January/February 2019: New Music Reviews
(S3-4) Nocturnes in Minor: An Artistic Intermediate/Late Intermediate Collection for Solo Piano, by Jeanne Costello.
As a young pianist, I remember playing my first Chopin nocturne and thinking, "Now I'm really playing some difficult piano music." The piece left a lasting impression that, in many ways, hooked me on classical music, Chopin as a composer, and nocturnes as a genre.
Jeanne Costello felt much the same way after playing her first Chopin nocturne: its emotional quality left her craving more. She wrote this set of ten Nocturnes in Minor so that pianists could experience the same inspiration before they are ready for the more advanced nocturnes of Chopin. One of my favorites is the Nocturne in D minor. Similar to other nocturnes in the collection, it is written in ABA form and has an improvisatory feel. Because the piece moves quickly between eighth and sixteenth notes, students should be comfortable with subdividing before beginning this piece. Although the melody is less singable than other nocturnes in the book, there is ample room for rubato. In fact, Costello includes a written rubato with an accelerando and ritardando. She finishes the nocturne with a surprising Picardy third in D major.
It is evident throughout that these nocturnes are written by an experienced teacher. For example, Costello includes nicely placed and frequent fingerings that work well for a small hand. There are also plenty of pedal indications, even in obvious places, to help young pianists who are inexperienced with the sustain pedal. Written rubato indications will help introduce students to the skill, but there are also places where additional rubato fits in naturally. I do not recommend that a student play all the way through the book, but rather mix in these nocturnes sporadically as expressive literature pieces.
I recommend adding Jeanne Costello's Nocturnes in Minor to your teaching collection. They are lovely works that will introduce students to the nocturne, enhance expression, and aid preparation for Chopin's larger nocturnes. Because they capture the drama of more advanced music, several of the Nocturnes in Minor could be used as "student savers." Moreover, all of these works would make effective recital pieces: they appeal to both students and audiences. (FJH, $6.50)
(S3-4) Theme and Variations, Op. 15, by Alfred Stross. Edited by Claus Woschenko.
Alfred Stross (1858-1912) was a classmate of Gustav Mahler and a private student of Anton Bruckner. He published very few works during his lifetime, and many of his unpublished pieces have been lost. Unfortunately, too, very little is known about his personal life.
This edition, from Viennese publisher Doblinger, is the first printing of Stross's A-minor variations. It is an early work, dedicated to Stross's closest friend, Fritz Lemmermayer. The theme is in an eight-plus-eight measure structure with a simple harmonic underpinning; both theme and harmonies remain intact throughout the seven variations. The theme itself is in 4/4 meter, slow, chordal, and serious.
Rather than presenting daunting technical challenges or harmonic complexity, Stross emphasizes certain simple compositional techniques in each variation. For example, Variation 1, which is quick and wild, explores right-hand blocked chords and left-hand octaves. In addition, it emphasizes the ambiguity of the 6/4 meter by first emphasizing the half note to the beat and then the dotted half. Variation 2 provides a contrasting 3/4 meter and a thin two-voice texture with rapid triplet eighth notes. The third variation is in 4/4 and languishes painfully, with a two-note chromatic "sigh" motive in the right hand and octaves in the left.
Variation 4 changes to the major mode and serves as the work's structural high point. It is in 4/4 meter, and the tempo is slow and stately. This variation is reminiscent of Burgmüller's "Ave Maria" from his 25 Studies, Opus 100.
In Variation 5, Stross returns to minor, 3/4 meter, and a stepwise melodic motive. The primary rhythmic motive consists of a dotted quarter, an eighth, and a quarter. Variation 6 provides two-part counterpoint and the half- step "sigh" motive found in Variation 3.
The seventh variation provides the greatest tension and excitement of the set. It is in 6/4 meter and fast, and, like Variations 3, 5, and 6, employs a unifying stepwise motive. The set concludes with the return of the theme, but with fff dynamics rather than the p of the opening. The piece ends on a ppp chord.
The engraving in this edition is excellent, and the page turns are carefully placed. The cover is durable and waterproof. As a bonus, the binding is stapled rather than glued, so the edition will last many years. A preface and facsimile of the complete autograph score are also included.
Because Stross's work is only seven pages long and has few technical difficulties, this set of variations is approachable. For any intermediate student, this uncomplicated composition would be a delightful introduction to late nineteenth-century style. (Doblinger, approximately $20.50)
(S4-5) 24 Preludes for Solo Piano, by Nathan Hall.
Denver composer Nathan Hall's 24 Preludes are an important contribution to twenty-first-century keyboard literature.
The preludes were commissioned and recorded by pianist Rose Lachman. An important source of inspiration for the set was the medieval French illuminated manuscript Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry), which contains beautiful images painted by Holland's fifteenth-century Limbourg brothers. Twelve of the preludes represent months of the year, while the other twelve represent signs of the zodiac. As with the preludes of Bach, Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich, each prelude is in a different key, and each explores at least one sentiment, character, sonority, rhythmic idea, or melodic figure.
Minimalism is also an important element. The most extreme case of repetition occurs in "Scorpio"; right-hand octaves on A and left-hand octaves on F repeat throughout the piece. In addition, many of the pieces have complicated rhythms and syncopations, some of which are jazz inspired.
The prelude harmonies are serene and primarily tertian. The melodic material is pandiatonic, and there are a few jarring chromatic clashes. Most of the pieces are only one page, but there are exceptions. For example, the shortest piece, "Libra," is only one system (and one divided measure) long; the longest, "Leo," is two-and-a-half pages. The preludes contain a mixture of styles, including the aforementioned jazz, rock, New Age, Impressionism, Romanticism, and Baroque.
As a whole, this enjoyable set is tranquil and soothing. Standout preludes are "Aquarius," with its mysterious staccato notes in 5/8 meter, and "Taurus," which contains a gentle, never-ending stream of eighth notes over static harmonies. Because of the diverse styles and rhythmic sophistication of the 24 Preludes, I would recommend this set only for the late- intermediate-to-advanced pianist who is seriously interested in twenty-first-century music. However, the pianist who puts forth the effort needed to master these preludes will be richly rewarded with a wonderful, unique work that will please almost any audience. (Abundant Silence, $24)
This Issue's Contributors:
Susan Geffen is a Managing Editor of Clavier Companion. She is active as a music educator, adjudicator, presenter, panelist, critic, and specialist in Recreational Music Making. She is also an English teacher.
Stephanie Bruning is Coordinator of Keyboard Studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD, where she teaches courses in piano, pedagogy, and accompanying. She frequently performs, adjudicates, and conducts master classes around the country and also specializes in Native American-influenced piano music from the early twentieth century.
Ernest Kramer is Professor of Music at Northwest Missouri State University. He teaches piano, harpsichord, advanced theory, and composition. His piano compositions have been published by Hal Leonard and Alfred Publishing.