The cover of this CD shows a section of the Milky Way and the number 42. Before I read the booklet I thought “I know that number” and googling it I found out why. Reading the booklet first would have been an even quicker route. Orion Weiss
confesses to having been a “bit of a science fiction nerd” as a child and, as many will know 42 is “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything
” according to Douglas Adams in his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
. Orion Weiss therefore found it quite shocking when he realised the number of tracks on the disc was just 42. Further he discovered that French astronomer Charles Messier added a 42nd
object to his catalogue of fixed objects, namely the Orion nebular. Not unnaturally he felt the disc was meant to be! Reading the entry on Wikipedia is fascinating and shows that the number 42 comes up throughout history and that it seems to be imbued with a kind of special significance. Be all that as it may what we are left with is a disc of piano music by three giants of the classical repertoire played by a young American pianist possessed of a prodigious technique.
The music on the disc, as the booklet points out, was all written within a space of twenty years, twenty very significant years during which the world changed dramatically and forever. Dvorák’s Eight Humoresques
, Op.101 date from 1894 “the world of yesterday”. The booklet explains how the set of piano pieces got their name eventually, after Dvorák finally settled on the name humoresque, perhaps influenced by Schumann’s great work of the same name though, equally, it could simply imply “mood”. In any event these brilliant miniatures are perfectly formed little jewels that sparkle in their settings throughout the disc and serve as contrasts to the more “modern” works in between. As the booklet explains there are various musical references to America in the pieces which, though written in Bohemia while on holiday from his tenure in New York as Director of the new National Conservatory of Music, often embody the essence of American folk tunes seen through a central European prism. It may be that Dvorák did not regard these pieces too seriously within his corpus of works - I thought of this while listening to no.7 to which my Aunt used sing “around the sides, across the middle” while she stirred porridge! He may have used their composition as a relaxing interlude between the writing of what he considered as more valid and weightier works but from our standpoint, over a hundred years later, we can view them as wonderfully enjoyable miniatures of lasting value and justifiably so.
While Dvorák may not have regarded his Humoresques
as highly as we do, both Prokofiev and Bartók used their works on this disc as stepping stones to discovering and developing their particular and individual musical voices. The original title of Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives
which translates as fleeting or transient as well as fugitive. Varying in mood from whimsical, gentle and lyrical to furious, not to say ferocious, (no.16 is actually marked as such) these pieces are typical of Prokofiev’s brilliantly inventive mind and whose musical signature is instantly recognisable.
Bartók’s 14 Bagatelles
were written in 1908, seven years before Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives
. Though the 27 year old was still honing his singular musical style the “avant-garde” nature of these short pieces is immediately apparent with daring experimentation in his treatment of tonality and texture. They were the breakthrough in his musical development from which he went on to carve his distinctive sound. However, what roots these little pieces, that are far more than the word bagatelle implies, is the folk nature that runs through them. Bartók, as we all know, was fascinated by folk music and travelled around both Hungary and Romania making what proved to be an essential record of melodies that were otherwise near to extinction, their practitioners all being very old, and the tunes in danger of dying with them. That’s what makes Bartók’s piano works so appealing; they are never experimental for the sake of it but are genuine attempts to find a musical language of its time that remains accessible to people. What better way of doing so than to incorporate the tunes that people grew up with? The 14 Bagatelles
are endlessly fascinating as are all of Bartók’s piano works and here they form an interesting juxtaposition with the works of Dvorák and Prokofiev.
As I said at the outset, Orion Weiss has a prodigious technique that helps bring out the nuances in the music on this disc that embodies so many contrasting moods and colours. He can play whisper quiet when require and like thunder if necessary. He is a name to keep an eye out for and I for one would love to hear him play more of both Prokofiev and Bartók. I can imagine that his interpretations of Scriabin and Rachmaninov, among others would be very rewarding – hint, hint!