August 23, 2012
(+++) BAROQUE TO CONTEMPORARY
David Greilsammer: Baroque Conversations. David Greilsammer, piano. Sony. $16.99.
Newton D. Strandberg: Essays and Sketches. Ravello. $12.99.
These are mind-of-the-artist explorations as much as they are musical tours. Pianist David Greilsammer’s fifth disc, and the first under his new, exclusive contract with Sony, lurches somewhat uneasily between old and new music – not that Greilsammer intends it to lurch, any more than the packaging intends to be jarring by juxtaposing a traditional classical-music photo of Greilsammer at the piano with details from Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-book-inspired Whaam! The effect is what it is, though, for all that Greilsammer writes in the CD booklet about his “longing to see opposing worlds meet.” Well, meet they do, and he plays the music of both worlds well – although the Baroque works are not particularly idiomatic. But sometimes when worlds collide, they crash unpleasantly; no “music of the spheres” here. And that is pretty much what happens in each of the four triptychs on this CD. The first sandwiches the 1964 Piano Piece by Morton Feldman (1926-1987) between a work by Rameau and one by Soler. This is actually the most successful of the four juxtapositions, since Feldman’s work is so quiet and unobtrusive that it is almost not there at all. The second set places Whaam! by Matan Porat (born 1982) – a work inspired by Lichtenstein and written for Greilsammer – between works by Couperin and Handel, where it fits not at all: Porat’s is one of those “crossover” works that mixes 20th-century eclecticism with bebop and other flavors of the moment. The third three-piece offering here puts Aux murailles rougies (“The Walls Reddened”) by Nimrod Sahar (born 1978) between pieces by Johann Jacob Froberger and Orlando Gibbons. Sahar claims to have created his own musical form, but his work sounds much like the sort of modernistic experimentation that was already outdated by the 1970s. Finally, Greilsammer performs Wiegenmusik (“Cradle Music”) by Helmut Lachenmann (born 1935) between pieces by Frescobaldi and Sweelinck. Lachenmann’s 1963 work is predominantly quiet, impressionistically sinking into silence as the child falls asleep, and if it does not really fit between the two Baroque works, it does not jar, either. What is difficult to fathom here is what Greilsammer expects listeners to gain from hearing the four modern pieces in among the eight Baroque ones. Yes, stretching one’s ears is a good concept, although certainly nothing new: Charles Ives’ father told him to do just that, and Ives’ music is more ear-stretching than anything on this CD. Greilsammer seems to have a much stronger commitment to the modern works here than to the Baroque ones, none of which was written for piano: he performs the older music perfectly well, but really throws himself into the newer material. The attempt seems to be to create some sort of conversation (per the disc’s title) between the old and the new, but even if that is what Greilsammer himself hears, what listeners are more likely to get is a feeling of being whipsawed repeatedly between two very different forms of music that coexist, at best, uneasily.
The four pieces by Newton D. Strandberg (1921-2001) on a new Ravello CD represent a very different sort of blending of old and new. Strandberg studied with Henry Cowell and Nadia Boulanger and was influenced by Stravinsky, Bartók, Messiaen and Copland, but it is his interest in Asian and African music that gives many of his works their personal colorations. The four works on Essays and Sketches collectively last less than an hour, but they are not the sole purpose of the recording, which also includes computer-accessible writings, scores, art and other material compiled at Sam Houston State University, where Strandberg was professor of music theory for 30 years. The pieces of music, recorded in 1999 and 2000, show Strandberg weaving old forms into modern guise effectively if not always especially originally – there are glimmers of a personal style here (largely because of those Asian and African influences), but the pieces are not outstandingly distinctive. The String Trio is the most classically proportioned and most fully developed of the works, and is well played by the Moravian Philharmonic Chamber Players. The other three pieces are orchestral: Essay for String Orchestra played by the New York Chamber Symphony under George Manahan, Amenhotep III performed by the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Valek, and Acts for Orchestra played by the London Symphony Orchestra under Roger Briggs, and featuring mezzo-soprano Tamsin Dalley. The variety of the performers supports the notion of an international flavor in the music, and all those involved put the works forth effectively. The CD as a whole, though, comes across as a very limited-interest item, a kind of career retrospective for a beloved professor whose compositional variety will be far more appreciated by those who worked with or were taught by him than by anyone simply interested in hearing what sort of music he created.