piano music

  • Piano Music from the Americas


    Direct Contact
    Roberta Rust, piano.
    Navona Records 6229
    Total Time: 68:48
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Roberta Rust teaches at the Lynn Conservatory of Music in Boca Raton, Florida.  Her debut album with Navona collects music from eight contemporary composers with music spanning across seven decades.  There are also more personal connections that the pianist brings to each of these works either through direct contact with the composers, or as important works in her own development as a performer.  The music provides a snapshot of 20th Century piano music and its many musical expressions across North and South America.  The program is filled with engaging musical discoveries in excellent performances that make a perfect case for all the music here.

    The album opens with a somewhat uncharacteristic excerpt from George Rochberg’s Carnival Music (1971).  “Blues” has a very Gershwin-esque piano style that only slowly begins to unravel into more contemporary language in its final bars.  Two works by Michael Anderson (b. 1989) follow.  Thirteen Plus 4 (2005) builds on the sort of expanded jazz harmonies of the opening selection providing a nice transition into a piece that is more restrained, much more like a late night jazz reflection.  The same can be said of the first movement from the composer’s Sonata (2008) which has a rather compelling melodic idea with beautiful harmonic writing in this equally contemplative piece.   In a somewhat similar vein, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Lament (1999) was composed in response to Judith Arron’s death, a person whom the composer held in high esteem for her work in the redevelopment and rebirth of Carnegie Hall.  The music has this rather intense expressive style that seems to reach out in askance.  Chromatic shifts in the melody add this pained quality to the music set against Zwilich’s somewhat romantic musical gestures in what is a very intimately personal work.  There also seem to be some additional veiled musical references that are like passing memories.  The oldest selections on the album come from the composer’s husband, Philip Evans (b. 1928).  First is one of his first compositions, the Minuetto (1939), a more traditional piece of Neo-Classical influences, but a most gorgeous primary melody.  It is then followed by two selections from his Suite 1945 (“Sarabande” and “Aria”) which are more modernist in tone in a Bartok-ian way, though Evans’ music still has a rather engaging melodic content that blends traditional harmony within Bartok’s piano style.  Thomas McKinley’s Fantasy Pieces (2005) are two more intense and expressionistic works that have a tight construction in a couple of very brief pieces.  Three of John Sharpley’s Four Preludes (1998) conclude this album.  The first, “Reflection”, is an aptly-named restrained piece.  The other two are in the tradition of Ives-like quotation of American popular tunes and hymnody extrapolated into more modern sounds within the composer’s personal musical language.

    In addition to the host of selections by American composers, Rust has included music from Cuba and Brazil.  Leo Brouwer’s Diez Bocetos (2007) was inspired by Cuban artists and in at least two of the pieces require the performer to improvise.  Rust has chosen three of the pieces: nos. 4, 5, and 7.  For the seventh, she incorporates a Bach theme in between the habanera framing sections in a moment that has a somewhat jazz-like sensibility.  Brouwer’s music always has a delightful combination of rhythmic excitement that can be heard in these selections which shift between mostly tonal harmony and forays into the slightly more dissonant.  The other music from South America is by the Brazilian composer Almeida Prado (1943-2010).  Rust gave the premiere of his 1986 work Halley.  The three-movement piece was written to the year the famous named comet appeared again near Earth.  Prado studied with Boulanger and Messiaen and his music reflects some of the latter’s aesthetic.  The first movement begins with an exploration of the lower nether regions of the piano.  The music is more atonal with intriguing clusters of sound out of which emerge different motivic threads.  It represents a more advanced tonal sound palette that is eased by the descriptive connections of the music.  There are moments where the music shimmers almost like an Impressionist piece before returning to its more angular lines.  Each movement is an exploration of motive and unique colors of the piano.  A host of grand gestures also make for a rather dramatic work that requires more virtuosic demands which Rust handles well.  This is especially true of the way the music shifts in tone from the more dissonant to the more sparkling aspects, from dark rumblings to final ethereal evaporation.

    Rust’s performances here are beautifully captured by the sound of this recording.  The piano has the perfect presence and this further enhances her delicate performances of the lyrical music on this album.  This is an excellent collection of pieces all well worth hearing and further exploring for anyone interested in accessible contemporary piano music.

  • Mars-Inspired Massive Modernist Marvels and More


    Hipster Zombies From Nars: Piano Music for a Post-Moronic Age
    Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, piano.
    Navona Records 6173
    Disc One: Total Time: 45:07
    Disc Two: Total Time: 50:22
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    The rather unwieldy title of this Navona release has certainly inspired the label’s art department with an eye-popping busy cover reminiscent of a Heavy Metal sci-fi release.  Pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough is on hand here to take us on this potential psychedelic journey in three piano works by composer Nicholas Vines (1972-).  The Australian-born composer studied composition with, among others, Peter Sculthorpe, Mario Davidovsky, Harrison Birtwhistle, and David Lewin among others.  These composers may best provide the lens through which Vines’ own voice has developed and might be best experienced in its orchestral expressions.  Here we get a sense for his harmonic and structural approaches along with the variety of styles that he explores across these three works.

    Two works appear on disc one.  Terraformation (1999) takes its thematic inspiration from the sci-fi novel Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson.  Across the four movements, Vines explores forms from Baroque and Classical keyboard music in what amounts to a sonata that is cast in modernist harmony and development.  From the former period, he adapts a prelude and double canon in the opening movement and a reflective passacaglia for the third.  A scherzo provides moments of virtuosic play.  Swirling motifs are interwoven with dense harmonic structures that are spread around the keyboard in a more angular fashion.  Thus “Windmill” is quite apt for the movement’s subtitle.  The finale movement is dressed in a sonata rondo.  Each movement bears a descriptive title to perhaps lend a departing point image for the listener.  Vines certainly explores the breadth of the piano in this work that adds a post-modern twist to the classic piano sonata.  Ideas tend to move organically from seemingly disparate motives into grander statements in a way reminiscent of Rzewski’s grand piano works.

    Next, Vines explores the compositional technique of theme and variations in Uncanny Valley (2011) but he turns this on its head.  We are first treated to a variety of explorations of ways to explore corporeal form and robotics.  The music moves us through the latter concepts in industrial and human robotics.  The former follows through ideas of created forms such as a stuffed animal or Bunraku puppet to the disintegration of the human body and the macabre resurrection of it as a Zombie.  All these variants move us toward the final reconstructed theme upon which they are based in the final “Healthy Person” finale.  To achieve this, he begins by expanding how the piano itself is used with additional percussive effects as well as techniques requiring performing on the strings of the piano both strummed, plucked, and struck.  This does indeed create a sort of machine-like industrial feel in the dense harmonies and modern angular lines.  Often the music does take on a macabre quality as prepared piano sounds create fascinating musical textures.  This all works to the music’s advantage and will take several careful listening to see just how Vines has manipulated his eventual theme.  It is unfortunate though that it is presented as one track as it makes it more difficult to carefully study this approach across the 17—minute work.

    Continuing his exploration of classic models reimagined in new dress, disc two is essentially a set of preludes that have their roots in Bach, Chopin, and Debussy.  In Vine’s case, he has twelve Indie Ditties (2014-17), he explores “key” relationships by spacing each work in thirds.  The titles for each lend the sort of “hipster” vibe from subcultures while exploring, or referencing, these alternative music approaches in the fabric of the music.  The program note for the work indicates that the composer’s intent was to create modern pieces that were brief and could be used to satisfy graduate exams for performance by secondary school students.  “Bad Appletude” is a rather humorous little work that plays with some familiar, if not always welcome, computer alert phrases.  The music in this collection tends towards slightly more traditional exploration of tonal harmony with moments that flirt with somewhat romantic gestures.  This can be rather beautiful in the somewhat Impressionistic colors of “…and the freaks shall inherit the earth…”.  The music tends to become more accessible throughout this collection.  Each movement has its own worldview though that works to provide a larger variety to the compositional styles Vines explores.  And, like previous explorations of this type, some ideas work better than others but will purely be a matter of taste to each listener as to which these are for them.  There are a lot of subtle moments here where Vines references a musical style or quotation that can help further invite the listener into these many experiments that gain additional storylines by his titles.

    Listeners who are intrigued by modern piano music will find a great deal to unpack in this double CD set.  One gets a good sense of Vines’ harmonic language, modernist style and intricate integration of form and musical styles that take inspiration from science and science fiction.  These imaginings thus create a dramatic musical backdrop that explores the piano and technique.  McCullough proves to be very well suited to bring off these works managing to provide clarity of line even in some of the densest musical textures.  The music is also further shaped by his own interpretive approach which adds to the dramatic impact of the music.  Hipster Zombies will likely inadvertently introduce a number of listeners into the dense forest of modernist contemporary musical approaches in often fascinating music.