October 22, 2020


Messiaen: Catalogue d’oiseaux, Book 1; Szymanowski: Piano Sonata No. 3; David Gorton: Ondine. Roderick Chadwick, piano; Peter Sheppard Skærved and Shir Victoria Levy, violins. Divine Art. $18.99.

Hormoz Farhat: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2; Toccata; Amir Mahyar Tafreshipour: Yasna; Shabahang; Pendar for Piano; Celebration at Pasargadae. Mary Dullea, piano. Métier. $18.99.

     Pianists explore some less-than-familiar places on new recordings on the Divine Art and Métier labels. Roderick Chadwick takes listeners on a journey to and beyond Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, Book 1, which he plays with considerable panache, by doing more than simply offering Messiaen’s effectively coloristic tone painting representing the alpine chough, golden oriole and blue rock thrush. The pianism itself is impressive enough: the juxtaposition of the piano’s higher and lower registers and its intermittent stop-and-start sections (lapsing into silence and extreme quietude) in the first movement; the repeated, repetitive outbursts and use of the piano’s very highest notes in the second; the chordal dissonance of the third and the way it leads eventually to the quietest of endings. But Chadwick is not content to provide a first-rate piano performance: he also includes two-minute two-violin interludes after the second and third Messiaen movements, resulting in a presentation that is not exactly true to Messiaen’s intentions but that widens his sonic palette to create a kind of chamber-music expansion of material originally intended for solo piano. And this is not the only exploratory element on the disc. After the Messiaen production comes Ondine by David Gorton (born 1978), an eight-minute profile of the water spirit that here gets its world première recording. The piece has the expected “dripping” sounds from the piano at its opening, but instead of drops becoming a torrent, as might be expected, Gorton’s work remains mostly quiet and gentle throughout, as if portraying tracks of rain sliding down a window. The piece is atmospheric, although not especially memorable, and nicely complements the sound (although not the intended impressionistic portrayals) of Messiaen’s bird-focused one. Interestingly, the final work on the CD, Szymanowski’s Piano Sonata No. 3, begins with much the same sound offered by Gorton and, to some extent, by Messiaen – although Szymanowski’s piece is not overtly impressionistic. The mood soon changes, in any case, as the sonata becomes more wide-ranging and sweeps into more-intense territory as its first movement progresses. It is a four-movement work in which the movements run into each other seamlessly, and Chadwick plays it in such as a way as to highlight the distinctions among the various sections within each movement – of which there are many. The harmonic language here is no surprise for its time (1917), but sounds quite modern – even when compared with that of Gorton – because of the way Szymanowski makes use of the differing parts of the keyboard. His willingness to explore slower and more-chordal passages in the second movement contrasts effectively with his interest in very short, even abrupt material in the one-minute-long third movement, and comes through clearly here. And the finale, a fugue (a form Szymanowski also used in his previous piano sonata), has a surprisingly lightweight theme and a willingness to take this hyper-serious form less than hyper-seriously. Chadwick plays the sonata with strength and understanding, although following its conclusion with yet another two-violin piece – a minute-long “Postlude” – is a rather curious thing to do. The CD comes across as an interesting intellectual exercise with some very high-quality playing, even though the connections among the pieces are only surface-level and the music itself seems unlikely to attract a substantial audience, being more for connoisseurs of piano works of a particular type and approach.

     The pieces played by Mary Dullea, by Hormoz Farhat (born 1928) and Amir Mahyar  Tafreshipour (born 1974), are notable not so much for their respective time periods as for their composers’ geographical provenance: Farhat and Tafreshipour are Iranian, although their half-century separation in age means they know their homeland in very different ways. Farhat, the first Iranian to study music in the United States, is first represented here by his 1952 Toccata, based on a Persian folk song and constructed with skill of a rather old-fashioned sort. Piano Sonata No. 1 dates from the mid-1950s and shows the influence of Lukas Foss, with whom Farhat studied at the time and to whom the work is dedicated. This is a four-movement piece, but a compressed rather than expansive one. It is gestural rather than emotive, even in the second-movement Adagio con finezza. Farhat here seems comfortable with standard mid-20th-century compositional techniques: the work is less backward-looking than the Toccata but is very much of its time, as is shown through frequent metrical and rhythmic changes and extremes of dynamics. The three-movement Piano Sonata No. 2 is much more recent, dating to 2007; is considerably longer (23 minutes vs. 13); and is a good deal more impressive musically. Farhat here does not feel obliged to stick rigidly to techniques of the 21st century, or even the 20th, instead allowing the music to flow more naturally and in a less-forced way than in the earlier sonata. The first movement, itself almost as long as the entire previous sonata, is dynamic, expressive and emotionally convincing without ever being particularly lyrical – this is no neo-Romantic work, but one that insists on coming across in its own version of contemporary musical language. The slow second movement begins with delicacy and develops into increasing complexity, while the Molto animato finale is bright, forthright and seems always on the verge of ebullience without ever quite indulging in it: its final portion becomes quietly expressive and fades away quite effectively. Mary Dullea catches all the moods of this variegated work very well indeed, also doing a fine job with Farhat’s other music and, for that matter, with the four very different works by Tafreshipour. The first of those, Yasna, portrays a Zoroastrian religious ceremony with delicacy and refinement, but it makes its points early and then spins them out at rather too much length. Shabahang, which Dullea commissioned, has a title that literally means “nocturne,” but it is somewhat too restless for a relaxing nighttime, especially in its sharp contrast between quieter passages and louder, chordal ones. Pendar for Piano has similar strong contrasts between sections – a characteristic of Tafreshipour’s music as heard on this disc – and seems rather over-insistent on differentiating between its quieter passages and louder ones. Celebration at Pasargadae, the title referring to the capital city of Cyrus the Great in the sixth century BCE, is the shortest and most interesting of Tafreshipour’s works here. The opening is strong and impressive, continuing long enough so the eventual contrast – when it inevitably comes – is quite effective, presenting a feeling of quiet and thoughtfulness before broken chords and sudden drops back into near-silence lead once more to a strongly accented passage that finishes the work in impressive fashion. Certainly the music on this CD will be unfamiliar to practically all listeners, and certainly it will not be to every taste – even the taste of those looking for interesting examples of piano works of the 20th and 21st centuries. But there is one genuinely intriguing piece here in the second sonata by Farhat, and there are elements of interest throughout the disc, making it worthwhile for listeners who are interested in visiting some less-explored regions of contemporary music to consider taking this particular trip to Iran – or, more accurately, to the memories of Persia in the days before the modern nation known as Iran.

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