Modern and Contemporary
Krzysztof Meyer – Piano Quartet; Piano Quintet
Piotr Salajczyk; Silesian String Quartet
Polish composer and pianist Krzystof Meyer (b.1943) is new to me but not to my Baker’s Biographical Dictionary (7th ed. , rev. Nicolas Slonimsky), which says his “musical intelligence and acoustical acuity are of the rarest quality.” Based on this CD I concur heartily. The extended, single-movement Piano Quartet (2009) is an unusually formed work. To my ears, imaginative process and compelling content are equally involved. Declamation, dialogue, perpetual motion, stasis and recurrence are prominent yet unpredictable modes of presentation. To be sure there is considerable dissonance, yet the tonal centre and interval structure are clear. Passionate expressiveness of three Silesian String Quartet players complements pianist Salajczyk`s virtuoso performance.
The Piano Quintet (1990-91) is a larger work in the traditional four movements. Its opening establishes a severe but still tonal musical language based on hierarchy of pitches. In the second movement I was especially taken by Meyer’s mastery of the mid- and late-twentieth century vocabulary of sound and texture, even though he does not use extended instrumental techniques. Throughout, the quartet and Salajcyzk never falter in ensemble, tone quality or dynamic control. Triplets in the more lively third movement suggest a vestigial scherzo; as perhaps also do sudden outbursts and high, scratchy strings. I enjoyed also the last movement’s drama and variety of effects – ornamental scrambles around main pitches, high dissonant bells in the piano and closing silences interrupted by retreating pizzicato whispers.
The first time I heard Ursula Oppens perform was in a masterclass of Rosina Lhevinne at the Juilliard School in New York. Ursula and I were both students of the legendary Mme. Lhevinne. Listening to this CD I remember the lovely and rich tonal colours Oppens had in her classical repertoire. I am delighted to find the same lyrical palette in the Rzewski. It is so easy to make some of the Rzewski variations harsh and brittle. This is not the first recording Ursula Oppens has made of this work and this CD is far more reflective and poignant. There is a fluidity that connects the disparate movements. Rzewski gives many instructions to the pianist and each variation comes with informative titles: “with determination, delicate but firm, tenderly, in a militant manner,” and so on. In this performance each different style, whether folkloric, jazzy or lyrical does unite with sensitive and intuitive musicianship.
Technically it is brilliant playing. From pounding chords to effervescent riffs of extreme delicacy Oppens is in control and commands the keyboard. There are numerous recordings of this work but this CD is definitely in a class by itself.
For Rzewski’s piano duo work Four Hands, pianist Jerome Lowenthal, a Juilliard faculty member, joins Oppens. Their touch on the piano is so unified that it sounds like one pianist. It is a quirky piece with lovely moments and this work deserves more performances. However, this duo piano team would be difficult to improve on.
Excellent performances. Highly recommended CD.
Why has there been a revival of music by composer/ pianist Leo Ornstein (1893-2002)? From early groundbreaking piano pieces onward, his was an extraordinary (and extraordinarily long!) musical life. In 1906 his family emigrated from Russia to the United States where he trained as a piano virtuoso, but after an amazing start he gave up concertizing. His father was a cantor and Ornstein’s Russian-Jewish musical heritage came to the fore. In a modernist context it permeates the Piano Quintet (1927), which I think ranks in quality with the Shostakovitch and Bloch quintets for piano and string quartet. The tempestuous opening movement typifies Ornstein’s rhapsodic process of linking varied phrases and sections that suggest frenzied dances, song-like laments, marches and much more. I particularly liked the slow movement, especially a passage with high violin, mysterious piano repeated notes and chords, and uneasy supporting strings. The Quintet reflects Ornstein’s piano virtuosity; Marc-André Hamelin, who has recorded a notable Ornstein solo disc on Hyperion, is ideal, while the outstanding Pacifica Quartet partners him with confidence, colour and clarity.
Ornstein’s String Quartet No.2 (c.1929) is a more orderly affair. Strings are treated more independently than in the Quintet,and the lower instruments are given solos. The Pacifica Quartet emphasizes the work’s lyrical beauty with well-shaped melodic gestures and sensitive playing of accompanying parts, which through Ornstein’s variety of chord spacings, registers and rhythmic patterns become just as interesting as his melodies.
The second two tracks, Fluting I and II, create a sonic environment that puts the listener within a field of multiple flute voices, particularly evident when listening in the 5.1 surround sound format, a major feature of this recording. Sound diffusion is the art of moving the sound sources amongst multiple speakers. In listening to all six pieces, I observed a different-than-usual approach to diffusion. Rather than sounds dispersed individually in different spatial locations, I experienced a melded aesthetic, much like being in a reverberant space with the combined sound coming from all directions. Creating contrast between different locations in the space was, however, utilized in unique ways – to split up the layers of a dissonant chord, or to highlight glissandi moving between front and back. Spin creates a unique aural experience, providing several touchstones highlighting our relationship with nature. Although primarily a surround-sound DVD without a CD layer, the disc includes stereo files that can be downloaded to a computer or iPod.
Morton Feldmann - For Bunita Marcus 1985
Paraty 135305 (ivancdg.com)
American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman, the pioneer of “indeterminate music,” began (like Varèse) with the orchestra making weird sound effects as tonal paintings and later simplified it to white noise like his famous Rothko Chapel where people could sit for hours in isolation, meditate and chill out. For further simplification he turned to the piano with long works lasting over an hour, like this one that sounds like soft notes moving slowly and undisturbed around the middle of the keyboard, always quiet, no crescendo and never reaching forte. Sometimes shrill and percussive very high notes interrupt in a different rhythm like a bird chirping, then a sudden blob of a broken chord in the lower register like a drop of water into a still pond ….
Listen to it lying down and soon you’ll drift and float, no longer awake but not asleep either, and when it’s suddenly over you feel as if you have been asleep and perhaps missed something. Wagner wrote such subliminal music like the ancient, atavistic shepherd pipe tune meandering in and out of the consciousness of the mortally wounded Tristan that miraculously breaks through his coma and returns him to life.
Feldman’s music operates on this level, but it is also a set of 22 very loose variations with changes so imperceptible, like things that happen in real life. When you expect it, it usually won’t happen but if you don’t, it might. You’ll notice the difference between each variation when you quickly sample the tracks. The whole thing is actually composed and written down, but then it has to be played to sound totally improvised or haphazard, completely unstructured. With his soft and wonderful touch pianiste extraordinaire Ivan Ilić’s mind is so dedicated and attuned to Feldman’s that he can do this like no one else can. It’s spellbinding. (You can get a taste of it along with commentary by Ilić at youtube.com/watch?v=V1B9uX4v1H0.)
Fancies and Interludes is both a labour of love and musical declaration, intuited and played by two ingenious and accomplished musicians – former Toronto Symphony concertmaster Jacques Israelievitch and pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico. Recorded live at York University’s Tribute Communities Recital Hall, it has the immediacy and the vigour of a live performance (background sounds of pages being turned included), which makes the music come alive with the splendour of the excitement (or the sorrow) of each precious phrase as it was played in the moment.
Fancies and Interludes includes four duos for violin and piano by contemporary Canadian composers. The title track belongs to the last piece on the album, the lengthy and rich Fancies and Interludes VI by Raymond Luedeke, a prolific composer and former TSO clarinetist who wrote this composition especially for Jacques Israelievitch. Five Fancies are framed by Six Interludes, starting as a somewhat fragmented conversation between two vastly different voices and resolving in a harmonious ending.
On the other hand, the album opens with the strong momentum of Oskar Morawetz’s Duo for violin and piano. This piece grabs the listener right away, taking them on the journey from the rhythmical flow of the beginning to the deep lament in a Phrygian D-minor in the last section. Nestled in between are Drop by James Rolfe, my personal favourite on this recording, a fascinating musical travel from earth to heaven and back, and ...and dark time flowed by her like a river, by another composer with a TSO connection, composer-adviser Gary Kulesha. The work is a play between tonal and atonal, reflecting a search for the meaning of a moment in time.
The programming on this CD is exquisite – the compositions flow one after another as if they were meant to be. Israelievitch and Petrowska Quilico allow the impulse, the urge to soar and expand in their playing while granting the listener a breathing space – the true embodiment of Fancies and Interludes.
Editor’s Note: Jacques Israelievitch, who enjoyed an international career as a soloist, conductor and teacher, died September 5. He was 67 years old. He was diagnosed with aggressive, metastatic lung cancer in late February this year. Israelievitch had the distinction of being the longest-serving concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Retiring in 2008 after 20 years, he joined the faculty of York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design, as professor of violin and viola. On August 14, in a special ceremony at his home, Israelievitch was presented with the Order of Canada, one of this country’s highest civilian orders, recognizing outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation for nearly three decades. Although Fancies and Interludes was the last CD released during his lifetime, Isrealievitch and Christina Petrowska Quilico completed recording Mozart’s 28 violin sonatas last May. The CDs will be released in 2016.