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S & H Opera Review S & H International Recital Review
Schoenberg, Dallapiccola, Martirano, Ives
, Marilyn Nonken (piano), The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies In America, Columbia University, New York City, March 10, 2004 (BH)



 
Schoenberg: Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11 (1909)
Dallapiccola: Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera (1952)
Martirano: Cocktail Music (1962)
Ives: Sonata No. 2, "Concord" (1911-12)
 

Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata is a beast of a piece, with some of the literature’s thorniest passages over its sprawling length (almost three-quarters of an hour) and requires an expert ability to sort out the texture’s disparate strands. A high percentage of the score contains densely written chords – some would say "muddy" – that also sound muddy if not clarified. As with voicing in Beethoven or other composers, the interpreter here needs to show the listener what to listen to – to point the way amid the thickets. Granted, Ives may have intended some messiness as part of the effect, but the pianist still needs to say, "Here, look at this, even though there are a zillion other things fighting for your attention."

Making short work of this complexity, Nonken more than proved her mettle by playing expert tour guide, and the results were scintillating. She was especially effective in the contrasts between crunchingly dense pages that abruptly disappear and in their wake are replaced by wispy soliloquies. As she raced around the keyboard, occasionally pausing for a hymn here and there, some might say this is Ives at his most maddeningly disorganized, but I find this piece exhilarating. It is also exhilarating watching a star pianist perform it, since it is horrendously difficult to play – not only for "getting all the notes" but also in the stamina required.

I especially loved watching Nonken’s athletic agility in the second and third movements, Hawthorne and The Alcotts. And she did a beautiful job with Ives’ lone special effect: a wooden block used to depress a group of keys simultaneously – no doubt avant garde in 1911. The result, a softly shimmering pulse in the right hand as the left offered a fluid counterpoint, was mesmerizing and at just the right volume level.

The Schoenberg was a canny pairing with the Ives, since compositionally they are separated by only a few years. It is difficult to imagine how a 1909 audience would have responded to these passionate unmoorings of tonality, and Nonken’s illuminating reading brought out a quiet urgency. It also made a great beginning to a very well thought-out program.

The Dallapiccola, written for his daughter’s eighth birthday, is formally precise, more related to Baroque composers (as Nonken describes in her helpfully to-the-point program notes). Its eleven sections use twelve-tone technique, somehow more chastely deployed, and in interesting contrast to the Schoenberg of forty years earlier. (Perhaps he didn’t want to go overboard on his daughter’s special day.) Again, Nonken’s technique was clean, yet warmly inviting – perhaps with a conscious choice to be a bit restrained, a bit quieter, to prepare the ears before the Ives after intermission.

I heard Nonken do Salvatore Martirano’s Cocktail Music a few years ago (aside from her excellent recording), and liked it even more this time around. My companion and I were discussing the laconic title, seemingly at odds with the hyperactive virtuosity, especially in the later pages. The music is in the modernist tradition, but seems borne of jazz a bit, too, with flashes of humor that Nonken exploited to the fullest, including some well-timed trills. Further, much of the piece has giddy avalanches of notes in very rapid tempi, and it was almost amusing watching her hands dart back and forth. With her keen reflexes, clearly she was reserving any actual cocktails for after the performance.

Bruce Hodges
 


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