Cello Concerto No. 1
Wendy Sutter, cello
Orchestra of the Americas, Dante Anzolini
Orange Mountain Music
Philip Glass has been writing many concerti lately, beginning with his Violin Concerto in the late 80’s. That piece, while it has its limits, is pleasant enough to listen to and has a few really good moments. Glass’ first cello concerto, while admirably performed by Wendy Sutter and the Orchestra of the Americas under Dante Anzolini, is painful for me to listen to. It’s kitchy, cliched, and had this come from anyone other than a famous composer, would likely be dismissed as crap by most people, if they even bothered to listen to it.
Glass has done many great things, particularly in the 70’s and early 80’s, so perhaps it’s unrealistic to assume any composer can keep churning out great works into old age, especially when composing at a prodigious, almost superhuman pace. But then I think of Feldman, whose music only got better with age, and Feldman wrote more than one hundred works, many of which are substantially long, so there goes my hypothesis.
For people who love anything and everything PG writes, this will be a must-have. For others, this will be an “avoid at all costs” album. Seriously-what is it with the “giants” of minimalism these days? I recently heard an album of John Adams, containing his string quartet, and was hesitant to review it since I just couldn’t say anything positive about it. I wouldn’t normally have reviewed this album since, like Glass’s recent opera Kepler that I also thought to review, I’d prefer not to write anything bad regarding another composer’s releases. But Glass just keeps churning them out, even more than Adams, and aside from a few diamonds in the rough, most of the output is underwhelming at best, dreck at worst. This album, to me, is the latter. I am glad Glass evolved and didn’t keep writing Music in Twelve Parts, version 100 or something like that, much as I revere Music in Twelve Parts. None of us want to keep writing the same crap. But in many ways, Glass is writing the same crap, just the crap he’s been writing for the past decade, and it’s getting tiring and very disappointing. As much as I might not have liked WTC 9/11, at least it has some glimmers of engaging writing, and other recent works by Reich have been quite good. I can almost predict that the next release by either Glass or Adams will not be anything that I care to listen to. Their edge is gone, and they’ve become more than conventional, even old-fashioned. There is little in Glass’s cello concerto that couldn’t have passed for acceptable American music had it been written in the 1950’s. That’s sad.
Glass: Piano Etudes (arr. for Steel Drums)
Orange Mountain Music
Of all of Glass’ recent works, the piano etudes are at least pretty good. I have more than one recording of them, and they stand up pretty well. Innovative they aren’t, but at least there are parts that recycle some of Glass’ better harmonies from the past, so they work for me.
This is an interesting recording in that it takes Glass’ Etudes for Piano and arranges them for a steel drum ensemble. I love steel drums. That said, while noble in intent, after becoming very familiar with the original scoring for piano solo, the steel drum version seems jarring. It’s sort of like how Reich’s Violin Phase when arranged for electric guitar (Electric Guitar Phase) becomes more disturbing than necessary since it’s so different from the original scoring. Rescorings can work well, and be very interesting. A scoring of Glass’ etudes might work well for strings, for example. I’m just not convinced steel drums are the way to go for this set of pieces, but I do give NYU Steel high marks for their expert performance and initiative in recording this.
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Steve Reich & Musicians
I know all three of these works very well from online performances, and the upcoming release of this album sounds much the same as what I’ve come to know of these works.
Let’s start with WTC 9/11. Even better, let’s start with the elephant in the room: the album cover. It’s been called “despicable” by no less than the composer Phil Kline, and many felt it crossed the line. In my opinion, while it wouldn’t have been my first choice (I’d have opted for a composite image of diverse people, as people from all ethnic and religious groups and all walks of life were killed on 9/11), it’s also not like the cover depicts those horrifying images of people jumping to their deaths from the towers. But I agree it might not have been as sensitive as, say, the cover for Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls. That said, it is what it is, so let’s get to the music.
Based on what I had heard online, I made some comments on my own blog about WTC 9/11, and have not changed my opinion with the passing of time. The work is reminiscent of Different Trains and City Life, neither of which really grabbed me as completely as many of SR’s other works. They’re good, but not revelatory. But that’s just my own taste. The main issue for me with WTC 9/11 is that it can’t decide if it wants to be another Different Trains, another Double Sextet, or (insert older SR work here). I feel each time I listen to it that this was a project that SR was asked to take on, which is a very heady challenge by definition, and as a result had to turn something out in time. Expectations are high. So it’s understandable he’d fall back to a familiar formula, namely using the natural music found within speech as the basis for a work. It’s a concept that dates all the way back to his early taped phase works of human speech, and it’s a great concept. But it’s done; been there, done that. That technique just didn’t strike me as something that would work well with something of the magnitude of what happened on 9/11. The music seems to be secondary to pointing out the natural music found within snippets of speech. It kind of worked in Different Trains, perhaps in part due to its novelty and also due to the poignancy of the speakers. At the same time, there were good moments in Different Trains that were not accompaniments to the speech segments, but stood on their own as music for the (two) string quartets by themselves. That seems to be missing here; the music is nearly always subservient to the spoken texts and their inherent musical qualities. And that’s perhaps why I’m underwhelmed by the piece, despite the first-rate performance by the Kronos Quartet.
The two other works, however, are standard Reich, and work well. Nothing new there, but still very good to listen to. Either or both are worth the price of the album. And again, they are well performed.
What made something like Double Sextet work well is its novelty. It broke new ground after many years of variations on earlier SR works. I was really hoping WTC 9/11 would break new ground as well. I don’t doubt that many will love the piece, either because they love anything SR writes, or else really do feel genuinely moved by the work. And good for them. I would have loved to say something more positive about the work, in all honesty. But in the end, it has nothing to do with the cover (I got to know this piece before the cover was even revealed here on S21) and everything to do with the music. It just didn’t work for me. Feel free to love it. Or not. But don’t judge it by the cover. It works or doesn’t on its musical merits, or lack thereof.
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Pianos in the Kitchen (From the Kitchen Archive No.5)
|1. Philip Glass – Fourth Series, Part IV (Mad Rush)
|2. Meredith Monk, Traveling
|3. Meredith Monk, Paris
|4. Charlemagne Palestine, Exceprt from Evolution of a Sonority in Strumming and Arpeggio Style for Bosendorfer Piano
|5. Anthony Davis, A Walk Through the Shadows
|6. Dennis Russell Davies, Excerpt from Ritual for Piano by Keith Jarrett
|7. Harold Budd, Excerpt from Preludes for Solo Piano
Orange Mountain Music (to be released May 24)
This is a very nice anthology of piano works from The Kitchen, performed by the composers themselves back when Downtown was still, well, Downtown. If I have any complaint, it is that the Palestine work on here is an excerpt, and it really begs for a complete recording (of course, given Palestine’s occasional lengthy durations, it perhaps would warrant an album all to itself. Regardless, it’s a great piece and I wish the complete performance from 1976 could be released).
Mad Rush is a classic, and nicely performed here by Glass himself. I knew the first Monk piece from her work Education of the Girlchild, but her work Paris has not been recorded before, at least that I am aware of, and features an opening dialogue with the audience by Meredith Monk herself. The piece starts out familiar enough then takes off into an area I’ve not heard before from her. There is also no voice, which is unusual, though not unique among her works.
The Palestine work is the best thing on this album, at least for me. It bears resemblance to Strumming Music but is also very different and the chordal structures and floating harmonies are incredible. In case I wasn’t clear enough, this work begs for a full recording. Surely the rest of the tape exists.
The works by Anthony Davis and Keith Jarrett are interesting, and I had never heard anything from either previously. The Budd piece is fairly typical Budd, which is good. An excerpt as well, it did bring to my mind some resemblance to his performance of Children of the Hill at New Music America in Chicago, and is well worth the listen.
So in the end, this is a nice, but somewhat too short, sampler. There are some items of this that are historically interesting, but a fuller CD might have been more compelling-perhaps a separate CD with the complete Budd and Palestine works.
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John Luther Adams
Four Thousand Holes/…and bells remembered…
Scott Deal (vibraphone/bells); Stephen Drury (piano/conductor): John Luther Adams (electronics); The Calithumpian Consort
Cold Blue Music
I know many of John Luther Adams’ works, and love them all. But this album has become my hands-down favorite among them. Adams tends to write very evocative music, often quiet, and also often metrically complex. While I don’t have the scores of these works, there are parts that do sound as if there are various rhythmic ratios played against one another.
But none of that matters. Both works on this album are intensely beautiful and with repeated listening additional details seem to become apparent. So each time one listens to these works, there is something new about them.
Four Thousand Holes is a work for piano, vibraphone/bells and electronics (in this recording, the electronics are provided by JLA himself). It is a very rhythmic piece and has some great chordal structures that all emanate from very basic elements. …and bells remembered… involves an array of tuned percussion and is also something to which I enjoyed listening very much.
There is really not much more to say than that. This is a very worthwhile album, extremely well performed by all the musicians involved, and has postminimalist and totalist elements that I really like.
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Songs of Ascension
Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, Todd Reynolds Quartet, The M6, Montclair State University Singers/Heather Buchanan, conductor
ECM New Series
(to be released 5/17)
Meredith Monk has been among my favorite composers since I first heard works like Tablet and Key in the 70’s. Her work since Dolmen Music has remained consistently good, and has built on her considerable work with extended vocal techniques.
Songs of Ascension in part refers to one concept for the work in which performers ascend a double helical, dual staircase, which meant that strings were in, as keyboards and mallet percussion would not be feasible since schlepping them up the stairs is difficult at best. The title also refers to the title “Song of Ascents” that alludes to the changing of psalms during pilgrimages to Jerusalem, which begs the question, why is going up considered sacred and going down, not so much?
This is the first piece for string quartet by Meredith Monk that I’m aware of, although she certainly has used isolated stringed instruments before (the cello solo of Dolmen Music immediately comes to mind). The string quartet, which includes the venerable Todd Reynolds, is also augmented at times by a shruti box, which creates a drone. There are other forces involved as well, including several vocal ensembles, winds and percussion.
But the music is quintessential Monk, with a clear evolution from the earlier works of the 70’s. The strings work very well, both by themselves and in concert with the other performers. Some sections worked better for me than others, particularly the last section titled Ascent, but that’s just my own personal preference. This is an extremely well performed album, and I can’t imagine it was easy to put together. The string writing is challenging, and the performance by The Todd Reynolds Quartet and Allison Sniffin on violin is impeccable. The various vocalists must perform extremely difficult parts, and they make it sound easy. The percussion and winds are also first-rate. It is always a good thing when performers come together to play new music; when they also clearly have an affinity for the music, that is especially uncommon. This is an album that any Monk devotee should have. But it is also an album for anyone interested in new music. And on May 17th, it becomes available.
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Cage: 108, 109, 110
Tamami Tono, sho
Glenn Freeman, conch shells
This represents the first recording of 108, 109 and 110, which are additional “number pieces” by Cage. The numbers represent the number of performers in each piece, often with superscripts to indicate the number of that particular number piece (eg, one8 is the eighth piece for solo performer). The number pieces are a series (over 50 in all) of late Cage works that often involve long tones in various combinations. The number pieces are an acquired taste, like most Cage; you either like many of them or you don’t. Personally, I find many of Cage’s number pieces to be absolutely beautiful and among the best music in his vast oeuvre. Four, which was written for string quartet, is Cage at his best. And I think that the three pieces on this album also are examples of Cage at the top of his game.
108 was written in 1991 and represents the largest forces involved in a number piece. It represents the ground material for all three works on this 131-minute 96kHz|24bit Audio DVD, since 109 is 108 combined with One8, while 110 is 108 combined with Two3. Also interestingly, the total duration of 108 (and thus, all three works on the album) is 43:30. Maybe that has something to do with the famous/infamous work 4’33”. Or not. That’s the beauty of Cage; he was always unpredictable, and everything he did had many potential meanings.
Now consider another interesting facet to this album; you get to hear the same piece (108) thrice, but it will always sound somewhat different, somewhat familiar, since it is played by itself and then combined with two other pieces. To me, that represents a similar concept to Nancarrow’s Study #48, in which the third movement consists of the first two played together, or Lubomyr Melnyk’s The Lund-St. Petri Symphony where two pieces are also played simultaneously. I also think it was put best by Glenn Freeman, who wrote me that “what john cage was going for in the number pieces … endless variation, but always recognizable … for instance, if one watches a busy chicago street every day during rush hour we see the same thing, but, it is also always different.”
So now to the music. There are some amazing parts in all three pieces, particularly (at least for me), 109. The use of the sho and conch shells is interesting, but it is the chordal structures and multiple chance permutations of the combinations of various notes that really work for me. The performances are first rate, and this is an essential album for anyone interested in Cage, his number pieces, and/or wants to experience some of the most important music of the last two decades.
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Glassworks (live in concert at Le Poisson Rouge)
Signal, featuring Michael Riesman and conducted by Brad Lubman
Soloists and Chorus of the Landestheater Linz
Bruckner Orchester Linz
Dennis Russell Davies
Orange Mountain Music
When Glassworks, Philip Glass’s first release on a major label (CBS Masterworks) came out in 1982, many of us felt it was the beginning of the end, a sellout to get his music heard by a larger audience, consisting of small snippets of his music that paled compared with the incredible music he wrote for Satyagraha, Einstein on the Beach, Music with Changing Parts, etc.
All of that is true.
However, Glassworks is still good to listen to, has some nice moments, and I’ve always wished Glass had kept the Islands movement going much longer-it ends just as it really hits its groove. And very importantly, Glassworks is still far, far better, in my opinion, than much of the music Glass has written in the past decade.
Other than being remastered for listening on a Sony Walkman, Glassworks has never really been recorded or performed in its entirety outside of that initial CBS Masterworks release. Individual movements, most notably Facades, get performed and recorded individually from time to time. But this album, recorded live at the NYC performance venue Le Poisson Rouge, represents the first time Glassworks has been performed (in an arrangement) in its entirety by a group that is not the Philip Glass Ensemble.
When I first listened to this album, I was greatly disappointed. The miking and mastering, which is a consequence no doubt of this being a live performance, seemed to make the music seem cluttered; it is hard to hear all the individual lines in Floe, for example, and the bass lines just get lost at times. There is no question that this music benefits from recording and all the nuances that go into the mixing and mastering processes.
But in many ways, this is also a great album, in that it confirms that live musicians can indeed perform continuous music without the major gaposis that usually arises in live performances, even those by the Philip Glass Ensemble. I was actually blown away, having heard many live performances of Glass’s music in which performers drop out to breathe or even get lost in the myriad of notes streaming without break. This performance by Signal is nothing short of incredible; they don’t get lost, and their winds seem to be able to play without the need for room air. I’ll have to remember that each time I get told my own music for winds/brass is unplayable except by those rare performers who can circular breathe.
The inclusion of Glass’s early, and wonderful, Music in Similar Motion, is welcome. While it lacks some of the frenetic energy found of Glass’s early Chatham Square release that is still the definitive version, Signal’s performance, a few minutes longer than that of Glass’s ensemble, works well. I prefer it to the performance by Alter Ego on their Glass album from a few years ago.
So all in all, Glassworks, as performed live by Signal, is a worthwhile album for anyone interested in Glass’s music.
As mentioned, Glassworks could be looked at as a transition away from the longer repetitive works of the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s. Kepler, Glass’s 23rd opera, almost bears no relation to his earlier music except for the trademark syncopations and arpeggiations. Kepler really strikes me as more of an oratorio-there are really no main characters outside of Kepler, and as for plot and drama-look elsewhere. Just as Einstein on the Beach seemed to push the definition of “opera” to its limits, so does Kepler. The music is interesting at times, but truthfully, could just not keep me that interested very long. It struck me as many of Glass’s recent operas do-a few interesting ideas here and there, but nothing earthshaking. Unlike Satyagraha or even the somewhat weaker Akhnaten, there is little here that I find truly memorable. But then, it’s hard to get particularly passionate about an opera about an astronomer/scientist lecturing about his theories and findings. I love listening to great scientists lecture, but most of their work just doesn’t lend itself to a musical setting. As much as I’d love to see someone dramatize Chandasekhar’s dismissal by the noted British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington or the discovery of transposable genetic elements by Barbara McClintock, I’m just not sure these things are ready for their realization as operas. In some ways, I even think Glass’s earlier opera, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, has more memorable moments, and that work is not up to his previous standards, I think.
Kepler, performed very devotedly by extremely talented musicians from Linz, Germany, doesn’t suffer from a halfhearted realization. This group, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, clearly in enthusiastic about Glass’s recent music, and that’s a good thing. But after 23 operas, I think Glass’s formula has gotten stale. He’s become the Haydn of the opera world, perhaps. True, there is some more prominent use of percussion in this opera, but if the best thing one can say is “Wow-he’s using percussion to a larger degree,” then there’s a problem.
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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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An Hour for Piano
Performed by R. Andrew Lee (piano)
Irritable Hedgehog Recordings
Many of us grew up on Frederic Rzewski’s recording of Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano, which was released on LP by Lovely Music in the late 70’s (or perhaps it was the early 80’s-it was all a blur). This is considered a classic work of minimalism, although I could argue it was really a postminimalist work. Whatever it is, it’s a continuous, beautiful work that builds to a climax and then comes to an end around an hour into the work. Rzewski’s fine performance actually clocked in a few minutes shy of 60 minutes, but was a great performance and, as far as I was aware, the only one ever released of Johnson’s work. Until now.
R. Andrew Lee, who teaches at Avila University in Kansas City, MO, released his own performance on the Irritable Hedgehog label (available on both CD and digital download), and it’s in every way at least an equal of the Rzewski performance. To be honest, if you were to superimpose the recordings or blind me to which was which, I’d be hard pressed to tell one from the other. And that’s meant as a compliment-both performers skillfully captured the beauty in Johnson’s piece, and I’m not sure either recording could be outdone. Just as several recordings of Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus are equally wonderful.
The one difference, possibly, is that Lee’s performance is a tad quieter overall, which allows more of the resonance and some of the finer details to come through. Like Rzewski, Lee clearly has an affinity for the score, and is known as a performer of minimalist and postminimalist music, so this is as it should be.
The album, including the digital one (I’m listening to the digital version) comes with nice liner notes that include an essay by the composer himself. Johnson’s music has not been in vogue over the past few decades, although this piece and perhaps Nine Bells gained some prominence in the 80’s as I recall. Perhaps with this new recording, along with some of the recent performance efforts by composer Samuel Vriezen in The Netherlands, there will be more attention to Johnson’s output, which is not only an important output, but a very pleasing one as well.
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For Bunita Marcus
Louis Goldstein, Piano
Nuscope Records (CD + digital download)
For those of us who love Morton Feldman’s music, this is a great time since many recordings of his extensive oeuvre exist. For some of his more “popular” works, such as Triadic Memories, Rothko Chapel, Patterns in a Chromatic Field and For Bunita Marcus, multiple recordings exist. In the case of Triadic Memories, all of the recordings are distinctive, since Feldman did not provide his usual metronome marking of “quartet note = 63-66,” and many interpretations abound. Among the many recordings of TM, my personal favorite remains that of Louis Goldstein, who performed the piece much slower than anyone else I’ve heard, and really got at the central core of the piece, at least for me. Granted-slower isn’t always better, but just like Reinbert de Leeuw’s amazing and unique performances of Satie’s piano music, slower tempi can bring out nuances that faster tempi cannot. In the case of his recording of Triadic Memories, it isn’t that Goldstein starts so much slower than everyone else, it’s that he stays consistent with his tempo selection throughout-at least one other recording starts about as slow, but then speeds up inexplicably during some of the longer sustained tones. In other words, Goldstein picked a slower tempo, and appropriately stuck with it throughout the work.
So I was especially interested in Louis Goldstein’s recent release of Feldman’s late work For Bunita Marcus. I already have a few recordings of the piece, performed by Markus Hinterhäuser, Steffen Schieiermacher and Hildegard Kleeb, all of which are excellent, and all of which run between 1h 11′ and just under 1h 13′. The fact that all three of my recordings are by Europeans attests to how more pervasive Feldman’s music has been in Europe than in the US, which is Europe’s gain and our loss here in the states. Goldstein actually clocks in slightly faster at 1h 7′. On listening, this really is not a noticeable speedup. What distinguishes Goldstein’s performance from the others, I think, is the amount of resonance he gets from his piano. There are sections where some of the resultant chords hang for a second or two, giving an effect that I hadn’t noticed that much in other recordings, and one I happened to like.
In the end, Goldstein’s performance is extremely faithful to the score, metrically perfect, and extremely musical. For Bunita Marcus is deceptively simple-it looks pretty simple to play (unlike the metric complexity of Triadic Memories and the even more formidable Piano from 1977), but is extremely difficult in reality. Listening to it, however, is not at all difficult, but a great pleasure. This is an excellent recording and stands among the best ones out there. I’d also be very interested in hearing Goldstein perform Piano, which I think is among Feldman’s best works. It’s not performed as much as the other late piano works, probably because it is extremely difficult to play and perhaps less approachable for many listeners.
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