November 01, 2018
(++++) A PENCHANT FOR PIANO
Dvořák: Eight Humoresques; Reger: Five Humoresques; Rachmaninoff: Humoresque, Op. 10, No. 5; Schumann: Humoresque. Daria Rabotkina, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Kenneth A. Kuhn: Prelude No. 3; An Alpine Song; Fantasia on a Folk Theme; Prelude on a Hymn Tune; Impromptu No. 1; Ode to Memories; Song of the American Frontier. Chiharu Naruse, piano. Big Round Records. $14.99.
New Music for Piano Four Hands—Works by Donald Wheelock, Lewis Spratlan, John LaMontaine, Daniel Asia, Matthew St. Laurent, and David Sanford. Dana Muller and Gary Steigerwalt, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Jeff Morris: Interfaces—Jazz Meets Electronics. Jeff Morris, live sampling; Karl Berger, vibraphone and piano; Joe Hertenstein, drum set and tabletop percussion. Ravello. $14.99.
Robert Schumann invented the humoresque, but the term quickly came to mean something very different from what Schumann made it into in his Humoresque, Op.20. This work – which appears last, not first, on a new MSR Classics CD featuring pianist Daria Rabotkina – is a very elongated fantasy, lasting nearly half an hour, in which small elements are extended and combined into larger sections that in turn merge into each other in a kind of expansionist mode that simply goes on and on without giving listeners any significant structural underpinnings onto which they can hold. The work is very challenging to play for this very reason: in addition to technical complexity, it is organizationally sprawling and requires a pianist to pay close attention to its many individual elements while also clarifying, indeed almost imposing, a sense of larger structure on the tidbits. Rabotkina takes the full measure of the work, and indeed has a very clear handle both on its small and lovely touches and on its complex virtuosic requirements. It is a piece during which a listener’s attention can quite reasonably wander as long as the pianist brings the audience back repeatedly to the emotional (rather than structural) foundation on which Schumann built the work. This Rabotkina does with skill and understanding, resulting in a performance that, all on its own, renders this disc worth owning. But there is considerably more here, with the balance of the CD showcasing the “humoresque” concept in the way the term is more commonly known: as a short character piece expressing a touch of emotion, a bit of commentary, a trifle of expressiveness. The Eight Humoresques by Dvořák, for example, collectively last nearly as long as Schumann’s work, but these are eight self-contained pieces with little to connect them except the personalization of feeling that each seems to express. Actually, Dvořák unites the pieces structurally through his choice of form and tempo, but Rabotkina downplays the underlying similarity of structure in favor of expressing the differing moods that the composer highlights, from amusement to sadness to sweetness to gentleness. Also on the CD is Rachmaninoff’s sole Humoresque, which is the fifth of his Morceaux de concert. An early work, it uses the same basic ABA form favored by Dvořák, enclosing a lyrical central section within two much livelier ones. The surprise on this disc is Max Reger’s Five Humoresques, Op. 20, because Reger is generally thought of as a rather stodgy and somewhat formidable composer, scarcely given to lightness of mood or expression. Indeed, those familiar with Reger’s music but not with this work may be surprised that he wrote it: it is dramatic, humorous, and highly virtuosic, the pieces’ contrapuntal elements (which would be expected from Reger) counterbalanced by freely composed sections, and even some perhaps rather sarcastic dipping into forms with which Reger is scarcely associated – No. 3 seems to start as a waltz. It is hard to think of a performer having fun with Reger, so thoroughly is the image of a serious composer attached to him, but Rabotkina does seem to enjoy these little pieces (the set of five lasts only 12 minutes), and listeners will, too.
The word “humoresque” appears nowhere on a Big Round Records release of piano music by Kenneth A. Kuhn, but several of the pieces played by Chiharu Naruse partake of some of the same sensibility found in the miniatures played by Rabotkina. Kuhn’s music here, although written between the 1970s and 2016, is defiantly tonal, even backward-looking in its structure and the expectations it imposes on the performer – but it is above all communicative music, conveying snippets (sometimes more than snippets) of emotion to the listener in much the way that humoresques do, albeit with less of a light touch than those works tend to possess. The straightforwardly expressive Impromptu No. 1 and the tranquil, gently emotive An Alpine Song seem especially to partake of the spirit of humoresque, but in truth, every work here is something of a “characteristic piece” that conveys an emotion or a set of them to very fine effect. Prelude No. 3 contrasts drama with slightly overdone lyrical expressiveness, the virtuoso sections – very well handled by Naruse – making a particularly strong impression. Fantasia on a Folk Tune, the most extended work here at 14 minutes in length, feels like a set of shorter pieces, because its five sections contrast with one another so clearly and effectively. The themes sound like the music of an earlier, simpler time, although modified to bring out with clarity such basic emotions as sadness and happiness. This work’s structure and striving for expressive connection are very similar to what Kuhn brings to the two other more-extended works on the disc, Ode to Memories and Song of the American Frontier. The first of these strongly contrasts happy and sad sections, dramatic and inward-looking ones. The second, although not employing folk music directly, uses themes with a folklike quality and is overlaid with a feeling of nostalgia for the largely imaginary innocence and pleasantry of the past. The clarity and simplicity that Kuhn brings to all this music is especially evident in Prelude on a Hymn Tune, which begins just about as simply as a piano piece can and which progresses steadily, in stately and reverential mode, throughout. Kuhn’s music will not please listeners who think that contemporary composers should, indeed have to, push the bounds of tonality and the sounds of the instruments for which they write: this is middle-of-the-road music, at times somewhat resembling material for films while at others being quite content to remain within emotional and tonal boundaries set many years ago. Thus, it is determinedly old-fashioned, and for that very reason engages listeners’ feelings in ways that much recent music does not.
The works by six composers on a new Navona CD titled New Music for Piano Four Hands are more overtly modern in sound and more contemporary than Kuhn’s in the way they try to illustrate specific emotions and feelings rather than evoke them in listeners. But they are no less fascinating, and indeed the piano-four-hands sound itself, not very commonly heard in today’s classical music, is a major plus for the CD. Each composer here uses the abilities of Dana Muller and Gary Steigerwalt in different ways. Donald Wheelock’s Mind Games (2017) is a set of five very specific humoresque-like pieces called “High Expectations,” “Panic,” “Cogitation,” “Reflection,” and “Abandon.” Although “Reflection” is somewhat underwhelming, the remaining movements are neatly illustrative of their titles and give the performers plenty of chances to excel as a duo – especially “Panic,” the most-dissonant of them all, and the perpetuum mobile “Abandon.” Lewis Spratlan’s Dreamworlds (2015) is a highly intriguing attempt to elucidate the possible dreams of three figures who are as different as humans can be: St. Francis of Assisi, Hitler, and a nameless bureaucrat. The first movement includes some birdlike interjections along with fragments of Gregorian chant; it is obvious but effective. The second is even more obvious in its turmoil, misplaced power, and quotations from Beethoven and Wagner. The third is the most interesting, using a deliberately trivial theme, plus occasional chordal interjections of frustration, to limn the dream of a bureaucrat who cannot stand the repetitive work requirements of the job but must do them nevertheless. John LaMontaine’s 1965 Sonata for Piano, Four Hands is the “purest” music here, in the sense that it is the work least illustrative of anything specific. It is a short work, three movements in 10 minutes, that gives the pianists plenty of chances to display their prowess in techniques ranging from Baroque-style polyphonic writing (the finale is a fugue) to jazz and serialism. Daniel Asia’s Iris (2017), also a three-movement work that is sonata-like although not labeled as such, invites the pianists accurately to reflect the movement titles: “Jauntily,” “Slow, ethereal,” and “Impetuously.” But the music goes beyond those titles, and Muller and Steigerwalt are well aware of this. The first movement, for instance, repeatedly seems about to grow darker, and the second actually is on the dark side, although not so much depressive as it is thoughtful. The third is energetic and requires the pianists to pay close attention to each other’s movements and hand positions – and it lapses into occasional slower sections that interrupt the flow just long enough to get it going again. Matthew St. Laurent’s Overture to a Lucid Dream (2017) is intended to be descriptive of an experience in which, aware that one is dreaming, one can control and modify the dream as it occurs. There is nothing especially dreamlike in the piece, but its increasing complexity may be taken to indicate the dreamer’s growing control over the dream world, and the quiet ending is an effective way to show awakening. David Sanford’s The Silent Hearth (2018), which ends the CD, is an unusual and unusually evocative work. Based very loosely on Schubert’s overture to Fierrabras, harmonically although not in terms of tunes, it delves deeply into the piano’s lower register in an attempt to interpret a story about an old concert hall in Boston that is no longer used but remains, in disrepair, beneath a piano showroom. Whether the piece reflects its underlying story will depend on whether listeners know that tale. But heard strictly as a musical experience, the work is intriguing in its repeated use of extended silences juxtaposed with music that seems to arise from the depths and return there. This CD as a whole is fascinating both for the variety of ways in which the composers explore four-hand piano music and for the high level of skill with which Muller and Steigerwalt interpret the material.
The piano is a bit of an also-ran on a (+++) Ravello CD featuring 10 works by Jeff Morris, who is front-and-center himself as the primary purveyor of the electronic sounds that dominate the disc. Even when the piano does appear, it is overshadowed by the technological elements that Morris pulls into these works, whose jazziness is sometimes quite evident (as in A Solo Is the Nth Melody) and sometimes largely invisible (as in Upzy). The sampling technique employed by Morris is pretty much old hat at this point, and the electronic sounds, scratches, squeaks, squeals and such have all been heard many times before. The primary attraction here is the way in which those very common nonmusical sounds (ranging from feedback loops to a kind of balloon-rubbing) blend and contrast with the material performed by Karl Berger and Joe Hertenstein. The entire production is hit-or-miss, with the occasional in-the-clear sounds (as of piano in Rondo, for example, and vibraphone in Into and Three at One) coming and going without any particular rhyme or reason. The titles of the works provide no real guidance to what they are about or how the acoustic and electronic elements will interface: In Which, Unwind, Clocksays, Inderneath and Dot (Dot Dot) are all interchangeable in terms of titles, although not in the specific sounds they use. Music of the sort that Morris creates and performs does not come across particularly well in recorded form, where it tends to sound repetitious and self-referential. In a live performance, with the added visual element of the participants and with a chance to see what they are doing as well as hear the results, it would likely have greater and more-positive impact. This disc, though, is simply one of a great many in which a contemporary composer uses well-worn ways of going beyond the traditional sounds of instruments to try to create a new sonic environment – but actually comes up only with a series of aural experiences that are very similar to those produced by plenty of other modern and modernistic composers with essentially the same goals and methods.