Monday, July 28, 2014

Music of the past, music of the future

Two piano discs have come across my desk in the last few weeks, one representing romantic works of the 19th century and the other introducing me to new pieces whose worth will be decided and classified by posterity. (I enjoyed them.)

The first consisted of Pavel Kolesnikov's performances of Tchaikovsky's "The Seasons" and six Tchaikovsky morceaux hardly anyone plays; it came out on Hyperion, which has lately specialized in neglected corners of the piano repertoire. The second offered Robert Auler playing compositions by Jonathan Pieslak, a 1996 Davidson College grad who now teaches at City College of New York; it came out on Albany, which records a great deal of American music.

Here's Kolesnikov playing the Russian master's first piano concerto at the 2012 Honens Competition, which he won.

And here's a clip -- a much shorter one -- of Auler playing Pieslak's "Spiral" from the album titled "Shards." If you like it, I recommend you check out "American Atmospheres," a collection of etudes that shows off the composer's full range of styles, at Youtube.

Tchaikovsky and Pieslak don't have a lot in common stylistically, though both pianists tackle their virtuosic and challenging music with aplomb. (Each disc is not only well-played but superbly recorded.) But the pieces, written more than a century apart, have this in common: They reflect the times they were composed and the states of their composers' minds. And both were written by men in their late 20s to mid 30s, becoming ever more assured while finding their voices.

Tchaikovsky's "Seasons" (also known as "The Months," because there are 12 short works in the 40-minute suite) shows him in many moods: wistful, bemused, pensive, highly stimulated, melancholic, jovial. These and the morceaux (a word that simply means "pieces" in French) reflect the 19th-century demand for short works that could be played by gifted amateurs at home or in salons, though a reflective artist such as Kolesnikov makes more of them. (His performance ranks with Sviatoslav Richter's different take on these works, a favorite of mine.)

Pieslak also brings us into his world. "Prednisomnia" conveys "the sensation that one's mind is forcibly controlled by a drug that permits one to witness his/her uncharacteristic behavior but restrains one from being able to change it" -- an experience he had while taking prednisone for a kidney disorder. "Bhakti (1) unburdening" reflects his interest in Hindu devotional chants, and you hear Pieslak chant a mantra at the end. "American Atmospheres" depicts a series of moods from "Shifting Tides" to "Cuban Carnival" and shows influences from Debussy to Latin dance music.

The Tchaikovsky disc makes for easier listening, because folks with even a slight grounding in the classics have been exposed to his music. (Although "American Atmospheres" is almost as quickly accessible.) The Pieslak selections take us through a wider range of emotional experiences and show us more keyboard colors. Both deserve a crack at your ears.