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Yvar Mikhashoff presents a ‘panorama’ of American piano music on mode

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Pianist Yvar Mikhashoff (born Ronald Mackay) is both an accomplished composer and an undisputed champion of the contemporary solo piano repertoire. I first encountered him as one of the three pianists who contributed to the Nonesuch recording of seventeen selections from Waltzes by 25 Contemporary Composers, published by the C. F. Peters Corporation in 1978. He followed up on this project by commissioning 127 tangos from 127 composers between 1983 and 1991, an effort that led to an album on New Albion Records entitled incitation to desire: Tangos for Yvar Mikhashoff: 1945–1993.

Equally ambitious was a solo recital he gave at Symphony Space (in New York) on May 19, 1984. The title of the concert said it all: The Great American Piano Marathon: Seventy Works in Seven Hours from Seventy Years (1914–1984). I have no idea whether this gig was recorded in its entirety. However, the spirit of that event was revived this month when mode released a four-CD set of solo performances by Mikhashoff entitled Panorama of American Piano Music: from Antheil to Zappa: 1911–1991. This time the span of time was 80 years, but the number of compositions was still up there at 62. However, only 48 composers were represented.

Considering this collection triggered a couple of free associations. There first was to the anthology the S. J. Perelman had prepared for his humorous articles, most of which were written for The New Yorker. The title of the collection was The Most of S. J. Perelman; and, since the book was 650 pages long, it was certainly a model of truth in advertising. The other association was to the concept of “conceptual art,” works that are more interesting in their description than in their realization. I always felt that the best example of this genre was Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a man sleeping.

Fortunately, this collection is neither a massive joke on Perelman’s scale nor an exercise better treated as conceptual. Indeed, the A-to-Z strategy of including both George Antheil and Frank Zappa was a factor that first drew my attention to this collection. Both of these composers were “bad boys” of their respective eras; and they are joined by several equally interesting “bad boys,” who never received quite the same attention, such as Leo Ornstein and La Monte Young. Then there are the more “reputable” names in the collection, such as Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, and Leonard Bernstein.

Personally, I was most glad to see six of the waltzes from the Peters collection included in this set, particularly since, as far as I can tell, the Nonesuch vinyl has yet to make it to CD. I was especially pleased that Mikhashoff included two realizations of John Cage’s “49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs.” The “score” for this composition is a list (in text) of 147 addresses in New York City arranged into 49 groups of three (since each group is a “waltz”). This being a piece by Cage, the selection of the addresses and their subsequent groupings were determined by chance operations. Monumental as this may sound, Mikhashoff’s first realization is only seventeen seconds long. The second plays out over a more leisurely 73 seconds.

I am also rather glad that mode distributed this material over four discs. This is all music that deserves serious listening, and I think it would be counterproductive to approach it as a marathon. Indeed, I was a bit disappointed to see that Amazon was not offering this as a digital download. If ever there were a body of music that lends itself to “shuffled” listening (adding yet another Cage-like dimension of chance), this would be it. After all, one cannot take in a panorama as a single sensory input. Rather, one must treat it as an invitation to visit and explore; and there is much to be gained from exploring the 62 works Mikhashoff selected for this album.

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