Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Soloist and Friends

It can be a fortuitous occasion when a recitalist has the opportunity to introduce compositions by personal friends, particularly when those friends are close enough to have dedicated those compositions to him. This was the case for three of the works on the program of today's recital by pianist William Corbett-Jones in the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco (which also happened to be a celebration of the pianist's 79th birthday). The works in question were two preludes from a set of 24 by Roger Nixon and the final movement of the Opus 26 piano sonata by Kirke Mechem. Corbett-Jones also preceded the latter composition with the "Nocturne" movement from Mechem's Suite for Piano. He also prepared our ears, so to speak, by preceding these four compositions with two of the movements from the first (Swiss) of Franz Liszt's Années de Pèlerinage collections. I have to confess that this is my favorite of the four collections (three "years" and the Venezia e Napoli supplement). Those who know my biases would probably guess that this is because it is the only non-Italian "pilgrimage;" but I also feel that these selections strike the right balance (because they are Swiss, rather than Italian?) between the display of virtuosity and the use of composition for the purpose of tone-painting. One can appreciate this balance particularly in the two selections that Corbett-Jones played, "Au lac de Wallenstadt" and "Au bord d'une source," both of which invoke images of bodies of water; and his performance properly captured images of fluidity set, in both cases, within the "steady flow" of sixteenth-note passages. Liszt was very good at such virtuosic writing, to a point where some might say he was too good at it and should have put more time into other techniques as well; but, at least in these particular works, there is a purpose served by that virtuosity.

I say that the Liszt compositions prepared our ears because both Nixon and Mechem imposed similar virtuosic demands but in twentieth-century idioms. The Nixon preludes thus also captured that spirit of tone-painting, even if the paintings were a bit more abstract in nature; each prelude took its own approach to "coloration" and oriented its virtuosic demands around that approach. The clear contrast between these two selections made a case for wanting to hear the full set of preludes in a recital setting; and a pianist who would be particularly interested in contrast might even consider pairing the Nixon set with the 24 preludes of the Opus 28 of Frédéric Chopin. The Mechem selections also left me curious about the settings from which they were extracted. The sonata movement was marked "Finale" and had much of the spectacle of a Finale movement in a nineteenth-century sonata, but again with more contemporary idioms. However, there remained the question of what this movement was "finalizing" and how it brought its preceding movements to an overall closure. In the case of the "Nocturne," on the other hand, I had no way of knowing where this movement was situated in the course of the entire piano suite and what its role as a nocturne was. (I had considered, for example, that the suite might have been based on the different forms the Chopin had utilized.)

There was at least one "Chopin connection" in the conception of the overall program: Liszt preceded the selections by Nixon and Mechem and Chopin followed them. The program concluded with two polonaises, Opus 40, Number 1 in C minor and Opus 53 in A-flat major. The latter is sometimes known as the "Heroic" polonaise, although, as the most familiar in the collection of polonaises that Chopin composed, it might better be called the "War-Horse!" Like the earlier "Military" polonaise, Opus 53 performs an interesting experiment with an ostinato pattern subjected to a gradual crescendo; and Corbett-Jones did a wonderful job of making that crescendo the backbone of the middle section of the work.

All of these works were then embraced by music from markedly earlier times. The program began with the K. 330 C major piano sonata of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and concluded with Egon Petri's transcription of "Sheep may safely graze," the most famous movement from the BWV 208 cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, "Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd," a secular cantata about the joys of hunting. (What the sheep are doing there is left as an exercise for the reader.) Petri was a leading exponent of the piano music of Ferruccio Busoni, who, as I have previously written, mastered Liszt's capacity for virtuosity and then took it to the next level. (One might even take Busoni's "All' Italia!," the second of his collection of seven Elegien, as a "response" to Liszt's Venezia e Napoli!) Busoni had taken his own venture into Bach cantata territory with his transcription of the fourth movement of "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" (BWV 140); but this was actually a piano transcription of Bach's own transcription for solo organ in his collection of Schübler chorales. Petri's transcription was probably from the original cantata score, and Corbett-Jones exhibited excellent control over the interleaving of the vocal solo with its orchestral accompaniment.

K. 330 is the first of a set of four sonatas Mozart composed between 1781 and 1784, meaning that these date from his late twenties. These sonatas display what was taken as virtuoso in Mozart's day; and K. 330 is an excellent reflection of what I have called Mozart's "inner twenty-year old," showing off all the things he can do just because he can do them. The virtuosity of this sonata lacks the sort of flamboyant display we would find in Liszt; but it is still a show-off piece with a good-natured sense of thwarting listener expectations, making it clear that, in spite of "conventional wisdom," Mozart was as good as Joseph Haydn at this game. Corbett-Jones approached this display with a quiet elegance, which enticed the ear rather than dazzling it as the later displays of virtuosity would do. The overall result was a well-conceived program, which provided the listener with a road-map of the terrain of virtuosity over two centuries and then explored several key paths on that map.

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