An Eclectic Piano Ramble

Grant Chu Covell

[July 2002.]

This handful of discs features the piano in all sorts of forms and genres. We examine works intended to be played at the keyboard and inside the piano, others that alter the piano’s tuning, and those that require a synthesized instrument.

Robert SCHUMANN: Allegro, Op. 8; Kreisleriana, Op. 16; Gesänge der Frühe, Op. 133. Maurizio Pollini (piano). DG 289 471 370-2 (http://www.universalclassics.com and http://deutschegrammophon.com/pollini-schumann-kreisleriana).

A short program (48:23), but inviting and studiously considered. Maurizio Pollini frames Kreisleriana, one of Schumann’s most popular works, with two less familiar ones, suggesting that Schumann’s madness was always just under the surface. Indeed, Pollini’s playing is consistently impetuous, emphasizing the turbulence in these different periods.

Allegro, Op. 8 (1831) might have become the opening movement of a piano sonata, but adverse critical reception dampened Schumann’s enthusiasm for this restless movement and he set it aside. It is demanding to play, with inner voices among flurries of arpeggios, insistent dotted rhythms, and cadenza-like passages. It would be easy to call it manic.

Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn) contains five character pieces from October 1853. Schumann attempted suicide four months later and institutionalized himself soon after. These short movements are not meteorological reports, but suggest romantic moods one might experience in pre-dawn hours. I suppose everyone looks for signs of madness in the many works Schumann cranked out towards the end (Requiem, Scenes from Faust, Violin Concerto, Märchenerzählungen, etc.), but with Allegro fresh in one’s memory, it’s hard to hear anything anomalous, and it’s surprising that there’s a gulf of 22 years between Opp. 8 and 133.

For Kreisleriana (1838) I routinely select Alfred Cortot (Biddulph LHW 005). The old mono recording has such clarity and intensity, I rarely wish for anything else. Pollini gives a brisk performance, playing from Schumann’s original version with its less-conventional dynamics and transitions. Eusebius and Florestan (Schumann’s opposite alter egos who figure in his writings and music) do not seem so distinct here. Instead, Pollini extracts a pervasive sense of urgency.

Pollini’s recordings of 20th-century works are definitive, but I think I’d follow what he does with great interest regardless. Anyone who can get a CD made these days has to be able to play the notes, but it’s rare to find a musician like Pollini who has such intelligence and breadth.

The first two installments of what looks to be an auspicious series from Labor Records:

Music of Tribute, Vol. 1, “Villa-Lobos”: Works by Heitor VILLA-LOBOS, Mario FICARELLI, Gilberto MENDES, Camargo GUARNIERI, Almeida PRADO, Wilhelm ZOBL, Jorge PEIXINHO, Aurélio DE LA VEGA. José Eduardo Martins (piano). Labor Records LAB 7031-2 (http://www.laborrecords.com).

This is an intriguing program of solo piano music focused upon the wildly prolific Heitor Villa-Lobos. In 1987, pianist and musicologist José Eduardo Martins (brother of pianist João Carlos Martins) commissioned several composers to write music to celebrate the Villa-Lobos centenary, and several of those works are recorded here.

A ciranda is a round, a song children sing on the playground. Three cirandas lead this program. The first two come from Villa-Lobos (1926), and they are robust pieces based on traditional songs; the tune is more evident in the second. The third ciranda is by Brazilian composer Mario Ficarelli — a singable melody is framed by a delicately played dose of minimalism suggesting the busywork of the Ligeti Piano Études. Martins has an expert touch for the rapid patter of staccato notes.

Viva-Villa by Gilberto Mendes is labeled a minimal work though it’s more like pop; a basic rhythmic and melodic sound swells and changes gradually. (According to the notes, Mendes’ most popular work is Beba Coca Cola for chorus!) The last part of the Mendes is filled with silences, unexpected considering its minimalist tag. Chôros No. 5, “Alma Brasileira” (1925) is one of Villa-Lobos’ more familiar piano efforts. In several contrasting episodes he captures the soul of Brazil and the diversity of the Brazilian people and their heritage.

Camargo Guarnieri’s Improvisio No. 2 (Homenagem a Villa-Lobos) (1960) picks up some of the rhythms of Villa-Lobos’ Alma Brasileira, but its wistful melody and harmonies are suggestive of Satie and an earlier time. Noturnas Saudaded do Rio Solimães (Almeida Prado) opens with a splashy arpeggio but quickly becomes subdued when an expressive melody wanders over a gently dissonant rocking accompaniment. Wilhelm Zobl’s Ária Brasileira behaves like a moto perpetuo, with a somber melody that gradually grows more ornamented atop an insistent ostinato. These three works create convincing and distinct moods, and they all draw upon traditional music and melodies.

The four movements of Villa-Lobos’ Ciclo Brasileiro (1936-37) anchor the latter part of the program in the early 20th century, and we hear Villa-Lobos’ absorption of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. This cycle is voluptuous, optimistic and teeming with energy — very unlike the three preceding items, which are dark and pessimistic by comparison. The second movement, Impressões Seresteiras, was orchestrated, enlarged and incorporated into Villa-Lobos’ opera Magdalena.

The last two works seem the farthest from Villa-Lobos, and are the most abstract and modern on the disc. Jorge Peixinho’s Villalbarosa (Homenagem a Villa-Lobos) lacks clear-cut rhythms, being a collage-like showpiece with clusters, splashes of glissandos and thunderous chords. It also suggests Scriabin and ends mysteriously. American composer Aurélio de la Vega’s Homenagem concludes the program; he mixes wild chords with snatches of bluesy and jazz-like progressions and melodic fragments. One repeating rhythmic bit sounds familiar but I cannot place it.

Martins did the premieres of these tributes on August 23 and 29, 1987 (on November 19, 1960, he gave the premiere of the Guarnieri). He plays all this music very seriously, and Villa-Lobos’ Ciclo Brasileiro, with its ostinatos and driving dance rhythms, shows no trace of recklessness. These are definitive performances of varied works reflecting Villa-Lobos’ influence and influences.

Music of Tribute, Vol. 2, “Debussy”: Works by Claude DEBUSSY, Paul DUKAS, Gian-Francesco MALIPIERO, Eugène GOOSSENS, Béla BARTÓK, Florent SCHMITT, Igor STRAVINSKY, Maurice RAVEL, Albert ROUSSEL, Manuel DE FALLA, Erik SATIE. Pavlina Dokovska (piano), Evgenia-Maria Popova (violin), Anatoli Krîstev (cello), Carlos Barbosa-Lima (guitar), Ludmilla Gerova (soprano). Labor Records LAB 7032-2 (http://www.laborrecords.com).

In this delightful program, Debussy piano titles are sprinkled between the ten pieces of Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy. When he died in 1918 (while the Germans were bombarding Paris), everyone knew a major artist had passed from their midst. Today Debussy’s orchestral and chamber works may be as popular as his piano music, but in 1918, the piano output was more familiar and the music that made him revolutionary. Debussy’s piano music completely transformed the genre and changed the way his contemporaries thought about the instrument, the colors it could create, and the forms that could be used to unleash those colors.

In 1920, Debussy’s publisher Durand commissioned ten composers to write hommages dedicated in his memory. Durand revived the concept of a tombeau, i.e., several figures are invited to write commemorative works. The roster is a who’s-who of those active in Paris at the time, and this is a long-overdue recording of the complete tombeau.

Dukas and Malipiero begin the program with plaintive and melancholy works. Their two short piano pieces are of a different scope and caliber from Debussy’s La plus que lente (which follows), but then, what piano works from the era would stand solidly next to Debussy’s? Goossens’ work surprises, with its Bergian harmonies and sensual meandering, and Schmitt’s sounds the closest to Debussy. It takes a moment to recognize the Bartók; the opening melody with its dissonance prefigures some of his more familiar and later music. Similarly, the Roussel is brooding and more like Dukas and Malipiero — nothing like his bracing Third Symphony.

With Stravinsky’s contribution, the program begins to move away from the piano (seven of the ten hommages are for piano). Stravinsky’s work is an ascetic and startling piano arrangement of a fragment from his neo-classical Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which was dedicated to Debussy but sounds nothing at all like the French master. This disc claims to be the first recording of the entire Tombeau, though some of the works found lives elsewhere: Ravel extended his single-movement duo into a four-movement Sonata for Violin and Violoncello. I did not pull out my score to see how closely this movement matches the first one of the familiar sonata, but here it is played very fluidly, providing a welcome contrast to the piano’s appropriately measured evenness. De Falla’s contribution is a work for solo guitar that follows Debussy’s La Puerta del Vino and suddenly we are in Spain. The notes assert that this is the most-performed piece of the Tombeau, and it is a genial little work for guitar. Satie’s tiny song for soprano and piano is the last part of the Tombeau we hear. In fact, it was Debussy who looked up to Satie, not the other way around, and it is fitting that Satie has the last word.

Most of the Debussy works are taken from the two books of preludes (besides La plus que lente, they are …Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest, L’isle joyeuse, Voiles, Feux d’Artifice, La Puerta del Vino, and Des pas sur la niege), and it is somewhat unfair to contrast Debussy’s works with the others. After the less-inspired Dukas and Malipiero that open the disc, La plus que lente is a revelation, especially when the big theme comes in the middle. Written nearly 10 years before the Tombeau, Debussy’s works are more melodic and programmatic (I am trying to resist calling them impressionistic!). They so clearly make expert use of the piano’s full range and color, inner voices, and textures that magically dissolve into single lines. I suspect the non-Debussy works to be just as difficult to interpret as the Debussy ones, but no one knows them. Pavlina Dokovska is a very capable pianist. She plays 15 works by nine composers, and convincingly changes moods and varied techniques. The result is a solid and consistent program.

And inside we go:

“Terrains”: Works by Peter SCULTHORPE and Michael HANNAN. Michael Hannan (piano interior), Mic Deacon (sound engineer). Tall Poppies TP152 (http://www.tallpoppies.au.nu).

Michael Hannan began working with piano-interior sounds in the early 1970s when he was Peter Sculthorpe’s assistant. Sculthorpe and Hannan built tape loops from interesting piano-interior sounds and used them as backgrounds for structured improvisation. In 1996 Hannan began to use direct-to-disc digital recording technology, which opened up a whole new world for his exploration of the piano. Older works — his own and Schulthorpe’s — could be reinvigorated in the digital domain, resulting in cleaner-sounding music (less hiss and tape echo).

This disc collects three Sculthorpe pieces and eight by Hannan. The latter fall into two groups: those from the 1970s and since 1996, when he started to employ digital techniques. The Sculthorpe items are from the 1970s. We’re very far from Henry Cowell’s casual strumming of the strings (Smithsonian / Folkways SF 40801): The piano interior is treated as if Sculthorpe or Hannan had never sat down in front of a keyboard. Sounds include greatly amplified plucking of the strings, tapping the piano’s metal frame, tapping or rolling glass rods on the higher strings, and using timpani mallets on the lower strings.

Sculthorpe’s Landscape (1971), the work that got Sculthorpe and Hannan going with the piano interior, starts with the gentle thunder of timpani mallets on the lower strings and a low string being scraped with a coin. Then the delicate sounds of glass rods bouncing on the strings and gentle tapping of the interior are gradually introduced. Because of its sparseness and rejection of melody, this is more musique concrète than a piece for piano. Sculthorpe’s other two, Koto Music I (1973) and Koto Music II (1976), are gamelan-like with ostinatos that center around specific sets of pitches, and the piano interior sounds contribute an exotic quality.

Like Sculthorpe’s Landscape, the majority of Hannan’s pieces are delicate in-depth explorations of piano sounds using multi-track recording techniques. Piano Collage I (1978) drops slowly changing groups of plucked pitches (one group sounds like the opening harp notes from Mahler’s Ninth Symphony) over gentle tapping, some bowed pitches, and a rapid strumming sound. Valley of the Winds (1997) is the most cinematic effort (Hannan has done studio and commercial music). On top of an omnipresent wind-like sound (“…created by slowly and firmly rubbing the hand along the lower strings of the piano while the sustaining pedal is up and the strings are not free to resonate…”), a string is intermittently scraped with metal, and very high strings are lightly tapped. The result is ghostly and sinister. In Piano Chant (1997), Hannan has captured the fleeting sound of resonating piano strings just after vowels are sung onto them — perhaps the best example of today’s technology being put to use. It’s hard to hear the sound of water that has been added to this piece, but there’s occasionally a distinctive bell-like sound (a string lightly touched while its key is struck very loudly) that turns the work into a contemplative ritual.

Most of this disc could easily fall into the electroacoustic category. The source sounds come from inside the piano, but the final mixing of recorded improvisations with tape loops happens in the studio. Regardless of category, these are skillfully and delicately assembled music. Each piece explores a minimum of sounds and never outstays its welcome. Well, there’s one composition that is somewhat grating, but understandably: Hannan’s Cicadas (1997) is a six-minute-plus onslaught sounding successively like amplified cicadas on steroids, pneumatic drills, and ringing telephones. The abrasive sounds stick in the ear, even as the next piece starts.

“Terrains” is the right title for this disc: Hannan describes vast spaces that contain a few well-placed objects. It’s admirable that he doesn’t overload his works with all the neat sounds he has discovered. His works are generally brief, and each one explores a small palette of intriguing and consummately recorded sounds. This particular type of restraint is characteristic of a master composer and performer. You have probably never heard a piano sound quite like this, and close listening will enrich your appreciation for the piano.

Burkhard SCHLOTHAUER: ab tasten (1995), three pianos drumming (1998). Jongah Yoon (piano); PianoInsideOut: Reinhold Friedl, Michael Iber, Yun Kyung Lee (pianos). Timescraper Music Publishing EWR 0105 (http://www.timescraper.de/).

For many composers, the piano represents the ultimate in tradition. Some of them react by avoiding the piano, while others such as Burkhard Schlothauer try to find new ways to make music with it. Ab tasten (“from the keyboard”) is the first of Schlothauer’s works to use sounds created by touching the piano’s keys (earlier ones avoided the keyboard altogether). For almost 50 minutes — 50 minutes that pass very quickly — varied chords are played one after another, separated by vast stretches of silence. The chords are like the lines on graph paper, or the little markers alongside U.S. interstates that mark every tenth of a mile. We hear silence or chords dying away more than we do actual chords. I counted 12 chords in the first seven minutes; the shortest interval was 18 seconds, the longest 60 seconds, and most spaces were in the 25- to 35-second range.

Sometimes the chords are actually a single note, and sometimes pitches are prepared or muted inside the piano (with a soft object like felt, a hard object like metal, or the indispensable fingertip or fingernail). Sometimes strings are plucked. But most of the time, the damper pedals are used so that one of the notes will be allowed to resonate longer than any of the others. It’s the resonance and space between chords that gain your focus, and when the next chord strikes, it seems a sudden interruption. Fortunately, the extended decay of the chord comes quickly after the attack.

Occasionally a bare open fifth appears like a beacon. Sometimes there is a sound that appears to get louder, as if the string were being bowed or rubbed by hand (it also sounds a bit like the key is rapidly struck while the string is severely muted). For the most part, the work has a consistent dynamic, but infrequent louder chords are like camera close-ups.

I have to admit I was immediately reminded of aural skills classes in college, where the teacher would play a chord and we would have to identify all of its pitches. But that thought was fleeting: The varied damping and inside-the-piano techniques create chords that are calming, sculptural, and very enjoyable. It really does deserve a good listen.

Ab tasten could be called minimal, but the richness of its chords and decays is more like Feldman’s late works with their extended developments of scant materials. However, three pianos drumming is minimal. Three matched Steinways play the same sound: A single low string has been taped, the pianists strike the corresponding key, and we hear a muffled knocking sound. The piano, one of man’s more inspired technical achievements, has been emasculated into a simple and primitive-sounding percussion instrument.

This work moves slowly. The three pianists play their single “drum” together, pause about a second and a half, and then play it again. But the crux of the piece is that the three drums do not always sound together. Schlothauer requires subtle changes in the timing so that one piano is usually just before the beat and another just after, and just when you think there’s a pattern, there’s silence. The music stays slow and quiet. In a lesser composer’s hands, such a work would inevitably grow loud and fast. But Schlothauer has written something static, stuttering and simple. Three pianos drumming clocks in at 14:38, and like ab tasten, it also felt too short. But you can always play it again.

And now, back outside the piano, but headlong into different tuning systems:

“Six Degrees of Tonality”: Works by Domenico SCARLATTI, W.A. MOZART, L.v. BEETHOVEN, Frederic CHOPIN, Edvard GRIEG. Enid Katahn (piano), Edward Foote (piano technician). Gasparo GSCD-344 (http://www.gasparo.com).

The piano has always been at the forefront of new and different tuning systems. Back in 1722, J.S. Bach explored and demonstrated the utility of one of the more daring tuning systems of his day in the Well Tempered Clavier, although today’s scholars debate what Bach actually meant by “well-tempered.”

Today’s standard tuning system is a relatively modern invention called equal temperament. Equal temperament is now the default standard, but there is ample evidence that Bach, Haydn and Beethoven played keyboards tuned in other temperaments. Is our modern temperament better than theirs? Well, this disc gives ample evidence that the older temperaments do not compare with equal temperament. At first there is the initial shock of hearing something out of tune, but it is amazing how quickly, even readily our ears adjust. And then you might realize that music in equal temperament is actually missing something. (Fans of harpsichord recordings do not have this problem; it is customary, except for 20th-century music, for the harpsichord to be tuned not in equal temperament, but in a temperament that matches the music.)

Here are the details of this recording: Scarlatti’s Sonata in D, K. 96 is played in 1/4 comma meantone tuning, Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat, Hob. XVI: 49 is in Kirnberger III temperament, Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat, Op. 110, is in Young temperament, Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66, is in DeMorgan temperament, and Grieg’s Glochengeläute is in Coleman 11 temperament. There is evidence that the Young and Kirnberger temperaments were used contemporaneously with Beethoven and Haydn, but the DeMorgan and Coleman are modern temperaments designed to reveal different intervallic relationships.

The last three tracks contain Mozart’s Fantasie in D minor, K. 385g (397) in three temperaments for comparison: 1/4 comma meantone, Prelleur and equal. It’s all too easy to squirm at the meantone tuning, because many intervals and passages sound out of tune. (Meantone tuning was more prevalent in music predating the piano. Many organs are tuned in meantone, and to our ears, some music sounds reasonably the same, but on key changes or transitions, you may hear unexpected dissonance.) The Prelleur and the equal temperaments are harder to distinguish, but what I noticed after a third hearing of just these two tracks is that the equal-tempered piano rings differently, almost unpleasantly when compared to the Prelleur. After listening to the whole disc a few times, it’s very clear that the ring of an equal-tempered piano is unpleasant when compared with most of the other temperaments.

Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu (in DeMorgan temperament) is very revealing on a first hearing. The stepwise motion in chromatic passages is not equal from note to note, and it was strange to hear a passage that usually slithers sounding asymmetric and rickety. Also, bass notes in the central D-flat section did not sustain as long as is customary (this was not because of the pedaling), and they sounded more distinct than usual, even though they were generally less forceful than on an equal-tempered piano. It would be fascinating to hear highly chromatic music in different temperaments — definitely more Chopin — though I suppose Scriabin would be just as fascinating. Of course we would have to determine what temperament Scriabin’s piano was tuned to, whereas we suspect Chopin’s piano was not in equal temperament.

I did not know the Grieg before this disc. Glochengeläute has lots of open fifths and is a short piece that sounds very unusual. Like many Scarlatti sonatas, K. 96 uses major thirds that sound like trumpet calls, and the result is excitingly bright with surprising modulations. Scarlatti in meantone is different, but it works.

Playing in such different temperaments must be inspiring. In unexpected places, the music changes how it resonates and how its harmonies progress. Katahn plays wonderfully. I’d rank her performance of the Haydn and Beethoven sonatas among the best I have heard, and it’s an added treat that the unequal temperaments give the piano a smoother sound. We need to hear more Haydn and Beethoven played in this way.

Now if you’re the sort who likes to clean your CDs, or even clean your listening equipment, then you need this CD to help clear your ears. It provides great performances of several works played in different tunings, so you can hear for yourself how tuning and music are intertwined. And you will wonder why so much music, especially from the Classical period, is almost always played in our unsatisfying equal temperament.

Warren BURT: 39 Dissonant Etudes (1993). Warren Burt (synthesizer and programming). Tall Poppies TP093 (http://www.tallpoppies.au.nu/).

Warren Burt’s Dissonant Etudes are not about different tuning systems, but about going beyond the standard of 12 notes per octave. Burt used a computer to help him slice the octave into 39 different equal-tempered scales (from five to 43 notes per octave), and he realized his work with a nearly perfect synthesized piano sound. Each etude is 90 seconds, ample time to demonstrate the characteristics of each of the 39 scales.

The etudes are ordered randomly, and the best way to listen is to start at the beginning and let them flow by. They are bright little pieces. Some begin and end with the same gesture, some have salvos of brisk arpeggios, and some are punctuated with staccato chords. The synthesized piano sound sets this music in the context of the standard repertoire, though you might need to find a six-handed pianist.

Piano music that can’t be played by a pianist calls to mind the essential work of Conlon Nancarrow, who wrote his Studies for Player Piano (Wergo WER 6907-2) by building his own tools to punch holes into the paper rolls that are fed into player pianos. Nancarrow’s studies use very complex canons and ratios (two voices might progress in a 17-to-19 ratio), and his music has been immensely influential on composers such as György Ligeti and Burt.

If I mention Nancarrow, I must also mention Easley Blackwood’s Twelve Microtonal Etudes for Electronic Music Media from 1980, since reissued on CD (Cedille CDR 90000 018). Blackwood explores scales with 13 to 24 notes per octave, and his etudes are longer because he wrote melodies and accompaniments by emphasizing consonances and harmonies that relate the unusual scales to our familiar 12-note scale. Burt’s etudes avoid melody and accompaniment, and he writes in a Webernesque style, spiky and angular. The biggest difference is the instrument used to play the etudes: Blackwood employs a sometimes-reedy, sometimes-campy electric-piano sound with lots of vibrato, whereas Burt uses purer piano samples from a Roland SCC1 synthesizer without vibrato. Burt’s work is thus more timeless and invites comparison and consideration with the “normal” (equal tempered and 12 notes to the octave) piano repertoire.

Each etude is tantalizingly short, but it’s amazing how the “dissonant” tuning system will so easily become familiar. This is a quirky disc, but rewarding and enjoyable. The music will stretch your ears, and if you spend any time listening to music, then your ears and brain could use the exercise. And if Nancarrow is unknown to you, then you’re missing some important music, and you should pick up that set, too.

László VIDOVSZKY: Etudes for MIDI Piano. László Vidovszky (programming). Budapest Music Center Records BMC CD 014 (http://www.bmcrecords.hu/).

László Vidovszky is another composer influenced by Nancarrow. His etudes are for MIDI piano (a piano controlled by a computer) and are in the standard 12-note-per-octave equal-temperament tuning system, but still require a computer and synthesizer in order to be played. Vidovszky utilizes the precise degrees of control that writing for MIDI piano offers: Dynamics can be mapped across a scale from one to 127, rhythm can be specified down to the millisecond and, most interestingly, contradictory piano styles, such as rubato and tempo giusto, can be played simultaneously. Vidovszky has so far written four books of etudes for MIDI piano; this disc offers just the first two.

Vidovszky considers his work for MIDI piano a continuation of the parlor-music tradition that includes music for player piano and music for everyday consumption. His etudes take other music (including Vidovszky’s own) and refract it into something that relies completely on technology, yet attempts to please in the same way something unique and artisan-made might. I thought immediately of Walter Benjamin and the way production for mass consumption can distort the value of a work of art.

But how does this apply to music, and if it does, what do you actually hear? I found the Drei Choral-Vorspiel-Variationen to be most fascinating in this regard because Vidovszky applies rules to manipulate the tunes of chorale preludes, creating some strange music — yet the original tunes are still there. The more you listen, the more you realize how subtle this music is. Unlike Nancarrow and the Burt mentioned above, this music sounds like it can be played on a piano by a pianist, but the more you listen, the more you hear different and simultaneous types of attack distributed among multiple layers of dynamics — impossible for a human to produce. It’s quite an odd artifact, once you start to realize all that’s in it.