COPLAND: Piano Fantasy; Four Piano Blues. REALE: Piano Sonata No. 1; No. 2, “Dance Sonata”.

COPLAND: Piano Fantasy; Four Piano Blues. REALE: Piano Sonata No. 1; No. 2, “Dance Sonata”. John Jenson, piano. MUSIC & ARTS CD-738 [DDD]; 75:42. Produced by Peter Nothnagle. 

Paul Reale is a student of George Rochberg, now 50 years old and on the faculty at UCLA. His thoughtful and provocative essay, “The Crisis of Modernism, or Why don’t I like what’s Good for Me?” comprises the program notes for this recording. Thus Reale’s music, the Copland works, and Reale’s comments on them, are all part of a conceptual framework concerning the 20th-century composer’s search for relevance. I could easily turn this review into a discussion of Reale’s essay, but will try to resist the temptation to go too far afield. His theme is that “the primary aesthetic concern of most artists working today [is] IS my work relevant? Is it MODERN?” and that this quest has resulted in a “disastrous set of aesthetic consequences,” by which Reale seems to mean the wholesale renunciation of traditional musical principles in the face of endless shallow attempts to create an impression of novelty. He discusses Copland’s Piano Fantasy as an attempt to appear up-to-date in its use of serial principles and his own work as the result of efforts to create music that is relevant to its time but also meaningful to the listener. Yet the Copland Fantasy, which he describes as, “without question, the greatest of Copland’s piano works, and one of the grandest conceptions in American piano music,” seems to be something of a refutation of his main theme, demonstrating instead that the adoption of a fashionably modernistic compositional technique is no guarantee that the resulting work will be stillborn. If, as he argues, “The abandonment of any tonality proved to be the death knell of memorability and ultimately for the works,” then how does he explain the enduring value of the Copland? Although he discusses the surface structure of the Fantasy at some length, he never addresses this most inevitable question.

The fact is that in his Piano Fantasy Copland did not really abandon traditional musical principles in applying some serial techniques. It is clear from listening to the work that he not intend the total abolition of harmonic direction or metrical flow practiced by the hard-line serialists, and it is largely the retention of these audible means of coherence — as shaped by the composer’s vivid and fertile musicality — that makes a very complex and demanding piece so compelling and satisfying.  Furthermore, those composers who did renounce traditional musical principles in the quest for novelty did not precipitate a “disastrous set of aesthetic consequences” because there were always enough inner-directed composers producing music with sincere conviction and of recognizable quality. Reale acknowledges this when he writes, “All composers did not march like lemmings to the sea: artists like Vincent Persichetti, Ned Rorem, and Leonard Bernstein stubbornly resisted the avant-garde.” And there were many, many more. What listeners are now beginning to realize is that while the pages of theNew York Times and other vehicles of middle-brow trendiness were filling their space with the oh-so-outrageous pronouncements of provocateurs like the diametrically opposed Cage and Babbitt, a substantial body of truly relevant music — truly relevant in the sense that it was concerned with the feelings of human beings — was being created, though few paid attention at time. (For example, Barber’s The Lovers, which has just won this year’s Grammy award as best contemporary composition, was introduced by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1971 and broadcast nationally. Did anybody notice it then? Why did it have to wait until 1992 for its first recording?

So what kind of music does Paul Reale write, in his effort to be both modern and meaningful? His two sonatas both date from 1985-86 and make a rather similar impression, although the first is somewhat more sober in tone, the second a little lighter What he seems to do is to use fairly conventional materials — tonal, melodic — and juxtapose them, creating dense, busy textures in a rapidly shifting succession of tonalities, rhythmic patterns, and expressive states. In his own words, “The structures of the movements are like cinematic scenes shot out of sequence and later reassembled. Just as the viewer has become conditioned to the peregrinations of the movie camera, the listener will become accustomed to ostensibly unnatural juxtapositions of referential and abstract musical materials.”  My initial reaction to the music was irritation — it sounded like a jumble, a hodgepodge of often promising material never allowed to breathe or develop. After more than a few hearings, I became more accustomed to the rate of activity, but I can’t say that I found it to be satisfying listening. In fact, despite Reale’s devotion to “the simplest and most accessible materials,” I find his music less inviting than Copland’s formidable Piano Fantasy

Composed during the years 1955-57, the Fantasy is difficult to discuss, because it is totally non-referential and not the sort of music one generally describes as expressive. In one through-composed movement of 32 minutes, it holds the listener’s attention through its well-balanced variety of states of motion, if not emotion — what Reale calls “the improvisatory, stream-of-consciousness aspect of the work that characterizes the powerful intuitive impulses present in the best Copland works” — through its wide-ranging exploration of pianistic devices characteristic of the composer’s anti-Romantic treatment of the instrument, and through the lively nervousness of its irregular rhythms. Most of all, there is a brilliant clarity and audible coherence to the overall structural layout as well as to the patterns as they unfold, inviting and rewarding frequent rehearings. (It is this quality that Reale’s music seems to lack.)   Despite the severity of its surface, the music is recognizably Copland’s, with the crispness and freshness that characterize nearly all the composer’s work, shaped with sound artistic judgment.

The Four Piano Blues are far more often heard than the Piano Fantasy, and are much easier to assimilate. Yet, despite some vernacular touches, they are not really representative of Copland’s more populist style, nor are they “blues” in any meaningful sense. Actually they are quite abstract and rarefied in tone, despite their brevity.

John Jensen is an impressive pianist, currently located in Minneapolis, and familiar as an exponent of 20th-century music from his many recordings with the Mirecourt Trio. He has clearly mastered the forbidding technical demands of these works, although there is a harshness of tone and heaviness of attack that causes his playing to grate a bit at times. All in all, this new release offers some challenging listening for the more ambitious devotee of recent piano music.