Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Fierce concentration


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Advocating for contemporary music has always been a tough if not a thankless job, and it can't have gotten easier in times where the drop-off in young audiences in the "classical" music world is a fact bolstered by grim statistics, and offset only by the popularity of venues such as New York's Le Poisson Rouge and anywhere Gustavo Dudamel turns up. The almighty Maurizio Pollini could push the edges of his active repertoire with compositions by the likes of Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono because they were compatriots, colleagues, and friends, and everyone stood to gain. Earthlings do it for love, and because it matters.

Gay, New York-based pianist Bruce Levingston, whose own standard repertoire is right out of the Horowitz playbook, has over the last decade become one of the most tireless and successful champions of important, still underappreciated composers, not just by playing their works in his starry appearances, but also by calling them into being through his own nonprofit Premiere Commission, Inc., which has resulted in the commissioning and performances of more than 40 new works that, thanks to him, have a fighting chance of making it literally into the hands of others.

His latest CD, Heart Shadow (Sono Luminus), finds him even more acute in the new works than in the piano work that sits dead center in his life at the keyboard, Robert Schumann's Kreisleriana. I wouldn't venture to say that he loves Charles Wuorinen's "Heart Shadow" and Lisa Bielawa's "Elegy-Portrait" more, but he lavishes on them the devotion a parent gives a child, with predictably uplifting results.

The Wuorinen shares its title with an aria in his opera Haroun and the Sea Stories, which prompted Levingston to ask for a piano work, a la Liszt, that encapsulated and expanded on its central musical ideas. The work that resulted, fundamentally dark in its address of what Levingston calls "a reminder of what is at stake in terms of freedom in the world today," has its deepest roots in the inexhaustible depths of the Second Viennese School, yet boasts an individual voice wily enough to slip in the brassy Goldfinger song theme from the famous James Bond movie. Levingston plays it with fierce concentration and alertness to the lights that flicker in its every corner.

San Francisco-born Bielawa's "Elegy-Portrait" is more personal, more personable music, also "derivative" in the sense that it reworks ideas from a song, never completed, that was to have been part of a cycle she composed for Levingston and her friend, mezzo-soprano Alexandra Montano, to perform (which they did at Lincoln Center in 2006, before the singer died). The composer was completing the piano work at the time Levingston's mother was dying of cancer, and the piece, in Bielawa's words, "ended up being a portrait of Alexandra's unique musical spirit," and, with Levingston's contribution, a cathartic celebration of the lives of the two departed women. Levingston's acute, deeply felt performance stanches it of sentimentality.

The Kreisleriana, recorded in a different venue in 2005, suffers not from comparisons to giants of the keyboard who have played the seminal work, but from the remote, dampened recorded sound that robs it of a certain essential sparkle. Even so, the pianist's deep love of the work communicates.

Another piano recording flying under the radar in our PR-dominated age is Tomas Dratva's of Liszt's First, Swiss "year" of the great Annees de Pelerinage (Oehms Classics), of all the recordings of the Liszt anniversary so far, the one that has given me the greatest and most lasting pleasure. It's no accident that this young Swiss pianist – also a trenchant advocate of contemporary music, particularly by his countrymen – has chosen the Swiss chapters of Liszt's great piano journey, or that he has chosen to play them on the 1876 Steinway at Haus Wahnfried in Bayreuth, a superb instrument the American company gave Wagner as a gift honoring the first-ever Bayreuth Festival Ring, and one on which Liszt himself, as well as Wagner and his talented pianist wife Cosima (not coincidentally Liszt's daughter), played.

Dratva has taken as much care with the music itself – searching out Liszt's autographs of these much-revised scores to arrive at performing editions that conform to the composer's intentions more than the off-the-shelf editions do – as technicians have with the piano, an instrument of surpassing beauty whose sound is not one of those old-piano noises you have to get used to (though it's light years away from the bright modern Steinway sonority).

The CD is a refutation of every cliche about the empty bombast of Liszt's writing; in his captivating notes, Dratva cites the two pages (!) of two-handed octave cascades in the most difficult passage of "Orage" that Liszt deleted. There is, if less bombast, no diminution of grandeur in Dratva's playing of this mighty music, and more than any other Liszt playing I've heard this year, it captures the clarity of voices for which Liszt was as famous as he was for his powerhouse virtuosity.

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