March 08, 2018
(++++) PIANO THOUGHTS
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (arranged by Vladimir Leyetchkiss); Debussy: La Mer (arranged by Lucien Garban). Ralph van Raat, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Satie: Complete Piano Works, Volume 2—Le Fils des Étoiles; Fête Donnée par des Chevaliers Normands en l’Honneur d’une Jeune Demoiselle (XIe Siècle). Nicolas Horvath, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.
Sara Feigin: Piano Works—Two Pieces; Toccata; Four Scenes; Variations; Sonata. Benjamin Goodman, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Mark John McEncroe: Reflections & Recollections, Volumes 1 and 2. Yoko Hagino, piano. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).
Ron Paley: Piano Music. Ron Paley, piano. Big Round Records. $14.99.
Stravinsky’s ballets needed piano arrangements for the very practical reason that dancers needed to be able to rehearse with piano accompaniment – there was no way to learn their parts by having an orchestra on call at all times. Stravinsky himself sometimes played the piano while instructing the dancers on his intentions for his scores. But the arrangement of The Rite of Spring made in 1985 by Vladimir Leyetchkiss was created for a different purpose. Stravinsky had made a two-piano version of the ballet, and Leyetchkiss (1934-2016), himself a considerable piano virtuoso, transformed that version into one for solo piano. The result presents challenges beyond the expected one of sheer difficulty. The solo pianist must find a way to reimagine and re-create the orchestral colors and textures of the original score without being able to lean on a partner for help filling in middle voices or adding depth of sonority or rhythmic élan. Ralph van Raat’s solution on a new Naxos CD is not to increase the drama of the music but to focus on its subtleties: the piano’s tonal abilities never match those of a full orchestra, but just as Liszt intended to make the piano “an orchestra in miniature,” so van Raat carefully chooses orchestral sounds and effects to reproduce, imitate or complement. His attentiveness both to the melodic flow of the material and to the work’s strikingly dramatic rhythms – which can be well-handled by what is, after all, a percussion instrument – results in a strong, well-reasoned performance that provides pleasures of its own as well as insights into Stravinsky’s skill in creating the music. Van Raat handles the 1938 arrangement for piano of Debussy’s La Mer in a somewhat similar way, but here there is an added element. Lucien Garban (1877-1959) looked to Debussy’s own piano music as a model for the piano version of this orchestral piece, and as a result, the pianist needs to treat the arrangement as he would Debussy’s own pieces for the instrument. This requires careful touch and articulation and very judicious use of the pedals, and van Raat provides all of these, producing La Mer as it might have been written by Debussy himself if he had done his own piano version. These insightful performances, although certainly paler than the orchestral versions of the music, are genuinely interesting in themselves, coming across not as piano reductions but as piano rethinkings – and ones performed very thoughtfully.
Both the similarities and the differences between Debussy and Satie are many, and they are apparent in the fascinating world première recording of the complete Satie score, Le Fils des Étoiles (“The Son of the Stars”). Lasting fully an hour and a quarter – exceptionally long for anything by this miniaturist composer – the music was originally written for a play by Joséphin Péladan, leader of a religious-artistic group devoted, among other things, to Wagner. In his typical inversion-of-expectations style, Satie wrote music that could never be confused in the slightest with anything Wagnerian or anything influenced by the German composer, except insofar as doing the opposite of something shows that you know what the original “something” was. The three short Preludes from Le Fils des Étoiles are well-known and have often been performed, but the complete score has never been recorded before. And while it is scarcely typical of later Satie (to the extent that the word “typical” applies to anything he ever wrote), this work from 1891 clearly shows the philosophical underpinnings of Satie’s compositional style. The music is entirely non-descriptive and in no way related to anything occurring on the stage. True, the play was essentially a series of philosophical musings, and Satie’s music could be construed the same way, but if so, the composer’s musings had little to do with the playwright’s. In addition to the three short Preludes, called The Vocation, The Initiation and The Incantation, the music includes three much longer sections, each labeled Theme Decoratif. Their titles are A Night in Chaldea, The Lower Hall of the Great Temple, and The Terrace of Patesi Goudea’s Palace. If the titles bring to mind something vaguely Masonic and perhaps vaguely Mozartian, the music does not: it is woven almost entirely from material that appears in the first Prelude, and its sounds are heavily chordal and quite repetitive – a kind of proto-minimalist music. It was in the early 1890s that Satie became close friends with Debussy, but the differences in their approach to the future of French music are very considerable – and the piano version of La Mer, contrasted with Nicolas Horvath’s performance of Le Fils des Étoiles on the Grand Piano label, makes that abundantly clear. Horvath completes the album with a three-minute encore showing Satie in more-familiar miniaturist mode – and contrasting quite neatly with the extended and unusual hour and a quarter of incidental music.
Contemporary composers such as Latvian-born Sara Feigin (1928-2011) take their influences from multiple sources, as is clear from a (+++) Navona CD featuring Benjamin Goodman. Debussy’s rambunctious sea is not at all like the one displayed by Feigin in the second of her Two Pieces (“Prelude” and “Storm”). There is nothing particularly programmatic in these two brief pieces, which primarily convey moods instead of painting impressionistic pictures. In other works here, Feigin thoroughly exploits the piano’s (and pianist’s) resources when she wishes, as in Toccata, which nevertheless is not entirely formidable for either performer or listeners – there is a gentle contrasting middle section that provides relief from the fireworks at the opening and close. Also heard here are interesting contrasts among the Four Scenes, “Legend,” “Joke,” “Memories” and “Perpetuum Mobile.” The second of these, lasting less than a minute, is especially accessible in its quicksilver momentum, and the final scene proceeds stylishly and cleverly, if rather superficially. Also on the CD is Variations, presenting a simple, gentle, folklike theme, nine variations, and a finale, everything being pithy and over almost before listeners can fully grasp the material. Indeed, everything on the CD is short – the whole disc lasts only 48 minutes. But one work here does aspire to more profundity than the others. That is Sonata, the third of whose four movements was inspired by a painting depicting the horrors of the same Babi Yar concentration camp that evoked some of Shostakovich’s most moving symphonic music. Feigin’s music is less viscerally gripping and is rather obviously striving for effects of mourning and empathy for suffering. But Sonata as a whole is involving and sufficiently intricate to capture and hold listeners’ attention. Its most effective part is the intensely dramatic start of the finale, coming on the heels of the Babi Yar tribute – here there is a touch of the same strong contrast that is in evidence, for example, in the blasting opening of the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 after the quiet conclusion of that work’s third movement. Goodman is a first-rate advocate of Feigin’s music, letting it build, flow, mount and subside to excellent effect. Except for Sonata, the material here is on the lightweight side, pleasant enough for a hearing or two but not likely to have considerable staying power except for listeners already familiar with and interested in Feigin’s work.
Another (+++) release from Navona is as extended as the Feigin CD is brief. The two-disc set featuring pianist Yoko Hagino performing Mark John McEncroe’s Reflections & Recollections offers more than two hours of music – and that is a lot, even though (or perhaps because) much of the material is pleasant and has a rather wistful feeling about it. There is a kind of gently pervasive melancholy to these pieces – 13 on the first disc and 11 on the second – that results in a feeling of sameness and repetition even though, objectively, the individual works are certainly different. McEncroe wants each piece to conjure up a different image in listeners’ minds, and therefore gives each a distinctive title – but the music itself is much less changeable from piece to piece, with very similar harmonies and rhythms and, above all, pacing. Everything here is at the same moderate speed, whether a work is called “Ripples on the Still Water,” “Pendulum,” “Shades of Autumn,” “A Lazy Summer’s Afternoon,” “A Rainy Summer’s Day,” or simply “Andante Moderato.” There is no significant seasonal difference between the sounds here and the emotions they therefore evoke, and when just about everything is played Andante moderato, it seems redundant to give that label to a single segment. Some of the titles indicate that pieces have a specific connotation for McEncroe himself – “Cindy’s Song,” “Natalie’s Theme” – but there is no way for the listener to figure out the differences between Cindy and Natalie, since both portraits (if that is what they are) are interchangeable. This is music that exists on the border between easy listening and minimalism and, to some extent, partakes of the least attractive elements of both, going on much too long in the same soporific mood and fading so readily into the background that it becomes more a sound sequence than anything musically communicative. Hagino plays everything sensitively, befitting music that practically screams its sensitivity. But the unremitting gentleness here is so overdone, so overextended, that it becomes quite difficult to pay attention to what is being performed. Indeed, paying attention seems not to be the point – the idea may be to let one’s mind wander, gently guided by the music. For listeners primarily interested in mood music for meditation, that may be enough.
The McEncroe disc contrasts dramatically with a (+++) Big Round Records release featuring 50 minutes of piano music performed by Ron Paley and mostly written by him. The seven Paley compositions here are not just jazz-influenced – they really are jazz, or close enough to it to create a distinction without a difference. And Paley plays the riffs and runs with all the flair of a jazz pianist. The bouncy Theme, ebullient U of M, contrasting and bluesy A Beautiful Soul, delicate and slightly hesitant P&Q – these first four tracks set a very distinctive mood. But then there is an abrupt and rather curious shift of tone and approach in the first of the three works not composed by Paley himself, but arranged by him. This is Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker, which Paley turns into a taffy pull, yanking it this way and that, preventing any sense of flow, changing rhythms and pacing willy-nilly, and turning the whole piece into an excuse for a series of jazzlike cadenzas. There is nothing musically wrong with this – it is akin to what composers have done for many years in creating piano showpieces based on other composers’ songs, opera tunes or famous melodies. But Paley’s specific handling of this warm, evenly paced, beautifully harmonized piece simply goes too far, turning into what ends up sounding like a parody even though parodistic intentions appear to be wholly absent here. The remainder of the CD consists of Paley’s Listen to the Sound, his arrangement mashing together and rearranging the pop songs Alone Together and Pretty Woman, his own Ballad Trilogy and curiously disconnected-sounding The More You Know, and finally – and very unnervingly – Chopin’s C minor Prelude, Op. 28, No. 20. It turns out, happily, that the arrangement of the Chopin is not nearly as cringe-worthy as that of the Tchaikovsky, and in fact is clever and original in spots, especially in its use of arpeggios. It does not sound at all like Chopin, but it sounds like something that might once have been Chopin – which, of course, is exactly what it is. Paley has some interesting musical ideas and expresses them entertainingly, for the most part, in his own compositions. His arranging of works by others is far more hit-or-miss, and while his willingness to take chances is admirable, his taking of those chances is only modestly successful – although his pianism at the end of the Chopin arrangement, when he offers some actual Chopin played straightforwardly, shows him to have more sensitivity to the works of others than is always apparent in his jazz-inflected adaptations of their music.