RAMEY Piano Music, Vol. 3. Sonata No. 6. Suite. Two Short Pieces. Toccata Giocosa. Slavic Rhapsody. Burlesque—Paraphrase on a Theme of Stephen Foster. Bagatelle on ‘Dies Irae.’ Djebel Bani. Blue Phantom.

by Walter Simmons

RAMEY Piano Music, Vol. 3 ● Stephen Gosling (pn) ● TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC-0114 (78:19)
Sonata No. 6 (Sonata-Fantasia). Suite. Two Short Pieces. Toccata GiocosaSlavic Rhapsody (The Novgorod Kremlin at Night). Burlesque—Paraphrase on a Theme of Stephen Foster. Bagatelle on ‘Dies Irae.’ Djebel Bani (A Saharan Meditation). Blue Phantom

Phillip Ramey is both a composer and a writer on musical subjects. He is probably best known—especially to those of us who lived through the stereo LP era—as the author of numerous incisive interviews and authoritative program notes concerning such luminaries of the American musical scene as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Virgil Thomson, William Schuman, Leonard Bernstein, and Ned Rorem, among others—especially, the writer and composer Paul Bowles. Ramey was program editor and annotator for the New York Philharmonic from 1977 to 1993, and the author of a prize-winning book on the excellent but tragically short-lived American neo-classicist Irving Fine. He has written extensively on Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff, as well as an extremely fascinating, tell-all book of reminiscences that, unfortunately, has yet to be published. This is truly a pity because, as a young acolyte who traveled in the circles of those well-known individuals noted above, he was right in the middle of the action, and privy to much that has never been documented in any form accessible to the general public.

But Ramey’s identity as annotator of the 20th-century American musical scene has probably overshadowed his own creative output, although it is probably as a composer that he would most like to be known and remembered. Born in 1939 and educated in the Chicago area like his decade-older contemporary, the late Robert Muczynski, he was a devoted student—also like Muczynski—of the distinguished Russian-born composer and teacher Alexander Tcherepnin (father of composer Ivan). He later studied with Jack Beeson at Columbia as well. Again like his older colleague, Ramey has focused his creative energy largely—but far from exclusively—on music for piano solo, which amounts to approximately half his output, including eight sonatas. This new release is Volume 3 of his solo piano music, with more to come (Volume 1 was reviewed in Fanfare 30:3, Volume 2 in 32:3—both positively). Ramey’s music has benefited greatly from the advocacy of such fine pianists as Mirian Conti and Stephen Gosling (whose performances the composer has described as “close to perfection”). On the basis of this recording, I have nothing to add to this verdict other than confirmation.

Ramey’s music—also like Muczynski’s—grows out of the piano writing of Prokofiev and, to a lesser extent, Bartók. But here the similarities end. Ramey has expanded his language with regard to textural and harmonic complexity, while exploring the most remote and attenuated regions of tonality. Hence the music does not have the direct and immediate appeal of Muczynski’s. And during the late 1960s and into the 70s he experimented with serialism and other more modernist techniques. Yet as dissonant as his music may sometimes be, its fundamental basis in tonality is rarely in doubt once one has become accustomed to the language. But there is no denying the effort involved in becoming so accustomed. Ramey’s music requires a good deal of concentration and patience. One of the factors that increases its harsh, sometimes strident impact is its generally truculent tone, although some passages—easily overlooked because they are so brief—are shocking in their gentle sweetness. Overall, the character that emerges is quite volatile, embracing a wide range of gestures and affective states. Fiendishly difficult for the pianist, it draws upon the full range of the instrument’s resources. According to the thoughtful and penetratingly analytical program notes by Benjamin Folkman, Copland likened Ramey’s piano writing to that of Liszt. Folkman writes, “[Ramey] ‘orchestrates’ the piano through widely disparate register contrasts and combinations that require perfect control of chordal voice-leadings, resulting in sonorities of unusual thrust and weight.”

The disc at hand documents five decades (1960-2010) of Ramey’s piano music. The earliest work is a large Suite, dedicated to Tcherepnin. Composed mostly during the years 1960-63, it was revised in 1988. Its final version comprises ten pieces, which might just as appropriately be entitled “Preludes,” as there is no obvious connection among them. In this work the influence of Prokofiev is readily apparent from the first note, although even in these relatively youthful pieces there is an edginess, an avoidance of sentimentality at all costs, that has the effect of keeping the listener “at arm’s length.” The longest of the pieces, called “Hymn à la russe,” is the most immediately appealing.

The most demanding work for both pianist and listener, as well as the work of greatest substance, is the Piano Sonata No. 6, subtitled, “Sonata-Fantasia.” Composed in 2008, it is the longest of the sonatas, although it is a single-movement structure. I can only echo Folkman’s comment that it “presents genuinely narrative, modernist music: dramatic, mercurial, even granitic, in its composer’s most titanic virtuoso style.” English pianist Stephen Gosling addresses its challenges undaunted and with considerable mastery.

The other substantial work—and the one that initially made the strongest impression—is called Slavic Rhapsody (The Novgorod Kremlin at Night), composed in 2009-10. Inspired by a visit to the ancient fortress, the work centers around a somber bass line and a motif based on parallel fourths. These elements, together with references to a Russian chant melody also used by Rachmaninoff, create a potent sense of atmosphere—ancient and exotic.

The remaining pieces are short and less ambitious in scope. Toccata Giocosa (1966) is a sizzling showpiece based on repeated notes in perpetual motion. Two Short Pieces (1967), dedicated to Tcherepnin, exemplify Ramey’s aggressive harmonic language in microcosm. Burlesque—Paraphrase on a Theme of Stephen Foster was composed in 1990 at the request of pianist Ramon Salvatore, and was based on Foster’s tune Anadolia. Ramey’s own words provide an apt description of the piece: “I took an instant dislike to the insipid tune and decided to mock it by giving it a bombastic Emperor Concerto-cum-Glazunov treatment.” Blue Phantom (2008) is a short, improvisatory piece based on a theme that came to the composer in a dream. It has a wistful quality, with a hint of late-night jazz. A little more elaborate is Djebel Bani (2009), subtitled “A Saharan Meditation.” The piece is named for a mountain in Morocco, a country where Ramey spends about half of every year. It is based on a theme in the rarely-used Locrian mode, displaying a smoky, nocturnal quality, although its harmonic and tonal aspects are rather severe. The title of the very recent Bagatelle on ‘Dies Irae’ seems almost like an oxymoron, given the dark, grim associations of the medieval melody. And Ramey’s treatment of the melody is so incongruous with its usual context that the result suggests a sardonic mockery somewhat akin to the Stephen Foster treatment described above.

I suspect that despite the thorough craftsmanship in evidence throughout Ramey’s music, most listeners will find it to be a challenge to absorb, due to its thorny surface. And, as noted earlier, repeated, attentive listening may be necessary to penetrate beneath that surface, so that its sense of humanity becomes manifest. But I am convinced that there is a real expressive impetus behind this music. As with the piano music of Vincent Persichetti—still in the earliest stages of discovery—there is a greater abundance and sophistication of invention evident than many 21st-century listeners are willing to confront and digest. With Volume 4 already on the way, we are faced with a sizable output of considerable substance, too ambitious and serious in its intentions and too competent in its execution to ignore.