Oskar Morawetz: Five Poetic Sketches
John Weinzweig: Netscapes
Alexina Louie: In a Flash
Elma Miller: Through a Narrow Window
Patrick Cardy: Quips and Cranks: Five Bagatelles for Piano
Kelly-Marie Murphy: Let Hands Speak
Elaine Keillor (Piano)
Recording: Dunrobin Sonic Gym, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada (May 16-18, 2014) – 65’52
Centerdiscs/Centredisques #CMCCD 21615 – Booklet in English and French (Distributed by Naxos of America)
Canadian composers, past and present, are blessed to have a champion as finely skilled and genuinely dedicated as Elaine Keillor, a veteran touring pianist as well as mentor, scholar and author whose six-decade career shows no sign of abatement. (On this beautifully recorded disc, she performs on her own American Steinway piano and her playing illustrates the easy virtuoso assurance one associates with keyboard artists playing their own preferred instrument.) Born in London, Ontario, trained primarily in Toronto and now a Distinguished Research Professor Emerita with Ottawa’s Carleton University, Dr. Keillor’s performing and writing have focused on Canadian composers including two among her own mentors.
The highlight of this collection is Quips and Cranks: Five Bagatelles for Piano by the late Patrick Cardy (1953-2005), among the composer’s final works, the title being derived from John Milton’s poem, L’Allegro (The Cheerful Man). Each of the Five Bagatelles is a homage or recollection of past pets, family and anecdotes, a concept also used by Sergei Prokofiev in his Visions fugitives (Read here). The first one, “Lucky”, pays tribute to a lively Black Labrador pup of the same name. The piece is melodic, slightly bucolic and recalls some of the shorter piano works of both Robert Schumann and Edvard Grieg. The second one, “Dewdrop”, is more abstract though the lilting main theme has a decidedly late 19th/early 20th century French feel. The third, “Lullaby”, recalls a cousin who died prematurely; the ambience is more melancholic than tragic and seems to celebrate happy times past more than mourning a loss. The fourth, “A Lazy Afternoon”, again is more abstract, though perhaps less languid than the title might suggest. The final one, “Barrels”, again references a pet, this time a St. Bernard whose shambling gait is reflected in music that is fun loving and carefree.
The disc opens with another collection, Five Poetic Sketches by Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007), who was both a friend and mentor to Dr. Keillor. Composed in 1991, the suite was first performed by another Canadian, Angela Hewitt. The work often has charm and a range of amusing details, but it doesn’t add up to a great deal and, more problematically, is conspicuously derivative, constantly echoing almost every late 19th century and early 20th century composer one can name who avoided atonal composition. The skittish moods in the opening and closing movements likely is the most effective accomplishment here.
Netscapes by John Weinzweig (1913-2006) again is a late work, completed in 2000. In his copy provided to Keillor, the composer wrote “a divertissement for your nimble fingers.” In fact, the work is intended as a reflection of internet browsing, though Weinzweig himself never used a computer. The result is definitely rambling and sometimes clever, though in the end too fragmentary to hold a keen listener’s attention with complete command. It comes across more as dilettante Elliott Carter (whose monumental Quartet No° 1 [Read here] is being performed in North America this season by The Juilliard String Quartet) than music of powerful substance.
In a Flash by Angelina Louie (born 1949), one of Canada’s busiest current composers, is a work which tends to go off track more often than not. After a promising start which pays clear homage to Claude Debussy’s Feux d'artifice from Préludes (Book 2), the work soon seems almost improvised and unfinished though the composer, in a program note, describes it as “energetically sassy, with ‘attitude’, jazz-like.”
Through a Narrow Window is by Elma Miller (born 1954) and, like Elaine Keillor, also Toronto trained and a student of Morawetz and Weinzweig. Composed in 1985, this work aspires, no less, to seeing the entire universe through a tiny narrow window, though the composer more recently notes one might now substitute a Hubble Telescope. The opening, with its juxtaposed low bass and high register chords, also momentarily evokes one of Debussy’s Préludes (Book 1), this time La cathédrale engloutie, though it soon evolves into an extended series of shifting moods to which each listener might bring their own interpretation…I wouldn’t limit the context even to the universe.
The CD’s closing work is Let Hands Speak by Calgary native Kelly-Marie Murphy (born 1964) who wrote it for the 2003 Honens International Piano Competition. The work’s origins are betrayed rather obviously by the quite deliberate range of technical and mood requirements, though it has merits as a show piece for pianists who may be tired of warhorses by Liszt or Rachmaninoff.
All of the music on this CD is challenging and imaginative, has genuine merit and deserves respect in these contexts. Whether any of the works will find their way into the permanent piano repertoire remains to be seen; however, it’s a very real tribute to Canada’s music community, since the mid-20th century, that composers can thrive well enough to produce such works and to have the satisfaction of seeing and hearing them performed and recorded by a pianist of warmth and brilliance such as Elaine Keillor.
Charles Pope Jr.