Music of STEFAN WOLPE, Volume 6 = WOLPE: Four Studies on Basic Rows; Three Pieces for Youngsters; Lied, Anrede, Hymnus, Strophe zarteste Bewegung; Two Pieces for Piano; Toccata in Three Parts; Studies for Piano, Part 1: Displaced Spaces; Studies for Piano, Part 2; Two Dances for Piano; Palestinian Notebook; Songs Without Words – David Holzman, piano – Bridge 9344, 73:21 [Distr. by Albany] ***1/2:
In his detailed and sympathetic notes to this recording, modern-music specialist David Holzman notes the variety of expression that unfolds in the Music of Stefan Wolpe project on the Bridge label. Holzman says it must prompt a listener to ask, “Who is the man behind these creations?” and the pianist hastens to tell us. I’m thinking, however, that a listener might just as likely ask the question posed by that old TV quiz show: “Will the real Stefan Wolpe please stand up?” Wolpe is not the stylistic chameleon that Stravinsky was, but he certainly shows a number of seemingly contradictory facets in his music, and they’re all explored on the current disc.
Stefan Wolpe admired Schoenberg’s serialism and even studied briefly with Anton Webern when he passed through Vienna in 1933, seeking to escape the rise of Nazism in his native Germany. According to Holzman, in 1935 Wolpe attended Hermann Scherchen’s course on conducting in Brussels and there came “in contact with an international group of young composers. . .and plunged into composing a series of studies on the cutting edge of dodecaphony.” Those are the Four Studies on Basic Rows, whose title immediately announces their cutting-edge sensibility. Their uncompromising difficulty not only causes consternation for the listener but near-insurmountable technical difficulties for the performer: Wolpe initially dedicated the final section, a thirteen-plus-minute Passacaglia, to Edward Steuermann, who pronounced the piece unplayable.
Such music won Wolpe few friends in Palestine, where he taught theory, composition, and conducting at the Palestine Conservatoire from 1935 until 1938. Emil Hauser, leader of the famed Budapest String Quartet, told Wolpe “that they did not need atonal music in Palestine.” Wolpe’s staunch defense of modernism probably lost him his job; his contract was not renewed, and eventually he left Palestine for New York, where he lived the rest of his life.
In New York, he met and hobnobbed with the abstract Expressionist painters who were on the cutting edge of graphic arts in the early ‘50s. This continued to fuel the modernist bent his music, including Studies for Piano, Part 1, Displaced Spaces. As Holzman notes, the title connects the studies directly with the abstract Expressionist movement: “The minute breathings of the lines take place within the emptiness of the space that surrounds them.” This is music of such spare proto-minimalist gestures as to make the earlier Four Studies seem vastly rich by comparison.
But speaking of the graphic arts, in his student days in Germany Wolpe studied at the Bauhaus, and the experience fueled another facet of his art and social life. The Bauhaus school, with its emphasis on art as a social contract, led him to sympathize with Paul Hindemith’s later excursions into Grabauchsmusik, or “music for use.” That side of Wolpe’s art is expressed in his Three Pieces for Youngsters. As Holzman points out, especially the third piece is a bit too demanding for young players, so the Three Pieces probably make more sense, like Schumann’s Kinderscenen, regarded as reflections on youth that amateur pianists can enjoy and learn from.
Like many German composers in the 1920s, Wolpe came under the influence of American popular music, which dominated the cabaret culture of the day. Some of his most approachable music involves stylized jazz, another current that he never really abandoned. Indeed, my introduction to Wolpe came through a winning jazz-inspired piece from the 1950s, Quartet for Trumpet, Tenor Saxophone, Piano, and Percussion. An early example of this direction in his music is Two Dances for Piano of 1926, featuring a blues and a tango number—tangy and attractive.
Other trends show up in this music as well, including the “Bach-to-Bach” neoclassicism of the Toccata in Three Parts, for all its borderline-atonal rigor one of the more appealing works on the disc. It is mostly bright-spirited and athletic, but the central part—Adagio, “To much suffering in the world”—poignantly reflects the world of 1941, when the Toccata was written.
Placing the machine-tooled brilliance and austerity of the Four Studies first on the disc may give the listener too bracing a plunge into the world of Wolpe’s piano music; in fact, you may want to sample something a little less daunting to begin with. But even if it isn’t music to love, this is music to respect, and Holzman’s survey certainly engenders respect – for both Wolpe’s restless musical mind and the performer’s incredible playing. None of the huge challenges of this music seems to daunt Holzman, although he confesses that he needed a break after the “first day and a half of strenuous recording” and so turned to the now-for-something-completely-different music of the Three Pieces for Youngsters. It’s certainly a tribute to Holzman’s musicianship that he crafts the simpler and more accessible works with the same kind of sympathy that he lavishes on Four Studies.
Bridge supplies a characteristically fine ringing piano recording to help Holzman’s cause. If I hesitate to recommend this disc with ultimate enthusiasm, it has nothing to do with the performances or the production values, which are first-rate, but with Wolpe’s music, which is often so uncompromising as to present a challenge that a listener will want to take up only on occasion.
— Lee Passarella