Clipper Erickson’s Russian-Themed Tableau

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TABLEAU – TEMPEST & TANGO / FINKO: Fantasia on a Mediaeval Russian Theme. Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3. BRODHEAD: Sonata Notturna (Piano Sonata No. 2). Una Carta de Buenos Aires – Tango Sonatina for Piano. MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition / Clipper Erickson, pno / Navona NV6170

Pianist Clipper Erickson, a pupil of the late John Ogdon and a piano teacher at Westminster Choir College, here presents a program of music by the little-known David Finko and Richard Brodhead in addition to the very well-known piano suite by Mussorgsky. This CD is due for release on July 13.

Finko, a Russian Jew who emigrated to the United States in 1979 for religious and political reasons, writes in a primarily bitonal style, using folk and Jewish music as the basis for his compositions. The Fantasia on a Mediaeval Russian Theme is a sad, dolorous piece, inspired, the notes tell us, “by a grievous poem about the oppression of the Russian people.” Erickson plays it with unaffected simplicity, allowing the music to speak for itself. About four minutes in, Finko begins his development section, using bitonal and atonal harmonies in a very effective pattern before suddenly introducing a quicker bitonal passage that goes on for some time, building in excitement and intensity. As the volume and excitement increase, Finko throws in some swirling triplets, then an almost fugal subject with the two hands playing against each other in opposing rhythms. This is superb music, brilliantly written and extremely interesting.

The first piano sonata, subtitled “Solomon Mikhoels,” also has a folk-like character about it, leaning on Slavic and Yiddish traditions. The first movement is also in a sort of fantasia style, forsaking the stricter formality of a typical sonata, and again the music is emotional and strongly accented with contrasting rhythms. The ensuing movements all seem to be contrasting music for the first movement, again avoiding classic construction and instead focusing on strong rhythmic figures and emotional projection.

The same sort of mood, and use of contrasting themes and rhythms, permeate the second sonata, the first movement of which is an almost violent piece that evolves in jagged pieces. By contrast, the second movement is slow and spacious, with very few notes sprinkled across the keyboard. Finko continues these sort of rhythmic patterns throughout the sonata, and indeed in the brief (nine-minute), one-movement sonata No. 3.

Interestingly, Richard Brodhead’s piano sonata also follows a similar pattern of broken melodic lines, only with more space between the notes than Finko normally uses. I was much more confused by his musical progression, however, which to my ears made little sense. It’s the kind of music a College Professor of Music who doesn’t have to compete in the real world for audiences tends to write. I was similarly unimpressed by his equally abstract and rambling Una Carta de Buenos Aires. He should try to get this piece actually performed in Buenos Aires. I think they’d throw some rotten vegetables at him.

It was thus with a feeling of relief that I greeted the opening Promenade of Mussorgsky’s well-known Pictures at an Exhibition. Erickson plays  it very well with, pardon the pun, clipped phrasing…not normally my taste in this work, but certainly acceptable in a Russian sense. He is particularly gentle with the “Tuileries” section of the work, and likewise takes his time with “Bydlo.” He also imparts a somewhat odd, irregular rhythm to the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells” which I’ve never heard before, but which makes perfect (pictorial) sense. Overall, it’s a very fine interpretation which, despite the heavy competition (Michael Korstick, Yefim Bronfman, Sviatoslav Richter, etc.), is surely one of the better ones available.

A mixed bag, then. Although the first CD, which is all Finko’s music, is well worth hearing in addition to the Pictures.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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