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

Regular readers may have noticed that I don’t review many solo piano recitals and even fewer recordings of contemporary music. I’m not sure of the reason for the first of those omissions: maybe it’s because I play(ed) the instrument myself very badly, but I love and often review organ music. Though I play that instrument even worse, I’m sorely tempted by a harmonium in working order at a reasonable price in a local charity shop window. If only I had the space.

My aversion to much contemporary classical music and jazz is easier to explain: there’s so much that I like in both genres that I can’t be bothered to come to terms with works that make an awful noise. At the risk of sounding like the little boy who blew the gaff on the Emperor’s News Clothes, too much contemporary music reminds me of the crashing chords which introduce the finale of Ibert’s wonderful Divertissement before the music burst into knees-up mode, complete with police whistles.

That’s by way of explaining my mixed reaction to this programme of Scott Wheeler’s music. Some of these short pieces are not for stubborn traditionalists like myself, especially when the title seems to promise something other than is delivered. Pseudo-Rag (track 3) is a case in point: any resemblance to Scott Joplin is purely notional, as is the hint of a Beatles tune at the end. The GS referred to in the title is Gunther Schuller, best known for his distinguished career in both the jazz and classical fields, but I found this piece hard to assimilate. It’s based on number theory – 60 measures (bars) for Schuller’s sixtieth birthday – which in itself doesn’t put me off, since much of Bach is based on numbers too. I would just have liked a little more ragtime and a little less theory.

Cliff Walk (track 6), on the other hand, really does appeal. I’m not sure about the inspiration from an actual cliff walk in Rhode Island – like some of the other titles it doesn’t seem especially referential – but I do like the suggestion that it owes much to the music of the cakewalk. Wheeler admits in the notes that in ‘many of ... these short piano pieces, the description sounds abstract, arbitrary, or jocular’.

Calamity Rag (track 11) will also appeal to those of a more traditional disposition. It really does sound like the sort of thing that Scott Joplin might have composed had he been alive in 1979. Actually, I’m not too sure that the date matters: Joplin could well have written this in his own era. 

If Joplin could well have written Calamity Rag, Shimmer (track 19) has all the delicacy of a Debussy Prelude, as, with a little more leeway, could Pastorale (track 22). 

One of the most enjoyable tracks concludes the programme: Free Ranging (track 27) was written for the marriage of Wheeler’s sister. Based in part on Virgil Thomson’s musical portrait of Wheeler himself, it’s a short reminder, just over a minute long, of how approachable his music can be.

I suppose that much will depend on your reaction to the longest work here, Flow Chart (track 17). All that we are told in the notes is that it was written specially for the pianist Donald Berman, who performs all the music on this recording. In three continuous sections, I presume that it, too, has a mathematical connotation. I was not entirely won over but I can report that Berman copes with the difficulties of this and all the other works with complete assurance. These are clearly definitive performances.

Berman is best known for his performances of the music of Ives and Ruggles and you might well regard Scott Wheeler as the inheritor of their tradition as well as of Virgil Thomson, his erstwhile teacher.

I listened to the recording from a lossless (aiff) press preview. It’s clear and truthful and the notes in the booklet are very helpful, even though, as I have said I didn’t always make the connection between the music and the description. That’s not a problem in itself: you don’t have to connect Debussy’s Preludes with their titles to enjoy them, and you certainly don’t need to take Satie’s titles seriously.

I see that my colleague Byzantion reacted favourably to a Naxos album of Wheeler’s songs, though with some reservations – review. I hope I haven’t been unduly negative about these piano pieces: I enjoyed a great deal of this recording but there are some angular pieces which didn’t appeal.  I recommend potential purchasers of a traditional disposition to sample first from one of the purchase buttons.  Better still, subscribers to Qobuz can stream it there, albeit without booklet. 

Brian Wilson

Alphabet Dance [1:35]
Birthday Card for Tony [1:44]
Pseudo-Rag: GS [1:54]
Bleecker Study [2:43]
Cowley Meditation [3:27]
Cliff Walk [3:03]
Life Study [2:07]
Epithalamion [2:52]
Morningside [3:53]
By the sea [2:16]
Calamity Rag [3:37]
Midnight Bells [2:04]
Firefly Lullaby [2:44]
Study in Concord [2:49]
Stone South [1:54]
The Fifth of July [2:43]
Flow Chart [11:12]
Arietta [2:16]
Shimmer [2:18]
To his Music [2:06]
Portrait of Steve [2:01]
Pastorale [1:48]
Cookie Waltz and Gallop [1:34]
Sketching [2:11]
Island Lullaby [1:24]
Green Geese [3:13]
Free Ranging [1:14]



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