August 22, 2019
(++++) WHAT PIANOS CAN DO
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 17 and 24. Orli Shaham, piano; St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson. Canary Classics. $16.
Lachlan Skipworth: Piano Trio; Piano Quartet; Clarinet Quintet; Intercurrent; The Night Sky Fall. Akiko Miyazawa, violin; Aleksandar Madžar, Emily Green-Armytage and James Guan, piano; Ashley William Smith, clarinet and bass clarinet; Anna Pokorny, Jon Tooby and Umberto Clerici, cello; Bella Hristova, clarinet; Kate Sullivan, violin; Ben Caddy, viola; Louise Devenish, marimba and psalterphone. Navona. $14.99.
Bill Whitley: Then Elephant Speaks; The Circles, 2017; The Circles, 2010. Elena Talarico and Bill Whitley, piano; Lucia Foti, harp; Stefano Grasso, vibes; Francesco Zago, electric guitars and electronics. Ravello. $14.99.
There are endless ways to interpret Mozart, endless reasons for doing so, and endless explanations of why one interpretation or another “works” or does not. The reality is that all interpretations “work” if they interest, intrigue, move, engage, attract the audience; in that sense, whether they are academically correct, historically informed, careful to play what the composer expected to hear or more concerned with being heard in a modern setting by contemporary audiences, is largely irrelevant to their “rightness.” This is important to remember at a time when ongoing arguments about piano type, orchestra size, recording venue and more seem never-ending when it comes to music from before the 20th century (and even some from the 20th century). Mozart’s music, like Bach’s, communicates effectively, often brilliantly, whether or not played in the way Mozart played it himself or expected others to play it. Academics can argue whatever points they will, but what ultimately matters is whether performers have something valuable to say, to communicate to listeners, and have found an effective way of bringing it forth. What is striking about the Orli Shaham/David Robertson collaboration in two well-known Mozart piano concertos, on the Canary Classics label, is how well it communicates feelings and expressions that seem “Mozartean” even though there is nothing historically accurate about the recording at all. The orchestra is too large for Mozart’s time, the piano far too big and resonant, the cadenzas not at all in Mozart’s style (especially in the first movement of Concerto No. 24), and Shaham’s playing is far too focused on the emotionally expressive passages of the music – not only in the enormously powerful No. 24 but also in the slow movement of No. 17. Purists will not care for what Shaham and Robertson have done here, although they will (or at least should) appreciate the consistency of these interpretations and the excellent support that the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra accords Shaham. But as a reaching-out CD, as a deeply felt production that connects beautifully and meaningfully with an audience 230-plus years after these concertos were written, the recording is absolutely first-rate. Shaham and Robertson clearly have deep feelings for Mozart that they know how to translate into feelings to be shared with an at-home audience. It is extraordinarily difficult to listen to this recording without giving it full attention: it insists that what it has to say is more important than anything else that may be in a listener’s environment while the disc plays. This is by no means always the case with recorded music, or even with recorded Mozart, which can descend into mere prettiness without the counterbalancing pathos that is one of the signposts of Mozart’s genius. It would be facile and rather silly to say that Shaham and Robertson “channel” Mozart; better to say that they understand Mozart with a thoroughness that allows his music to flow through them and through these performances in a way that connects directly with an audience that, objectively, is immeasurably different from any for which Mozart wrote or could have written. The way Shaham shapes each individual variation of the finale of Concerto No. 17, the considerable drama of the coda of that movement, the unbridled intensity Shaham insists on presenting from the start of Concerto No. 24, the almost unbearable heights to which she takes that intensity in the finale of the latter concerto – these and many other touches illuminate aspects of Mozart that have always been there in the score (and of which, to be sure, other performers have also been cognizant), but that Shaham and Robertson connect with tremendous skill in performances that are fully and beautifully integrated from start to finish. This is not “correct” Mozart in the historical sense, but it is hard to escape the feeling that it is very much correct in its effects, its meaning, and its emotional impact. The ultimate test of performances for most listeners is not whether they are historically accurate but whether they are convincing – and these certainly are.
It is the piano’s percussive elements rather than its expressive ones that tend to be most thoroughly explored by many 21st-century composers, often in contexts that would mystify Mozart and may well mystify many of the people who garner meaning from Mozart’s approach to the instrument and to music in general. In a (+++) release from Navona of the music of Lachlan Skipworth, an Australian composer originally trained as a clarinetist, the piano might seem logically to be a focus of the Piano Trio and Piano Quartet, but in fact it is something of an also-ran among the other instruments in these works and throughout the disc. The reason is that all the Western instruments he writes for are much less meaningful to Skipworth than the shakuhachi, a five-hole bamboo flute – blown into at the end, not transversely – that Skipworth studied for three years in Japan. Although the shakuhachi does not itself appear in any of the music on this disc, the tonal world of the instruments is redolent of Japanese sensibilities, and even the treatment of the clarinet seems informed by Skipworth’s experiences in Japan. Indeed, Skipworth is at pains to try to re-create Japanese musical experiences and sounds using Western instruments, with the result that he builds these pieces from strange-to-Western-ideas rhythmic (and non-rhythmic) groupings, mathematical principles of the sort that underlie the work of many modern Western composers who have become dissatisfied with the traditional tools and sounds of Western music, and so on. His interest seems to be primarily in using the form of pieces for shakuhachi without employing the instrument itself. The result, pleasingly for some listeners but certainly not for all, is a set of pieces in which the basic sound is at least vaguely familiar, while the structural elements are either outré or appear absent altogether. Subsumed within the soundworld of Japanese-style music but limited in performance by the strictures of design of Western instruments, the performers on this CD all work hard to convey Skipworth’s “audio vision.” But the extent to which they succeed is hard to determine. The reason is that it is difficult to know just what Skipworth wants an audience to absorb from his music – as opposed to what he wants to put into it. He clearly wants to duplicate and expand upon some of the musical and spiritual feelings evoked in him by his time in Japan and his studies there. But what does this bring to the audience? For instance, iIf Skipworth uses a somewhat aleatoric principle that he calls floating time to try to make performers respond intuitively, rather than at the composer’s direction, to each other, then he is inventing (not exactly “composing”) music that will be different each time it is played – as is always the case with “chance” music. But what about the audience? Is its response left to chance as well, or is Skipworth seeking something more specific? That question is not answered by any piece on this CD. Clearly the sheer sound of these pieces is preeminent in Skipworth’s thinking, which is why he even invented one of the instruments heard on this recording: the psalterphone, a set of metal rectangular tubes. And certainly listeners who enjoy modern sounds for their own sake – athematic, arrhythmic, unmelodic, uneven in tempo and loudness – may be intrigued by Skipworth’s pieces and their unusual melding of Western and Japanese elements. However, it is obvious that Skipworth is not reaching out to a wide audience but to the cognoscenti, however defined.
A (+++) Ravello disc featuring music by Bill Whitley takes a somewhat more conventional approach to the piano and other instruments, at least part of the time. It also incorporates electronic sounds of various sorts, in the way that many contemporary composers do, setting acoustic instruments against enhanced ones or against actual electronics. Whitley’s music is not the same each time it is heard, but unlike Skipworth’s, this is not because it is filled with chance elements – instead, it is because Whitley offers the music in different mixes and therefore uses it to produce different effects. Then Elephant Speaks in its first iteration here features quiet and basically conventional piano sounds for the first half, before other instruments enter; the pacing is deliberate and the mood quiet and even wistful. The remixed version leans far more heavily on vibes and electric guitars, producing a more otherworldly sound in which there are many echoes of the first version but the context has changed throughout. The Circles, 2017, in its first version, again features a moderately paced, mostly traditionally harmonized piano part, with clear but relatively modest contributions by electronics. The second version of the same piece makes the electronics far more prominent, to the point that the piano sounds as if it is accompanying them rather than the other way around. Aurally much less pleasing, this second version has a more overtly “modern” sound to it as it keeps the electronics front and center. And there is a third version of the same piece – which Whitley wrote seven years earlier than the first two. This is The Circles, 2010, in which the piano is the only instrument present, offering the basics of what would become the more-elaborate works from 2017. Whitley plays this 2010 version himself. This disc provides some interesting insight into the thinking and methods of a contemporary composer, but here as in the Skipworth CD, it is worth asking what the audience is supposed to receive from and then take away from hearing the material. The Whitley disc includes 17 minutes of the two versions of Then Elephant Speaks and 12 of the three versions of The Circles, so listeners get 29 minutes’ worth of five pieces that are really two pieces played and mixed in different ways. Is the result worthwhile? As an audio experiment, it certainly has its moments, and those who enjoy dissecting modern compositional techniques will find the different versions of these works interesting to compare. But listeners without that strong intellectual interest in deciphering Whitley’s musical/electronic thinking will likely find the not-quite-half-hour of material on this disc to be quite a bit more than enough.