“Close Connections” = LOUIS WEINGARDEN: Triptych; ROBERT HELPS: Shall We Dance; STEFAN WOLPE: Passacaglia; WILLIAM HIBBARD: Handwork; OLDŘICH KORTE: Sonata – Garrick Ohlsson, piano – Bridge 9380, 73:35 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
It’s good to see Garrick Ohlsson, celebrated interpreter of old masters such as Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, devoting time and energy to the cause of little-known music by modern composers. Actually though, Ohlsson is a long-time champion of contemporary music, and in fact the works of Weingarden and Hibbard on the current disc were written for him, the Weingarden piece all the way back in 1969, the year Garrick Ohlsson turned twenty-one.
Triptych, surprisingly, is based on three stories from the Bible: the first is based on Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of his son Isaac; the second is a musical portrait of the future King David playing his lyre while tending his flock; and the third concerns the two Marys arriving at Jesus’ tomb to find it empty and guarded by an angel. I say “surprisingly” because this is such thorny, uncompromisingly difficult music—atonal to boot—that tone painting seems the furthest thing from the composer’s intention. Ohlsson maintains that “Triptych is a piece that feels larger in scale than its 20-minute length might suggest,” and while this might be true, it’s much to Weingarden’s credit that the piece holds the interest to the extent that those 20 minutes seem to go by much more quickly than the clock attests.
Robert Helps’ strange little Shall We Dance has its dance-like moments certainly. Ohlsson writes that its “introduction suggests an almost atonal waltz. . . .” But like most contemporary music, Shall We Dance would be pretty hard to dance to. Rhythmically complex and dreamily atmospheric at the same time—at least up to (and following) its explosive climax about halfway through—the piece is freighted with a title that seems more than a little ironic.
Garrick Ohlsson credits Stefan Wolpe’s wife Irma with “dragging me back into the 20th century” since his studies with her at the New England Conservatory of Music reintroduced him to modern piano music, beginning with Schoenberg and including Stefan Wolpe himself. Wolpe’s Passacaglia is very new wine in an old skin, since the piece is “based on a free 12-tone note series that employs increasing intervals—half step, whole step, minor third, major third, and so on—all the material derived from that opening.” It’s wild and wooly, thoroughly uncompromising music that’s about the farthest thing you can imagine from the sober and elegant passacaglias of Renaissance and Baroque masters.
Of William Hibbard’s Handwork, Ohlsson writes, “I think of Handwork as a literal title—it’s work, for both hands and brain. . . .” At the start, it reminds me a bit of the crazy, claustrophobic music Stravinsky wrote to portray the forlorn Petrushka holed up in his room. Handwork has its moments of repose, but it hardly ever seems reposeful because of the big dynamic contrasts built into the piece: the quiet passage that comes after the storm of the opening is punctuated with big fortissimo chords. And there’s an undercurrent of angst in the subsequent quieter moments.
The only living composer on Garrick Ohlsson’s program is Slovakian Oldřich Korte (b. 1926), who introduced Ohlsson to his Sonata when the pianist visited Prague sometime earlier in the present century. Hearing a recording of the Sonata (1953) played by the composer himself seems to have convinced Ohlsson to take up the work, but Korte’s fascinating biography must also have been an inducement. Korte was imprisoned by both the Nazis and Communists and forced to take a series of odd jobs, from fireman to truck driver, in order to underwrite his composing career. The Sonata is a conservative work that seems way out of place in the company of the likes of Tryptich and Handwork, but the variety it injects into Ohlsson’s program is not unwelcome.
Garrick Ohlsson’s staggering virtuosity is everywhere apparent in this program, as is his obvious emotional investment in all these pieces. This is clearly music he believes in deeply. The recordings were made at different times and in different venues, but only that of Handwork, made back in 1988, sounds jarring in the company of the other inscriptions. The sonics from the University of Iowa Center for New Music are distant, rather chilly, lacking in presence. A small matter, certainly, given the quality of the performances and the opportunity to hear some unusual and unusually demanding modern piano music.