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Gunnar Johansen's hands at the Moor Double Keyboard Piano. This is a pencil sketch by Ryan Meskego (created at age 17) based upon a photograph by Jeffrey Wagner taken at a visit to Blue Mounds in the 1980s. Used with permission.  The original sketch was commissioned by Gordon Rumson and is now in his private collection.

The tape recorder also changed Johansen's compositional process and turned it towards improvisation.

The results were his 550 Improvised Sonatas which range in style and content from simple diatonic utterances to gigantic tapestries equalling Sorabji in density. Johansen achieved the effect by overlaying several improvised strands upon each other. The Sonata 108 is likely his greatest creation.

Example 5: Gunnar Johansen: Sonata 108
Date of recording: 1960
Series: Gunnar Johansen Piano Works, Album 1
[Re-engineered by James Chiello and Gordon Rumson 1993]

Adrian Corleonis, who has grasped Johansen's significance as few others, writes that the improvisations:

'Partake of a Magian quality, a sense of the lone sensibility divining the might of the hour in virtuosic gestures which, at times, overcome the piano's limitations, its structural rigidity, in a "dematerialization" of spiked knots and great exhilarating washes of sound.'****

****Adrian Corleonis, 'Ferruccio Busoni: historia abscondita', Fanfare (January 1984), pp. 103-104.

Perhaps Johansen's greatest fame has come from his recordings of the music of Liszt. Now that Leslie Howard has completed his cycle it is hard to recall that when Johansen began in the 1960s, Liszt's reputation as a composer was virtually nil. Johansen was startled to discover that even the so-called complete edition had barely half of Liszt's works. Johansen spent many years just trying to locate the manuscripts -- which he did with a thoroughness of powerful scholarly virtue. It may be that many pianists have equalled or surpassed Johansen in some aspect of Liszt performance but his renditions of the Sonata and the 'Ad nos Fantasy', as well as the various Transcendental Etudes are stellar. Besides, what do you say of a pianist who dared to perform 17 Hungarian Rhapsodies in one concert?

Example 6: Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No 2
(cadenza by Gunnar Johansen)
Series: Franz Liszt Complete Piano Works, Album 20
Date of recording: late 1960s

Gunnar Johansen's performances of the works of Busoni, however, stand alone. No other pianist has captured the half-tint hermeticism of Busoni's music like Johansen. He stated that it was always the mystical atmosphere that attracted him to Busoni's music. In works like the Second Sonatina, Johansen imbues the music with such tonal glory at the service of the profoundly mystical but subterranean emotions of fear, terror and trembling, that piano composition, composer and performer disappear into transcendental realms. There is no greater performance and that such a fact is little known is a frightful shame.

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Copyright © 21 January 2001 Gordon Rumson, Calgary, Alberta, Canada






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