November 22, 2017
(+++) WHERE PIANOS GO
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Three Movements from Petrushka. Marina Lomazov and Joseph Rackers, piano four hands. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Mara Gibson: Conundrums—Preludes 1-6; Blackbird; Spark; Folium Cubed; Sky-Born; One Voice. Navona. $14.99.
Christopher Biggs: Works for Instruments and Electronics. Ravello. $14.99.
Fine playing in conditions that are either intimate or crowded, depending on your point of view, characterizes a new MSR Classics CD featuring pianists Marina Lomazov and Joseph Rackers. The two offer rhythmically strong readings of Stravinsky’s two-piano “rehearsal” versions of The Rite of Spring and the same three movements from Petrushka that the composer turned into a short solo-piano suite. “Short” is an operative word here, and a disappointment: the entire CD lasts only 48 minutes, and it would have been quite possible – and preferable – to include the entirety of Petrushka rather than just three movements. Beyond that, the question of whether these two-piano versions are best played on a single piano, as Lomazov and Rackers do, or dual pianos, as is far more often the case, is a matter of opinion. True, the issue may be of primary interest to pianists, but listeners familiar with the music, especially in its piano versions, may have their own views based on the way the material sounds on a single instrument compared with how it comes across from two spatially separated ones. Either way, Stravinsky did not intend the piano versions of these ballets as concert pieces – they existed to give stage performers something with which to practice. Yet the works have a solid place in duo-piano recitals, and Lomazov and Rackers make it easy to see (and hear) why: Stravinsky’s early ballets are filled with rhythmic vitality and frequent metrical changes to which dancers would have had great difficulty adapting if their training was primarily in earlier ballets, such as those of Tchaikovsky. The rhythmic verve of the scores comes through very clearly in these performances, at the expense of some of the more interesting and then-experimental techniques, such as bitonality; that kind of sound is far more apparent and impressive in these works’ orchestral versions. The felicities of Stravinsky’s orchestration are also, of course, missing here, and the piano versions have a kind of skeletonized quality to them that works somewhat less well with The Rite of Spring than with Petrushka – another reason it would have been better to have the whole Petrushka here rather than brief excerpts. Still, piano fanciers and Stravinsky lovers alike will enjoy what Lomazov and Rackers have to offer, even while wishing that they might have chosen to offer a bit more.
Mara Gibson’s writing for piano is quite different in the music on a new Navona CD. Indeed, whether written for piano or other instruments, Gibson’s works are more firmly rooted in contemporary approaches to music than Stravinsky’s trailblazing ones were to common practices in their time. Stravinsky was inspired in his early ballets by Russian folklore; Gibson’s inspiration lies in paintings and poetry. Conundrums, six piano preludes written in 2016, scattered through the disc and played by Holly Roadfeldt, are musical responses to paintings by Jim Condron, who is scarcely a household name – making the works’ ability to stand on their own all the more important. They do so reasonably well but not especially evocatively: there is little impressionism here and much standard-for-contemporary-music pounding and dissonance. The six titles are considerably more interesting than most of the music: For Saturday, The few miracles attributed to the angel showed a certain mental disorder, I have saved all my ribbons for thee, The bones becoming light, I have tried in my way to be free, and Home is a failed idea. Playing any of this music with any of the titles would make little expressive difference. Other works here partake of similar sensibilities despite differing instrumentation. Blackbird (2015), taking off not very gracefully from Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, is for string quartet (here, the Cascade Quartet) – and it goes on and on for 15 minutes, alternating standard-issue dissonant, glissando and ostinato elements with occasional near-lyrical ones. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Music is the other work by a well-known poet that inspired a Gibson work heard here: Sky-Born (2015) features the UMKC Conservatory Singers conducted by Robert Bode, with violinists Samuel Huang and Elaine Ng and cellist Esther Seitz. With voices as with instruments, Gibson favors sonic contrast over emotional connection or, in the case of the words here, intelligibility. The remaining pieces on the CD are more of the same, stylistically, in different instrumental guise: Spark (2014) is for trombone (JoDee Davis) and piano (Trevor Thornton and Emily Trapp); Folium cubed (2015) is for soprano saxophone (Zachary Shemon); and One Voice (2016) is for mezzo-soprano (Megan Ihnen) and viola (Michael Hall). Gibson clearly knows what sorts of effects she wants to extract from performers, both vocal and instrumental, and she knows how to get them. The issue for listeners is likely to be that there is little unique in Gibson’s approach, little sense that what is heard here has not been heard many times before.
The situation is somewhat analogous on a new Ravello disc of music by Christopher Biggs. The pieces here combine traditional instruments – piano and others – with electronic sounds, always in now-familiar ways. Biggs, like Gibson, is sometimes inspired by literary works: A Letter to the Moon for trumpet (Samuel Wells), percussion (Adam Vidiksis), and piano (Keith Kirchoff) is based on a story by Italo Calvino, and Promethea for alto saxophone (Alex Sellers) takes off from a graphic novel. But most of what moves Biggs to create these pieces is material external to any sort of art. He is one of those socially conscious composers who try to use their work to further environmental, social and political agendas. This is scarcely new territory – think only of The Threepenny Opera and its much older, socially challenging source, The Beggar’s Opera – but Biggs does not have the focus or sheer musical adeptness of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, or John Gay and Johann Christoph Pepusch. The music here does not make significant aural or emotional connections with its topics; pretty much any title could be placed with pretty much any of these works to elicit the same response. The CD is mainly interesting for the way Biggs deploys specific instruments and interweaves them with electronic effects. Decade Zero is for brass quintet (Western Brass Quintet: Robert White and Scott Thornburg, trumpets; Lin Foulk, horn; Daniel Mattson, trombone; Jacob Cameron, tuba); Externalities is for solo cello (Zachary Boyt); Recombinant Serenade features solo horn (Foulk again); Decoherence is for solo trumpet (Samuel Wells); and Amass is for solo clarinet (Mauricio Salguero). So listeners who want to hear an amplified cello mixed with electronics will gravitate to Externalities, while those wanting to hear a clarinet mingled with electronics will prefer Amass. But whether the cello work will ever connect with listeners as a commentary on consumerism, or the clarinet one as being inspired by a hunger for change such as the Arab Spring, is another matter altogether: even people who find the sounds of these pieces congenial will likely have a hard time connecting them with the externalities that led Biggs to create the music.