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The Piano Music of Copland, Creston and Zuckerman
Aaron Copland (1900 -1990)

Passacaglia (1921-1922) [5.41]
Piano Fantasy (1955-1957) [28.10]
Paul Creston (1906 -1985)

Seven Theses Op.3 (1933) [9.37]
Metamorphoses Op.84 (1964) [18.19]
Mark Zuckerman (1948- )

On the Edges (1996) [11.15]
Peter Vinograde, piano
Not stated where and when recorded. 2001?
PHOENIX PHCD 149 [73:02]

Let me state my conclusion at the outset of this review. This is a fantastic CD - both from the point of view of the repertoire and the quality of playing. It is a fine exposition of American piano music from the 20th century. Not only does it represent two undoubted masterpieces by Aaron Copland, it introduces two works by Paul Creston and one by Mark Zuckerman. All deserve our wholehearted attention.

I did a little survey amongst a few of my musical friends:-

1) Do you know any piano pieces by Aaron Copland?

2) Have you heard of Paul Creston?

3) Have you heard of Mark Zuckerman?

Now it did not surprise me, nor, I imagine will it surprise the reader, that the answer to all three questions was not encouraging to the state of American music. All were in the negative.

The Passacaglia by Aaron Copland dates from his time with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and is dedicated to her. The work opens in a sombre mood and continues with a series of variations that develops in a kind of neo-classical manner. This is a serious piece that never loses a sense of control and demonstrates a real clarity of thought and sound. It is a post-romantic work that owes much to the ‘crisp, dry sonorities, and nervous, angular athleticism ... of Stravinsky.’

The other Copland work on this disc is the massive Piano Fantasy. This is the composer’s most complex and technically difficult work for the piano. The adjective best describing this work would be ‘rugged.’ The basic premise behind the piece is to create a ‘spontaneous and unpremeditated sequence of ‘events’ that would carry the listener irresistibly from the first to the last note.’ This music is a million miles away from the so-called ‘approachable’ works such as Billy the Kid or Rodeo. However, it is the idiosyncratic use of the 12 tone row (actually a 10 tone row!) that gives this work its sense of power and vitality. It is not dry-as-dust atonalism, but an exciting excursion into the possibilities of a personalised musical vocabulary.

The writer Paul Reale stated, with considerable justification that ‘the Piano Fantasy is, without question the greatest of Copland’s piano works, and one of the grandest conceptions in American Piano music’.

A few words about the life and works of Paul Creston will not be amiss. I doubt that he is particularly well-known on the UK-side of the Atlantic. He was born in New York in 1906, the son of an immigrant family from Sicily. Over the years he was to become a widely performed composer and a well respected teacher. He had little in the way of formal musical training and it was not until he was in his mid-twenties that he decided on a career as a composer. A brief look at the Creston catalogue reveals a considerable body of works, including six symphonies, much chamber music and, of course, an impressive corpus of piano music. It is really quite difficult to define Creston’s style: he did not jump on any of the contemporary bandwagons. It would, perhaps, be best to say that he responded to mainstream European music as it manifested itself in the United States. In later life he admitted a list of musical influences – Bach, Scarlatti, Chopin, Ravel and Debussy.

Creston explored a variety of musical techniques and compositional styles, including atonalism. However by the time he was in his early thirties his musical language was largely fixed. This was dominated by ‘kinetically charged interplay among heavily accented syncopated rhythmic patters and a richly robust approach to harmony owing much to the impressionists’. Certainly all the pieces I have heard have a definite approachability and freshness.

Unfortunately Creston’s star waned. By the mid-1950s he was no longer receiving regular performances of his works. He flirted with 12-tone music and produced a few successful scores, including the Metamorphoses given on this CD. However he has had to wait until the age of the CD before his music was reappraised for a new generation. Paul Creston died in 1985.

The first Creston work on this CD is the Seven Theses written in 1933 and first published in Henry Cowell’s influential New Music Quarterly two years later. Cowell's description of these pieces is interesting. He wrote that they were ‘atonal and dissonant in a virtuosic style and as difficult to listen to as they are to play’. Yet listening to them today there appears to be little that is ‘difficult’ – in fact the opposite seems to be the case. I find each of these short numbers extremely appealing. In fact there is almost a sense of romanticism about some of them. It is no coincidence that Creston listed the influential composers he did! I accept that these are difficult works to play and that they are constructed using some pretty involved musical devices (not serialism) yet there is nothing here that a listener to Debussy or Scriabin would find difficult. They need to be listened to as an item – each movement is too short to be excerpted. These are attractive and often moving studies.

The Metamorphoses dates from 1964 when the composer was no longer in the public light. This work is influenced by serialism; in fact the theme is based on a 28 note row in which every note of the chromatic scale is played at least twice. This is Paul Creston’s largest and most involved work for the piano. In spite of its incipient serialism it is actually couched in ‘traditional’ pianistic language using common figurations and sound schemes. The theme is presented unaccompanied by chords at the outset. A series of variations then develops the theme in a more and more complex style. Here we find Creston using all the technical devices available to the composer and adopting a post-romantic and impressionistic style. I like this work, and at a first hearing I feel that it is an important document in the corpus of piano literature. It is an extremely interesting, challenging, attractive, often beautiful and completely satisfying work. It well deserves to be in the repertoire.

Mark Zuckerman’s piece ‘On the Edge’ is a much later work, having been composed in 1996. It is in six contrasting sections which employ what the composer calls ‘classical atonality.’ By this I believe that he means combining the discipline of serialism with the flexibility of using standard tonal figurations and sound-scapes. Certainly this work does not suffer from a confusion of styles. There are some ‘jazzy’ moments in this work and a few times when I feel that the interest wanes a little. However, in general it is an attractive work that explores a variety of moods; it deserves success.

The sound quality of this CD is stunning; every note and every nuance tells. I am impressed by the comprehensive sleeve-note which in actual fact is a ten page essay rather than just a few random jottings.

I have not heard of the pianist Peter Vinograde before reviewing this CD. In fact his only other CD is of piano and chamber works by Nicolas Flagello (Albany Records 234). However according to the notes he is an extremely well respected New York pianist who specialises not only in American music but also in Rachmaninov and J.S Bach. There is a certain fire and passion in this playing that almost defies description. However this passion is tempered with precision and a superb, big technique that never fails to inspire and impress. It is perhaps a pity that there are not more recordings of his work available.

John France

see also review by Rob Barnett

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