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Steven Beck, 'Piano Sonata No. 5' (George Walker)

Your basic Mozart piano sonata lasts around 20 minutes. George Walker's Piano Sonata No. 5 clocks in under five. The American composer, who died in 2018 at age 96, compressed his final sonata into miniature proportions, but it's no bite-sized bonbon. The music, played with incisive élan by Steven Beck, is a dense thicket of ideas and episodes, born from a simple, four-note upward-thrusting theme in the opening measure. Walker constantly manipulates harmonic textures and rhythms, interlaces a tangle of inner voices and yet keeps a fluid forward motion. Like a Vermeer painting, you can look at it many times before you grasp every subtle detail.

While Walker was the first Black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize (for his work Lilacs, in 1996) his music has been largely undervalued. This album, containing all five of Walker's piano sonatas, is a welcome addition to rethinking an important body of work.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.