Notes and Editorial Reviews
Shake the Tree
Piano Sonata No. 2
Donald Berman (pn);
John McDonald (pn);
Moritz Eggert (pn);
Erberk Eryilmaz (pn)
INNOVA 857 (67:04)
Back in 36:3, I had occasion to review a CD of my
colleague, Robert Carl. Lest readers suspect that we have an inbred club here within the hallowed pages of this magazine, I should mention that I’ve never met my colleague, and have, as far as I can recall, had only one brief e-mail exchange with him. Thus the fact that a second CD containing his music is now receiving a positive review from me is based on nothing more than the quality of the music, which is most arresting and substantial in its impact.
Given that the present disc is devoted exclusively to Carl’s piano music (the first work being written for piano, four hands), it provides a glimpse of another facet of this composer’s compositional activities apart from the more experimental media of the previous disc I reviewed. The composer admits to being only a “modest” pianist, but what he writes can scarcely be considered to require only modest pianistic talent. Indeed, these works require consummate virtuosos to bring them off, which fortunately Carl had access to in this recording.
The disc’s opening
Shake the Tree
immediately grips the listener with its Ivesian forwardness and rhythmic complexity, although Carl’s musical language is more advanced than even that of Ives. Carl describes
Shake the Tree
as an experiment in which a series of chords spring up from a low A according to overtone patterns. This series is followed by what he calls “time molds,” centered on various pitches that move up and down the overtone series of the note A, while exploring harmonies that treat each tonal center as a kind of fundamental. If this description sounds complicated, it is, and the listener is not going to “get” all of that just from listening to the music, but he will hear a fascinating exercise with exotic sonorities and textures that sounds like nothing else out there. The title refers to the musical counterpart of shaking a tree to yield its fruit, except that here the shaking yields the “harvest” of the chords. There is also a good bit of “orchestration” on display in this work, with contrasting sections of textures of greater and lesser density.
is a kind of synthesis of a theme and variations and a dance suite, the dance movements alternating with the variations, as they explore common material from two different perspectives. In this work, the composer pays homage to the variations of Beethoven, especially his 32 Variations in C Minor. The work opens with an improvised cadenza meant to encapsulate the work at its outset, and continues with special effects, including black key glissandos, tapping on the closed piano lid, and a miming of the performance above the keys. The latter effect must be imagined, of course, given that this recording lacks a video component. The live performance by pianist Moritz Eggert is stunning and must be heard to be believed. His opening cadenza is initiated with a sequence of subdued chords, which are followed by an incessant ostinato in the bass that ever increases in tempo, and reaches a climax in a breathtaking cascade of notes. From there, the work becomes exclusively Carl’s and expands the ideas that are briefly presented in the cadenza. There is much athletic rhythmic activity throughout the six sections, which after the cadenza include “Marking the Field,” “Stretching,” “Marching,” “Floating,” and “Flying.” “Marching” in particular has a whiff of Nancarrow to it, with its persistent ostinato overlaid with intricate rhythmic figures.
Carl’s Second Piano Sonata began life in 1993 as a single-movement solo work entitled
The Big Room,
named for a studio he worked in overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, which in its audible rhythms provided a stimulus for his creativity. In 1999, the composer realized that this movement was the seed for a larger work, which eventually became the sonata presented here. In the first movement, “Clouds are Scattering,” it is actually the blocks of music that do the scattering and colliding that serve to open up other blocks of space and create tension and growth. Special pedaling is also utilized to create sonic “ghosts” that linger in the background. The second movement draws upon
notes to weave several strands of recurring cycles in a grid of flashing sounds that are detached from their surroundings. Interspersed between the
s are subdued fluttering, tremolos, and the like that help set off the punctuated notes. The third movement, “The World Turned Upside Down,” draws its title from an English folk tune that was played at the British surrender at Yorktown. The incongruity of this ditty played at such a somber occasion is what inspired Carl to use it in this setting, where it is only hinted at in the introduction to the movement, but is fully revealed in the end in a kind of melding of American Minimalism with a Chopin prelude. The composer considers the piece a turning point in his output, and adapted it into his Third Symphony.
These works are seminal in their way, utterly unique in their effect, and reveal Carl’s febrile and innovative mind. Highly recommended, both for readers whose ears are well tuned to the advanced idioms of modern music, and for those who may not be there yet, but would like to be. All four pianists bring this music off superbly, and the recorded sound is all that could be desired.
FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
Works on This Recording
Shake the Tree by Robert Carl
Donald Berman (Piano),
John McDonald (Piano)
Braided Bagatelles by Robert Carl
Moritz Eggert (Piano)
Sonata for Piano no 2 "The Big Room" by Robert Carl
Erberk Eryilmaz (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
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