April 29, 2021


Hovhaness: Piano Music. Şahan Arzruni, piano. Kalan Music. $18.59.

Scott Wollschleger: Piano Music. Karl Larson, piano. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Brian Ferneyhough: Complete Piano Music, 1965-2018. Ian Pace, piano; Ben Smith, second piano. Métier. $18.99 (2 CDs).

     To composers of the Classical era, the piano (that is, fortepiano) was an instrument allowing greater expressiveness than the harpsichord, or at least expressiveness of a different type. To Beethoven and the early Romantics, the steadily improving piano made possible increasing emotional communication in music, as well as substantial virtuosity, often for its own sake. To Liszt, one of the most-substantial virtuoso players of his era, the piano – which came into essentially its modern form during his lifetime – was an orchestra in miniature. To later composers, the piano took on expanded roles or very different ones, including some (such as “prepared piano”) that changed the instrument’s inherent sound and placed it even more firmly in the percussion realm than it had been before. And to some composers of the 20th and 21st centuries, the piano became, or has become, a newly expressive instrument, even to the point of connecting to realms beyond the musical. That is how Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) appears to have seen the piano, on the basis of a generous selection of his solo-piano music that was originally released in 2019 but is only now being made available in the United States. Pianist Şahan Arzruni, a longtime friend and colleague of Hovhaness, seems as finely attuned to the underlying mysticism of Hovhaness’ piano works (and, indeed, his works in general) as any performer can be. Arzruni’s extensive familiarity with Hovhaness’ oeuvre, and his personal possession of numerous hand-written manuscripts of Hovhaness’ music, make it possible for him to place the 10 works on this Kalan Music CD firmly within proper context. And Arzruni’s sheer pianistic skill helps him do something that is by no means straightforward in Hovhaness’ music: to make it colorful and convincing in and of itself, without requiring complete understanding of the philosophical trappings in which so much material from this Armenian-American composer is clothed. Arzruni presents these works in a way that he believes will help them communicate Hovhaness’ beliefs and intentions most effectively – not chronologically, and not arranged by length or other obvious methods. Furthermore, Arzruni offers pieces of piano music in combination with ones that Hovhaness originally conceptualized differently. Thus, Invocations to Vahakn (1945) was written for piano and percussion (Adam Rosenblatt is the percussionist); Yenovk (“The Troubadour,” 1947/1951) was created as seven movements for piano solo; Lalezar (1950-52) derives from a set of songs for bass voice and orchestra; and so forth. These are the first three works on the disc, lasting, respectively, 13, 11 and four-and-a-half minutes. So in less than half an hour, Arzruni already gives listeners a portrait of Hovhaness presented at varying lengths. In terms of time span, it is true that most of the pieces date from the mid-1940s through the mid-1950s, but even within that period, there is considerable variety. Like many other prolific composers – and Hovhaness was quite prolific, although very little of his music is heard frequently – Hovhaness is said to have had “periods” of differing focus. Thus, some works here imitate the sound of Near Eastern and Middle Eastern string instruments. Some draw directly on specific nations’ music, not only that of Armenia but, for example, that of Greece in the three-movement Suite on Greek Tunes (1949), one of a number of world première recordings heard here, and that of the Orient in general in Mystic Flute (1937). Other pieces here are Journey into Dawn (1954), Laona (1956), Lake of Van Sonata (1946/1959), Vijag (1946), and Hakhpat (1946/1951, another piano-and-percussion piece). Although there is much of interest to be heard by simply listening to this disc, the barriers to full enjoyment and understanding of Hovhaness are shown through the works’ titles: the references are often obscure and generally necessary for a listener to apprehend the mood fully – and, in many cases, to connect to the specific form of mysticism that the composer is expressing. Arzruni is an excellent interpreter of this rather rarefied repertoire, and this disc is as good a choice as any for listeners who would like to hear more of Hovhaness than his few works that are occasionally programmed in concerts and recitals. The CD is very much an acquired taste, although it will be to the taste of listeners wishing to acquire greater familiarity with an unusual, visionary 20th-century composer.

     Hovhaness put the piano at the service of the mystical; Scott Wollschleger (born 1980) puts it at the service of synesthesia, a condition he shares with Scriabin, among others. And just as Arzruni’s interpretations of Hovhaness draw on his longstanding personal relationship with the composer, so do the readings of Karl Larson on a New Focus Recordings release draw on his friendship with Wollschleger. The actual sound of Wollschleger’s piano pieces, however, is worlds away from that of Hovhaness’ music. The 10 pieces on this CD, which date from the years 2007-2020, are delicate but determinedly dissonant, clearly seeking a kind of intimacy but achieving it only rarely. The works come across as close collaborations between composer and pianist, but as dualities that offer little entrance space for anyone other than the two involved in creating and re-creating them. Their sound sometimes differs, as in the contrast between the focus of Dark Days on the piano’s lower register and the overtly tinkly sonic world of Tiny Oblivion. But other works, synesthetic or not, simply sound like a great deal of contemporary stop-and-start, here-and-there keyboard pieces: Music without Metaphor, for example, and Blue Inscription. And then there is Lyric Fragment, which is scarcely lyrical – it has a nocturne-like quality whose sound, however, is far from restful. The disc includes three pieces labeled as Brontals by the composer: No. 2 (“Holiday”), No. 6, and No. 11 (“I-80”). These contain abrupt contrasts of low and high notes and of slow and speedy sections, but despite the representational implication of the two pieces with titles, there is very little distinctive from one piece to the next, and nothing particularly illustrative. Similarly, the two works here called Secret Machine, Nos. 4 and 6, have nothing apparent to do with their title, although No. 4 does contain more-interesting rhythmic and dynamic contrasts than many of the other works on the disc, while No. 6 has a pleasant bell-like clarity that maintains interest throughout its modest length. Wollschleger’s form of synesthesia connects sound with color – a not-unusual presentation of the condition – but the composer does not bring his unusual sensibilities to bear in ways that reach out to an audience to any significant extent. Someone who knows him personally and plumbs his works with that knowledge front-and-center, as Larson does, can certainly play the music convincingly. But listeners not already well-versed in Wollschleger as both a person and a composer (plus a synesthetic) will find little here that is distinctive and not much with communicative potential.

     Although significantly older than Wollschleger, Brian Ferneyhough (born 1943) – who does not have synesthesia – treats the piano in many similar ways. A new two-CD Métier release featuring all of Ferneyhough’s piano works created from 1965 to 2018, played by Ian Pace (with Ben Smith assisting in the Sonata for Two Pianos), shows the sorts of deliberately extreme contrasting sections and unwillingness to approach warmth or lyricism that are characteristic of a great deal of contemporary music (and not just for piano). One distinguishing characteristic that helps make some of these works listenable is their brevity: many are epigrammatic, including six tiny pieces in a work actually called Epigrams, and the concluding movement of a piece called Lemma-Icon-Epigram. The first piece on the disc, Invention, is itself short (less than two minutes), with chordal emphasis typical of much recent piano music. In Epigrams, the first piece is slow-paced, the second is all over the keyboard, the third focuses on high notes, the fourth on lower chords, the fifth on individual notes in stop-and-start fashion, and the sixth on a kind of stop-start-fade approach. Sonata for Two Pianos does not use the dual instruments to any significant purpose: it basically sounds like Ferneyhough’s solo-piano pieces, but doubled. In Three Pieces, the approaches of Epigrams are again employed, but at considerably greater length – which does not serve the material well, since there is, after a while, a repetitiveness to the techniques that, in the absence of harmony or consonance, simply becomes tiresome. The first movement of Lemma-Icon-Epigram has a somewhat discursive quality; the second makes note duration and eventual silence into important elements; and the third whirls by quickly with notes all over the piano in an apparently random display that, in reality, is carefully planned. Opus Contra Naturam is another three-movement work, but here the central movement is twice as long as the first and third put together. The first movement tinkles and growls simultaneously; the second spreads with seeming randomness around various sections of the keyboard; and the third proffers a slow and irregular pace that is largely unconnected to what has gone before. Quirl is an extended single movement incorporating essentially the same epigrammatic techniques used elsewhere by Ferneyhough, but less effectively, because they simply wear out their welcome comparatively quickly. Finally, El Rey de Calabria concludes matters in moderate tempo and with figurations that sound as if they are about to turn into melody even though they never quite do so. This is one of those releases clearly intended for people who are already familiar with the composer, if perhaps not with his piano works, and who want to explore his keyboard interests at some length (the two CDs together run an hour and a half). The release may also appeal to people who do not know Ferneyhough himself but who find contemporary approaches to the piano congenial and worth listening to, since the sound of these works fits quite neatly into the general realm of recent piano music without presenting anything startling or surprising or, indeed, much of anything to differentiate Ferneyhough from many other modern composers who use the piano to produce their effects.

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