Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Keeping things simple

It's been only a few months since the first disc in this Paul Bowles piano series was released, but it's so great to have the rest of the (disappointingly small) complete music for piano from this fine composer and this fine piano duo. The Invencia Piano Duo, the excellent pianists Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn, play a number of works together on this excellent disc, due to be released on June 10, 2016, but they're also each given the chance to shine individually.

Volume 1 was anchored by the Sonata for Two Pianos, the most significant piano work that Bowles wrote, while most of the rest of the disc was made up of smaller character pieces and song arrangements.  There's more of that here; only a few pieces are longer than 4 minutes. But that comes from a spare composing style rather than any lack of substance. "I always tried to keep everything simple," says Bowles.
I didn’t want complications. And that applies not only to music, but to my writing as well. I don’t like unnecessary verbiage, or unnecessary sounds. The whole idea is to pare everything off until you only have the important things, and throw the rest out.
The two sonatinas are a good example of this. In the Piano Sonatina (1932-33), a craggy work with a hint of Prokofiev, each of the three movements has both gravity and bite, with a strongly rhythmic opening Allegro, an Andante with sentiment but not sentimentality, and a fun finale that mixes Schumann with Stravinsky. The work makes a strong impression in its 7-1/2 minutes. It's like Bowles wrote a Sonata, and threw out the unnecessary sounds. That's even more the case in the tiny Sonatina Fragmentaria (1933); it's a stripped-down Good Parts Version of a modernist sonata, with little left of even a sonata's structure.

Here are Kasparov and Lutsyshyn in 2011, playing Night Waltz, a work Bowles wrote in 1949:

Night Waltz is the also the title of an important film documentary about Bowles' music from 1999, directed by Owsley Brown. The film-makers interview Bowles (who died later that year), and that's where I got the quote above, about keeping things simple. They also talk with the composer Phillip Ramey, who has this to say about Bowles' music:
The writing doesn’t have much charm, it doesn’t deal in charm the way the music does. The writing can be horrific, the writing can be very grim. Paul’s music is a little more monochromatic; charm is his foremost preoccupation, and he achieves that through melody, not harmony so much, but especially rhythm.
Charm is a pretty small subset of what a composer can communicate in music, but as Bowles says in the movie, "you do the best you can." He talks about how hard music composition is, and how much easier he found it to write words. Aaron Copland was upset when Bowles left music for literature; he felt he was lazy. He does seem to have a certain facility for writing tunes with a folk-like quality. "I invented folk themes that sounded like originals," he once said. But of course we don't know what these simple-sounding tunes cost Bowles.

Actually, I think Ramey's "charm" characterization is an under-estimation of Bowles' music. We can all miss underlying strength and complexity in the face of serious charm, whether in Mozart's music or Cary Grant's acting. Tamanar, which receives its recording premiere here, has the visionary, even hallucinatory, feel of some of Bowles' writing. The four Blue Mountain Ballads are among Bowles' best songs (he's an amazing song-writer), and I really enjoyed Kasparov's arrangements for piano four hands. Kasparov also uncovered three little gems from the Julliard School library: pieces arranged by the great duo-pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. These are fun and, as they say, charming.

This project deserves so much praise. I really appreciate the artistry of Kasparov and Lutsyshyn, and all of the care and effort they've taken to bring this important music to the public.

Oh, I nearly forgot. YouTube has a five-minute trailer for the Night Waltz documentary film. I haven't been able to track down the full film on disc or online. Definitely watch this, though!

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