Archive for the “Piano” Category
Diatribe Records CD
Born in Ireland and now based in New York, pianist Isabelle O’Connell has been an energetic advocate for living composers on both sides of the Atlantic. She also plays some mean Messiaen.
Her new CD Reservoir features works from the past two and a half decades by nine Irish composers. The results are not merely a dogmatic presentation of a particular national “school of composition.” On the contrary, O’Connell’s clearly quite willing to program a stylistically eclectic recital. And the Emerald Isle has a richly wide-ranging and imaginative group of composers from which to choose. But here, among their influences, many of the pieces evince a strong strain of minimalism.
The title track by Donnacha Dennehy, is a standout; its inexorable ostinati piling up into a cascades of brilliantly colored walls of sound. BIG, by Ian Wilson, also favors muscular swaths of repetition; but these are counterweighted with contrasting sections that echo the deft colorings of a Debussy Prelude. Jane O’Leary’s Forgotten Worlds explores a more ambient kind of minimalism, with a healthy dose of Far Eastern inflections.
Speaking of preludes, another of the disc’s highlights is the first of John Buckley’s Three Preludes. The Cloths of Heaven (inspired by the famous Yeats poem), inhabits a beautifully crafted Francophilic palette from later in the 20th century, recalling one of O’Connell’s favorites: the aforementioned Oliver Messiaen.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Walshe’s becher is built around snippet-length quotations (not sympathetic gestures) by everyone under the sun: Beethoven, the Doors, Bach, Debussy, etc. It’s a fun idea for a classically inspired mashup. With Along the Flaggy Shore by Philip Martin, O’Connell closes out the disc with an almost equally digressive, but far more demanding piece. It calls upon her to play crashing dissonant clusters, rapid-fire repeated notes and arpeggios, and contrasting passages of pensive delicacy.
Throughout this varied program, O’Connell plays with impressive power, clarity, and commitment.
O’Connell will be performing Donnacha’s Reservoir again at her next NY solo show on Nov. 4th at the Music at First series in Brooklyn.
The rest of the program will be music by American composers: John Luther Adams, Bunita Marcus, and James Mobberley.
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The Exploding Piano
Major Who Media
Kathleen Supové’s latest recording The Exploding Piano, is a collection of works by Randall Woolf, Missy Mazzoli, Anna Clyne, Michael Gatonska, and Dan Becker. While, thankfully, nothing blows up, the piano is subjected to a wide range of preparations, alterations, and dramatic exertions.
Supové is a dynamic performer, willing to try new and different things. Some of the pieces, like Mazzoli’s “Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos” and Becker’s “Revolution,” mix samplers and synths into the pianistic equation. Woolf’s “Sutra Sutra,” combines jazzy inflections and spoken word components, skirting the edges of performance art and playing to the pianist’s charismatic onstage strengths. Clyne’s “On Track” instead focuses on inside the piano plucks and punctilious semitone clusters. For Gatonska’s “A Shaking of the Pumpkin,” the performer prepares the piano by placing a bass drum under the lid.
While this is a piano recital where the piano doesn’t necessarily often sound like a piano, The Exploding Piano is an intriguing display of fascinating sound worlds. Supové deserves kudos for fearlessly exploring the depths of these disparate works.
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CRUMB: Eleven Echoes of Autumn, 1965 (Echoes I); The Sleeper; Vox Balaenae; Five Pieces for Piano; Dream Sequence. Jamie Van Eyck, ms; International Contemporary Ensemble. Bridge 9261. 72 minutes.
This release of some of George Crumb’s early (mostly) mature works is Volume 12 of Bridge’s Complete Crumb Edition. Most Sequenza21 readers are undoubtedly familiar with Crumb’s style, which combines an expanded tonality sensibility, an extraordinarily sensitive ear for color (often expressed in a plethora of special instrumental effects), and a keen feeling for ritual to make directly expressive musical statements.
The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), joined by the talented mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck for The Sleeper, turn in outstanding performances. When Crumb doesn’t work for me, it tends to be because the performance falls into being a kind of catalog of special effects, but there’s no hint of that here. The effects are seamlessly integrated into the musical flow.
The big pieces here are Eleven Echoes of Autumn, 1965 (Echoes I) (1966), Vox Balaenae (1971), and Dream Sequence (Images II), (1976). All of the characteristics of Crumb’s mature style listed above are in full flower in these works. Of special interest to me is the spectacularly assured reading given Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale, for amplified flute, amplified cello, and amplified piano), one of the composer’s signature pieces. The ICEers (Claire Chase, flute, Kivie Cahn-Lipman, cello, and Jacob Greenberg, piano) play this moving (and difficult) score as if they were born to it.
Bridge’s Crumb series continues to be an important tribute to an iconic American composer.
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Visions de l’Amen
Marilyn Nonken, Piano I
Sarah Rothenberg, Piano II
In the spring of 1943, in the midst of the German occupation of Paris, Olivier Messiaen, assisted by his teenaged student Yvonne Loriod, presented a most unusual duo-piano recital. The times being what they were, there were undoubtedly a few Vichy collaborationists in the audience, taking down notes, alert to detect any evidence of sedition or rebellion (which might have been expected of one who had been conscripted in the Army of the Republic and spent some time in a POW camp following the downfall of France). If so, they were disappointed. For Messiaen’s music, as heard in Visions de l’Amen, already existed on a supernal plane that was totally alien to the fascist mind that can only believe in the realities it can compel other people to accept. And Messiaen was that rarest of creatures, one who would continually seek the spiritual truth and transcendant beauty in the dogmas of the Catholic faith.
Concerning “dogma”, which refers to any religious doctrine or belief that is not open to disputation (a notion that leaves a bad odor for many people), it needs to be said that Messiaen continually sought the mystical reality behind those dogmas. Without the existence of that reality, to someone like Messiaen, dogma is meaningless because it would then just boil down to the statement: “You must believe this because those of us who know what is good for you, say so.” Messiaen sought, and found, the spiritual realities he craved in his faith, and it informed his music almost from his eartliest beginnings as a composer.
One other thing you need to know about Messiaen is that he heard the most basic elements of music – such as color, harmony, rhythm, pitch, and time – in a markedly different way than the great majority of us do. With the assistance of Yvonne Loriod, his artistic collaborator, inspiration, and his eventually his wife, he explored new and breathtaking avenues in all these respects over a course of fifty years, until his death in 1992. Of Loriod, who herself died just recently on 17 May, 2010, he paid the highest tribute to her formidable piano technique: “I am able to allow myself the greatest eccentricities because to her anything is possible.”
On the present Bridge recording, Sarah Rothenberg, distinguished American pianist who studied Messiaen’s music in Paris with Loriod, and Marilyn Nonken, who has already established a reputation as a champion of modern music, give an enthusiastic and supernally skilled interpretation of what is certainly one of the greatest works of the modern era. There are seven movements in Visions de l’Amen, and they reflect aspects of the eternal Amen (“So Be It”) like facets of light show its component colors. They are: 1) Amen of Creation, 2) Amen of the Stars, the Planets, and the Rings of Saturn, 3) Amen of the Agony of Jesus, 4) Amen of Desire, 5) Amen of the Angels, the Saints, and Bird Songs, 6) Amen of Judgement, and 7) Amen of the Consummation. Unity is provided by the “Theme of the Creation, heard first in (1) and at various key points throughout the score, emphasizing the overall purpose and design of “L’Amen” itself. “Desire” in (4) refers to spiritual striving, expressed in themes representing deep tenderness and infinite patience, and “a paroxysm of thirst” (Messiaen), in the sense that the angel called the prophet Daniel “man of desire.“ The bird songs in (5) reflect Messiaen’s abiding interest in nature’s singers – here the Thrush, Chaffinch, and Blackcap – as voicing the purest praise to the Amen of Creation. As ornithologist and musician, he heard their songs with an unusual degree of sensitivity and incorporated them in his music to the end of his life.
The physical demands of Messiaen’s music must surely have required Rothenberg and Nonken to posses something of the technical skills and keen sensitivity to each other’s performance of a present-day Messian and Loriod. The composer’s pulsations, polyrhythms, and sudden changes of register, brilliant, scintillating rhythms and colors, culminate in the final movement as coruscating facets of light like “the whole rainbow of precious stones mentioned in the Apocalypse, sounding, jarring, dancing, coloring and perfuming the light of life” (Messiaen). (“Perfuming?” You’ve got me there, pal! But then, a mystic would understand these things.) Captured in beautiful, glorious-sounding detail by producer Judith Sherman and engineer Andrew Bradley, this has to be one of the very finest recordings of 2010. To those who might think it short measure at 48:53, I would say in closing that (a) what would you possibly program with Visions de l’Amen as a filler? And (b) you will probably want to audition this incredible music again once you’ve heard it, so that 49 minutes will soon become 98, then 147, and so on (Amen).
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Piano Works (revisited)
I was surprised when the two-disc collection of piano music (composed and performed) by Elodie Lauten had me entranced from the opening of the first track: Cat Counterpoint. I approached this particular track with a fair amount of apprehension. I’ve simply been around too many instances of composers using their pet’s meanderings on music instruments as source material. Any hesitation I felt towards the track melted away within seconds. Instead of Lolcats, the room filled with driving and energetic punctuations. You can’t judge a track by its title.
The collected Piano Works from 1983 take the lead on the first disc: Cat Counterpoint, Revelation, Adamantine Sonata, Alien Heart, and Imaginary Husband make for excellent character pieces as well as a cycle of works. There is a foundation in minimalism present, as one would expect from an icon of the Downtown scene. Lauten’s minimalist language is one full of play and punk, separating it from the austere minimalism found safely inside textbooks. The underlying simplicity lends to a strong sense of flow over process. Each piece creates a moment that rarely extends beyond itself nor do they need to extend. These 1983 pieces were constructed with an ear and not a slide rule. I find Adamantine Sonata particularly charming.
The inclusion of ambient sound and supporting electronics is frequent in the 1983 works and the technique is put in overdrive for Lauten’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory. This 1984 set uses a quilt of disconnected instrumental and electronic textures to create eight signature moments. Each of these segments is strongly focused around a shape, texture, or groove and throughout the segment’s lifespan the idea simply is. There is a zen element in this concerto, each track is totally of the moment. Some listeners may want more of a sense of trajectory and dramatic shape but I am not among them. These moments are what they are and as such they are fascinating. The spacious Orchestral Memory and the cheeky Tempo di Habanera form polar opposites of affect and, for that very reason, appeal to me the most. Disc one closes with a fairly straight-ahead Tango with a mournful and husky vocal line.
If you are looking for a deep end off which to go, then disc two will be happy to serve you. Instead of many short tracks, disc two provides two beefy works: Variations on the Orange Cycle and Sonate Modale. Any criticisms laid out about disc one’s lack of trajectory can be laid to rest in Orange Cycle. Within the opening seconds I knew I was going to be here for a while, letting the hypnotic and resonant sounds wash over me, La Monte Young-style. After about seventeen minutes, Lauten does the most amazing thing. The low drone, the foundation of the very work, goes away. The listener drifts and floats, untethered for some time, and when the low voice returns it is not the same static firmament we had left behind us. Where I expected the drone to reassert itself, it never finds full strength again. The piece closes on that drone pitch but with uncertainty, timidity, and quiet. The world of the piece has changed and Lauten did not take the easy way out. Variations on the Orange Cycle is worth every second.
Sonate Modale, in this live recording from Toronto in 1985, is a rather intimate experience. I felt as though I was a fly on the wall while Lauten created all the 1983 pieces and the Concerto. The ambient electronic environments are cut from the same cloth as the earlier pieces and the live piano meanders through gestures and stream-of-consciousness improvisations. Dramatically, the piece works well as a whole, as if Lauten decided to stich together the quilt of the Concerto.
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PACCIONE: Rhapsody; Stations–To Morton Feldman; Inscape: Three Choral Settings from Gerard Manley Hopkins; A Page for Will; Three Motets: Arabesques; Five Songs from Christina Rossetti; “Postlude,” from Planxty Cage. Molly Paccione, cl; Jenny Perron, p; Michael Campbell, p; Western Illinois University Singers/James Stegall; Nurit Tilles, p; Terry Chasteen, tenor; Moisés Molina, vcl; Andrea Molina, p. New World 80706-2. 57 minues.
[DISCLAIMER: I’ve known Paul Paccione and his music for many, many years. The following may be read with this in mind.]
Paul Paccione’s music has always been concerned with the manipulation of musical space/time. That is, Paccione reconceives musical geometry (x=time, y-space) as a canvas on which musical objects are placed, like figures or brushstrokes in an abstract painting or drawing. These objects—chords and/or melodic gestures—retain their identity through repetition rather than development. Structure is projected through placement of objects at different coordinates on the musical canvas.
The result is a musical abstract expressionism that has developed over the years in surprising and gratifying ways. I first learned of Paccione and his music in the late ‘70s, when he was coming into his own as a disciple of Morton Feldman. His music at that time was quiet and sparse, with subtle melodic threads. His sense of color was (and is) so keen that a performance of his music gave a feeling of voluptuous austerity. In early pieces like Stations–To Morton Feldman (1987) the music is extremely spare—splashes of color on a blank temporal field, with a great deal of expressive silence.
In more recent years Paccione has embraced tonality, but his music still sounds like him. The Rhapsody for clarinet and piano (2005) is a good example. A lean piano part limns out a slow, non-dramatic chord progression in triplet eighth-note arpeggios while the clarinet plays lyrical melodic lines mostly above it. It’s as if the gentle triplets in the piano have replaced the blank canvas as a surface to be painted on.
The vocal or choral music Paccione composed early in his career was either wordless or was a setting of a short text that moved so slowly it may as well have been textless. In the pieces offered here, Inscape: Three Choral Settings from Gerard Manley Hopkins (2007) and Five Songs from Christina Rossetti (2003), the non-dramatic but lyrical presentation of the texts serves as a vehicle for the composer’s characteristic tone explorations.
My favorite piece on this recording is the Three Motets: Arabesques (1999), for four prerecorded clarinets. These motets are simple—contrapuntal in the extreme, they are made of short, tonally-enigmatic melodic gestures that are imitated by subsequent instrumental entrances. The result is a haunting, subtly and constantly changing soundscape.
The performances and recording here are of the highest quality. Paccione teaches at Western Illinois University, and most of the performers are his colleagues there. Several pieces were written for clarinetist Molly Paccione, the composer’s wife, and her readings show deep understanding of the music.
Not unlike Elliott Carter’s “time screen” in concept, but very different in practice.
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Simple Lines of Enquiry
Eve Egoyan, piano
You have to be in an unfamiliar mindset to listen to Ann Southam’s Simple Lines of Enquiry. If you’re not, you might find yourself waiting just under an hour (58:41 to be exact) for something momentous to happen, and then leaving with the feeling that you have been cheated. As presented here with great discipline and sensitivity by pianist Eve Egoyan, who has often collaborated with Southam and gives the present work its premiere recording, the twelve movements that make up this major work for piano come across as the aural equivalent of twelve abstract paintings hanging by themselves in a gallery, generating an atmosphere of silence instead of sound, stasis instead of the activity we usually expect from a work of music.
This, of course, is minimalist, and very slow. The emphasis is on a 12-tone row, or rather a 12-interval row, as Southam would have it, with a slow, gentle, and precisely sequenced exploration of these intervals and the sonorities they create. As Southam has explained it elsewhere, the two notes in the right hand at the end of the sequence provide a kind of tonal center around which the 12-tone row works. At the same time, Southam’s music is distinctly atonal. Her silences are as eloquent as the bell-like sounds she is fond of deriving from repeated notes. In this recording you will typically hear Eve Egoyan play a cluster of 5-10 notes which seem to hang in the air, mingle their overtones, and then fade into near silence before she resumes her attack on the next cluster. Egoyan talks of Southam’s “magically suspended, weightless sound world, a place for deep listening and contemplation.”
And here we get to the crux of the matter. In Southam’s writing, the usual linear aspect of music takes on a very different meaning. Notions such as melody, rhythm and counterpoint exist, if at all, in a personal context. Tones and their overtones take on the character of the principal subject of the music. The end result is to create a deep listening experience that focuses and relaxes the mind of the listener, facilitating a contemplative state. Since these ends are so highly intimate and personal, it is difficult to imagine Simple Lines of Enquiry inspiring much enthusiasm from a concert audience, as opposed to the performer or the home listener. As contemplatives, we exist as individuals, not en masse. Depending on your own mood and your listening needs at the moment, attending to the music on this CD may leave you feeling deeply relaxed and centered. (If, however, you prefer things Canadian served up with a bit more excitement, go and watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs!)
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Innova, Jay Batzner, Piano, Women Composers, tags: CD Review, Innova, instrumental, Jay Batzner, Millikan, Piano
Music of Ann Millikan
Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Grigor Palikarov, conductor
- Ballad Nocturne (with Emanuele Arciuli, piano)
- Trilhas de Sombra
- Landing Inside the Inside of an Animal
Ann Millikan’s music is a wonderfully eclectic mix of several contemporary compositional styles and yet Millikan retains an individual and consistent voice throughout each work on this Innova CD. Ballad Nocturne, (2009) for piano and chamber orchestra, puts jazz harmonies and figurations through a Druckman-esque prism. Neither straight-ahead jazz nor purely-abstract instrumental music, this piece encapsulates Millikan’s musical personality: that of a synthesizer. Disperate elements flow together and mix in seamless compositions. Around the 8 minute mark of Ballad Nocturne, time simply stops as high strings and a repeated high piano figure float over a slightly-disturbed walking piano bass. The piece switches gears from pseudo-lounge to Morton Feldman without dislocating the listener’s eardrum. Instead of ending the piece at this moment, which I fully expected, a more traditional jazz ballade lugubriously emerges and clarifies everything we’ve heard previously with the subdued juxtaposition of earlier elements.
Perhaps jazz transformations aren’t your thing. No worries there, because the orchestral triptych Trilhas de Sombra, (2009) a programatic work based upon a story written by Millikan’s niece, feeds any needs you have for good ol’ American atonal expressionism. Except, of course, when Millikan doesn’t need such language to express the ideas in the story. Gestures and textures tend to abound instead of melodies but the music is still a cohesive unit that moves in a single, unified direction. The melodies that emerge are long and fluid and showcased with solid and direct orchestrations. Millikan doesn’t get caught in the trap of being overly clever and instead crafts a wonderfully picturesque and programatic work and like many great programatic orchestral showcases, Trilhas de Sombra doesn’t come across as a movie soundtrack without the visuals. Unabashedly contemporary in sound, this is an approachable and enjoyable work that does not condescend to the listener.
Millikan has been flexing her synthesis muscles in the previous two works and the final composition, as one would expect, merges elements from the previous two (even though it is the earliest piece on the disc – 2008). Landing Inside the Inside of an Animal is just as trippy and fun as the title might suggest. I don’t know how to land “inside the inside” of something, nor do I wholly understand how the spacey, abstract, atonal music of the first half relates to the Afro-Cuban inspired dance rhythms that drive the second half. I also don’t know how this all ties into the “story of initiation” mentioned in the program notes. You know what? I don’t care that I don’t know how this works. It works. Being a fan of WTF moments in compositions, Landing Inside the Inside of an Animal hits me right where I live. This piece is a journey but, unlike Trilhas de Sombra, there didn’t seem to be a predetermined path to follow. It is as if Millikan just struck out to go somewhere and ended up in the most wonderful and fantastic places.
I do have one problem with this disc. While the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra sounds great on each piece, it really irks me that such purely American music written in the last 2 years had to be outsourced for the recording. I should think that American orchestras would be falling all over themselves to perform and record Millikan’s output.
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Long Piano (Peace March 11)
Thomas Schultz, piano
New World Records
When faced with a work promoting a specific political or ideological slant it can be hard to find the line between art and propaganda. Christian Wolff’s Long Piano (Peace March 11) definitely falls into the category of a politically-inspired work but the music itself remains austere and carefully detached from its surroundings. Composed in 2004-2005, this hour long solo piano work is built largely of sparse gestures and thin textures. The piece is constantly beginning anew and never fully coalesces in any one place for long. Each fragment has its own internal life and motivations. Thomas Schultz certainly had his work cut out for him in creating a coherent and linear performance of a work that is almost anything but. Schultz is displaying a type of virtuosity that goes beyond pounding volumes and rapid arpeggios.
Never still enough to be ambient yet not directed enough to contain a typical emotional through line, Long Piano seems set on an eternal simmer. It still manages to make you pay attention to it and simply hear its sound.
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Posted by Phil Muse in Piano, tags: Canada
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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