Jenny Lin’s “Etudes Project”

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THE ETUDES PROJECT, Vol. 1 / GRAFE: Accretion. MESSIAEN: Quatre Études de rythme, I: “Ile de feu.” BAEZ: Etude No. 1, “Corona.” CHIN: Etude No. 6, “Grains.” CHIEN: To the Convergence. HOSOKAWA: Etudes for Piano I: “2 Lines.” HEALY: Etudes for Melancholy Robots: III. Trains. LIGETI: Étude No. 1, “Désordre.” COOPER: Etude No. 1, “Unleashed.” SEEGER: Study in Mixed Accents. BOYS: Flower Catalogue: Lilac. DEBUSSY: Étude No. 11, “Pour les arpèges composes.” ANDERSEN: Walk. SCRIABIN: Étude Op. 8, No. 2. STAFYLAKIS: Obstinata 1: Barbed Wire. RACHMANINOV: ÉtudeTableaux Op. 33 No. 4 in D min. RUSS: Knuckles. GLASS: Etude No. 13. BURTZOS: Should the Wide World Roll Away. CHOPIN: Étude Op. 10, No. 4 / Jenny Lin, pno; Sono Luminus DSL-92236

From the liner notes:

Countless composers have risen to the challenge of the étude. This album, the first documentation of a sweeping project conceived by Lin, includes some of the most famous examples—Debussy, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Messiaen, Ligeti, and Glass—alongside equally noteworthy contributions to the format by such mavericks as Ruth Crawford Seeger, Toshio Hosokawa, and Unsuk Chin. Lin further pairs each of her canonical selections with an entirely new work by a member of ICEBERG New Music, a determinedly heterodox collaborative of 10 gifted young composers who represent a broad range of stylistic inclinations, but who are united by their enduring faith in substance and craft.

Bucking a current fad, the new études were not proposed as sequels or responses to existing works. Lin simply asked the ICEBERG composers to challenge her, and then used her own keen ear and sure instincts to find sympathetic pairings.

So there you have it. The Etudes Project is really a personal quest, fueled by Jenny Lin’s curiosity.

In programming the music for this CD, Lin paired Max Grafe’s Accretion with Olivier Messiaen’s Ile de feu, Victor Baez’ Corona with Unsuk Chin’s Grains, and so on down the line. One of the things that impressed me most about this recital was the fact that the modern music, though angular in rhythm and spiky in harmonies, was all well written. None of this music is just cheap effect. Every piece is interesting and has an internal logic, no matter how brief each piece is. I admit not being familiar with this particular Messiaen prelude, but considering the composer’s belief in himself as a mystic, I was surprised by Lin’s very muscular performance. I certainly liked it but am curious to hear other performances to see if this is the way the composer wished it to be played.

Baez’ Corona sounded to me just as minimalistic as Philip Glass, with a constantly repeated chord in the left hand above which one heard right-hand figures with slight modifications, then switching hands, yet the piece opens with a strange motif using both hands together in producing a single-note line. Chin’s Grains also sounded minimalistic to my ears.

Indeed, as the album progressed I began to feel, as I so often do when listening to modern music, a sameness in approach, and to a certain extent this offset my initial enthusiasm for certain individual etudes. Honestly, what’s the point in writing music if you’re going to sound the same as the composer who preceded you and the one that follows you? But this is the latest thing in modern music. Because someone’s edgy-sounding piece(s) made a splash with the critics, just do the same thing. It’s a circular trap that many composers have found themselves in.

Will Healy’s Etude for Melancholy Robots is somewhat different in that it juxtaposes a loud, thumping motor rhythm in the left hand with softer, more amorphous passages in the right. In the latter half of this etude, Healy does indeed simulate a train with driving left-hand chords, but again alleviates the sameness by introducing complex, swirling right-hand figures. György Ligeti’s Étude No. 1, “Désordre” has a similar driving rhythm, but also a more complex one, with the pianist’s two hands playing two slightly different rhythms.

In the midst of all this, I was actually relieved to hear Stephanie Ann Boyd’s Lilac. It’s not a great piece but it does fall gratefully on the ear, it is conceived with a legato feeling, and it added a welcome contrast to all the angular, edgy pieces that tended to sound so much alike. And at least Boyd developed her theme, though again it seemed to be playing to those people who like music to comfort them. Not surprisingly, it was well paired with the Debussy étude. I did, however, like Drake Andersen’s Walk quite a bit; at least its form was somewhat different, its tale told almost via allusion. The Scriabin étude chosen here complemented it very well.  I also enjoyed Harry Stafylakis’ Obstinasto: Barbed Wire, in which he actually fused a melodic line to his motor rhythms. And here, again, Lin has chosen the pairing étude well, a piece by Rachmaninov that I actually enjoyed very much.

Indeed, I would say that, in general, the second half of the CD is more interesting and therefore more enjoyable than the first. Jonathan Russ’ Knuckles has a sort of swing to it that I liked very much, playing off the syncopations to contrast two different rhythms in the pianist’s two hands. I could have lived, however, without the Philip Glass piece, just as I can live without any of his so-called “music.” Happily, the album closes with an excellent etude by Alex Burtzos, Should the Wide World Roll Away, followed in turn by one of Chopin’s better pieces, the étude Op. 10 No. 4.

My readers may be curious as to why I sometimes spell the word “etude” with or without the accent grave over the e. The answer is simple. When the piece is written by a European or Russian, I include the accent because that is the French way of spelling it. When it is by a British or American composer, I omit it because we don’t use the accent in English. See how easy that was?

Jenny Lin is clearly one of the finest pianists of our day and more than half of the album is extremely interesting music, well played and programmed. Thus I can recommend it for the very good pieces and the overall playing.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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