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Bernard RANDS (b. 1934)
Tre Espressioni (1960) [8:56]a
Espressione IV (1964) [9:11]ab
Memo 5 (1975) [10:48]a
Preludes (2007) [40:42]b
Impromptu (2010) [2:18]b
Ursula Oppens (piano)a; Robert Levin (piano)b
rec. SUNY College at Purchase, March 2013, September 2013, October 2013
BRIDGE 9415 [72:22]

Although it may not have been planned as such from the start, this release coincides with Bernard Rands' eightieth birthday. In the course of his prolific composing career Rands produced a considerable number of works in almost every genre. They are all characterised by impeccable craftsmanship as well as great expressive strength although his music is often demanding while paying innumerable dividends. The works recorded here span some fifty years of his composing life but his piano output is not a constant in his oeuvre.

The earliest pieces here, Tre Espressioni were completed before he embarked on his studies with Dallapiccola. Later, he studied with and befriended Luciano Berio. However, as Dan Albertson remarks in his insert notes, “Rands is slightly too young ever to have been a doctrinaire serialist yet he is of the right age, and was in the right place, to have the newest developments happening around him”. Some of his complex and exacting music, particularly in his earlier works, shouts and whispers from the ranks of the most radical avant-garde of the time. Tre Espressioni also make use of some 'modern' techniques by relying on open forms and free notation. The first piece ignores it, the second is a mix of strict notation and 'time notation' whereas the third dispenses with bar lines. A further element of formalistic freedom, though its impact is actually quite minimal, is the fact that the first and third pieces may be interchanged whereas the second definitely remains central. Incidentally, the three pieces are not indexed separately but presented as a single span of music though one is told that they are played in the I-II-III sequence.

Espressione IV composed a few years later is Rands' only work for two pianos. In it he experiments with various aspects of confronting two instruments which results either in rather vehement clashes or unsuccessful attempts at synchronisation and eventually in achieving some sort of reconciliation. The piece was composed for the brothers Kontarsky who were, one remembers, staunch champions of modern music. In their time they performed and recorded works by Boulez and Stockhausen. So no wonder that the music is demanding and the present performers superbly rise to its many challenges.
 
Rands has composed a number of pieces sharing the title of Memo. There are at least eight of them so far and some of them exist in different versions. Memo 5 is a “condensation of the solo part of Mésalliance for piano and small orchestra (1972)”. Dan Albertson states that it is the densest work on the CD, a proposition with which I fully agree. I would even go as far as saying that this is the most intractable work here because everything here is predominantly sonority. Sounds and blocks of sound collide in the most vehement and often brutal manner with little or no relief. This is music that requires a remarkable physical and intellectual stamina which Ursula Oppens possesses aplenty.
 
The more recent Preludes composed for Robert Levin are in total contrast with what has been heard before. They are the perfect illustration of a gradual broadening of Rands' aesthetics. However, the aesthetic and expressive qualities of Rands' music were already apparent from a number of works composed in the 1980s such as Canti Lunatici (1981), Canti del Sole(1982) and the beautiful suites Le Tambourin (1984). These Preludes display a great variety of mood and character while remaining remarkably coherent from the stylistic point of view. The music may still at times be complex but that very complexity does not negate expression and lyricism when needed. Some of these Preludes are deeply touching such as the fourth (Elegia – In memoriam Luciano Berio) and the last (Notturno – In memoriam Dan Martino). Others are rather more taxing in terms of piano technique but – again – never at the expense of expression. A particularly striking example is the ninth prelude Emiolia. All in all, without going into detailing each prelude, it may safely be said that Rands' set of Preludes is both a substantial presence in his output and a major work in present-day music for piano.
 
This generously filled release concludes with the short, occasional Impromptu composed as Rands' contribution to an anthology of dances. This volume was presented to Dr. Hanser-Strecker, the president of his publishers, Schott Music, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. The music draws on that of the eleventh prelude Istampita. This lovely little piece may be an occasional work but it possesses all the qualities required to become a much needed encore. I hope that it will be played by many pianists.
 
Rands' demanding but ultimately hugely rewarding music is played here with remarkable aplomb and commitment by beautifully equipped musicians whose immaculate playing serves the music well. One could not think of a more successful eightieth birthday tribute to one of the most important composers of his generation and one whose music is still too little known and recorded.

Hubert Culot