December 03, 2020


Labyrinth. David Greilsammer, piano. Naïve. $11.99.

Small Is Beautiful: Miniature Piano Pieces. Yoko Hirota, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     The whole is a great deal more than the sum of its parts for some performers, who assemble and curate recitals that put together disparate musical elements and juxtapose them in ways designed to produce a particular effect, or to reproduce the effect that the assemblage has on the artists themselves. This can be a thorny proposition at best, since it requires audiences to be thoroughly tuned into a performer’s thinking and connection-building – and in accord with his or her philosophical bent – for the compilation to be effective. Those who do not quite “get it,” whatever “it” may be, will find it hard to enjoy the musical elements of these individualistic presentations for their own sakes, since the component pieces are not really the focus: they are means to the greater end of the construct. In the case of David Greilsammer’s new Naïve recording of 19 pieces and pieces-of-pieces by 13 composers from various eras, the intent is both to produce an aural “labyrinth” and to guide listeners through it. The concept clearly means a lot to Greilsammer, but that by no means guarantees its effectiveness for others. The 19 tracks proceed as follows in terms of the composers represented: Janáček, Lully, Janáček again, Beethoven, George Crumb, Beethoven again, Ligeti, J.S. Bach, Ligeti again, Granados, Satie, C.P.E. Bach, Satie again, Ofer Pelz, Marin Marais, Pelz again, Scriabin, Jean-Féry Rebel, and Scriabin again. Structurally, elements of this “labyrinth” are easy enough to unravel: there are six triptychs, each a sandwich containing one composer between two pieces by a different one; and Granados, specifically El Amor y la Muerte, a portentous choice if there ever was one, sits right in the middle of the presentation, separating the three groups of three that come before and after. But understanding this intellectually is one thing; getting to its emotional heart is quite a different one. The pieces – sometimes portions of pieces – do not fit each other especially consistently; and while an endeavor of this sort seems just right for composers such as Satie and Scriabin, it seems a slightly odd place to encounter a C.P.E. Bach Fantaisie or a J.S. Bach excerpt from Art of the Fugue. Much of Greilsammer’s emphasis and attention focuses on new material: Crumb’s The Magic Circle of Infinity, Pelz’s Repetition Blindness (a world première recording of a commissioned-for-this-project work in two “chapters,” separated by a Marais Chaconne), and a piano arrangement by Jonathan Keren of the justly famous Chaos from Rebel’s Les Éléments. The connections that Greilsammer sees among the works he plays – and he certainly plays them all with feeling and commitment – are not necessarily obvious, or even particularly discernible, to an audience unable to enter the pianist’s mind and ferret out its interests. As a result, the recording has numerous fascinating moments and features first-rate pianism throughout, but it asks listeners to, in effect, become Greilsammer, or at least to follow him closely through the labyrinth he has created, in order to absorb the totality of the effect of the works he has chosen. The journey may be worthwhile for some listeners, but for many it will simply be a musical byway heading nowhere in particular.

     There is some of the same meandering quality to a remastered Navona release (originally from 2009) featuring Yoko Hirota offering no fewer than 35 tracks of material by a dozen composers, all of them contemporary and one, Ligeti, appearing on the Greilsammer disc as well. Instead of emphasizing connections among these pieces, or imagining them, Hirota simply plays them straightforwardly, allowing their brevity to captivate or at least engage listeners for a short time before she moves on to the next work. There are composers here for whom producing short-form material was a significant goal: the disc opens with Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke of 1911, four of them under a minute long and none reaching 90 seconds. More than three decades later, Ernst Krenek channeled some of the same sensibilities in the Eight Piano Pieces from his Op. 110 of 1946: four last less than a minute, although two do reach the two-minute mark. Like Schoenberg, Krenek, using Schoenberg’s pure twelve-tone technique, here seeks to make a series of very short musical statements and then depart the stage. The CD continues with a one-minute Ligeti piece from 1948, three short experimental Luciano Berio pieces in which the piano’s sonority is more important than any specific musical elements presented, and two “tribute” pieces by Elliott Carter – one paying homage to Goffredo Petrassi and the other to Pierre Boulez. The former, called 90+ and based on 90 notes, is long by the standards of this disc – just over five minutes – and has less impact than the two-minute Retrouvailles. Both the Carter works contrast interestingly with John Beckwith’s The Music Room, a far less abrasive and insistent work, and Bruce Mather’s Fantasy, at seven minutes the longest piece on the disc, which is unafraid to incorporate tonality into its material. Next on the CD are Elegy for a Misty Afternoon, by Brian Cherney, as atmospheric as the title suggests; CanOn Stride by John Weinzweig, a rather disconnected essay in creating music without melody; Traces by Aris Carastathis, a two-movement mishmash of sounds and structures from Bach’s age to the 21st century; and Two Pieces for Piano by Gary Kulesha, an interesting but not-too-successful attempt to combine serial compositional techniques with emotional expressiveness. The disc concludes with two pieces by Robert Lemay: 6 Ushebtis, a set of experiments in pianistic sound and techniques; and Tanze vor Angst… Hommage à Paul Klee – including the ellipsis in its title, which appears after the title of the Klee painting (in English, “Dance before Fear”) that inspired the piano work. Lemay’s pieces, like the others that Hirota plays, are well-constructed and fit the piano nicely within the particular contexts chosen by the composers. The CD as a whole, though, does not really hang together thematically except in its devotion to modernism. It comes across as a series of forays into brevity as dictated by a wide variety of concerns and interests – and a chance to hear some well-played 20th and 21st century piano works that in the main, however, are not especially, umm, noteworthy.

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