March 29, 2018


Nan Schwartz: Aspirations; Perspectives; Romanza; Angels Among Us; Brenton Broadstock: Made in Heaven—Concerto for Orchestra. Synchron Stage Orchestra (Vienna) and Bratislava Studio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kevin Purcell. Divine Art. $17.

20th Century Masterpieces for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Volume 1—Lopatnikoff, Tansman, Malipiero, Berezovsky, Poulenc, Starer, and Creston. Joshua Pierce and Dorothy Jonas, pianos; Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra and National Symphony Orchestra of Polish Radio & Television conducted by David Amos; Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carlos Piantini. MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).

Scriabin: Piano Sonatas Nos. 3 and 4; Preludes and other short piano pieces. Jeremy Thompson, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 9; Granados: Goyescas; Janáček: In the Mists. Orion Weiss, piano. Orion Weiss. $13.99.

     Composers in the 20th and 21st centuries have increasingly come to see the piano as a member of the orchestra, frequently using it as more of an obbligato instrument than one leading and even competing with the ensemble as in familiar concertos. This sort of keyboard use is actually a throwback to Baroque and early Classical times, when the harpsichord was part of the ripieno, but of course modern composers handle matters quite differently. Thus, two of the four works by Nan Schwartz (born 1959) on a new Divine Art CD employ piano in a significant way, but no more so than other individual instruments highlighted in the pieces heard here. Aspirations includes piano (Lee Musiker) and tenor saxophone (Harry Allen); Perspectives uses piano (Musiker again) and guitar (Jon Delaney); and Romanza features violin (Dimitrie Leivici), while Angels Among Us includes trumpet (Mat Jodrell). In every case, Schwartz uses these instruments to color the overall orchestral sound, but never makes them the front-and-center, extended focus of these pieces. She is, indeed, a good orchestral colorist, a fact that helps rescue her music from its tendency to meander and to try too hard to be emotional and lyrical – a lot of what she writes sounds like movie music, which is not surprising in light of the fact that film music is what Schwartz primarily creates. Certainly she knows how to produce rather superficial emotional connections through orchestral sound, through the sorts of swells and dynamic passages that inevitably accompany, underline and enhance movie scenes. It just happens that the four works heard here sound as if they come from films even though they do not: it is easy to feel them moving along in four different dramatic arcs, even if they do not precisely correspond to any particular story line. Film music is generally designed to supplement visuals and dialogue, not take their place, but in this case the music is all there is – and while it certainly invites emotional experience and possesses a kind of narrative cohesion, it does not do so with any particular depth or profundity. It is music that is pleasant to hear once but will not likely bear repeated listening very well. The CD also includes the world première recording of Made in Heaven by Australian composer Brenton Broadstock (born 1952), and this too is a well-made work with many of the same roots in jazz that the pieces by Schwartz possess. Indeed, Broadstock’s piece has an overt jazz connection, being intended as a tribute to the 1959 Miles Davis album “Kind of Blue.” Hence the movement titles: “So What,” “Flamenco Sketches,” “Blue in Green,” and “All Blues.” Broadstock can scarcely expect audiences to be familiar with this specific album from nearly 60 years ago, but his music stands on its own in its jazz gestures, both expansive and pointed. It is not quite the “Concerto for Orchestra” that its subtitle indicates – the virtuosity required of the players is not really at the level demanded by Bartók and Kodály in their works with that title – but certainly the musicians have to pass themes and phrases back and forth with aplomb, as if in a jazz ensemble. Conductor Kevin Purcell handles both the Schwartz and Broadstock pieces with considerable élan, and if the music is a bit outside the comfort zone of the orchestras he leads, they certainly manage the material with professional skill – if perhaps less idiomatically than more jazz-focused groups might.

     The piano is not a partial focus but the primary one on a new two-CD MSR Classics release of recordings, originally produced in the 1990s, featuring the piano duo of Joshua Pierce and Dorothy Jonas. These are the world première recordings of some very-little-known music that definitely deserves greater attention if it is possible to find more pianists willing to share the spotlight instead of dominating it (Katia and Marielle Labèque would be natural choices for this repertoire). In fact, Pierce and Jonas make an admirable team in these seven pieces – four labeled “concerto” and three using the dual pianos in somewhat different ways. The spirit if not the harmonies of the Baroque hangs particularly strongly over three of these works: Suite for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1928) by Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986), Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1932) by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), and Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1949-1950) by Nikolai Lvovich Lopatnikoff (1903-1976). Overtly in Tansman’s suite’s 10 movements and to some extent in the Poulenc and Lopatnikoff concertos – both in three movements that contain multiple tempo and mood changes, so they sound more like a series of shorter pieces strung together – there is a sense of awareness of the role of keyboards in the Baroque and a neoclassical interest in reviving some elements of Bach’s time in the 20th century. Tansman’s piece, with its Perpetuum mobile, Sarabande and concluding double fugue, makes the point particularly clearly. The sensibilities of Poulenc and Lopatnikoff are quite different from each other, and the composers’ handling of the pianos and the orchestra differs as well, but both the works – which, interestingly, are very close to the same length – offer the soloists multiple ways of blending with each other and with the ensemble of which they are a part. The effects of the other works here with “concerto” in their titles are somewhat different. The three-movement Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1951) by Paul Creston (1906-1985) has a kind of classical balance both in the movements and between the solo instruments, while the four-movement Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1993) by Robert Starer (1924-2001) has movements that are pithier, and its overall feeling is on the jazzy and upbeat side. Also offered here are Dialoghi VII for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1956) by Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973), a largely athematic work of meandering form, and Fantasie for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1931) by Nikolai Tikhonovich Berezovsky (1900-1953), which unusually consists of two Allegro movements that give the pianists ample chances to show their mettle. It would be stretching things to suggest that any work here is a long-forgotten masterpiece – there is little profundity in these pieces – but there is a great deal of well-constructed and interestingly orchestrated music offered by Pierce and Jonas, who are nicely if not especially forcefully backed up by conductors David Amos (for most of the pieces) and Carlos Piantini (for the Starer concerto). The most engaging aspect of this release is the way it brings to light an entire subgenre of piano music with which even listeners well versed in 20th-century neoclassicism are unlikely to be familiar. It will be very intriguing to hear what Pierce and Jonas have unearthed for the planned second volume of this series.

     Of course, no matter how the piano’s role changes in modern times and no matter how many ways composers find to use the keyboard, there remains an important place for the piano as a quintessential solo-recital instrument. And there are some exceptionally interesting ways to hear it in that light. Jeremy Thompson has found one – on another new MSR Classics release – by going back to the final recital given by Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). Scriabin died of septicemia on April 14, 1915, and gave his last recital not even two weeks earlier, on April 2. It was not his own pianism but that of Rachmaninoff that brought Scriabin fame – posthumously. But certainly Scriabin had a fine sense of the piano’s capabilities and a plentiful ability to delve into and extract them. Scriabin’s final recital was built around his Piano Sonata No. 3, the last in which he wrote in this form comparatively conventionally, and Piano Sonata No. 4, the first in which he moved toward a new, complex and highly personal compositional idiom. At his last performance, prior to Sonata No. 3, Scriabin played 10 short pieces – seven Preludes plus a Mazurka, Etude and Valse. Then, for the second half of the recital, he played eight additional short items – Nuances, Danse languide, two more Preludes, Guirlandes, Flammes sombres, another Prelude, and Etrangeté – before offering the very short two-movement Sonata No. 4. Thompson has resurrected the entire recital, and he handles it from start to finish with considerable understanding of Scriabin’s style – although inevitably a modern pianist sees that style differently a century after Scriabin’s death than the composer and his audience perceived it in 1915. Thompson plays very well and with genuine sensitivity, but the CD is more of a curiosity than a fully realized musical experience. The reason is that the program of the recital, which undoubtedly made considerable sense to Scriabin when he arranged it, now comes across as a kind of multiple-reverse-encores grouping, with the substantial sonatas heard only after a considerable number of lesser works whose relationship to the sonatas is not especially evident. For a composer seeking to present a cross-section of his music to a contemporary audience, and certainly not anticipating his imminent demise, the recital is an interesting one, and surely the original audience would have enjoyed seeing how Scriabin handled the various miniatures that make up most of the material he played. But the reasons Scriabin selected these specific pieces to play prior to the two sonatas are no longer clear and not especially relevant. Now Scriabin is recognized – thanks largely to Rachmaninoff’s advocacy – as a great Russian composer as well as a very unusual one, and programs including his sonatas and shorter pieces can be put together more meaningfully than this one is. This takes nothing from Thompson, whose playing is first-rate and whose notion of reproducing this final Scriabin recital is, in its own way, quite worthwhile. But the disc offers nothing especially new in the understanding and interpretation of two of Scriabin’s important works, and its presentation of 18 of his shorter ones, including several that run less than one minute, gives the disc an overall choppy feeling that renders the whole program intriguing but not especially significant.

     Scriabin fares better in a more-wide-ranging, thematic program self-released by pianist Orion Weiss. The CD’s title is “Presentiment,” and the notion here is that there is an underlying ominous quality to this music by Scriabin, Granados and Janáček. That is a bit of a stretch, due largely to the hindsight associated with the fact that these pieces were all created on the cusp of World War I: Scriabin’s in 1913, Granados’ in 1911, and Janáček’s in 1912. The Scriabin is known as the “Black Mass” sonata – a title of which the composer approved, although he did not come up with it – and certainly its harmonic instability (because of its strong reliance on the interval of a minor ninth) and its unsettling and grotesque elements (notably the march into which the opening theme is eventually transformed) produce feelings of disconnection, distress and emotional dysfunction. Weiss highlights the anxiety inherent in the music, turning it into an ominous portent of a war that was soon to come – and that would claim the life of Granados, who was aboard a ferry that was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1916. If the mood of Scriabin’s sonata seems to anticipate the martial tremors soon to engulf the world, though, the multiple moods of Goyecas do not. Weiss plays the work as a suite of six movements (omitting El pelele, which is not officially part of the suite but is usually played as its finale). He does an excellent job of turning each movement into a miniature of storytelling, somewhat akin to what Mussorgsky did in Pictures at an Exhibition even though there is no known definitive correlation between Granados’ music and specific Goya paintings. The beauty and immediacy of the music come through clearly in Weiss’s performance, and the strong improvisational feeling he gives to the Balada titled El amor y la muerte is especially apt and especially welcome. Goyescas contains more of Impressionism than does Scriabin’s dense and difficult “Black Mass” sonata, and the musical Impressionists, especially Debussy, also seem prominent in Janáček’s In the Mists. The five-or-six-flats keys and the complexity of the meters in this work create a pervasive feeling of melancholy that never quite turns into despair. Weiss emphasizes a certain sense of nostalgia, of longing for a past irretrievably lost, in this music; the interpretation nicely fits the notion of this and the other material on the CD as representing a kind of farewell to a world that is about to be shattered forever. However, it would be a mistake to take the notion of “Presentiment” in all these pieces too literally: only Scriabin’s sonata, the most forward-looking of these works and the one written closest to the outbreak of war, seems strongly to partake of a despairing prediction of imminent catastrophe. Still, all the music, however carefully composed, has about it a somewhat disjointed feeling, which could be heard as a sense of the old order passing with no sure knowledge yet of the new. Weiss has here assembled a program that is as well thought out as it is well played.

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