Recital Media Review Print

New and Noteworthy Piano Preludes

December 27, 2012 - Williamsburg, MA:

François Dompierre (b. 1943): 24 Préludes en forme de boogie et de bien d’autres choses encore… [in a Boogie-Woogie Form and Many Other Things…]; Alain Lefèvre, piano: Yamaha; Analekta AN 2-9292-3, © 2012, TT 80:03, approx. $20.

Hans Gál: Twenty-four preludes for piano, Op. 83 (1960), Leon McCawley, piano (unidentified); CD 2 in 3-CD set, The Complete Works for Solo Piano, Avie AV 2064, © 2005 The Hans Gál Society, TT 50:02, £30 (approx. $34).

Matthew Whittall: Leaves of Grass, 12 preludes; after Walt Whitman; Risto-Matti Marin, piano: Steinway D-274, Serial No. 584016, Alba Records, ABCD 333, © 2011, TT 63:13, $18.99.

Although the Gál (1890-1987) is technically not “new,” it is new to the US classical musical listening world because, like most of the music of this Austrian Jewish composer displaced by the rise of Hitler – his music was banned and classified as “entartete,” although it is not very edgy, experimental, or revolutionary as was that of many other composers whose music was so characterized – it has not been much performed or recorded. A 2-CD set performed by Martin Jones was released in 2007 on the Nimbus label that I have not heard and was unaware of until I researched after acquiring this set. Gál, born near Vienna and a product of its conservatory, was director of the Conservatoire in Mainz when Hitler came to power in 1933, and was stripped of his position; he returned to Vienna and eked out an existence for 5 years. After the Anschluss in 1938, he fled, first to London and then to Edinburgh where he remained for the rest of his long life. The other two composers both hail from French Canada, but Whittall now lives in Finland, after having completed a graduate degree at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Preludes generally have a pedagogical purpose, often involving a self-pedagogical challenge, in their background, and it is often from both a compositional and a performance perspective. Some were composed to be used in teaching private students. Some also have extra-musical inspirations or associations. Some, like J.S. Bach’s, in Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (S. 846-93), progress systematically through the chromatic scale with one in each major and minor key beginning with C major; others, like Frédéric Chopin’s, are more randomly arranged. Some composers, like Claude Debussy, strayed further from the textbook and created pieces that were more like sound paintings than exercises, but lest we forget that even he had this underlying purpose in mind, he was unable to find a suggestive image name for one of his: “Les tierces alternées” [Alternating thirds] (Book II/11). Names that we associate with Chopin’s, like the “Raindrop” (Op. 28/15) and “Funeral March” (Op. 28/20), were suggested by Hans von Bulow (He made suggestions for all 24, but most are not used.), not by Chopin, and it should be remembered that Debussy placed his “catalysts/cues” at the end, not the beginning of the scores. Of course, many composers, including JSB, wrote small groups or sets, or even individual ones that were published in collections that included other forms, as is the case of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in C-sharp minor, which is No. 2 in his 5 Morceaux de Fantaisie, Op. 3. Gál also wrote a set of three, Op. 44, in 1944, that are found on CD 1 on the set, that are very different from those in his full set, and very interesting and charming.

The Gál Preludes are constructed like J.S. Bach’s, with one for every major and minor key, but do not progress systematically through the chromatic scale as do the latter’s; they are arranged so that each major key one is followed by its minor key equivalent, but although the first pair is in C major and minor, they progress by major thirds or perfect fourths until all the keys have been exhausted. This is explained in part by the unusual circumstances of their composition: during a hospitalization, Gál gave himself the challenge of composing one a day “as a mental distraction and in order that he might ‘not get out of shape’,” and the set was expanded, revised, and refined over the succeeding months until it was complete, according to the booklet notes (p. 9), but the choice of this progression was thus also clearly deliberate; he could easily have rearranged them in order. Gál said of them: “they are studies in piano sound, piano technique, and concentrated miniature form.”

They are of varying lengths ranging from just over a minute to just under 3.5 minutes, with the majority in the 1.5- to 2.5-minute range. They are also of very varying styles, atmospheres, and moods: a few are serious, somewhat in the style of JSB; others have a slightly jazzy edge; many have unexpected turns at their conclusion, so they are completely unpredictable. They display his reverence for the Baroque in the crystal clarity of their forms, but often with a twist; they vary in rhythm, and are melodic, sometimes lyrical even. Bach accompanied each of his preludes with a Fugue in the same key. Gál also wrote a set of fugues twenty years later in 1980, but they are separate, and they do progress systematically through the scale beginning with C major. They are found on CD 3 of the set, timing at 59:54 minutes, and are as diverse and interesting as the Preludes.

The Whittall (b. 1975) set takes its cue not only from Debussy but also from the other musical tradition of instrumental and orchestral music inspired by works of literature, although these are not programmatic in the usual Romantic-period sense, and while there are technical skills featured in the works’ execution, they are not in any way constructed like exercises. Their titles are those of the specific poems (reprinted in the accompanying booklet) which inspired, or in Whattall’s words (pp. 9-10) were the “background material” or “catalyst[s]” for them, and they are arranged in three groups of 4. Whittall states in his “Composer’s reflections” in the booklet (p. 8) that he is seeking to write piano music for the 21st century, launching from previous achievements, compositional styles, and techniques which are quoted and/or referenced, and moving beyond them. For example, the white-key chords in “Sparkles from the Wheel” (No. 3) recall Debussy’s in La cathédrale engloutie (Book I/10). He is also clearly composing for the power and sonorities of the 21st century Steinway concert grand, with its “evenness of sound throughout its range [which] creates great difficulty for a composer such as myself who relies as heavily on color, texture, gesture[,] and atmosphere as on structural, motivic[,] or harmonic cohesion to hold music together and maintain interest for listeners” (p. 8).

All are unapologetically modern in style but eminently tonal and melodic, although the melodies are not in any way lilting and/or soaring in the Romantic sense; rather they are often short and frequently repeated in minimalist fashion, or contemplative if not meditative. The preludes vary in length from just under 1.5 minutes to just over 11 for No. 11: “Song of the universal,” the most ebullient, extensive, and impressive of all, minimalistic with its haunting hypnotic, mesmerizing repetitiveness conjured from the short 3-line text, and using heroic arpeggios reminiscent of Chopin’s Op. 25/12, “Ocean” étude, with many hovering in the 4- to 5-minute range. While they are not exercises to help the pianist develop a specific technique, they clearly emphasize and exploit various ones and are technically very challenging to execute.

In order to appreciate the truth and validity of these statements and assertions (Whittall’s and mine), I recommend listening in succession to Whittall’s set followed by Chopin’s and Debussy’s, preferably in both instances on recordings that use pianos similar or identical to the ones for which they were composed; see the one reviewed here for Chopin, and the one listed in Appendix B found in Part III of my very long piece about French pianist-composers for Debussy. Like Chopin’s and Debussy’s, Whittall’s are enormously successful individually, even if some seem more so than others on a casual initial hearing, and can be enjoyed that way, in one of his three groups, or as a carefully constructed cycle (in fact far more carefully than either of those predecessors), with its internal cross references, both in melodies and techniques, that are better perceived and more fully appreciated with more concentrated repeated listenings, which they easily support without their ever losing their appeal or the listener’s interest. Whittall says nothing in his notes about whether he intends to write another set of 12 for a second Book as Debussy did, but we dare to suggest that another set inspired by another seminal English-language poet such as e. e. cummings, would be welcome to our ears.

Dompierre’s is the longest and most diverse of the three sets. Like Whittall, he states in his note in the accompanying booklet (p. 6) that he has attempted to create something new in the form, and not to copy from any of his predecessors, but in his case, he is taking his inspiration from all sorts of rhythms, many of them from the worlds of jazz or the dance hall (but not the ballroom). Like JSB and Gál, he has written one for each key of the chromatic scale, but does not give them in their titles as they do; they do seem to progress systematically through the scale, but I confess not to be adept enough at identifying keys solely upon hearing to be absolutely certain. They do not have cues or titles like Debussy’s and Whittall’s. They are identified by their numbers, like Chopin’s, consecutively from 1 to 24 through the set, and by French descriptive adjectives, printed in solid caps in the track listing, that suggest their mood or characterize their rhythm in a purely abstract manner. Although they are not subdivided into two books or sub-groups, there are some internal inter-relationships if no architectural organization among them.

These adjectival titles have everything but traditional musical associations; some of them are offbeat, including some slang-like ones, such as No. 15 Loufoque (Goofy or Funky) for example. Dompierre includes subtitles for each as well, in parentheses, some of them following in the tradition of Debussy, who self-described as “musician français” (although he gave English titles to several of his Preludes) and, along with some other composers, used French descriptive terms rather than the centuries-old Italian ones to indicate tempos. Many have English words of jazz- or dance-world origin combined with some of the standard Italian tempo indications, to further characterize the rhythms, like No. 1 Frénétique (Boogie; Allegro vivace), or No. 2 Tranquille (Swing léger; Allegro), for example, combining all four sources/traditions, the whole creating a veritable linguistic hodge-podge that brings to mind some of the titles Erik Satie gave to his works; No. 5 Effervescent (Relax, One Step; Allegro vivace) and No. 6 Excentrique (Shuffle; Swing modéré) could easily come right out of a list of his compositions. The works themselves also occasionally bring Satie’s to mind as well as some of those by the members of Le Groupe des Six, most of whom incorporated jazz rhythms into some of their scores. Nos. 6 and 13 Pittoresque (Très léger mais bien accentué) have fairly pronounced syncopation. Several use Latin-American rhythms such as the tango (No. 8), the bossa nova (No. 9), the milonga, (No. 17), and the meringue (No. 24), another feature connecting them with Les Six. It all makes one wonder what came first for the inspiration: the rhythm, the jazz form, or the adjective?

The pieces range from 1.75 to just over 5 minutes in length, with the bulk of them falling in the 2- to 4-minute range. Their styles vary from slow and contemplative, like No. 7 Tendre (Slow Ballad; Sostenuto cantabile) and No. 11 Immobile (Cool; Molto lento sostenuto e [misprinted as ‘a’] piacere), to fast and energetic, such as No. 16 Effréné (Toccata; Allegro vivace) and No. 23 Incisif (Con fuoco; détaché). Several end with a flourish. No. 9 Obstiné (Bossa nova; Allegretto giocoso) brings to mind Chopin’s No. 15 in D-flat major, Op. 28/15, “Raindrop” Prelude with its repetitive right-hand pattern. No. 15 Loufoque, with its ragtime feel, calls to mind Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk (Children’s Corner/6) and his General Lavine – eccentric Prelude (II/6), which is marked: Dans le style et le movement d’un Cake-Walk. No. 17 Délicat (Sostenuto; à la milonga) is perhaps the most like a Debussy work in atmosphere. No. 11 Alerte (Soft shoe; Allegretto giacoso) also has a rag feel and No. 20 Fébrile (Fast Charleston Rag; Swing prononcé) is marked as such. No. 4 Limpide (Slow Country; Très léger swing; Allegro cantabile is mis-labeled; it should be Andante. These are eminently melodic and enjoyable, in a salon (One must remember that many of Chopin’s and Debussy’s were heard, and even premièred in this setting.) or a concert hall context, and in spite of their ‘titles’ are serious music, not frivolous fluff, and support repeated listening, individually, in groups, or the set, without wearing thin or seeming empty.

In all three of these recordings, the pianists have a close connection with the music and/or the composers themselves. That of McCawley is of particular interest: he tells in a note in the booklet (p. 11) that, while on tour, he was staying as a guest in the home in York, UK, of Gál’s daughter Eva, and, while practicing at her piano, he found some of Gál’s piano music on its music stand, so began playing it, became fascinated with its sound, its structure, and technical challenges, and took some home with him to explore and learn further. The project to record all of it was born from this experience, and Eva’s son, Simon Fox-Gál, who has known the music from childhood, became the producer of the set. He says in his note (p. 10) that most of the tracks are single takes of “complete and near-flawless performances.” McCawley has clearly absorbed and internalized it.

In the other two cases, composer and pianist are friends who collaborate in other realms as well, on the air on Radio-Canada in the case of Dompierre and Lefèvre, who is the host of the award-winning weekly Sunday classical music program “Espace Musique” and is also a composer; coincidentally, both have also composed film scores. Whittall’s and Marin’s collaboration is inevitably of shorter duration, but clearly no less close and successful; they met professionally, but have become close friends. Marin was a co-commissioner, along with the summertime Mänttä Music Festival where it was premièred by him, of this, Whittall’s first work for solo piano, and the composer wrote it with Marin’s interests and skills in mind. Marin had requested a short piece for the festival, and it simply grew organically to this full-blown, full-length score, which is headed by Walt Whitman’s iconic declaration: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then, I contradict myself./ I am large, I contain multitudes” (p. 8).

The accompanying booklets are as diverse and different from each other as is the music on the disks. The 32-page Gál one is the most traditional and most thorough. Track listings and timings occupy pages 2-4. A succinct 1.5-page bio of the composer, followed by a discussion of all the works in order of composition (not exact playing order although roughly equivalent), both by Lloyd Moore, fill pages 5-10. Producer Simon Fox-Gál’s nearly full-page note follows, succeeded by pianist Leon McCawley’s half-page one, which is followed in turn by his 1.5-page bio. All is repeated in French and German. There are eight photos of Gál on the covers and inside, with none repeated; the same is the case for McCawley’s four. Fox-Gál’s is used twice with the English and German texts; recording credits occur at the end of the French one. The 16-page Whittall booklet is in English and Finnish, opening with the poems in side-by-side presentation, followed by the note from the composer divided into two parts: about the music and about Whitman and the poetry. The bios of pianist and composer accompanied by photos occupy a following single page (11). All of this text follows in Finnish with bios inverted and without photos on pages 12-14. The inside of the back cover shows covers of other recordings by Marin and gives recording credits, with track listings and timings on its outside. The front cover is a close-up color photo of leaves of grass that wraps around onto the right side of the back. The 8-page Dompierre one is the slimmest of all, with texts in French and English on facing pages, first the bio of pianist Alain Lefèvre, then that of François Dompierre, briefer and accompanied by four different photos of the pair, all different from the one on the cover, in chain across its bottom. Dompierre’s note in side-by-side presentation follows, facing the recording credits on the inside of the back cover that has the track listings and timings in columns, CD1 on the left and CD2 the right; total timings are not printed.

If you like and enjoy the Bach, Chopin, and Debussy Preludes, appreciate the similarities and differences among them, and admire the tradition of the form itself and enjoy hearing what different composers do with it, you will likely also enjoy and like all of these. I found that, because they are new and unfamiliar, they all inevitably “grow on you” with repeated hearings and their merits and virtues become clearer with each one. Whether any of these sets will ever achieve the status of universal admiration of those three predecessors’, only time will tell, but they are certainly successful ones that augment, refine, update, and vary the tradition authoritatively, and these are all truly outstanding performances that bring out the best in them.