in: Reviews

November 10, 2013

Music from the Periods of Two Elizabeths

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Although I have long admired his Decca recordings of 19th- and 20th-century American piano music, pianist Alan Feinberg’s fine recital at MIT’s Killian Hall on Friday, rescheduled from last April, when it had been cancelled during the campus lockdown following the Marathon bombings, gave me the opportunity to hear him live for the first time since in 1978.

The program was unusual, with a first half entirely comprising fantasias, galliards, and other pieces by Elizabethan virginalists. This morning I consulted my volumes of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book to re-examine that rich and idiosyncratic repertory of 296 pavans, in nomines, and eponymous pieces that sound so different on the piano from the harpsichord. More than half of Feinberg’s selection of eleven pieces were by the famous John Bull, including an In nomine on the ninth tone that developed into a furious display of swirling scales and heavy chords. The fantasia form of so many of these pieces, whether called “Fantasia” or not, is sectional, usually beginning with an ornamented simple melody in imitation, and then moving on to more and more elaborately developed variations, and I was surprised by how many of these expostulations I could absorb at one sitting, in keyboard styles I hadn’t experienced for many years. There were some fine moments of expressive chromaticism, which made me think of Frescobaldi or Froberger, whose styles are remote from these mighty but restrained Englishmen.

After the intermission came the Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise, the last of Chopin’s four concert pieces with orchestral accompaniment and the one for which the orchestration is most inessential; the piano display is total. This is also Chopin in his most exaggerated and unbuttoned virtuoso style; Ludwig Rellstab’s comment (cited by Huneker) was right about another of these early Chopin glitters: “He runs down the theme with roulades, and throttles and hangs it with chains of snakes.” But all that decoration includes amazing pianism and exploratory harmony (even wild dissonance) that never fail to sustain interest, and Feinberg brought it all out with fine energy and passion.

Charles Wuorinen’s Third Piano Sonata, composed 1986, completed the program. This is not as severe an example of Wuorinen’s post-Schoenberg style as some that I’ve heard, but it was always dramatic and always refreshing, alternating between a gritty texture of heavy chords and sevenths and ninths, and well-wrought melodic lines in paratonal harmony that was almost consonant. (A resonant bass octave on E-flat near the beginning reminded me of the noisy Chopin I had just heard.) The second movement was more cantabile, with fifths and sixths, and longer lines, and the hands at the extreme registers of the piano, high and low. The third movement followed attacca, and there was a return to the toccata-like style of the first movement, but I could perceive a regular beat that kept it all moving; at times I thought I could hear Schoenberg’s Opus 33a and 33b moving side by side and occasionally together, and all the twelve-tone harmony made sense and everything was clear. This was a difficult but likeable piece, and Feinberg’s fearlessness in bringing it off was a pleasure throughout.

For an encore, we returned to the Elizabethans for Doctor Bull’s Good Night. This was simple, effective, and reassuring. For a moment I thought I was hearing a 19th-century tribute to John Bull, maybe by Parry or Stanford, but no, it was the real thing.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

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