More Music by Ralph Shapey

Sonata for Violin and Piano (1949); Sonate no. 1 for solo Violin (1972); Adagio and Allegro (1955); Four Etudes for Violin (1980); Sonata no. 3 for Violin and Piano (1998)

Miranda Cuckson, violin; Blair McMillen, piano

Centaur Records, 2011

This is the second album that the team of Miranda Cuckson and Blair McMillen have released of music for violin with/without piano by Ralph Shapey. Shapey’s music continues to be rarely performed, at least compared with the number of performances when he was still at the University of Chicago. Part of that, perhaps, relates to what has been described as his “thorny” personality. But apart from his incredibly difficult, legendary personality, I suspect there are other factors at work, including the difficult-to-read hand notated scores with multiple nested tuplets and the often angry nature of his music. While I was not fond of Shapey personally, I did come to like and admire many of his works, and the best of these for me remain his Fromm Variations for piano (I was at the premiere, and it still blows me away), his String Quartet No. 7, the oratorio Praise and his early Evocation No. 1 for violin, piano and percussion. Those last  two pieces are particularly begging to be rerecorded-the only versions I know are from two really old CRI LPs that I digitized before passing it on to a record store in Princeton, NJ.

Shapey at his best shares some characteristics of his fellow abstract expressionist, Morton Feldman, in regard to their love of tones for tones’ sake. Both studied with Stefan Wolpe. But Shapey is in some ways the anti-Feldman. Feldman was, regardless of his academic position at SUNY, never an academic. Shapey, who did not attend college, was happiest in the academic isolation of the U of C. Feldman’s music is almost entirely quiet, whereas Shapey’s can be loud and, well, angry. Feldman didn’t like systems, whereas Shapey spoke of his serial methods with pride.

Shapey did play the violin, and he composed several works for violin and violin with piano. While the works on Cuckson and McMillen’s first album didn’t grab me as much as many of Shapey’s other music, the music on this album is more interesting. The early Sonata for Violin and Piano was a product of Shapey’s studies with Wolpe, and while a “student work,” sounds anything but. If you know any of Shapey’s works from the 60′s, this piece seems to foretell many of them. Highly dissonant and contrapuntal, one does hear echoes of Wolpe while the voice of Shapey certainly comes through overall.

Adagio and Allegro is for violin and piano and comes from the time when Shapey was part of the abstract expressionist group of composers and painters in NYC. It’s a short work, but certainly is worthy of multiple listens.

The Four Etudes date from 1980 and reminded me a bit of Shapey’s Partita. The violin writing is similarly idiomatic and well written.

The Sonata No. 3 is one of Shapey’s late works, and is fairly lyrical, with melodic writing in both instruments. At times, it reminded me of some of the writing in Leo Ornstein’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, but I think that resemblance was coincidental. There is a sustained chord that closes the third movement that reminds me of another work of Shapey’s, and it’s currently driving me crazy as I think of from where it comes.

None of Shapey’s works for violin and piano are, perhaps, as memorable or as noteworthy as his works for piano, orchestra and string quartet. Still, given that so little of his music is ever heard these days, I’m happy that anything of Shapey’s appears on a new recording. And even better when the performers are extremely talented virtuosi who have an obvious affinity for Shapey’s music. There are far easier composers to master and record; that Cuckson and McMillen have taken considerable time to devote not one, but two albums to Shapey’s music speaks volumes about their dedication and musical insight. This is not easy music to play, and Shapey will likely never be popular. But his music deserves to be heard, and I’m grateful that his music for violin and piano have found receptive, expert voices in this recording.

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