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John Carbon: Piano Music

Graff,Steven
Release Date: 02/01/2012 
Label:  Cd Baby   Catalog #: 5637895868  
Composer:  John Carbon
Performer:  Steven Graff

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Quality music addressing universal themes … lingering modal timelessness.

American composer John Carbon is not a name that will be known to many outside the USA. His low profile belies the fact that his multifarious music has been widely performed over the last few decades, and has appeared on several recordings, including monographs. This is his second CD for Zimbel Records - his opera Benjamin is also available on ZR114.
 
Carbon wrote the eight gently atmospheric preludes that make up Small Town Memories for a colleague's master-class pupils. Each piece has a two-word title, the first a season, the second either Morning or Evening. They are thus
Read more impressionistically descriptive of the great outdoors in different conditions, but also about "growing up playing the piano". Time Out of Mind is, as the title suggests, about the passage of time and the vagaries of fate. The three sections - Time Passing, Passing Time, Elegy for Peg and Crazy Time - are by turn reflective, poignant and frenetic. Elegy for Peg is particularly beautiful, a lasting tribute to Carbon's deceased grandmother.
 
Six Spanish Lessons and Six More Spanish Lessons are delightful character suites, each consisting of six pieces descriptive of Spanish-themed settings. The former was originally written for harpsichord and the textural clarity and typical rhythms of Domenico Scarlatti are never far away. The pieces were inspired by real Spanish language lessons on hot, sunny afternoons, with depictions including the teacher's Pekingese, the turmoil of grammar lessons and Scarlatti dozing off at the keyboard! The second set describes a ranch and vineyard belonging to Carbon's father, with tone sketches of a Peruvian horse, a duck pond, a valley sunset and marauding wild boar!
 
The Piano Sonata, Carbon's only one to date, is dedicated to Steven Graff. Like much of Carbon's music, the work oscillates in and out of tonality, but without ever drifting far from shore. It is characterised by an impressionistic style of dreamy wandering, punctuated now and then by punchier rhythmic sections. The Sonata is in fact three minutes longer than the timing given on the disc.
 
Graff's long but always interesting recital ends appropriately with Ghostly Flickerings, originally used by Carbon to end his Houdini-based opera, Disappearing Act. For a minute the music shimmers and undulates warmly like the fading memory of a ghostly Titanic, and then: silence.
 
Carbon has known Graff for a long time - they grew up in the same part of Chicago, and have previous collaborations to their credit, including the premiere performance of Small Town Memories. Graff's standard repertoire ranges from Bach to Vaughan Williams, but he also includes contemporary American composers in his programmes. In this recital of wall-to-wall premiere recordings, Graff plays Carbon with a comfortable authority, easily equal to the virtuosity of the Sonata, but with the experience and expressiveness necessary to communicate the timbral and textural nuances of the Spanish Lessons.
 
A blind listener might be surprised to learn that Carbon is American - his music does not really sound it. Instead it has an introspective depth and haunting quality more typical of a Scandinavian composer, or one from the Celtic fringe of the British Isles. Not elemental, as the punner would doubtless have preferred, but characterised by a kind of lingering modal timelessness.
 
Sound quality is good, the piano tone appealing. The recording was produced by the composer Carson Cooman. The programme notes are by Carbon himself and give a lucid, detailed description of his works, which are an attractive proposition for anyone appreciative of quality piano music addressing universal themes.
 
-- Byzantion, MusicWeb International

When I last encountered the music of John Carbon, with a collection of pieces on the now defunct MMC label that included his excellent one-movement piano concerto, I noted that he seemed to be most comfortable in music of speed and energy. That rushed opinion is utterly contradicted by the often expansive and utterly lovely music that comprises most of the material on this album of solo piano music written over a two-decade period (1990–2010).

It is useful to note that Carbon has a sizable opera catalog, and continues to work in that medium. There are many moments in his solo piano music that contain theatrical elements. In some cases, such as the Small-Town Memories, the references are oblique, almost impressionistic. This work, which was written for students, is in eight sections, each specifying not just a season, but a time of day (autumn evening, winter morning, etc.). This is Carbon’s homage to his own Illinois boyhood, conjuring pastoral bike rides and stargazing as well as his memory of a Japanese block print that adorned a wall of his house. There are also plays on the piano music he was studying at the time, with hints of Chopin, Prokofiev, Satie, Poulenc, and Bach. This work is modest in conception, but endearingly sweet and sincere.

The two sets of Spanish Lessons are separated by almost a decade, and share a basically Iberian flavor, but the first set was originally intended as a harpsichord piece, with strong influences of French Baroque music, notably Couperin. In one delightful piece, “La Siesta de Domenico Scarlatti,” he imagines the great composer drifting off to sleep on a hazy afternoon, sated with wine, cheese, and fruit. The later group of six features lusher harmonic coloration, in part reflecting, per the composer’s own notes, Debussy. This music features a signature element of Carbon’s style, quicksilver shifts of tonal centers for expressive effect.

The 2009 Piano Sonata is the biggest work on the program, both in length and in artistic ambition. It also stands apart from the balance of this recital stylistically. The language is brash and chromatic, without losing a tonal center. Despite the shift in harmonic structure, the theatrical impulses that pervade the shorter pieces are here in bigger form, giving the music a compelling dramatic heft. The riveting four-movement work is an excellent addition to the repertoire, kindred in spirit to the neoclassical modernism of Bartók and Prokofiev. It is nearly 20 minutes in this performance, but there is enough narrative and architectural breadth in the work to keep it engrossing throughout. Pianist Steven Graff considers this music to be a major addition to the piano sonata repertoire, and I cannot disagree.

Graff’s playing has two strong points contributing to the success of this recital: He is a superb technician, most notable for his supple rhythmic control and tonal shading, and he completely inhabits the spirit of the composer. What more can a new-music aficionado ask for? For that matter, what more can any music lover ask for?

FANFARE: Peter Burwasser
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Works on This Recording

1.
Small Town Memories by John Carbon
Performer:  Steven Graff (Piano)
Written: 2010 
2.
Six Spanish Lessons by John Carbon
Performer:  Steven Graff (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1990 
3.
Time out of Mind by John Carbon
Performer:  Steven Graff (Piano)
Written: 2001 
4.
Six More Spanish Lessons by John Carbon
Performer:  Steven Graff (Piano)
Written: 2002 
5.
Sonata for Piano by John Carbon
Performer:  Steven Graff (Piano)
Written: 2009 
6.
Ghostly Flickerings by John Carbon
Performer:  Steven Graff (Piano)
Written: 2006 

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