July 28, 2016
(+++) PIANO PARTS OLD AND NEW
Bach: The Six Partitas for Harpsichord from the “Clavier-Übung” I, BWV 825-830. Sergey Schepkin, piano. Steinway & Sons. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Philip Glass: Glassworlds, Volume 4—On Love: The Hours; Modern Love Waltz; Notes on a Scandal; Music in Fifths. Nicolas Horvath, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.
Charles Reskin: Sonata for Trumpet and Piano (2007); Anthony Plog: Sonata for Trumpet and Piano (2010); Martin Rokeach: Running at the Top of the World (2012). Paul Futer, trumpet; Susan Nowicki, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
There will never be a definitive answer to the question of whether Bach “ought to” be played on an instrument that did not exist in his time, the modern concert grand. Some people will always prefer that his keyboard music be heard as he intended it to be – others will insist that the color, nuance and overall impressiveness of Bach’s scores come through better on a modern piano than on a harpsichord or clavichord, and that Bach would undoubtedly have written for the modern instrument if he had had one available. That latter comment is likely true, but it is also true that he would not have written music such as his six harpsichord partitas for a piano: they are designed for the harpsichord, their contrapuntal lines and overall sound intended to be brought forth by a plucked-strings instrument without deep bass resonance, sustaining pedal, and sheer immensity of size. Still, pianists cannot help themselves: the partitas are simply so wonderful that performers who do not know the harpsichord can certainly be forgiven for wanting to play this marvelous music on the instrument that they do know. Sergey Schepkin’s handling of the partitas is quite personal (in much the same sense that Wanda Landowska’s was on harpsichord), and Schepkin provides a view of the music that listeners are unlikely to have heard before. It is surely not the way Bach himself imagined this music, but for a contemporary audience, Schepkin offers a set of preludes that is highly attractive. Schepkin is clearly aware of historical performance practices, but considers them a jumping-off point rather than a mandatory way of handling Bach’s music. Ornamentation, for example, was integral to Bach’s music, and Schepkin knows this. But his notion of ornamentation is very much that of a modern pianist: he rolls chords, changes dynamics in a way that is not possible on the harpsichord, goes well beyond the sonic changes possible through altered registration, and pulls emotion and drama from the music in ways that sound thoroughly modern and very little like Bach. It is not that the notes are wrong: Schepkin seems to have no difficulty at all with these very difficult works, even when the piano is poorly suited to the separation of the partitas’ musical lines and has a tendency to blend, if not blur, them. Schepkin’s playing has a free, almost improvisatory quality about it, combining warmth and wit, fantasy and imagination, in a way that pulls the listener deeply into Schepkin’s sound world and provides a great deal of pleasure. However, this is not Bach’s sound world, and therein lies the issue with these jaunty, dancelike and frequently very clever interpretations. Listeners unfamiliar with Bach will find Schepkin's performances exhilarating and thoroughly involving throughout. Those who know the partitas as Bach wrote them, for the harpsichord, may well still find themselves captivated by the sheer joie de vivre that Schepkin offers in this Steinway & Sons two-CD release. It really is a wonderful recording and it really is thoroughly inauthentic. Each listener will need to decide how to balance those two characteristics.
The main work on a new Grand Piano recording of music by Philip Glass is also a transcription: The Hours, a nearly 50-minute suite taken from a 2002 film, has been arranged for solo piano by Michael Riesman and Nico Muhly. Here there is no profound question about the intended audience for the recording: this is a CD for fans of the film and diehard Glass advocates, one of whom is the pianist, Nicolas Horvath. Like so much of Glass’ minimalist music, The Hours as heard here is barely there at all: its 14 sections undoubtedly relate to specifics of the film, but in recorded form they simply sound repetitious and unconvincing. There is some mood changing from time to time, presumably reflective of events on screen (which the CD’s booklet briefly describes). But there simply is not much of interest either aurally or pianistically here. Of greater interest is the shortest piece on the disc, Modern Love Waltz, which is not particularly danceable – actually not danceable at all – but does have more rhythmic vitality than is usual in Glass and is intellectually interesting as a combination of minimalism with Viennese dance. Also here is one world première recording, Notes on a Scandal: The Harts – I Knew Her, which combines two excerpts from the music to a 2006 film. The CD ends with Music in Fifths, which dates back to 1969 and is clever in an in-joke way (it is written entirely in parallel fifths, traditionally a compositional no-no) but which goes on and on and on until it stops, which is what Glass intended but which provides little of genuine auditory interest to listeners.
The piano plays second fiddle, so to speak, on a new recording featuring three 21st-century works for trumpet and piano. The Sonata for Trumpet and Piano by Charles Reskin (born 1946) is a fairly standard-for-our-time combination of classical and jazz elements, distinguished by the way it pays homage to composers of the mid-20th century and by its substitution of a flugelhorn for the trumpet in the second of its three movements. That movement starts with an unusually simple theme that increases in complexity as the movement progresses, until the closing brings back the initial tranquility. The flugelhorn movement is placed between one that strongly contrasts intense and lyrical themes – but with the lyrical one first rather than the other way around, which is more typical – and a finale that is bright and lighthearted. Both trumpeter Paul Futer and pianist Susan Nowicki seem to have a good time with the music – and, indeed, with the other works on this CD as well (all three pieces are world première recordings). The four-movement Sonata for Trumpet and Piano by Anthony Plog (born 1947) has a fairly straightforward structure: bright and open first movement, quiet and inward-looking second, brief and playful third, and energetic finale. The work is well-made but not especially distinctive. The most interesting piece here is a sort of sonata/fantasia called Running at the Top of the World, by Martin Rokeach (born 1953). Both the pianist’s fingers and the trumpeter’s lips get quite a workout here, and the way Rokeach mixes the instruments’ sounds is intriguing. The piece draws somewhat too much attention to how clever it is, but it never sounds overdone or self-referential to the point of diminishing listeners’ interest in what it has to say. In the long run, its innovations may be more attractive for performers than for an audience, but it has enough emotional heft to get through effectively to listeners on its own terms. It is essentially a work that rises emotionally from start to finish, from a kind of bleak darkness in the first movement (marked Fantasia) to near-despair in the second (Desolato) to a burst of bright energy and optimism in the finale, whose title is also the title of the work as a whole – and of the MSR Classics release on which it appears.