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Phillip RAMEY (b.1939)
Color Etudes (1994) [16.41]; Memorial (In Memoriam Alexander Tcherepnin) 919770 [5.44]; Chromatic Waltz (19610 [1.30]; Piano Sonata No 1 (19610 [7.36]; Piano Sonata No 2 (1966 rev., 2003) [12.47]; Piano Sonata No 5 - For the left hand (1989) [10.00]; Four Tangier Portraits (1991-9) [7.56]; Toccata No 2 (1990) [4.06]
Stephen Gosling (piano)
rec. Recital Hall, Performing Arts Centre, SUNY, Purchase, New York, 17-19 March 2003

The enterprising company Toccata have struck again. Following on from the fascinating revelation of piano duets by the remarkable Heinrich von Herzogenberg they now turn to a little known, at least in this country, American composer, Phillip Ramey. This composer ranks amongst his teachers the Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977) on whom he is something of an expert. Tcherepnin looms large over this eclectic mix of pieces written over more than a forty year span.

The CD booklet comes with an excellent and ideally balanced essay by Benjamin Folkman as well as some photographs of the composer. As well as Tcherepnin, Ramey knew well Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, William Schumann and Philip Bowles to name but a few. It's worth looking at the composer’s website to form a good overall view of this complex musical personality. This complexity comes through in the music, not as impenetrable, unapproachable serialism but as music of great power and character and of a wild passion.

Ramey has lived in Tangier in northern Morocco for many years now. It's not a bad idea to listen first to the four pieces selected from the nineteen ‘Tangier Portraits’. These were written over an eight year span and portray friends who have visited the composer at his home in recent years. These character studies show the composer at his best and most typical.

The spirit of Serge Prokofiev also hangs over the composer’s early work as it did for many composer/pianists of his generation. Whilst the piano sonorities of the 1st sonata are personal, the counterpoint and rhythm will bring the Russian master to mind in its assurance and panache. This is a confident work for a student composer.

But a composer must exorcise such a spirit and the wild and frenetic finale of the 2nd sonata does just that. This finale is preceded by a largo and concludes with a similarly paced chorale. Its first movement wanders around in an uncertain fog of curious tonality. As much as Ramey has tried with the revision of this piece, it remains still an unsuccessful form, more a torso of something still remaining to be said.

Perhaps the serialism of Aaron Copland in his Piano Variations mode hangs over Ramey’s ‘Toccata No 2’. This is another virtuoso work. Stephen Gosling’s command of this extraordinary music is both breath-taking and secure. In addition to his immense and necessary power he has also a delicate and sensitive touch as in the sad little ‘Chromatic Waltz’. There's also clarity of pedaling necessary for the 5th Piano Sonata for left hand only - I am trying to think of another. For me this ranks as one of the finest pieces in this genre I have ever encountered. (I speak as one who has two published pieces for left hand only and studied the genre for a while). Not only brilliantly written and performed, this is music with something to say. It marks quite clearly a moment when Ramey’s style, although difficult to explain in words, really touches base.

The Piano Fantasy sorts the men from the boys both performers and possibly listeners. Fragments of it are quoted in the booklet. It contains some of the loudest passages I have ever heard for the piano. You may hear it as an atonal set of free variations but the composer’s note denies both of those charges. He does however admit that "Twelve tone procedures have had an influence on thematic materials". After three hearings I must confess to admiring it but am getting nowhere near comprehending it.

So it may be with the opening work of the recital, the nine ‘Color Etudes’, that you will feel most at home. Beginning with Purple the composer is not interested in a Messiaenic description of each but rather that colours suggest to the composer some "interesting textures". Hence Red is an angry funeral march, Maroon is a mooning set of arpeggios from the bass upwards and Orange "fiery blazing forth with manic fusillades" combining the upper and lower notes of the piano.

This CD is one to which I will return. It is not American music in the way or style we have recently come to think of it but it certainly has amazing self-confidence. It is pan-European and yet is brash and often pulverizes the listener into submission. Before I hear it in the future I will ‘gird my loins’ as if facing a wild night on the fells, but listen again I certainly will. I know that the experience will be well worthwhile.

Gary Higginson



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