Various Pianists Play Stecher & Horowitz Commissions

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L. LIEBERMANN: 2 Impromptus / Aristo Sham, pn / TORKE: Bays of Huatulco (Blue Pacific) / Charlie Albright, pn / G.L. FRANK: Nocturno Nazqueño / Daniel Kim, pn / DORMAN: 3 Études / Mackenzie Melemed, pn / MUSTO: Improvisation & Fugue / Leann Osterkamp, pn / M. BROWN: Suite for Piano / Anna Han, pn / PISTON: Concerto for 2 Solo Pianos / Matthew Graybil, Larry Weng, pn / Steinway & Sons STNS30079

From the booklet for this CD:

Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz, Executive Directors of the Stecher & Horowitz Foundation, have devoted a lifetime to the musical education of young people. Internationally recognized as one of the most distinguished duo-piano teams of their generation, Stecher and Horowitz are equally renowned for their multi-faceted activities as performers, teachers, composers and educational consultants…The Foundation’s New York International Piano Competition, held every two years, is dedicated to providing artistic development, educational enhancement, seminars, master classes, and performance opportunities. The competition has also commissioned original works from important composers of our day. These works are presented on this album, some for the first time, performed by some of the notable prize-winners of the competition. Also included is the premiere recording of the two-piano version of Walter Piston’s Concerto for 2 Pianos, written for Stecher & Horowitz.

So there you have it. An album of complete discovery for those who don’t know these pianists or works. The only three composers whose names I recognized were Gabriela Lena Frank, John Musto and Piston, so it was as much an adventure of discovery for me as it might well be for you. And of course, since I’ve not heard any of these pianists before, they were as much a discovery for me as the music itself.

First up is Lowell Liebermann’s 2 Impromptus, written in 2016. This is tonal music with bitonal twists and turns that pique interest and force you to listen. In the notes, Liebermann stats that this was his intention, to create music that required musicality, phrasing and a wide range of dynamics, not the usual “knuckle-busting” pieces that young keyboardists love to use to show off. I found this music very engaging, and would say that pianist Aristo Sham is a real and sensitive artist, not just another “little robot.”

Michael Torke’s Bays of Huatulco, which has since undergone a name change to Blue Pacific, was written in 2006 to commemorate his memories of that scenario in Mexico where “The sun shines without fail…and an ever-present breeze blows off the water.” This has a sort of pop-music rhythm reminiscent of Carole King, although with a busier and more complex top line that includes rapid, swirling triplets. It’s a nice piece, however, nicely played by Charlie Albright.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s Nocturno Nazqueño is described by the composer as evoking “one of the ancient cultures of South America, the Nazcas,” who “left behind gigantic geoglyphs on the coast of modern Peru sometime between 500 BC and 500 AD”—quite a range to choose from, a thousand years! The music is quintessential Frank, moody and evocative, drawing one’s attention via her use of shifting moods and figures which keeps the music in a state of flux. It is well played by Daniel Kim although, to my ears, without much in the way of subtlety.

Avner Dorman chose Ligeti as his musical model, and his 3 Études of 2012 are described as “precisely fashioned and fantastical, as well as technically demanding.” The titles of the three pieces are “Snakes and Ladders,” “Funeral March” and “Sundrops Over Windy Walters.” The first of these is utterly fantastic, the “ladders” being scales that run in a wobbling motion and the “snakes” being lopsided chord changes. The performer here is Mackenzie Melemed, who won the 2012 prize for best performance of a commissioned work. Somehow I get the impression that this is the work that wowed the judges. Melemed’s coordination of both hands in this frighteningly difficult work is beyond description; you simply have to hear it to believe it. The music is impressive as études, to be sure; I’d have been lost trying to coordinate this bad boy! In “Funeral March,” the music is comprised of a series of dense but clear chords…challenging to play but to my ears less impressive as music. The finale, however, is a piece in a blistering tempo that calls for such a rapid switching and overlay of hands that it becomes a challenge just to keep the notes from becoming blurred. I was deeply impressed by Melemed’s articulation in this piece. No wonder he won a prize!

Musto’s Improvisation and Fugue is played by Leann Osterkamp. The improvisation section is described as being blues-influenced, but alas Osterkamp has no feeling for blues or jazz rhythm, though she plays it very well otherwise. Musto doesn’t indicate in the notes whether any part of the score is actually improvised by the performer, but I’d assume not; it doesn’t really sound it to me. A shame, because in the hands of, say, Aruán Ortiz, this could be a very interesting piece. As for the fugue, it, too has elements of syncopation in it, played just as mechanically as the opening piece (although Musto says the fugue was written first).

Michael Brown’s Suite is played by Anna Han, first prize winner of the 2012 competition. The music also contains a lot of syncopation, but more in a classical than a jazz vein. It’s pretty interesting rhythmically, but in terms of development fairly predictable; the last movement, simply titled “Finale,” is the most concisely written. It is, however, a pleasant piece to hear, and Han plays it with both sensitivity and a brilliant technique.

The album ends with Walter Piston’s rearrangement for two pianos of his 1967 2-piano concerto. This is clearly great music, written by one of America’s best composers of the past century. It is played brilliantly here by Matthew Graybil and Larry Weng, with intermittent moments of sensitive phrasing. I thoroughly enjoyed it, the last movement in particular.

A mixed bag, then, both in terms of the music and its interpretation, but still worth hearing for its more interesting moments.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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