December 31, 2015
(+++) ALMOST INCIDENTAL MUSIC
Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze; Anders Eliasson: Disegno 2; Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2. Beth Levin, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Zoran Šćekić: Just Music—Music for Piano in Five Limit Just Intonation. Ana Žgur, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
CME Presents, Volume 1: Piano Celebration. MSR Classics. $12.95.
ONYX: Society of Composers, Inc., Volume 29. Navona. $16.99.
Incidental music is written by composers for a specific purpose: to accompany a play, perhaps, or celebrate a military victory. But music itself sometimes seems to become almost incidental in releases that seem intended to showcase particular people, groups or purposes – the focus ends up being less on the music than on the performers, the cause being espoused, or some other extra-musical element. A new Navona CD featuring pianist Beth Levin, for example, includes works by two very well-known composers and one, Anders Eliasson (1947-2013), who is much less familiar. Why this particular combination? The answer appears to be not the music but the personalities of the composers, which Levin seeks to bring out through her interpretations. Since music is, like other art forms, a highly personal matter, it certainly makes sense to try to get at a composer’s personality this way – but perhaps one actually locates only a persona, since any given work merely expresses what that specific composer was feeling at that specific time and under those specific creative circumstances. Really, the Schumann “personality” of Davidsbündlertänze seems to have little in common with that of, say, the “Spring” symphony. Be that as it may, Levin does a fine job with the 18 highly varied vignettes, taking particular delight in the contrast between adjacent movements, such as the seventh (Nicht schnell) and eighth (Frisch). This is a very fine performance – but what is its relationship to Eliasson’s Disegno 2, which immediately follows it? This work from 1987 is propelled by nothing much to pretty much nowhere: other Eliasson works incorporate influences as varied as Bach and jazz, but this one sounds more like a self-parody of bland “contemporary music” than anything else, and it is hard to see it illuminating either the composer’s personality or anything particularly musical. Having thrown in this perplexing piece, Levin then presents a very fine, deeply felt and emotionally trenchant reading of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, usually called “Funeral March” after the designation of its third and longest movement. Making that movement truly expansive, Levin follows it with a quicksilver version of the very short concluding Presto, completing a strong and interesting interpretation. But to what end? The Schumann work on this disc dates to 1837; the Chopin probably also dates to that year, although it was not finished until 1839; but if the former reflects Schumann’s personal worries, hopes and concerns, the latter seems more indicative of Chopin’s handling of musical themes and approaches of the time as a whole – there seems less connection between it and the composer as a person than in the case of the Schumann. And the Eliasson work does not connect with very much at all. What this disc offers is some very high-quality piano playing of works that do not fit together particularly well and do not seem, as a totality, to express much on a purely musical basis; nor do they offer trenchant nonmusical connections.
There is certainly musical precedent of a sort for the new Ravello CD featuring five works by Croatian composer Zoran Šćekić: Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, it should be remembered, was created as a demonstration of “well temperament,” one of several tuning systems of Bach’s time. Similarly, Šćekić is interested in these pieces in demonstrating what he calls “five limit just intonation,” which is a mathematical system in which intervals are based on the prime numbers 2, 3 and 5. The result is, however, nothing, nothing like what Bach produced: Šćekić offers neither mathematics for musicians nor music for mathematicians. This is music composed as demonstration rather than for any sort of audience connection. For instance, Autumn Fantasy of Martin the Mouse starts boldly and then simply stops; the audience is supposed to wait until it starts again, in a different mode; then it stops again; and so forth. The over-extended silences are mingled with piano runs that are often almost identical, chords that come out of nowhere and go back there, and delightfully silly little sections that give the ear something to accept until they too dissolve and dissipate without any apparent rhyme or reason (that is, aurally apparent: the mathematical structure of the music presumably dictates its progress). Other pieces here are the sedate Evening Bells and bouncy Morning Bells, both being short works labeled “traditional,” and the very extended 23.10, whose minimalism might be tolerable at a two-minute length but quickly wears thin in a piece running more than 20. Also here are two versions of Strong Man, the first performed by Ana Žgur, who handles all this music with more flair than much of it deserves, and the second played by the composer himself at a slightly faster tempo. In both versions, the work is largely chordal and rather dull – presumably yet another demonstration of “five limit just intonation,” but not a work that communicates very effectively as music; any value it has lies elsewhere.
The value of two new anthology discs – CME Presents, Volume 1 from MSR Classics and ONYX from Navona – lies in their showcasing of organizations and performers, not in the music offered. This is not to say the music is uninteresting; it is just that it is hard to figure out why anyone other than a member of the organization highlighted, or someone who knows a performer heard on the recording, would want either CD. CME is the Center for Musical Excellence, which helps gifted young pianists obtain advanced musical education in the United States. That is a laudable goal, and there are a number of skilled pianists – six in all – heard on the disc, singly and in combination, performing brief works by Brahms, Barber, Rachmaninoff, Milhaud and Piazzolla, others by pianists Earl Wild and Vladimir Horowitz, and some by various less-known composers, with encores of Over the Rainbow and Moon River thrown in for good measure. The CD proves that there are indeed good young pianists being helped by CME, and that those pianists can handle works lasting up to eight minutes (the longest being a much-abridged version of Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit) with style and skill. Listeners wanting to further CME’s mission, those already involved in it, and family members and friends of the performers may all want this recording, just as friends and family members of music students anywhere will want recordings of those students’ recitals. But the disc has no reaching-out value on a strictly musical basis: it simply shows that CME is one among many well-meaning organizations trying to further music education and music itself by encouraging and supporting talented young performers. It is the sort of recording that CME might consider giving away to people who provide it with donations, but not a disc that those uninvolved with the organization will find compelling in any way.
The same is true in a slightly different way where ONYX is concerned. Here the music is the point only insofar as it reflects on the half-century commitment of the Society of Composers, Inc. to contemporary music and musicians. None of the 10 works here is going to attract listeners on its own merits. The pieces are Adolescent Psychology by Shawn Crouch, Persistence of Memory by Mark Zanter, Gangrel by Anne Neikirk, Greed by Christopher Biggs, Between Logic and Rhetoric by Ferdinando DeSena, Rivir by Federico Bonacossa, Utmost Attack by Chi-hin Leung, Tensile Strength by Kyong Mee Choi & Timothy Ernest Johnson, Ignis Fatuus by Kai-Young Chang, and Echoes from the Past by Andrián Pertout. The works’ techniques vary widely, as does their instrumentation, but despite their evocative titles, many of the pieces sound very much the same to anyone not versed in advance in their intent. And while the composers show themselves adept in the usual techniques of modern classical music – lots of harmonics, range extensions, extraction of sounds from instruments beyond what the instruments have traditionally produced, unusual instrumental combinations, jazz and other influences, and so forth – there is little that is truly distinctive about any of these pieces, little that listeners to music of this type will not have heard before. As with the CME recording, this is a disc that seems designed entirely for people involved with the organization that the CD celebrates: friends and families of the composers whose works are heard here will want the disc as a souvenir and an affirmation of someone they know personally. But there is no reason for most people – even contemporary-music enthusiasts – to pick up this particular anthology, whose elements are not connected in any meaningful musical way, but only through their affiliation with a particular organization.