Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Visual Music/One-Off - G. Ackley Brower's 3 Sketches

Ahhh, the Public Domain.  The internet's pluralism and bottomless volunteer personnel allows for media you would have never heard of rise to the surface by the power of copyright holes, and the Sibley Music Library has been a great friend to me in this regard.  Wide field searches can catch you all sorts of stuff, and when Grover Ackley Brower's 3 Sketches for piano, op. 6 came up I noticed the odd detail of a missing death date for its composer.  This can sometimes be a sign of a composer so bad nobody much cared to follow his life to the end, but it occasionally points to something else, such as with the infinitely mysterious Dante Fiorillo.  Brower made his career editing other people's works, such as Schubert, Mendelssohn and Easthope Martin, and most notably books by Sergei Taneyev, but was also a pianist and composer with a symphony, string quartet and piano sonata under his belt.  Not that I was able to find any of those scores in Worldcat, of course; the 3 Sketches are his only published works anybody felt like keeping around.  For personal reasons, the 1920 publication date, the word Sketches in the title and the fact that he assigned an opus number to the thing were all intriguers, and upon opening the file I was greeted with surprising style and class:

1920 was a bit before Modernism started to take hold in American classical music, but the ad wizards behind Carl Fischer were inspired in their choice of designer - this is the very definition of pre-Deco minimalist class.  The use of empty space is phenomenal in just the way that I can't fully explain it, but maybe that wire-frame, enormous 3 knows how to.  As most publishers stuck with white for their margins as to save on ink, this jet black stare would've been an intimidating presence on the shelf.  There's something overwhelming about the combination of a solid black wall and that small print, kind of like how the title of Edwin Roxburgh's Labyrinth overwhelms the publisher name at the bottom.  The fonts are actually more akin to the 40's and 50's than the end of the 10's - I've seen the "opus 6" font in a lot of trailers for b-grade horror movies from the 50's.  It's a beautiful piece of enticement - you have no idea what it hides, but you want to find out.

As for the piece itself, Brower was raised in the finest clubs New York had to offer, and his Sketches are steeped in that kind of jazz-informed salon-impressionism that John Alden Carpenter and Howard Hanson pulled off so well in their piano works, though perhaps more on the salon end of things than the impressionist.  His trick is to keep things unpredictable, rapidly shifting key, texture and tempo to give the illusion of improvisation.  Brower clearly had an ear for the French Way but never plunges into experimentation, his figurations always familiar and pianistic.  Romantic performance practice was still the norm, and so a player who was already used to pushing and pulling for dramatic effect would find a lot to work with here, and much of the piece relies on surprise and coyness.  The catch is that the pianist has to commit to the goofiness completely, or else the piece will just seem odd and poorly written.  The good news is that Philip Sear, a British pianist who I previously featured in my article on Theodore Gouvy and his pen-named nephew Opol Ygouw, pulls the movements off nicely.  He also seems to know the most about Brower and his career, or at least a tremendously nerdy student of his does, as I wasn't able to find out much of anything beyond what he wrote in the video description.  The Sketches probably won't become your favorite piece now or later, but it is charming, unpredictable and quite fun to play, and that cover is to die for regardless of its contents.  Print, play, listen, excellent.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

One-Off - Frank Bridge's Lament (for Catherine, aged 9 "Lusitania" 1915)

Known throughout most of the 20th century as one of Benjamin Britten's teachers, Frank Bridge is now recognized as one of the finest British composers of his time, with piles of recording project springing up in the 80's and 90's when people realized how gorgeous much of his music is.  While Bridge wrote some arrestingly beautiful and creative works throughout his career, one piece in particular sticks in my mind as a perfect wedding of aural beauty and immense sadness.  On May 7, 1915, a German U-Boat fired torpedoes at the RMS Lusitania, a civilian ocean liner, and sank it in the Atlantic.  1,195 people died, and the incident cause international furor, catalyzing the already messy first World War and giving America more reason to declare war a couple of years later.  Among the lost was Catherine, a 9-year-old girl and friend to Bridge, who died with her family, and the loss was too much or Bridge to let pass him by without writing an elegy.  What he created is probably the most beautiful piece of music ever written about a nautical disaster.

While Bridge began his career transitioning from late romanticism to a sophisticated impressionism, his music took a dark turn after the Great War was underway.  Bridge was a pacifist and the War shook him to his core, and his late works are strikingly original in their harmonic language and bold structures.  The Lament doesn't reflect the language he would later perfect in his masterful Piano Sonata, but it does show an intensely wrought and unbearably melancholic vision of the emotional capabilities of impressionism.  While many of the devices are familiar to fans of Debussy and Ravel, such as whole tone chords and planing figures, what matters most is how these figures pitch, bow and settle, and how Bridge is able to synthesize exotic harmonies with yearning tunefulness.  That yearning is brought out through closely knit melodic voicing, constantly in movement and surprising in their resolutions.  While it is easy to follow the tune the use of superimposed varied rhythms heightens the sense of despair, though the piece never explodes in anguish like so many anti-war works do.  Bridge wasn't a political activist in any sense of the term, and his pacifism was driven by the loss of friends and colleagues.  Lament isn't a call to action or a vindictive howl - it merely acknowledges the hole in the universe left in the wake of Catherine and the nearly 1200 other souls who perished in a disgraceful war crime.  Its commitment to private anguish is what makes it timeless rather than a historical anecdote, though it remains criminally underplayed for reasons that can only make me sad.  While the score above is the piano version, I've chosen the string orchestra version for the recording, as Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales savor every nuance and fleeting emotion the score has to offer.  I could have waited until May to write about the Lament, but I think its emotional impact is universal and all too essential, and listeners should be able to pull it out when they need it the most.  It doesn't insist or overbear - it merely offers a profound solace that can't be found anywhere else.

(Watch out for a loud electronic snap at the very beginning)


Monday, February 3, 2014

Willem Pijper's Belated One-Off

Here we are, the reason I started this (last) month in the first place (not that I'm the Sun, of course) - Willem Pijper (1894-1947).  Probably the most famous of the founders of the Dutch Society for the Development of Modern Creative Music, Pijper hasn't yet gotten the international break he deserves, most likely for reasons that will send me gnashing into the shadows.  While Daniel Ruyneman may have had more variety in his work, Pijper had a highly sophisticated and unique voice that showed a mastery of a host of modernist techniques and should have catapulted him beyond his homeland's scene.  As my deadline has passed I don't have the time I thought I did to stretch my arm out in his oeuvre and knock the gems into my shopping cart, so this has begrudgingly become a One-Off.  You could just as easily ignore the piece I'm going to talk about and look at his Piano Sonata or the Piano Concerto or the Symphony no. 2 or one of his string quartets or the Flute Sonata, with many of his scores available at his IMSLP page.  For the finale to Lowlands Month I decided to showcase a true masterpiece, five minutes of perfection that should have entered the rep long ago and is a fine representation of his imagination and confidence - Piano Sonatina no. 3.

Pijper came of age in the wave of Expressionism, with Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and the fine folks at Universal Edition leading the central European musical Avant-Garde.  As such, his music is drenched in the newly minted techniques of free atonality that I so love - roving fourths and fifths, bi- and poly-tonality, chromatic snaking, extended tertian harmonies, disparate, at times superimposed meters, jazzy rhythmic bouncing, and machinistic ostinatos.  Starting as delicately as possible, a quintal soundpool supporting a distant, forlorn melody, giving way to a music box variation on the same harmonic material.  The melody is so lilting and touching it's easy to forget how tightly the materials are treated, how every gesture in the piece can be drawn from that first bar-and-a-half.  I like to think of Pijper's combination of organic development and thick atmosphere as the "Smoke 'n' Mirrors" method of composition, and each variation on the source material is dipped in a new timbral concoction, each one more enchanting than the last.  By page 2 we see the first instance of meter superimposition, as Pijper lets the barlines disconnect to create interesting rhythmic textures, a nice brain twister for the performer.  The tension ramps up through a compound triple section, skittering across opposing major chords and climaxing at the 8/8 bar on the third line of page 3, a very Petruska sonority indeed.  He slides back into the opening chords, expanded a bit and cut off for a dramatic gesture similar to parts of "La Ruelle" from Abel Decaux's Clairs de Lune.  Things get back into gear with a dance-reprise of the tranquillo section from page 1, and perfect fourths whirl in the right hand over a perpetually shifting arpeggiesque left hand.  The top of page 5 delights in stacked pentatonic scales, spread out over the piano's upper register like a carillon, then quickly zipping through the recurring downward figure and reaching its top speed at Mosso assai, ma ben marcato.  Jumping major chords hammer across a four-note ostinato comprised of the same two perfect fifths that started the piece, breaking the barlines again to disconnect the listener from the propulsion, like watching a bird follow a high-speed train and getting distracted by telephone poles, your eyes unable to focus.  The final reprise leads to a very mid-century American kind of coda, a major chord sounded over an uncertain depth of bass, quite common in serious 50's dramas and masterful here.  It would have been so easy to let experimentation wreck the denoument, but Pijper keeps his cool, letting a single perfect fourth close the piece.

It's just about perfect, and I try to avoid slapping that adjective on too many pieces, but this one fits the bill.  Plenty of Pijper's other pieces are impressively creative and assured but I can't think of another that has the third Sonatina's impact.  If you somehow found a way to set my other Lowlands Month articles on fire and made for the kerosene, this one piece would still stand as a testament to the untapped wealth of the Netherlands' art history.  Belgium kind of slipped past me, and I'm sorry for that (to be honest I just couldn't think of anybody), and maybe this whole thing will keep me away from theme months, but I hope you've liked the people I highlighted and can go forth on your own.  Here's the score, below's the recording, and all's good.