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The Piano's 12 Sides; The Bills; The Cheese Grater—A Mean Two-Step; Your Touch
Joel Hastings, piano.
Review By Joe Milicia


  Carter Pann is an American composer (born 1972) whose body of work includes orchestral, wind-ensemble and solo piano music. A new release in Naxos' "American Classics" series highlights the piano music: some short works from the later 1990s and an hour-long suite completed in 2012, entitled The Piano's 12 Sides. What makes this release especially attractive is the virtuosity of Joel Hastings, the artist for whom the suite was written, supported by recorded sound as good as any I've heard for solo piano.

On the basis of this CD and a suite for cello and piano called Differences (on Cedille's Composers in the Loft CD) I'd describe Pann's music as tonal, pop-inflected, highly eclectic, with nods toward Debussy and jazz styles from ragtime to cocktail-lounge. A pair of short pieces titled The Bills are in fact rags, a slow one and a fast, dedicated to a pair of Williams, Albright and Bolcom, who themselves have written rags. (Indeed, the chameleonic William Bolcom, who has made eclecticism an operating principle, is famous for them.) I especially like Pann's slow one, with its haunting harmonies, played with an engaging sway by Hastings. The fast rag is unusual for its tempo variations, but the two-step which follows it—titled The Cheese Grater—is more appealingly bouncy and tricky-rhythmed. The other standalone piece in the recital is a slow-paced, almost drowsy piece called Your Touch: it was originally the third movement—Pann calls it a cadenza—of his 1997 five-movement Piano Concerto (available on an earlier Naxos CD with pianist Barry Snyder).

Pann writes the quite extensive and very informative booklet notes for the CD. Though the composer provides an analysis/commentary for each of his pieces in The Piano's 12 Sides, I wish he had also included an explanation of his title. Does it suggest that there are (only) 12 moods that a piano can express? Is each piece perhaps written in a different key of the diatonic scale, like sets of etudes of many a composer? In any case, it's an ambitious undertaking. Each of the pieces has a different dedicatee (presumably a friend), bringing to mind the various sets of "Anniversaries" for piano by another composer famous for mixing popular and classical styles, Leonard Bernstein.

The opening piece, "Silhouette," is also the longest, at 10˝ minutes. It begins with a "nebulous" passage (the composer's word) that leads to a sequence of "verses"—hence I take it to be a kind of rondo. Here lounge-piano moods (I don't mean this in a derogatory way) combine with Lisztian runs and other flourishes. The much shorter movement that follows, "Figurines," is a nervous toccata-like piece—swirls of notes with an edgy march section. "Legend," a "modal study in tight voice-leading" according to Pann, is a slow, contemplative movement with no extra-musical implications that I could discern, despite the title; but "White Moon Over Water" is explicitly a scene-painting of floating in a kayak on a wide river on a starry and moon-filled night.

The title of the fifth movement, "Le Branle," comes from an old French dance form; the piece itself is playful with a galumphing rhythm that seems always about to erupt in some jazzier syncopation. "Classic Rock" is a salute to a brilliant pupil of Pann, he tells us. "The opening and ending are unmistakable nods to a past composer, but aside from that it's all classic rock." I will venture to say that the opening bars echo the start of the third movement of Brahms' Second Symphony, but I have no idea what is "classic rock" about the middle portion: it's lyrical and at times has the rhythm of a slower two-step, but if it has any resemblance at all to, say, "Stairway to Heaven" or "Hotel California" (or any rock tempo) it's lost on me. The next piece, "She Steals Me," is "a plaintive Appalachian waltz" which conjures up for the composer images like "a rocking chair on the porch" and brings him "terribly close to tears." He adds that "This song... owes some of its concepts to Schubert and Stravinsky." Schubert maybe, but I'm baffled by Stravinsky, in regard both to the sounds of the piece and the thought of the cool Russian master weeping over an old rocking chair.

"Soiree Macabre" likewise doesn't strike me as especially macabre: "a cadaverous Vincent Price playing this ragged ghost-waltz to an audience of zombie socialites...." But it is quite a bit of fun to hear, with its naughty pop-swing nightclub evocations. "Orion" is Debussyan, and quite lovely. The program notes tell us that the piece is without time signature or bar lines, leaving much discretion to the pianist. "Cradle Song" is lovelier yet, with underlying counter-themes that give an irregularity (but not awkwardness) to the swaying rhythms. Tantalizingly, this cradle song seems always about to slip into the blues but never quite does.

The eleventh piece, "Grand Etude-Fantasy," is another big (10-minute) movement, full of Lisztian cascades and other grand gestures, though the harmonic palette is modern American. It would have been a fitting end to the set, but the twelfth movement of The Piano's 12 Sides, "An Irish Tune," is another puzzlement. It's an arrangement of "Danny Boy"/"Londonderry Air," but not (to this reviewer) a particularly interesting arrangement, except for some unusual resolutions at the very end. The "hushed" mood might give "a sense of finality to the set," but the sense that we are hearing a pretty standard rendition of an overly familiar tune makes for an odd and for me disappointing conclusion.

I also found Joel Hastings' performance of this finale too self-consciously "thoughtful" in its halting rhythms, unless he is just following the score's markings scrupulously. Everywhere else I found his playing splendid, especially in its rhythmic vitality, its plangency in the quieter movements, and its seemingly effortless handling of some rather dazzling passages of piano virtuosity. It doesn't hurt that Naxos' engineer, Todd Sager, has done an absolutely first-rate job of capturing the sound of Hastings' Steinway: rich and clear, undistorted in the loudest passages, completely satisfying.





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