Catching Up on CDs, Recent and Not

This is not a “best of 2019” list, and some of these CDs have been waiting patiently for a mention on this blog for quite a while. But they are all items that I think are worthy of your attention.

  • Richter in Wien Prokofiev: Sonata Nr. 2; Stravinsky: Piano-Rag Music; Shostakovich: Preludes and Fugues in E-flat major and C minor; Webern: Variations; Bartok: 3 Burlesques; Szymanowski: two pieces from Metopes; Hindemith: Suite ‘1922’. London. This appears to be a bootleg from a 1989 recital. The piano is terrible, there is a fair bit of audience noise, but it is fascinating to hear this artist in an all 20th century program of little-heard works. Richter playing the Webern Op. 27? Yes, and very well indeed.
  • Hummel: Piano Sonatas Stephen Hough. Hyperion. This album makes a fine case for this late-18th, early 19th century composer, and is gorgeously played and recorded. The music is a little like Beethoven in its mix of classical and romantic features.
  • Harbison: Requiem Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. His music steeped in Bach, Harbison is a master of choral writing. This is a mostly sober setting of the Latin texts, without interpolations, but no less moving for avoiding the theatrical.
  • Convergences. Works by Brahms and Andrea Clearfield. Barbara Westphal, viola; Christian Ruvolo, piano. Bridge. Featuring arrangements of the Brahms E minor cello sonata and the G major violin sonata, this album offers some welcome additions to the viola repertoire. I felt the violin adaptation was more successful, maybe because the original version of the cello piece is in my bones from playing it many years ago in college. The Brahms works are smartly complemented with a well-crafted 2008 work by Philadelphia-based Andrea Clearfield.
  • Lounge Lizards works by Fred Lerdahl, John Musto, Charles Ives, Arlene Sierra, and Michael Daugherty. Quatro Mani (Steve Beck, Susan Grace, pianos). Bridge. These folks are masters of the unforgiving two-piano medium, where the least bit of imprecision is painfully obvious. My favorite pieces were the Ives, of course, and the elegant Lerdahl work, simply called Quiet Music – quiet, perhaps, but packed with thought, wit, and imagination.
  • The Way Things Go works by Randall Woolf, Steven Mackey, John Halle, Eric Moe, Belinda Reynolds, Richard Festinger, and Laura Kaminsky. Tara Helen O’Connor, flute; Margaret Kampmeier, piano. Bridge. Brilliant playing in a program including nicely diverse idioms. Favorites for me were an early Steve Mackey piece called Crystal Shadows, and Eric Moe’s All Sensation is Already Memory – the title is from Henri Bergson – and the piece is as elegant as its title.
  • R. Murray Schafer: The Love that Moves the Universe Vancouver Chamber Choir,  Jon Washburn, conductor. Grouse. I think of Schafer as more of an experimentalist, but these pieces are direct in expression and varied in character, ranging from a children’s fairy tale to a setting of Dante. Fine performances.
  • American Trombone Concertos Works by Paul Creston, George Walker, Gunther Schuller, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Christian Lindberg, trombone; Malmö Symphony Orchestra; James DePriest. Bis. This album, dating from the 1990s, presents works by important composers who should be better represented on record. In a healthier musical climate, these pieces would have been recorded by a first-rate American orchestra, one as fine as Lindberg is a soloist.
  • The Purity of the Turf  Ethan Iverson, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums. Criss Cross Jazz. The Iversonian imagination in all its freshness is evident throughout this 2016 mix of standards and originals. Especially striking is a treatment of Darn That Dream; by truncating the form, Iverson creates a sense of claustrophobia that makes this dream a compelling nightmare.
  • Shi-Hui Chen: Returning Souls. Various performers. New World. Elements from Asian and Euro-American musics are successfully melded, not just juxtaposed in these chamber pieces. Fantasia on the Theme of Plum Blossom, played by the Formosa String Quartet, is especially impressive. More than just a presentation of varied materials, it’s what Chen does with that material that makes this music matter.

A Note by Tchaikovsky

Stephen Hough has written two blog posts regarding a note in the opening melody of the slow movement of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, first this, then an update. Subsequently, this piece by Kirill Gerstein appeared on the New York Review of Books website. To my ear, either pitch is plausible. What I find questionable in the Gerstein essay is this stuff about European vs. Russian approaches to motivic consistency (the scholar to whom he refers is Polina Vaydman, the senior researcher at the Tchaikovsky State Museum in Klin):

In Vaydman’s opinion,  the idea that this F would be wrong is typical of a European view that repetitions of a theme should match—an idea that is, strictly speaking, in accordance with the elementary laws of music theory. But here Tchaikovsky is not following this principle of repetition. Instead, he chooses to present two micro-variants of the melody, a bit like a forked path that later rejoins. This variability of recurring thematic material is typical of Russian vocal folklore. Tchaikovsky often used this method as a compositional strategy both for expressive and structural purposes, enabling him to give the repetitions a sense of development, thus keeping listeners’ interest from flagging.

If motivic consistency is “European” and variation “Russian”, then why does Artur Schnabel argue in favor of motivic variants throughout his edition of the Beethoven sonatas? Schnabel, that most German of pianists, the artist whose programming of Viennese classical repertoire was so high-minded that he readily joked about the second half of his recital programs being just as boring as the first, was surely not thinking along Russian lines in his insistence that varied repetitions of a motif in Beethoven are intentional. It can be argued that such variants are actually typical of a European view. Is the repetitive quality of Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia or Balakirev’s Islamey “European” or “Russian”? Or maybe the situation is more complex than the Gerstein piece suggests.

The question of a correct pitch in a standard repertoire piece is important, but rather than filling column inches about a single note of Tchaikovsky, would that the NY Review was offering writing about the living composers Hough has championed (including the pianist himself).

Tuesday Night Miscellany

– Stephen Hough has a remarkably poetic post on Anglican Evensong.

– Matthew Guerrieri on the Harbison 6th.

– George Crumb premiere coming up this weekend in Philly with Orchestra 2001. David Patrick Stearns has a preview.

Prism collaborates with Music from China in NYC February 3 and in Philly Feb. 4. Details here.

Here’s a video prepared by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with Gil Kalish on Crumb:

Stephen Hough and the piano quintet

Stephen Hough writes here about some interesting programs he has devised for a Wigmore Hall series – the pattern of piano solo, string quartet, piano quintet is simple and brilliant, and I was pleased to see the diversity of the American program he has planned – Feldman, Carter, Lieberman. I tried and failed to comment on the post, but couldn’t get it to work, despite registering a Telegraph account. So I will say here what I planned to say there – that Americans have served the genre of the piano quintet well, with significant pieces by Wuorinen, Rochberg and Harbison, in addition to pieces by two of the composers already on Hough’s program – Carter and Feldman. (It’s a crime that the recording of the Rochberg by the Concord and Alan Marks is out of print.) It’s a genre dear to my heart, having had a wonderful time playing the Brahms with the Cassatt Quartet a few years ago, as well as playing and recording my own quintet with the Cavani and later, at Alice Tully, with the Miami.