Two unusual and highly rewarding 30-minute sonatas bookend this wonderful recital of music by William Bland, a 60-year-old American composer working in West Virginia, where he retired after studying and teaching at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and in New York City. In the first (Sonata #4, subtitled “4 ‘Goodbye’ Concert Rags”), he has expropriated the heart of the rag and made it the heart and soul of an absorbing, often beautiful series of musical essays. In the second (#14, without subtitle), he has constructed an ingenious plot for luring the unwary listener into his clutches.
Bland is obviously the man to have performing his own music, and although it doesn’t have the charismatic attitude in the Sonata #4 (and the charming Nouveau Rag) that we sometimes associate with ragtime playing, the fact that his delight with the ragged rhythms and his further fragmenting of them is as great as his clear belief in the emotional depth of the simple harmonic structure which, in the spacious Sonata, he goes to great lengths to deconstruct.
It would be unfair to spoil the surprise of #14 other than to say that Bland has had the effrontery to venture into the realm of the great Theme and Variations masterpieces and not only written music that stands very much on its own with uniquely piquant references to the original, but is haunted by, of all things, the aura of the “Meditation” from Massenet’s opera, Thaïs. Bland’s playing here is also idiomatic and full of rich wisdom and chuckles.
Bland’s cycle of 24 piano sonatas (one in each of the major and minor keys) was begun in 1998 and currently stands at 16 completed works. We can only hope that Bridge, who seem to be considering becoming Bland’s champion, continues to investigate his music. The sound, recorded at Kaufmann Astoria Studios, is, as always with Bridge, rich in both musical and human overtones. David Starobin’s rhapsodic liner notes are entirely appropriate to music which ranges so widely, curiously and engagingly.
– Laurence Vittes