems for the discriminating listener.  While background hiss has been greatly minimized and there are no jarring audio problems, some of the subtlety of Pritchard’s touch, phrasing, and coloring seem to have been lost, likely due to problems with the original recording.  Aside from this minor problem, this disc is highly recommended, both as a musical experience and a cultural document of a great African American artist.

Reviewed by David Lewis