by Walter Simmons
MUCZYNSKI Piano Sonatas: Nos. 1-3 ● Zachary Lopes (pn) ● ALBANY TROY1771 (42:44)
This is a most welcome recording of Robert Muczynski’s three compelling piano sonatas—the first to appear since Laurel released its two-CD set of the composer’s own performances of his complete solo piano music. I should mention that though the latter recordings were originally issued on LP during the early 1980s, they were re-issued on CD (along with several chamber works) in 2000. Those Laurel CDs are still very much available, and admirers of Muczynski’s music will definitely want them too. Since Laurel CDs are not marketed through many of the usual channels, the most reliable way to access them is directly through the label’s website (LaurelRecord.com).
My colleague Myron Silberstein has done a typically astute job of describing Muczynski’s music, so I will discuss it in more general terms. I have often characterized Muczynski’s style, which remained largely consistent throughout his compositional career, as a kind of romantic neo-classicism. That is, it is modest, understated, devoid of extramusical encumbrance, its substance abstract and developed with great concision. Most of his attention was focused on music for solo piano and for small chamber combinations. There are remarkably few orchestral, choral, or vocal works in his catalog. On the other hand, his music is very appealing, with lively, vigorous rhythmic drive, propelled by syncopation and irregular meters, with an underlying lyricism and a subtle attention to mood. Muczynski’s craftsmanship is meticulous, and his taste is always impeccable. To describe his piano music as comparable in many ways to the piano music of Samuel Barber will give readers a sense of what to expect.
Muczynski was a professional-caliber pianist and his three sonatas (from 1957, 1966, and 1974 respectively) are imposing, highly demanding works that reveal a masterly command of the full range of virtuoso piano technique. The Sonata No. 1 comprises two movements, the first darkly dramatic, followed by driving, rhythmically propulsive material, and the second light-hearted and more extroverted. The Sonata No. 2 is a fine work, but—it must be admitted—is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Barber Sonata in many ways. I will argue that this doesn’t detract from its own individual merit, but knowledgeable listeners are bound to notice, so there’s no point in avoiding it. The Sonata No. 2, the most ambitious of the three, stands alongside the sonatas of Vittorio Giannini, Nicolas Flagello, and Peter Mennin—all composed during the 1960s—among America’s most distinguished works in that medium. The Sonata No. 3 is more lyrical than its predecessors, but all three works are clearly the fruits of a unified, integrated sensibility.
Zachary Lopes is an American-trained pianist, currently based in Kentucky. He has toured widely, featuring the works of Muczynski on many of his programs. He has this music well in hand and conveys its virtues with impressive conviction. Compared with Muczynski’s own recordings, Lopes’s renditions show somewhat greater confidence and polish, while Albany’s rich, spacious sonic ambience exceeds what was possible on an analog recording made during the early 1980s. That said, it would be unfair to assert that this new release supplants Muczynski’s own performances, in view of the composer’s mastery of his own music and the additional repertoire offered on the Laurel discs.
It is worth noting that many commentators have regarded the period 1955 through 1980 as the artistically barren nadir of American musical composition, a time when serialism and other experimental approaches attracted the majority of attention to new music, much of which has proven to be stillborn. But a remarkable quantity of music of the highest quality appeared during that period, by composers who refused to relinquish their belief in music as a means of communication from one soul to others who resonate with its spirit. Much of this music is only now gradually being discovered and recognized. There were more such composers than is generally realized, but four in particular—Dominick Argento, Lee Hoiby, Nicolas Flagello, and Robert Muczynski—faced the difficult challenge of attempting to launch careers as composers during the period when such humanistic values faced the most flagrant disregard. These four virtual contemporaries fought in their own individual ways against an obscurity that continues to veil their contributions to a large extent. They produced much of their most distinguished music during that quarter-century identified above. Interestingly, Argento—a Pulitzer Prize-winner—is probably the one who has enjoyed the highest acclaim and visibility. On the other hand, it is probably Muczynski, pursuing his career off the grid in Arizona, who has drawn the least attention among musicologists and critics of the compositional scene. Yet it is also Muczynski whose music has probably been performed more widely and more frequently than that of the other three. His low profile can be attributed partly to the complete absence of “blockbusters” within his output. Pieces for flute and piano or saxophone and piano don’t often make the headlines, but ask a flutist or saxophonist about Muczynski and you are likely to elicit an enthusiastic reaction. (Especially perplexing is the fact that commentators and performers continue to decry the paucity of works for piano trio, while Muczynski’s three brilliant works for this medium remain largely in the dark. [I must draw the attention of curious listeners to Centaur CRC-2634, which features stupendous performances of his piano trios, along with his string trio.])
Today stylistic strictures have largely disappeared, and composers are free to pursue a wide variety of approaches. Listeners will derive much pleasure from pursuing the works of these composers who never abandoned their commitments to traditional musical values. This fine recording of Muczynski’s piano sonatas provides such an opportunity.