Tuesday 5 March 2019

Political piano and terrific technique: Adam Swayne's '(speak to me)'

(speak to me) new music, new politics - Adam Swayne - Coviello Classics
(speak to me) new music, new politics - Gershwin, Rzewski, Kirsten, Malone, Gould; Adam Swayne; Coviello Contemporary  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 March 2019 
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A very contemporary take on a classic piano recital, intersecting dazzling technique with political thought and audience participation

This magnificent recital from pianist Adam Swayne on Coviello Contemporary, (speak to me) - new music, new politics, takes us on a journey through contemporary American piano music, one which examines what role the political might play in music and performance, and which weaves in popular references in striking ways. The journey starts with George Gershwin's Preludes for Piano of 1926, and then moves on to Frederic Rzewski's Four North American Ballads from 1978-1979, and Amy Beth Kirsten's (speak to me) of 2010, culminating in Kevin Malone's The People Protesting drum out Bigly Covfefe from 2017 which Swayne commissioned. The recital ends with Morton Gould's Boogie Woogie Etude. It is a recital which asks a lot of both listener and pianist, both in the sense of the music's potential complexity and technical demands, but also the need to follow the thought behind the music.

Swayne's performance of the Gershwin preludes really draws us in, combining power and vibrant rhythms with tender lyricism. Gershwin's writing here does not explicitly reference his popular songs, but he manages to combine the melodic feel of these songs with a more challenging rhythmic impetus.

Frederic Rzewski's music often explicitly includes reference to political matters. His Four American Ballads were inspired by the folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger, and Rzewski bases each ballad on an American popular, traditional work or protest song. But these are not simple arrangements, in the manner of Aaron Copland or RVW, Rzewski subjects the material to complex and startling transformations with the music of Bach being another inspiration, yet in a very contemporary way which makes the listener assess the material differently. This sense of a surprising transformation via the composer's vivid imagination is notable in the pieces, Rzewski juxtaposes lyricism, modernism and violence cheek by jowl. The final ballad,'Winsboro cotton mill blues' includes references to machine simulation in the music, yet there is also a boogie-woogie style passage of astonishing violence (which links to the final piece on the disc) and fragments of what might be echoes of the Gershwin preludes. Rzewski was also a virtuoso pianist, and these pieces place great challenges on the performer too, and Swayne plays with devastating brilliance, the music is the thing here rather than simple showing off.

The political is more implicit in Amy Beth Kristen's (speak to me), of which Swayne gave the European and UK premieres.
The three movements dramatise the myth of Echo and Juno with the first movement 'Deceit' pitting fast-talking Echo spinning a story to Juno, in the second 'The Curse' Juno realises she is being tricked and in the final one 'Longing' Juno has removed Echo's power of speech. It is this latter which provides the clear metaphor for censorship. The piece challenges the performer in different ways as the piano music is accompanied by whispered speech, sprechstimme, which in the first movement uses gibberish so that the listener can never quite catch what is being said. The second uses a text by Mariko Nagal, and we need to gain a sense of the dialogue between these two very different characters, whilst in the third movement the power of speech is entirely removed. Kristen's music mirrors and extends the speech rhythms and musical shapes of the spoken phrases, creating music which is nervous and edgy yet even here there are hints of the popular. The long final movement is quietly spare, evoking the intensity of Echo's new state of being.

Politics and protest are more explicit in Kevin Malone's The People Protesting Drum Out Bigly Covfefe, with the title making clear reference to some of Donald Trump's pontifications on Twitter. For live performance, the pianist is asked both to wear and to throw pink pussyhats (in a reference to The Pussyhat Project). The raw material comes from transcriptions popular chants used at anti-Trump rallies, and in live performance the audience is invited to join in the final chant. Malone's language is angular and dissonant, with lots of intersecting jazzy rhythms. The piece uses violence and repetition, a feeling of insistence which comes from the protest rally genre, and Swayne brings a strong feeling of the underlying narrative to the piece. At the end, shouts of protest and chants are overlayed over the piano music.

And finally, the rhythms and violence of Morton Gould's Boogie Woogie Etude.

The music on the disc can appreciated via classical music analogues, so that Malone's piece works as a fantasia on multiple themes, yet the fact that these themes are political chants and Malone's juxtaposition of them makes us consider in new ways, just as Rzewski's treatment of the work songs does. And both works have the 'joining in' element, as Rzewski takes moments of his songs as Bach-like chorales which the listener can follow (and the programme book even provides words, and words for the chant at the end of the Malone). The Rzewski, Malone and Kristen all make strong technical demands on the pianist, there might be non-musical references and political ideas in play but the pianist's technique is required as well, in striking and complex ways.

Adam Swayne encompasses all this, giving us a recital which works on a surprising number of levels, engaging as a narrative as well as making us think about the processes behind the music. The CD booklet includes and extensive and thoughtful article by Swayne, but the article's academic origins are perhaps a little too obvious in the style of writing and something a little less dense might have been helpful. But if you persist, a lot of illuminating thought complements the music.

Highly recommended.

George Gershiwin (1898-1937) - Preludes for piano (1926)
Frederic Rzewski (born 1938) - Four North American Ballads (1978-79)
Amy Beth Kirsten (born 1972) - (speak to me) (2010)
Kevin Malone (born 1958) - The People Protesting Drum out bigly Covfefe (2017)
Morton Gould (1913-1996) - Boogie Woogie Etude (1943)
Adam Swayne (piano)
Recorded 13-15 August 2018, Carole Nash Recital Room, Royal Northern College of Music
Available on-line.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Neapolitan revival: Rossini's Elizabeth in a rare staging from English Touring Opera  - opera review
  • Glitter and sparkle: The Merry Widow at English National Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Creating a contemporary choral tradition in Ireland: Desmond Earley and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin  - interview
  • Dame Emma Kirkby's 70th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★★) - concert review
  • A very modern Robin Hood: Dani Howard's new opera at The Opera Story (★★★★) - opera review 
  • Sparkling delight: Coloratura Offenbach from Jodie Devos (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Celebration time: Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen coincided with the 140th anniversary of the Grand Théâtre de Genève (★★★★★) - Opera review 
  • Trapped in the underworld with a surly teenager: Gavin Higgins & Francesca Simon's The Monstrous Child  (★★★★½) - opera review 
  • Contemporary yet romantic: Noah Mosley's Aurora debuts at Bury Court Opera's swansong season (★★★½) - opera review
  • The idea of bringing to life something which has never been alive before: my interview with conductor Jessica Cottis - interview
  • Britten & Mendelssohn violin concertos from Sebastian Bohren & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (★★) - CD review
  • The full Egmont: Beethoven's incidental music linked by extracts of Goethe's play (★★★½) - CD review
  • Home

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