Le Poisson Rouge
August 26, 2013
by Christian Carey
NEW YORK – Pianist Taka Kigawa is fast becoming one of New York’s leading interpreters of contemporary classical music. His recital on August 26th at Le Poisson Rouge focused on American works written since 1980, with the addition of an important piano sonata from the 1940s. Featuring two major works by recently deceased composer Elliott Carter (1908-2012), the program was filled with challenges and potential pitfalls. Happily, Kigawa rose to the occasion.
Like a number of his other postmodern concoctions, “Carny” by John Zorn (a composer improviser who turns sixty this week) is well-stocked with quotations. Placed amid forceful cascades of clusters and dissonant arpeggiations, they frequently supply comic relief in the midst of an otherwise daunting musical surface, often verging on violence. In another leavening gesture, cocktail music and jazz collide with the aforementioned hypermodern punctiliousness. This invites the performer to act as a kind of raconteur; an extravagance Kigawa eschewed.
Instead the pianist served as the music’s straight man, never playing it for yuks, letting the bizarre emergence of a pileup of quotes from Mozart, Chopin, Bartók, Boulez, Stockhausen, and the Tristan chord (and many more), one after another, speak for themselves. Ives’s Concord Sonata, a clear touchstone for Carny, was pillaged as well: perhaps serving as a hat tip from the composer. And Elliott Carter’s Night Fantasies, another work with diverse (though self-contained) reference points, which was heard later in the evening, was also prominently quoted. I liked Kigawa’s approach; although it lacked a bit of zaniness, it brought out the collage aspect of Zorn’s compositional process.
Elliott Carter’s Piano Sonata (1946) is one of the most important American works written during the 1940s. A transitional piece in Carter’s output, it gives hints of innovations soon to come – in the Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948) and the First String Quartet (1951) – yet at the same time primarily presents harmony from the vantage point of neoclassicism. Of all the works on Kigawa’s recital, this one was the least pristinely performed. However, a few wrong notes and odd turns of phrase were more than compensated for by a thought-provoking and often unconventional interpretation; one that still leaves me reconsidering the piece. It should also be mentioned that LPR’s piano was misbehaving throughout much of the performance of the sonata; a buzzing bass string and internal clatter were elements beyond Kigawa’s control that made me willing to give him a pass on a few clunkers. Indeed, that’s why we go to hear live music, to witness an artist contending with a composition (and, sometimes, with an instrument) in real time, not edited and sanitized to death on a recording. (Happily, LPR had a technician on hand who helped put the piano in shape after the sonata concluded).
Kigawa’s rendition of the sonata simultaneously looked forward and backward from 1946. Thus, in choices of voicing, phrasing, pedalling, and gesture, Kigawa didn’t emphasize the piece’s connection to the music of his American contemporaries, such as Copland and Harris. Instead, in his willingness to shear off certain gestures abruptly, to voice both the consonant and dissonant pieces of chords equally instead of balancing them to succumb to inevitable resolution, and to allow angularly constructed lines to revel in their leaping, the pianist played up the connection between the sonata and later, modernist music by Carter (one could readily hear it in places as Night Fantasies’ musical grandfather). In other sections of the piece, Kigawa made the connection between Carter and French neoclassicism, recalling the Parisian musical milieu in which Carter undertook graduate studies with Nadia Boulanger. These areas of the sonata featured lush moments of post-impressionist harmonies, a more delicate dynamic framework, and graceful counterpoint. Hearing both of these stylistic eras/genres collide in the sonata was fascinating. And hearing its “Americana” influences, blunted as a result helps make manifest connections between the sonata and Carter’s later, high modernist style.
Completed in 2005-’6, Sean Shepherd’s Three Piano Preludes are brief, relatively early pieces in his catalogue. While they aren’t as sophisticated as his work would become in just a couple of years, the preludes demonstrate the composer’s then already keen ear for creating effective textures. After enthusing about them on the house microphone, Kigawa played these pieces excellently. It is clear he would be an ardent interpreter on behalf of Shepherd. One hopes the composer will soon give him a larger work into which to sink his teeth.
The first prelude is reminiscent of Messiaen’s penchant for birdsong and also features a beautiful and spaciously deployed harmonic palette. The second features a puckish 6/8 dance with angular (and virtuosic) interjections. It is quite difficult to play certain passages’ wide spanning leaps, but Kigawa made them sound relatively easy. Near the end, Brahms’s Lullaby is quoted before being dismissed in prickly and mischievous fashion. The difference between Zorn’s use of quotation for comedic effect and this less successful interpolation was notable. The final prelude plays on both the ringing insistence of a sustained single note melody and a background filled with wind chime like oscillations. Of the three, it was the most successful, best demonstrating the composer’s individual voice.
Night Fantasies (1980) is Carter’s weightiest solo piano work from his later years. Carter has mentioned Kreisleriana by Robert Schumann as a touchstone for Night Fantasies. In interviews, he sometimes discussed bouts of insomnia, cured by declining Latin and Greek irregular verbs; his program note for Night Fantasies alludes to sleeplessness and the thoughts it evokes. An interesting way of framing the piece is as a nocturne for insomniacs. The Schumann work may be a kindred spirit; however, it is structurally different from Carter’s piece. While Kreisleriana has eight distinct movements, Night Fantasies is instead cast in a single movement, over twenty minutes in duration. Within this structure, there are any number of ephemeral sections and fleeting gestures; the frequent shifts of demeanor are dazzling. Of course, undergirding all of this surface busyness are long range rhythmic relationships. Carter carefully worked out the architecture of Night Fantasies, copiously sketching, even by his exacting standards of precompositional planning.
To successfully pull off performing Night Fantasies, a pianist must connect its mercurial foreground with the structural processes of the piece’s spine, making both evident to the careful listener. The four estimable co-commissioners of the piece – Gilbert Kalish, Paul Jacobs, Ursula Oppens, and Charles Rosen – give one an idea of the caliber of pianist needed for Night Fantasies. Their varying renditions also supply notions of the mutable nature of the work; this in spite of its score’s detailed and abundant markings. Kigawa’s rendition makes a claim for him being in the same weight class as the aforementioned quartet of pianistic heavyweights. It embraces both the micro and macro aspects of Night Fantasies, all the while inhabiting it with technical skill and abundant brio. One hopes that he will tighten up the sonata a bit and record both Carter pieces — soon!
Three of the four programmed works are gargantuan examples of contemporary repertoire. Excelling in any one of them on an otherwise unassuming program would be impressive. To tackle all three of them in a single evening is a Herculean undertaking. Kigawa’s enthusiasm for contemporary music is only matched by his courage and talent.