January 28, 2021


Liszt: Piano Music. Jerry Wong, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Music for Unaccompanied Bassoon by Paul Genin, Vincent  Persichetti, Alexandre Ouzounoff, Antonio Lauro, Willson Osborne, Libby Larsen, Russell Brown, George Perle, Werner Schulze, and Chris Arrell. Scott Pool, bassoon. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     The communicative power of some instruments, such as the piano, seems on its face to be far more obvious than that of others, such as the bassoon. But as two MSR Classics releases show, composers and performers can find ways to make both these instruments effectively expressive when played unaccompanied. It was Franz Liszt who largely brought the piano – which evolved into its modern form during his lifetime and partly because of him – to the heights of solo-expression capability that are now so familiar, given his determination to turn the instrument into an “orchestra in miniature.” So recitals consisting entirely of Liszt’s music are nothing new. Jerry Wong’s well-played selection of Liszt contains nothing exceptional and nothing that listeners already enamored of Liszt’s solo-piano pieces will find surprising or unusual. There are five excerpts from Années de pèlerinage. Four are from the first (Suisse) book: Chapelle de Guillaume Tell, Au lac de Wallenstadt, Les cloches Genève, and Vallée d’Obermann. The fifth is from the second (Italie) book: the inevitable-in-Liszt-recitals Sposalizio. There are several other thrice-familiar (or at least twice-familiar) pieces: Nuages gris; La lugubre gondola; Unstern! Sinistre, Disastro; and Funérailles from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. And there are two Wagner-derived pieces: Lohengrin’s Admonition and the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Taken together, these 11 works provide a generous (hour-and-a-quarter) display of Liszt’s devotion to the solo piano’s ability to convey and transmit deeply felt emotions. The disc bears the overall title “Of Love and Longing,” which is accurate enough but which somewhat misses the point of Liszt’s (and Wagner’s) larger-than-real-life approach to those topics. Wong brings suitable (and, indeed, necessary) virtuosity to the music, especially in the scene-painting of the earlier Années de pèlerinage pieces. And his treatment of the Wagner material is fine, if not especially distinguished from that provided by many other pianists. But what is more intriguing here is his handling of the late, more inward-looking works: Nuages gris; La lugubre gondola; Unstern! Sinistre, Disastro; and Funérailles. Contemplative, melancholy (and even beyond melancholy), dark (and even death-obsessed), these pieces require a pianist to delve deeply into Liszt’s later preoccupation with religious and spiritual matters, subsuming their undoubted performance difficulties beneath an extraction of meaning that can strain even the compass of a modern concert grand. Wong rises to this challenge well, allowing Liszt’s increasingly stretched harmonies to flow beneath his fingers with thoughtful quietude that is never far from ominous and even eerie. It is, however, distinctly peculiar that Wong does not make these four pieces the final ones in this recital – instead, he plays the late works in the middle of the CD, following them with the two Wagner-based ones and then Sposalizio and Vallée d’Obermann at the end. This makes no pianistic or emotional sense – indeed, following Funérailles with anything at all seems nearly sacrilegious. So what listeners have here is evidence that Wong can play Liszt very well, think carefully about the meaning of his music and the way he uses the solo piano to express that meaning, and then seem to lose his way in deciding how best to assemble and present a Liszt-focused recital so as to maximize the music’s impact.

     The solo-bassoon works played by Scott Pool include one by a composer of Liszt’s time: Paul Genin lived from 1832 to 1903. But they are mainly much more recent, which means their approach to the instrument reflects contemporary musical thinking rather than the focus on the bassoon’s emotional and expressive capabilities as used by Vivaldi in his three dozen bassoon concertos, and by other composers of that time. An hour-and-a-quarter solo-bassoon recital like Pool’s is far rarer than a piano recital of similar length, and indeed is somewhat harder to sit through, the bassoon having neither the musical compass nor the full expressive capabilities of a modern piano. There is nevertheless some very interesting material here. Genin’s Carnival of Venice is actually an arrangement (by Ryohei Nakagawa), and it certainly puts the bassoonist through his paces. Genin will likely be unfamiliar to most listeners, as indeed will virtually all the composers here – except perhaps Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987), whose Parable for Solo Bassoon focuses particularly on the instrument’s lower register. Lawson by Alexandre Ouzounoff (born 1955) uses some extended-breath techniques and “wa-wa” sounds rather self-consciously. The five-movement Lauro by Antonio Lauro (1917-1986), arranged by Paquito D’Rivera, paints five short portraits with warmth, effective contrast, and a mixture of lyricism and dancelike verve that sweeps the listener along while certainly challenging the performer: Pool’s breath control here is especially impressive. Next on the disc is Rhapsody by Willson Osborne (1906-1979), in which the bassoon’s ability to convey yearning is effectively displayed; then comes a piece called Jazz Variations by Libby Larsen (born 1950), which is neither as jazzy nor as effectively varied as its title would indicate; and then a work for bassoon and electronics called Kyrie, by Russell Brown (born 1976) – this being a piece that tends to undermine the bassoon’s basic tonal warmth by having electronic sounds dominate whenever the instrument becomes expressive. Electronics are not necessary to produce something that tends to run counter to the bassoon’s inherent capabilities, however, as is shown in the first of the Three Inventions by George Perle (1915-2009). The main inventiveness here involves making the bassoon sound like something other than itself – stretching its range beyond aural comfort. The second and third of the Three Inventions mainly contrast faster and slower playing, with some venturing into the instrument’s higher and lower ranges. Next on the CD is Fibonacci Haiku by Werner Schulze (born 1952), which not only sports a title intended to intrigue but also proffers evocative names for its five short movements, which range in length from half a minute to two minutes: “Flooded with Wind,” “Even Without,” “A Ray of Light Warms,” “The Smallest Spring Brook,” and “Many Times.” The designations generally do not seem to relate in any significant way to the music, however, and in fact are more interesting than the rather pedestrian expressiveness of the work itself. The disc concludes with Blur by Chris Arrell (born 1970), which runs more than 14 minutes and is the longest work offered here. It does require the performer to contrast long notes and extended technique with very short notes played at speed, although the idea is the opposite of blurring anything: Pool makes the differences among the piece’s sections very clear indeed. However, once the work establishes its pattern, it does little more than repeat it again and again – not, on the whole, an approach satisfying enough to sustain a piece of this length. All in all, Pool’s CD showcases his performance skill in music that is not always worthy of the care and attention that he lavishes on it. There are interesting elements in several works on the disc, but nothing that is likely to impress listeners in evocative ways – although several pieces show Pool’s performing capabilities to be substantial.

No comments:

Post a Comment