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Stefan WOLPE (1902-1972)
Volume 8 – Music For Two Pianos
March and Variations (1932-33) [19:37}
The Man from Midian –Ballet Suite (1942) [28:34]
Two Studies on Basic Rows (1935-36) [18:46]
Quattro Mani (piano duo)
rec. 2016/17, Packard Hall, Colorado College, Colorado Springs, USA
BRIDGE 9516 [67:11]

There is a 1961 work by Wolpe, the soberly named Piece in Three Parts for Piano and Sixteen Instruments (Wolpe favoured no frills titling such as this in his maturity) which has long been a favourite of mine. I find it hard to believe it made its first appearance on disc back in 1992, in what was Volume 1 of this series from Bridge Records. Basically the work resembles an intricately scored jam session for pianist, a caffeined-up trumpeter, and a motley assortment of pals, including what sounds like an electric guitar, a harp and a timpanist whose abrupt and thrilling interjections pulse and roar. It is riveting, and communicates an agitated, assured momentum. It’s a thoroughly visceral, unusual music, but it has real soul; indeed emotional directness and purposeful dynamism are central to so much of this singular composer’s output.

I was pushing thirty when that disc emerged; amazingly, almost three decades later the Bridge series continues, albeit at a snail’s pace. It has now reached Volume 8, and it’s a joy to find those same appealing qualities which characterise Wolpe’s later music in these three extended two-piano works which straddle the period of the composer’s eventful flight from Nazi Berlin and his eventual exile in America. Two of these offerings are advertised as ‘premiere recordings’; in fact this is not quite the case.

The arresting March and Variations of 1933 first appeared on a 2005 recital of works by Wolpe for one, two and three pianos ‘Enactments’ (HATNOWART 161). I have not heard it so can offer no comparative thoughts, alas. With the greatest of respect to the excellent Hat Hut label (and its visionary proprietor Werner X. Uehlinger) I suspect it is unlikely to surpass the breathtaking performance of Quattro Mani (which comprises the four hands and two pianos of Steven Beck and Susan Grace), or indeed Bridge’s ideal sonics. The work itself was the product of a period of enormous professional, political and emotional upheaval in Wolpe’s life. After the failure of his marriage to the Viennese painter Ola Okuniewska, Wolpe began a friendship with the Romanian pianist Irma Schoenberg (no relation); she would in time become his second wife and the March and Variations was the first substantial work he wrote with her in mind. In keeping with his energetic involvement in radical left-wing politics (like his colleague Hanns Eisler, Wolpe was at this point best known as a composer of songs and anthems for workers’ choirs) the piece would feature in the recitals he would subsequently perform with Irma to promote the resistance. Its march theme is palpably defiant and virile, almost Beethovenian in fact, but Prokofiev seems to be the main influence behind its transformations in the second variation, while a Russian influence is undeniable in the triumphant campanology at the work’s conclusion. Elsewhere, Wolpe’s colourful writing is by turn exciting, powerful and inevitably at times somewhat demagogic. It is remarkably fluent and consistent across its twenty minute, nine variation span, especially considering its provenance. Hitler had seized power during the composition of the first six variations; immediately Wolpe was vulnerable to arrest as a Jew and a Communist and with the help of Irma managed to flee Berlin via Czechoslovakia, Switzerland and the Soviet Union. Austin Clarkson’s exemplary notes provide a detailed account of this adventure, as well as a masterly analysis of the work. The final three variations emerged fitfully during these escapades. The composer later acknowledged that the humane, indomitable spirit of Mahler hovers around the piece; to the listener this is perhaps less obvious in terms of its actual sound. Either way, the March and Variations is a substantial and impressive piece.

In 1933 Wolpe’s musical horizons broadened considerably after a three month period of study with Webern in pre-Anschluss Vienna, though this was abruptly curtailed when he was kicked out of Austria by the police. This time he fled with Irma to Jerusalem, where in 1935 he composed his Four Studies on Basic Rows for solo piano, one of his first works to embrace a twelve-tone aesthetic. The last two studies proved too difficult for Irma to play, so Wolpe duly arranged them for two pianos so that they could perform them together, and it is this version that receives its first recording here. The first of the two, a spiky Presto furioso is brittle, diffuse and virtuosic, and dominated by insistent dotted triplet rhythms. Its sudden dynamic shifts have been expertly caught by the Bridge engineers. Its emotional subtext leaves one in no doubt as to Wolpe’s mindset regarding the continuing collapse of all that was familiar and precious to him. The second study is a mighty Passacaglia which is one of his most formidable early creations. It also exists in an orchestral arrangement which has been recorded on the Mode CD ‘Wolpe in Jerusalem 1933-38’ (mode 156). If the shape and sensibility of Wolpe’s theme owes something to Webern’s orchestral Opus 1, the direction it ultimately takes is very different. It is adroitly layered and varied, and Steven Beck and Susan Grace convey an initial sense of cool restraint, of holding back throughout its duration, right up until a climax which is inundated by waves of crashing major sevenths which somehow evaporate in a brief, withering coda. The Passacaglia’s ominous power is sustained and impressive.

By February 1942 Wolpe and his wife had been living in America for just over three years. The commission to compose the music for Eugene Loring’s ballet The Man from Midian must have been most welcome. In fact the ballet had been planned for a couple of years, and Wolpe’s fellow refugee Darius Milhaud had received the original commission, but that production was cancelled in seemingly acrimonious circumstances before Loring established a new company enabling the ballet to be re-imagined with Wolpe’s music. Again one has to doff one’s cap to Bridge’s excellent booklet which is a model of its kind. It contains many of legendary dance photographer Fritz Henle’s haunting monochrome stills of the dress rehearsal as well as reproductions of Doris Rosenthal’s original set and costume designs in addition to a detailed synopsis of the ballet. Structured in two sections, each of which contains nine pithy numbers it is interesting if not exactly surprising that this score is more redolent (to my ears at least) of neo-classical Stravinsky than Webernian dodecaphony. While the music is obviously danceable and light on its feet throughout, it projects a more angular, ascetic mood than the either of the earlier works on this disc, and placed second on the programme offers a welcome emotional counterweight to each of them. There is an occasional whiff of jazz, as in the tiny syncopated Bacchanal in the second part. Most impressive of all is the expert writing of a ballet score for just two pianos – although the work has been orchestrated the fluency of Wolpe’s inspiration and the appreciation of attack and decay on show here from the excellent Quattro Mani duo render it difficult to imagine hearing this music in a more convincing, alternative form.

Stefan Wolpe was a fascinating Zelig-like figure; by accident of history or exile, his life seemed destined to be intertwined with many key individuals around whom the twentieth century artistic universe revolved. A cursory glance at his biography reveals encounters with Busoni, Webern, Gropius, Klee, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Schwitters, Adorno and Cage, to name but nine. His art may have been touched by each of them, but ultimately his music is unique; driven, idealistic and passionate. I commend it to the uninitiated – this fine disc is as good a place to start as any.

Richard Hanlon

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