Oh, No! Not Another Minimalist! Lubomyr Melnyk, Fastest Fingers in the West, Makes Major Label Debut


I first encountered the music of this undeservedly obscure but unique composer/pianist in the late 1980s with the purchase of a double vinyl album of his “Lund-St. Petri Symphony” a work for solo piano which is stylistically one of the tributaries of minimalism.  Melnyk was born in Germany of Ukrainian descent and now lives and works in Canada.  I began this article for inclusion in my series about minimalist composers (the designation of “minimalist” is imposed by the author and is not necessarily the identity embraced by the artist).  In addition to providing a sketch of the artist I am pleased to be able to review this major label release.

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Sony

Ilirion marks this composer/pianist’s big label debut and this is a fitting recognition for this long established composer, pianist and teacher.  Lubomyr Melnyk (1948- ) has been performing since the 1970s and has released over 20 albums.  His web site is in need of updating and here’s hoping that this release will help provide the impetus for that and for the greater distribution of this artist’s work.

Below is the description of Melnyk’s music from his web site:

Melnyk’s Continuous Music is based on the principle of a continuous® and unbroken line of sound from the piano — this is created by generating a constant flow of rapid (at times EXTREMELY rapid) notes, usually with the pedal sustained non-stop. The notes can be either in the form of patterns or as broken chords that are spread over the keyboard. To accomplish this requires a special technique, one that usually takes years to master — this technique is the very basis of the meditative and metaphysical® aspects within the music and the art of the piano.
Moreover, in his earlier works, Melnyk devoted much attention to the overtones which the piano generates, but in his more recent works, Melnyk has become more and more involved with the melodic potential of this music.
Melnyk’s earlier music was generally classified as Minimalism®, although Melnyk strongly refutes that term, preferring to call his music MAXIMALism®, since the player has to generate so many, many notes to create these Fourth Dimensions of Sound®.
Because his piano music is so difficult and requires a dedicated re-learning® of the instrument, no other pianists in the world (so far) have tackled his larger works — and so, his recordings are truly collector’s items (both as LP-s and CD-s).
He has however recorded extensively for the CBC in Canada, as well as various European stations. He has performed and given lecture-recitals across Canada and in Europe. 

I’m not sure how useful this explanation will be to listeners but I think it’s important to acknowledge that the composer has attempted to establish a system explaining his work. However one does not need to be deeply familiar with the underlying theory to appreciate the music.  One does not need to understand Schoenberg’s twelve tone theories or Anthony Braxton’s far out ideas to appreciate their music.  One doesn’t even need to understand the basics of western classical harmony to appreciate Mozart, for that matter but such knowledge can contribute to appreciation.  I certainly lay no claim to understanding this man’s music and I am not aware of any musicologists or critics who have written anything analyzing Melnyk’s work but I find his music compelling and worth wider attention.

Rather than attempting a comprehensive review of Melnyk’s output (and risking muddying the field) I am simply going to recommend a couple of discs which I have found particularly interesting and may help put this latest release in useful perspective.  The disc which is intended to provide a sort of exposition of his work is KMH.

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The other disc, and the one which I have admired most, is the Lund St. Petri Symphony.  I bought it as a two disc vinyl album and it does not appear to be easily available now but it is well worth seeking (and maybe Sony will consider re-releasing it).

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The present release on Sony contains 5 tracks:

Beyond Romance is the first and longest track on the disc (16:12) and is certainly representative of his work.  The composer’s brief notes describe this work only as a grand romantic piece.  It perhaps has echoes of Liszt but certainly with at least an echo of minimalism.

Solitude No. 1 is a much briefer piece (7:36) and is a live improvisation by the composer recorded in the Netherlands.

Sunset (3:49) is the briefest on the disc and is an impressionistic description of its title.

Cloud No. 81 (16:02) is a far more extended impressionistic essay with more harmonic variety than the other tracks.

The title piece, Ilirion (14:12) is another extended essay more akin to the first track.

These discs range from interesting to enthralling for this reviewer and the limited descriptions contained in this release do little to guide the listener.  So I guess I can only say, “Please listen”.

Tracks 1, 3, and 4 were recorded at Clearlight Studios in Winnipeg, Canada.  Track 2 is a live recording from Tilburg, Netherlands and the last track is described as being an archive recording from also from Tilburg.  All were recorded between 2012 and 2015.

The rather sparse liner notes are by one Charles Bettle who is described as a “long time friend and admirer” of Melnyk’s work.  The even sparser notes on the music are by the composer.  The beautiful photography is by Alexandra Kawka.

It is difficult to say why this artist remains as marginally known but, as I have asserted before, artists from Canada get strangely little notice here and Mr. Melnyk does not appear to be a very good publicist.  I hope that this endorsement by Sony results in more releases and, more importantly, in more good studio recordings of his work.  It is unique and highly recommended to aficionados of piano music and minimalism.

The Big Piano Variations, a great new recording of Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski


 

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Let me start by saying that I specifically requested the opportunity to review this October, 2015 release because I was pleased and fascinated to see this representation of three major masterworks of the large variation form included in a single collection.  To my knowledge this is the first time that these three works have been represented in a single release.

Variation form is one of the staples of the composer’s arsenal of techniques for well over 400 years now but the form is most commonly used as one technique in one  of several movements of a larger work. Consequently these types of variations generally last a few minutes.  A favorite example is the variations movement from Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, a set of variations on his song, “Die Forelle” (trout in English) which subsequently lends the title to the entire work for piano quintet. This variation movement runs about 7 minutes or so in performance.  The Goldberg Variations (1741) can run up to 2 hours if one includes all the repeats but generally performances take about an hour.

So, along comes Johann Sebastian Bach who is commissioned by one Count Herman Karl von Keyserling (1697-1764) to compose some music for harpsichord (the predominant keyboard instrument of the day) to be performed by his personal musician Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756) to aid the count’s insomnia.  The original intent apparently was to have the player perform one or two of said variations as a sleep-inducing remedy upon the Count’s request.  The work, using a brief Sarabande from the Bach’s own Anna Magdalena Notebook collection of pieces, has since taken the performer’s name as the Goldberg Variations.

It is not clear when the practice of performing the work in it’s entirety began but there is little doubt that Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording for Columbia Records (now Sony Classical) placed this piece firmly in the repertoire and in the minds and hearts of musicians and the listening public.  The variations had been recorded before by Rudolf Serkin, Wanda Landowska, Claudio Arrau, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Gustav Leonhardt and Roslyn Tureck but Gould’s quirky interpretation apparently defined a moment.

In 1819 the publisher Anton Diabelli composed a waltz and sent it out to many composers of the time asking them to write a variation on his piece with the promise that the collection would then be published.  This was not an uncommon practice at the time and it is certainly a workable business plan.

Indeed Diabelli did publish a compendium of these 50 plus variations by many composers of the day (including Franz Schubert and the 11 year old Franz Liszt) as Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (the link will take you to the downloadable score of the non-Beethoven variations on the waltz) but these are largely now forgotten.  Beethoven apparently balked at the idea or simply saw a larger potential in Diabelli’s brief waltz because he chose to write not one but 33 variations on the theme which subsequently became Volume II of Diabelli’s project.

Unlike the Goldberg Variations the Diabelli Variations (1823) were intended as a concert piece to be performed in its entirety.  Like most of Beethoven’s music this piece found a place in the repertoire and remains a staple for many pianists.  It is not clear if Beethoven was familiar with Bach’s work but the gesture is certainly similar in creating a large cohesive set of variations.

In 1975 the fabulous pianist Ursula Oppens commissioned Frederic Rzewski to write a set of variations that could be a companion piece to the Diabelli Variations.  Rzewski composed the music and Oppens premiered it in 1976.  Her subsequent recording from 1979 was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Frederic Rzewski (1938- ) is a composer/performer as were Bach and Beethoven.  He is a highly virtuosic pianist and a prolific composer whose influence extends widely from his involvement in the European avant garde including his own innovative use of early electronics in his ensemble Musica Elletronica Viva with Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, Allan Bryant, Carol Plantamura and John Phetteplace.

Rzewski’s variations are based on a revolutionary song by Sergio Ortega called, “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido” (The People United Will Never Be Defeated), a song popular during the Chilean revolution that deposed Salvador Allende.  Unlike Bach and Beethoven, Rzewski’s music frequently takes on political associations, usually pretty explicitly as seen in this piece.

There are  36 Variations (6 groups of 6) and, like the preceding pieces are a reflection of much of the performance practice of their respective times.  Various “extended techniques” include slamming the lid of the keyboard, whistling and others are carefully integrated into this very cohesive mostly tonal work.

This piece seems to be gaining ground as familiar repertoire in the concert hall and, whether by accident or design, the inclusion of this piece along with the other two by Sony (who, you will recall released the establishing version of the Goldberg Variations) in effect is a major acknowledgement of this piece as perhaps the foremost representation of the large variation form in the 20th century much as the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations represent the 18th and 19th.  Bravo, Sony!

The interest here too is the emergence of a new artist, the Russian pianist Igor Levit (1987- ). This is his third release on Sony Classical, the previous two being the 2 disc set of the Beethoven late piano sonatas and the 2 disc set of the Bach Partitas for keyboard.

I won’t go into the nuances of interpretation that distinguish Levit from other performers of these variations except to say that he has to my ears a lighter touch, more Chopin in spirit than Liszt perhaps.  His performances leave no doubt as to his virtuosity and interpretive abilities but, of course, there are always discussions of individual preferences for one or another pianist in such repertoire.  What is undeniable is his ability to grasp the larger picture and to perform these large masterpieces in such a way as to convince the listener of the integrity of each work and to hold the interest of the listener throughout the performances.  There is, in the end, no definitive recording of any music really but these are certainly candidates in the debate.

In short this is a fine set of discs, beautifully recorded, which would please anyone interested in classical music and piano music in general.  Over time one might want to hear other interpretations but these recordings are extremely satisfying and represent  their composers as well as any I’ve heard.