Saturday, December 28, 2013

Lux Ruris - Jean Huré's Piano Quintet

Impressionism has been disturbingly absent from this blog, so much so that the closest I can find in the back issues is Abel Decaux, and saying his music defies categorization is the understatement of the decade.  Oddly enough, this article is also something of a One-Off, as Jean Huré (1877-1930) didn't write much music and the works of his to get pro recordings can be counted on two hands.  There's a strange class of 20th century French composers who make up for their modest oeuvres with the quality of their work, and though I haven't found anything by Huré to equal Decaux's Clairs de Lune he did write some rich and enchanting works, all in a twilight-drenched Impressionism that can't help but evoke his native Breton landscape*.  He was recently revived in the news by saxophonist Javier Oviedo as part of his project to revive all the Impressionist saxophone pieces commissioned by Elise Hall, who commissioned Debussy's Rapsodie for saxophone and orchestra.  A piece of Huré's work, Andante, and be heard here, and I think it's lovely, but in reviewing his works for this article I found one piece in particular stood out - his grand, single-movement Piano Quintet, on of the finest French works in the genre and in need of a revival beyond its stellar 2010 recording.

(Click to enlarge)

Much of Huré's work is inspired by Breton culture and folk music, and his Quintet begins with this simple, determined elaboration on modal elements, reminiscent of the tunes immortalized in his 7 Chansons de Bretagne.  This earnest undulation forms the backbone of the piece, a bucolic burbling that floats by on effortless, preternatural class.  Resurrecting folk music is a natural fit for Impressionist writing, with its emphasis on modal writing and valuing static harmonic swaths over functional tonal movement.  Tension and release are modern contrivances - folk music is eternal and evokes the infinite expanse of simple society, or at least the kind of stability that is so valued in small-scale societies.   Huré doesn't lock his germ cell up in a strict structural vision, but rather drapes ornaments across it freely, at times as if he wrote the piece in one go like Sorabji.  There are moments once things get cooking that invention overtakes him and five disparate elements are joyously fighting for exposure -

(Click to enlarge)

- as if he just couldn't stand to not use some exciting piece of orchestration or melody, pacing and restraint be damned.  There is a firm sense of arc and pace, though, and while the piece consists of a single movement there are clearly-defined, movement-like sections, an admissible method in Impressionism's anti-Germanic revolt against formalism.  That backbone keeps coming back, but it never feels like a proper subject, as it has no melodic trajectory - it's more akin to a texture, like a golden thread woven through a large tapestry.   Huré never lets modernism overtake the piece, and his use of new-fangled techniques is natural and unforced.  For example, during an interlude he employs a limited aleatoric method, whereby a soloist floats a piacere across an a piacerely repeating background -

(Click to enlarge)

- which is a familiar idea in jazz (vamping), as well as Classical cadenzi, but this was an early use of it with a complex background texture.  His notational method leaves something to be desired, but what can you expect from a guy who grew up without any previous examples like it from which to work?

Huré also had a gift for melody, and some truly memorable ones come up in the Quintet, such as this harrowing minor line from past the work's halfway point:

(Click to enlarge)

At fortississimo with a driving piano platform, this is the kind of searing, red-blooded melody that should show up in the climax to a great serious opera, like Boris Godunov or Tosca.  The stinger is that this never shows up again, aside from a recap at the fifth a couple measures later.  There are so many gorgeous moments in the quintet that are so fleeting, such as an ornament in an arpeggio or the way a handful of notes interlock sweetly in a passing phrase, that at times the listener is gripped with the need to pull Huré through the veil of death and force him to repeat that kernel of gold.  It's the kind of writing that rewards repeated listening, as so much detail is present and yet able to melt into the air, leaving the listener with a cornucopia of moments to uncover.  My favorite moment may be in the coda, where the piano, present throughout the piece, fades to leave a masterful quartet passage in the strings, leaping by fourths with high viola and cello straining in pianissimo, a passage that would be twinkling if not for the desperation in its voice. 

(Click to enlarge)

This is followed directly by a perfectly tragic 16 bars in the piano:

(Click to enlarge)

The piece ends as it began, in tranquility and quiet, a sunset to mirror the sunrise of the opening 2nd violin.  The Quintet is dedicated to George Enescu, Romania's musical champion and author of a 1907 String Octet that became the toast of the town (Paris, that is) while Huré was writing his piece.  That piece was defined by its evocation of expansive Earthscapes, and Huré plays that game to win.  It's the kind of music that makes one want to become a hermit in the Old Country, living by the seasons and drinking eternity's nectar.  My talking about it can't possibly replicate the experience of hearing the thing, so in  Huré's honor we should all get the score here and listen to it below this paragraph.  Whether or not you delve deeper into his work can't stop you from hearing what is probably his masterpiece, a glorious fin-de-siècle triumph and probably the finest Impressionist piano quintet.  Let it sweep you down the river as gentle and raucous as it may.


*Would his music reminded you of Brittany if I hadn't just told you that was where he was from?  It's like playing Sibelius to non-Finns and telling them Sibelius is Finnish, and BAM! - they're soaring across fjords like nobody's business.  Composers aren't travel documentaries, for cripes's sake.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Moonflowers, Baby! - the Irrepressible Meyer Kupferman


Tiger Moon.  Perpetual Licorice.  The Stone Tears of Ixtaccihuatl.  Moonchild and the Doomsday Trombone.  Miro Miro on the Wall.

It should be obvious that we're dealing with a priceless imagination.  It walked this Earth by the name of Meyer Kupferman (1926-2003), and it never compromised.

Born in New York City and trained on the violin and clarinet, Meyer Kupferman didn't let early success with his Gertrude Stein opera In a Garden keep him from breaking the mold.  Joining a fine bunch of Classical composers who doubled as jazzmen (including Mel Powell and Hall Overton), Kupferman did a lot of arranging for big bands and playing on Coney Island, learning the vitality and 'tude of jazz while writing red-blooded modernist pieces like his 1948 Variations for piano:

Now, I know what you're thinking - I didn't pump you guys up to hear dreary old dodecaphony, did I?  Of course not - Meyer's only getting started, and by 1961 (the year he composed his savage big band score for the Paperhousian Blast of Silence) he had devised his "Infinities Row" (G-F-Ab-B-Bb-D-F#-E-C-Eb-A-C#), a 12-note tone row that would be the basis of all his major works.  His approach to serialism was far from academic, as he was entirely self-taught and didn't know Schoenberg's way of dealing with the Troublesome Twelve.  Before that row took over, though, he had already found his big problem with serialism and modern music in general, discovered through his jazz work - a lack of rhythmic vitality and drive.  Grappling with this problem led to the Sonata on Jazz Elements, a breathtakingly original work featuring lines like this - 

- and clad in a cover excellent enough to make the Visual Music cut:

He was deeply dedicated to eclecticism in his work, and managed to blend jazz and Avant-Garde Classical technique more thoroughly and effectively than any other composer of his time, eventually authoring the book Atonal Jazz in 1990.  His crossover-ing also produced the Jazz Symphony -

- as well as what is probably his most popular work, Moonflowers, Baby!**

Kupferman was also unconstrained by instrumentation, writing pieces for practically any combination you could think of.  Guitar, bassoon, double bass and piano?  Landscapes of the Sun.  Mezzo-soprano, oboe and electronic harpsichord?  The Mask of Electra.  Harp and double bass?  The Diaries of a Tarot Player, here painstakingly realized electronically from the manuscript and foolishly uploaded for free by a guy who deserves an award for his work:

As you may have noticed, his music features a lot of long phrases and short dramatic moments, a style he called "gestalt" (shape) writing which purposefully mixed disparate moods to create tapestries of emotion.  He believed in developing dodecaphonic music to its fullest emotional potential - as almost all his music is atonal, it helps uninitiated audiences quite a bit that Kupferman wrote gesturally, making his music naturally gut-punching and comprehensible while still enchanting with exotic sonorities.  For example, it takes no expertise in the Second Viennese School to appreciate his hilarious Blake Songs for soprano and clarinet:

In fact, his mastery of gesture led to one of his greatest crossover creations, Music Without Sound, a set of 13 drawings (available for free at the link) that turn music notation into unbridled visual fun (the most fun before Burr Van Nostrand, at least).  They aren't meant to be played, but rather heard internally, and I can tell you from experience they make both hip wall art and excellent New Music recital posters.  You already saw number 12 at the top of the article, but here's a couple more:

And just for X-Mas generosity's sake, here's another great cover, this time for 3 Ideas for Trumpet and Piano, a curt set of miniatures recorded by the legendary Thomas Stevens alongside a bunch of other pieces all trumpet players should know of.

There are actually quite a lot of Kupferman LP's and CD's, which is astonishing considering how I never, ever hear people talk about him.  Kupferman was wildly prolific, and the recordings cover music from the whole of his career and feature dozens of talented artists, many of them recording multiple works on their own, such as Morton Estrin, who recorded the Variations and Sonata on Jazz Elements.  Heck, Thomas Stevens recorded two of his pieces, and he usually only managed one per composer, as the trumpet rep is small compared to overstuffed reps like those for violin and piano.  The other piece, The Fires of Prometheus, is scored for trumpet and two pianos with their pedals held down.  They don't play, but simply offer resonance, as the trumpet plays into them and sets the strings vibrating (a trick used earlier by Luciano Berio in his absurdly difficult Sequenza X).

His consistently far-reaching oeuvre may have contributed to his lack of layman fame, but I'd like to think of him as a champion of the adventurous round peg in a world of square holes.  I see him as a direct descendant of Charles Ives, a rugged individualist who used any and all techniques and genres that suited him regardless of their source, never compromising and always trucking full speed ahead.  America is a nation defined by diversity and pluralism, and as such its greatest artists should be open to anything and everything, and few composers stuck as steadfastly to the pluralistic way as Kupferman.  He's one of the few composers who tried to do everything he could as an artist short of actually planting flowers on the moon (though he did write piano pieces based on constellations), and with a catalog as large as his there's certainly something for everybody.  As Christmas Eve is here, I thought it best to showcase a composer who is the human equivalent of the gift that keeps on giving, and Kupferman is a bottomless treasure chest bursting with creative energy and good humor.  And also in the Christmas spirit I'll end the review with one of his more youthfully enchanting (and early) works, the Symphony No. 4, here recorded by the essential Louisville Orchestra under Robert Whitney.  Merry Christmas, and Happy Moonflowers, Baby!***



**Isn't that title fun to say?!

***Well, I love saying it, anyways.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Brief One-Off - Gerald Kechley's Foggy Morning

It's about time I covered another Pacific Northwest composer, considering my John Verrall article was months ago.  Like Verrall, Gerald Kechley was a teacher at University of Washington many moons ago, and also like Verrall was included in the pedagogical piano collection Northwest Passages: Intermediate Piano Pieces by Six Northwest Composers.  I can't blame you if you've never heard of it, as it was only printed and distributed locally - I only discovered it because my local library system (which is awesome) had a copy, and it's pretty dang strange for a public library system to have an obscure piece of sheet music.  I don't know if I'll really dive into his music, but I did find one of his pieces in the collection to be quite lovely, and appropriate for the end of autumn.

The language isn't easily analysable, but it doesn't really matter.  Foggy Morning is quite jazzy, though tightly structured and prone to Schoenbergian dramatic denouments, and gets good effect out of a mere handful of sonorities.  It works quite well as a pedagogical piece, and fulfills my wish of bringing young musicians to the possibilities of modern music.  Much like Earl George's Intermezzo, this piece might work better tucked in a corner than widely distributed, but I made a recording anyways - and it's okay if it's not actually a foggy morning when you listen to it; the piece does a fine enough job of taking you there in spirit.


Visual Music - Lee Hoiby's Piano Album

As renowned and overwhelmingly popular Samuel Barber is, nobody is going to jump up to prove how innovative he was.  Barber was always a conservative voice, but it was also a distinctive one and it stemmed from a unique, emotionally profound sensibility, and his oeuvre is rewarding if you slip into the right mindset - one of emphatic, sepia-toned melancholy.  Lee Hoiby is cut from the same cloth, but never achieved the success of Barber, partially because he didn't have an Adagio for Strings, but mostly because he never matched Barber's sophistication and emotional power (his cloying, saccharine Violin Concerto aside).  He's of that dubious tradition of tonalesque gay composers who are mostly known as art songwriters, with Ned Rorem leading the pack out of sheer mastery of the form.  There's a very large and rich song tradition in this country, and the worst part about it is the overarching success of its blandest authors, most recently the distressing popularity of gay Pop Classical vocal composers Ricky Ian Gordon and Jake Heggie.  The unusual tradition of tonalesque, high profile gay male American composers (Copland, Thomson, Bernstein, Rorem, Blitzstein, Flanagan, Bowles, Del Tredici, etc.) may be to blame, but pure economics can't be ignored.  Vocal music is both highly resistant to change and a good financial investment, and there's little pressure to open new doors - singers are some of the most coddled performers around, and writing vocal music adds enormous restrictions to modern composers already struggling with the pressure to be original.  Not only is it an uninspiring world for fledgling art song composers, it's also uninspiring for gay male composers - the link between being gay and vapid, tonalesque composition has the potential to become a hurtful stereotype in itself, and I'm surprised it hasn't been called out at this point.*

Lee Hoiby was also gay and tonalesque, but wasn't nearly as vacuous as others of the ilk, and has his moments of real creativity - just be warned that those looking for new sound experiences will be left in the dust soon as look at them by his stuff.  I had picked up his Piano Album some time ago, and they feature some of his most original and passionate writing, though all possessing a subdued air of sadness.  His best piano work, Narrative, op. 41 (1983), has been recorded three times, and is worth a look.  You can find all his piano works here, but don't tell anybody I gave you that link (and only click the "PDF" buttons). Many publishers are perfectly satisfied pigeonholing their artists, so I consider G. Schirmer's choice to issue this handsome edition a welcome act of charity, a small effort in exposing Hoiby as more than just a songwriter.  What may be more notable is an illustration featured on the cover, one of the best nightmares I've ever seen in pencil:

I couldn't find any consistent information on the illustrator, Robert Beers, but perhaps its best if I pretend the image slipped over from the dream world.  While clearly surreal and at times even cubist, the style is charmingly crude and its flat superimpositions are more akin to collage than an actual scene.  I haven't met too many unicorns in my day but I can guarantee they don't have anemones for feet and teeth like a handsaw.  I was about to point out that the artist messed up the keyboard, but I realized it was a mirror of itself, and it occurred to me that I shouldn't ask too many questions about things I enjoy having.  It's actually a very apt image when you think about the mindset it must require to write music like Hoiby's: nocturnal, world-weary and deeply personal, much like Barber's.  Hoiby's writing is too patterned and restrained for audiences to really plunge into its pathos, but it doesn't keep his music from having an emotional effect.  The distance between Hoiby and his audience helps put them in another place, almost that sense of reverie that was so intently sought after by 19th century composers.  That kind of fraught restraint is akin to the songs of Schubert, and Hoiby even payed tribute to him with his Schubert Variations, op. 35, included in the album.  I'm too jaded to become a real fan of Hoiby, but I'd choose his piano music any day over the New Vapids.  I get him, and that's really all you can ask when taking in art.  There aren't any good recordings of pieces from the album on YouTube, but Albany Records did upload Dark Rosaleen, a substantial piano quartet after Joyce, on the occasion of Hoiby's death in 2011 at the age of 85.  The quartet weaves variations upon a melody by Joyce himself, and Hoiby successfully evokes the dark atmosphere of dream that permeates much of Joyce's poetry.  I can only imagine how it went over in the land of sawnicorns, as Hoiby can never tell me himself - he illuminated the value of private music and I'd like to respect his personal world.


*Rodney Lister told me of an encounter between the stubbornly tonal (and gay) Virgil Thomson and the (gay) serialist Ben Weber.  Virgil said, "I hear that you're a twelve-tone composer."


"I also hear that you're a homosexual."

"...that's right."

"Well, which one is it?  You can't be both!"