FANFARE MAGAZINE, March/April 2010

“Golan, aside from being a formidable pianist, is one with a deep intellectual and aesthetic curiosity. She is an imaginative and tasteful curator of the programs she presents.”

I reviewed Jeanne Golan recently (33:2), along with soprano Mary Nessinger, about their “Innocence Project,” a pairing of song cycles by Debussy and Berg with contemporary composers’ takes on those sources. This disc confirms my impression that Golan, aside from being a formidable pianist, is one with a deep intellectual and aesthetic curiosity. She is an imaginative and tasteful curator of the programs she presents. The idea of this recital is to present works by American composer-pianists. While I’ve not heard all of these live (and Ornstein of course is no longer with us), the word on the street is that yes, they can all handle what they write, which of course gives some reassurance to listener–and make the rest of us green with envy.

David Del Tredici (b. 1937) proves Schoenberg’s adage that much good music in C Major is yet to be written. I know of no other composer who is able to write in a convincingly tonal Romantic idiom and make it sound so natural, his own, and of his time. Among other things, the composer knows how to add just the judicious touch of dissonance at the perfect moment, like a chef expert in his spicing (though it’s never for superficial effect). His 2003 piece seems to be an act of appropriative chutzpah, in that it cops not only the title but also the number of movements from Satie. However, the actual sound is far more subtle and tender, and projects a gentle seriousness, seeming almost world-weary. I find the second movement, with its gently lapping arpeggios, particularly memorable and moving.

Eric Moe (b. 1954) contributes Ballade: Legend on the Sad Triad (2004), an essay on the use of minor triads that are a half step apart. That sounds perhaps a little cerebral, and it is the most abstract and modernist sounding of the works on this program, but the work is soulful. Highly Romantic in spirit, often Impressionistic in surface, it’s still tonally grounded.

Tom Cipullo (b. 1957) writes in a style that’s more evidently influenced by French Impressionism, though the first of his 2006-08 Two Meditations reminded me a bit of Virgil Thomson: wrong-note tonal chorale writing that somehow ends up sounding more natural than its ostensibly correct background template. Water Lilies (1995) is much more overtly Debussyan… Cipullo’s fluency in handling quick, complex yet gossamer textures is very impressive.

Leo Ornstein (1893-2002) lived into his 108th year (!), and was a fascinating case–a young lion of American ultra-modernism, an enfant terrible of the keyboard, he then seemed to vanish, and was only discovered late in life living in a trailer in the Southwest. The Sonata for Two Pianos (1925) is a sprawling, extravagant work, almost 40 minutes long in its three movements. It’s an arrangement of his Piano Concerto, and the notes say it marked a move away from the futuristic music that had established his reputation. I have to admit that for me it’s something of a mishmash: pounding primitivist rhythms like Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Rimskyan modal exoticism, ultra-chromatic perfumed harmony a la Scriabin, and a jangly American energy… Ornstein carefully voices passages so as create special sonic effects and textures. His attention to such matters as register and selective dissonant doublings can make the two instruments begin to sound as though they have electronic processing. As such, it’s an innovative feat, and I’m glad we have this in the discography now (I’ve checked and it is the only recording), at the very least for its historical importance. And let me assure all that Golan and Oldfather surmount the challenges of this work with aplomb (and stamina!)

by Robert Carl

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