This past weekend I wrote about what was probably the first recording released by Project Odradek under its mission of “a new way of doing classical.” This was a recording of the complete piano works of Arnold Schoenberg performed by Pina Napolitano, a young Italian pianist with a prodigious interdisciplinary background, at least some of which was put to good use in the service of her approach to Schoenberg. Another Odradek recording released in the United States on the same day as Napolitano’s featured performances of works by Sofia Gubaidulina, Unsuk Chin, and György Ligeti by Mei Yi Foo, a Malaysian (also young) pianist, currently living in London.
The title of this new recording is Musical Toys, which is also the title of the Gubaidulina composition. Gubaidulina’s connotations of playfulness are well matched in spirit by the other two selections, Ligeti’s Musica ricercata and the premiere recording of the complete set of six études that Chin composed between 1995 and 2003. Taken together, these three compositions offer the three different approaches of composers interested in exploiting the ambiguity of the verb “play,” applying simultaneously to both making music and playing with toys.
Ligeti is the “grand old man” in this group. He is the one with the earliest birth year (1923); and, sadly, he is the only one no longer alive. I must confess that, in my own fumbling way, I have tried to play each of the eleven pieces in Musica ricercata, whose title, at least on its Wikipedia page, translates as “researched music.” Through that familiarity, it has earned the place of my favorite piano composition by Ligeti (and probably one of my favorites in the overall piano repertoire).
The score is, in fact, a “research project” of sorts, concerned with the nature of chromaticism. In a piece I wrote in December of 2011, I described its structure as follows:
The first movement consists entirely of rhythmic patterns of the single pitch A played in several different registers. At the very end the pianist plays a single D. The second movement (which became a major part of the soundtrack for Eyes Wide Shut) involves a steady rocking pattern between E-sharp and F-sharp. This time the “intruding note” is a G; and it first appears at the mid-point. This establishes the pattern: each movement increases by one the number of pitch classes, one of which serves as a “intruder.” By the eleventh movement all chromatic pitches are in play.
I have long enjoyed my old BIS recording of Lüsa Pohjola performing this cycle; but, with the exception of a wind quintet arrangement of six of the movements, I have yet to be satisfied with any “live” performance. I seem to have had the misfortune to encounter only pianists who seemed unwilling the “get” the ludic nature of the composition, pounding the life out of the score with their dead seriousness.
I am therefore happy to report that Foo has no trouble satisfying Ligeti’s many technical demands while maintaining a childlike spirit of play from the first note to the last. I can only hope the old guy was looking down from heaven (he could not possibly have been dispatched to “the other place”) while Foo was being recorded in December of 2011, beaming with satisfaction in a new generation of pianists who both recognized and realized the essence of this “project.” Much as I enjoy Ligeti’s études, I remain in awe of the highly demanding structural plan he conceived and of the facility with which Foo leads the listener on the journey through that plan.
In the case of the Chin études, I have only experienced one in performance, the last of the set entitled “Grains.” My initial reaction was that her sense of “granularity” could claim “family resemblance” to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “moment” style of composition, possibly with a bit of influence coming from that great “moment-based” jazz composer Cecil Taylor. However, even then, I was also willing to consider the hypothesis that Chin’s intentions may have been more prankish, with Maurice Ravel as the target of her sense of humor, since the central “grain” of the étude consists of the almost maddening repetition of a note that recalls the “hanged man’s ostinato” in the middle movement (“Le gibet”) of Gaspard de la nuit.
The game may be a grim one, but it is still a game. Indeed, each of the five preceding études plays a game of its own, whether it involves reflecting on an earlier form (a toccata, which, incidentally, may recall a movement from the piano version of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin) or the agonies of the novice pianist through such tasks as practicing scales. (Recall, also, that one of the animals in Camille Saint-Saëns’ “carnival” was the novice pianist.) The humor may be darker here than it was in Musica ricercata, but it may still be traced back to that childlike sense of play.
Those childlike qualities, however, are most evident in Gubaidulina’s title composition, which also introduces the “program” of the entire recording. Once again, this is music informed by the past. In this case the point of departure is that of “scenes from childhood,” probably best associated with Robert Schumann (Opus 15) and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Opus 39). However, the fourteen short pieces in Gubaidulina’s collection all carry the distinct stamp of her personal rhetoric, which includes her personal brand of playfulness.
I should conclude by calling attention to that adjective “short.” As the cliché goes, brevity is the soul of wit. This entire recording is a delightful exercise in how much wit can be crammed into how little duration. The longest track on the recording is the last one, the elaborate contrapuntal homage to Girolamo Frescobaldi, which hauls out the entire chromatic scale to conclude Musica ricercata. At the other extreme, almost as if to assert a sense of balance, the shortest track is the opening one, the very first of Gubaidulina’s “toys” (entitled “Mechanical Accordion”).
The overall result is one of a program that is sure to engage the most serious listener while seeking out that listener’s funny bone at the same time.