May 26, 2016
(++++) HOW THE PIANO SPEAKS
Rachmaninoff: Études-tableaux, Op. 39; Moments musicaux, Op. 16. Boris Giltburg, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Sebastiano Meloni: Moods and Sketches—12 Improvisations for Piano. Sebastiano Meloni, piano. Big Round Records. $14.99.
Betty R. Wishart: Sonata; Sonata II; Toccata II; Toccata III; Night Visions Suite; Variations on a Folk Melody; Remembrance. Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
Margaret Brandman: Orchestral and chamber music. Navona. $14.99.
Sometimes the pleasures of a recording lie in simply hearing the performer’s mastery of his instrument. That is the case with Boris Giltburg’s new Naxos CD of music by Rachmaninoff. Giltburg here offers the second set of Études-tableaux together with the six Moments musicaux, and his readings are equally impressive in two very different ways. For the Études-tableaux, Giltburg produces what are in effect nine miniature tone poems: he treats each of the works as wholly independent of the others and makes no attempt to imply that there is any connection among them. This is a reasonable position to take with the earlier set of Études-tableaux, Op. 33, which were intended by Rachmaninoff to evoke specific unnamed scenes. But Op. 39 is a bit different: here Rachmaninoff, writing what was to be his final major work created in Russia, was influenced in significant ways by the music of Scriabin and (to a lesser extent) Prokofiev, and elements of those composers’ styles filter into these pieces through Rachmaninoff’s own sensibilities. In any case, what Giltburg primarily offers here is outstanding technique. In No. 1, he does a fine job with the constant motion of the right hand against syncopations in the left. In No. 5, his hands are wide enough to span the considerable distances required. In No. 6, the opening low octave runs contrast strikingly with the treble figures that are transformed into a march. In No. 8, the contrast between the primarily legato melodic lines and the staccato central section is especially well handled. In all, Giltburg shows sensitivity to Rachmaninoff’s tone painting as well as enough technique to make the music sound unforced. In the much earlier Moments musicaux (the two works’ dates are embarrassingly reversed on the CD: in reality, Op. 39 dates to 1916-17 and Op. 16 to 1896), Giltburg easily surmounts the technical difficulties of the forms in which Rachmaninoff casts the pieces – nocturne, barcarolle, song without words, theme and variations and so forth – and penetrates to the emotional content that the composer offers within the various formal structures. The third piece, for example, is a somber funeral march, but Rachmaninoff marks it Andante cantabile, scarcely the expected tempo indication for something funereal. Giltburg has no apparent difficulty with this potential contradiction, and the result is a stirring performance. From the extended reflective melody of the first piece to the thick texture of the last, Giltburg shows that he has thought through the way in which form and communicative function interact in the Moments musicaux and has, as a result, helped the music express itself to listeners in a clear and direct way.
Sebastian Meloni seeks similar clarity and directness of expression in his performance of his own Moods and Sketches on a new CD from Big Round Records. He does not quite find it, though, because while the titles of the 12 movements he calls “Improvisations” point in specific directions, the music does not always go there. “Transparencies,” for example, is not especially transparent; there is nothing very streamlike about “Stream,” whose stop-and-start progress is a stylistic quirk of the composer; and “Dark and Gloomy” is neither. On the other hand, “Mood Swings” does have the sort of variety and contrast that its title indicates, and “Mutations” is changeable enough to justify what it is called (although it is certainly not any sort of theme and variations). Other movements are called “Awakening,” “From a Distance,” “Point Particle,” “Inside/Outside,” “Filament,” and “Waves.” The very last movement is intriguingly titled “Absence,” but the title means nothing unless it refers to the fact that the music just stops when Meloni is finished playing it – in fact, this gently rhythmic movement is the most stylistically consistent of the 12, so if there is an absence of anything, it is of contrast. Meloni makes a fine advocate for his own material on this (+++) CD, but the music itself, which is intended to explore improvisational techniques, does not communicate very much to listeners – although it may be of particular interest to pianists who want to study and absorb the methods that Meloni uses to build the various segments.
Betty R. Wishart uses a great variety of techniques in her piano works, too, and Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi runs through them skillfully on a new Ravello CD. Here too, however, the composer seems more preoccupied with the technical methods of creating pieces than with what those pieces may say to an audience that is unfamiliar with or uninterested in the scaffolding on which Wishart erects her sonic edifices. Thus, the persistent use of seconds, fourths and sevenths in several of these works provides a musical superstructure, but listeners who are not focused on the intervallic constructs and are simply seeking some sort of composer-to-audience communication will find little to attract them here. This does not mean the music is uninteresting: the second and third movements of Sonata II, one being a very short “Capriccio” and the other simply marked “Finale,” are interestingly involving, and Toccata II is propulsive and effectively declamatory. Remembrance, on the other hand, is a touch of salon music, gracious and backward-looking both harmonically and stylistically. But Variations on a Folk Melody has little to say, and Night Visions Suite is simply repetitive and dull. The other works here have elements of interest but do not hold listeners throughout, although every piece on the CD is constructed with care and an understanding of the piano’s capabilities. This (+++) CD will interest pianists for some of its technical elements and some of the contrasts that Wishart builds into her music – in the one-movement Sonata, for example – but people who do not play the instrument and are primarily attracted by its communicative potential will not find much here to be particularly appealing.
Margaret Brandman’s music, both for piano and for other instruments, is more accessible and more immediately appealing. Brandman herself is a pianist, and on a new Navona CD she performs her own Autumn Rhapsody with a fine feel for the work’s gentle lyricism. She and fellow pianist Marcello Maio together offer Spirit Visions, a work of considerable tonal color that, like most of Brandman’s music, reflects her reaction to something specific in her native Australia. But it is not necessary to know just what that something is in order to appreciate and enjoy the music – in this, Brandman differs in a positive way from the many contemporary composers whose works are so tightly tied to specificity of setting or expression that only those “in the know” can hope to appreciate them. Brandman understands that, whatever her personal inspiration for a piece may be, the music needs to reach out to listeners who know nothing about its genesis if it is to communicate with them. They may never know what led her to compose a particular work, but if it attracts and moves them, then it has accomplished something: it has touched people. Brandman certainly wants to do that, and deserves considerable credit for her efforts to do so. It is not just her piano works that reach out to good effect. There are three violin-and-piano pieces here that do so as well, all performed by violinist Vít Mužík and pianist Lucie Kaucká: Binna Burra Dreaming, based on a world heritage site but clear in its emotive lyricism even to those who do not know that; Jicaro Rhumba D’Amor, which is Latin American rather than Australian in orientation; and The Eastern Spinebill and the Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos Herald a Blue Mountains Brush Fire. This exceptionally long-titled work is actually a violin-and-piano reduction of the first movement of Brandman’s Firestorm Symphony, an entirely programmatic work that is also given here in its orchestral entirety, with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. The symphony’s three movements refer to the before, during and after of a dangerous Australian bush fire: “Firestorm Threatening,” “Now the Tears Are Flowing,” and “All the Trees Are Growing.” It does help in this case to know how the work came to be, but a generalized acquaintance is enough; the specifics, which involve a fire that threatened Brandman’s own family home, help listeners understand the strong emotion built into the work but are not necessary to hear in it the intensity of the event that inspired it, the sorrowful response to the devastation, and the eventual rebirth and renewal of the land. The work is effective on its own musical terms. So are the other three orchestral pieces here, presented by the same ensemble and conductor: Love Brings Change for string orchestra, an upbeat work despite its slow tempo (Brandman labels it Adagio for Strings); Undulations, also for strings, whose two contrasting movements represent the moods of ocean waves but, as in the other works here, communicate even to listeners who do not know exactly what inspired the material; and Lyric Fantasy, in which Kaucká joins the orchestra for a different pair of contrasting movements – with, in this case, some especially attractive rhythmic approaches and an obbligato piano part that adds to the readily accessible emotion communicated by the orchestra. This is a (++++) recording that shows, in many ways, how contemporary composers can be true to modern harmonic, rhythmic and technical styles while still reaching out to audiences who are unaware of – or do not care about – the building blocks of the music. What Brandman has to say will come across differently to different listeners, but it will come across, which is not always the case in modern compositions that sometimes seem to be self-involved and at other times appear to be deliberately off-putting. Brandman’s music is neither of those; for that reason, it can and likely will appeal to people who might otherwise think they do not care for contemporary composers’ creations.