January 18, 2018
(++++) THE INVENTIVE PIANO
Charles-Valentin Alkan: Études dans Touts les Tons Majeurs, Op. 35. Mark Viner, piano. Piano Classics. $18.99.
Dizzy Days: Ragtime. Sam Post, piano. Blue House Productions. $15.
Messiaen, Debussy, Ligeti, György Kurtág, Andy Akiho and Scott Wollschleger: Piano Music. Jenny Q. Chai, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Alla Elana Cohen: Book of Prayers, Volume 1 Series 7 and Volume 2 Series 4; Sephardic Romancero, Series 2; Three Film Noir Pieces; Third Vigil—Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Spiral Staircases; Querying the Silence, Volume 1 Series 2. Sebastian Bäverstam, cello; Alla Elana Cohen, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
McCormick Percussion Group: Kid Stuff—Music of John Liberatore, Seunghee Lee, Hilary Tann, Ciro Scotto and Matt Barber. Eunmi Ko, solo piano; McCormick Percussion Group conducted by Robert McCormick. Ravello. $14.99.
Exceptionally fine and thoughtful performances of some of the most difficult piano works ever written are offered by Mark Viner for Piano Classics on a CD of Alkan’s Études dans Touts les Tons Majeurs. Probably the second-most-difficult set of études ever composed – the first being Alkan’s Études dans Touts les Tons Mineurs – these major-key pieces call on every possible pianistic technique and a few that are not possible with modern pianos, such as the now-standard Steinway D that Viner uses. Like the other greatest pianists of their times, Alkan composed for the instruments to which he had access, obviously not for instruments that did not yet exist. In Alkan’s lifetime (1813-1888), piano keybeds were shallower than they later became and than they are today, and actions were lighter. This made possible speeds and fingerings that are simply not attainable on modern pianos – and Alkan, being brilliant at pushing instruments of his time to their limit, did more than most composers to produce works requiring extremely intimate understanding of those instruments’ capabilities. Modern pianists without access to historic pianos, or without experience playing them, have to figure out ways to produce Alkan’s effects on instruments not designed to produce them. Viner succeeds wonderfully at this, offering readings of remarkable clarity, brilliant lightness, exceptional finger work, and altogether amazing control. This is a pianist who really studies what he plays and really thinks through its complexities, which are enormous in Alkan’s music, before sitting down for a performance. As a result, this recording is beautifully nuanced from start to finish – which is saying a lot, since these dozen études take nearly 70 minutes to perform. Pretty much every one of them is a highlight: the amazingly quicksilver No. 4 in C, the rhythmically pounding No. 5 in F (Allegro barbaro, which despite the key signature is performed entirely on the white keys), the tone-poem-like No. 7 in E-flat (L’incendie au village voisin, in which you can practically feel the heat of the fire that Alkan conjures), the astonishingly delicate No. 8 in A-flat, the pounding intensity of No. 9 in C-sharp (Contrapunctus), and the deeply weird and disturbing conclusion of No. 10 in G-flat (Chant d’amour – Chant de mort). Several great and daring pianists have brought their skills to recordings of Alkan’s music over the decades, from Raymond Lewenthal to Marc-André Hamelin; now, superbly technically accomplished younger pianists, such as Vincenzo Maltempo and Viner, have discovered the exceptional joys and peculiarities of Alkan’s music and come up with their own ways to amaze and delight listeners with it.
The music itself is of far less interest on a new CD featuring another excellent young pianist, Sam Post – but the presentation on the disc is so striking and unusual that the recording is a fascinating one. There are a dozen ragtime or ragtime-like pieces offered here, eight of them by Post himself, two by William Bolcom (one offered both as “Take 1” and “Take 2”), and one by Scott Joplin. Post and Bolcom have so effectively absorbed Joplin-style ragtime that their works could have come from the same era, if not the same composer. That is both a strength here and a weakness: it shows remarkable sensitivity to and understanding of ragtime music, but it makes the dozen musical tracks sound disconcertingly similar – the only really different one, interestingly, being Joplin’s, since Gladiolus Rag is one of his slower, quieter and more-thoughtful pieces. Post’s own Three Dedicated Rags: 2. Mournful comes closest to Joplin’s in spirit. The most intriguing Post composition here is Kinhaven Sonata Finale, in which the piano is joined by a clarinet (played by Lauren Cook) to interesting rhythmic and sonic effect. But the three-quarters of an hour of music is not in itself the sole attraction of the disc. After the pieces have been played, Post takes listeners on a verbal journey through ragtime that neatly complements the aural one they have already experienced. In nine snippets of discussion over a total time of half an hour, Post explains how he came to his personal enjoyment and performance of ragtime and delves into the structure of this musical form – with demonstrations. This is a kind of aural “chalk talk” designed to communicate Post’s own enthusiasm for ragtime and to engage listeners more deeply by giving them a broader and deeper understanding of what they have heard earlier on the CD and will hear elsewhere when they encounter similar music. Along the way, Post provides some insight into his own compositional method and interests, as well as the way he approaches performance of music in this genre. To be sure, half an hour of talk on top of three-quarters of an hour of music may seem like an imbalance to anyone primarily interested in simply hearing and enjoying the type of music offered here. But Post’s infectious enthusiasm and his willingness to share personal opinions and information make the spoken part of the CD, which is called “Ragtime Reflections,” a genuine complement to the musical material rather than merely a supplement to it. The result is an unusual combination of entertainment and educational value, and a disc worth hearing either for the pure enjoyment of the performances or for the elucidation of the thinking that prefaced and then went into the playing.
Another piano-focused CD with a fascinating underlying premise features Jenny Q. Chai. Chai’s MSR Classics recording, however, is even more rarefied than Post’s, because it focuses on something that the vast majority of listeners do not, will not and cannot experience: synesthesia, the blending of senses in which, for example, a work written in a particular key has the sound of a specific color or range of colors. Chai experiences synesthesia, and intends with this disc to communicate elements of it – as she experiences them – to listeners. The intention is admirable, but the concept does not work particularly well. This should not really be a surprise, since Chai herself acknowledges that even people with synesthesia do not experience it the same way – two composers may, for example, have entirely different experiences associated with the identical key. Move beyond that reality to attempting to bring a sense of synesthesia to listeners who do not personally experience it, and you are in a realm in which performer and audience are essentially speaking two different languages. Music itself can and does bridge language barriers – it is nearly the only thing that does – but expecting it to bridge experiential, sense-based barriers as well is a bit much. Furthermore, it is hard to comprehend why Chai chose the specific pieces on this (+++) recording, since they have little apparent interrelationship except, it seems, for someone who experiences synesthesia. Probably the best-known composer who had synesthesia and tried to make artistic use of it was Alexander Scriabin, but this disc includes nothing by him. Since the CD runs only 49 minutes, there would have been plenty of room for one of Scriabin’s highly unusual late sonatas, but Chai comes at synesthesia from a different angle. She offers one extended work, Messiaen’s Cantéyodjayâ (1949), which combines Hindu rhythms with the structural elements of sonata and rondo. The rest of the material here is much briefer. Included are two short pieces by Debussy, two by Ligeti, four by Kurtág, and one each by Akiho and Wollschleger. In a few cases, the composers’ intentions can be seen as synesthesia-related: Akiho’s piece, which is for prepared piano, is called Karakurenai (Crimson), and one of Kurtág’s is Shadow-Play. Certainly Chai plays all the works with enthusiasm and apparent enjoyment, and there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of her desire to have listeners experience this material in a way similar to her own. But that desire is not in itself enough: taken strictly as music, the pieces here have little relationship to each other or among themselves, and without the binding element of Chai’s synesthesia, they simply come across as parts of one of the innumerable personal-preference recitals offered by so many performers. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, and listeners who share Chai’s attraction to these particular composers and these specific works will enjoy her sensitive, knowing handling of the material. But nothing here really gets listeners into the mind and experience of someone for whom what is heard ties inevitably and inexorably to senses beyond hearing.
The mystical elements of Scriabin’s synesthesia and of a work such as Messiaen’s Cantéyodjayâ are present in somewhat different form in the spiritual/mystical music of Alla Elana Cohen on a new (+++) Ravello CD. Here the piano sometimes appears solo, played by the composer, and sometimes is paired with a cello (Sebastian Bäverstam). There is also one work here, Sephardic Romancero, Series 2, for cello alone. All the pieces here are multi-movement ones, but in all cases the designations are simply “Movement 1,” “Movement 2,” and so forth. Any connection among movements is therefore left to listeners to discern. Some of the pieces have distinct extramusical relationships: Three Film Noir Pieces for solo piano are not about just any film noir but specifically about Cat People and Curse of the Cat People, whose atmosphere the short works attempt, not very successfully, to replicate. The other solo-piano work, Spiral Staircases, is connected to a film about a mute woman trying to verbalize her needs and wishes. This work, although somewhat more intense than Three Film Noir Pieces, is neither more nor less emotionally trenchant. The solo-cello work, Sephardic Romancero, Series 2, is intended to draw spiritually on Sephardic Judaism; as with the solo-piano pieces, familiarity with Cohen’s inspiration is necessary for full understanding of the music, which to the non-initiate simply sounds like a fairly typical contemporary work in which extremes of the cello’s range are repeatedly tested. The four remaining works on the disc – the ones for both cello and piano – require less specific knowledge of Cohen’s source material, all being intended in one way or another to deal with spiritual issues such as grief, loss, and connection with the divine. Although close listening reveals some differences among the pieces – greater dissonance in Book of Prayers, Volume 1 Series 7 than in Book of Prayers, Volume 2 Series 4, for example – many of the pieces are interchangeable, using the same musical language when supposedly expressing different feelings. The result is that listeners will not easily perceive any significant distinction between Querying the Silence, Volume 1 Series 2, intended to connect with personal feelings of loneliness, and Third Vigil, a cello-and-orchestra work heard here in a version for cello and piano and intended to address grander questions of humanity’s place in the cosmos. Because of a certain sameness throughout the music, this is a disc that listeners who already know and like Cohen’s music will appreciate, but one that listeners unfamiliar with her work will likely find too uniform in sound to be attractive.
Matters are far more down-to-earth both for solo piano and for percussion ensemble on a new Ravello CD featuring the McCormick Percussion Group. The piano, itself a percussion instrument, fits neatly into the ensemble and stands out when needed: Eunmi Ko is clearly comfortable both within a larger group and out in front of it. The five works on the CD, as handled by the ensemble under Robert McCormick’s direction, share a certain ebullience and experimental sound, although the general lack of distinctiveness among the composers makes this a (+++) disc. Still, it is fun for those who fancy fine percussion work in pieces that are, by and large, far from pretentious. John Liberatore’s This Living Air clicks and bounces pleasantly and has some nice instrumental touches. The third of its four movements, “This Light That Pours,” shows an unusually delicate side of percussive sounds. Seunghee Lee’s Pung-Kyung is more typical of contemporary works in its abrupt contrasts and minimalist “background music” sound. Hilary Tann’s five-section, single-movement Solstice is more attractive, thanks to a wider-ranging aural palette that encompasses solemnity, verve and delicacy. In contrast, Ciro Scotto’s Dark Paradise is mostly quiet, reserved to the point of being withdrawn, and so similar in sound and volume throughout that it seems to go on forever. The most successful piece here is Matt Barber’s Kid Stuff, subtitled “Five Figments for Piano and Percussion,” which bounces and meanders all over the place, through both the piano and the percussion group – pulling out blended and contrasting sounds willy-nilly and encompassing within its five movements pretty much all the techniques and sonic approaches of all the other works on the disc. The movements’ titles here actually do provide some connection with the music: “Chimera,” “Night Owl,” “Quench,” “Cuddleys” and “Goofball,” with the penultimate section offering gentle rocking and a rather sweet sound that contrasts effectively with the outgoing ebullience of the concluding part. This disc will be a lot of fun for listeners who simply want to hear well-played percussion for its own sake. None of the works reaches out successfully for significant musical or emotional meaning, but all, especially Tann’s and Barber’s, are pleasant-enough divertissements to showcase some highly skilled performers and a wide variety of intriguing sounds.