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
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 ...
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
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
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
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.
see also review
by Rob Barnett