May 23, 2019
(++++) SONIC EXPANSIONS
Alkan: Symphonie pour piano seul, Op. 39, Nos. 4-7; Grande Sonate “Les Quatre Âges de la vie,” Op. 33; Super flumina Babylonis—Paraphrase du psaumme 137, Op. 52. Yury Favorin, piano. Muso. $18.99.
Jeff Adler: A Path of Light and other works. Hevreh Ensemble (Jeff Adler, bass clarinet and Native American flutes; Judith Dansker, oboe and Native American flute; Laurie Friedman, clarinet and Native American flute; Adam Morrison, piano and keyboards); Shane Shanahan, percussion; George Rush, double bass; Naren Budhkar, tabla; ensemble Ethel (Ralph Farris, viola, vocals, and minimoog; Kip Jones and Corin Lee, violins; Dorothy Lawson, cello). Ansonica. $9.99.
Matt Frey: One-Eleven Heavy. Jenny Ribeiro, soprano; Karim Sulayman, tenor; Hotel Elefant conducted by David Bloom. Navona. $14.99.
Fewer and fewer young virtuoso pianists are intimidated these days by the music of Charles-Valentin Alkan. That is both a good thing and a bad. It is good because Alkan’s astonishing music, neglected for so very, very long, is now heard much more frequently, and far more people have been given the opportunity to discover just how amazingly creative Alkan was. It is bad, though, because so many top-notch young pianists see only the extreme difficulty in what Alkan wrote and the need for tremendous technical virtuosity and manual dexterity to play his music. This undervalues Alkan, whose works go well beyond mere display. Alkan was a thoughtful and highly innovative composer, some of whose pieces – such as one prelude from Op. 31, Chanson de la folle au bord de la mer – have a sound that no other composer has ever matched. Alkan was a connoisseur of piano developments during his lifetime (1813-1883), creating, for example, a number of works for the piano-pédalier, whose pedalboard resembles that of an organ and is played with the feet. But Alkan did not need his instruments to be “prepared” à la Cage or played with a wooden board à la Ives – he used them just as they were manufactured, plumbing the depths of the sound and effects of which they were capable. It is this element of Alkan’s compositional and performance prowess that today’s young pianists too often miss. Happily, Yury Favorin, who performs Alkan on a new Muso CD, has a clear understanding – whether studied or intuitive – of the elements of Alkan that go beyond the purely virtuosic. Favorin finds in Alkan a composer/performer who not only pushed the limits of the piano as an instrument but also brought forth the piano’s emotive capabilities in ways unmatched even by Liszt (who admired Alkan). Thus, Favorin opens this disc with Super flumina Babylonis, based on the Psalm with the famous lines about the exiled Jews weeping by the waters of Babylon – and Favorin makes the contrasting episodes, which range from the despairing to the utterly furious with anger, into emotionally trenchant expressions as well as chances to show off pianistic skill. Next is one of Alkan’s more-familiar works, the Symphonie pour piano seul from within the composer’s 12 studies in minor keys. Truly symphonic in scope, this work – each movement in a different minor key – is unremitting in its technical demands. But it also requires some delicacy and sensitivity to the abrupt contrasts with which Alkan’s music abounds – for example, in the main portion of the Minuet and the movement’s contrasting trio section. Favorin changes the emotional tone of these sections as well as their pacing and overall sound, and that is just the right way to approach the music. The CD concludes with another major, large-scale work, the Grande Sonate representing four different ages of a man’s life: 20, 30, 40 and 50. Alkan was 33 when he wrote it and already prone to depressive thinking, so in a sense it is not surprising that the sonata becomes gloomier as it progresses. But the sound as well as the speed of the four movements is quite unusual: the first and second are quite fast (the second, Quasi-Faust, is sometimes heard on its own); the third and most content is considerably slower; and the finale is very slow (Extrêmement lent, Alkan marks it) and bears the heading Prométhée enchainé – a gloomy outlook indeed for someone in his 30s looking toward life at or after 50. Favorin, born in 1986, made this recording in 2017, so he was about the age at which Alkan wrote the piece. But whatever Favorin’s personal outlook on later life – not that 50 is “later” nowadays – he manages in this performance to convey all the worries and fears that Alkan put into the latter part of the sonata, including the sense of being chained and tormented as Prometheus was after bringing fire to the human race. Alkan was a very complex thinker, a considerable Biblical scholar as well as a brilliant composer and performer, and his multifaceted music reflects his personality. When a young performer such as Favorin manages to get in touch in some way with Alkan’s thinking as well as his compositional and performance prowess, the result is a recording of substantial interest.
Alkan was unusual in his ability to take a known (although fast-developing) instrument, the piano, and find ways to make it sound quite different from the way other composers had made it sound. Today, composers seeking unusual sounds in their compositions are more inclined to bring in unfamiliar instruments or even nonmusical elements – the latter concept actually dating back at least to the fire siren in Edgard Varèse’s 1929 Amériques. Jeff Adler is in the unusual-instruments camp, employing Native American flutes, the Indian tabla, the minimoog synthesizer, vocals and other elements to bring color and unusual aural experiences to the 10 tracks on a new (+++) Ansonica CD. Two of the works here are the keys to the entire set: the title track, an upbeat work played after a bright and jazz-inflected opening piece, and the penultimate item, Speed of Dark, the longest work on the disc and the only one with a distinctly downbeat and rather somber (if obvious) cast. Adler clearly intends not to let Speed of Dark become the dominant impression of his music, however, since he follows it with an Epilogue that seems to convey a warning about allowing darkness to triumph. The human-voice-like elements of the instruments in some of the pieces here, as well as parts that really do include vocals, point toward the CD being a kind of inward journey that also has external elements, indicated by the use of instruments and sounds from a variety of cultures. Some of these are difficult to decipher, such as Wudeligv, while others seem more straightforwardly communicative, such as the bright and forthright Amor Caritas and the very jazzy Sweetgrass, Cedar and Sage. The CD conveys the constant impression that Adler is trying hard to mean something with the individual pieces and with their totality, but the music itself does not make any particular meaning clear. There is a lot of pleasant-sounding material here, with the frequent juxtaposition of winds and percussion giving the whole disc a distinct aura of bounce and jazziness. But as an exploration of light vs. dark, which in any case is scarcely a very original concept, the music falls short. In fact, the individual pieces are, by and large, of the pleasant “background” type that is more-or-less what passes these days for a kind of salon music. They sound good and are certainly well played, with Adler himself and his fellow performers engaging in very pleasant back-and-forth give-and-take. But little of the material will likely stay with listeners after the disc ends: it may try to be meaty, but offers more sizzle than steak.
Matt Frey’s very short chamber opera One-Eleven Heavy, on the other hand, is nothing but intensity. Offered on a (+++) Navona CD whose total length is less than 15 minutes, the opera – for which Frey wrote both libretto and music – is about the fatal crash of Swissair Flight 111 (“heavy” means the plane was a jumbo jet) on September 2, 1998. Nobody survived: all 229 people aboard died when the plane went down in the Atlantic Ocean near Nova Scotia. The cause of the disaster was faulty wiring that caused the plane’s insulation – which was flammable – to burn. But Frey is not concerned here with why the flight crashed. He casts this chamber opera in four very short parts, giving it a sound world that includes original Air Traffic Control recordings, the sounds of the ocean, and the words of family members of some of the people who died. The idea is both to commemorate the flight and to raise existential questions about humans aloft and the fragility of their environment – if something goes wrong, passengers can literally do nothing and must very quickly come face-to-face with their own powerlessness and, in the worst cases (such as that of Swissair Flight 111), their own mortality. This is scarcely a new notion, and thus the pervasive gloom of the very short opera is scarcely a surprise. The affecting images – of, for example, hundreds of shoes left behind by those aboard the doomed aircraft – are juxtaposed (in song) with the matter-of-fact narration of those trying unsuccessfully to get the flight safely to the ground. The thoughts of lives cut short, plans destroyed, families sundered forever, are presented in a context that will likely make anyone with a fear of flying even more reluctant to board any aircraft, of any size, for any reason, ever. That does not seem to be Frey’s intent, but it is the effect of what he has created here. In seeking to honor the victims of this crash, or at least remember them, Frey has written and composed something that will likely be too painful for families of the victims to experience – and likely too pointlessly frightening for anyone who was not affected by this tragedy, but is aware of the fact that flying remains an undeniable and real risk, one that no actuarial assurance of the rarity of problems can do much to assuage.