May 19, 2016
(++++) PIANOS, WITH FEELING
Grieg: Slåtter (Norwegian Peasant Dances), Op. 72; Stimmungen (Moods), Op. 73. John McCabe, piano. SOMM. $18.99.
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Ibert: Petite Suite en 15 Images; Arno Babadjanian: Six Pictures for Piano. Andrey Gugnin, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Debussy: Préludes pour Piano, Livre II; Chopin: Barcarolle in F-sharp Minor, Op. 60; Joel Feigin: Four Elegies for Piano—In Memoriam Renée Longy. Robert Cassidy, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Nathan Davis: On the Nature of Thingness; Ghostlight; On speaking a hundred names; Phyllis Chen: Hush; Chimera; Beneath a Trace of Vapor; Chen & Davis: Mobius. International Contemporary Ensemble. Starkland. $14.99.
Grieg was essentially a miniaturist, and as a result was and sometimes still is dismissed as a trifler, or at any rate a composer occupied with trifles. Composer/pianist John McCabe (1939-2015) would have none of that. For him, Grieg was a composer whose fine ear for folk tunes and delicacy of sensibility for their sound led to production of a series of fascinating short works that encapsulated both Norway as a nation and Grieg’s own personality. Indeed, the infrequently heard Slåtter and Stimmungen collections – not so much suites as groups of totally unrelated pieces – have personality aplenty in McCabe’s SOMM disc, a re-release of an old RCA recording dating to 1978. Even at a remove of almost 40 years, these performances glow with warmth (the digital remastering of the original analog recording is excellent) and are so adeptly characterized by McCabe that they will leave listeners unfamiliar with these works wondering why they are not heard and recorded more often. There are 17 Slåtter, in all the forms that Grieg managed to collect: springdans, halling, gangar, march and a couple simply described as “tune.” Originally written for folk instruments such as the hardanger fiddle and goat-horn, these melodies translate beautifully to piano in Grieg’s sensitive arrangements and under McCabe’s skilled hands. They contain surprises, too, such as marches that are anything but martial and dances with rhythms so pronounced that you can practically hear the rough work boots stomping. There are sturdy melodies lasting barely a minute and more-extended, more-developed ones lasting nearly five. There are warmly naïve tunes – and a “Bridal Procession of the Goblins” that begins with wholly unexpected delicacy before becoming more energetic and then ending quietly and sedately. The considerable variety of the melodies makes Slåtter a very winning collection. And Stimmungen, whose seven pieces explore greater emotional depths than do the tunes of Slåtter, also includes numerous folk elements, as well as a moving “Resignation” and a wholly unexpected “Studie (Hommage à Chopin)” that whisks by in two minutes and shows that Grieg’s skill – and McCabe’s – extended well beyond the requirements of preserving and presenting Norwegian folk melodies.
The pictures evoked by Grieg’s music are general ones of Norwegian landscapes, unlike the very specific Victor Hartmann works intended to be brought to mind by Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Nowadays the Ravel orchestration of this work is more familiar than Mussorgsky’s piano original, but the piano version is enormously effective when played as well as it is by Andrey Gugnin on as new Steinway & Sons CD. There are differences between the piano and Ravel versions of this extended suite-cum-tone-poem – Bydlo has a wholly different effect, for example – and Mussorgsky’s pianistic coloration of the individual segments is quite distinct from Ravel’s, which impressively employs its own sound palette. Gugnin gets both the grandeur and the delicacy of Mussorgsky’s tribute to Hartmann just right, and captures all the humor as well as the seriousness that the composer brought to this variegated work. Furthermore, Gugnin couples the Mussorgsky with two wonderfully apt companion pieces. Ibert’s Petite Suite en 15 Images is also a set of miniatures, offering a neoclassical set of small, disconnected musical scenes – some without a specific program (Ronde and Romance, for example) and some intended to evoke specifics (La machine à coudre, “The Sewing Machine,” for instance). Like Mussorgsky, Ibert includes some humor in his piano suite, but it is as different from Mussorgsky’s as the French personality is from the Russian; indeed, national typecasting is almost inevitable when differences as clear as those between these works emerge. The third work on Gugnin’s CD goes even farther than Ibert’s in the direction of miniatures without specific meaning. Among the Six Pictures by Armenian composer Arno Babadjanian (1921-1983) are a Folksong quite different from any of Grieg’s and a characteristic Sassoun Dance, but the other pieces eschew programmatic significance and simply offer strongly rhythmic and chromatic explorations of piano technique. Colorful and involving, they neatly cap a CD whose pianism and musical creativity are equally captivating.
Robert Cassidy also offers a mixture of better-known and less-known piano music on a new MSR Classics CD, and here too the combination comes across, for the most part, very well. The major work here is the second book of Debussy’s Préludes pour Piano, whose constantly varying moods Cassidy captures with considerable elegance and skill. He is especially impressive in the pieces requiring a light touch, such as “Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses” and Ondine, and also does a fine job with the miniatures that ooze sadness or at least melancholy, including Feuilles morte and La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune. These are sensitive and often sensuous little works, whose significance Cassidy does not attempt to overstate: they are essentially salon-like impressionistic tidbits that come across all the more effectively when, as here, they are not overplayed or overdone. Cassidy also does a fine job with Chopin’s Op. 60 Barcarolle, whose wistfulness complements the Debussy material to very fine effect. The Debussy and Chopin are thoughtfully, if imperfectly, matched with the Four Elegies of Joel Feigin (born 1951). Written in 1979 and revised in 1986, this work is a tribute to Renée Longy, a Juilliard professor with whom Feigin studied. Although atonal, the elegies revolve around the notes D and A (‘re” and “la” in solfège) as a nod to Longy’s nickname. The music, however, is not especially attractive and does not seem connected in any particularly honorary way with Longy; it would likely have meaning to other Longy students, but for listeners who do not know the subject, it simply sounds a great deal like any other recent piano works. Placed on the CD between the Chopin and Debussy, it certainly provides contrast to both but does not offer any particular insight. Cassidy plays it with care and understanding, but the work itself does not much repay his attentiveness or that of listeners to the CD.
Whether the works by Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen on a new Starkland disc are worthy of attention will depend entirely on whether a listener wants to encounter (and in some instances endure) a series of assertively contemporary pieces that, in effect, require those who hear them to accept the validity of whatever the composers choose to toss about and identify as music. The piano has a role to play here, for sure – several roles, in fact. In Davis’ Ghostlight it is a prepared piano, played (and played with) by Jacob Greenberg. In Chen’s Hush there are two pianos, one played by Chen and the other by Cory Smythe; there are also toy pianos and music boxes that Chen plays (and, again, plays with), all of which makes the work’s title a bit of a misnomer – although the piece itself is interesting and often amusing. Chen also employs musical humor within a strictly contemporary sound world in Chimers, which is written for tuning forks (Eric Lamb); clarinet and toy glockenspiel (Joshua Rubin, who also plays tuning forks); violin (Erik Carlson, who also plays tuning forks); and toy piano (Chen, who also plays, yes, tuning forks). In addition, Smythe plays both toy glockenspiel and tuning forks. This is essentially a work for tuning forks and toy instruments, and sounds about the way you would expect such a piece to sound – which is not necessarily a bad thing. The disc also includes two solo-instrument-with-electronics works: Davis’ On speaking a hundred names for bassoon (Rebekah Heller) and live processing, and Chen’s Beneath a Trace of Vapor for flute (Lamb) and tape. These are self-consciously modernistic in approach and seem designed to stretch the instruments beyond their bounds, as many contemporary composers like to do. There is also a Chen-Davis collaboration called Mobius for music boxes and electronics, performed by Chen, Lamb and Smythe. This is one of those hyper-intellectualized “look how clever I am” pieces: a performer punches a paper scroll for two music boxes; the scroll runs right-side-up through one music box and then connects as a Möbius strip to run upside-down through the other. All these pieces appear on the CD prior to the longest work on the disc, Davis’ On the Nature of Thingness, a song cycle (with soprano Tony Arnold) that features a very wide variety of mostly percussive instruments (jaw harp, toy piano, bass drum, vibraphone) as well as violin, cello, acoustic and classical guitars, mandolin, bassoon, bass clarinet and more. The work is so hopelessly over-intellectualized that one can imagine Anna Russell wryly exclaiming, as she once did of “competitive” Wagner singing, “Oh, it’s terrific!” The level of abstraction of On the Nature of Thingness is extreme – the whole thing, err, piece ends with lines from Italo Calvino about making “some things with things…an outside with an inside in it.” This is really performance art – the International Contemporary Ensemble includes a lighting designer – and might make an interesting DVD. But as music, or what passes for music, it is hopelessly self-referential, self-involved and self-important. Thanks mainly to some of the humor of some of Chen’s pieces, this is a (+++) release – even though several works on it deserve a (++) rating for listeners not automatically and instinctively enamored of anything that deems itself super-with-it and oh-so-modern.