June 06, 2024

(+++) ONE TO ONE

Dance Music for Piano by Albéniz, Chopin, Smetana, Bartók, Grieg, Mussorgsky, Joshua Uzoigwe, Kwabena Nketia, Ginastera, Milhaud, Ernesto Lecuona, William Albright, and Yiqiang Sun. Hanren Zhang, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Yi-Ting Lu: Slimy Traces; Taxidermy; Half Decorations; Sewing in Thin Air; An Unopened Seashell. Daniel Lippel, guitar; Ben Roidl-Ward, bassoon; Ben Melsky, harp; Lam Wong, piano; Thomas Giles, alto saxophone. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     With 24 encore-like pieces lasting from 30 seconds to five-and-a-half minutes, pianist Hanren Zhang explores dance rhythms and harmonies from 13 countries. The music was written during a span of almost two centuries, by composers from the highly familiar to the very-little-known. If that makes this MSR Classics release sound like something of a hodgepodge, well, so be it: perhaps it is best regarded as a personal exploration by Zhang of dance-inspired music that speaks meaningfully to him, and that may perhaps – at least from time to time – speak to listeners as well, however unpredictable some of the juxtapositions of works turn out to be. For a relatively short CD (55 minutes), this one certainly does cover a lot of ground musically as well as temporally and geographically. It opens with a nicely rhythmic rendition of Albéniz’ El Puerto from Book I of Iberia, continues with two Chopin Mazurkas (Op. 59, Nos. 2 and 3) whose urbanity and comparative gentleness contrast well with the more outgoing music by Albéniz, then moves into two minor-key polkas by Smetana (Op. 12, No. 1 and Op. 13, No. 1) – both of those being wistful rather than melancholy. Zhang next plays 6 Romanian Folk Dances by Bartók, giving each miniature a distinctive character. Here somewhat stronger rhythmic intensity would have been welcome, although the delicacy of In One Spot is quite effective. Next on the disc are Grieg’s Norwegian Peasant Dances Nos. 2 and 13, the former featuring an amply decorated melodic line and the latter being more straightforward but with some intriguing rhythmic touches. Then Zhang offers his own arrangement of the Hopak from Mussorgsky’s Sorochintsy Fair, which comes across as a touch episodic and, although pleasant-sounding, not especially danceable. Next is Nigerian Dance No. 1 by Joshua Uzoigwe (1946-2005), which is very brief and interestingly harmonized. This is followed by Volta Fantasy by Kwabena Nketia (1921-2019), which has a stop-and-start feeling and strong contrast between the piano’s upper and lower registers. After this Zhang plays two works by Ginastera, Milonga and, from Estancia, the Pequeña Danza. The gentle rocking of the first of these is attractive, contrasting well with the waterfall-like cascading notes and comparative intensity of the Estancia excerpt. After this come the first two of the 12 Saudades do Brasil by Milhaud – the first flickering through several rhythms in 90 seconds, the second being more atmospheric, with an air of mystery about it. Next are two Danzas Afro-Cubanas by Ernesto Lecuona (1896-1963): La Comparsa is rhythmically intriguing, using the two hands in very different ways; Y La Negra Bailaba is more straightforward in sound, with a pleasant Latin rhythm underlying it. After this comes Sleepwalker’s Shuffle from The Dream Rags by William Albright (1944-1998, unfortunately listed as “1994-1998” on the packaging). This has the feeling of a slow and slightly awkward ragtime shuffle, as if the sleepwalker of the title is stumbling about without awakening. The CD concludes with its longest single piece, Dance of Spring by Yiqiang Sun (born 1980). It does convey a sense of awakening, followed by a pleasantly regular rhythmic expressiveness. Zhang clearly enjoys playing all these pieces, but their cumulative effect for listeners may be less than captivating: there is little uniting or strongly contrasting the woks, despite their different composers and time periods, and while a few of them sprinkled through or at the end of a program of more-substantive music could be quite enjoyable, in this context they are a bit of an overabundance of pleasantries.

     One way to ensure different sounds in works for a single instrument is to create pieces for different single instruments, which is what Yi-Ting Lu (born 1993) has done for a New Focus Recordings release featuring five pieces for soloists. Although this disc, at 49 minutes, is even shorter than Zhang’s, it does have the advantage of a variegated sound world – although it also has longer pieces that do not necessarily stand up well from start to finish. Slimy Tracks for guitar does not sound like guitar music: white noise from a radio underlies the kinds of percussive elements of which avant-garde composers are fond, including tappings and pizzicati – the idea is to evoke the track of a snail, although that connection is far from evident. Taxidermy is for bassoon and turns the instrument into an electronic amplification of itself, with a series of irregular self-interruptions on top of amplified note sequences. Half Decorations, for harp, starts with what sounds like an evocation of birdsong from the instrument’s highest strings, then continues with individual, clear notes interspersed with ones on prepared strings that therefore do not sound particularly harplike – one of Lu’s primary interests appears to be in figuring out what individual instruments sound like and then doing what is necessary to make them sound like something else. Sewing in Thin Air for piano, however, does allow the piano to sound like the keyboard percussion instrument that it is – although as the work’s title indicates, part of the piece is designed to replicate the sound of a sewing machine. An Unopened Seashell, for alto saxophone and the longest piece on the disc, returns to Lu’s approach of using an instrument’s inbuilt sound world to produce something aurally different. The idea here is to draw attention to the techniques – some typical, some extended – used in playing the sax, all while producing a kind of sound cloud representing what Lu imagines the inner world of a seashell must be like. Whether or not that is accurate is beside the point: the focus is on extending the natural sound production of the alto saxophone into new realms and in so doing to pull listeners into those environments. Like much contemporary music, Lu’s works make no attempt to reach out to audiences beyond those that already gravitate to new ways of hearing instruments and experiencing the extension of those instruments’ capabilities. Certainly for a narrow audience, these five pieces will provide some interesting aural experiences with material that may not strictly qualify as music in the traditional sense, but that is intended to engage the ears of listeners who are strongly inclined to want to hear beyond instruments’ typical ranges and methods of sound production.

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