Ravel and Bartok Go Electric


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While this album is not likely to cause as much of a stir as Bob Dylan did when he went electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival it is revelatory in its own way. Of course Ravel and Bartok did not write for even acoustic guitar but they, like all western classical musicians, were very familiar with the art of transcription. Functional electric instruments wouldn’t come into use until the late 1940s. But the art of transcription (essentially a synonym for “Covers” as used in pop music) can be applied to any instrument and, at its best, transcription brings out perspectives in the music that were not obvious in its original incarnation. That is what is achieved here.

There are no liner notes but it appears that these musicians have done the transcribing themselves. And their backgrounds include having played guitar with the likes of Chris Cornell, Natalie Merchant, Rufus Wainwright, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Ian Hunter, and others. Their facility with their guitar playing comes from (the more traditional role of the guitar) in rock/pop genres and here they apply this knowledge to playing classical repertoire which they came to love. Why can’t they have both?

A more pedestrian choice of repertoire for a debut might have been Bach inventions or Scarlatti sonatas (which worked remarkably well for Wendy Carlos) but these guys made what, on first look, seems very unusual choices. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite (hardly that composer’s best known work) and 6 (of the 44) duos for violins by Bela Bartok (among the composer’s least known compositions). So I approached this release with a great deal of skepticism.

Well, the sounds they create, recorded so lucidly too, instantly won me over. This is a spectacular release and makes a very enjoyable listening experience. Their transcriptions provided a perspective that sent this listener back to the original compositions for another listen. I had a minimal familiarity with the Ravel and even less familiarity with the Bartok but the sheer energy of their performances combined with a real feel for the jazz roots that underlie the Ravel as well as a curious set of sounds chosen for the Hungarian folk derived Bartok effectively recasts these pieces in a very different perspective.

Like Bob Dylan, they thrust the modern electric guitar center stage and provide what will be for some, a jarring or disturbing experience. Purists may find these transcriptions sacrilegious but I suspect that many will be charmed and (perhaps their endgame) may find electric guitars to be anywhere from acceptable to revelatory as instruments which can do justice in the classical world.

Electric guitars are now pretty common in folk as well as rock and blues. Dylan gets significant credit for this and these guys seem to be aiming at a similar goal, that of bringing electric guitars into legitimacy in the performance of classical music. Whether this eventually happens remains to be seen but this is a mighty well conceived and executed effort and, in the end, it is a very fine piece of sonic art. Kudos to Jack Petruzzelli and Cameron Greider as well as to Sono Luminus.

Elegant Affable Virtuosity, Hanzhi Wang at the Music Academy of the West


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Hanzhi Wang with her Pigini concert accordion (publicity photo from the internet)

On the first day of February, on a sunny day in Santa Barbara, rising star Hanzhi Wang presented a solo recital in Hahn Hall at the matinee hour of 4PM.  Despite the beautiful weather a substantial crowd gathered for this event which was part of the always notable UCSB Arts and Lectures series.

This young performer only recently came to this writer’s musical radar a few months ago.  Subsequent research revealed her to be a marvelously accomplished musician.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree at the China Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and her Master’s degree at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen as a student of Geir Draugsvoll.  First Prize Winner of the 2017 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, Ms. Wang’s debut opened the Young Concert Artists Series in New York in The Peter Marino Concert at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, and her Washington, DC debut opened the 40th Anniversary Young Concert Artists Series at the Kennedy Center.

Her interesting and rather eclectic program was artfully designed to showcase her strengths.  One of those strengths is certainly her ability to communicate with her audience both is her brief but lovely introductions to her performances using a microphone kept near her seat as well as in her radiant persona which communicates a humility and pleasant affability.  Of course the most important communication to be heard on this afternoon would be the musical.

She began with a couple of Bach pieces which, like most of his keyboard music, can be done equally well on harpsichord, piano, and now, accordion.  It is here that she showed her virtuosity and interpretive skills which reflected an obvious affection for the material.  Though scheduled to perform the famous Chaconne she chose instead to present these shorter, entertaining pieces.

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Her Pigini concert accordion echoed the pleats in the skirt of her tasteful outfit well suited to a recitalist performing these essential works of the western musical canon.  She followed these with three keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)(K. 9, 159, and 146).  This writer first encountered these little gems (the composer wrote over 500 of them) in the landmark recording Switched on Bach by Wendy Carlos in the 1970s and they are a delight on any concert program (though not programmed often enough).  She handled these challengingly virtuosic works with seeming ease expertly adding dynamics to define these works to create a wonderfully entertaining concert experience.

Wang followed these with three pieces by another late baroque master, French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764).  “L’ Egiptienne”, “La Livri”, and “Le Rappel des oiseau”.  Her obvious affection for these works have subsequently sent this listener to seek out more of Rameau’s works.  These works on the first half of the program were all characterized by her lovely playing, making a strong case for the role of this nineteenth century folk instrument’s role in the playing of classical music.

After a brief intermission Ms. Wang offered a twentieth century work by the late, great Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998).  Though not originally for the accordion the composer did utilize this instrument in some of his works.  Russian composers at least since Tchaikovsky have utilized the accordion to stunning effect.  And this performance was another demonstration of this young musician’s easy virtuosity and insight offering up these brief pieces inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s novel, “Dead Souls”.  The music is filled with both humor and passion with echoes of the dead souls (in Schnittke’s trademark “polytsylism”) of prior Russian composers.

The soloist’s clear understanding of the modern idiom was made very clear and one need only look to Wang’s website to see that her repertory ranges across 400 years of the western musical canon.  One wonders if there is anything she can’t play well.

Her last scheduled pieces came from the late nineteenth century by a composer which Wang humorously noted eschewed the accordion, Edvard Grieg (1843-1907).  The Norwegian nationalist’s famed Holberg Suite (originally for string orchestra) sounded pleasantly familiar on Wang’s instrument.

After an enthusiastic standing ovation Ms. Wang presented three more pieces, two by the late Argentinian Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) and a piece by German composer and piano virtuoso, Moritz Moszkovsky (1854-1925).  These were like gifts to the audience which further demonstrated her facility with the tango inflected Piazzola and the playful, though difficult, pianism of Moszkowski.

This young woman is indeed a rising star who belongs on your radar.

 

Lucas Debargue: 52 Scarlatti Sonatas


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There are 555 Sonatas for piano (or harpsichord) by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) and there are literally scores of recordings of these pithy little essays that lie poised between the style of the late baroque and early classical.  I first heard this composer’s work in the early 1970s in the wonderful synthesizer transcriptions by Wendy Carlos.  Since then I have found this composer’s work to move in and out of my life, just randomly.  Sometimes I don’t hear his music or even hear about him for months, perhaps years.  But then he pops up somehow.  Either I find a compelling YouTube performance on a period harpsichord or some algorithm sends me a video of Horowitz playing one or two of the sonatas.

They are deceptively simple in sound but are quite difficult to perform.  To make matters more unnecessarily complex there are no less than four separate numbers assigned to each sonata by musician scholars.  The first numbering was the Cz number by the celebrated pianist/composer Carl Czerny.  The second (from about 1906) is the L for Alessandro Longo.  Famed harpsichordist, pianist, and musicologist Ralph Kirpatrick did his edition in 1953 giving us the K numbering.  And finally another scholar named Georgio Pestelli gave us, you guessed it, a P numbering system.

One thing is pretty clear from all this fussy scholarship, that Scarlatti’s music continues to mean a great deal and is played in transcriptions probably for every imaginable grouping.  There are purist arguments as to why they should only always be played on a harpsichord and wonderfully scholarly treatises on the use of the pedal when playing these pieces on the modern piano.

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Lucas Debargue (from his website)

So if you want to get into Scarlatti where do you start?  I would suggest that here is a great place.  This young fine artist Lucas Debargue (1990- ), a French pianist, has chosen 52 (yes, of 555) and plays them beautifully on the piano.  These 4 CDs will do a fine job of filling that annoying collector’s gap when you suddenly realized you had no Scarlatti.  In fact you might find yourself so pleased as to not need any other versions of these works.

If you already have the complete Scott Ross collection of the sonatas or are just getting to know these little gems this is a great set.  It is a superior musician of the generation now rising to their fame as legitimized interpreters of these lovely and challenging works.

I had contemplated maybe providing a list of which sonatas are included here (they’re not even listed on the back of the box, you have to read the liner notes) but I decided that ultimately it doesn’t matter unless you are scouring the recorded archives of the world for alternatives to the Wendy Carlos versions.  The quality does vary in some of these but any collection of this sized by such a serious artist is bound to have many pleasing to the listener’s ear.  The music itself is a fine ride.  Let’s see how this new whippersnapper handles it.  You won’t be disappointed.