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Easley Blackwood: Chamber Music / Pikler, Stucka

Release Date: 04/26/2005 
Label:  Cedille Records   Catalog #: 81   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Easley Blackwood
Performer:  Charles PiklerEasley BlackwoodGary Stucka
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 12 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Easley Blackwood (b. 1933) has been an essential presence in the Chicago musical scene since the 1950s. A professor of music at the University of Chicago for 40 years, he has simultaneously been a perpetual performer in chamber ensembles and recitals throughout the city’s musical culture. (Cedille has done an excellent job of representing both his performing and creative sides in its discography.) He’s one of the truly great living American pianist-composers. This recording showcases him in both roles. One needs to listen to this program in its entirety, and with that context, then once again before one leaps to any critical judgement. The reasons are: (1) the works show a stylistic evolution that’s hardly straight-lined, but they’re out of Read more chronological order in their presentation; and (2) the music is intensely wrought in its details, but its overall character is inherently modest, taking greatest pleasure in the subtlety with which compositional challenges can be met.

So in this culture of immediate, in-your-face gratification, it takes a little time to enter into Blackwood’s world, to understand his premises. This is music that, no matter of what harmonic tradition it partakes, is firmly classicist in its stance. It values elegance, balance, precision, and restraint. It is definitely cerebral, but that does not preclude expression, delicacy, even sweetness. It’s just that it refuses any grand gesture that I suspect the composer would find maudlin or cheap.

The earliest work, the last on the program, is the First Viola Sonata, which dates from 1953 and Blackwood’s studies with Messiaen at Tanglewood. Its language is closest to Berg’s, both with its vaguely folkish melodies and its extended harmonies. The 1960 First Violin Sonata suggests Hindemith as a model, though Blackwood rightly notes the harmonic language is closer to early free atonal Schoenberg. Its most arresting feature is its ending: after an exuberant climax, the music suddenly sinks into a reverie, a brief and gnomic postlude. The 1969 Piano Trio is the most modernist work of the program, employing by far the most simultaneous rhythmic variety; it is still a far more controlled and integrated work than many such experiments from its period. Finally, the 2001 Second Viola Sonata brings us to the world of tonal composition that Blackwood embraced in the early 1980s. This work is the one that benefits most from a second listening, after having heard the other pieces. On the first pass, one hears a five-movement work that might have been composed by an English composer of the early 20th century, with evident admiration of Debussy (Blackwood mentions Bartók and Prokofiev as models, but frankly I don’t hear them as strongly). Fine and well crafted, it initially seems derivative. But on the second pass, I found myself admiring not only its intelligence and catchy musical materials, but also I felt there was a far greater breadth of phrasing, an easy grace that was more tightly controlled in the earlier works. One can only sense this once you have the context of the composer’s larger output.

This music isn’t the sort that most satisfies my tastes, but it has great craft and integrity, so that in the end I’m won over. It’s the product of a consummate musician. (It’s also worth noting that Blackwood is a more varied composer than I might have suggested from the above. Another remarkable work of his, also on Cedille, is the group of 24 microtonal etudes for synthesizer, exploring different equal subdivisions of the octave. In this manner, he reminds me of another composer-pianist with both a more conservative public face and an experimentalist side, Percy Grainger. Blackwood plays brilliantly, though never shows off. His two colleagues, both Chicago Symphony players, match him note-for-note. The sound quality is excellent for chamber music, clear and clean, but not too dry. Finally, a word of praise for Cedille, which has been documenting the rich and substantive musical life of Chicago for now at least a couple of decades. In reminding us that this “second” city houses extraordinary talent, it should give us snobs from either coast pause, and make us all happy that American culture has such depth in its center.

Robert Carl, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording

Sonata for Viola and Piano no 2, Op. 43 by Easley Blackwood
Performer:  Charles Pikler (Viola), Easley Blackwood (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2001; USA 
Venue:  WFMT Studios, Chicago, Illinois 
Length: 24 Minutes 9 Secs. 
Notes: WFMT Studios, Chicago, Illinois (02/02/2002 - 02/03/2002) 
Sonata for Violin and Piano no 1, Op. 7 by Easley Blackwood
Performer:  Charles Pikler (Violin), Easley Blackwood (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1960; USA 
Date of Recording: 09/04/2002 
Venue:  WFMT Studios, Chicago, Illinois 
Length: 16 Minutes 39 Secs. 
Sonata for Viola and Piano no 1, Op. 1 by Easley Blackwood
Performer:  Charles Pikler (Viola), Easley Blackwood (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1953; USA 
Date of Recording: 04/28/2002 
Venue:  WFMT Studios, Chicago, Illinois 
Length: 13 Minutes 57 Secs. 
Trio for Piano and Strings, Op. 22 by Easley Blackwood
Performer:  Gary Stucka (Cello), Easley Blackwood (Piano), Charles Pikler (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1968; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/04/2004 
Venue:  WFMT Studios, Chicago, Illinois 
Length: 16 Minutes 35 Secs. 

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