James Iman Plays Modern Music

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SCHOENBERG: 3 Klavierstücke, Op. 11. BOULEZ: Piano Sonata No. 3. WEBERN: Piano Variations, Op. 27. AMY: Piano Sonata / James W. Iman, pno / Métier 2837

James W. Iman is a Pittsburgh-area pianist and teacher who specializes in music written since 1945, although he also includes some modern works written in the 1910s, ‘20s and ‘30s. This, the first of three CDs he is contracted to produce for the Divine Art-Métier label group, is a reissue of his first album, released by ZeD Classics in 2017 (see cover art below).

original ZeD cover

It’s rather sad that such an outstanding and imaginative artist as Iman struggles for recognition while dozens others, equal or inferior to his communicative skills, thrive by simply rehashing the same old same old, but this is where classical music is at in the year 2022. Crank out albums full of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Brahms and Rachmaninov, and you’ll be hailed as a genius and make a ton of money. Specialize in music of your own time or at least in the modernist vein, and you’re relegated to the backwaters of being a “niche” performer.

From the very first notes of the Schoenberg Klavierstücke, one is aware of the fact that Iman is an artist and not just a technician. His phrasing and subtle use of dynamics (as well as occasional use of the hold pedal) mold and shape this music in ways I’ve never quite heard before. There is a certain “curvelinear” feel to his phrasing that attracts the listener, despite the fact that this is already 12-tone Schoenberg. In addition, his piano is recorded perfectly, giving his sound great clarity with just enough natural reverb around the instrument to not make it sound like an echo chamber. By binding the chords and phrases of Schoenberg’s music, Iman almost makes it sound more pentatonic than atonal—one might say, a cousin to Scriabin.

Boulez’ music, on the other hand, is even more severe than Schoenberg’s. With even the “melodic” line consisting of widely-spaced intervallic notes, there is very little room for lyricism, nor do I think the composer wanted any. Idil Biret, I think, has taken the best approach to his piano sonatas, playing them in a taut fashion which gives the music shape. Iman takes a different, more idiosyncratic approach, but despite his not being able to create a musical arch in this sonata, he still gives us various gradations of volume which enhance one’s listening experience.

With Webern, Iman is more able to create his brand of “atonal lyricism,” at least in spots, and this is in line with the way Webern conducted his own music (a few rare radio snippets survive to tell the tale). The name of Gilbert Amy (b. 1936) was entirely new to me, but alas, the music was not. It sounded like a clone of Boulez. And there is the limitation of the dodecaphonic style. You can only do so much with it; it is not a device that frees composers, but on the contrary, locks them into a pattern that they must adhere to.

Nonetheless, I will keep my eye out for Vol. 2 of this series, hoping that in it Iman will move on to some modern composers who were not all 12-tone. He clearly has a lot to offer. I only wish that his programming on this initial CD had been a bit more diverse in style.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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