Classical Music Review: New Releases

David Holzman - Piano Recital. Ernest Bloch: Visions and Prophecies; Daniel David Feinsmith ( b. 1966 ) Leviathan for solo piano, Op. 27 (2002), (San Francisco premiere ); Erich Itor Kahn: Ciaccona Dei Tempi di Guerra (1943); Arnold Schonberg: Three Piano Pieces Op. 11 (1909); William Susman ( b. 1960 ) Uprising (1988), ( West Coast premiere ); Stefan Wolpe: Tango / Waltz for Merle (1952), From the Palestinian Notebook (1939). David Holzman, piano. Old First Church, San Francisco, CA. March 28, 2004.

Musicians who specialize in modern or contemporary music court the kiss of death. But performers from the early modernist period like the Kolisch Quartet, who played the New Vienna School when these composers  were really new, and current groups like the Arditti and Kronos, have proven that considered and passionate performances can provoke powerful responses from audiences. And, if they're lucky, they might even make a living from their art. Soloists like New York-based pianist David Holzman have a harder time because they're on their own. But his West Coast concert debut at San Francisco's Old First Church was a a big success. It was intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying, and if you don't have both, then what's the point?

His concert consisted of 6 pieces by 6 Jewish composers who responded to the intensity of their traditions and the extremity of their historical situations, and I don't mean just the Shoah. D.H. Lawrence opens Lady Chatterly's Lover (1928): "Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically," which was certainly as true then, as now.

The most obvious candidate for Angst was Arnold Schonberg, represented here by his 3 Piano Pieces Op. 11, instead of the printed program's aphoristic and almost drily academic 5 Piano Pieces, Op. 23 (1923), which Op. 11 certainly are not. Schonberg was as history conscious as Brahms in his 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117 (1892), which look tremulously forward even as they're looking back. Holzman caught the similar tensions in the Schoberg perfectly -- the first was attentuated, yet dramatic, the second's ostinato anchored and provoked its premonitions, while the third moved from clangor to gossamer fineness.

William Susman's Uprising (1988) used the Fibonacci series of expanding numerical ratios as well as the Baroque chaconne to evoke the implacable horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The end result was a carefully ordered yet powerful evocation of planes of sound, with a wide though not melodramatic range, and an acute sensitivity to color, which Holzman projected superbly.

David Daniel Feinsmith's Leviathan for solo piano, Op. 27 (2002) was more overtly spectacular. It's a bring down the house piece in the grand tradition, which exploits the full range of the keyboard through the use of tumultuous parallel chords in the lowest register, motor rhythms, climactic triads straight out of the 19th century, and what sounded like boogie woogie rhythms. And though not baldly programmatic, it powerfully conjured the mythical serpent of the Torah, in Holzman's more than able hands.

German Erich Ito Kahn (1905-1952) is a respected though not much played composer, and his 1943 Ciaccona was as stylistically polyglot as a Schnittke piece. It combined rhythmic/melodic dislocations in an intensely chromatic idiom, which Holzman made sound easy as pie. And though not very likeable, it's certainly impressive.

The German Stefan Wolpe, who emigrated to Palestine, and then to New York, was represented by several pieces -- a hora, or wedding dance, which was ultra simple, and utterly clear, the dissonant deconstructed Tango/ Waltz for Merle (1952, and a Yemeni dance from the Palestinian Notebook, which had a seductive right hand melody, a left hand vamp in changing metrics, followed by a big pause, and an ultra refined version of the tune, which Holzman rendered with rare charm.

The Swiss-American Ernest Bloch was certainly no stranger to Hebraic themes. His 1936 piece Visions and Prophecies is a piano only version of his symphonic poem for cello Voice in the Wildernes, from the same year. Bloch was one of the most skillful and communicative composers of the last century, and this piece had his trademark intensity which comes here from a a mixture of ancient sounding modes and perfect 5ths, as well as the juxtaposition of contrary motion with lyric lines. Holzman projected these complementary affects with power and grace. He has a sure fire technique which is always placed in the service of direct yet highly nuanced expressivity -- there's fire, and abundant calm, too. Nothing Holzman does is showy, just right. And his smallish but receptive audience seemed to know the difference.

Michael McDonagh
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