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Tobias PICKER (b.1954)
Four Etudes for Ursula (1996) [15:04]
Old and Lost Rivers (1986) [5:05]
Three Pieces for Piano (1990) [9:30]
Where the Rivers Go (1995) [5:39]
…when soft voices die… (1977) [14:52]
The Blue Hula (1990) [2:12]
Keys to the City (1983) [19:09]
Ursula Oppens (piano), Tobias Picker (2nd piano in Keys to the City)
rec. 11–12 September and 24–26 October 2007, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York. DDD
WERGO WER66952 [72:09]
Experience Classicsonline

Tobias Picker is probably thought of as an operatic composer – he has written four. The most recent is An American Tragedy, after the novel by Theodore Dreiser, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and premièred there in December 2005. George Stevens’s 1951 film A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters, is based on the same story. Picker has also written much concert music, including a Cello Concerto which was commissioned by the BBC for Paul Watkins and premièred by him at the 2001 Proms. It has been recorded by Watkins on Chandos CHAN 10039 coupled with Keys to the City.
This disk contains all of Picker’s music for solo piano and makes a fascinating, and interesting, introduction to the composer.
The Etudes are very exciting and satisfying pieces. They never do what you expect them to. The music travels far and wide, and not just across the keyboard, in its search to entertain. These are not light pieces. They are very serious, but they are very approachable. There’s a slight hint of that wonderful, but unfairly neglected, composer Frederic Rzewski in the fast pieces. Don’t let that worry you – after all, Rzewski is one of the most exciting and interesting composers for the piano at work today. These pieces are certainly not derivative - I merely seek to give an impression of Picker’s style. 
Old and Lost Rivers takes its title from a road sign on Highway 10 in Texas which read ‘Old and Lost Rivers’ which signified the tributaries of the Trinity River. It was written as an orchestral piece for the Houston Symphony. This piano version was created shortly after the première as a birthday present for Ursula Oppens. It is a nocturne of great beauty and romantic sumptuousness. The Houston Symphony, under Christoph Eschenbach, has recorded the orchestral version on Virgin Classics (CD VC 7 91162-2).
The Three Pieces were written for Peter Serkin and are truly virtuoso pieces. The outer pieces are fast and relentless. The middle piece, the longest of the set - playing for seven minutes as opposed to the 58 and 90 seconds of the others - is another haunting nocturne but with a freer sense of where it has come from and where it is going. It is perhaps more a nightmare–scape than a peaceful nocturne. Where the Rivers Go is a romantic concert study, full of the tang of salt water, and very Medtner–like. Despite its short playing time it feels to be a very big piece indeed, saying much within its small time-frame.
…when soft voices die… was written whilst Picker was studying with Elliot Carter. During composition Picker’s German grandmother died and the work is dedicated to her memory. It’s a bold fantasy utilizing big gestures, much filigree work and elusive themes and harmonies. Like his teacher’s Night Fantasies, which was written at exactly the same time, it’s a difficult listen, making many demands on the listener, not least the severe language used. It’s well worth persevering with it for it has great depth - a stature of granite, yet a heart of gold.
As you’d guess from the title The Blue Hula is a dance, with jazzy inflections, and a nice line in angularity. Again I was reminded of Rzewski in a more unbridled moment. It’s over in a trice and makes a marvellous foil for the seriousness of what precedes and follows it.
Keys to the City was commissioned to celebrate the centenary of the Brooklyn Bridge. It appeared as Picker’s 2nd Piano Concerto. This version for two pianos was made at the same time. It’s a tersely argued one movement work, and is very exciting and engaging. I don’t feel anything specifically New York about the music – although towards the end there’s suddenly one of those piano rushes which reminded me of Rhapsody in Blue - nice homage if indeed intended!
This is a super disk and one which shows a fine young composer working with material which can easily be understood by his audience. It’s also a welcome reminder of just what a fine pianist Ursula Oppens is. Production values are high. The recorded sound is rich and full, with a real concert hall perspective on the piano(s). The notes are very full and most interesting. Don’t miss this man Picker, he’s a significant talent.
Bob Briggs


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