March 26, 2020
(+++) A SINGLE FOCUS
Jeremy Siskind: Perpetual Motion Etudes for Piano. Jeremy Siskind, piano. Outside in Music. $15.98.
Max Reger: Cello Suite No. 2; Ernest Bloch: Cello Suite No. 2; Robert Muczynski: Gallery—Cello Suite. Benjamin Whitcomb, cello. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Short, single-instrument recitals were common in the LP era, when a vinyl record generally ran 45 minutes or less. CD buyers have long since come to expect more music – often around 80 minutes of it – on each disc. That makes new about-45-minute recital discs by Jeremy Siskind and Benjamin Whitcomb into throwbacks of a kind, and means they are artist-focused CDs that will likely be of particular appeal to those interested in the performers and their instruments. This is not to say that the music on these discs is unworthy, but it may not be the primary attraction for many listeners.
Actually, in the case of Siskind’s recording on the Outside in Music label, the target audience could be people interested in Siskind as both composer and performer. The CD consists of nine etudes, and its “Perpetual Motion” title is apt, since in much of the music, Siskind plays the piano nonstop – Haydn’s notion of getting the silences right is very little in evidence here. The pieces have titles that are, in the main, reasonably descriptive of how the music sounds: Sometimes I Wander meanders across and along the keyboard, Van Gogh’s Dream has a crepuscular quality, Temple Bells includes suitably imitative keyboard writing, Floating has a sense of taking the music aloft, and Blues is clearly blues-derived even though it is not a straightforward essay in that element of the jazz world. Actually, jazz permeates this entire disc, with Siskind’s riffs on his themes and his improvisatory and quasi-improvisatory elaborations of them lending the music a distinctive-yet-familiar sound. The four pieces whose titles do not immediately call up specific musical references contain some of the most interesting material. Brooklyn Sunset includes note cascades from which themes gently emerge and into which they are absorbed, and alternates sections of rhythmic regularity and irregularity. Homesick is mildly downcast, its feeling more of pathos than of any sort of tragic separation: it strikes an overall wistful pose. Piccadilly Circus has the disc’s most-interesting opening, its splashy, pizzicato-esque bounce persisting for a minute before being succeeded by a much more conventionally flowing main section that becomes rhythmically interesting only as it approaches the piece’s conclusion. And Enchanted Forest, although it includes easy-to-anticipate tone painting reflective of its title, also delves into darker rumblings that indicate less-than-beneficent elements lurking in the world it portrays. Siskind is a very fine pianist and a strong advocate for his own music. The pieces on this disc are not etudes in the traditional sense of exploring and teaching specific pianistic techniques: they are more akin to miniature tone poems, each deploying the piano in the service of three-and-a-half to six minutes of expressive portraiture. The works are not especially distinctive in and of themselves – they are painted, in the main, using a traditional jazz palette. But Siskind brings them to life through his committed performances, with the result that the CD will be a particular pleasure for those interested in Siskind as pianist – although less so for those seeking a high level of originality in Siskind as composer.
Benjamin Whitcomb’s solo-cello recital for MSR Classics includes three 20th-century pieces that will be less familiar to listeners than they are to cellists seeking repertoire beyond Bach’s suites. Interestingly, though, Max Reger’s four-movement Cello Suite No. 2 is largely traceable to Bach, with two Largo movements and two Baroque dances (Gavotte and Gigue). Reger’s music can be dense and difficult, and there is often something rather academic about it. But this suite, which dates to 1915, is quite accessible to listeners and is impressive in the way it adopts and adapts Bach’s approach to material that is superficially similar to his. The broadly conceived opening Prelude (Largo) fares quite well in Whitcomb’s hands: he allows the music’s expansive nature to come through without making the music over-Romantic, although it is certainly redolent of emotion. The Gavotte features slightly irregular-sounding rhythms that Whitcomb conveys effectively; the extended and highly expressive third-movement Largo shows off the cello’s full range, with an emphasis on warmth; and the concluding Gigue has plenty of gaiety and bounce. The piece itself is as impressive as Whitcomb’s handling of it. Ernest Bloch’s Cello Suite No. 2 is a late work (1957, two years before the composer’s death), and is essentially in one movement: although it is nominally in four, each of its first three parts leads attacca to the next. This is a less-engaging work than the Reger: it is more gestural and seems more concerned with exploring and exploiting the cello’s substantial range than with communicating anything particularly significant to an audience. The pacing is filled with allargando and ritenuto molto passages, the dynamics with frequent and often abrupt volume changes. There is a sense of constant uneasiness: even when marked Andante tranquillo, the music offers little respite, much less tranquility. Whitcomb plays the work well, but the overall impression of the piece is that it is likely more interesting for a cellist to explore than for a non-cellist to hear. In addition to the two four-movement pieces, this CD includes Gallery—Cello Suite (1966) by Robert Muczynski (1929-2010). This is a set of nine short movements inspired by specific paintings by Charles Burchfield (1893-1967); and like virtually all music tied directly to visual stimuli, it loses something for anybody who does not know precisely what the composer is trying to evoke. Again and again, composers try to emulate what Mussorgsky did so brilliantly with Pictures at an Exhibition, but again and again, they come up short, since their portrayals of art do not stand up as music particularly well. That is the case here: Whitcomb plays Muczynski’s piece with skill, and there are some nice contrasts in the music between legato lyricism and more strongly accentuated passages. But the music is not interesting enough, in and of itself, to bear repeated hearings – it is really only for those familiar with the paintings that inspired it, or for those simply wanting to hear a very fine cellist effectively setting forth some music that has points of interest but is, all in all, less than compelling.