Classical Music Review: New Releases

ComposersCollaborative - Solo Flights. Andrew Violette: Two Sonatinas1; Robert Helps: In Retrospect - 5 Pieces for Piano2; Ursula Mamlok: Three Bagatelles3; David Del Tredici: Opposites Attract4; Virgil Thomson: Solitude: A Portrait of Lou Harrison4, Edges: A Portrait of Robert Indiana1; Eleanor Hovda: Spring Music with Wind5; Laura Kaminsky: Triftmusik6; John Zorn: Carny7; Jed Distler: The Woman Who Danced5; Molly Thompson: Our Mingling Arms8; Leopold Godowsky: Studies on Chopin's Etudes, No. 452; Jed Distler: The Anthem at Woodstock5.  Works for solo piano performed by: 1Andrew Violette, 2Robert Helps, 3Sarah Cahill, 4David Del Tredici, 5Jed Distler, 6Sara Laimon, 7Phillip Bush, 8Kathleen Supové. Live recordings from the Solo Flights festivals (1995-1999).  Composers Recordings. CRI CD 864 (74'33).

ComposersCollaborative inc. (CCi) has been a major player on the New York music scene since its founding in 1987.  By sponsoring performances and disseminating information, CCi has provided invaluable service to contemporary music, especially music for the piano.  Every year since 1994, CCi has hosted the Solo Flights festival and the disk under review contains live recordings from past festivals.

The variety of material on this disk is extraordinary and speaks well for the current state of classical and classically inspired music in America.   Compositions range from Andrew Violette's virtuoso Sonatinas (1995), which somehow meld the tinklings of a silent-movie pianist with the mystical chromaticism of Scriabin, to Eleanor Hovda's Spring Music With Wind (1973), a post-Cowell soundscape created by manipulating the interior of a grand piano (it's static but beautiful).  Other standout compositions include David Del Tredici's Opposites Attract (1996), which interleaves the brooding opening of "Tristan" with an elfin snippet from Virgil Thomson's The Mother of Us All; Ursula Mamlock's Schoenbergian miniatures; and Laura Kaminsky's Triftmusik (1991), an evocation of the serenity and grandeur of the Alps.

Performances are also impeccable.  As CCi Director Jed Distler points out in his notes, this disk gives the lie to the claim that "all modern pianists sound the same."   Our Mingling Arms (1997), a piece for piano and dancer by Molly Thompson, receives a nuanced performance from Kathleen Supové that is worlds apart from Andrew Violette's forceful playing of his own compositions.  Even the hodge-podge that is John Zorn's Carny (1992) is redeemed by Phillip Bush's ability to shift stylistic gears instantly.  Jed Distler, himself, demonstrates an impressive range both as a performer and composer.  His The Woman Who Danced (1991) is a meditative nocturne inspired by a piece of street poetry from Northeastern Brazil known as cordel while The Anthem at Woodstock (1996) is a bombastic parody of Jimi Hendrix's performance of The Star Spangled Banner (Distler also performs one of the Thomson portraits) that brings the disk to a conclusion.

Which leaves Robert Helps (1928-2001) to discuss.  Helps influence as a teacher and performer was profound.  A student of Roger Sessions, Helps was always associated with the "return to tonality" movement embodied in the work of his own student, David Del Tredeci. His In Retrospect (1977) began as a set of children's pieces but, as he writes, they "quickly got out of hand."  Even so, and despite their contrapuntal complexity, they remain simple and spare, never succumbing to a Regerian density.  As a kind of bonus track, Solo Flights also includes a performance by Helps of one of Godowsky's Chopin etudes.  Helps negotiates the work's legendary difficulties with a graceful musicianship and flow, shrugging off the "toil and trouble" that Marc-André Hamelin claims lurks below the etude's placid surface.

It is the mark of a good anthology disk of new music that it leaves you wishing you could hear an entire CD of the individuals involved.  That's certainly the case here and one envies the New York audiences that can attend these October recitals.  For more on ComposersCollaborative click here.

Tony Gualtieri
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