Composers by the Sextet From a Pianist at a Festival
Writing a history of 20th-century music is best done by one of those Hindu gods with many arms. Too much happened at the same time. All of it different.
Talking and playing the piano Tuesday night at Mannes College the New School for Music, Jeffrey Swann offered six composers, none of whose music really had much to say to any music around it. The concert was part of the International Keyboard Institute & Festival, an annual convocation of performing, teaching and lecturing.
Mr. Swann brought along the Berg Sonata and its umbilical connections to Wagner, the Stravinsky Sonata with its cool appraisal of Baroque bounce and ornament, and excerpts from Hindemith’s ardent, erudite and yet curiously businesslike “Ludus Tonalis.” After intermission came gee-whiz theatrics from the first volume of George Crumb’s “Makrokosmos,” David Del Tredici’s strange yet somehow touching retreat to the Chopin of the 1840s and the unclassifiable beauties of Ligeti’s Etudes for Piano, here two examples from Book I.
As a pianist Mr. Swann is a very satisfactory musical polyglot. He also speaks well about historical contexts, although given his audience of students and professionals he was probably talking to the already initiated. He feels the melodic tensions of the Berg, and where others find a smaller, more intimate piece, he emphasizes the Sonata’s grandness. Touching too was how touched Mr. Swann himself was by the lyrical impulse that Hindemith insists on, even in the midst of his highly organized writing.
Mr. Swann seemed to have a good time with Mr. Crumb’s extracurricular strummings inside the body of the piano and his spoken and shouted bits of texts. An important wing of 20th-century music was its community of inventors, entrusted with finding new instruments and new applications of old ones. If patents for innovative sonorities existed, Mr. Crumb would hold a few of them.
Mr. Del Tredici’s “Virtuoso Alice” is well described by its title, with great flurries of scales and arpeggios commenting on sweetly melodic music. At the end came Ligeti’s “Arc-en-ciel” and “Automne à Varsovie,” their layers of irreconcilable time schemes making this music a pleasure for the ear and a nightmare for the performer. Mr. Swann dealt very well with them.