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John MUSTO (b. 1954)
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1988/2005) [30:13]
From Five Concert Rags: Regrets (1996) [6:27]; In Stride (1990) [5:29]
Piano Concerto No. 2 (2006) [26:56]
John Musto (piano)
Odense Symphony Orchestra/Scott Yoo (No. 1)
Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra/ Glen Cortese (No. 2)
rec. 1-2 May 2012, Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark (No. 1, Rags); 10-13 March 2010, Montfort Concert Hall, Union Colony Civic Center, Greeley, Colorado, USA
BRIDGE RECORDS 9399 [68:27]

The Brooklyn-born composer-pianist John Musto first came to my attention with his breathtaking Improvisation and Fugue, as played by the Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii (review). In its usual effusive style Fanfare claims Musto is ‘one of America’s leading musical talents’, and a quick Google confirms he’s both a frequent performer and a prolific song writer. I recall his Recuerdo, as sung by the baritone Nathan Gunn, its vocal leaps a challenge for even the most athletic of singers. Given all that virtuosity I braced myself for more of the same here.
 
Speaking of virtuosity, the Odense orchestra have shown themselves to be a highly versatile band, not least in their impassioned and very idiomatic Bridge recording of Villa-Lobos’s Uirapurú, Bachianas Brasileiras and The Emperor Jones (review). The conductor Scott Yoo is new to me, but the bulk of his discography suggests he’s comfortable with contemporary repertoire. Glen Cortese and his Colorado orchestra are also unfamiliar, but more of that later.
 
The three-movement first concerto has an unmistakably urban air - a hint of anxiety, even - that reminds me of symphonic Bernstein. Orchestrally the Moderato is darkly ruminative, but the somewhat Bartókian piano part lights up the night with an astonishing display of fireworks. The writing is mighty impressive, as is Musto’s bold but never relentless playing. Indeed, even at its most incendiary this concerto doesn’t threatens to self-destruct, as such pieces often do. There’s a pleasing and consistently high level of invention here, and the big, sonorous recording captures the work’s changes of mood and manner very well indeed. The quiet woodwind interludes are atmospherically done, and Woo draws fine playing from his Danish forces.
 
The Andante grazioso is no less accomplished; Musto’s jazzy rhythms and his quick, infectious delivery are a delight, and the orchestra’s near-raucous ripostes - shades of Gershwin, perhaps - are judiciously handled. Unbuttoned it may be, but this music is firmly ballasted by a potent, unfolding narrative that keeps one listening to the last. From its doodlesome start the Scorrevole turns into a fiery Catherine wheel of sound, underpinned by jazzy episodes and culminating in a series of dazzling perorations. Little wonder, then, that I found myself reaching for the Repeat button.
 
It’s always a pleasure - a relief, even - to encounter such well-crafted music, and it’s a bonus to hear it played with such obvious enjoyment and energy. The first concerto is a work of all-too-rare individuality and style, and I’m just thrilled to have made its acquaintance. Not surprisingly, Musto plays Regrets, the first of two excerpts from his Five Concert Rags, with all the suppleness and wistful charm one could wish for. I daresay Joplin would have been happy with such assured writing, especially that of the foot-stompin’ In Stride; Musto the pianist never misses a step either, and the whole enterprise is blessed with warmly seductive sonics.
 
The second concerto is bright and boisterous - Cortese and his Greeley players are fresh and engaging throughout - and I’m pleased to report there’s no appreciable fall-off in inspiration or execution. The ghost of Gershwin still hovers - I’d like to think he’s just a little envious here - but really the ‘voice’ is Musto’s own. From the riot and runs of the Tempo giusto the music then morphs into a moody little interlude; this Molto moderato vacillates between introversion and outburst, and all the while one is pinned to one’s seat by the power of Musto’s pianism. With its detonations - a terrific bass drum - and an orgiastic beat the Allegro energico is a perfect summation of all that’s gone before.
 
For all its unabashed virtuosity the music recorded here is more than just a parade of empty showpieces; the writing has structural integrity and lots of character, qualities that invite repeated hearings. Musto the performer is the linchpin though, and he transforms this already desirable collection into something rather special.
 
Pyrotechnics aplenty; music of substance, too.
 
Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei 

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