Ralph van Raat Plays French Piano Rarities (CD Review)

French Piano Rarities

Ralph van Raat, piano

Naxos 8.573894

I was fortunate to hear the US premiere at New York’s Weill Recital Hall by Ralph van Raat of Pierre Boulez’s early work Prelude, Toccata, and Scherzo (1944). Composed when he was just nineteen, the piece is a substantial one, twenty-seven minutes long. Unlike Boulez’s works from 1945 onward, as is evidenced by a recording here of 12 Notations from that year, the piece predates his fascination with Webern and total serialism, instead seeking a rapprochement between tradition and Schoenbergian dissonant harmonies. Van Raat’s recording of the work for Naxos is authoritative, details large and small shaped with impressive care and bold playing. 

“Prelude, Toccata, and Scherzo” serves as the centerpiece of the French Piano Rarities recording, but it is accompanied by fascinating fare. In addition to the aforementioned, a late Boulez piece, Une page d’éphéméride, is also included, resembling late Stravinsky in its use of small repeating collections in post-tonal fashion. Olivier Messiaen is represented by three pieces, Morceau de lecture á vue from 1934, with strong polychordal verticals, two movements from the piano version of Des canyons aux étoiles…, filled with birdsong and color chords, and La Fauvette passerinette from 1961, a rapid birdsong essay.

Three earlier works by French masters are included: a gently ephemeral Menuet from mid-career Maurice Ravel, and two late pieces by Claude Debussy: Étude retrouvée and Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon. They all prove that, past the well-worn selections one frequently hears on recitals, there are many underserved pieces that hardly deserve to be “rarities.” 

-Christian Carey

Amanda Palmer and Rhiannon Giddens: “It’s a Fire”

Amanda Palmer and Rhiannon Giddens have collaborated on a cover of Portishead’s “It’s a Fire,” which you can hear via Bandcamp (embed below).

Proceeds from the single benefit Free Black University.

Spektral Quartet (Recording review)

Spektral Quartet

Clara Lyon (violin), Maeve Feinberg (violin), Doyle Armbrust (viola), Russell Rolen (cello)

Experiments in Living

New Focus Records (digital release)

The Spektral Quartet takes advantage of the open-ended playing time of a digital release to create effectively a double album for their latest recording, Experiments in Living. While double albums often suffer from a bit of flab, this one doesn’t have an extraneous moment. It is a well curated release that attends to meaning making in contemporary music with a spirit that is both historically informed and deeply of this moment.

A clever extra-musical addition to the project is a group of Tarot cards that allow the listener to ‘choose their own adventure,’ making their way through the various pieces in different orderings. These are made by the artist/musician øjeRum. The tarot cards may be seen on the album’s site

It might seem strange to begin an album of 20/21 music with Johannes Brahms’s String Quartet Op. 51, no. 1  in  C-minor (1873). However, Arnold Schoenberg’s article “Brahms as Progressive”  makes the connection between the two composers clear. It also demonstrates Spektral’s comfort in the standard repertoire. They give an energetic reading of the quartet with clear delineation of its thematic transformations, a Brahms hallmark. 

Schoenberg is represented by his Third String Quartet (1927). His first quartet to use 12-tone procedures, it gets less love in the literature than the oft-analyzed combinatorics of the composer’s Fourth String Quartet, but its expressive bite still retains vitality over ninety years later. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet (1931), an under-heralded masterpiece of the 20th century, receives one of the best recordings yet on disc, its expressive dissonant counterpoint rendered with biting vividness.

Sam Pluta’s Flow State/Joy State is filled with flurries of glissandos, microtones, and harmonics to create a thoroughly contemporary sound world punctuated by dissonant verticals. One of Pluta’s most memorable gestures employs multiple glissandos to gradually make a chord cohere, only to have subsequent music skitter away. Charmaine Lee’s Spinals incorporates her own voice, replete with lip trills and sprechstimme that are imitated by string pizzicato and, again, glissandos. 

Spektral is joined by flutist Claire Chase on Anthony Cheung’s “Real Book of Fake Tunes,” which combines all manner of effects for Chase with jazzy snips of melody and writing for quartet that is somewhat reminiscent of the techniques found in the Schoenberg, but with a less pervasively dissonant palette. Cheung’s writing for instruments is always elegantly wrought, and Chase and Spektral undertake an excellent collaboration. One could imagine an entire album for this quintet being an engaging listen.  

The recording’s title track is George Lewis’s String Quartet 1.5; he wrote a prior piece utilizing quartet but considers this his first large-scale work in the genre. Many of the techniques on display in Pluta’s piece play a role here as well. Lewis adds to these skittering gestures, glissandos, and microtones the frequent use of various levels of bow pressure, including extreme bow pressure in which noise is more present than pitch. The latter crunchy sounds provide rhythmic weight and accentuation that offsets the sliding tones. Dovetailing glissandos create a blurring effect in which harmonic fields morph seamlessly. The formal design of the piece is intricate yet well-balanced. More string quartets, labeled 2.5 and 3.5, are further contributions by Lewis to the genre. One hopes that Spektral will take them up as well – their playing of 1.5 is most persuasive.

-Christian Carey

Complete Organ Works Published by Zimbel

My Complete Organ Works have been published by Zimbel Music

Thanks to Carson Cooman for his advocacy as a performer and for shepherding this through to publication and to Joseph Arndt for commissioning and widely performing several of the pieces.

A few are dedicated to composer friends: Robert MorrisAndrew Mead, and Ken Ueno

In addition to organ compositions, two hymns co-authored with Kay Mitchell, and pieces based on them, are included for congregational use. 

Here is Carson Cooman’s recording of one of the selections in the book, Chanson Variations.