February 12, 2015
(+++) PIANO ENLARGEMENTS
Schumann: Davidsbündlertanze; Papillons; Carnaval. Boris Giltburg, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Felt: Works for Solo Piano by Matthew Durrant, Rachel Lee Guthrie, Amir Zaheri, Richard Pressley, Byron Petty, Ron Nagorcka, and Robert A. Baker. Karolina Rojahn, J. Bradley Baker and Robert A. Baker, piano. Navona. $16.99.
Carl Vollrath: Music for Clarinet and Piano, Volume 1. Michael Norsworthy, clarinet; Yoko Hagino, piano. Navona. $14.99.
A good deal of interesting piano music comes in the form, more or less, of the suite: a series of short pieces that collectively add up to something much longer, larger and more significant. The three Schumann works played by Boris Giltburg on a new Naxos CD are all of this type. Davidsbündlertanze, written in 1837, consists of 18 characteristic pieces designed to express the contrasting views of music that Schumann attributed to his two alter egos, Florestan (impetuous) and Eusebius (lyrical and poetic). The theme of the whole set was written by Clara Wieck, later Clara Schumann, and the pieces are filled with personal elements and thoughts – but it is not necessary to know those to enjoy the many ways in which Schumann picks up Clara’s mazurka and develops, transforms, alters, expands and thoroughly analyzes it. The key to the success of this suite is to do more than simply play the music – the best pianists assume the Florestan and Eusebius roles (each piece is ascribed to one or both of them) and genuinely immerse themselves in the music. Giltburg does not quite do this – his overall handling of the pieces is a trifle on the cool side, although everything is very well played. Giltburg seems to stand slightly back from the extreme Romanticism of the Davidsbündlertanze, which is understandable in the 21st century but does not serve the work optimally. His piano technique, though, is certainly very high-quality. Papillons, which dates to 1831, is a much more dancelike work. There are 12 movements in it, mostly unrelated to each other, collectively representing a masked ball. The maintenance of regular dance rhythms, particularly that of the waltz, is a key here, with the pianist needing to maintain regularity without making the work sound repetitive – and Giltburg, for the most part, does this well. Some themes of Papillons were later used by Schumann in Carnaval (1834-35), which the composer specifically called Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes (“Little Scenes on Four Notes”). Here there are 21 miniatures, and here everything is connected – the opposite of the situation in Papillons, although Carnaval too is a series of scenes from a masked ball. Schumann includes a multitude of personal musical references while still shaping the overall feeling of the elaborate ball. In Carnaval, the chordal passages and use of rhythm are particularly striking and can be significant challenges for pianists, and here as elsewhere on this disc, Giltburg has no problem with the work’s technical demands. But his interpretation remains a trifle cool, with a sort of distancing from the music that turns Carnaval into more of a period piece and less of a strong personal expression than it needs to be. Giltburg’s CD will please anyone who simply wants to hear excellent piano playing – it offers plenty of that – but it is somewhat disappointing for those looking to hear excellence in the understanding and interpretation of the music of Schumann.
None of the seven composers whose solo piano music is heard on a new Navona CD called Felt creates anything approaching the Schumann suites, but all offer well-made, fairly short works that make good use of the piano’s expressive capabilities. The compositions are so different that few listeners are likely to enjoy all of them equally – and the disc will be of most interest to those who simply want to hear various ways in which contemporary composers use the piano. Matthew Durrant’s Three Excursions for Piano is more technique than anything else, with the composer using twelve-tone, bitonality, repetition and other compositional approaches more or less for their own sake. Rachel Lee Guthrie’s Winter is primarily a work of impressionism, a technique that Durrant does not explore. Amir Zaheri’s Prelude to the Holy Dark is supposed to illustrate a return to the time before electricity, although the connection of the piece to that time is by no means clear. Richard Presley’s in memoriam was written for the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth; it sounds like a work struggling toward an unattained epiphany, although how that connects with Chopin is not readily apparent. Byron Petty’s Propuntal Displays, the first word of its title the “opposite” of “contrapuntal,” is a sort of tribute to Bach, actually using counterpoint in its increasingly difficult sections. Anything by Ron Nagorcka, on the other hand, stands opposed to Bach’s methodical approach to music, being essentially a series of random notes within a given rhythmic structure – one of those pieces worked out more as an intellectual exercise than a communicative work. Karolina Rojahn performs all these works except Zaheri’s, which is played by J. Bradley Baker. The two other pieces on the CD are written and performed by Robert A. Baker. One is supposed to tie into Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXV, from which it takes its questioning title: Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays? The other, Valence I, makes no pretense to specific interpretation or meaning. Both sound enough alike so the works’ titles could reasonably be switched without listeners necessarily finding their responses to the music any different. Ultimately, that is the weakness of a great deal of the music here: it may have specific meaning to those who created it, but the composers have little inclination (and perhaps little ability) to reach across the gap between themselves and their audience to communicate effectively with any specificity.
The piano has half the expressive potential rather than all of it on a Navona CD that is the first volume of the clarinet-and-piano music of Carl Vollrath. Much of the music here is intellectually interesting and will be attractive to listeners familiar with the techniques used by other composers to communicate with the audience – although it may not make a strong visceral connection in its own right. What Vollrath does is produce works called Copland’s Coda (looking at some of the stylistic influences on Copland in his student years in Paris), Delius’s Dream (also looking at French influence on a composer, this time from later in his life), and similarly allusive and alliterative works called Poulenc’s Plunk and Prokofiev’s Polka. Then there is Coco and Igor, yet another piece showcasing French influence, but this time involving Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky as portrayed in a 2009 film from which a musical phrase is taken and expanded. And there is even more Francophilia in Piazzolla in Paris, which focuses on the modernized and updated tangos of Ástor Piazzolla and is the first movement of a four-movement suite called Past Recollections (the other movements are Braziltina, Little Violet and An Autumn Afternoon). Also on this disc are two works with more-personal experiential referents, Companion Piece and A Place Some Where. The ability of Vollrath to connect any of these various occurrences and experiences with those of listeners is modest at best – the works themselves are nicely shaped, often humorous, and attractive to listen to in the performances by Michael Norsworthy and Yoko Hagino, but they have the effect of distancing themselves from the audience rather than making any strong connection. Add the composer’s own voice to the voices of the other composers whose music he is reflecting and commenting upon, and the result is material twice removed from the audience – easy to appreciate with one’s mind but not offering a significant emotional connection. There are compositional skill, ironic thought, and well-made musical themes on this CD, but there is not much that is moving or emotive in any way beyond the superficial.