About this Recording
9.70252 - BERNSTEIN, L. / TAN, Dun: Piano Music (Touches and Traces) (Warren Lee)

Touches and Traces
Piano Music by Leonard Bernstein and Tan Dun


Although there seems little in the way of a direct connection between the solo piano music of the American composer Leonard Bernstein (1918–90) and Chinese-born American composer Tan Dun (b. 1957), both have had recourse to this instrument for collections of shorter and/or occasional pieces, along with larger works that were written to exploit particular aspects of piano technique. Put another way: while the reputations of neither composer is likely to be determined through their piano output, those works in question feature a wealth of idiomatic and attractive music which deserves to find a place in the repertoire of present-day recitals.

Bernstein’s piano output mainly comprises miniatures written as groups of ‘anniversaries’ over four decades. The Four Anniversaries were written in 1948, each of them dedicated to a person to whom Bernstein was close at some stage in his career. The first piece is inscribed to Felicia Montealegre (1922–78), the Chilean-born actress who was Bernstein’s wife from 1955, and is a winsome study in elegant figuration with a subtle folk-music inflection and then a hint of Copland in its limpid central section. The second piece is inscribed to Johnny Mehegan (1916–84), the jazz pianist and author, and is a purposeful study in rhythmic syncopation. The third piece is inscribed to the composer David Diamond (1915–2005), and seems both pensive and understated as it reaches unexpected depths before heading to its dissonant culmination and barely resolved final cadence. The fourth piece is inscribed to Helen Coates (1899– 1989), the piano teacher who was to become Bernstein’s personal secretary from 1952, and has a driving energy that brings Prokofiev to mind prior to an ending as terse as it is decisive.

The Five Anniversaries were composed during 1949–51. Here the first piece is inscribed to Elizabeth Rudolf (b. 1894), the American mother of a friend of Bernstein from Tanglewood, and unfolds with audible reticence as regards its rhythmic and harmonic profile, with maybe a nod to Respighi (albeit as arranger) in its melodic content. The second piece is inscribed to Lukas Foss (1922–2009), the German-born pianist and composer, and feels appreciably more equivocal in its intricate figuration that evinces no mean harmonic subtlety as it unfolds. The third piece is inscribed to Elizabeth B. Ehrman (b. 1883), the American mother of a friend of Bernstein from Harvard, and is a study in jazz idioms that anticipates the ‘Alcibiades’ finale of Bernstein’s Serenade. The fourth piece is inscribed to Sandy Gellhorn (b. 1951), daughter of the author Martha Gellhorn, and the most forward looking in its exploitation of the upper range of the piano’s compass and methodical deployment of its motifs. The fifth piece is inscribed to Susanna Kyle (b. 1949), the daughter of Bernstein’s friend and collaborator Betty Comden, making for a conclusion of great poise that most resembles a lullaby in its rapt inwardness.

Very different in both its concept and content is Touches, written as a test piece for the Sixth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas and first performed there on 28th May, 1981. The piece is subtitled Chorale, Eight Variations and Coda and the initial chorale is almost secretive in its restraint, while throwing up a wealth of harmonic possibilities that the eight variations duly exploit. Variation I is brief though lively, its insouciant humour carrying over into II with its forceful opening gesture and dextrous rhythmic side-steps, and then into III with its decided nonchalance. Variation IV favours a more rhetorical manner in its pronounced dynamic contrasts and close imitative writing, whereas V is a brief yet potent ‘nocturne’ which abounds in subtle harmonic ambiguity. Variation VI resembles an unsettled intermezzo, while VII is a scherzo of acerbic character fairly abounding with rhythmic irregularity. Variation VIII brings the sequence to a climax with a heightened transformation of the chorale, whose climactic chords are allowed to resonate for a considerable time before the coda emerges to offer the most understated—as well as ruminative—of concluding gestures.

While his output for solo piano is not extensive, Tan Dun’s music for the instrument comes at key junctures in his career. Among the earliest acknowledged of his works, Eight Memories in Watercolour was written in 1978 and then revised in 2002. Missing Moon opens the sequence with a suitably twilight study, its enveloping figuration shot through with discreetly Oriental overtones. Staccato Beans is a propulsive study in rhythmic imitation between left and right hands, energetic and engaging by turns, while Herd-boy’s Song evokes the music of its title through the context of a harmonic landscape as expansive as it is inviting. Blue Nun exudes a gentle equanimity of purpose, then Red Wilderness evokes its title through a figuration whose initial limpidity opens out in texture and harmony as it proceeds. Ancient Burial is the most evocative of its title in its measured solemnity which builds to a resounding climax before regaining its earlier poise, while Floating Clouds conjures its imagery with delicate and almost impressionistic means. Sun-rain then rounds off the sequence with an unbridled rhythmic vivacity, driving the sequence as a whole on to its decisive and forceful conclusion.

Written in 1989 then revised in 1992, Traces was inspired by a bus journey that the composer took through the mountains in southern China. The sound of the wind seemed to be outlining the notes A-C-D, which came to encompass that of the natural environment as a whole, and it is these notes that constitute the only pitch materials to be found in this work. Emerging both quietly and hesitantly, the music alights upon a number of distinct and yet discreetly related motifs whose essential contrast in terms of timbre and dynamic accordingly set the expressive parameters for the piece as a whole. At around its mid-point the music comes across repeated chords in the right hand that presage the main climax, and which subsequently resound into silence before a return to the initial stark motivic contrasts and then a concluding passage of decidedly equivocal calm. As the composer remarked, “Two thousand years ago, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tse said that the greatest sound can be heard only in silence. I think so too.”

Silence—whether as a concept or as a phenomenon—is the basis of Dew-Drop-Falls, written in 2000 as a contribution to the Carnegie Hall Millennium Piano Book, and which is the most characteristic of Tan Dun’s piano pieces in terms of its playing techniques—in this instance, using merely the fingertips and the fingernails as they brush the strings inside the instrument. Beginning as if from afar, the music gradually and poetically comes into focus—the ‘internal’ means of playing evoking such as the Hungarian cimbalom or the Finnish kantele in its gentle and intricate filigree. A greater harmonic and textural intricacy is latterly evident, though the underlying aura of restraint never wavers all the way through to the ethereal final moments.

Richard Whitehouse

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