CONLON NANCARROW: Studies for Player Piano 16, 20, 26, 32, 44; Suite for Orchestra; Three Movements for Chamber Orchestra; Septet (fragment); PAUL USHER: Nancarrow Concerto for Pianola and Chamber Orch. – Helena Bugalo, Amy Williams, Amy Briggs, Ingrid Karlen, piano/ Rx Lawson, pianola/ Ensemble Modern/ Kaspar de Roo/ WDR Symphony Orch. Cologne/ Stefan Asbury – Wergo WER 6733, 73:54 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***1/2:
It’s difficult to know what to make of the music of Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) these days; always the radical, he became convinced that modern instrumental means were not going to be enough to fully put forth the new expressive demands of the 20th century, and as a result turned, as others did also, to the creation of new instruments and the expansion of old ones. His development of the player piano enabled the performance of music too complex for human beings to play. This break with the “live” performing tradition has many philosophical conflicts inherent to it, yet Nancarrow stuck to his guns for several decades before deciding, through his contact with a new generation of virtuosos, that there were possibilities for the concert stage, and he began revising a number of pieces in light of this new revelation.
Here we have some of those player piano revisions, for two pianos, four pianos, and piano four hands. It’s impossible to assess the real difficulty of these works without a score, and since Nancarrow’s idiom is one which is comparatively speaking accessible and rather tame, having as its influences polyrhythm and jazz, they don’t strike us today the way they would have in the forties and fifties. There is much attraction to be sure, and the composer’s art is a secure one; yet I can’t help but wonder if it is more in the world of historical curiosity that it will be remembered instead of viable music.
The earliest work here is the 1940 Septet, three extremely brief movements (unfinished) which again proves a historical curio but nothing really significant. But a few years later the much more substantial Suite appeared based on an earlier work for chamber orchestra, and not as “populist” as some of his other works. The Three Movements for Chamber Orchestra is a 1993 work where the composer used some previously written pieces for player piano in order to complete it because of a stroke he suffered. The eleven minutes offered are substantive and quite attractive, more transparent than anything to this point in time and perhaps an indication of where he was heading.
In 1985 Nancarrow met pianola virtuoso Rex Lawson and immediately began work on a concerto for the instrument. He used his own three-part Study No. 49 as the basis for the piece, yet did not complete it. Composer Paul Usher intended to finish the piece but came to the conclusion that it could not be done. Instead he opted to use the same base material and write a work of his own in the “spirit” of Nancarrow. It is difficult to determine how much of this spirit in present in the piece as it seems to stray from the Nancarrow “style”, as much as there is such a thing; but the piece is impressive in its own right, and is as close as we will get to hearing what Nancarrow envisioned.
This is really for curiosity seekers in general, and I am not sure it is even the best introduction to Nancarrow’s music. But the performances and sound are exemplary, and those wishing to delve in won’t be disappointed.
— Steven Ritter