Scherzo: Piano Music

Darrett Zusko, piano


Czech-born Canadian composer Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007) is represented here by approximately half his complete work for solo piano. He was a confessed traditionalist, mostly in the matter of received classical forms, which he handled freely and confidently. “Ever since I was a child,” Morawetz stated, “music has meant for me something terribly emotional, and I still believe there has to be some kind of melodic line.”

Despite that avowal, I found that the composer’s melodies, much of which I could not recall after listening to the present program by the talented young Canadian pianist Darrett Zusko, were not his most prominent feature. Of course, the piano pieces heard on this CD are mostly in fairly strict classical forms: Scherzo (1947), Ballade (1947, rev. 1984), Fantasy, Elegy and Toccata (1956), Ten Preludes (1964), and Suite for Piano (1968). I have not heard either of Morawetz’ two symphonies, nor any of his numerous concerted works, which include From the Diary of Anne Frank for soprano (or mezzo) voice and orchestra, all of which would obviously present greater opportunities for vivid emotional expression.

From what I hear on this CD, I’d have to say that Morawetz’ strengths include his restless rhythmic and harmonic pursuits, involving syncopations and chromatic chord progressions, and the relentless way he builds his climaxes. If there isn’t much superficial charm in any of these pieces, there isn’t any nonsense either. In his Ten Preludes, the three slow preludes, all Adagios, are quiet and sombre in mood, and are contasted with the notably more energetic faster preludes, all Allegros or Allegrettos of various kinds. His Ballade, despite the quasi-literary connotations of that name, is “pure” music, without any extra-musical associations. Even his Fantasy on a Hebrew Theme (1951), which pays respect to his Jewish heritage, is actually not a true fantasia but a set of variations that takes the Israeli song “Artzah Alinu” as its theme. Its moods range from quietly pensive to march-like and insistent, though curiously not stirring or exultant (This is not music to inspire the Israeli pioneers).

Darrett Zusko’s performances play up the strengths of the music heard on this disc. This is most evident in Fantasy, Elegy and Toccata, which makes the heaviest demands on the pianist’s virtuosity, particularly in the high-energy perpetual motion Toccata. Worth a hearing.

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