November 03, 2016


Change of Keys—One Piano, Three Keyboards: Music of Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy and Bartók. Carol Leone, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28; Kirk O’Riordan: Twenty-Six Preludes for Piano. Holly Roadfeldt, piano. Ravello. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Early Musings—New Music for Violin. Davis Brooks, violin and electric violin. Navona. $14.99.

Pièces de Concours—Virtuosic Romantic Works by French Composers 1896-1938. Jutta Puchhammer-Sédillot, viola; Élise Desjardins, piano. Navona. $19.99 (2 CDs).

     Students of music history are well aware that the modern piano is nothing like the early fortepiano; many also know that even when instruments began to be called simply “pianos,” they bore little resemblance to what we think of as a piano today – and frequently little resemblance to each other, so different were their cases, spans and actions. Historically informed performances of piano music have become reasonably common, and the use of original instruments – or carefully made replicas – is on the rise. What is missing in all this attention to the cases, strings and sounding boards, however, is any focus on the keyboards and keys. Pianists routinely do stretching exercises to allow their hands to span the greatest distance possible, and famous pianists of the past are known to have had huge hands that enabled them not only to play the most difficult music of their time but also to write new music that they themselves could perform but that few others, if any, could manage. Thus, a pianist with ordinary-size hands is hard-pressed to perform much of the music of the Romantic era and beyond. Carole Leone is one such pianist – but she has found a way to do something about it. More precisely, she has tapped into such a way: Canadian pianist Christopher Donison and Pennsylvania engineer David Steinbuhler have created special keyboards that have smaller octave spans than the now-standard one of six-and-a-half inches. By using two different DS keyboards plus a standard Steinway one for the same instrument, Leone is able to focus her performances on a new MSR Classics CD on the music she is playing, not being distracted by simply trying to manage the works’ technical requirements. This is such a marvelous advance from a pianist’s viewpoint that it is a wonder it has not been done before – although the technical requirements of building alternative keyboards are certainly not straightforward. From a listener’s viewpoint, of course, the means by which the music is performed is and ought to be transparent; what matters is simply the quality of the performance. And that is uniformly high here: Leone is a sensitive, careful and thoughtful interpreter of all six works on the disc. Whether the smoothness and evenness of her articulation is partly due to her use of different keyboards for different pieces is, for listeners, wholly irrelevant. What matters is that she offers a set of works that showcase piano sounds and techniques from the 18th century to the 20th, and she plays all the pieces with understanding and fine articulation. She starts with a Haydn sonata in C, HOB. XVI: 50, which has plenty of lightness and precision, and then offers one of Beethoven’s final sonatas, No. 30, Op. 109, whose expressiveness is substantially beyond that of Haydn – this is a work right on the cusp of Romanticism. Two short Romantic works follow: Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 and Schumann’s “Widmung” as arranged by Liszt; and here the warmer sound sought by Romantic composers is very much in evidence. Next is a brief foray into Impressionism with Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse of 1904, and finally – bringing the piano into the modern era, if not the postmodern one – there is the 1926 sonata by Bartók, which he actually wrote for a piano with 97 rather than 88 keys (an Imperial Bösendorfer). Interestingly, this sonata has numerous essentially classical (that is, Haydn-era) traits, remaining tonal despite its considerable dissonance, and it thus in a sense brings this fascinating recital full circle. Each performance here is carefully calculated and played in a stylistically apt way, presumably made easier for Leone by her use of differing keyboards to make the varying demands of the works easier to meet. She meets them all splendidly, in any case, and thus offers a recording of considerable value both to everyday listeners and to her fellow pianists.

     There is also a “project” feel to a new Ravello two-CD set featuring pianist Holly Roadfeldt. The concept here is exceptionally intriguing: accepting the notion that Chopin’s 24 Preludes were designed to usher Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier into a new age, what would escort the Chopin work itself into contemporary times? The question would be merely an intellectual exercise if it did not involve an actual set of preludes by a contemporary composer – but this release includes one: a group of 26 by Kirk O’Riordan (born 1968). Roadfeldt plays all 50 pieces with finesse. Her Chopin is light, warm, speedy, stretched-out, agitated and songlike as appropriate, and although she allows each independent little piece to encapsulate its own particular mood, she also provides a sense of continuity-through-contrast when that is appropriate – for instance, between No. 13 in F-sharp and No. 14 in E minor. If this release were simply a recording of the Chopin, one among a great many, it would still get a top rating for the effectiveness of Roadfeldt’s handling of the material. But the inclusion of the O’Riordan material provides a bonus – even though, and this is no insult to O’Riordan, the contemporary preludes are nowhere close to the quality of Chopin’s. O’Riordan’s musical language is a mainstream modern one, and without a focus on harmonic (tonal and key-based) structural tools, his pieces lack any significant organizing principle. Also, unlike Chopin’s, they do not demonstrate any particularly new pianistic techniques, any way of using the instrument that differs from the contemporary norm. So they emerge as essentially a sequence of self-contained contrasting encores: one is “floating, with trepidation,” and the next is “hushed, with energy”; one is “hypnotic, distant,” the next “energetic, exuberant”; and so on. This setup works well enough, and Roadfeldt certainly takes it to heart in her performance, which gives O’Riordan’s music every opportunity to excel. It never quite does, but neither does it disappoint in any significant way. The whole thing is workmanlike, well put together, clearly created by a knowledgeable composer familiar both with piano writing and with standard expressive techniques in today’s context. What O’Riordan’s material lacks is a certain sense of emotional thrust, a feeling of inevitability and expressiveness driven by internal factors. It comes across more as an exercise than as a work written from a compelling sense of desire – intellectually satisfying but otherwise rather dry. And perhaps in that very way it fulfills its purpose of showing how the prelude concept today differs from that of Chopin, for better or for worse.

     There is no attempt to connect with the past to any significant degree on a new Navona CD called, rather oddly, Early Musings. This is simply an anthology disc of solo-violin works by a variety of contemporary composers; like other such recordings, it is decidedly a mixed bag that will appeal primarily to violinists, or to listeners whose primary interest is simply in the instrument’s sound rather than any profundity of thought it might convey. There is more technique than emotional communication offered by the 10 composers on this (+++) offering. None of the material here is likely to be familiar. Those seeking the most modern-sounding work will gravitate to Davis Brooks’ performance of Derek Holden’s Break Off the Aubergine Crystal Skin, one of many contemporary works seeking to sound profound through a title rather than through anything as old-fashioned as musical content. This work is written for electric violin with added electronics, and it has all the squeals and squeaks and percussionistic effects so dear to composers for whom traditional instrumental sounds are passé. The remaining pieces use a standard violin, although not always in expected ways. The most extended and ambitious of them is Solitude, a five-movement work by Tyler Jones that is supposed to portray different aspects of a sleepless night (“Meandering and Restless Thought,” “Three Chimeras,” “Sullen Introspection,” “Nostalgia,” and, finally, “Catharsis”). The most playful piece is Caper Fair by J.R. Speake. The remaining works explore various aspects of violin performance and listener attention. They are Ride by Balee Pongklad, Otherworldly Shimmer by Tyler Entelisano, …Of the Mind and …Of the Eyes by Corey Fant, Shroud, the Shadow by J.M. Smith, The Reflections of My Introverted Sneakers by Thomas L. Wilson, Drama of the Dirt by Kilian Afzalirad, and Unknown Conversations by Jared Bradley Tubbs. The chance to hear some of what today’s composers consider communicatively apt for the violin is actually a welcome one, and listeners who are fond of contemporary music in general will likely find at least a few of the works here intriguing. But there is little in these pieces that has staying power, except perhaps for violinists seeking new works for their recitals. Audience communication simply does not seem to be a high priority here, except in the thoroughly modern way in which people mistake “friending” on Facebook for actual friendship.

     Emotional connection was a much higher priority for Romantic composers and post-Romantic ones continuing to operate in a Romantic idiom. Indeed, the excesses of emotional outpouring of Romanticism were largely responsible for the rebellion against it of the Second Viennese School and other groups. Many composers used Romantic style to create pleasant enough but relatively insignificant pieces, a kind of salon music that was the “easy listening” of its day. Some produced music of this type that also had interesting virtuoso components – perhaps for a string instrument, perhaps for piano, perhaps for both. It is works of this sort, many originally written for the final examinations for viola students at the Conservatoire Supérieur de Paris, that are rediscovered by Jutta Puchhammer-Sédillot and Élise Desjardins on a new two-CD, two-and-a-half-hour Navona release. Nothing on this (+++) recording is music of great significance, but the pieces give violist Jutta Puchhammer-Sédillot  and, to a lesser extent, pianist Élise Desjardins ample opportunity to showcase soloistic virtuosity and, in the process, give listeners a wide variety of mostly pleasant auditory experiences – easier on the ear than the works played by Davis Brooks, if ultimately not much more musically significant. The only familiar composer among the 18 represented here is George Enescu (1881-1955), whose Concertstück proffers the pleasing virtuosity of a minor but very well-made display piece. The other works are Appassionato by Henri Büsser (1872-1973); Ballade by Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941); Concertino Romantique, Fantaisie de Concert and Allegro Appassionato by Paul Rougnon (1846-1934); Concertino by Hans Sitt (1850-1922); Morceau de Concert by Léon Honnoré (1868-1930); Concertino by Léon Firket (1874-1934); Poème by Eugène Cools (1877-1936); Romance, Scherzo et Finale by Gabriel Grovlez; Arioso et Allegro de Concert by Stan Golestan (1875-1956); Thème Varié by Georges Hüe (1858-1948); Fantaisie de Concert by Hélène Fleury-Roy (1876-1957); Concertino by Heinrich Arends (1855-1924); Chaconne by Henri Marteau (1874-1934); Concertstück by Réné Jullien (1878-1970); and Caprice by Charles-Edouard LeFebvre (1843-1917). The inclusion of three pieces by Rougnon does not mean his works are of higher quality than the others here, only that Rougnon was particularly adept at creating music of this type. The titles of the various pieces point to their less-than-grand intent, and that is quite fine: not all music needs to be heaven-storming in order to please and engage listeners. So although there is nothing of particular significance or importance here and few of these pieces will repay repeated careful listening, this is nevertheless a pleasing collection, the sort of music that can be heard when in a light mood, or when one wishes to have pleasant sounds in the air without needing to think too deeply about meaning or emotional intensity. Their lack of profundity explains why these works – and their composers – are obscure, but this music nevertheless has many charms that make the pieces, which are played very well indeed, a highly enjoyable listening experience, if scarcely a deeply moving one.

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