French but not French

If you buy Ned Rorem’s suggestion that the world is divided into the French and the German, Gloria Cheng’s Telarc album of piano pieces by Lutoslawski, Stucky, and Salonen is an album of French music composed by a Pole, an American, and a Finn. As Stucky writes in his booklet notes for the album, both he and Salonen look to Lutoslawski as a musical father, while all three composers share “the whole Debussy/Stravinsky outlook”.

The Stucky pieces on the disc are miniatures, a set of Four Album Leaves, and a even briefer set of variations in honor of David Zinman. Throughout, Stucky’s exquisite ear for harmony is in evidence, along with a touch of Ligeti’s influential piano etudes in the faster movements. The Salonen pieces are bigger: YTA II,  Three Preludes, and Dichotomie, the last sonata-like in its dimensions. Lutoslawski’s influence is heard in the emphasis on harmony and texture rather than melody. But there are also traces of Berio and minimalism. When Salonen gets the whole piano resounding, he manages to engage the sound of the romantic, heroic 19th century piano, but without nostalgia. The Lutoslawski Sonata on the disc is a very early work from 1934; it is good to hear this piece, but would that we had a second big solo piano piece from this composer, one in his mature style. We do have his powerful piano concerto – recently recorded by Leif Ove Andsnes and the Bavarian Radio Symphony under Welser-Möst to spendid effect.

Gloria Cheng’s playing throughout the disc is exemplary, commanding fine details, brilliant passage work, and grand gestures. The beautiful piano sound – neither too close nor too distant,  neither too dry nor too reverberant, was captured by Grammy-winning producer and engineer Judith Sherman.

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