Three times three cheers for this brave enterprise.
Though the name of Copland is one that will appear if you ask any average
group of music lovers for a quick list of American composers he features
here in unfamiliar guise. As for Creston he is no household name and Mark
Zuckerman is a complete unknown. Elements of atonality skim through or propel
most of this music.
Let's take the Copland Fantasy first. This is one unbroken
span of almost half an hour's duration. While fantasy form allows the composer
more scope than strict sonata it is still an uphill task to sustain interest
over such a reach. Copland's language is dodecaphonic - a road he set down
first with his Piano Quartet (1950). Why such a step-change? Copland seems
rather to have been driven into this line by his terror of repeating himself.
When Schuman asked in 1951 for a major work for the Juilliard's 50th celebrations
Copland set to with this work. A collegiate inspiration was the pianism of
William Kapell and the two impetuses flowed together. In 1953 Kapell was
killed in an air crash and the Fantasy is dedicated to his memory.
This is a work of sharp and stony focus. Icy shudders and baritonal impact
dominate. Jazzy convulsions and flooding collisions of glissandi steel and
swagger their way across this uncompromising and unmisty landscape. As the
notes say, this is no Rodeo but such is Vinograde's caring and virtuosic
way with the music that doors are gently opened to understanding from persistent
ears - witness the thrummed elegies at 21.15. There are many other examples
and the old and familiar 'Appalachian' Copland can be glimpsed through prisms
and mirrors in the earlier pages. The little Passacaglia was dedicated
to Nadia Boulanger and represents a more romantic stance.
Zuckerman, Brooklyn-born in 1948, favours a style he terms 'classical
atonality'. It has some kinship with the Copland Fantasy. It is no
surprise, hearing this music, that he gained his Ph.D. at Princeton studying
with Milton Babbitt although it seems that self-assessment prompted a stylistic
simplification in the 1980s. On the Edges has the same stony clarity
as the Fantasy crossed with some Nancarrow-like motoric character.
Bachian dignity sparks dancing swords with serialism. The invention does
not have quite the burning light of the Copland.
Creston is emerging into the light and we can hope for recordings
of his two piano concertos and symphonies 4, 5 and 6 along perhaps with
anthologies of the chamber music and film music. Creston is not difficult
to appreciate. In these two pieces, despite the 'bloodless' titles which
might suggest some Second Viennese acolyte, the Theses are
only gently challenging. Contemporary programme notes by the composer seem
to promote expectations of tough invention. In practice, and from our
contemporary viewpoint, they are inviting, reticent, concise and Gallic (note
the Tranquillo). Cowell published these in his 1935 New Music Quarterly.
These are from what Creston acknowledged as an experimental stage and they
predate by five years the open textured First Symphony and the much more
romantic Second and Third.
By 1964 the world had turned and turned on its dark side and his
Metamorphoses found Creston a later and unsubservient adopter
of aspects of the dodecaphonic route. The work is, as the title suggests,
a set of variations (20 of them) on a '28 note theme that contains all 12
notes at least twice.' This work, however, lacks the severity but none of
the 'pep' of the Fantasy. Its true heart is to be found in the arpeggiated
Monet-softened waves of 5.10 and the highly romanticised Ravelian writing
of the final pungently nostalgic five minutes. The work does not end in a
climactic rush - subtle to the end. As Walter Simmons says in the notes,
Creston adopts the 'full range of Post-Romantic and Impressionistic keyboard
figuration.' Now this is the sort of work that would make a coup for
an up-and-coming young pianist in one of the world's piano competitions.
We can live in hope.
As will be embarrassingly obvious to those 'in the know' I am much indebted
to Walter Simmons' liner notes which are thorough and lend colour to the
whole production. I wish that Phoenix had given us some recording dates and
Peter Vinograde (heard previously in an Albany recording of Flagello) was
a pupil of William Masselos who premiered the Copland Fantasy. He
premiered Flagello's Piano Concerto No. 3 in Kentucky. There is also a Catalina
recording of Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3. Staggering performances as
represented here. Closely but not oppressively recorded.
The Creston Metamorphoses have been recorded before on LP by Candida
le Brècque. I do not have the details to hand but I believe it was
an Opus LP from the late 1970s.
A lovely and unfashionable disc. It may yet play its part in stirring rising
generations of pianists to take a 'dangerous' turn and shake the piano
establishment. An antidote to softer romanticism.
Available from:- www.phoenixcd.com