March 23, 2023


Mozart: 9 Variations on a Minuet by Jean-Pierre Duport, K. 573; Beethoven: 7 Variations on “God Save the King,” WoO 78; 6 Variations on an original theme in F, Op. 34; Mendelssohn: Variations sérieuses, Op. 54; Brahms: Variations in F-sharp minor, Op. 9. Sarah Beth Briggs, piano. AVIE. $17.99.

Bruce Wolosoff: Music for Solo Piano. Bruce Wolosoff, piano. AVIE. $17.99.

Dorothy Hindman: To Spill Oneself Away; Alican Çamci: …with the sound of a ripe fruit—falling…; Andrea Mazzariello: As Far As You Can Stretch a Web; Your Hands, As They Are; Takuma Itoh: Intermezzo; Kirsten Soriano: Echoes; Paul Dresher: Blue Diamonds. Matthew McCright, piano. Proper Canary. $10.                 

     There are many ways for pianists to make recitals or recordings their own, including through choice of repertoire that reflects their own particular musical interests. That is Sarah Beth Briggs’ chosen approach on a first-rate new AVIE recording that could be called “variations on variations,” since these five works interpret the notion of “variations” in significantly different ways. Indeed, it is through bringing out the composers’ differing approaches that Briggs makes the music her own, even though all four composers heard on the CD are quite familiar. Variations have filled numerous roles in classical music, ranging from that of clever alteration of a basic tune to that of sheer virtuosic display. The cleverness is what comes through in Briggs’ choice of works and style of performance. Mozart’s 9 Variations on a Minuet by Jean-Pierre Duport is a fairly late work (1789) based on a graceful but not especially notable theme, written by cellist Jean-Pierre Duport. Briggs neatly calls forth the increasing playfulness that Mozart brings to these variations as he makes Duport’s tune more and more elaborate. A kind of stuttering effect that anticipates the Papageno-Papagena duet in Die Zauberflöte is a highlight – and so is the comparative depth of the one minor-key element: a variation in the minor toward the end of a set was a standard element of compositions in this form for quite a long time. Mozart’s grace is contrasted to the somewhat different form of expansion and alteration in Beethoven’s 7 Variations on “God Save the King,” after which a second Beethoven variation work shows a more-innovative approach. This is 6 Variations on an original theme in F, in which not only the theme but also the key structure is varied in surprising ways: each variation is in a key a third below the prior one, creating a sense of abrupt color changes in the music in a way that looks ahead to Schubert. Beethoven’s approach here gives each variation a strong sense of individuality, and it is to Briggs’ credit that she explores that element of the work while also tying the pieces together into a satisfying whole. Similar satisfaction is on offer in Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, a work of greater complexity than those by Mozart and Beethoven. Mendelssohn creates a highly chromatic theme reflecting the Romantic era, but employs it in forms looking back to the Baroque, including toccata and fugue. He also has one variation in which the melody is heard in the middle voice, which is set against bass and treble lines – not quite the “three-hand” effect for which Thalberg became famous, but something along those lines, although Mendelssohn specifically emphasized the seriousness of his variations to set them apart from the “display pieces” often constructed in variation form and featured in recitals by Thalberg and other virtuoso performers. The final and longest work offered by Briggs, Brahms’ Variations in F-sharp minor, is also a highly serious piece – and a highly moving one as well, using an emotive theme from Schumann’s Bunte Blätter and extending it into realms of greater emotional upheaval before concluding not in triumph but with a kind of stoicism. Following this work’s expressive arc skillfully while keeping the 21-minute piece sounding unified and carefully knitted together, Briggs shows that she finds the variation form itself to be varied, involving, and pianistically satisfying both to perform and to hear.

     A different approach to personalizing one’s relationship to the piano involves writing one’s own music for the instrument and then recording it. That is how Bruce Wolosoff (born 1955) handles matters on another new AVIE release. The 10 works of his that he plays here are in a wide variety of styles that in some cases look back to earlier times (Improvisation on a Ground by Henry Purcell) and in others seem grounded more in pop music than in anything Purcellian (Morning Song). Some pieces offer delicacy (Siempre), some present tone paintings (After the Rain), and some create a rather surprising juxtaposition of styles (Dido’s Blues, another work that looks back to Purcell but also has the feeling of “blues” in the jazz sense; City Lights, which mixes boogie-woogie riffs with the sort of rhythmic complexity in which many modern composers indulge). Also here are the rather cinematically dark Memento; the serious and somewhat didactic Letter to a Friend, whose hesitant beginning leads to increasing musical and emotional complexity; and The Lotus Eaters, which is a touch overly delicate in its quiet and slow evocation of hallucinations. The final piece on the CD is the four-movement Night Paintings, a response to works by David Salle, Edvard Munch, Vincent Van Gogh, and Margaret Garrett (Wolosoff’s wife). These are pleasant pieces – indeed, everything on the CD is pleasant – and there is a certain exploratory nature to their interpretative nuances that takes them beyond the realm of salon music, into which many of the other works on the disc may be said to fit. Indeed, there is overarching gentleness in most of Wolosoff’s piano music on this CD, with the result that the occasional more-upbeat and quicker works (such as the second of the Night Paintings) come as something of a relief. Wolosoff’s personal relationship with the piano is that of a composer/performer who wants to establish specific emotional connections with the audience and who fine-tunes his playing to evoke those feelings as precisely as possible. The downside to this (+++) CD is that it is somewhat indulgent, in fact over-indulgent, tending to wallow in a set of emotional expressions that are somewhat narrow in scope even though Wolosoff draws on a wide variety of influences to create the music expressing them. The playing is quite fine, and the intent to connect with listeners is most welcome. But Wolosoff connects again and again (and yet again) in much the same emotional territory, with the result that the CD as a whole has a kind of delicate, dreamy quality that is evaporative where the emotions are concerned: instead of reinforcing them through multiple explorations, Wolosoff tends to protest and profess too much, resulting in a whole disc that is less than the sum of its individual parts.

     Even without composing one’s own music, a contemporary pianist can seek out modern works reflective of a particular sensibility that the performer wants to communicate through pianism. This is the form of personal expression sought by Matthew McCright on a Proper Canary CD featuring seven works by six of today’s composers. If Wolosoff’s music is mostly quiet and dreamy, McCright’s – not his own, but the music he uses to represent himself on this disc – is generally darker and more explicitly contemporary in its harmonies and rhythms. Dorothy Hindman’s To Spill Oneself Away (2021) juxtaposes constant tinkling runs in the piano’s upper register with contrasting sounds from various portions of the keyboard, producing a feeling of uncertainty. Alican Çamci’s …with the sound of a ripe fruit—falling… (which dates to 2021 and whose original Turkish title also includes ellipses at the start and finish) is a kind of athematic, determinedly dissonant brief étude. Andrea Mazzariello is represented by two works: the five-movement As Far As You Can Stretch a Web (2019) and single-movement Your Hands, As They Are (2021). The first of these offers five different sorts of piano sounds in short movements intended both to have personal resonance and to explore piano possibilities (the first, third and fifth are all designated Prelude in one way or another). The concluding Preludes, folded seems to strive most strongly for meaning beyond the notes. Your Hands, As They Are is so quiet throughout as to be almost silent, requiring active listening to try to extract the music’s progress and meaning. Takuma Itoh’s Intermezzo (2010) is also a soft, minimalist work that drifts rather aimlessly to a fade-out. Kirsten Soriano’s Echoes (2010) begins as yet another exercise in quietude but features some chordal emphases that provide contrast. The CD concludes with its longest work, Blue Diamonds (1995) by Paul Dresher. This too starts in minimalist mode, but becomes increasingly intricate (if thoroughly athematic) as it explores highly contrasting sounds created by juxtaposing widely differing portions of the keyboard and quickly changing rhythms. The piece is scarcely wholly convincing – it sounds too much like too many other avowedly modernistic works – but it offers some of the most engaging material on this disc. This (+++) CD is quite clearly reflective of McCright’s valuation of the piano as an expressive instrument and of the ways in which contemporary composers and compositions take advantage of pianistic possibilities. But most of the works here are simply not very interesting in and of themselves: they partake of specific modern sensibilities that McCright obviously finds resonant in terms of his own personality, but only listeners already predisposed to hear and feel this material as McCright does will likely find the disc a worthwhile experience.

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