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Picker: Keys To The City, Four Etudes For Ursula, Etc / Ursula Oppens

Release Date: 09/09/2008 
Label:  Wergo   Catalog #: 6695   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Tobias Picker
Performer:  Tobias PickerUrsula Oppens
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 12 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

PICKER 4 Etudes for Ursula. Old and Lost Rivers. 3 Pieces. Where the Rivers Go. When Soft Voices Die. The Blue Hula. Keys to the City 1 Ursula Oppens (pn); Tobias Picker (pn) 1 WERGO 6695 (72:10)

Tobias Picker (b. 1954) has been blazing a career path over a series of different genres and media. He’s a wonderful pianist, and his concerto, Keys to the City , received an extremely visible premiere at Read more the centennial celebration of the Brooklyn Bridge—with the composer as soloist. Aside from a host of A-list orchestral, chamber, and solo commissions, he’s one of our most performed and visible opera composers. I was taken with his first work, Emmeline , which evoked a Romantic tone without being a pandering knockoff. His An American Tragedy received its premiere at the Met, to mixed reviews (I’ve not yet heard it, so have nothing to say there).

This is a collection of piano works Picker has written over the past quarter century, many of them for Ursula Oppens. The works fall into a few categories. First, there are those which are “modernist prickly.” When Soft Voices Die is the earliest, from 1977, and while an impressive product from a 23-year-old composer, I find it the least appealing in its constant stopping and starting. Written while the composer was studying with Elliott Carter and the latter was writing his own solo piano mammoth, the Night Fantasies , Picker’s piece feels a little too influenced by his teacher, and not to the good. But then, in 1996, we have another such piece, the Four Etudes for Ursula , which in its nervous energy has a remarkable drive and real continuity. Though I find it a little taxing by the end, it is bracing, and a convincing showpiece. It also shows how much Picker’s learned in a couple of decades.

Two works fall into the “post-jazz” category. The Blue Hula (1990) is an arrangement of a movement from a sextet, and feels like a modernist cakewalk, bouncy and fun in just two minutes. Keys to the City (1983) is an obvious homage to Gershwin, and Picker pulls off what he wants to do—namely, to write an effective showpiece using 12-tone technique. And at the end I’m left still with the feeling that when a modernist sensibility is applied to a language based in a different harmonic system, the result can evoke the feel of the original very successfully, but the concrete materials remain somewhat abstract. There simply aren’t the same sorts of immediately memorable gestures and tunes as one has in the Gershwin Concerto in F, for example. This isn’t a matter of like or dislike; in fact, I enjoy Picker’s ambition and refusal to make an easy knockoff. But there’s also a tradeoff involved.

Finally, there are pieces that are far more tonal and Romantic in their sound and spirit. Old and Lost Rivers (1986) and Where the Rivers Go (1990) are shorter—the former an arrangement from a short orchestral fanfare. Their tone is surging and elegiac. For me, though, the most striking work on the entire collection is the 1990 Three Pieces for Piano , in particular the second of the set. This piece has a truly unclassifiable sound; it’s almost like a Broadway ballad that’s been fractured by an explosion, and through its seven minutes we keep hearing fragments resonate as they fall to earth. For me it most successfully treads the thin line between modernist and Romantic aesthetics that Picker seems to value most deeply.

I sang the praises about Ursula Oppens in the last issue of Fanfare, regarding her Çedille recording of the complete Carter piano music. Her long-term engagement with Picker’s music makes her an ideal advocate, and she has stunning precision and steeliness in her touch and passagework. Right at the beginning, her performance of the Four Etudes sets the bar at the very top, and she never lets down for the rest of the disc. I admit, at times I wish for a bit more delicacy, a more liquid touch and tone. But that’s not who she is; she has a real point of view, and this is good enough music to leave room for other interpretations. So no further carping.

Overall, this is a very effective portrait of a mid-career composer who’s already made a serious mark on the profession.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Piano no 2 "Keys to the City" by Tobias Picker
Performer:  Tobias Picker (Piano), Ursula Oppens (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1981; USA 
Length: 19 Minutes 8 Secs. 
The Blue Hula for Piano solo by Tobias Picker
Performer:  Ursula Oppens (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: circa 1990; Texas 
Length: 2 Minutes 18 Secs. 
Etudes (4) for Ursula by Tobias Picker
Performer:  Ursula Oppens (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1996; USA 
Length: 15 Minutes 9 Secs. 
Old and Lost Rivers by Tobias Picker
Performer:  Ursula Oppens (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1986; USA 
Length: 5 Minutes 9 Secs. 
Pieces (3) for Piano by Tobias Picker
Performer:  Ursula Oppens (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1988; USA 
Length: 9 Minutes 35 Secs. 
Where the Rivers Go by Tobias Picker
Performer:  Ursula Oppens (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1994; USA 
Length: 5 Minutes 47 Secs. 
When Soft Voices Die by Tobias Picker
Performer:  Ursula Oppens (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Length: 14 Minutes 57 Secs. 

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