This is a gorgeous account of Lou Harrison's Piano Concerto (1983/1985) and it is my favorite to spin at the moment. Joanna MacGregor plays wonderfully, her piano sings and dances (and oh the swirling merriment brought about by the percussion in the "Stampede" second movement!) and the blissful result is a luminous concerto that soars ever higher.
Keyboard instruments, since the time of Bach, are tuned to what is called "equal temperament," a compromise system in which, for example, the notes G-sharp and A-flat can be played by the same piano key, even though they are harmonically unalike. Given the invitation to write a concerto for the noted jazz and classical composer Keith Jarrett (who, like Harrison, has crossed musical boundaries throughout his career), Harrison suggested a work in which the piano would be "mistuned" to an earlier, pre-compromise system.
"[This] Concerto," writes Harrison, "is an exploration of the many beauties of...this astonishing tuning." Briefly put, the black keys are tuned to produce the mathematically precise 4ths and 5ths beloved of medieval theoreticians; the white keys come off resembling the "just intonation" of the Renaissance and Baroque. The orchestra consists of strings, two harps, three trombones and a large percussion section; each group, furthermore, tunes to different facets of this system.
That's all very complicated; what results, however, is less so: a kind of harmonic richness that sounds slightly disconnected from the customary tuning of, say, a piano concerto of Brahms, without sounding truly "off." There is an urgency to the harmonic impulse here, and this is only partially offset by the ever-so-intangible "exotic" sound of the whole. It is, furthermore, astonishingly beautiful, as the composer promises.
Four movements make up the work, the first two large-scale, the last two single, simple afterthoughts. The massive first movement takes some delight in oratorical proclamations from soloist and orchestra that might indeed have come from the mature Brahms's worktable. But some of the piano writing, too, has a way of suggesting the clangor of Eastern bells; there is an open, clattery quality, not unlike a Bach invention gone amok.
In the wild and wonderful second movement quite a lot goes delightfully amok, in fact. The piano takes flight in veritable perpetual motion to a breathless, dazzling rhythmic configuration. Sharp, boisterous tone-clusters from the pianist accentuate the irregularities of this rhythm; even a brief cadenza near the end cannot stop the onrush. A slow meditation and another airy, light-hearted perpetuum mobile bring the Concerto to an end.
Many strands of thought, some of them seemingly irreconcilable, are imaginatively entwined in this work, itself a sort of synthesis of Lou Harrison's all-embracing musical outlook. "It's never enough," he says, "just to know your own musical tradition. There's so much out there in the world; there's no reason to put on blinders."
Lou Harrison Idiosyncrasies and Fun Facts:
*A lifelong lover of science and science fiction, Harrison frequently paid a small fee to have newly discovered stars named after friends.
*Harrison was fluent in several languages including American Sign Language, Mandarin and Esperanto.
*Harrison typically composed in a trailer with blocked windows.
*Harrison and Colvig constructed an environmentally friendly straw-bale house on land they purchased in the California desert community of Joshua Tree. The architectural dimensions were based on the same numerical ratios as his tuning systems.
*Harrison's short gamelan piece Lagu Sociseknum uses pitches derived from his social security number.
*Harrison co-wrote his Party Pieces at New York social gatherings with his close friends Cowell, Thomson, and Cage. As a game, one participant would compose a measure, then fold the paper so that only the last beat was visible and pass it to the next composer, who would continue the process. After a few rounds, they would play the frequently fascinating result. Bob Hughes later orchestrated these trifles, which were then recorded in 1983 by the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
1) Allegro (11:04)
2) Stampede, Allegro (8:52)
3) Largo (7:26)
4) Allegro Moderato (3:03)
I bought the lossless (flac) files for this release and I'm posting it this way (it's under 120mb) as it's
certainly worth it. If anyone wants AAC encoded m4a instead, let me know.