Preludes and Variations = DEBUSSY: Preludes, Book II; KOHS: Variations on L’Homme Arme; COPLAND: Piano Variations; BUSONI: 10 Variations on a Prelude of Chopin – Spencer Myer, piano – Harmonia mundi

by | Jan 3, 2008 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Preludes and Variations = DEBUSSY: Preludes, Book II; KOHS: Variations on L’Homme Arme; COPLAND: Piano Variations; BUSONI: 10 Variations on a Prelude of Chopin – Spencer Myer, piano – Harmonia mundi 907477, 70:24 ***1/2:

This disc is one of a series devoted to the work of the American Pianists Association, a group dedicated to the discovery of American performers in the worlds of classical music and jazz. Here they present one Spencer Myer, and judging from this excellent collection of pieces it is a fine choice indeed.

And they could not have started off any better than by including the super work of Ellis Kohs, the Variations on L’Homme Arme. This ancient and well know song, the “Armed Man”, was the inspiration behind countless motets and masses of the French Renaissance and others [including the recent one by Karl Jenkins which has become the most-performed modern oratorio in the UK…Ed.], finding a musical place in the life of the common man after the Hundred Year’s War. This is a clever and brilliant working of the theme into a composition of great integrity and high interest. Following the concept of this album, we hear perhaps the most seminal example of the form in American music, Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations. This work, one that Leonard Bernstein claimed he used to “empty rooms within three minutes”, is one where Copland used the Schoenbergian concept of twelve-tone in his “own way”, but it does not sound like a serial piece at all, reveling instead in the acerbic and blatantly sharp clashes of dissonance that are the hallmark of the piece. My only complaint here is that Myer tosses a smoothie on it—it lacks the glaring and brutal slashing that someone like William Masselos brought to it years ago on an old Odyssey recording, or any number of more recent pianists like Leo Smit. The energy is simply not as intense as it needs to be in order to enervate the listener. One should not be comfortable while listening to this piece, and Myer makes that possible.

The Busoni work is a bit of an odd bird, taking as his inspiration the twentieth prelude of Chopin in C minor (the “Barry Manilow”, for those of you who remember that song). It is clever and virtuosic, though hardly memorable or moving. Myer plays it very well, and does as much for it as anyone can. The Debussy Preludes, Book 2, are the main attraction on this disc, and must be that by which this entire effort is judged. It is a rather bold and brave choice, and for the most part Myer acquits himself with honor. But while he has the technique, what he seems to lack is a sense of atmosphere, so infinitely important in these works. One just has to listen to the old and rather well-worn set by Daniel Ericourt, or the scintillating work of Krystian Zimmerman to see what is missing. Debussy requires full and complete commitment to his realm, and those pretending to play without fully inhabiting the composer’s sound world often come across as usurpers. I am not willing to make that claim about Myer, for he is clearly struggling (in a good sense) to come to grasp with what Debussy intends. It’s just that I don’t think he is quite there yet, and a few more years may indeed thrust him into the world of Debussy-masters.

Having said that, the second book is still rewarding in its own way, and provided much pleasure in hearing a pianist first coming to grasp the intricacies of this music. Couple that with the rest of this excellently-planned recital, and you have a disc well worth hearing if the program so attracts. Sound is not as vivid as I have heard on some HM piano releases (Ruth Lilly Concert Hall, Indianapolis), but is quite plush and warm.

— Steven Ritter
 

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