February 22, 2018


Mutsuo Shishido: Complete Works for Piano. Akina Yura, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

François Rossé: Music for Saxophone and Piano. Adam Estes, saxophone; Stacy Rodgers and Amanda Johnston, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

The Core-tet Project. Evelyn Glennie, percussion; Jon Hemmersam, guitar; Szilárd Mezei, viola; Michael Jefry Stevens, piano. Naxos. $12.99.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 10. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     What to do with the piano? This is no simple question nowadays, and indeed has not been simple since John Cage invented the prepared piano in 1938 (although he was not the first composer to alter a piano’s sound by placing objects on or between the strings). Eight decades after Cage formalized the prepared-piano concept, composers remain split between those seeking to elicit expressive, lyrical and emotionally trenchant sounds from the piano and those wanting to exploit its essentially percussive nature. Mutsuo Shishido (1929-2007) came down firmly on the emotionally expressive side of things, albeit with an intriguing difference: he sought to combine elements of music from his native Japan with traditional Western ones. This is scarcely a unique approach nowadays, when composers frequently mix Western sounds with ones from Asia, Africa and elsewhere, but a new MSR Classics CD featuring pianist Akina Yura shows that Shishido handled the combinatorial aspects in an unusual way. What Shishido tried to do – with mixed success, as this recording shows – was to maintain the Japanese identity of his piano music while having it be accessible to audiences outside Japan and the Orient. His very first attempt to do this, Suite de Danses pour Piano (1957), shows the approach clearly, imitating traditional Japanese instruments on the piano – as Cage and others sought to imitate other percussion instruments through piano preparation – while still using recognizable Western classical forms. Suite pour le Clavier (1968) extends the approach, imitating taiko (Japanese drums) and eliciting some of the feelings of Shinto meditation while, again, having recognizably traditional Western elements. The flip side of this serious approach is shown in Shishido’s two sonatas (1966 and 1968), which are lighter in character and somewhat more buoyant in their musical mixtures. To complete this survey of all Shishido’s piano music – there is less than an hour of it – Yura includes three short works that show how Shishido handled his cultural potpourri in briefer pieces: Yūzakura Dōjo No Eri No Usu Aoku (1971), Kimagure Kouma (1976), and Toccata, with Flute and Drums (1988). Everything on the CD is a world première recording, and everything is handled by Yura with sensitivity and apparent appreciation of the ways in which the music and its composer tried hard to straddle and unite two disparate worlds.

     Another MSR Classics release, featuring works by François Rossé (born1945), takes the piano in a much more “Cage-ian” direction and pulls the saxophone along with it. As Cage sought to extend the piano’s range and sound palette, so does Rossé wish to do for piano and saxophone alike. This means the instruments often sound like something other than themselves, or at least other than anything approaching their traditional sounds – and while listeners may find it fairly easy to accept the aural changes for the piano (Cage’s formalization of the prepared piano has, after all, been around and in use for 80 years), it is harder to do so where the saxophone is concerned. Largely gone here is the warmth and sonic depth for which this instrument is known, and the jazz elements with which listeners may well be familiar are generally absent as well. Rossé wants to open listeners’ ears to new sounds, as do many contemporary composers; whether he succeeds, especially for a full 45-minute-long CD, will depend on how accommodating individual listeners’ aural perception is to the sorts of sounds that Rossé evokes. The nine works here are not presented in order of composition, but because their titles have little if any relationship to their sounds, and there is no particular sense of stylistic progress or difference among the pieces, the exact sequence does not matter. The works are called Nishi Asakusa (2004), Løbuk Constrictor (1989), Seaodie I and II (both 1989), Jonction (2008), La main dans le soufflé (1999), Sonates en arcs (1986), and Le Frêne égaré (1979). The difference between Rossé’s and Shishido’s handling of more-or-less Japanese material (Nishi Asakusa refers to a shopping district in Tokyo) and a more-or-less classical approach (to the extent that Sonates en arcs reflects traditional notions of a sonata) shows just how wide the gulf can be between contemporary composers even when they use the same instruments – and even when their pieces are performed with as much commitment as Rossé’s are by saxophonist Adam Estes and pianists Stacy Rodgers and Amanda Johnson.

     It is not just one instrument paired with and set against the piano on a new Naxos CD called The Core-tet Project. And the piano is not the sole openly percussive instrument here – in fact, the whole disc revolves around percussionist Evelyn Glennie, whose skill with multiple forms of sound generation is considerable. The piano does take the lead role in some of the 14 pieces on the disc, though, as at the opening of The Calling, where it is in fact that piano that seems to be calling to the other instruments. There is a lot of “seems to be” in this session, because the whole thing is very much subject to individual listeners’ interpretations. The reason is simple: all the works here are improvisations, which means nothing on the CD would be the same if the cutely named ensemble (“core-tet” rather than “quartet”) should get together again. The players make some attempt to match their performances to the works’ titles – and the performances could just as well come first and then be given titles reflecting their sound. Grotesque Fantasy, for example, does indeed sound grotesque in its focus on the high ranges of the instruments and the intensity of the playing. In other cases, though, listeners have to be guided by Glennie to hear the music as she and the other players want it to be heard. Do the sound of viola and tone of piano really add up to Iron Stars? Does the use of small drums on a timpani head, alongside the ethereal sounds of a waterphone, produce Flutter Gaze? Yes, there is intensity in Walk of Intensity, as in other improvisations here, but is there more or different intensity, justifying the title? These questions become philosophical more than musical, and in fact the entirety of The Core-tet Project has a philosophical underpinning without which the music degenerates – but of course that is not the right word – into mere (but they are not mere) sounds. In addition to the tracks already named, the CD contains Steel-Ribbed Dance, Silver Shore, The Wake, Unseen Fires, Crystal Splash, Breath of Validation, Black Box Thinking, Scissor Shower, and Rusty Locks. The fanciful titles could be changed, in some cases even swapped, and they would still have the same impact, or perhaps would pull listeners’ thoughts in somewhat different directions despite offering identical notes. And of course these are one-time-only notes, as in any improvisation, so wherever interested listeners may be taken by the piano and other instruments in The Core-tet Project will be a different place from where they would be taken by these same players, using the same instruments, at a different time.

     It can be salutary, after hearing how today’s composers and improvisers handle the piano, to turn to piano music that was quite advanced in its own time, exploring new sonorities and emotions, but that is now an accepted part of the standard classical repertoire. Beethoven’s early sonatas fit the bill perfectly, and the latest release in James Brawn’s Beethoven cycle for MSR Classics – his fifth – shows this quite clearly. All four of the sonatas heard here are those of a young man, written before Beethoven turned 30 – that is, before 1800. And all are evidence of the composer being a very fine pianist, and one already pushing beyond the sonata models of Haydn and Mozart. The considerable seriousness of Sonatas Nos. 5, 6 and 7 (Op. 10, Nos. 1-3), especially the third and longest, already shows Beethoven moving into emotional territory whose intensity is well beyond that of his predecessors; and it is worth remembering that his very next sonata, No. 8 (Op. 13), is the famous “Pathétique.” Brawn’s handling of all four sonatas here continues his approach from earlier releases: he plays cleanly and with feeling, but without overdoing any of the sonatas’ proto-Romantic elements and without any exaggerations of tempo or unwarranted changes of rhythm. His playing is perhaps best described as forthright and, to the ear, uncomplicated, but that scarcely means it is unfeeling or uninvolved – quite the opposite. In fact, while Brawn is usually careful to observe Beethoven’s intentions, with notable focus on getting the dynamics correct, he is so determined to elicit the emotional undercurrents of the music that he makes some decidedly historically incorrect decisions by utilizing the resources of a modern piano to play beyond the five-octave range of the instruments for which Beethoven composed and on which he himself played. There are longstanding academic and musical arguments about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of performing Beethoven (and other composers) in ways that clearly go beyond the intent of the music; the argument for Brawn’s approach is, essentially, that this is what Beethoven would have done if the instruments of his time had allowed it. Certainly listeners without a firm commitment to one side of this debate or the other will find Brawn’s readings of these sonatas convincing. And his handling of the lyrical and good-natured Sonata No. 10 (Op. 14, No. 2) provides some welcome relaxation in contrast to the greater depth of the Op. 10 set. Brawn’s ongoing Beethoven cycle continues to show him to be a thoughtful pianist who does not draw attention to his own technique but to the intricacies of the music – an approach that works particularly well for works of Beethoven’s time, and one that is quite different from the requirements placed on the piano by many more-recent composers.

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