The music of Sandeep Bhagwati, Ralf Yusuf Gawlick, and Ferruccio Busoni appeared on the third and final concert in the BC series “Keyboard Landscapes: Visions of Modernity,” featuring German pianist Moritz Ernst. The Sunday afternoon concert’s already heady title went further still, “Form and Dialogue: The Composer as Architect and Poet”.
Even though the first half of a preconcert talk given by Ernst could hardly be heard in Boston College’s Gasson Hall, a number of students attending were doing their best to take notes. Ernst reminded us of Busoni’s great admiration for Bach and that was the reason behind Fantasia contrappuntistica. We also learned that, since 2006, Bhagwati has held the Canada Research Chair in Inter-X Art Practice and Theory on the faculty of Concordia University, in Montreal. Born in Bombay, he moved at age five to Germany with his family, where he received much of his training. No information on the composer was included in the program. Bhagwati’s Music of Crossings remains a work in progress that can be as short as seven minutes or as long as two hours, that is, when all of the little pieces are eventually composed.
The six pieces presented convincingly by Ernst left wonderment wafting through the resonant hall. As with Bach preludes, textures were uppermost in the composer’s thinking. The first piece counterpointed flow midrange moderately paced with faster flow in higher range. In the second piece the right hand took to sustained legato musings while the left hand popped with well-spaced staccatos. The third piece explored older sound fashionings, while the fourth leapt into a sweltering rumble reminiscent of 12-tone spontaneity. The fifth mystified with elusive material, while the sixth piece suggested the natural harmonic series. Music of Crossings ended peacefully. That Ernst was devoted to Bhagwati’s piano pieces gave assurance to listeners, some of whom were otherwise perplexed by the intersections of languages.
BC associate professor Gawlick gave the other half of the preconcert talk. He outlined a large cross on card stock for the purpose of helping us to understand the architecture of his half-hour work for piano, Mysterium doloris quintae. Heard outside the cross was his original music and heard inside were quotations of Bach, Mozart, children’s songs, and more. He played several recorded excerpts, these, and others, chosen for being familiar.
Following outsides and insides of the cross was as effortless as it was gratifying, but not so the rest of the work’s intent. Seeing and hearing are not the same, spatial vs temporal. Mysterium doloris quintae unfolded in a continuum chockful of contrasts, a good number of them going to the extreme. Because most passages, original or borrowed, were fairly short, no overall momentum could be built. That, however, is contemporary all the way: stasis vs mobility.
The opening notes, though sparse, were finely, richly, attractively woven; tradition came to mind. Well into this collage of sorts, fistfuls of raging clusters quaked as if to try and shake off preceding quotations. Or might it have been tremors before the cross? This time, modernity came to mind. Witnessing Gawlik’s enthusiasm for the performance he received from the expert Ernst was a moment all could savor. Mysterium doloris quintae’s last quote, Contessa perdonna from the Marriage of Figaro, prompted still deeper reflection on this highly personalized spiritual journey.
For some, Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica achieves masterpiece status, albeit not without flaws. For others, including me, it is an overly long extravaganza of borrowing from Bach, then of attempting to reregister his language in later idiom. Ernst admirably kept his focus all through the half-hour-plus demanded by this massive music. His rendering did go to the heart of matter, creating credible suspense, winning climactic points, and stirring currents both melodic and harmonic. For the fugues, though, sameness and bombast won out.
Moritz Ernst was cheered over and again. His encore, the first movement of Haydn’s Sonata in F Major, surprised and charmed.
David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer). www.notescape.net