Monday, May 25, 2015

Busoni and Cage: Piano music of a couple of strong-minded eccentrics, played by Jeni Slotchiver and Kate Boyd, respectively.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) pointed toward music's postmodern future even as he anticipated the intervening reign of modernism. The Italian pianist-composer, looking back with intensity toward J.S. Bach while bursting with Romantic afflatus, had a mystical idea of the equivalent meaning of all music: "All melodies, heard before or never heard, resound completely and simultaneously — they are themselves the souls of millions of being in millions of epochs."

Out the window goes the "historicist" interpretation of music, that it either has to follow the true line of progress, whatever that means, or fall quickly into irrelevance. In defiance of Robert Browning, Busoni's reach may often have exceeded his grasp.  In "The Great Pianists," Harold Schonberg aptly titles his Busoni chapter "Dr. Faust at the Keyboard."

Jeni Slotchiver makes common cause with Busoni.
Jeni Slotchiver, in the third volume of her "Busoni the Visionary"  series (Centaur CRC 3396), clarifies the Italian-German composer's vision in performances that are subtly shaped, powerful, and well-defined.

With his name often appearing in hyphenated form (after Bach's), Busoni the transcriber is of course represented here. The vehicle concludes the program: Bach's Prelude and Triple Fugue in E-flat major ("St. Anne"), a favorite of concert organists. Three stunning fugue subjects were clearly meat and drink to Busoni, and the performance seems to draw on Slotchiver's inexhaustible, disciplined resources. (Of course, with editing as sophisticated as it is today, no recording is a guarantee of such stamina linked to insight in performance, but let's give her the benefit of the doubt.)

There is typically much going on in a Busoni composition, especially when his muse is fired with enthusiasm for another composer. As a performer, he had a love-hate relationship with Chopin, but at 18 he paid tribute with the remarkable "Ten Variations on a Prelude of Chopin" (the beloved C minor, op. 28, no. 20 ). The young man's treatment is typical of his mature practice: flamboyant on the surface, severe in depth.

The glowering, epic Toccata, which opens the disc, displays Slotchiver's knack for knowing when to subordinate something and when to move it to the foreground. Busoni deploys his themes and figuration like chessmen — feinting, attacking, lying in wait until they can be strategically effective. When grandeur is called for, it can do with some understatement (which the pianist supplies) as Busoni often wants it to be self-evident grandeur — not vulgarized.

She brings off an uncharacteristic miniature, "Nuit de Noel," charrmingly. And the monumental Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach, written in memory of Busoni's father, brings out in this performance what the composer found both essential and potential about the Baroque master.

John Cage's debts to other composers are harder to trace. Before his philosophy got the better of him, Cage (1912-1992) made a signature impression on contemporary musical resources by carefully adding bolts, screws, pieces of rubber and plastic, etc. to the inside of the piano in designated places. This turned the instrument into a percussion orchestra at the command of a single player, influenced by the sound of the Balinese gamelan.

Kate Boyd is a prepared pianist for Cage.
The meticulous preparation is integral to the art of making the "new instrument" speak musically; then, there is the kind of performance that allows the buoyancy and rhythmic intricacy of such pieces full play. That is Kate Boyd's achievement in her recording of "Sonatas and Interludes" (Navona), a major exposition of the prepared piano in the form of 16 sonatas (not the classical kind) with four interludes of contrasting nature spaced evenly over the set; two of the latter are in the middle, so that the sonatas are arranged in groups of four.

Boyd, professor of piano at Butler University,  seems to have found the beating heart of this varied music. Percussive effects modified by timbral richness characterize the set. The ceaseless variety and its likely engagement of the listener may be found in the juxtaposition of enchanting sounds. This is music blithely dismissive of development, not to mention the underpinning that harmony gives to development. Expressiveness seems to follow rules of its own here, partly depending on what the listener is reminded of.

There are some fascinating echoes of music known or faintly known in more familiar contexts. There are hints of folk song in some of the sonatas, folk dance in others. The Second Interlude had haunting evocations of Schubert, while Sonata 14 carried pastel Debussyan suggestions for me. Sonata 10 surprised me with its Dies irae reminders.  The disc concludes with the "natural" piano featured, with Cage under the influence of Erik Satie, in Boyd's performance of "In a Landscape." All of this fetching program was recorded at Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall at Butler. It's good to celebrate  an Indianapolis origin for a recording that ought to be a reference-point in this repertoire indefinitely.

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