October 15, 2018

  • Exploring Modern Piano Music


    Black Swan of Piano
    Kemel Gekic, piano.  Marta Brankovich, piano.
    Navona Records 6183
    Total Time: 49:27
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    The cover for Serbian pianist Marta Brankovich shows her, back to the piano, with blood-soaked hands.  Blood drips from two ends of the piano behind her as well.  No doubt this refers to the nature of the violent struggle in her homeland and the integration of folk music from Kosovo and Southern Serbia in her own compositions on the album.  Music by modern Serbian composers Zoran Hristic (b. 1938) and  Svetislav Bozic (b. 1954) bring us further examples of avant-garde music from the region.  Brankovich currently resides in Miami where she studied with Kemal Gekic, who joins her for a piano duo work.

    The recital opens then with a Toccata by Hristic recorded live in 2016.  The piece opens with an intense burst of virtuosic passage work and a more lyrical contrasting idea.  Repeated patterns help provide glimmers of tonality in the midst of interesting open harmonies.  The work ends with a flurry and some dense clusters.  The Serbian musical connections are infused in this opening work but feel closer to the surface in Svetislav Bozic’s Legend of Athos.  Here we have a blend that has an almost Post-Impressionist quality, likely the result of the folkish ideas that inform the melodic material.  There are also moments that feel more modal and chantlike.  It provides a perfect contrast to the opening number.

    Two of Brankovich’s own compositions follow.  Victory and War (2015-2016) were part of an earlier album, Serbian Journey.  She infuses in these works memories of her childhood and the choral music traditions of her homeland.  Both are quite dramatic works that feature octave writing and a full exploration of the piano.  In some respect they are almost like a blend of modernism and new age styles.  This is especially true of the more powerful War.

    At the center of the album are Trois Gnossiennes.  Satie’s pieces here are among the earliest exploring free rhythm and extended harmonic ideas that treat chord movement as a melodic element.  These familiar works fit very well into Brankovich’s program with their intriguing modal and open sounds and repetition that feel like Eastern folk melodies.

    One might hear further connections in the two pieces by Frederick Kaufman.  Metamorphosis continues this thread of using a small motivic idea to expand upon in the music that follows.  In this case, Kaufman explores jazz harmonies while also moving across the musical stylistic landscapes stopping off for a fugue and other more formal styles.  In his work for duo pianos, Yin and Yang, this becomes a dialogue where differing styles from the 20th Century are used to explore the great variety available for piano.  Clusters, percussive qualities, and other compositional techniques become the components that are shown in contrast between the two performers.

    The ideas of chords becoming a melodic idea, something that is a thread among the compositions here, is further on display in the final work, Lux Eterna.  This is a thematic thread that is part of Clint Mansell’s score for Requiem for A Dream.  The album takes its title from another film Mansell scored, Black Swan.

    All told, this is an engaging solo album with modern piano works that have great emotional power and drama.  The opening of the program, with its connections to Serbian music, ease us into some of the more modern works that appear following the Satie.  And yet, one can sense a broader musical thread here that helps bring together this well-chosen program.  One also gets a sense for Brankovich’s virtuosic abilities here.