Six Pianos, Part One

When pianists put together recitals, there are two things the listeners hears; one is how, and how well, the pianist plays, the other is how their taste works. Along with performing, they are picking the music they want to play out of some mix of love, challenge, the desire to demonstrate their skills and further their career. Those who stick to the known repertoire are also placing themselves into the context of their current and historical peers, and implicitly comparing their performances against a mass of recordings and concerts. Pianists who choose programs of new music, music that most listeners and even musicians will not have heard before, have the greater challenge of not just impressing and moving us with their playing but rhetorically convincing us of the quality of the pieces. That’s why I like new music pianists.

Three of them have new CDs out, and by new I mean-debut recording/ink-wet-on-the-page/just-baked-this-morning new. Across the CDs, from Matthew McCright, Kathleen Supové and the debut from Isabelle O’Connell, is a broad range of music, which reflects the health of contemporary classical, and within each recording is a comparable range of taste and intelligence from each musician.

McCright’s Second Childhood is meant, overall, to evoke some of the memories of hearing, and playing, piano music while growing up, and I can’t say whether it succeeds at that or not but it is transporting, with music that is sophisticated, sincere and a delight to hear. The pieces, all requested by the pianist specifically for this recording, have a clear, simple appeal and a musical, intellectual and emotional maturity that they wear lightly. The most prominent style of music is the Rag, with excellent examples from Gregory Hutter – “Evening Air” – John Halle – “Lullaby” – Daniel Nass – “Rag” is the last of three “Dance Preludes” – and Halle’s concluding “Second Childhood.“ The Rag is one of the great American musical styles, woven like a secret code through so much of the popular and art music that has come since its formulation in the late 19th century. It reaches deep into the imagination, in a place where we hold our innocent ideals about life, what we see in it and wish from it, and especially how we see our lives as Americans. It’s not dead, but has been keeping a low profile in contemporary times, mainly through the wonderful Rags of William Bolcom. The ones McCright plays are fine, balancing a specific devotion to the form and style with a great deal of quiet, wistful grace, especially in Hutter’s piece, and some well-managed compositional deconstruction with Halle. McCright plays them with an ideal feel for the rhythms and voicings.

Nass’ other preludes are witty examples of the “Waltz” and the “Tango.” There are other dances in Laura Caviani’s “Jazz Etudes,” “Blues,” “Tango la Falda” and “Matt’s Boogie,” and these pieces, like Bruce Stark’s “Five Preludes for Piano,” nail the exact balance between style and composition; they capture the qualities of the popular musics while being finely made, free of the sense of slumming that too many composers cannot escape when they try their hand at popular forms. Some of Stark’s material is as good a composed depiction of what Keith Jarrett does as I’ve heard. The most compositionally abstract piece is Kirsten Broberg’s “Constellations,” which takes the idea of a Debussy Prelude and strips it down to it’s almost mechanical essence, the fingers latching onto the most fundamental component and running through it almost to fatigue, but not quite. It’s what a child might do with a single passage within a larger piece, one that they find particular fascination in. A fine recording, perhaps the result is less a depiction of childhood than how we, as adults, look back at what we remember and cherish but can never recreate.

Supové’s The Exploding Piano covers material that is more experimental but no less interesting or satisfying to the ear. Where McCright charms, Supové beguiles. The opening track is a piece from Missy Mazzoli, reworking some material for her opera Scenes from the Uproar into a piece for piano with a quasi-ambient electronic accompaniment. The music display’s the composer’s trademark virtues; clarity of expression that hints at a fascinatingly ambiguous emotional power, the flow of harmonies against each other as a means to structure time, and a dark sense of beauty.

The electronic component is part of an organizing principal on the recording, the piano working with, or against, forces and objects outside it. Anna Clyne’s “On Track” and Randall Woolf’s long “Sutra Sutra” feature more electronics, while Michael Gatonska’s “A Shaking of the Pumpkin” uses a bass drum’s sympathetic vibrations and resonance, and Dan Becker challenges the pianist with the Disklavier (and audio) on his “Revolution.” While McCright’s recital has Rag and other popular dance styles running through it, The Exploding Piano has the a subtle but pervasive context of György Ligeti. His music has had a powerful effect on the current generation of composers, and his various explorations are elaborated on this CD, whether his cloud-like, eerie harmonies, his impish but excoriating humor, his destruction and rebuilding of long-standing forms and especially his updating of Romantic pianistic style via the Etudes . Gatsonka’s piece is powerfully impressionistic and intuitive, and in its final episode it breaks down into a concentrated, obsessive and excitingly primitive approach to the piano that Ligeti taught us. Clyne, Becker and Woolf, all of whom use the spoken voice as a component, mix together a highly articulated, technically challenging and objective music to accompany sound and words. The content of the text, by itself, would seem obviously political, social or spiritual, but in combination with music the pieces take on a much greater emotional weight and force, asking questions about where the source material fits into our experience in the moment of listening. While the attempt to flee history was a feature of a lot of music and political thought in the previous century, these pieces firmly and powerfully place the experience of playing and hearing irrevocably into the stream of history, engaging actual experience in all it’s messy inability to resolve. Supové’s playing, it goes almost without saying, is masterful; clear, assured and expressive, and her composition of the recording, her gathering together of these fascinating pieces, is impressive and effective. All music is new at some point, the problem is placing the new into experience and finding one’s way in. With Supové’s advocacy, the opening is immediate and involving.

O’Connell’s Reservoir not only introduces this terrific young pianist but also provides a generous sampling of contemporary Irish composers. It’s a high compliment to her playing to write that the music is so interesting and so well-played, with what seems complete comprehension and technical coherence and musical expression, that one forgets the goal is to display the pianist. Of course, wrapping it all up, her pianism comes off as superb. She is completely sympathetic to the music which, although all new to my ears, comes off as familiar – because she makes it sound that way. The selection has the broadest range of styles and ideas of the three releases, but the quality of the works is so fine, and again her playing is so impressive, that the concentration and purpose never let up.

It’s a generous selection, nine works from as many composers, spanning the gamut from Modernism, Post-Modernism and Minimalism. There is no weak link, nor any flagging moments. The disc opens with Ian Wilson’s “BIG,” appropriately extroverted and exuberant, with ringing, crashing chords out of the Henry Cowell playbook. Cowell’s name and ideas ran through my head in this program, his ecumenical view of music, his unselfconscious experimentalism and his complete transparency between idea and expressive result seems to me the aesthetic link underpinning Reservoir. It’s just in the frequent sense of brightness, of sociability, in so much of this music, and of course in the use of interior elements of the piano, as in Jane O’Leary’s “Forgotten Worlds.” Things are so winning that I enjoyed them against what I like to think of as my better judgment, especially in the collage piece “becher” from Jennifer Walshe, pasted together out of fragments, the longest mere seconds, of numerous other pieces of music, cycling through Beethoven, The Beatles, Schubert, Debussy and more within the first half minute. But the composer’s taste and intellectual rigor win the day, as in the title track from Donnacha Dennehy, which at first seems like secondary David Lang, but succeeds through insistence, discipline and O’Connell’s playing.

Seóirse Bodley’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is fine Neo-Romanticism, expressive and intuitive, John Buckley explores poetic representation in “Three Preludes” while “Along the Flaggy Shore” is Philip Martin’s answer to Seamus Heaney. The influence of Ligeti does show in the virtuosic excerpts of Brian Irvine’s “Klipper Collection,” composed for O’Connell. My favorite piece on the disc though, the best of the best, is “Seagull,” written by Elaine Agnew. It’s a beautiful work, an interrogation of Chopin and, and shows the most complete and natural understanding of the piano as an instrument. O’Connell’s playing on it rivals that of the best musicians; poetic, empathic, muscular, balanced, seemingly effortless. Brava.

UPDATE: You can catch O’Connell live as part of the modest yet fine series Music At First, on November 4.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.