February 04, 2021


Roberto Piana: Grand Fantasy on Puccini’s “La bohème”; Grand Fantasy on Bizet’s “Carmen.” Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Sid Richardson: Red Wind; There is no sleep so deep; LUNE; Astrolabe. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     One of the difficulties in pinning down what “classical music” means in the 21st century is that composers, in this century as in the latter part of the 20th, refuse to be pinned down. They not only draw on a multitude of influences but also employ forms, structures, instrumentation, and musical design in very different ways and to very different ends. The well-known 19th-century dispute between the followers of Brahmsian “pure” music and Lisztian “illustrative” music seems very long ago and positively quaint by comparison with the trends (or non-trends) among today’s composers – except that nowadays there is little argument about whether a given approach is or is not entitled to be considered “classical,” and the whole issue of terminology has become something of an academic exercise.

     Within this just-about-anything-goes musical culture, composers are quite free to decide what forms to use, what sounds to employ, what structures to embrace, and what approaches to try as they seek an audience for their works. Roberto Piana draws very obviously and very skillfully on a form and approach strongly identified with Liszt – the virtuosic operatic paraphrase/fantasy – in new works written for and performed by Antonio Pompa-Baldi on an excellent Steinway & Sons CD. Liszt was scarcely the sole master of operatic material recast as piano virtuosity: Godowsky, Kalkbrenner, Thalberg and others wrote and played at near-Lisztian levels. And the world première recordings of the two Grand Fantasy compositions by Piana lie firmly in this environment. They are quite extended: the one on La bohème runs nearly half an hour, the one on Carmen only a few minutes less. Both are packed with familiar music – familiar not only to opera lovers but also to listeners who may know little about classical music but may well have heard these tunes in other contexts. And in the case of Carmen, Piana draws quite clearly on previous noteworthy musical fantasies by Sarasate and Waxman. Those, however, focused on the violin, and what Piana does with considerable skill – abetted by some truly marvelous playing by Pompa-Baldi – is to transform the orchestral music of Bizet and Puccini into the kinds of virtuoso showpieces that Liszt himself might have written if he had tackled these operas (Liszt actually knew Bizet and admired his pianism, but by the time of Carmen in 1875, Liszt’s own work had moved into more-contemplative musical regions). What is interesting about these Piana fantasies is that despite their grand scale and their essentially Romantic temperament, they are clearly the work of a composer who knows what harmonies, rhythms and techniques are available in the 21st century, and who is able to make judicious use of some elements that go beyond what Liszt and other 19th-century grandmasters produced. Piana also fully understands the capabilities of a full-scale modern Steinway piano: it is worth pointing out that the piano in its modern form only came into existence during Liszt’s lifetime (and partly because of the demands made by him and other virtuoso players). Pompa-Baldi is an absolutely first-rate advocate of this music: assured, fully engaged in the material, equally able to bring forth themes and figurations from right or left hand or in a combination of both, a whirlwind in fast passages and a sensitively introspective, contemplative interpreter of slower, quieter ones. The warmth and beauty of Puccini are given their full due by both Piana and Pompa-Baldi, and the piquancy and exoticism of Bizet come through equally clearly. Operagoers will relish hearing familiar tunes throughout both these fantasies, expanded and rearranged and varied and combined. But the music also reaches out effectively to listeners who may never have seen either opera – it simply pulls an audience in through its display of beautiful tunes and themes, and their elaboration and highly effective presentation by a pianist who here shows himself to be a 21st-century heir of a grand 19th-century performing tradition.

     Sid Richardson’s music on a (+++) New Focus Recordings CD is quite different and much more in line with what listeners are likely to mean when they talk about “modern classical music.” The solo pieces here for piano and violin – the latter also including electronic media – sound the way people who do not regularly listen to contemporary music will expect this music to sound. And the two works for chamber ensemble, one of which includes two vocal parts, will also match expectations in their handling of the instruments (voices included) and the way the material is organized and presented. The most-substantial work here is the five-movement Red Wind (2017) for soprano, narrator, bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, percussion, and contrabass. The instrumental lineup itself shows one way in which some of today’s composers try to set their music apart from earlier works, by utilizing familiar instruments in new combinations. The sounds of Red Wind involve narrator and soprano intertwined (so the differing, superimposed words from both are largely inaudible), plus sections in which the soprano sings with the wide leaps and substantial dissonance characteristic of much modern music. Words are repeated and move into and out of coherence – their selection and meaning typical for music and poetry of a certain type (“I stood on stilts,” “there though I wasn’t there,” “ad hoc epiphany,” “to see it so, saw it so”). The instrumental music is disconnected from the vocals, the percussion often explosive and the potential melody instruments being used as sound generators rather than tune or harmony producers. Even the movements’ titles reflect a certain approach to contemporary music – for instance, two are called “Anabatic Jukebox” and “Anacoluthic Light.” The other chamber piece here, the single-movement Astrolabe (2014), is for flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion, and is less wide-ranging and ambitious than Red Wind. But Astrolabe is cut from much the same auditory cloth: athematic, setting instruments against each other rather than in any sort of cooperation, it revels in sound generation rather than any sort of communicative desire (and it does include some voices shouting exclamations, although it lacks the specific vocal writing of Red Wind). Listeners who enjoy the type of contemporary music that is a sound collection rather than a thematic/harmonic/rhythmic progression are likely the intended audience for Astrolabe, which has some attractive interplay of higher instruments from time to time but, as a whole, could be played backwards and have the same effect as playing it forwards. The solo-violin work here – actually “for violin and fixed media” – is called LUNE and actually lasts longer than Astrolabe. Despite the omnipresent electronic material, LUNE (2015) does not have the aural variability of either chamber work on this disc and does not sustain very well at its considerable length. It is mostly an atmospheric piece, giving a sense of distance and greyness and isolation in the violin, enhanced by the electronics into a soundscape of emptiness. The solo-piano work here, There is no sleep so deep (2016), is only half as long and, partly for that reason, is more effective. It also has more variability than the work for solo violin: there are contrasts of soft and loud, of slow and speedy. Like all the other music here, the piece is athematic and more about sound generation than anything else – but the inherent ability of a modern piano to produce variegated tonal material in many registers, at many tempos, gives the work a level of interest that the other pieces on the CD do not possess. Richardson’s handling of the piano is nevertheless as strongly contrasted to Piana’s approach to the instrument as it is possible to be – an object lesson in the extremes to which today’s composers can choose to go in seeking to create works that reach out to very different potential audiences from very different communicative perspectives.

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