JUSTIN DELLO JOIO: Two Concert Etudes; Music for Piano Trio; Sonata for Piano – Garrick Ohlsson, Jeremy Denk, piano/ Ani Kavafian, violin/ Carter Brey, cello – Bridge

by | Aug 25, 2007 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

JUSTIN DELLO JOIO: Two Concert Etudes; Music for Piano Trio; Sonata for Piano – Garrick Ohlsson, Jeremy Denk, piano/ Ani Kavafian, violin/ Carter Brey, cello – Bridge 9920, 59:03 ***1/2:

Justin Dello Joio is from the seventh generation of composers in his family. He is the son of the late great Norman Dello Joio (whom virtually every band geek in the world knows from his many well-loved compositions like Scenes from the Louvre). Justin’s music is making quite a stir, and some big names appear to be signing on to the cause, as are any number of professional reviewers.

His Two Concert Etudes are named “Momentum” and “Farewell” respectively. The first pretty much abides by its title, and the whole is a rush of perpetuum mobile, said in the notes to resemble a ball that is hurled with enormous force, picking up speed as it goes along, then breaking into an arpeggiated figure that comes full circle with the initial material. Lest this sound like a page taken from Popular Mechanics, let me assure you that the music is quite exciting and the effects thrilling, not to mention devilishly difficult to play. The second movement dives into a pool of utter repose, as we are invited to meditate on the mysteries of loss, and on how it is manifest in music. This is quiet, pensive music that is not overbearing emotionally, but still conveys a significant amount of distress in its contemplation.

The Piano Trio, “The March of Folly”, takes its inspiration from the book of the same name by historian Barbara Tuchman. Her thesis in this work asks the question as to why those who assume high office constantly make the wrong decisions by pursuing policies evidently contrary to the national interest of the country.  The four very descriptive movements are:

    The March of Folly
    March of Folly: To the Abyss/Cataclysm
    Epilogue: Prayer for Chiara

This last movement names the composer’s daughter. The work as a whole is sarcastic and pessimistic, sort of Ivesian (in a spiritual if not exactly technical manner), though the composer is quick to point out that the last movement remains one of naïve hope for his daughter and future generations. I found that the more I ignored the extra-musical associations (tough in this instance, I’ll grant) the more I was able to appreciate the music for what it is. Dello Joio has a good grasp of the piano trio form, and is perfectly able to make the thing sound correctly, especially in his excellent balance of attention given to each member of the estimable Kavafian-Denk-Brey Trio. There are some good arguments, lyrical passages, and a fine sense of ensemble written in to these pages, though I must confess that I did not feel as much of an integral connection between the movements as I would like. Perhaps over time this will change with familiarity, but this is the least affecting work on this disc, though by no means one to be dismissed.

The most affecting is the masterly Sonata for Piano. This is a tightly woven, superbly crafted work that should attract many fans, especially if they happen to be devotes of Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations and Sonata. This work shows many similarities to those masterpieces in the way it beckons the listener to attentive hearing, even if the listener feels forced; the initial material is not particularly striking in and of itself, but there is something about the intervallic leaps and insistent persuasion of the melody that commands attention. The subsequent variations are consistently integrated and full of a harmonious wholeness that is most satisfying. The theme reappears in the second and last movements, presented as a starkly probed and lyrical muse in the former, while as a shifting, fleetingly quixotic sprite in the last, growing more powerful until the forceful ending. This is an outstanding piece of music.

As mentioned, none of this music sounds easy, and Dello Joio is fortunate to have a pianist with the huge chops of Garrick Ohlsson to negotiate his ideas. The trio is excellent also, and Bridge is giving them very fine sound with just the correct amount of ambiance. This is a fine sampler of the composer, and I hope that Bridge will see fit to give us some more, especially the recently premiered Within Silence, a one-act chamber opera that came to the public eye in June of this year.

— Steven Ritter

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