Gilles Vonsattel, piano – Shadowlines = Works of D. SCARLATTI, WEBERN, MESSIAEN, BENJAMIN & DEBUSSY – Honens

Swiss pianist Vonsattel explores the roots and applications of modernism with often explosive effects.

Gilles Vonsattel – Shadowlines = SCARLATTI: 3 Sonatas; MESSIAEN: Etude No. 4 “Ile de feu II”; 2 Preludes; WEBERN: Variations, Op. 27; BENJAMIN: Shadowlines: Six Canonic Preludes for Piano; DEBUSSY: Feux d’artifice; Masques; D’un cahier d’esquisses; L’Isle joyeuse – Gilles Vonsattel, piano – Honens 201510CD, 67:51 (10/2/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

This second album from Swiss pianist Gilles Vonsattel – Laureate of the 2009 Honens Piano Competition in Canada – testifies (rec. March 2015) to his interest in modern composition, especially that influenced by classical forms. As such, the recital may prove attractive to a musical few who embrace the intellectual over the emotional aspects of artistic expression. Well I recall my courses in the Second Viennese School with Prof. Friedheim at SUNY, in which we would trace out the geometries of Webern’s tone rows and their multiple permutations, as if a huge grid or anagram had emerged from the harmonic labyrinth!  But did the music compel as to hear it with the same affection we bring to Mozart?

From the opening, jumping figures in Scarlatti’s Sonata in a minor, K. 3, we hear the rush and digital fluency of both composer and interpreter, that witty intelligence that permeates the disc.  Cruising scales, syncopes, and diminished seventh chords, played Presto provide the keyboard magic. Anotrher Sonata in a minor, K. 54, realizes a Spanish dance whose guitar flourishes suggest a jota of colorful, hypotic power. The triptych ends with the Sonata in C Major, K. 502, set in both dotted rhythms and dotted rests, producing a more ‘classical’ sensibility in hard patina.

Olivier Messiaen – the teacher of George Benjamin (b. 1960) – has representation by way of three pieces. The so-called Ile de feu II (1950) represents “fire island” Papua New Guinea.  The clash of pitches, durations, and attacks sets the piece – one of the Four Etudes of Rhythm – as a purely percussive work, seemingly random in its (mathematical) application of scales, pounding chords, and vigorous staccati, all of which testify to a punishing technique and musical aesthetic. The two Preludes have titles in the Debussy mode – although Paul Dukas insisted on their publication –  Les sons impalpable de reve and Cloches d’angoisse et lamres d’adieu. The former projects chains of chords and scalar arpeggios, with interruptions of dissonance and percussion.  The latter takes its cue from Ravel as much as from Debussy, a study in bell sounds, with a touch of Ravel’s Le Gibet. The music then explores the decay of the note’s dynamic, ranging to a quadruple pppp.

The Webern Variations (1936) stand as his own keyboard testament to the expressive and intellectual power of his chosen 12-tone row. He cherished the work enough to divide it into three traditional movements and to assign it an opus number. To find in this sequence of tones, effects, and discrete moments of emotional affect becomes as much a task for the listener as for Vonsattel to project mirth, wit, and human warmth to this highly abstract canvas. George Benjamin’s 2001 Shadowlines come as a direct experience of his having conducted the Webern Symphony, Op. 21. Benjamin means to project a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde personality from the keyboard, an amalgam of complexity, subtlety, and polyphonic invention of which the piano remains capable. Often, both the rhythmic thrust and the harmonic clashes conceal the counterpoint. The fourth, Tempestoso, utters some pain, while the fifth expands to a passacaglia. The sixth piece provides a gentle epilogue.

The recital concludes with four compositions by Claude Debussy, the master of keyboard palette in a mode still accessible to the more “plastic” sense of human contact. The Feux d’artifice Prelude reverberates with color pageantry, a setting of Le Marseillaise replete with whirling, swirling bursts of light.  The tiger in Vonsattel’s playing likes this piece. Both Masques and L’Isle joyeuse share an a minor mode and a highly charged but soft percussion that can become quite emboldened.  The publisher Fromont had advertised them as two book-ends for a projected suite. The former enjoys some of the same digital and motor demands we find in Scarlatti. The Isle of Joy evolves with a feverish energy the Isle of Cythera, devoted to the goddess Venus.  Only at the end does the formula “Luxe, calme et volupte” apply. Penultimately, Vonsattel approached the calm recesses of the 1904 D’un cahier esquisses, which lulls us in its own world of enchantment.

—Gary Lemco

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