July 05, 2018


Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; David Finko: Fantasia on a Medieval Russian Theme; Sonata No. 1, “Solomon Mikhoels”; Sonata No. 2; Sonata No. 3; Richard Brodhead: Sonata Notturna—Piano Sonata No. 2; Una Carta de Buenos Aires—Tango Sonatina for Piano. Clipper Erickson, piano. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).

Nicholas Vines: Terraformation; Uncanny Valley—Variations & Theme for Pianoforte; Indie Ditties—Twelve Scapes for Piano. Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, piano. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).

Michael Arnowitt: Sweet Spontaneous—14 Jazz Compositions. Michael Arnowitt, piano; ImproVisions Jazz. Big Round Records. $14.99 (2 CDs).

     Anyone seeking a plethora of piano performance, perhaps even something of a surfeit, will find considerable pleasure in one or more of three new two-CD sets being offered by Navona and Big Round Records at the price of a single disc. The music on these recordings is all over the map geographically, structurally, and in terms of form and time period. The most interesting combination of material is on the recording by Clipper Erickson, which features the thoroughgoing pleasure of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as its major work and combines it with material by David Finko (born 1936) and Richard Brodhead (born 1947). Erickson offers a pull-out-all-the-stops version of Pictures, in which “Gnomus” scurries unusually menacingly, the old castle is mist-enshrouded and spooky, the chicks are so light that they seem to be trying to fly, Baba Yaga’s fowl-legged hut does seem to fly (in a manner both clumsy and threatening), and The Great Gate of Kiev stands magisterially over all. This piano performance is as colorful as many of the orchestral versions in which Pictures is more commonly heard. Finko’s Fantasia on a Medieval Russian Theme fits well with the Mussorgsky – indeed, the earlier composer used the same theme in Khovanshchina. The fantasia is an extended work, with portions of very considerable virtuosity and a suitably dour overall feeling. Finko’s three sonatas, from 1964, 1998 and 2009, take matters in different directions. The first is closest in mood and approach to the Fantasia and to Mussorgsky. The second is considerably more gestural and rather obvious in its attempt to portray suffering and struggle through frequent rhythmic and harmonic contrasts. The third is short and in a single movement (each of the others is in four), and uses the stop-and-start technique of the second sonata in the service of what sounds like a more abstract and self-consciously contemporary approach to the piano. The two Brodhead works, each in a single movement, come from a different sound world, one whose fit with that of Mussorgsky and Finko is not immediately apparent. Sonata Notturna seems to paint both the quiet of night and some of the fears it can bring, but it is not particularly cohesive or especially convincing: Erickson handles it with a gentle touch that seems to work better in some sections than it does in others. And the sonatina Una Carta de Buenos Aires, which is basically and probably inevitably a tango, comes from a difficult-to-determine place, being not especially Argentinian in sound or influence: it is a vaguely mysterious work whose silences loom importantly over its sounds and whose overall impression is a scattered and only vaguely dancelike one. It is, however, like everything else in this release, played very well indeed.

     The playing is the primary attraction of a genuinely strangely titled and odd-looking recording featuring music by Nicholas Vines as interpreted by Ryan MacEvoy McCullough. The release’s official title is Hipster Zombies from Mars: Piano Music for a Post-Ironic Age, and the package does indeed show prototypically skeletal and blood-dripping undead creatures mixed with a couple of robots on a cartoonish Red Planet background with a habitat dome in the distance. Some of the music actually connects to this intentionally bizarre scene: Terraformation is a four-movement suite inspired by the Kim Stanley Robinson novel Red Mars. Vines makes a few passes at traditional suite form here, including a double canon, passacaglia and rondo-sonata among the movements, but the sound of the work is nothing special or unusual – rapid figurations, plenty of tone clusters, and sections that do not so much progress as they, to misquote slightly the king in Alice in Wonderland,begin at the beginning, go on till the end, and then stop.” More interesting conceptually and more in tune (so to speak) with Vines’ musical approach is Uncanny Valley: Variations & Theme for Pianoforte, whose title refers to the point at which a near-human figure (robotic or computer-generated) is just enough like a person, but just enough unlike one, to generate deep discomfort in a human viewing it. The work is in seven representational sections played without pause, and one sequence of them has its own tie-in to the peculiar overall title of the release: this is “A Corpse, a Zombie, a Bunraku Puppet.” The work progresses from “An Industrial Robot,” with suitable “industrial-ish” taps and bangs, through more and more human-like portrayals, finally reaching “A Healthy Person,” the “theme” of the whole exercise (toward which the “variations” have been pointing). The extraneous sounds from the prepared piano and the overall experimental nature of Uncanny Valley make the work seem longer than it is, but if it never quite gels into a healthy-person presentation, it at least offers some interesting sounds as it attempts to do so. The sounds are also interesting during Indie Ditties: Twelve Scapes for Piano, essentially “soundscapes” (and maybe “landscapes” and “escapes” as well) designed to comment on modern self-described hipsters through the use of various pop-music and non-Western elements as well as some relatively straightforward compositional ones. The pervasive “look how clever I am” elements of this suite are intended ironically by Vines but in fact seem to reflect his own self-image as well as that of the “hipsters” he portrays and often skewers. Movements have titles such as “Bad Appletude,” “HRH Prince Albert,” “…my love is like a dead, dead pose…” (with ellipses on both ends), “skinny, skinny jeans” (no capitals), and “Microbrew IV.” Exactly what sounds the titles are supposed to evoke is never especially clear, as if Vines created music and then found a title to fit it instead of coming up with a concept and then developing its musical illustration. McCullough certainly throws himself into the material with enthusiasm: the rapidity of changes of mood, texture, rhythm and harmony in this music could easily derail a pianist less committed to Vines’ ideas, but McCullough handles everything with surety and style. The 12 pieces collectively take almost an hour to perform, and while each has a detailed program (or, rather, seeks to display a specific scene or personality), there is an underlying sameness to Vines’ approach that results in the cycle sounding not exactly repetitious but as if many things in the later movements have already been put on display in the earlier ones. Pianists interested in challenging contemporary music, and listeners intrigued by extended suite-like piano compositions, are the audiences most likely to find this unusual release congenial.

     The release featuring compositions by Michael Arnowitt contains even more music than do the others considered here: over two hours of material. The recording offers straightforward jazz material, some purely instrumental and some featuring vocals by Shirley Crabbe; there is also one track, The Crossing, whose title comes from a Langston Hughes poem, and one called Ascent that features Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” (both poems read by Therisa Rogers) as part of the performance. Although the overall sound is recognizably that of a standard jazz ensemble, some of the influences on Arnowitt’s music are unusual: Bulgarian Hoedown combines American elements with some from Bulgaria, Shapka Swing takes its title from a Bulgarian hat and uses some of that nation’s folk rhythms, and Syria-us includes Syrian rhythms and scales along with American harmonies. For all the varied sources and influences of this music, though, most of it has a very similar sound, which listeners may deem Arnowitt’s style or may simply find to be quite common in works focused on jazz instruments and compositional methods. The syncopations of Migratory Mood, the descending bass of Pirouette and Third Shift, the funk of Street Strut – all these are pleasantly familiar. And all have been done many times before, even though Arnowitt does his best to put a personal stamp on the material and does a good job, along with the musicians of the ensemble ImproVisions Jazz, of presenting everything with fine playing and a well-polished veneer. The generous length of the release will give listeners who enjoy music of this type considerable pleasure, mostly of a relaxed and laid-back sort. Those more inclined to sample jazz than to immerse themselves fully and extensively in it will do better to listen to a track or two and then set the recording aside for a while, coming back to it at a later time for more of the same, or what is almost the same.

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