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William BOLCOM (b. 1938)
Piano Music
Constantine Finehouse, Estela Olevsky, Ursula Oppens, Christopher Taylor (pianos)
rec. 2014-2015, various locations
NAXOS 8.559832-34 [3 CDs: 172:19]

What was originally mooted, by Klaus Heymann of Naxos, as a complete retrospective of the piano music of William Bolcom, eventually materialized as this 3-CD collection of works not easily available elsewhere. The compositions span 1956-2012, with music from his teen years to the present day, so you get a good overview of works from all periods of his career. Four pianists were engaged for the task, all with connections to the composer. Most of the recordings were set down in New York in 2014.

Bolcom was born in 1938 in Seattle and studied composition with Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory. He later taught at the University of Michigan where he retired in 2008 to become an emeritus professor. He now resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A prolific composer, he has nine symphonies, twelve string quartets and four operas to his name. His aim, throughout his career, has been to bridge the divide between popular and serious music. The piano music featured is not laid out chronologically, and the individual contributions from the pianists are interspersed throughout. Having never heard any of Bolcom's music before, I'm amazed by the variety on offer, from the light-hearted to the more profound.

Perhaps I should start with the lighter fare. The set opens with New York Lights, which is a "concert paraphrase" of Rodolpho's aria from Bolcom's opera A View from the Bridge, cast in a canzona napoletana style. It's a lyrical depiction of late-night brooding. As a baseball fan, Bolcom lamented the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers from Ebbets Field to Los Angeles and etched the witty and arresting  The Brooklyn Dodge in their memory. The composer describes the piece as stride music, and the left-hand leaps present no problem for Christopher Taylor, whose rhythmically nuanced reading emits plenty of pizazz. The Argentinian pianist Estela Olevsky is a stylish champion of Latin American composers, and is the inspiration behind Estela: Rag Latino, which Bolcom dedicated to the late composer William Albright and later expanded for her.  It has an attractive ragtime feel, which Olevsky captures to perfection.

A much harder nut to crack is the Fantasy-Sonata of 1961. Bolcom had encountered the Boulez-Berio-Stockhausen triumvirate in Paris, very much in vogue in Europe at the time. Webern can also be added to the list of influences which shaped Bolcom's direction in those early years when he returned to the States. The second movement is a spiky, rhythmic Burlesque. In the Andante which follows, Taylor's sensitive pedalling and voicing of the chords captures the music's glacial calm, whilst the syncopations of the fourth movement are crisply delineated. The three books of Etudes, twelve in all, were written between 1959 and 1966, and again challenge the listener with their serial style. My favorites include No. 3, which explores contrasting sonorities, from the percussive to the radiantly pellucid. The mystical No. 5 feels like water droplets. No. 12, in memory of Béla Bartók, is dark, resonant and cavernous. The five Night Pieces of 1960 are marked by an economy of gesture. The four Night Meditations, composed as recently as 2012, were written to accommodate the frailties of composer Curtis Otto-Bismarck Curtis-Smith (1941-2014) who was suffering from Parkinson's Disease. Constantine Finehouse achieves some glowing sonorities in the final piece.

The music has been beautifully recorded with an attractively clear piano sound in each case. The excellent accompanying liner notes provide personal reflections and background to the pieces played, by the composer himself. On my first encounter with Bolcom’s music, I would offer a warm recommendation for this most enjoyable release.

Stephen Greenbank

CD 1 [49:27]
New York Lights, Concert Paraphrase (2003) [3:32]
Ursula Oppens (piano)
Fantasy-Sonata (1961) [25:08]
Christopher Taylor (piano)
3 Dance Portraits (1983-86) [13:30]
Ursula Oppens (piano)
Spring Dances (1956) [7:17]
Constantine Finehouse (piano)

CD 2 [60:53]
12 Piano Études, Book 1-3 (1959-66) [35:29]
Christopher Taylor (piano)
Night Pieces (1960) [7:13]
Ursula Oppens (piano)
Conversations with Andre (1991-92) [4:09]
Constantine Finehouse (piano)
Estela - Rag Latino (2010) [5:18]
Estela Olevsky (piano)
Night Meditations (2012) [8:42]
Constantine Finehouse (piano)
CD 3 [62:59]
Romantic Pieces  (1959) [24:38]
Constantine Finehouse (piano)
The Brooklyn Dodge (1972) [5:53]
Christopher Taylor (piano)
Variations on a Theme by George Rochberg (1986-87) [8:17]
Constantine Finehouse (piano)
Dream Music No. 1 (1965) [11:11]
Christopher Taylor (piano)
Ballade (2006) [13:09]
Ursula Oppens (piano)


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