May 23, 2013
(++++) KEYS TO MEANING
Steven R. Gerber: Piano Music—Three Little Duets; Two Intermezzi; Piano Sonata; Duo in Three Movements; Voices; Variations for Piano; Cocktail Music (Song without Words). Steven R. Gerber, piano; Gregory Fulkerson, violin, and Jennifer Rinehart, piano (Duo). Albany Records. $15.99.
An unnecessarily cute title, “(Mostly) Solo Piano Music,” is one of the few missteps on a new Albany Records release that is a Steven Gerber production on multiple levels: he is composer, performer and even annotator. Gerber is unusual among modern composers, if not unique, in his forthright acknowledgment of multiple sources and influences upon his music – which, however, rarely sounds like any of them. Gerber’s piano works range from the atonal to the sort-of-tonal, with his newer and more-tonal pieces often being more interestingly constructed although no less thorny to perform (or, for that matter, to listen to: they are only sort of tonal). Thus, Three Little Duets (2011), for which Gerber cites Bach and Milton Babbitt as models, also have in their lineage Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16, K. 545, and Beethoven’s Sonatinas, Op. 49, Nos. 1 and 2: all are works intended “for beginners” (Mozart’s words), or at least as teaching aids. Gerber’s three pieces, each lasting less than a minute, are “duets” in the sense that each is in two voices with one note per hand – no chords. Within their short and somewhat unchallenging format, though, they are expressive and interestingly antiphonal: Gerber tends to prefer antiphony to contrapuntal writing.
He also tends to dislike the typical start-and-stop technique of much modern music, as he specifically says in his notes about Two Intermezzi (1984-85) – the first of which uses that very technique (as, for that matter, does the Scherzo of the Piano Sonata). This first intermezzo does have a purpose to its hesitancy, sounding as if it is starting to go somewhere, then holding back, then starting in a different direction, and finally, without ever moving forward fully, erupting with a climax – an overall structure that is somewhat Ivesian, although not in this case intended humorously. The second intermezzo, called “Homage,” pays tribute – to an extent – to Stravinsky and Copland, but really has its own style, which includes a winning combination and contrast of staccato and legato.
Copland gets overt credit in the first movement of the Piano Sonata (1980-82), which is called “Fantasy: Homage to Copland.” However, this is not the popular Copland of Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, but the less-known Copland who created a series of more-difficult and darker works that have never attained widespread popularity but are much admired by performers and composers. This movement is succeeded by the short stop-and-start scherzo – Gerber cites Elliott Carter as an influence here, but again, there is nothing imitative in the music. The third movement of the sonata, “Variations on a Ground,” is a passacaglia that Gerber describes as “rather tonal” but that listeners will never confuse with the work of, say, Bach. It is slow and somewhat thoughtful in effect, its conclusion being particularly warm and more emotive than much of Gerber’s piano music.
Gerber recorded the first set of works on this CD in 2011, and quite well, too. Duo in Three Movements (1981-84) is an earlier performance, from 1986, featuring Gregory Fulkerson and Jennifer Rinehart, and its scale is larger than that of the solo-piano pieces – even beyond that of the sonata. Duo clearly partakes of many of Gerber’s stylistic preferences, notably including his greater interest in having the instruments throw themes back and forth conversationally than in blending or overlaying them. Gerber cites Bartók and Robert Parris as having influenced this work, but as so often in his music, the piece does not really sound like the cited sources. The concluding “Variations” movement is particularly effective – Gerber uses the variation form repeatedly in his music, and often in a very personal way that may lead listeners to consider exactly what is being varied. Indeed, Variations for Piano (1969-70), which Gerber describes as “my least favorite work on this CD,” brings the “variation question” to the fore in an intriguing way. It is the oldest recording here, dating to 1979, and Gerber says he included it “partly because the performance represents one of the rare times when I have been totally satisfied with my own playing.” Be that as it may, the work has some fascinating elements whose interest level Gerber himself perhaps underestimates. Listeners are accustomed to thinking of variations as being on a theme, which means that there is a basic melody whose changing pitches give it shape and are then altered in ways recognizable to the ear until, in the strictest variation form, the initial theme is restated at the conclusion. But a theme – any theme, tonal or atonal – has components beyond pitch, such as duration and dynamics, and it these non-pitch elements that are varied here. The piece is perhaps too much of an intellectual exercise to be fully gripping, but its treatment of the whole variation concept makes it worthy of repeated hearings.
The two remaining works on the CD are also among those recorded in 2011. Voices (1975-76) is a 12-tone work that uses the fugal concept of three or four voices in the service of a sort of fantasy. It is a bit brittle, but its quiet middle section is attractive. And Cocktail Music (Song without Words) (1989, revised 2005-08) is a very pleasant encore, quite different from anything else on the CD and, for once, actually sounding like the sources that Gerber cites for it – in this case, Satie and Debussy. Gerber says he and others have tried unsuccessfully to create lyrics for this brief foray into salon music, but it does not really need words: it is pleasant, and pleasantly unexpected, just as it is. This CD as a whole shows multiple sides of Gerber and provides evidence that he is a fine advocate of his own works, not only as their creator but also in performing and even in writing about them – an altogether impressive combination.