Bolcom’s Interesting Piano Music in New Collection


BOLCOM: New York Lights: Concert Paraphrase. 3 Dance Portraits. Night Pieces. Ballade / Ursula Oppens, pn / Fantasy-Sonata. 12 Études (1959-66). The Brooklyn Dodge. Dream Music #1 / Christopher Taylor, pn / Spring Dances. Conversation With Andre. Night Meditations. Romantic Pieces. Variations on a Theme by George Rochberg / Constantine Finehouse, pn / Estela: Rag Latino / Estela Olevsky, pn / Naxos 8.559832-34

William Bolcom, for me, has always been one of those composers whose work I find more interesting than moving or enlightening, but I’d never heard a wide range of his music from all periods before.

This three-CD set of his piano works contains both the entertaining and the meaty. They’re also well enough written to catch the imagination of a serious listener without insulting them. So much is apparent from the very first notes of his “concert paraphrase,” New York Lights, with its subtly shifting harmonies and colors. I think the best way to describe Bolcom is as a composer of pieces that have good classical construction but always seem to veer towards movie or popular tunes. In the 1961 Fantasy-Sonata we hear a more “serious,” atonal Bolcom, evidently trying to impress us with a more serious approach. It certainly works. This appears to be one of those pieces written at a time when he was influenced by Boulez and Messiaen, but listen carefully: as the music progresses, the buoyant rhythms of later Bolcom sneaks through, at least the way pianist Christopher Taylor plays it. One can already hear the influence of ragtime. Nonetheless, it’s a very fine piece, perhaps the most serious in the entire set. Curiously, Bolcom is at his most abstract in the slow movement, marked “Andante, cantabile,” which is about as “cantabile” as a bouncing ball of Silly Putty. In the last movement, “Finale: Burlesque,” Bolcom plays musical ping-pong with syncopated figures.

With the 3 Dance Portraits of 1983-86, we are in Bolcom’s fully mature style. Although there are some altered chords and passages that go outside the basic tonality, the music is far less abstract. There are discernible melodic lines in each of the three pieces, and the forward momentum of each piece is thus dictated by the melody as well as the rhythm. The best description I can make of this piece is that it is “pleasantly modern.” In the second piece, “Knock-Stück,” the pianist is asked to rap the piano with his knuckles, and by 1:35 we are firmly in Bolcom’s later ragtime style, and in “Abbacadabra” he is playing around with syncopated Latin rhythms. Personally, I made very little of the Spring Dances. They didn’t sound to me like dance music and their abstract construction was difficult to comprehend.

The 12 Études of 1959-66 also catch Bolcom in his more serious, and serial, early style. Some of them, i.e. the moto perpetuo No. 2, the abstract-crystalline No. 3, the slowly splashing raindrops of No. 5, the No. 6 “Scherzino – Variations” and No. 9 “Tremolando” are quite good and worthy of repeated listening. And even here, as in the No. 7 “Fast and declamatory,” Bolcom’s predilection towards ragtime sneaks through in the rhythm. Another early, work, the 1960 Night Pieces were influenced by Boulez and Messiaen, even Schoenberg in the fifth and last of them. Although quite abstract, they also have an airiness about them that I found attractive, particularly the last, Schoenbergian one.

Conversations with Andre is a tribute to Andre Hajdu, who studied under Darius Milhaud with Bolcom in 1960 and became his friend. Bolcom describes his music in the liner notes as “wide-ranging,” running the gamut from scores based on the cantorial tradition to music for children. Here Bolcom’s music is busier and, to my ears, happier. It bounces along despite the pauses written into the music, the second of them (“Moderato, comodo”) being particularly enjoyable and the fourth (“Andantino, più lento”) being somewhat mysterious. For one piece we enter an entirely new world, and that is Estela: Rag Latino, written for and performed here by Estela Olevsky. The music vacillates between a Latin and a ragtime feel, and is surely one of the most charming works in this set, including a paraphrase of the popular song Chicago.

Night Meditations was written in 2012 for another of Bolcom’s friends, pianist-composer Curtis Otto-Bismarck Curtis-Smith, at a time when he was suffering from Parkinson’s and had limited piano skills. Oddly, the first piece in the set is rather grim and edgy-sounding, scarcely fodder for meditation. The 1959 Romantic Pieces combine Schumannesque lyricism with modern harmony. According to the notes, Milhaud loved these pieces and had Bolcom play them “at his apartment in Pigalle more than once, for him and several composer friends.” I found them to be simply wonderful, exquisitely written and appealing to a wide range of classical listeners. I especially liked No. 4, “Presto ma non troppo,” for its continual invention and forward momentum, and No. 6, “Chorale,” for its duality of nature. The seventh and last piece is the most lyrical of the set.

The Brooklyn Dodge is a Bolcom ragtime piece meant as an homage to the old Dodgers, who fled Ebbets Field for greener pastures at Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles. Typically of Bolcom, the music is quirky and charming at the same time, played to perfection by Christopher Taylor. The Variations on a Theme by George Rochberg are a tribute to the teacher Bolcom had at Tanglewood who taught him that it was OK to write tonal music, or at the very least vacillate in and out of tonality as the whim moved him—which is exactly what he does here. It’s one of Bolcom’s finest pieces, played perfectly by Constantine Finehouse. I especially liked the variation near the end in which the music seems to be running forward in the left hand and backwards in the right, a sort of topsy-turvy canon.

The Dream Music of 1965 was based on music that Bolcom actually dreamed of himself, a rare occurrence for him. It’s still in his earlier atonal style, yet somehow he makes it sound coherent and all of a piece. We end our journey through Bolcom’s piano music with Ballade, a late work (2006) written for pianist Ursula Oppens, who performs it here. The music is stark and glum, not much in the way of traditional ballade material, but an interesting piece nonetheless, with starkly contrasting tempos and moods from start to finish.

All in all, an interesting and worthwhile collection of Bolcom’s piano music.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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