“Bright Moods” = PROKOFIEV: Sarcasms, Op. 17; IGOR KARAČA: Nocturne; VLADAN RADOVANOVIĆ: Six Preludes; ROGER BRIGGS: Impromptu; DUŠAN RADIĆ: Three Preludes; LESLEY SOMMER: Five Pieces on Poems by Robert Frost; BÉLA BARTÓK: Out of Doors, Sz.81, BB89 – Milica Jelača Jovanović, piano – MSR Classics MS 1419, 61:58 [Distr. by Albany] ***:
At various points in my life I’ve tried my hand at marketing, without marked success or any special understanding of the practice. But while I must say I’m puzzled by the title and cover art attached to the current album, I think most listeners, even marketing-savvy ones, will come away with the same befuddlement. If you were to grab this disc in hopes of whiling away the time with light classics for piano or with bouncy material from one of those countries that specialize in dance-inflected music, you’d be sorely disappointed. So instead, prepare yourself for thoughtful music-making, much of it with a certain Slavic intensity, and you’ll be on target.
Bookending the selections are two classics: Prokofiev’s acerbic Sarcasms and Bartók’s sometimes “barbaric” (à la his own Allegro barbaro) suite Out of Doors. There seems to be more truth in advertising in the title of Prokofiev’s work, but Bartók may be employing his own brand of sarcasm in giving the piece such a healthy-sounding title. In his well-considered notes to the recording, Edward Rutschman explains, “The concept of ‘outdoor music’ implies certain styles, forms and occasions (a wedding party for instance), and it calls for ‘loud’ instruments (a category including bagpipes, other wind instruments and drums). From the first few notes of With Drums and Pipes, however, it is clear that the instruments in question are highly stylized and loaded with dissonance. Barcarolla is modeled on a traditional genre, the Venetian gondolier’s song, but Bartók rocks the boat in ore than one sense.” Yep, clear your head of any recollections of Smetana’s wedding party on the banks of the Moldau or of Offenbach’s famous Venetian boat song. And so it goes in Musettes, Musiques Nocturnes, and The Chase, where Bartók foils expectations more often than he fulfils them. Out of Doors is the perfect example of Bartok’s assimilation of Hungarian folk influences into an alternately hard-driving and eerily chromatic musical modernism.
Serbian pianist Milica Jovanović brings special insight to this music, especially the three quieter, more inward central movements. She’s less brutal, less driven than some pianists in the fast outer movements, which may be a comfort to some listeners, though I confess I expect more hell-for-leather momentum here. I think the same criticism could be leveled at her performance of the Prokofiev. Jovanović is not really precipitate enough to bring off the Allegro precipitato and Precipitosissimo movements with the requisite abandon Prokofiev implies in his markings. So if your chief interest lies in the better-known works on the program, be advised that more compelling performances are available on disc.
That brings us to the less-well-known (or, rather, unknown) works on the program, two of which, besides being world-premiere recordings, are dedicated to Ms. Jovanović: Igor Karača’s Nocturne and Roger Briggs’s Impromptu. Both are atmospheric pieces, rather subdued and introspective in character, which seems to suit Jovanović well. The other most recent work on the program, from the year 2000, is by a colleague at Western Washington University in Bellingham, where Ms. Jovanović is an associate professor of piano. Lesley Sommers’ Five Pieces on Poems of Robert Frost use three of Frost’s most troubled creations as jumping-off points: “Acquainted with Night,” “Design,” and “Come In.” For those who think of Frost as an avuncular, even doddering, figure of American letters, it’s time to reread these and other works by a poet whose dedication to formalism still shrouds a deeply modernist world view. In fact, I think you don’t really need to read the Frost poems to enjoy and appreciate Sommers’ evocative music, but it’s a good idea for its own sake.
The piano preludes by the other composers on the program, Serbian composers Vladan Radovanvić and Dušan Radić, may invite comparison with the Preludes of Shostakovich, but understand that these composers need to be considered on their own merits. Both have something very substantial to offer, and Ms. Jovanović seems highly responsive to the work of her compatriots.
The recording, set down in a hall in Belgrade, is close-up, powerful, maybe requiring a bit of volume reduction from what you’re normally used to. Just a touch more resonance would have enhanced the listening experience, as far as I’m concerned. Otherwise, I mostly can’t complain, either about the sound or the intelligent musicianship on display here.