Paul SCHOENFIELD (b.1947)
Six British Folk Songs (Jack Tar, The Basket of Eggs, The Gypsy Laddie, The Parting Kiss, The Lousy Tailor, A Dream of Napoleon) (1985) [22:11]
Peccadilloes (Allemagne, Fughetta, Rag, Waltz, Shuffle, Boogie) (1997) [16:10]
Refractions (Toccata, March, Intermezzo, Tarantella) (2006) [24:05]
James Tocco (piano), Paul Schoenfield (piano), Yehuda Hanani (cello), Alexander Fiterstein (clarinet)
rec. March-May 2008, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio (Folk Songs, Peccadilloes); January 2008, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Cincinnati, Ohio (Refractions). DDD.

What does the innocent shopper read on the back of the disc cover? Six British Folk Songs, a tribute to Jacqueline du Pré … Each of the six Peccadilloes is to be enjoyed as a guilty pleasure … Refractions are based on music from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Sounds sweet, doesn’t it? Songs, pleasures and Mozart. Think twice, O innocent shopper! Under these pretty masks there be dragons! The music is tonal – but sharp and untamed. It is intelligent – coming more from the mind than from the heart – and also aimed at the mind. Each movement is based on a germ – a motif, a rhythm, a style – which is then vigorously developed, often to the point of being unrecognisable. It is interesting to follow the flight of the composer’s imagination – interesting, if not necessarily fascinating.

In the Six British Folk Songs for cello and piano, the piano part is played in turns by James Tocco and the composer himself. Each pianist acquits himself excellently in this dense and demanding score. The cello of Yehuda Hanani is deep and luscious. It sings out beautifully every little note - yet can be raw and rough when needed. This is wonderful cello playing and is beautifully recorded. The piano is recorded more distantly. The lasting impression left by the music is somewhat heavy and somber, even though it’s mostly in the major key. This mood is lightened only in the last halves of The Parting Kiss and of the Napoleon song, where the music is allowed to be heartfelt and lyrical. Elsewhere, there is dark sarcasm and quirky, choleric joy, reminiscent of Charles Ives.

In the insert note, Paul Schoenfield tells of his inspiration for Peccadilloes. The name nods towards Rossini’s Sins of Old Age. Each movement is based on a particular “bad taste” motif, and “was inspired by and is enclothed within an element of what is generally considered bad taste or inferior culture”. The composer is not ashamed of it – on the contrary, he invites us to share his “large chocolate sundae”, and appeals to his fellow “serious musicians” not to be afraid of occasionally being a bit more lightweight. The work is a tour de force for a virtuoso pianist. It is impressive technically, if less so musically. The transformations are skilled, but it comes across more or less as a set of academic exercises. This has nothing to do with the “bad taste” of the underlying motifs. But, for such of music, it is surprisingly lacking in surprises: the first ten seconds of each part tell you what it will be, and then the piece just goes on.

Refractions for cello, clarinet and piano are much, much more Schoenfield than Mozart. Actually, the remaining similarity to Mozart’s music is minimal: it’s like taking all the words of a poem and rearranging them to create a new one. The lexicon is vaguely recognizable – but it’s difficult even to prove the origin. In the opening Toccata, Figaro is definitely having a Chassidic wedding, with much ado about it. March is the development of the rhythm of Non più andrai. Its middle part occupies itself with “contorting and parodying music from various recitatives”. This movement is dark and potent. Intermezzo is a complete deconstruction of Dove sono i bei momenti, a gloomy dirge leading us somewhere into the black mists of the other side of life. The last two minutes are gripping. The Tarantella is busy and noisy, without a clear aim, but with some interesting moments. The four movements fit well together, and form a defined chamber work, not a superficial mosaic. It is indeed a valuable addition to the chamber repertoire, and of all the music here it merits the label “American Classics”. The cello of Yehuda Hanani is again the majestic centerpiece; the other two instruments serve to accompany.

The music on this disc is sometimes extravagant, sometimes grotesque, sometimes serious. I can’t say I was persuaded entirely: at times it is frenetic without reason. However, I can definitely imagine a mood that will call for exactly this type of music: energetic, cerebral, with a mischievous grin. At some points the music speaks of the archetype choleric temperament. The first two works seem to me more academic fun, but the Refractions are rewarding.

Oleg Ledeniov

Energetic, cerebral music with a mischievous grin.