Fingers and Brains

Photo by Diane AlancraigTHE INDOOR CONCERT SEASON DIDN'T begin with the customary orchestral spectacular at the Music Center or Royce, but with charm and intelligent small-scale music making in a friendly and informal setting: Gloria Cheng-Cochran's recital at Pasadena's Neighborhood Church to begin the sixth run of the valuable series known as "Piano Spheres." The program promised much and gave even more: a spread of 23 short pieces composed between 1902 and 1999, each of them some kind of dance, grouped not chronologically but in such a way that each piece cast a light on its neighbor -- not as a random smorgasbord, in other words, but as one of those carefully arranged "tasting menus" in a great and unaffordable restaurant.

Cheng-Cochran, I don't think I need to reiterate, is one of our local treasures; so, for that matter, is the concert series of mostly new and very new music that she and four other pianists put together each year (next: Susan Svrcek on November 23). Inevitably, her program had its share of clunks -- an inane, paint-by-numbers waltz by Philip Glass, an Igor Stravinsky tango from 1940 that surely ranks as an embarrassment to his legacy -- but they were far outweighed by the charmers and the discoveries. Among them was the "Shimmy" from Paul Hindemith's Suite 1922 (which Cheng-Cochran had played complete last year): music with an amazing power of observation, a document of a Europe in the first throes of its discovery of jazz. Henry Cowell's Lilt of the Reel, also from the 1920s, was fascinating to hear -- bristling, nose-thumbing music from a legacy that cries out to be rediscovered. Among the brand-new works, I especially admired Joan Huang's Red Ribbon Dance, a mingling of ethnicities beautifully blended. Altogether, an all-too-short sweep through intriguing music, full of fine thinking, wonderfully played, enhanced by the resonance of one of the Faziolis from the benevolent David Abell's piano showroom, which he sends over for each of these valuable events.

THE MYSTIQUE OF THE PIANO AND ITS virtuosos past and present does not always engage my undivided attention; piano nuts lag only slightly behind dramatic-soprano nuts in my catalog of the irrational. But the panorama is broad, with room at one end for David Helfgott -- who seems, however, to have disappeared again, thus proving the existence of God -- and, somewhere else along the path, for those enlightened souls with the powers of imagination to regard the piano as a thinking instrument. There is some remarkable brain and finger power at work on a new two-disc set, out next week on ECM, that excellent, high-adventure label. Two of the clearest thinkers among today's pianists, Peter Serkin and András Schiff, are deeply involved in two-piano works by Mozart, Reger and Busoni, including the latter composer's spellbinding Fantasia Contrappuntistica, one of music's authentically unscalable peaks.

Talk about brain music! Busoni's half-hour horizon-expanding masterpiece arose from his obsession with J.S. Bach's Art of the Fugue, specifically with the final fugue, left unfinished at Bach's death, with its foreshadowings of an even grander complexity than anything in the work up to the breaking-off. Busoni's intent was not merely to "finish" Bach's final fugue, but to use it as a launching point into his own vast speculations on Bach's musical world in 1750 and on his own world 170 years later -- and, thus, to extend Bach's own speculations on the expressive horizons of the art of counterpoint. Gnarled, crabbed, yet explosive, the work is no less murderous to hear than to perform. I once had the privilege of turning pages for the late Egon Petri, a onetime Busoni pupil, who braved the solo version in the studio at KPFA (in a happier time), but the full realization of the music's amazing strength reaches me first with this sublime performance by Serkin and Schiff.

The set also includes Mozart's Two-Piano Sonata, to which I composed a love letter in these pages about a year ago. This is the work that's gotten a lot of publicity from a psychologist's findings about its power to raise hearers' IQ. Well and good, and if I give you a long list of other works that have the same effect, they'll probably all be by Mozart. But there is, indeed, something special about this sonata, and the wise, loving performance by Serkin and Schiff brings it out. Mozart, in putting together the slow movement, follows a "normal" classical pattern: opening theme, change of key, second theme, development, etc. There is a concept mathematicians call an "elegant solution," a way of solving a problem not only accurately but with an extra dollop of imagination. What I hear, time and again, in this slow movement is that kind of elegance: the way Mozart, in his orderly progression from A to B, takes a quick detour to sample a particularly beautiful flower in bloom over at C. A really splendid performance of this music, the one that'll take your IQ right up to the Einstein level (for a couple of minutes, anyhow), has to be infused with the majesty of A and B, but also the fragrance of C. These guys get it right.

Despite sentiments expressed a few lines above, I am not entirely unreachable by the "purer" kind of piano virtuosity, and Sony's forthcoming release of Russia's 26-year-old whiz-bang Arcadi Volodos' 1998 Carnegie Hall recital would knock the socks off a marble statue. The music itself -- showoff pieces by Liszt and Rachmaninoff, Scriabin's 10th Sonata and assorted tidbits, a set of Schumann miniatures -- won't do much to raise your IQ, but it'll definitely drop your jaw. There is an exhilaration here, a torrent of virtuosity of the kind that you associate with certain no-brain Russians of bygone times. Nothing here, or on other Volodos recordings I've heard, tells me anything about his ability to assume the burden of thought; he comes to the Philharmonic next February with the Tchaikovsky, which won't tell us much more. But I wouldn't miss it for worlds.

LAST SATURDAY'S PAPERS -- THE New York and Los Angeles Times, respectively -- ran statements from heads of classical-music radio stations worth considering as the millennium hurtles toward us. Says Bill Campbell of Boston's WCRB, which has discontinued the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts: "The popular operas are fine, like La Traviata and La Bohème. People recognize them and are happy to hear them every year. Then comes along a five-hour Wagner feature, and I've got to tell you, that is an acquired taste." Says KKGO's Saul Levine, answering Mark Swed's call for livelier, up-to-date programming: "We present a balanced selection . . . that fits our mainstream approach. We do not air the works of John Cage or similar-sounding [sic] composers."

Is this what they mean by "static"?


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