Archive for the “Piano” Category
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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Music for Piano, including Sonata, Op. 91 and “Rustles of Spring”
Jerome Lowenthal, piano
Question: What does the music of Norwegian composer Christian Sinding (1856-1941) have to do with the contemporary music of our time (which, presumably, is what the Sequenza21.com website is all about)? I’d have to say, “Absolutely nothing.” Of course, I pretty much review what our zookeeper sends me, but Sinding seems a really odd fit. In his student days in Leipzig he was under the spell of the new music of the day, which then meant Liszt and not Wagner’s “music of the future.” His forms are conventional, and his harmony while striking, was used mostly for coloristic purposes and was decidedly not revolutionary. Even his Sonata in B Minor, Op 91, his most ambitious work on the present program, while organically conceived like Liszt’s masterpiece in the same key, is nowhere near as daring. As Jerome Lowenthal points out in his program notes, Sinding relies on subtle mood fluctuations to achieve organicism, rather than the contrapuntal devices Liszt employed.
A survey of the ten character pieces that accompany the sonata on this disc reveals Sinding to be a true Romantic composer of the old school, distinguished by his continuous flow of feeling, his turns of phrase that seem to embody the cadences of his Norwegian language, and his lack of emotional complication. His was music of heartfelt simplicity, to be played in the parlor “at the end of a perfect day.” The virtuosic element occurs mainly in the tumultuous flow of his short pieces, often ending, as do “Con fuoco” and “Capricccio” in a very decisive cadence that we might take as part of the composer’s thumbprint. The more intimate pieces such as “Melodie” and “Serenade” embody a mood of gently melancholic yearning rather than pathos or neurotic self-pity. “Irrlicht” is a will-o-the-wisp, descriptive but less ambitious than Liszt’s take on the same shyly lit subject. And his pieces in march time, “Alla marcia,” “Pomposo,” and “March grotesque” (but without the sinister spin that Prokofiev would later give that qualifying adjective) are pleasant but certainly not militaristic.
That brings us to “Rustles of Spring,” which was once so enormously popular that, as Lowenthal wryly observes, pianos of that period were said to have learned the Sinding habit and could play it by themselves, without the benefit of a pianist! Lowenthal makes much of the fulsome flow of feeling and the composer’s evident love of nature in this piece. As we have heard in his traversal of Tchaikovsky’s Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra (Bridge 9301 A/B), which like the present offering originally appeared on the Arabesque label, this pianist likes to “take it big” with the music, and he is here given numerous opportunities to do so. It all makes for a very pleasant way to spend your time, as long as you’re not looking for music of real greatness.
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Stations of the Breath
music for Disklavier and others
The Code International
- Connecticut Nocturne, Moon over Mudge Pond
- Like Powder to the Light
- The Ceremony of Souls (with Dave Eggar, cello)
- Stations of the Breath
- The Ghost of Juniper Ledge (Ned McGowan, contrabass flute)
When I first received this disc of Steve Horowitz’s music for Disklavier, my initial assumption was that the music would be thick and heavy, taking advantage of the complexity that human performers cannot readily achieve but a Disklavier can manage quite easily. The titles of the tracks, though, seemed in direct conflict with Nancarrow/Gann-style rhythmic shenanigans. Much to my surprise, the music on the disc is much more meditative, expansive, and considerably less dense than I assumed. The end result is music that defies its mechanical creation. The moods, shapes, and gestures sound as if a human being is performing. The only giveaway, to my ears, is the thinner and slightly tinny quality of the Disklavier’s timbre.
So what, you might ask, is the point? Why use technology when you don’t have to? It is a question that I’m sure will keep coming up. The bottom line, though is that my ears don’t want to hear technology. They want to hear music. This disc is certainly far more concerned with making music than flexing any technological muscles. Unplayable passages may be few and far between but effective and enjoyable music abounds.
The opening track is a glimmering nocturne that evokes its mood in gentle swaths of harmonies and gestures. The music is filled with tonal inflections which are far from derivative harmonies but still coherent and leading. Like Powder to the Light is a jagged and playful toccata reminiscent at times to Bartok rhythms with hints of Nancarrow’s boogie-woogie or Crawford-Seeger’s mixed accents.
The Ceremony of Souls, cowritten by cellist Dave Eggar, again draws on gestures and colors rather than straight ahead motives or melodies. A long, solemn cello line exists in spite of the spastic and punchy piano chords. As the piece unfolds, a relationship between the two instruments emerges. The piano punches start to lock in with the cellist’s line and gradually the two morph into one with the cello ending up in the piano’s original hectic and wild realm.
Stations of Breath is a slow, expansive work that seems as if it could go on forever. The harmonies and timing sound natural and fluid, as if the work was always playing somewhere and this CD represents a mere slice of the eternal. The Ghost of Juniper Ledge is similar to Stations of Breath in many ways. The timeless quality is shared but the harmonic language is thinner and events are much more sparse. The contrabass flute is not competing with or working at cross purposes with the piano, the two instruments are one. The music simply hangs in the air. I find these last two tracks the most compelling on the disc. They are the least technological but musically the most affective. The moods are straightforward, the ideas are right on the surface, and the execution is well worth experiencing.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Clarinet, Jay Batzner, OgreOgress, Piano, tags: bassoon, CD Review, chamber music, Clarinet, Hovhaness, Jay Batzner, oboe, OgreOgress, Piano, strings
cd cover art
Hovhaness: solos, duos, and trios
music of Alan Hovhaness
Paul Hersey, piano; Christina Fong, violin|viola; Libor Soukal, bassoon; Jirí Å estí¡k, oboe; Karen Krummel, cello; Michael Kornacki & John Varineau, clarinets; Christopher Martin, viola
Trio I for piano, violin & cello Op. 3 (1935)
Sonata Ricercare for piano Op. 12 (1935)
Artinis ‘Urardüan Sun God’ for piano Op. 39 (1945)
Suite for oboe & bassoon Op. 23 (1949)
Poseidon Sonata for piano Op. 191 (1957)
Bardo Sonata for piano Op. 192 (1959)
Sonatina for piano Op. 120 (1962)
Trio for strings Op. 201 (1962)
Three Haikus for piano Op. 113 (1965)
Night of a White Cat for clarinet & piano Op. 263 (1973)
Sonata for 2 bassoons Op. 266 (1973)
Sonata for 2 clarinets Op. 297 (1977)
Sonata for oboe & bassoon Op. 302 (1977)
Sonata for viola Op. 423 (1992)
The vastly prolific composer Alan Hovhaness gets captured in a time capsule of chamber music in this OgreOgress release. This 126 minute DVD-A disc (96kHz|24bit for you audiophiles out there) contains a full fourteen chamber pieces, thirteen of which are getting premiere recordings. The chronological ordering of works provides a journey from Hovhaness’ early populist tonal/modal style through his initial experiments with his better known Eastern influenced mystical language. There are pieces from each decade of Hovhaness’ productivity so if you are wanting a sampler of Hovhaness’ chamber output, there really isn’t a better place to start than this recording.
While probably better known for his symphonies, Hovhannes is equally skilled at writing his musical ideas in chamber form. The disc is crammed full of top notch performances and the audio quality of the disc is stunning. The solo piano works are rich with harmonics. The string trio sounds as if they are right in front of you. I was especially struck by the overtones in Libor Soukal’s bassoon sound in the Op. 23 Suite for oboe and bassoon.
There is no one large, dominating work on this disc which again makes it enjoyable for hearing the evolution of Hovhannes’ style and also encouraging performers to take up more of his chamber music. As I first listened to the disc, I was surprised at the style of the earlier pieces but the through line of Hovhaness’ development seemed as natural as breathing air. Then, when I started over with the early piano trio, I was amazed at how much of the later music is hidden in the earlier. Flirtations with modality in the early pieces evolve into raga-esque melodies a few decades down the road.
Each performance on this disc is well crafted from the performer to the ensemble through to the recording. The musical language overall is accessible and just plain pretty. I was especially fond of the piano trio, the piano sonatina, the string trio, Night of a White Cat, and the solo viola sonata. That is quite possibly more music than I would get on a standard CD. The fact that I get all the other works, which I also enjoyed, is a major bonus. OgreOgress is doing it right with good music, great performers and performances, and excellent recordings.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, Clarinet, Innova, Jay Batzner, Piano, Women Composers, tags: CD Review, chamber music, Clarinet, Innova, instrumental, Jay Batzner, Piano, saxophone
Ward De Vleeschhower, piano; Peter Verdonck, saxophones, and Marco Antonio Mazzini, clarinets
Music by Junchaya, Lee, Carpenter, Honor, Mazzini, Walczyk, and Benadon
- Rafael Leonardo Junchaya – Tres Danzas Episkénicas
- HyeKyung Lee – Shadowing
- Keith Carpenter – The Devil His Due
- Eric Honour – neither from nor towards
- Marco Antonio Mazzini – Imprevisto
- Kevin Walczyk – Refractions
- Fernando Benadon – Five Miniatures
The Thelema Trio’s modular nature, even within the context of being a trio, is one of its primary strengths and they strut their stylistic, coloristic, versatile stuff with this collection of pieces. No two works share the same instrumentation nor do any of the compositions share the same sound world. The only performer not showcased with a solo feature of some sort is the pianist but Ward De Vleeschhouwer is a superb collaborative artist who can highlight his abilities within a chamber music setting. Peter Verdonck has excellent tone and energy on alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones and Marc Antonio Mazzini has a lithe and supple sound on standard or bass clarinet. Together, the two reed players have a perfectly communal sound quality.
Each piece on the disc showcases the Thelema Trio’s mercuriality. Rafael Leonardo Junchaya’s Tres Danzas Episkénicas is equal parts sultry, ethereal and playful. This work uses the most instruments overall with the reeds changing from bass clarinet to clarinet and use of baritone and tenor saxophones. Overall, these dances are attractive, slightly thorny pitch language and extremely well orchestrated.
HyeKyung Lee’s Shadowing is a canonic/imitative work for clarinet and alto saxophone. Long melodic lines weave in and out with sinewy and twisty motions. The blend between the performers is spot on and the whole piece has great long-term trajectory. The high climax reached early on in the work is the exact right music at the exact right time. Keith Carpenter’s raucous The Devil His Due for baritone sax and piano is a punchy, aggressive, and energetic toccata for the two instruments. Instead of the baritone sax being the “front man” of the piece, both instruments engage in funky rhythmic interplay.
The title track on the CD, neither from nor towards, is an extended rhapsody for baritone sax, clarinet, and piano written by Eric Honour. This obsessive piece spends a lot of time spinning its wheels (in a good way) where the music is, indeed, neither from anywhere nor moving towards anywhere. Long overlapping tones in the reeds and mid-range piano are broken by the occasional spiky piano accents in extreme registers. Gradually a melody emerges and by the halfway point we are in a soaring, melodic section. The soaring becomes frenetic, dies down, but then trashes around with one last outburst. If you were to drop in on any single section of the piece, you might wonder how it all fits together. But listening to the complete work, Eric Honour draws an excellent through-line. The programming for this piece is perfect since it showcases not only the coloristic blend between the reeds but also the rhythmic punctuation possibilities found in earlier works.
The only solo composition on the disc, Marco Antonio Mazzini’s Imprevisto sounds like music we aren’t really supposed to be hearing. The slow unfolding work for clarinet gives the impression that we are eavesdropping on the performer while they worked out musical/emotional stuff. This piece is haunting and captivating. Refractions, by Kevin Walczyk, brings back some playful and bouncy music back to the disc. The motoric repeated notes in the piano provide a platform for melodies and shapes in the alto sax and clarinet. The energy is constantly pushing forward, even when the music slows and becomes more tender. The light and springy material returns to close out the composition.
Finally, the Five Miniatures for baritone sax, bass clarinet, and piano by Fernando Benadon are delightfully quirky pieces that present a focal idea, perseverate upon said idea, and then vanish. Niether of the five movements feels underwritten and, while one might hear how each idea could become longer, I think it would destroy the chiseled nature of these pieces. There is a lot of fun and whimsy in their brevity, making this piece the perfect waft of light flavor after a satisfying meal.
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A PORTRAIT OF GEORGE CRUMB
Tony Arnold, soprano
Robert Shannon, piano
David Starobin, guitar
George Crumb, percussion
Bridge Records (DVD)
American composer George Crumb, as we learn early in this delightful video, was born on “Black Thursday,” October 24, 1929. He’s been an unsettling influence for people with fixed ideas about music ever since. Reasoning that we all have different DNA and life experiences, he states, “I have to distrust any school of composition that eliminates the persona of the individual composer.” Certainly, his footprint is different from that of other carbon-based life forms in the music profession. In this program of performance and interview, Volume 14 in Bridge Records’ George Crumb Edition, we get to know the composer in a very personal way. He may have his idiosyncrasies, but he is also utterly without pretence and filled with earnestness to communicate to his audience in a way that some of our other contemporaries would do well to cultivate.
Crumb is relatively well behaved in this program. There is no “spoken flute,” no pouring glass marbles into an open piano or any other aleatoric (i.e., random) technique. In fact, in Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik (A Little Midnight Music), the major work for extended piano in the middle of program, he is at pains to notate precisely what he expects of the performer. In this instance, it is pianist Robert Shannon, who does a fabulous job realizing a score in which he is required to play the piano in non-traditional, percussive ways involving considerable open-piano techniques.
The work is so-named because it consists of ruminations on Thelonius Monk’s “˜Round Midnight. Other composers have fooled around with the strings inside the piano, but none, I imagine, as well as Crumb. Shannon is continually on his feet, plucking or striking the strings with his hands or using them to play arpeggio like figures and palm clusters that impress the listener with their flights of fancy reinforcing the prevailing mood of the piece. From time to time, he strikes the metal crossbeams with a yarn-covered mallet, the repeated notes adding an eerie quality that enhances the nocturnal theme. (He does all that in addition to playing the keyboard without the benefit of a bench.) All these techniques serve the real purpose of extending Monk’s familiar main tune through a series of nine ruminations in which it drifts in and out of our consciousness like a dream without losing its character. In the process, we encounter mysterious block chords, mischievous staccato figures, nightmare distortions, forte passages, ringing triads, rocking or falling triplets, tritones, and even, in 6: Golliwog Revisited, an affectionate parody on Debussy’s famous Cakewalk, complete with that composer’s impudent dig at Wagner’s “Tristan” chord!
A special treat on this program is vocalist Tony Arnold. We hear from her first in Three Early Songs from Crumb’s 18th year: “Let It Be Forgotten” and “Wind Elegy” (texts by Sara Teasdale) and “Night” (Robert Southey. In case you haven’t noticed, a fascination with the night runs through Crumb’s music.) The composer himself terms these deeply felt early works, which he dedicated to his future wife Elizabeth Brown, reminiscent of Barber and Rachmaninov, though a close listening reveals his own “latent fingerprints.” More mature works heard here are a lively “Sit Down, Sister” (2003), based on the well known African-American spiritual and featuring the talents of all four members of the ensemble, and Apparition (1979), originally written for the unique voice of Jan DeGaetani and here rendered with the greatest vividness and luminosty by Arnold and Shannon. The latter-named work is based on extracts from Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Significantly the verses are from the sequence in the poem known as the “Death Carol,” and not the Lincoln elegy with its rich symbolism of the drooping star and the song of the thrush that has inspired most of the other composers who have treated the subject. Tony Arnold’s pure tones, her cleanly rendered melismas, and her unfailing sensitivity to the meaning of the text, all serve to convey Whitman’s paean to Death as the central point between life and a return to the universal life force.
And, yes, there’s broad humor in this program, primarily in two excerpts from Mundus Canis (A Dog’s Life) entitled “Fritzi” and “Yoda” and inspired by canine members of the Crumb household. Both are deft portraits that capture the personality of their subjects. Yoda, the fluffy white Bichon Frise that we see on the cover (I actually thought it was a stuffed toy until I watched the video) is characterized by scampering guitar passages and rasping percussive sounds, ending in the words “Bad Dog,” spoken by Crumb, which give the program its title. But a curious ambiguity persists: is Yoda the naughty dog of the title, or is it Crumb himself?
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RAKOWSKI: Études. Amy Briggs, piano. Bridge 9310. 78 minutes.
This is the third volume in Bridge’s set of David Rakowski’s Études for piano. The present disc, brilliantly performed by Amy Briggs, includes selections from Book V as well as Books VI and VII in their entirety.
An étude (study) can explore many different subjects at once. It can be a technical exercise for the pianist, such as a fingering study, or an exercise for repeating notes, for example. For the composer these studies provide him or her with the challenge of making expressive musical sense out of the technical challenges the pieces present to the performer.
Rakowski, in his Études, has added stylistic exercise to this mix. Theses pieces are written in a dazzling array of compositional and performance styles. The titles (“Stutter Stab”, “Cell Division”, and “Killer B’s”, for example) give a hint of both the technical and stylistic/expressive problems addressed in each piece. The pop-sounding titles indirectly describe the sound of the music, which is “tonal” in the broadest sense of the word, with fugitive key centers banging up against each other.
Amy Briggs plays this difficult music with precision and style. She makes it sound easy, and it certainly isn’t. Her playing is expressive and colorful. I look forward to going back to the earlier discs in the series.
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Music by Philip Glass and William Duckworth
Bruce Brubaker, piano
Six Etudes for Piano – Philip Glass (original 1994 version)
The Time Curve Preludes, Book I – William Duckworth
Bruce Brubaker has assembled strong performances of attractive solo piano music on this recording. The Glass etudes are a kind of “Glass concentrate” to my ears: all the harmony and rhythm but few (if any) timbral changes and developments. Mr. Brubaker plays these works with a fair amount of rubato and feeling, something that others might shun in the face of such minimalist compositions. These recordings are much more reverberant and meditative than the recordings on Orange Mountain Music.
Mr. Brubaker’s work on the Duckworth preludes is similar in interpretation to the Glass. There is more of an emphasis on ringing sound and a distance from the piano than, say, the Bruce Neely recording. The overall affect of Mr. Brubaker’s recording is more of a watercolor smear instead of crisp Mondriaan lines. I don’t mean that as a negative statement. Brubaker’s sound is warm and comforting, letting me revel in the harmonic arpeggiations of each piece. Listening to this disc, I get a better sense of what Mr. Brubaker sounds like in concert as opposed to in a studio. I see this as a positive thing.
I like that Bruce Brubaker is able to draw a different sound out of these same pieces. Instead of hearing a machine play the music, you hear a person interpret the score. Mr. Brubaker has found his own path through these pieces and I find his path quite listenable.
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Sudoku 82, a nineteen-minute work for 8 pianos, is best described in the words of the composer:
“Sudoku 82 is one of a series of pieces I have been working on since 2005. There are now over 125 of them that use Apple’s GarageBand software and random procedures culled from the numbers found initially in hexadecimal sudoku puzzles and latterly from online random number generators. I choose the sounds I want and the overall duration, but then let the numbers determine what goes where, how many times, how long, how much silence, and so on. Sudoku 82 used a number of piano loops played on eight pianos at an extremely slow tempo, the result being that the pianists seem to be frozen in time. It was Jim Fox who suggested that the piece might be performed ‘live’ rather than using samples as I had originally done. This is therefore the first of the series to come off the computer and into the recording studio, and I am delighted with the result, which is dedicated to Jim Fox, whose music and predisposition towards slow tempos I have admired for many years.” (taken from the CD notes)
There is almost little to say about this CD single that isn’t in that above paragraph. Bryan Pezzone, the pianist, seems trapped in a beautiful glassy spiral of slowly drifting gestures. The loops are by no means predictable nor have they worn out their welcome after a third of an hour. Instead the loops provide the firmament of the composition and also the means by which Hobbs creates any sense of disruption. A single loop pops up that provides a bit of harmonic zing! every so often. It always seems to come at the right time.
I’ve been known to leave this disc on repeat for quite a while. The ambient flow of the composition and performance lend itself to directionless listening. You listen to this piece as if it was a bath you were taking. Soak in it for as long as you’d like, until your ears are all pruney and you need to towel off. The process that created the work may be random but Hobbs’ guiding ear still crafts a work of endless listenability.
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