February 28, 2019
(++++) PIANO RARITIES
Busoni: Sonatina Seconda; Nine Variations on a Chopin Prelude; Elegies. Svetlana Belsky, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
Luigi Perrachio: Nove Poemetti; 25 Preludi. David Korevaar, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Music for Solo Piano and Percussion Instruments by John Dante Prevedini, John A. Carollo, Robert E. Thomas, Willem Van Twillert, and Daniel Adams. Karolina Rojahn and Lucie Kaucká, piano; Matt Sharrock, marimba and vibraphone; McCormick Percussion Group conducted by Robert McCormick. Navona. $14.99.
The piano music on several recent recordings will scarcely be to all listeners’ taste – even piano enthusiasts will not necessarily enjoy all of it – but anyone looking to expand his or her ears a bit through encountering less-familiar pianistic material will find plenty here that is enjoyable, challenging to explore, or both. Svetlana Belsky offers a fascinating tour of some of the notoriously difficult, complex, unclassifiable-as-to-style music of Busoni on a new Ravello CD. Sonatina Seconda (1912), although as brief as its name implies (nine minutes), is crammed with technical challenges and auditory ones as well. Dissonance and intensity are contrasted, seemingly arbitrarily, with march tunes and delicate, almost magical passages, the whole ending with a distinctly odd sound. Nine Variations on a Chopin Prelude is both earlier and later, the original version dating to 1884 (when Busoni was only 18) and the final one, heard here, to 1922. Again the technical demands of the music are enormous, and the relationship of what Busoni wrote to Chopin’s famous C Minor Prelude is not always apparent. The most interesting addition to the 1922 version is an introduction that is both fugal and atonal – a bit of structural cleverness equal to that of the variations themselves, which appear in three groups of three, each individual variation in turn subdivided into three parts. Belsky, who thoroughly plumbs the depths of this music, does a particularly fine job of highlighting the distinctions among the sections of the variations while also paying attention to the overall structure of Busoni’s work. This is as insightful a reading in its way as is her performance of Sonatina Seconda in a very different, broader and more deliberately intense way. Belsky also handles the six Elegies of 1908 remarkably well. These are highly variegated works that, collectively, look back at Busoni’s previous late-Romantic style and also at the much more highly personal musical approach that at this time he had not yet fully developed. Belsky handles these works as six interconnected yet independent miniatures. No. 1 is the most straightforward of the group; No. 2 plays major against minor and is based on Busoni’s earlier Piano Concerto; No. 3 has the distinct sound of its foundational chorale prelude and looks ahead to the Fantasia contrappuntistica, into which it will later be incorporated; No. 4 comes from the Turandot Suite and is a set of variations on Greensleeves, which is not at all Chinese even though Busoni thought it was; No. 5, from the same suite, is a very strange sort-of-waltz; and No. 6, a nocturne used in the opera Die Brautwahl, provides a conclusion suggesting that the night is anything but uniformly calming. Belsky seems to have a remarkable intuitive understanding of these Busoni pieces, in addition to having spent considerable time studying their intricacies and performance challenges. Her readings are wholly convincing and do a first-rate job of conveying the many facets of this very difficult composer’s complex and highly personal piano music.
Even less known than the Busoni works played by Belsky are a number of miniatures, from roughly the same time period, by Luigi Perrachio. In fact, the composer himself is almost 100% unknown, and the world première recordings on a new MSR Classics CD will serve as most of the world’s introduction not only to the music but also to Perrachio himself. A Turin native – born there in 1883, he died there in 1966 – Perrachio was apparently a shy, withdrawn man whose life was far more involved with teaching piano and performing on the instrument at recitals in his native city than with reaching out beyond Turin’s limits to any wider audience. His most interesting contribution to Turin’s musical life may have been as director of the Double Quintet of Turin, an ensemble including a string quintet plus a wind quintet. Perrachio composed mainly for solo piano, although he did write three interesting sonatas in the late 1920s (for solo harp, violin and piano, and string trio), and a piano concerto and violin concerto in the early 1930s. But he was extremely reluctant to have any of his music published. And very little of it was. David Korevaar’s rediscovery of this material is therefore something of a revelation, shining a light on a composer heretofore almost completely absent from listeners’ consciousness. None of this would matter if Perrachio’s works were unworthy of performance, but the two groupings offered by Korevaar are very definitely worthwhile. Nove Poemetti (1917/1920) includes, as the title indicates, nine sections, and they are more substantial than might be expected. They are essentially the work of an Impressionist composer who met Debussy and Ravel in Paris in the 1910s and was strongly influenced by their music and personalities. Several of the Nove Poemetti are derivative, but by and large, the pieces contain distinctive elements that mark them as works of their time but not of France, where Impressionism flourished: Italianate feelings are recognizable here. Thus, although Notte and Mare, the last two of these pieces, are not especially distinctive in style, there are elements elsewhere in the set – in La notte dei morti and Danzatrici a Lesbo, for example – in which Perrachio shines forth with his own voice. There is somewhat less that is innovative in many of the 25 Preludi of 1927 – it is easy to see how these pieces, many lasting a minute or less, would have served Perrachio’s pedagogical purposes – but here too, individual elements stand out in a recognizable style. For instance, there are back-to-back preludes marked Molto tranquillo e semplicissimo, their approach to the identical tempo marking very nicely contrasted; and there are other preludes whose construction indicates Perrachio’s particular skill with the delicate and expressive: Allegretto, con grande delicatezza, and Tranquillo, delicato. And then there is pleasant, often clever contrast between these and preludes marked Agitato; Presto, fantastico; and Vigoroso, elementare. There is nothing of grand, sweeping scale in this recording, but neither are these pieces dismissible as mere trifles. They are carefully crafted and, at their best, thoroughly engaging – more than enough to captivate piano-music lovers and lead to a hope that Korevaar will uncover and record some larger-scale Perrachio music.
It is somewhat harder to become deeply engaged in a (+++) Navona recording featuring works that emphasize the piano as a percussion instrument and that offers other forms of keyboard percussion as well. The disc is a hodgepodge by design, containing eight works by five composers; and even when a composer contributes more than one work, the pieces are separated on the CD, for no apparent structural or aural reason. John Dante Prevedini’s three-movement Lyme Sonata – which, the designation notwithstanding, is shorter than Busoni’s Sonatina Seconda – offers a series of contrasts between jagged and lyrical sections; that is about all there is to it. John A. Carollo’s Piano Etudes, Book Three (Histories) are all more extended than any of Perrachio’s Preludes, although they too are intended as technical tours de force; but they seem somehow less substantial, more given to gesture than to genuine exploration. Carollo’s Piano Suite No. 9 (Memories of Liszt) is more interesting, its five movements reflecting various sides of Liszt’s style and in one movement giving way to some rather silly humor that is most welcome amid all the seriousness elsewhere. Willem Van Twillert’s Andante for Antoinette is gentle, lyrical and quiet, while his Adagio for Piano has a warmer, richer sound than most other works on the CD. The Prevedini, Carollo and Van Twillert works are for solo piano. Scattered around them are the rest of the pieces here. Robert E. Thomas’ short Moto Perpetuo for marimba is constantly moving and themeless, while his four-movement Sixteen Lines Circling a Square contrasts the sound of the marimba with that of the vibraphone but is quite directionless and static. Daniel Adams’ Solstice Introspect is sonically interesting in being composed for three vibraphones, but Adams does not do much with the instrumental complement except have the performers play unrelated passages overlaid on each other, as if each instrument is generally unaware of the presence of the others. The usual contemporary extensions of instruments’ natural tones and ranges are also used here, including harmonics and bowing, but while they add some unusual sounds to the piece, they do nothing to give it any particular connection with listeners. Fans of contemporary music will surely deem individual parts of some of the works on this CD interesting, but the overall disjointed feeling of the assemblage of material makes it hard to find, much less care about, any connection among the pieces.