The juxtaposition of piano music by two such different composers
as Sessions and Shapey is interesting. It works well on this useful
CD thanks to the dynamism and perception of pianist David Holzman.
It's to be welcomed for another reason: it helps to redress the
balance after a period of neglect following their deaths in 1985
and 2002 respectively. It could be argued that the reputation
of each was poorly established even before then and has been further
obscured (by neglect) ever since.
Sessions music is
nowhere near so 'difficult' as such a reputation would suggest.
His first Sonata, for example, is lyrical, bouncy almost, sunny
and immediate. Holzman plays its single movement - it lasts almost
a quarter of an hour - with measured attack, never lingering nor
yet rushing. He persuades us that there is much to be squeezed
from its at times busy sounding full and rich passages. Holzman
invites us to glance back to Ives … and even to Brahms! … through
the eyes, perhaps, of Carter.
Like Messiaen's, the
voice of the third sonata (from 35 years later and fully serial)
is rich, packed and dense. Yet Holzman draws out Sessions' assuredness.
The composer was not one to muse aloud or foist his experiments
on us as he went along. This music is as carefully pre-considered
as anything by Webern or Bartók. Its compelling beauty is spare
in the first movement; yet we are teased, almost, by the changes
in pace and texture. As it goes on the sonata becomes wilder and
more expansive. Yet it never loses a classical beauty of melodic
line for all the furious counterpoint and 12-tone attack. Holzman
stays in perfect control without a hint of woodenness. He is an
ideal pianist for this repertoire: he has not only an amazing
technique (and at least 20 fingers); but his sensitivity to the
inner structure of the music is sure and revealing without being
overly 'pianistic' as such.
Ralph Shapey came
from a different world, in some ways. Proletarian to Sessions
gentry, he was most at home in the Abstract Expressionism of the
New York scene. Shapey studied with Stefan Wolpe but was as close
to Feldman (and even Cage) in his interest in fragmentation, pulsing
extracts of sound surrounded by silence as a valid way to move
a work forward. Holzman is - again - completely in accord with
Mutations, Mutations II and 21 Variations
have in common an interest in tension and withheld resolution.
There is even more of Webern in the condensed nature of pieces
like Mutations [tr.5]. It dictates its own terms of reference
and rules. In that sense it needs to be played almost as an
introverted and highly refined and concentrated interlude. And
so Holzman plays it - yet somehow as an inevitable complement
- to the rest of one's day - whose purpose and context can neither
be ignored nor forgotten. Life oozes out of it.
Similarly Mutations II is even sterner.
It's hard to tell - even after repeated listenings - whether
Shapey has any peace in mind. Or whether - perhaps like Shostakovich
- he really does despair and simply wants to portray incoherence
without limit. Not that the music lacks direction. Again, that's
a strength of Holzman's. It moves towards and away from centres
of gravity tonally. Yet Mutations II does seem to be
coming apart in all other respects.
Nowhere is Holzman's identification with
the way Shapey was thinking when he conceived these pieces clearer,
nor is Holzman's expert grasp of the music more stunningly visible,
than towards the end of Mutations [tr.6] - and, for that
matter, throughout the whirlwind Mutations II [tr.7];
those four hands again! Amazing.
21 Variations is much more figurative,
chromatic, somewhat less abstract - at least in conception. The
clusters, chords and clamour are as prominent as ever. Yet they
are less the vehicles for the variations' development; more the
result. Once again, Holzman is completely in tune with such an
underlying purpose; he pulls out every nuance and subtlety without
losing sight of Shapey's intention. In other words this is a performance
where flourish, virtuosity (however tempting and even inevitable
it could have been) is rejected for insight, patience and authority.
Authority of a curious, not a demonstrative, kind.
Both Sessions and
Shapey had few misgivings about distilling their reactions towards
their century (and its art, its music) into abstract and almost
romantically nostalgic styles. That, perhaps, is what they have
most in common. Not that Holzman is out to build his performances
entirely - or even chiefly - on commonalities. But what each composer's
approach says about the other's is always illuminating from the
hands of someone who is so at home in, and positive about, both.
This makes this a special CD with few others exposing Shapey's
music in particular to the same extent. It will not disappoint.
The presentation of
this CD with an informative essay by Holzman and a reference to
on Shapey is good; it's businesslike and a little severe - but
a great background to two composers who surely deserve reassessment.
Outstanding playing like Holzman's here is more than a giant leap
towards that. His total understanding of the music, its context
and its strengths commend it to us not for its perceived difficulty
or lamentable obscurity, but its beauty and power.