March 16, 2017


Scriabin: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-10; Vers La Flamme. Peter Donohoe, piano. SOMM. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Vaughan Williams: Piano Music (complete). Mark Bebbington and Rebecca Omordia, piano. SOMM. $18.99.

CME Presents, Volume 2: Paul Reale—Music for Two Pianos and Piano Four Hands. Carl Patrick Bolleia, Min Kwon, Patricio Molina, Enriqueta Somarriba and Jiayan Sun, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Ruth Lomon: Piano Music. Eileen Hutchins and Ruth Lomon, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     There are many reasons for the absence of a significant number of cycles of the complete piano sonatas of Scriabin – a compendium including Vers La Flamme, which was intended as the 11th sonata but published (for financial reasons) before it had quite been molded into that form. (The numbered sequence omits two very early works, a Sonata-Fantaisie from 1886 and a Sonata from 1889.) It is not just the formidable difficulty of the sonatas that holds pianists back – after all, virtuoso players do not hesitate to confront Beethoven’s late sonatas or those of Liszt, and even Alkan’s astonishingly complex pieces have their champions. Numerous pianists play a Scriabin sonata here or there, not only as a display piece but also to show the highly distinctive nature of Scriabin’s treatment of the piano and of music in general. But a complete cycle requires more than virtuosity and needs a greater analytical understanding and emotional commitment than most pianists are willing, or perhaps able, to provide. A Scriabin cycle is really three separate cycles. The first four numbered sonatas, the only ones in multiple movements, are essentially Romantic in style, although the fourth is so compressed that it looks ahead to the later single-movement works. Nos. 5, 6 and 7 (the seventh actually written before the sixth) are increasingly wild and bizarre, from the extraordinary opening of No. 5 to the passages marked “surge of terror” in No. 6 and the calls in No. 7 for playing with “heavenly voluptuousness” and “dark majesty” (Scriabin titled No. 7 “White Mass”). The last three numbered sonatas are a kind of set, all dating to 1912-13 and exploring increasingly rarefied and at times nearly unintelligible experiences, as in Scriabin’s description of No. 10 as “a sonata of insects. Insects are born from the sun, they are the kisses of the sun.” And finally, Vers La Flamme carries performer and listeners toward the sun, or at any rate the flame (as its title says), intending to show in music Scriabin’s conviction that Earth would eventually be destroyed by an increasing concentration of heat – the whole work is essentially an extended crescendo. Between his synesthesia and his peculiar philosophical musings, Scriabin is at best a very difficult composer to approach, whether one is a performer or a listener. Yet his sonatas represent the best way to try to understand him and his worldview: they change as he changed in thought patterns and orientation. An expert performer must be able to go on this philosophical/literary/musical journey with the composer and must guide the audience through it as well: playing the notes, however accurately, is not enough (some otherwise excellent performances of the sonatas fall down in this exact regard). The prodigious technical demands of the music are in a sense its least difficult elements: the underlying thought patterns that produced the music are in some ways more difficult to fathom and interpret. What all this means is that Peter Donohoe’s cycle on SOMM is an exceptional accomplishment. Donohoe is a first-rate pianist by any measure, and he is a thoughtful pianist as well: these sonatas are not just note sequences to him – they are communications that happen to occur through music but that overlap other forms, such as visual art, color and literature (and if that sounds a bit like synesthesia, the resemblance is purely intentional). Individual sonatas stand well on their own here, including (for example) the clear Russianism of the early ones; but the sonatas also make sense when grouped (for example, No. 7 and No. 9, the latter not labeled “Black Mass” by Scriabin but by someone else, and nevertheless providing a fitting counterpoint to the former). And the works communicate, above all, as a total sequence, taking listeners on a fascinating and byway-studded journey from 1892 (No. 1) to 1914 (Vers La Flamme) – a journey into Scriabin’s mind and mysticism, one that is exceptionally difficult to complete in a single sitting: the sonatas last almost two-and-a-half hours, and their length is scarcely the biggest barrier to immediate comprehension. Donohoe’s Scriabin cycle bears hearing again and again, in and out of sequence. It repays listeners with an extraordinarily involving and remarkably complex musical experience.

     There is nothing this intense in the piano music of Vaughan Williams, offered in its entirety on another SOMM recording – this one featuring Mark Bebbington as solo pianist and Bebbington plus Rebecca Omordia for the duets and two-piano works. Although some of this music was written while Scriabin was alive, it inhabits an entirely different sonic universe, and a far more recognizable one. Much of it is pastoral in character, and there is little here that bears comparison with Vaughan Williams’ work in symphonies, operas, choral music, folk songs – even film music. On the other hand, there is some wonderful Impressionism here in The Lake in the Mountains and some genuine stature and creativity in Introduction and Fugue for Two Pianos, which, remarkably, has never been recorded before. There are two solo-piano treatments of religious material, Bach’s BWV 649 (Ach bleib’ bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ) and Orlando Gibbons’ Song 13. And there is a surprisingly effective six-movement set of miniatures (with some distinctly Baroque referents) called A Little Piano Book, along with a pleasant but more-surface-level Suite of Six Short Pieces. And then there are two items labeled Fantasia that will be familiar in other guises to a great many listeners: a two-piano version of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and a piano-duet approach to Fantasia on Greensleeves. Both of these are curiosities that add very little to the better-known versions of the music, but other pieces here give fascinating glimpses of a side of Vaughan Williams that the composer himself explored to only a limited degree. The Lake in the Mountains, the Introduction and Fugue, and A Little Piano Book are all interesting and at times surprising works. Vaughan Williams actually wrote rather frequently for piano, but not for piano as a solo (or duet) instrument: the piano accompaniments of his songs, for example, show a sure-handed understanding of the instrument’s capabilities. This very-well-played survey of all his music that is only for piano (or pianos) nevertheless provides insight into the composer that it would be difficult to get in any other way. It will be especially intriguing for people who think they already know the full scope of Vaughan Williams’ music interests – it will be a pleasant surprise to realize they do not.

     There is some very different music for two pianos and piano four hands in the second CME Presents release from MSR Classics. CME is the Center for Musical Excellence, which helps gifted young pianists obtain advanced musical education in the United States. That is a laudable goal, and there are five of these skilled pianists heard on the disc, in various combinations. Unlike the first CD in this series, which offered a large series of brief encores by well-known and less-known composers, this recording is devoted entirely to the music of Paul Reale (born 1943). The difference is not quite as extreme as it might at first appear, since there are 15 tracks making up the eight pieces here, and many of them are quite short (including two that last less than a minute apiece). Furthermore, although nothing here is as well-known as the works by Brahms, Barber, Rachmaninoff, Milhaud and Piazzolla on the earlier CME disc – or the encores of Over the Rainbow and Moon River thrown in at that CD’s end – everything is tonal and easy to listen to without being in any way “easy listening.” All these works are world premiรจre recordings, and most of them have aptly descriptive titles whose touches of humor also appear in the music itself: Drowsey Maggie; Serge P (think Prokofiev, specifically but not slavishly his Op. 56: this is in three movements plus two Entr’actes); World of a Bengal Child; CPE (think Bach); Chorales II; Minuet in G Whiz (an unusually clever title); Little Screamers; and Watchman, Tell Us of the Night Fanfare (think Ives: this is a two-and-half-minute work for two pianos, eight hands). Friends and family of the five pianists, and those already familiar with Reale’s music, are the most likely audience for this CD, along with those knowledgeable about CME and anxious to further its mission. Because of its somewhat limited reach, and because there is little that is genuinely distinctive (or could be expected to be distinctive in this repertoire) among the pianists, this is a (+++) CD. But it is one with a great deal to recommend it – including some particularly well-made music that is designed to please contemporary audiences without needing to resort to stilted and stale “modern” compositional techniques.

     Those techniques are, however, part and parcel of the piano music of Ruth Lomon as heard on a (+++) CD from Navona. Approaches that Reale assiduously avoids, Lomon wholeheartedly embraces, for instance by using prepared piano for Five Ceremonial Masks, whose five movements are intended to represent five Navajo masks and are presented here twice – once played by Eileen Hutchins and once, with equal style but somewhat different emphasis, by the composer herself. Hutchins is the pianist for the remainder of these works, one of which, Esquisses, has some (probably unintentional) sense of throwback to Scriabin in its attempts to evoke impressions and colors through unusual compositional touches – notably in the first movement, which tries to imitate European tower bells and express the impression left after hearing them. Also here is a self-referential work called Sunflower Variations, in which Lomon offers a theme and 10 variations – the theme being from a song for contralto and viola that Lomon previously wrote. Actually, the contralto-plus-viola sound might be more intriguingly evocative than some of the piano sounds on this recording. Certainly Lomon has a sure sense of string writing: the one piece here that is not for solo piano, Shadowing Piano Quartet, shows that. This is performed by Hutchins with Katherine Winterstein (violin), Scott Woolweaver (viola), and Patrick Owen (cello). The string writing is skillful, and the three movements – all designed to evoke, one way or another, the notion of moving about so quietly and carefully that one can see without being seen, like wolves or (as the second movement has it) “the shyest angel” – are audibly related but sufficiently different to make the piece as a whole an involving one. Lomon’s music that takes a straightforward approach to instrumental capabilities, perhaps stretching them but not actively working against their usual timbre and style, comes across here as more effective than the music that requires artifice and artificiality to draw attention to its subject matter.

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