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Music for Piano
Harold Shapero (1920 - )
Sonata No.1 (1944) [8:03]
Sonata No.2 (1944) [9:11]
Sonata No.3 (1944) [12:20]
Irving Fine (1914 -1962)
Music for Piano (1947) [14:04]
Carl Ruggles (1876-1971)
Four Chants for Piano (1935-1954) [10:05]
Gian Carlo Menotti (1911- )
Ricercare and Toccata on a theme from ‘The Old Maid and the Thief’ (c.1939) [7:09]
Michael Boriskin, piano
Recorded 10th -12th July 1991 at the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Auditorium, New York.
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80402-2 [60:50]

This is one of those CDs that are hard to categorise. Firstly it must be said that this does not appear to be essential listening – either from the point of view of American music or pianoforte repertoire. Yet it seems to me to be vitally important. And this is my dilemma. Let me try to explain.

First of all it is important to realize what New World Records are achieving. Their original mandate was to produce a 100-work anthology encompassing a wide range of musical activities in the United States. This covered two hundred or so years of composition and ranged from jazz through Navajo songs to works by Sessions, Shapey and Shapero.

Of course this was a successful project and has further resulted in a total catalogue of over 400 CDs representing 700 American composers; a fine achievement, that is to be envied by record producers and broadcasters everywhere.

Now from the point of view of the 20th century ‘classical’ music the catalogue is an Aladdin’s cave. What has to be said is that there is little in the way of ‘potboilers’. For example Copland (who is bountifully recorded on CD) is represented by a handful of wonderfully ‘obscure’ works. The concept of ‘gap filling’ is at work, which to my mind is like being in heaven.

It has often been my complaint that it is possible to find 173 recordings of the Moonlight Sonata and only one of Franz Reizenstein’s 2nd Sonata. So it is with sheer delight that I inspected the contents of this present disc and found that there are six wonderful pieces from the darker corners of the great storehouse of unjustly neglected piano music.

As the music was unknown to me I have relied heavily on the good programme notes. As an aside it is only fair to point out that New World Records set great store in the ‘liner notes’ and point out that when taken as a whole over the catalogue produce a ‘core curriculum’ for American Studies.

The only piece of music I know by Carl Ruggles is ‘Suntreader’. And even this is hard to come by these days. Of course this composer was not known for the vastness of his opus list. I believe that there are no more than a dozen works published; most of these works being quite short. The importance of Ruggles is that he was friends with the elder statesman of ‘musical experimentalism’ Charles Ives and unfortunately that is what he is remembered for, rather than for his music.

Evocations are described as ‘four chants for piano’ although there seems little to connect this work with liturgical singing! Apparently the work was composed and revised over a 20 year period; the first drafts being made in 1935. They were published in 1943 and extensively revised in 1954 and republished. It is the final version we hear on this CD.

Although Ruggles made use of serial techniques resulting in complex ‘mathematical’ counterpoint, little of this cerebral quality is apparent. I accept that he pushes dissonance to the limits; however in these pieces there is an innate sense of romanticism and just a hint of Debussy for good measure. I appreciate the stylistic tension of these works and for me they are the discovery on this disc. There is a strange beauty apparent as the four pieces unfold in their seductive manner.

Irving Fine was quite definitely influenced by Stravinsky when he wrote his Music for Piano in 1947. Fine had studied with Walter Piston and Nadia Boulanger and had absorbed neo-classicism.

The present work was written as a birthday ‘treat’ for Nadia. The programme notes state that the work reflects ‘her concern with meticulous craftsmanship, textual clarity and precision of thought.’

Fine was 33 years old at the time and was already totally competent with his art. He had not yet begun to explore serialism. This would come later and would result in some interesting experiments aimed at fusing serial and tonal procedures. Yet an early death cut short his promising career and possibly deprived us many fine works.

Music for Piano can only be described as a fun work. It is upbeat, full of ‘joie de vivre’ and never outstays its welcome. There are four short, but highly contrasting movements. A little prelude (with Little Prelude overtones?) is followed by a crisp waltz; the heart of the ‘suite’ is a set of three variations based on a somewhat sentimental tune with a touch of Copland about it. The work finishes with a two part Interlude-Finale which opens with a reflective moment followed by a non-stop finale. Great stuff indeed!

Of course the main event of this CD is the three sonatas by Harold Shapero. I have explored his life and work in other reviews on Musicweb. However, it is appropriate here to add a few details. As a young man he was regarded as being one of the more promising composers of his generation. This has not happened. Due to a variety of circumstances he has remained on the edge of the musical scene. This has nothing to do with the music which is interesting, well written and totally listenable. It has more to do with a reaction against things neo-classical. However, New World Records have begun to change this perception with their releases of chamber and symphonic works.

Shapero is certainly a neo-classicist. He made an intense study of the piano works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The structural principles derived from this perusal helped him form his own personal style.

The three sonatas presented on this disc owe much to this study. The first sonata was written very quickly in 1944. The ease with which this was completed encouraged Shapero to write two more!

Gian Carlo Menotti is most often associated with opera, for example The Telephone, The Medium and Amahl and the Night Visitors. There is a considerable amount of purely orchestral and chamber music, perhaps his largest canvas is the Piano Concerto. However there is only one mature piano solo piece and it is recorded here! The Ricercare and Toccata is an approachable work that will appeal to those who are not perhaps attracted to opera. The music is compiled from the lesser known stage work The Old Maid and the Thief which was presented as a radio opera in 1939. The Ricercare has overtones of Puccini and the Toccata is exactly as it should be - an exercise in pianism and perpetual motion. Altogether this a good piece to close off this interesting and often exciting compilation.

This CD is a collection of six pieces from the by-ways of American music. The Shapero Sonatas are not available elsewhere. There are a couple of other versions of the Menotti and the Ruggles.

This is the only version of the Music for Piano for piano although there is an orchestral version made in 1947 and still available on Delos 3139. This is an interesting recital of neo-classical music that is at the same time both intellectually satisfying and approachable.

Michael Boriskin’s playing is stunning and reflects the liveliness, sparkle, wit and sheer pleasure of these works. The sound quality is superb.

The cover of the CD is design for a window by Frank Lloyd Wright for Coonley Playhouse, Riverside, Illinois. It epitomizes the cool content of this excellent CD.

John France

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