CD review: The Piano’s 12 Sides

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Carter Pann’s ‘The Piano’s 12 Sides’ looks good from a dozen angles

The set of handsomely crafted character pieces proves a worthy showcase for Canadian pianist Joel Hastings

By David Abrams

The genesis of Carter Pann’s collection of character pieces in this album dates back to the summer of 2011, when Pann approached Joel Hastings — a pianist whom the composer has long admired — about writing a set of 12 solo works specifically tailored to the Canadian pianist’s talent set. The result is The Piano’s 12 Sides, a potpourri of miniatures that takes the listener on a pleasant journey across several accessible musical styles.

My one prior experience with Pann’s music took place during the summer of 2009 at the Skaneateles Festival, where I reviewed the premiere of his five-movement suite for violin, clarinet, cello, piano and narrator titled Summer Songs. In that work, as in the present collection, the composer drew from an amalgam of several musical styles blending French neo-classicism (Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc), impressionism (Claude Debussy) and parlor music (Percy Grainger, Darius Milhaud).

But while Pann’s music evokes a strong sense of stylistic déjà vu, the composer’s sense of form and spontaneity of direction unfolds entirely on its own. The 12 character pieces here unwind their storylines in seamless fashion, with ideas unfolding unpredictably yet naturally. I’ve been there many times before, musically speaking but rarely on so pleasant a journey.

Composer Carter Pann

Composer Carter Pann

For those unfamiliar with the composer, Carter Pann teaches composition at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  A student of Barry Snyder at the Eastman School of Music, Pann has several prior recordings to his credit, including a Piano Concerto and Dance Partita recorded by Snyder on the Naxos/American Classics label; a clarinet concerto Rags to Richard written for Richard Stoltzman recorded by Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz; a string quartet Love Letters, commissioned by the Ying Quartet as part of its Life Music Commissioning Project; and an orchestral work, Slalom, recorded by the London Symphony.

Each of the 12 vignettes in the present collection is accompanied by the name of a Pann acquaintance, in much the same way Edward Elgar had done in his Enigma Variations. Only Pann solves the “enigma” for us  giving the full names instead of initials and asterisks.

The first and lengthiest movement in the set, Silhouette, is a dreamy mood-piece couched in slow harmonic motion. The combination of unhurried chord changes and occasional planing of parallel chords in succession here draws obvious parallels to the impressionist piano works of Debussy.

Pann writes in the liner notes that this “large poem” is representative of the others to come — which the listener soon learns is accurate. Add to Debussy’s impressionism the harmonic style of the French neo-classicists (known collectively as Les Six), and you pretty much know what lies ahead. The French connection continues in the considerably shorter Figurines that follows, a three-minute number whose playful, rapid running 16th-notes recalls the piano music of Satie.

The shortest number in the collection, clocking in at some two and one-half minutes, is the Cradle Song — a mesmerizing lullaby whose undulating trochee rhythmic pattern recalls Mussorgsky’s famous ostinato pattern in the Old Castle movement from Pictures at an Exhibition. In similar fashion, Pann seasons the plaintive melody in the final piece of the set, An Irish Tune (better known as Danny Boy), with richly inventive chords that tug at the heartstrings, recalling Grainger’s wistful arrangement of the tune.

Like the Cradle Song and An Irish Tune, the third piece in the set, Legend, is a plaintive and introspective miniature that gently weaves its way into the listener’s psyche. White Moon Over Water, perhaps the most overtly Debussy-ish of the set, hints at the Pagodes movement from Estampes. But my personal favorite among the gentler numbers is surely Orion, a piece of great delicacy and understatement played largely under the pianist’s right hand. This four and one-half minute miniature releases the bonds of its emotional restraint later in the piece and fully blossoms before ultimately returning to its humble beginnings.

The flashy virtuosity of Grand Etude-Fantasy, which climbs into high gear following a slow and somewhat dissonant introduction, gives the performer much to contemplate. This movement, one of only two that exceeds 10 minutes, recalls the highly amphetamined writing of Grainger. And Pann’s writing here is every bit as demanding. Though the movement ultimately ends slowly, the rapid scalework in contrary motion here is more than enough to set Liberace’s candelabras ablaze.

The parlor-like writing can be seen during the playful, tongue-in-cheek Le Branle and in the light swing of the Soirée Macabre — which if Pann had added a singer could easily have been mistaken for one of William Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs. The writing bears the stylistic stamp I had heard in Pann’s When the midnight musicians play movement from his Summer Songs — which took the listener from swing to parlor music, topped off with a clarinet glissando worthy of Gershwin’s iconic Rhapsody in Blue.

She Steals Me, which Pann subtitles Intermezzo, is a tender and poignant piece that while not overtly emotional nevertheless reaches the soul. The movement begins (and later recapitulates) the main theme — a chorale reminiscent of Sibelius’s tone poem, Finlandia — before settling into a waltz. The chorale-like statements form a continuous thread throughout the movement, giving the writing here a strong sense of potency. When Pann writes in the notes to this movement that he comes “terribly close to tears in all the same spots,” we nod our heads in tacit understanding. For my tastes, this movement, along with the other mood pieces in the set, are the most aesthetically appealing and convincing numbers of the collection.

Pianist Joel Hastings (photo: Ian Hastings)

Pianist Joel Hastings (photo: Ian Hastings)

The quality of playing throughout this recording is beyond reproach. Joel Hastings, a member of the piano faculty at Florida State University and a Steinway artist whose performances have taken him across North America and abroad, has the technical prowess to toss off the most demanding sections of Pann’s music  including as the dazzling but pernicious showpiece number, Grand Etude-Fantasy.

Hastings’s playful delivery and reckless abandon during the virtuosic sections in the collection recalls another Canadian pianist, Marc-André Hamelin, whose recording of the piano music of Percy Grainger I always keep within easy reach. I am especially impressed with Hastings’s deep level of feeling and sensitively in such numbers as the Cradle Song and Orion.

If pressed to find fault with anything in this CD effort, I would have to single out the liner notes  which include the composer’s (largely self indulgent) observations on each of the 12 pieces. Pann’s musings may enlighten a symposium of other composers and composition students, but are of little use to the average listener. Many of the comments are laden with flowery metaphors likely to leave readers scratching their heads.

Your music stands just fine on its own, my friend. The rest, to paraphrase Alex Ross, is noise.

Details Box:
Who
: Carter Pann (composer) and Joel Hastings (pianist)
What: CD release, The Piano’s 12 Sides
Label: Naxos/American Classics, 8.559751
Release date: Aug, 2014
Other works on this recording (not reviewed): The Bills, The Cheese Grater, Your Touch
Running time: 01:16:40

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