Tag Archives: piano music

Vine’s first sonata, and the future of piano writing


Earlier this month I attended a piano recital by Christopher Atzinger, at which the American pianist played for his encore the first movement of the Piano Sonata No. 1 of the Australian composer Carl Vine (at right).

I wasn’t familiar with Vine’s music, though there were some music lovers at the recital who were, and urged me to check out more of his work on the Net. And while I did enjoy the music, I found the sonata movement to be compelling more from the standpoint of what it represents than what it sounded like.

Because what it represents (like the Philip Lasser Bach variations featured on the Simone Dinnerstein disc I wrote about a while back)  is that there are still ways to write for the piano in our own time that are cogent and modern without being non-pianistic. Vine’s piece had plenty of bravura color and massive technical difficulties, but it also had a good contrasting section with a lonely melodic fragment wandering over big, jazz-influenced chords. It held together as a sonata movement, along the path adumbrated by Prokofiev and Barber, primarily, but still was recognizably a sonata movement.

One of the beauties of the old sonata form as handed down from Papa Haydn is that it gives music a narrative structure. That doesn’t mean today that we have contrasting themes in the dominant, or that there be any key centers at all, or that we start with a fast movement.

But there is something to be said about finding a useful way to organize musical thought, and in a time when much music of all stripes — pop, jazz, classical — seems to be about creating music that is about the effectiveness of a sound rather than the effectiveness of a melody, it bears remembering that many listeners have not yet caught up to the idea of enjoying music just as sonic wallpaper rather than argument, though that probably will happen one day.

The question of how to write for the piano these days has been much on my mind lately. The other day I finished a quick rewrite on a piano part for a simple holiday choral piece, and since that song is a very simple one, and written for reduced forces, it took a little bit of thought to come up with a part that would be interesting to hear, worth playing, and effective for the music.

But the piano sonata I’ve been writing and which I’ve not been able to get around to finishing, is another story entirely.  It seems to me that a good piece of American piano music ought to reflect somewhat the history of the way the piano has been played in modern times, and that means a lot of jazz players (Tatum, Monk, Brubeck, Peterson, etc.) and the much more primitive way it’s been played in pop and rock.

Maybe that’s writing music as commentary or history rather than music as music, but I’m hoping rather that it’s about writing music as contemporary music, tapping into the way the piano sounds to much of the audience.

Here’s the first movement of the Vine sonata, as played by a pianist named Joel Hastings:


Of French composers, Ravel dominates piano programs


Heading off to hear the pianist Di Wu this evening at the Kravis Center; the Chinese-born pianist is doing an all-Ravel program that features Miroirs, Gaspard and the Pavane pour une Infante Defunte.

I heard this young artist last year in a recital in the Piano Lovers’ series in Boca Raton, and she did an afternoon of transcriptions, including the Busoni/Liszt Marriage of Figaro blockbuster, and songs by Richard Rodgers. (You can read my review in the Nov. 23 entry here).


I enjoyed Wu’s playing, though not all the repertoire, and I’ll be looking forward to how she tackles the Ravel, all of which is quite difficult and full of evanescent moods that are tough to bring off but important to present. Going through the pieces this morning at my trusty upright, I started thinking about the legacy of Ravel for pianists everywhere, and it still seems to me that for them he’s probably the most-played French composer of all.

I remember reading Philippe Entremont saying somewhere that the young pianists were playing Ravel much more than they were playing Debussy, who would be Ravel’s nearest rival for king of the French piano composer throne. My experience in recital going for the past few years has been that this is largely true; you don’t hear Debussy much except in encores. The one exception that springs to mind is a Richard Goode concert some years back at the Four Arts in which he did a revelatory reading of several of the etudes, including an absolutely gorgeous Footprints in the Snow.

But other than that, Ravel seems to dominate. This is interesting also because Ravel himself felt at the time that Debussy, his senior by 13 years, got a lot of credit for his innovatory piano style, and Ravel felt that he had done it first. There’s been much critical to-and-fro since then, and certainly most of Debussy’s piano music into the first years of the 20th century, like the Pour le Piano suite of 1901, which I loved to play as a student, is more conservative than some of the Ravel pieces published at the same time (i.e., Jeux d’Eau).

Ravel also appears to be the dominant composer on the orchestral stages. I have heard perhaps one or two performances of La Mer or the Nocturnes, but any number of La Valses, Daphnis and Chloes, and of course, Boleros. And if you add in his brilliant orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures, well, the weight on Ravel’s side becomes overwhelming.

Ned Rorem once wrote that Ravel funneled “all of Liszt into the smallest possible space” in pieces like Gaspard, but was not much of a player himself, and therefore entrusted performances of it to much finer pianists such as Ricardo Vines and Marguerite Long. Therein lies the difference between being a composer who plays the piano and being a pianist, though Ravel’s sonic intentions are quite clear in the blizzard of thirty-second notes that is most of a piece such as Une Barque sur L’Ocean.

Perhaps my favorite Ravel piece of all is the early String Quartet in F, from 1903, in which Ravel’s fine melodic gift and his uncanny ear for color are beautifully on display in a thoroughly original, distinctive package. It’s a pity he didn’t write another one, though the Piano Trio of 1914 is also a lovely piece of chamber music.

Tastes change, but for now, it appears that Maurice Ravel is the most durable of 20th-century French composers for the piano, and while pianists still play plenty of Debussy, and more of them are doubtless making their ways through Messiaen’s Vingt Regards, signs are that it will be that way for some time to come.

Here’s Di Wu, who will make her Alice Tully debut in May of next year, in a series of excerpts from five pieces (one of them by Debussy!):


Dinnerstein disc a winner, and so is Lasser piece


The New York-born pianist Simone Dinnerstein has been getting a lot of good press lately, and there are ample reasons for it.

Her Berlin concert album, released earlier this year, features the pianist in music by Bach and Beethoven,  as well as a new American piece, by Philip Lasser, based on a Bach chorale.

This, to my ears, is beautiful Bach playing of a very high order, limpid, energetic and deeply soulful. Her ornamentation is crisp and precise, and her counterpoint sounds natural rather than fussy.  She has a way of making a page of modest-looking Bach text, such as the French Suite No. 5 (BWV 816) she plays here,  come alive and fill the hall.

It reminds me of one of my favorite Bach performances, that of Tatiana Nikolayeva playing the Art of Fugue, in its inhabiting of the Bach sound world yet making it come across as intensely personal (the Sarabande of  the suite is a fine case in point).  I don’t find it surprising that Dinnerstein’s favorite composer is Bach, and it’s a pleasure to hear these works more frequently on piano programs. There’s no other single composer who can teach the interested musician so much about music, primarily because the lesson of Bach is the lesson of the importance of every single note.

The Beethoven is the final piano sonata, No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, and Dinnerstein brings to this task the same linear clarity as she does to the Bach. Beethoven became more interested in older counterpoint as he aged, and that focus is clear in her playing of the second movement arietta and variations. But the first movement is every bit as good, with a kind of springy power that works ideally for this bold, fascinating work from the composer’s last days.

But it’s the other piece on the program (there’s an encore of the 13th variation from Bach’s Goldberg set) that holds extra interest for me. It’s a set of a dozen variations on Nimm von uns, Herr, du Treuer Gott, from Bach’s Cantata 101, where it closes the work. Philip Lasser is a 45-year-old American composer who teaches at Juiilliard, and here he has written a first-class piece of contemporary music that respects its source in such a way that the variations grow organically from the chorale and create their own narrative structure.

lasserThis might sound like nothing particularly to get excited about, but it makes the difference between an interesting piece of music and a truly good piece of music. Any number of composers can go through the Riemenschneider collection of Bach chorales (this one is No. 292) and devise any number of creative things to do to it. But Lasser’s approach is to develop the variations naturally, so that they have their own dramatic arc.

Lasser’s voice is perhaps more noticeable in the approach than in any specific variation; the sixth variation, for instance, is a marvelous finger exercise that owes a debt to Rakhmaninov, as does the acrobatic 10th variation, with its aggressive chordal figures and extensive use of the piano’s registers. There’s something of the Mendelssohn Variations Serieuses behind the whole work, too, perhaps not directly, but by key and the overall integrity of both composer’s approach.

Maybe the most personal of the variations is the ninth, which uses the first few notes of the chorale as a murmuring mood setter that gets interrupted, or cleansed, by a short melodic statement that serves as a lovely response to the murk of the opening. Lasser’s language, again, is quite conservative and indebted to late Romantic models, but this is a beautiful piece and holds its own admirably in titanic company.

The other interesting thing about the Lasser piece is that this composer is published by a company called Editions Rassel, a house with three composers on its roster and a mission statement that says it is devoting its energies to publishing composers who write in a tonal tradition. I like that idea, not because I’m opposed to atonality, but because it directs performers to a body of music that stands to reach contemporary audiences more immediately than more experimental pieces, and that could be a good way of stretching the boundaries of the repertory (the Rassel Website has plenty of MP3s on the site for interested listener).

Whether this or any other contemporary music lasts, of course, will be a judgment of history. But at least it can be said that Philip Lasser has added a fine new piece of piano music to the repetory, and he has in Simone Dinnerstein a most persuasive advocate.

Here’s a nice film excerpt of Dinnerstein playing Bach on YouTube: