Scott WHEELER (b. 1952)
Portraits & Tributes: Works for Piano (1977-2014)
Donald Berman (piano)
rec. Granolf Music Centre, Tufts University, 8-10 June 2015
BRIDGE 9463 [72:24]

When Edward Elgar began work on his Enigma Variations, working at his piano on portraits of “my friends pictured within,” his wife observed that she thought that what he was doing had never been attempted before. That may not be strictly true – Schumann and others had dabbled in this sort of thing for years – but Elgar simultaneously reinforced the abstract nature of his music by concealing the identities of his friends beneath initials or nicknames, only giving fuller details of his thought processes in later years. Nevertheless, the work seems to have started a fashion for musical portraiture which has always been popular with composers; here we have a whole CD devoted to piano “portraits and tributes” by the American composer Scott Wheeler. Unlike Elgar, Wheeler has not attempted to give any sort of unity to these by adopting a unifying theme (variations or otherwise); instead we have a collection of 27 short pieces in varying styles written over a period of 37 years, and only one of them lasting more than four minutes. In a very informative and extended booklet note (10 pages) the composer gives us full backgrounds to each piece, together with a wealth of autobiographical detail. He describes the individual pieces as an exploration of ideas “as a sketch pad,” and notes that all the “portraits” were written “in the presence of the subject” – presumably therefore in a relatively short period of time.

There is indeed a very wide variety of ideas in the pieces on display here, ranging from cheeky side glances at ragtime and jazz to quite severe mathematical constructions. Wheeler has further emphasised the distinct characters portrayed by brief but telling quotations from works by other composers – Scott Joplin, William Bolcom, Naftule Brandwein, Stephen Sondheim, Thelonius Monk, Malcolm Peyton are cited by the composer as well as tunes such as Me and my shadow and Home on the range. Unlike many composers who construct these sort of musical collages, however, Wheeler is careful to absorb these quotations into the substance of the music so that they do not obtrude. At the same time, it must be noted that the disparity of his sources tends to emphasise the disparate nature of the pieces when heard end to end on a disc.

Those investigating the composer’s music for the first time may indeed be somewhat deterred by the strict mathematical techniques in the opening Alphabet Dance dedicated to Albert Berger, which is “set on a grid of 80 bars and features his initials AB”. Wheeler explains somewhat defensively that “this procedure is not nearly as mathematical as it sounds” but the music does leave a somewhat severe impression. Even a piece such as Midnight Bells (track 12) presents a somewhat dour effect even though it was a wedding celebration, more Schoenberg than Messiaen in its overall atmosphere. At the same the Calamity Rag (track 11) is a real joy, swinging merrily on its way. The composer describes it as an “imitation” of Scott Joplin, and it has all the high spirits of its model.

Donald Berman at the piano encompasses all the different idioms with ease and panache, and the recorded sound is excellent – neither too closely observed nor too clouded by resonance. Berman indeed commissioned and premièred Flow Chart (track 17), which is dedicated to him; the composer notes that the music “closely reflects…various strains of American pop music”, although I have to admit that the resemblances escaped me. This is by far the longest single track on the CD at over eleven minutes, but its construction is highly rhapsodic rather than adhering to any defined form.

The upside to this variety of styles is that the music, changing from track to track, never becomes boring or predictable. Indeed, surprisingly for a disc consisting almost entirely of piano miniatures, it is pleasurable to listen to it from end to end without feeling the need to “take a break”. In a disc whose archival purpose is clear it might have been interesting to have given each piece in chronological order. However, I did not sense that any advantage that might have been gained, by enabling the listener to follow the compositional process of the composer, would have outweighed the clearly carefully chosen running order designed to bring out the contrasts in the individual items. This disc leaves one wishing to hear more of Wheeler’s music – a number of other recordings are cited in his biography in the booklet. There is also an hour-long documentary video on iTunes about the background of this recording. Only a brief extract is available on YouTube, but the whole really should be more readily available if it is to fulfil its function, which is presumably to advertise this recording.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Brian Wilson
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Alphabet Dance (1992) [1.35]
Birthday Card for Tony (1998) [1.44]
Pseudo-Rag: GS (1985) [1.54]
Bleeker Study (2012) [2.43]
Cowley Meditation (2009) [3.27]
Cliff Walk (2006) [3.03]
Life Study (2014) [2.07]
Epithalamion (1998) [2.52]
Morningside (2007) [3.53]
By the Sea (2013) [2.16]
Calamity Rag (1979) [3.37]
Midnight Bells (1998) [2.04]
Firefly Lullaby (1996) [2.44]
Study in Concord (2000) [2.49]
Stone South (2009) [1.54]
The Fifth of July (2007) [2.23]
Flow Chart (1993) [11.12]
Arietta (2012) [2.16]
Shimmer (1998) [2.18]
To his Music (1999) [2.06]
Portrait of Steve (2013) [2.01]
Pastorale (1991) [1.48]
Cookie Waltz and Galop (1993) [1.34]
Sketching (1992) [2.11]
Island Lullaby (2009) [1.24]
Green Geese (1977) [3.13]
Free Ranging (1983) [1.14]