Roberta Rust Celebrates Her Direct Contact with Composers

NV6229 - cover

DIRECT CONTACT /ROCHBERG: Carnival Music: Blues. M. ANDERSON: Thirteen Plus Four. Sonata: I. Misterioso – Molto legato. BROUWER: Diez Bocetos: Bocetos Nos. 5, 4, 7. ZWILICH: Lament. P. EVANS: Minuetto. Suite 1945: Sarabande. Aria. A. PRADO: Cartas Celestas, Vol. VII: Halley. T. McKINLEY: Fantasy Pieces for Piano: Invocation; The Tyger, Thy Fearful Symmetry. J. SHARPLEY: 4 Preludes: Reflection; Doodle; To the Memory of Eleanor Reichardt / Roberta Rust, pno / Navona NV6229

On this CD, pianist Roberta Rust plays the music of eight composers with whom she has had direct contact over the years, the two oldest of which are George Rochberg (1918-2005) and Phillip Evans (b. 1928). Although I understand her wanting to give all of them somewhat equal time, I was disappointed that she didn’t include the complete Carnival Music of the former composer since she plays the “Blues” segment so very well—even better than the pianist most closely associated with this little suite, Jerome Lewenthal.

But Rust has truncated other works in this recital as well. Only the first movement of Michael Anderson’s Sonata is given, as are only three pieces from Leo Brouwer’s Diez Bocetos, two pieces from Evans’ Suite 1945, two of Thomas McKinley’s Fantasy Pieces for Piano and only three of John Sharpley’s Four Preludes. Granted, the programming of the various pieces is excellent and she plays everything very well, providing a nice recital that is beautifully recorded (the piano sounds as if it’s right in your living room), but for the music lover it is a bit frustrating.

Speaking personally, I could have lived without Anderson’s soft brunch-styled music in the mix. Neither piece included here has much to offer the serious listener; it’s just pretty, tonal audio wallpaper. It sounds like someone noodling at the piano and not coming up with anything worth stopping to listen to. Kind of like mediocre movie music without the film.

At the opening of Brouwer’s Diez Bocetos we are immediately arrested by an unusual and original musical mind. He, too, slips into Sunday brunch mode with a tinkly melody, but redeems himself by snapping out of it. Unfortunately, thw music is not so much diverse-sounding as it is a juxtaposition of two opposing moods that simply don’t match, and the second of his pieces here follows a similar pattern. He apparently enjoys vacillating between interesting, complex music and little sing-song melodies that almost sound like nursery rhymes. After reading his bio in the liner notes, it all made sense to me. Brouwer is noted for writing film music and is also a classical guitarist.

Happily, we next get Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Lament, written in 1999. Even in such a slow-moving piece, it is clear to the listener that Zwilich has a much more interesting approach to music than Anderson and a clearer sense of structure than Brouwer. This is a little masterpiece which Rust plays in a heartfelt manner.

Phillip Evans, a composer better known for his interpretations of the music of Bartók, is Rust’s husband. The little Minuetto, a charming piece with some interesting transpositions in the middle section, was written when he was only 11 years old. Even better are the “Sarabande” and “Aria” from his Suite 1945, written when he was 17. This is music that uses a bitonal basis but avoids the harsh edginess of atonal music, and both pieces are extremely well constructed. Indeed, the multi-faceted “Aria” is an excellent example of how to write a piece using different themes, tempi and moods without sounding as if they were disconnected. Evans clearly knows how to write music; this is an excellent piece.

Next up is the Halley section of José Antônio de Almeida Prado’s magnificent and complex Cartas Celestas. My regular readers may recall the glowing praise I gave to this music in the complete recording by pianist Aleyson Scopel. I’m happy to report that Rust’s performance of this section is just as good if not a shade better. The amorphous structure of these pieces belie their well-thought-out order, but Rust’s greater rhythmic impetus gives the music shape. My sole complaint here is that the very close microphone placement takes away some of the magical shimmering effects that Prado created in his music.

Equally excellent are McKinley’s Fantasy Pieces for Piano, which use an atonal base and unusual chord positions to create a forward-moving soundscape for the piano. Once again Rust shows her mettle in this performance, moving things forward while maintaining the interesting structure of the pieces which, alas, are very brief.

John Sharpley’s “Reflection” from his Four Preludes, like the Zwilich piece, is slow-moving but not sappy background music. Despite its slow pace and deliberately spaced-out notes, it takes an unusual course and keeps the listener mesmerized. “Doodle” is a fast-paced piece with a rapid babble of bass notes leading off, passing the baton to the right hand to play around with and back again. Some of the rhythms reminded me a little of jazz. Sharpley enjoys playing games with the listener, moving back and forth from right hand to left and even tossing in two quotes from Yankee Doodle as a little gag. To the Memory of Eleanor Reichardt, another slow piece, also has excellent structure, sprinkling little flurries of notes from the right hand into its stately procession of block chords. At the 2:12 mark, the music becomes quite busy, incorporating several upward keyboard runs in the right hand, occasionally slowing back down albeit with a stronger attack and richer chords in the left.

In toto, then, a recital that begins strongly, dips into light classical schlock for five pieces, then rights its ship and sails on to a strong and interesting finish.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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