Krzysztof Meyer’s Piano Music

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MEYER: 24 Preludes for Piano / Marek Szlezer, pno / Dux 1609

The Polish label Dux (is it pronounced “Ducks” or “Doo”?) issues a lot of interesting music and performances, but unfortunately they don’t often make their recordings available to reviewers in the form of downloads and streaming, which is how I get most of my records. This one features the 24 Piano Preludes of one Krzysztof Meyer (b. 1943), former Dean of Music Theory at the (Krakow) State College of Music and also former President of the Union of Polish Composers. He later served as the composition professor at the Cologne Hochschule für Musik from 1987 until his retirement in 2008. Despite all this, he is little known in the West.

According to Wikipedia, Meyer began composing in the vein of the Polish avant-garde of the 1960s (think Penderecki), but later moved to a somewhat more traditional style, using more expression though avoiding romantic effects. Only two of these preludes have titles: No. 2, “Liberamente” and No. 7, “Lento.” The other 22 pieces only have tempo indications, i.e. quarter note = 60, eighth = 126, etc. Annotator Thomas Weselmann goes even further, stating that “Meyer’s Preludes are not neo-post-Romantic music. Quite the contrary. Their har­mony is rather austere, closer to the tradition of young Prokofiev and Bartók. The approach to the piano is in the spirit of Stravinsky, who saw it as a percussion instrument rather than one predestined to sing lyrical melodies (although the Preludes contain Impressionist-like twinkling moments, too). The orchestra of 10 fingers moves around an extensive register, in various kinds of articulation and dynamics.”

Nonetheless, Meyer often produces a lyric top line that complements rather than slavishly following the spiky harmony. Among his other devices here are rolling arpeggios in the left hand, which add to the hints of late Romanticism. The similarity to Bartók is, I think, stronger than his similarity to Stravinsky; in the second Prelude, he opens with a running figure in the right hand that, except for the suggestion of bitonality, sounds more lyrical than anything Stravinsky wrote for the keyboard. It’s an odd high-wire act, balancing the structure and feeling of past music with strong elements of the modern, and he is a good enough composer to maintain a tight structure in each piece that the mind can follow without difficulty. Indeed, after the first Prelude, which acts as a sort of introduction to the entire series, I found that Meyer wrote a number of intriguing, almost but not quite charming vignettes, some of which hark back to the style of Szymanowski who was neither like Bartók nor Stravinsky, but like a more modern Scriabin.

The fourth Prelude (quarter = 88) is a cat-and-mouse game with the listener, using brief motifs with pauses in between that eventually chase each other, some moving to the bass line, eventually coalescing at the 1:43 mark to produce a brief, continuous forward momentum at a quicker tempo and louder volume before retreating from the sound barrier and giving us a development on the cat-and-mouse of the beginning. The fifth Prelude (quarter = 52) also plays a similar game with the listener, using sparse notes with luftpausen between them. In this manner, Meyer goes through the other Preludes that follow in a similar way—to my ears, a bit too similar to each other, and that, I think, is his one weakness as a composer. At least in these works, he’s just a bit too clever for his own good.

It’s not that the listening experience is entirely repetitious, mind you, only that, by the time you reach Prelude No. 7, you’ve caught on to his method and can begin predicting where the music is going, and that’s not a good sign. In Prelude No. 8 he varies his approach a bit, using descending pentatonic scales in the opening, but in Prelude No. 9 he returns to his old ways. No. 10 again breaks the pattern with dramatic right-hand tremolos, but they seem to be more for effect than contributing to the structure. No. 11 uses a quasi-boogie beat in its 8-to-the-bar structure, but only intermittently.

What started out so promising, then, turned into an intermittently interesting listen. I would assume that pianist Szlezer does a fine job with this music, but not having a point of reference I can’t say for certain. It’s interesting to hear once, but that’s about it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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