“Nightbreak” = Piano works of LISZT, BRAHMS, RIHM, GLASS – Bruce Levingston – Sono Luminus Piano Music of GENE GUTCHE – Matthew McCright – Centaur

by | Feb 8, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

“Nightbreak” = LISZT: Vallée d’Obermann; Les Cloches de Genève; Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa D’Este; BRAHMS: Intermezzo in E Major, Op. 116, No. 4, “Nocturne”; Ballade in D Minor, Op. 10, No. 1, “Edward”; Waltz in D Minor, Op. 39, No. 9; WOLFGANG RIHM: Brahmsliebewaltzer; PHILIP GLASS: Dracula Suite – Bruce Levingston, piano – Sono Luminus  DSL-92144, 63:47 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Piano Music of GENE GUTCHË = GUTCHË: Theme and Variations; C Minor Fugue; Utilitarian Fugue; Sonata, Op. 32, No. 1; Sonata, Op. 32, No. 2 – Matthew McCright, piano – Centaur CRC 3150, 51:54 [Distr. by Naxos] ****1/2:
Truth in advertising. Bruce Levingston came up with the title for his CD when he realized that he “had assembled and recorded a number of works that vividly display the light and darkness of the human soul.” Despite some of Liszt’s trademark technical razzle-dazzle and the fitful drama of Brahms’s Ballade and Glass’s musical portrait of Dracula, the mood and coloration of these works are prevailingly subdued, making them suitable accompaniments for a listener’s quieter, more contemplative times.
Lizst’s Vallée d’Obermann and Les Cloches de Genève, taken from his Année de Pèlerinage devoted to Switzerland, are cases in point: tone poems that portray both inner and outer darkness. The first creates a “psychological/musical landscape” in which Liszt charts the progress of the fictional character Obermann, who wanders in the vale of self-doubt. It’s self-portrait as much as portrait, with Liszt exploring his own questions about the meaning of existence and personal endeavor, culminating in radiant self-affirmation, as he spins out a heroic melody above a series of pounding cascading chords. Broken chords, arpeggios and grace notes distantly intone the hours in Les Cloches de Genève, one of Liszt’s most delicately colored bits of proto-Impressionism. More brilliant, rippling arpeggios, chords, and runs in Liszt’s equally Impressionistic Les Jeux d’eau, where the play of light and not of sound is the focus, providing perfect contrast with Les Cloches de Genève.
With Brahms’s Intermezzo, we’re back to a poignant nocturnal landscape. Brahms’s friend Philipp Spitta said that Brahms’s late Intermezzi are “Intermediate pieces,” preceding and following “other things” that listeners and musicians alike must imagine for themselves. That pretty well expresses the feeling of incompletion these works convey, as if they capture fleeting thoughts or questions that might come at the quieter moments of the day. Even the waltz that Levingston chooses to represent Brahms’s stylized dance pieces is darkly colored and subdued, like the last waltz of the evening. Again, by way of contrast is contemporary German composer Wolfgang Rihm’s tribute to Brahms, which takes as its model Brahms’s more upbeat, folksy Liebeslieder Waltzes, though the radiant thirds that Brahms would have used are shattered by Rihm’s weird chromatic echoes of his waltz tune.
From the beginning of Brahms’s creative journey comes his 1854 treatment of the Scottish ballad Edward, which tells the story of a son “counseled” to kill his father by his own mother. The central section, where the son recounts the murder and his intention to flee his lands and family, is “eerily both heroic and tragic,” but the prevailing mood is fittingly somber, especially the end, where the son leaves his mother a curse for the counsels she gave him.
I wonder if Levingston included Glass’s Dracula Suite because the first number, a portrait of the fangy one himself, recalls Liszt’s weird Malédiction for piano and strings, bringing us sort of full circle. At any rate, Levingston’s piano arrangement of Glass’s original, scored for string quartet, sounds genuinely Glassian, which will be good news for devotees of the minimalist composer. For me, it’s the least provocative and interesting piece on offer here, but it doesn’t really doesn’t manage to put the kibosh on what’s mostly a thoughtful, imaginative program well played and beautifully recorded.
The connection between Bruce Levingston’s program and the piano music of Gene Gutchë (1907-2000) is probably tentative at best, but it’s the Janus-like quality of the music on both discs that stimulated me to review them together. While the late music of Liszt and Brahms looks forward to Impressionism and even atonality, Rihm and Glass glance back toward the legacy of the Romantic era in music. So, too, does Gene Gutchë though his compositional style is hard to define because it embraced such disparate elements. The piano music on the current disc is a prime example of this, even if the piano apparently wasn’t a chief preoccupation of the composer. Gutchë made his mark in his orchestral music of the 60s and 70s, which was championed by a number of American conductors and orchestras.
Of the works on the current disc, the two sonatas of 1963 bear the greatest stylistic resemblance to these orchestral works, though the seeds of Gutchë’s later style are found as well in Theme and Variations and the two fugues from the 1940s. This music can be called neo-Romantic; if Gutchë had remained in his native Berlin and continued to write in that vein, it might even be called post-Brahmsian, especially Theme and Variations, whose theme has a bittersweet tenderness to it, punctuated with some more restless dotted rhythms that figure prominently in the variations as they progress. While the theme may have a Brahmsian cast to it, the variations become increasingly dissonant and abstract until the militant conclusion, where the rhythmic emphases in the theme seem to be all that survives—a fascinating approach to the form.
Likewise, the fugues seem to start in the sound world of a Romantic Bach imitator such as Reger or Busoni only to devolve into an increasing departure from diatonicism and the strictures of counterpoint. I’m not sure, by the way, why Utilitarian Fugue is so titled: maybe because its theme is doesn’t have the pseudo-Baroque nobility of the C Minor Fugue but sounds like one of the workaday fugue themes that Shostakovich put through the paces in his Preludes and Fugues. Even more so than in the C Minor Fugue, the theme becomes fractured both harmonically and rhythmically.
With the two Op. 32 Sonatas of 1963, we come closer to the style of Gutchë’s better-known orchestral music. The pieces are marked by driving ostinatos, hairpin tempo and register shifts, and an almost manic energy that recalls Prokofiev more than Shostakovich. Though cast in one movement, both enfold three definable sections that correspond to the usual fast-slow-fast sonata scheme; in each case, the “finale” returns to music of the opening. In his notes to the recording, pianist Matthew McCright says the chief contrast comes in the slow sections of the two sonatas: in the first, “the lyrical lines folded in and over one another, creating a sense of fluidity,” while “the middle section of the second sonata uses more shifts of register, color and static harmony.” Interestingly, the slow section of the first may be more fluid, but tonality is also more tenuous here. This recalls Gutchë’s enthusiasm for Schoenberg’s brand of serialism, which, incidentally, never resulted in Gutchë’s outright embrace of twelve-tone music. I wonder, however, why Matthew McCright didn’t include all three of the sonatas from Op. 32; there may be a good reason, but in any event, an extra ten or fifteen minutes of music would fit handily on the disc.
McCright, who teaches at Carleton College in Gene Gutchë’s adopted city of Minneapolis, is not just an authority on contemporary music but a formidable player—and this music is very demanding, with its restless evasions of the musically predictable. I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to hear this out-of-the-way music in such captivating performances. And in such a powerfully immediate recording too. Kudos all around!
—Lee Passarella

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