RAMEY Piano Music, Vol. 4. Incantations. Cossack Variations. Three Early Preludes. Sonata No. 3. Epigrams, Bk. II. Lament for Richard III. Sonata No. 7

by Walter Simmons

RAMEY Piano Music, Vol. 4 ● Stephen Gosling (pn) ● TOCCATA TOCC-0153 (79:18)
Incantations. Cossack Variations. Three Early Preludes. Sonata No. 3. Epigrams, Bk. II. Lament for Richard III. Sonata No. 7

This is the fourth volume of piano music by the American composer Phillip Ramey to be released by Toccata Classics. Having reviewed Volume 3 in the series last year, I will summarize some of the background information from that review. Ramey, now 74, is probably best known for the period when he was a younger member of the inner circle of American composers that included Copland, Thomson, Barber, Schuman, Bernstein, Rorem et al. He has written a good deal about these composers via some very valuable published interviews, and was active as a record annotator during the 1970s, and also as the program annotator for the New York Philharmonic for a number of years. An entertaining raconteur, he has written an autobiography that has yet to be published—a pity, because it is filled with anecdotes that paint portraits of many of the notables indicated above that differ significantly from what can be gleaned from the usual biographical sources.

But what is less well-known—or was until Toccata began issuing these recordings—is that Ramey himself has been composing actively and consistently for more than 50 years. Much of his work has been focused on the piano, an instrument on which he himself developed considerable proficiency. With eight sonatas and numerous short character-pieces, he follows a lineage that can be traced to Chopin, then detoured to Russia via Scriabin and Rachmaninov, followed by Prokofiev, and by Alexander Tcherepnin, Ramey’s beloved mentor. Ramey himself has no Russian ancestry, despite the stylistic pedigree his creative work may suggest.

Ramey’s music may be said to continue where Prokofiev and Tcherepnin left off—a muscular, aggressive style that presents extreme technical challenges, which pianist Stephen Gosling tosses off with the hammer-like ferocity that the music requires. Indeed, Ramey has such a natural affinity for the piano that the instrument becomes a veritable orchestra in his hands. However, unlike that of the late Robert Muczynski (another distinguished protégé of Tcherepnin), Ramey’s music displays an extremely intense level of harmonic dissonance and an almost phobic avoidance of any semblance of what some might call “lyricism,” but what modernists—including Ramey himself—may regard as “sentimentality.” Yet while it carefully avoids the kinds of harmonic inclinations and their fulfillments that typically offer gratification to the listener, much of his music draws upon the gestures, figurations, and rhetoric of his romantic predecessors. At the same time, with few exceptions—notably the Piano Sonata No. 3 that appears on this recording—Ramey adamantly eschews any allegiance to serialism. Thus most of his music inhabits that difficult harmonic region that strongly resists the tensions and resolutions of tonality, while steering clear of the strictures of the 12-tone approach. These distinctions are likely to be lost on most listeners, who—in order to infer the intended character of the utterance—are required to tease out expressive nuances among different, highly dissonant harmonic structures.

Although the music on this recording embraces the full expanse of Ramey’s compositional career, it is clear from the earliest pieces—Three Early Preludes and Incantations—that the direction his creative work was to follow was apparent early on, and he has continued in that vein, broadening and deepening his language as he has matured, as illustrated by this new release and its three predecessors.

Ramey recalls that during the 1960s Aaron Copland chided him for his allegiance to the “Tcherepnin-Prokofiev-Bartók axis,” and encouraged him to explore the broader possibilities offered by the then-widely-embraced serial approach, which Copland himself had found to be fruitful. One of the results of Ramey’s experiments along these lines was his 1968 Piano Sonata No. 3. As Ramey himself states, “It is a willfully discordant, anti-melodic composition …” Although Copland was reportedly enthusiastic about it, the pianist for whom it was intended refused to play it, and Ramey, convinced that the work was a misguided effort, “put the score away and never showed it to another pianist.” It was only through the cogent persuasion of Benjamin Folkman, the musicologist who is probably the primary authority on Ramey’s music, and the writer of the enormously knowledgeable and insightful program notes that accompany the recording, that the composer was moved to reconsider the Sonata No. 3. Undertaking a revision in 2010, Ramey did a good deal of ruthless pruning, finally arriving at what he felt was an improvement worth preserving. Despite its use of serial procedures, the piece is not likely to strike most listeners as notably different in its impact from the composer’s other major works. The third movement, marked “Allegro demonico,” offers very much the sort of Prokofievian keyboard-pummeling that Ramey seems to love to write. And the work ends with an unmistakable tonal cadence.

During the 1980s Ramey composed his Cossack Variations: 13 variations on a tune he had discovered on a postcard during a trip to Russia. In keeping with the romantic approach to this form, the theme is readily apparent during the early variations, but becomes increasingly fragmented and camouflaged as they proceed. But despite the traditional formal approach, the character of the variations remains consistent with Ramey’s style and language.

In 1967 Ramey had begun his exploration of serialism with a book of Epigrams. In 1986 he returned to the aphoristic approach with nine additional pieces, comprising a second book of Epigrams. Each piece, averaging less than two minutes in duration, attempts to evoke a particular expressive attitude. As with the other music on the disc, most of these pieces are quite virtuosic and highly challenging for the performer, while their consistently dissonant language makes discerning the explicitly identified character of each piece quite difficult for the listener.

Ramey composed the Lament for Richard III in 2001, after immersing himself in the play, in a variety of related commentaries, and in a number of productions of Shakespeare’s work. An attempt at a character study of the monstrous ruler, the six-minute piece paints a grim portrait. But here Ramey’s consistently harsh approach lacks nuance, so that the character seems to undergo a clubbing, rather than an evocation or elucidation.

Ramey’s Piano Sonata No. 7 was completed in 2011. An ambitious work in three movements comprising 17 minutes in duration, it is only a little less strident harmonically than most of the music presented on this disc. Nevertheless, I find it to be the composer’s most convincing and personal work, of those known to me. It embraces a musical language of considerably greater breadth than most of his earlier compositions, allowing for a more multidimensional expression, enhanced by the kind of nuance I found lacking in the Richard III piece noted above.

Ramey is most fortunate in having a commentator of Folkman’s caliber to discuss his music in some depth, and in having a pianist whose renditions he can endorse as “absolute perfection.” Therefore one can state confidently that this release, along with its predecessors, make the best possible case for Phillip Ramey as a composer of considerable stature.