Archive for the “Piano” Category
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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Posted by Phil Muse in Piano
Richard Faria, clarinet
Ellen Jewett, violin
Xak Bjerken, piano
Los Angeles Piano Quintet
This program of piano and chamber music by American composer Stephen Hartke (b.1952) was my first acquaintance with this composer. Though he titles one of these works “Post-Modern Images,” Hartke strikes me more as a modern-day Dadaist. In any typical piece, he takes one element of music – say irregular rhythms or severe dissonances – and playfully, maniacally, runs it into the ground. Now, there’s nothing wrong with irregular rhythm or dissonance, either. They’ve been part of the language of the composer for ages – the former since the notes inégales of the 17th century French Clavecinistes, the latter at least since the Agincourt Hymn and the Coventry Carol, way back in the 15th century. It’s just that it takes more than one element to make a satisfying work of art or a distinctive style in music.
I find Hartke’s music is just too eclectic for words (although I am perfectly aware that some listeners may respond very positively to this very trait of the composer that I find fault with). The title piece, Horse with the Lavender Eye (the significance of which is never explained; I suspect it is as meaningful, or meaningless, as “Un Chien andalou”) claims a play by Carlo Goldoni, ancient Japanese court music, the cartoons of Robert Crumb, 19th century Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis, and Looney Tunes among its bewildering array of influences. Perhaps the third piece, Waltzing at the Abyss, marked ” Gingerly but always moving along,” may serve as a metaphor for the composer’s art as he continually juggles heterogeneous elements and asks us to trust him that he won’t stumble and fall.
The selections from Post-Modern Images (1984-1992) are another odd assortment, the most successful of which I found to be “Gymnopédie No. 4″, a study in seventh chords that pays homage to Erik Satie, that grand-daddy of all musical eccentrics, in its lilting 3/4 metre and “the simultaneously fluid yet static harmony” (annotation by Xak Bjerken, who plays all the piano pieces with precision and style). “Template” (1985) audaciously transforms a zestful Estudio-Scherzo (1902) by Brazilian composer Henrique Oswald (which is played immediately after for comparison). Hartke takes the Oswald piece at its requisite rapid tempo but sounds only a handful of the notes, resulting in a piece of entirely different character. “Interesting, but why?” was my reaction. Sonata for Piano, Hartke’s other major work for the instrument, is in three movements. Bjerken describes the outer movements as “sometimes massive, sometimes light and birdlike.” The first description fits the Prelude. The second, “light and birdlike” presumably applies to the Postlude, although Hartke’s birds seem to have leaden wings from their hesitant movement. The most interesting movement is the middle one, a scherzo entitled “Epicycles” after its engaging use of rhythmic wheels within wheels (I was reminded of a Buster Keaton two-reeler I’d watched recently, in which the comedian is caught within the paddle-wheel of a ferry boat and valiantly tries to keep his balance by racing madly in the opposite direction to the wheel, finally giving up and accepting the inevitable dunking in typically stoic Keaton fashion).
The King of the Sun is the most ambitious work on the program, a suite in five movements plus Interlude that was commissioned in 1988 by the LA Piano Quartet, who perform it here. It derives a measure of cyclic unity from a medieval canon, heard most prominently in the second movement, “Dutch Interior” which was inspired by Spanish artist Joan Mirí³’s take on a 17th century Dutch genre painting by Jan Steen, and echoed elsewhere throughout the work. It appears in IV, “The Flames of the sun make the desert flower hysterical,” in which the violent chords and coruscating harmony vividly convey the essence of pain. Elsewhere, however, it’s probably unwise to take Hartke’s clever subtitles too seriously, as in 1, “Personages in the night guided by the phosphorescent tracks of snails,” where he is doubtless tongue-in-cheek. (Snails, because of the dirty trick nature has played on them, are obliged to glide slowly through life; they positively do not jitterbug.)
I think I’ve given my personal impression here of Stephen Hartke as a composer who doesn’t always play with a full deck of cards. On the other hand, I’ve provided enough clues so that those who are into this sort of thing will find much to intrigue them.
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Centrediscs CMCCD 14109
On Pond Life, Canadian pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico presents a double disc dose of solo music by fellow Toronto resident, composer Ann Southam. Southam takes the image of a pond scene, with its Impressionist associations, to heart. Thus, the music emphasizes delicate shadings of harmony and soft dynamics in a group of placid, slowly evolving pieces.
The harmonic language of these pieces gravitates toward pandiatonicism. But Southam’s brand of harmony eschews a thoroughly straightforward trajectory. Often, she uses artfully placed “wrong notes” to dispel familiarity, sending a well-trod progression into unfamiliar territory. Indeed, the occasional judiciously-introduced dissonance acts like a raindrop disturbing the surface of a pond, creating a restructuring ripple effect.
Occasional moments of greater rhythmic activity, such as the considerably charming pair of “Fidget Creek” pieces, are welcome respites from the prevailing stillness. Petrowska Quilico is sensitive to the delicate balance of Southam’s compositional ecosystem, playing with assured pacing and nuanced phrasing.
Pond Life is a recording that, while primarily gentle on the surface, is consistently attention-grabbing.
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CARTER: Selected Works. Various Artists. Nonesuch 510893-2 [4 cd]. 269 minutes.
This four disc set, titled “A Nonesuch Retrospective”, was released in honor of Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday. It is an outstanding (and bargain-priced!) introduction to the composer, covering the majority of his work between the Piano Sonata (1945) to the Robert Lowell song cycle In Sleep, In Thunder (1983).
The music is arranged in chronological order on the four discs, so Carter’s development in these crucial years is audible. We almost never listen to concert music this way””in the order in which it was composed. We usually listen to groups of pieces by genre and/or instrumentation, and the unusual order is quite telling. At times, it feels like one large piece with different sections having different instrumentations.
An important and welcome addition is the inclusion of a titanic reading of the Variations for Orchestra (1955) by the Chicago Symphony, led by Carter champion James Levine, previously released by DG. Less welcome is the omission of the Paul Zukovsky/Gilbert Kalish premiere recording of the Duo for Violin and Piano (1974), which is one of Carter’s most personal compositions. (Does anyone know if that performance is available on CD?)
Most enthusiastic Carter fans will have most, if not all, of these recordings; highly recommended if you don’t.
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CARTER: Mosaic; Scrivo in Vento; Gra; Enchanted Preludes; Steep Steps; Figments I & II; Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi; Rhapsodic Musings; Dialogues. New Music Concerts Ensemble/Robert Aitken. NAXOS 8.559614. CD 65 minutes; DVD 50 minutes.
In addition to an increase in performances marking Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday last December, there were a few new recordings of a substantial amount of the peripatetic centenarian’s recent music.
This Naxos set (already ably reviewed by Jay Batzner) is a valuable addition to the Carter discography, for at least a couple of reasons. It provides high-quality second (and in some cases more) recordings of several works, it’s a very good introduction to Carter’s music of the last 20 years or so, and not least, it includes the first recording of Mosaic (2005, harp and mixed ensemble), one of Carter’s most colorful and directly approachable scores.
The composer’s late style is characterized by a stronger emphasis on instrumental color for its own expressive value and relative textural clarity (which in many pieces goes hand-in-hand with the emphasis on color). These traits are presented in a new (for Carter) structural looseness that is often manifest in collage-like forms made up of short, overlapping episodes of contrasting music.
“Gorgeous” is not a word one often associates with Carter, but it applies to Mosaic. The solo harp part, played here with great style and flair by Erica Goodman, swoops and dances voluptuously over the range of the instrument. The accompanying ensemble sings and rasps its support and commentary.
The bulk of the program consists of new performances of a handful of the character pieces that are a staple of Carter’s recent career. These are the second (and sometimes third or fourth) recordings of these pieces, which are becoming standard repertoire for their instruments, at least amongst a certain type of performer.
The disc closes with a bright and lively reading of Dialogues (2004, piano and chamber orchestra) another exemplar of the composer’s late approach. David Swan gives a deft and expressive performance of the daunting solo part, and Robert Aitken leads a strong reading by the New Music Concerts Ensemble.
The bonus DVD includes film versions of the performances of Mosaic and Dialogues, as well as a post-concert interview of the composer conducted by Mr. Aitken. The films included some very amateurish effects shots and are unimaginatively shot, but they are valuable in that they show the under-commented-on physicality of Carter performance. The interview includes some of Carter’s more familiar ideas, and is valuable for the newbie in that respect.
Jay also reviewed
Ursula Oppens’ recent traversal of Carter’s then-complete piano music, and we pretty much had the same reaction to it.
 Or is it “late late” by now?
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In Two Worlds
music for saxophone with electronics
In Two Worlds,
James Paul Sain
John Anthony Lennon
Susan Fancher, soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones
In Two Worlds
collects recordings of works for saxophone and electronics that cover a wide range of styles and showcase different sound worlds from the 80s, 90s, and today (that latter part sounded like a radio station ad, I apologize). The title track, composed by Morton Subotnick, is at times dreamy and at times driving. Some of the synth sounds are a little dated sounding (the original date on the work is 1987) but the quality of the work and the performance outshine any cheese the synths possess. This recording addresses the issue of historic preservation and performance practice of electronic music. The technology originally used to create In Two Worlds
is no longer viable and available. Thanks to the interest of Susan Fancher and the programming chops of Jeff Heisler and Mark Bunce, the work gains new life. I love it when a work of this nature is embraced by such talents that are unwilling to let technological adversaries overcome the access to the music.
Jovian Images, for soprano sax and electronics, let’s Fancher play around an improvised landscape that provides space and shimmering serenity. Fancher’s tone and control are the real draw here, the electronics are more texture than gesture and the focus never turns us away from her solo line. For something completely different, we follow up with SaxMax by Mark Engebretson. This work is sneaky, murky, and dark. Fancher’s sax murmurs and mutters, the textures of the electronics murmur back and coalesce into a freaky calliope of twisting accompaniment. Fancher really controls this work, guiding and shaping its energies through a myriad of sound worlds. When the drums kick in and the piece turns into a free jazz style jam, it is hard to remember how exactly we got here. It sounds right, though, so I don’t ask too many questions.
Solemnity returns with Corail for tenor sax and interactive electronics. Fancher’s sound is sultry and thick, even as the piece erupts with ebullient pops and snaps. Pound for pound, this piece sounds like it does the most with the saxophone’s sonic potentials. An earthy funk groove tries to emerge about 3 minutes in and, again, it sounds like the absolute right thing to have happen. Corail’s organic processes make you forget about the electronics and just listen to the sound of what is going on. Fancher seems to be playing chamber music with her subconscious.
Penelope’s Song seems to take the most traditional approach to sax+computer music. A solid beat starts the piece, representing Penelope’s loom from the Odyssey. Fancher sings in a playful and spritely manner which is a fitting match to the sneaky story of the source material. The beat, while persistent, is never sonically static. Shatin resonates the beats, providing extra nuggets of timbre and pitch to the groove. At the same time, Fancher does the same with multiphonics (in a truly integrated and effortless way). There is a lot to listen to on this track and repeated listenings will provide rich rewards.
The last two works, Slammed and are perfect polar opposites to round out the CD. Slammed is muscular, angular, rough, and irritating. You start in an uncomfortable place, intentionally, and the energy keeps pushing and pushing and pushing until the whole system reaches the breaking point and snaps. A fun ride. Aeterna, with its simple delay, is a lovely and plaintive closer. Instead of dazzling us with computing power, Fancher reminds us why we were interested in this disc in the first place: the soloist. Alternate fingerings provide the spectromorphology, but it is Fancher’s poetic playing that gives this work a real soul. Lennon gives Fancher the right material, the right use of electronics, and just lets the music happen. The piece could keep going but manages to find a perfect ending nonetheless.
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Oppens Plays Carter
The Complete Piano Music
– World Premiere Recording
Two Thoughts About the Piano
– World Premiere Recording of Caténaires
Ursula Oppens, piano
Today, being the 100th birthday of Elliott Carter, seemed to be the most appropriate day to post a review of the new and expanded Complete Piano Music of Elliott Carter, this time recorded by longtime Carter advocate Ursula Oppens and released on Cedille Records (as opposed to the now incomplete Rosen recordings on Bridge). Of course, at the rate that Carter is still cranking out music, I’m sure a new Complete Piano Music two-disc set will be in our near future.
To be honest, when I saw Oppens and Carter on the same disc, I was pretty sure I was going to like it. I could have written you a review of the disc without even hearing it. Oppens is a powerhouse of technique and sensitivity and she plays Carter with a surprising effortless quality. Even thorny, ominous works like Night Fantasies flow smoothly from her fingers. The piano music of Elliott Carter and the piano technique of Ursula Oppens go together as well as gin and vermouth. This is an awesome disc and one that should be in your collection if you dig the music of Carter. It is a no-brainer.
In comparison to the Rosen recordings, Oppens’ tempi are generally quicker (shaving over a minute off of 90+) and her piano timbre is cooler and more crystalline than Rosen’s warmer and richer sound. The Rosen recordings are, to my ears, a bit more ponderous while Oppens chooses a more mercurial and fluid approach. Anyone that tells you that music of such complexity and detail as Carter’s is going to sound the same no matter who plays it clearly doesn’t know what they are talking about.
Oppens, of course, performs everything to the highest possible caliber. Of particular interest to me were the works receiving their premiere recordings. Matribute is a sparse and lurking work, full of single low notes and scrambling bursts of higher textures. Carter then stands the work on its head in the final minute with a gradual accelerando and humorous “stinger” ending. Centénaires is a wild, romping, monophonic perpetual motion. Coming off of the rich and thick harmonies of the Piano Sonata, Centénaires is refreshing and invigorating. It makes you want to start the disc over again. And I’m going to be spinning this disc a lot.
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