Rarely Performed Piano Works, Vol. 2 = STILL: “Seven Traceries” Suite; BIZET: Menuetto; Farandole; R. STRAUSS: Piano Sonata in B Minor; SPENDIARIAN: 2 Caucasian Sketches – Seta Karakashian, p. – Romeo

by | Nov 10, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

Rarely Performed Piano Works, Vol. 2 = STILL: “Seven Traceries” Suite; BIZET: Menuetto; Farandole; R. STRAUSS: Piano Sonata in B Minor, Op. 5; SPENDIARIAN: 2 Caucasian Sketches – Seta Karakashian, piano – Romeo Recordings 7298, 71:00 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Seta Karakashian makes a habit of performing rare piano repertory, having played the ”Seven Traceries” of William Grant Still (1895-1978) in 2008 at the Festival named for the composer in Cincinnati. Still cultivating a neo-romantic and impressionistic style, tempered by influences as diverse as Negro folk idioms, Varese, Chadwick, and jazz. The various timbres indulge in staccatos, legatos, and big chords whose bass line rolls in the manner of a chorale. The “Seven Traceries” Suite (1939) seems to express Still’s contemplations upon death and transfiguration. Karakashian’s piano rings pungently – the microphone placement quite close – in these miniatures, moody and plastic in a manner reminiscent of Satie and the lyrical side of Alban Berg. After two pieces devoted to clouds and a misty pool, “Muted Laughter” has something of a scherzo or Debussy’s Minstrels. The two longer works, “Out of the Silence” and “Wailing Dawn,” indulge, alternately, in whole-tones and post-Tristan harmony. “A Bit of Wit” concludes the Suite, a whole-tone piece reminiscent of a Debussy Arabesque but more percussive.

Quite charming, Karakashian’s renditions of the two excerpts from Bizet’s incidental music for Daudet’s L’Arlesienne, opening with a lulling Menuetto, and then raising the temperature with the jaunty Farandole, which begins with the martial air that sets the drama proper and soon explodes with a jig based on Danso dei Chivau Frus from Provencale.  The brilliant, percussive cross-rhythms and crisp articulation of the hands make this a sure-fire encore, except it comes early in this recital.

The major selection on this recital, the B Minor Sonata of Richard Strauss (1881) looms large, clearly influenced by Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn. Glenn Gould made the piece less obscure than it had remained for most of the Twentieth Century. A clarion pomposity marks the first movement, which wants to emulate Beethoven’s Fifth to the point of migraine. The Adagio cantabile offers a songful respite, borrowing sentiments from Mendelssohn and Schubert. Mendelssohn once more impels the Scherzo movement, cross-fertilized by echoes from Wagner’s Tannhauser. A swaggering tune quickly harmonized and syncopated opens the Finale: Allegretto vivo, and its weighty lyricism moves into the world of Schumann. A musette occupies the secondary section, lightly trickling in descending runs over luxurious bass. The momentum assumes a carillon-effect, invoking the rondo tune, although in the contrapuntal minor. When the motion seems to yield to entropy, the tune awakens once more, in a compromise between Mendelssohn and Mozart. Clearly, we have a sonata in search of an author, ripe with ideas but unsettled in his artistic voice.

The two “Caucasian Sketches” of Spendiarian derive from a suite of Etudes of Erevan. The folklore of the Crimea provides the context for these ethnic excursions, with the first dance’s invoking Tatar elements, “Khaitarma.” Using ostinati and parlando, modal scales, the piece exerts a hypnotic effect, rife with desert tents and veils. “Hidjas” enunciates Persian sensibilities, opening with what might be a muezzin call.  The procession itself hints at the influence of both Borodin and Mussorgsky, although the swirling momentum remains original.

—Gary Lemco

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