“Pictures at a Mondrian Exhibition”. Works of Percy Grainger, Alexandre Tansman, Theo Loevendie, Sumire Nukina, George Antheil, David Little, Erwin Schulhoff, Anton Webern, Igor Stravinsky, Willem Breuker, Jimmy Yancy, Meade Lux Lewis, Morton Gould. Marcel Worms. Emergo Classics EC 3935-2 (1998) barcode 016861393526
Recorded March 1997 at the Maria Minor Church, Utrecht, The Netherlands
No replacement for Mussorgsky’s Masterpiece, but an enjoyable moment of modern piano music
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 14 February 2014
“Pictures at a Mondrian Exhibition” – the title is fun and stirs curiosity. It originates in a program devised in 1994 by the Dutch pianist Marcel Worms to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Mondrian’s death. Piet Mondrian was the famous Dutch 20th Century artist and one of the most important representatives of 20th Century abstract painting (grids of inter-crossing black lines filled with squares of primary colors), who shared his life between his home country, Paris and, after 1940, New York.
Taking its cue from the fact that Mondrian repeatedly expressed his fascination for the ragtime and other jazz-derived popular music, the program mixes such jazz-inspired compositions by contemporaries of Mondrian (Grainger, Tansman, Antheil, Schulhoff, Stravinsky, Morton Gould – Webern’s Variations opus 27 being the odd-piece out, here) and pieces written especially for the occasion (and for the pianist) by Dutch or Dutch-based contemporary composers: Theo Lowendie, Sumire Nukina, David Little, Willem Breuker. It is actually David Little’s piece which has given its witty title to the album. To all these, Worms has also added two authentic boogie-woogies written around the time when Mondrian was in New York, by Jimmy Yancey and Mead Lux Lewis.
One can of course question the program, both for its inclusions and exclusions. Why Webern? Because, re: the notes, his “progression from a late romantic to an austere atonal style reveals a striking similarity to Mondrian’s gradual transition from figurative to abstract painting“, and because “the Variations Op. 27 are the aural embodiment of the culmination of that development“. OK, I’ll buy that, and I do agree that the Variations are something like the music equivalent of Mondrian’s lines and colors (I’m not too infatuated with Mondrian’s oeuvre, by the way, which I find cerebral and unemotional, concepts rather than emotions – but I am ready to accept that this failure to “get it” expresses only my personal limitations). Stravinsky’s “Tango” is fine, but why not have included his “Piano-rag music”? Same question with Antheil: his “Airplane Sonata” is his most-often performed piano piece, probably only by dint of the scores’ easy accessibility through the auspices of Theodore Presser Company (the rest is published by Schirmer. I’ve sent a mail to the French representative, inquiring about purchase. They haven’t even responded. Apparently some businesses are not interested in making money, nor in fostering their roster of composers. Appalling.) But since the liner notes refer at one point to the “derivative syncopated stereotype dance forms like… the shimmy”, Worms might have added Antheil’s “Little Shimmy”. Finally, the liner notes also mention Mondrian’s friendship and numerous discussions about the common ground between music and the visual arts with the Dutch composer Jakob van Domselaer. Too bad the opportunity was missed to include a piece of his.
Of course, given the way the program was composed, one should not expect the kind of stylistic unity beyond the diversity of moods that one finds in the recital’s model, Mussorgsky’s famous “Pictures at an exhibition”. But one can simply sit back and enjoy the recital for what it offers. It is interesting to see how each composer tackles the popular dance forms, whether he more or less yields to them (which is the case, I find, despite all their respective compositions’ virtuosic demands, of Grainger, Tansman, Schulhoff and Morton Gould) or bends them to his own language (Stravinsky – but I prefer the colors of the orchestral version – and Antheil).
David Little’s “Pictures at a Mondrian Exhibition” is written in a similar spirit. It does have the Jazz references (Broadway Boogie-Woogie) but also subjects them (as in the last piece, which is a variation of the same Boogie-Woogie) to a tersely and whimsically pointillistic approach which makes them no more than a whiff, a passing reminiscence. The second piece sounds like a Jazz improvision on Webern’s second Variation. I also enjoyed Willem Breuker’s “Underberg” (after the German herb-based digestif bitter, on whose bottles appear a black dancing couple), very “Antheilian” I find in its willingness to outlandishly and provocatively pound on a single idea.
Lowendie’s “Red, Yellow and Blue” is a short (1:50) minimalist piece in the style of Feldman, in which not much happens and, consequently, whatever happens is supposed to have a great dramatic impact. It hasn’t. It is also reminiscent of some slow movements (or sections) in Ives’ piano music. It is atmospheric, but doesn’t leave much of an imprint. Nukina writes many more notes, and the four excerpts from her “Tree Series” are interesting and enjoyable, but her language is hardly distinctive in its middle-of-the-road contemporary style. Sometimes it has a busy activity reminiscent of Ives or Sessions (Tree # 1), sometimes the weighted mysticism of Carl Ruggles or Dane Rudhyar (The Red Tree). Ives again comes to mind as well. The liner notes give wrong timings for the second and third piece.
I had never encountered pianist Marcel Worms, but he plays well enough. The first movement of Antheil’s “Airplane Sonata” is marked “as fast as possible” and Worms is not the fastest here – of all the versions I know that credit must go to Roger Shields, a Vox recording from 1976 reissued in 1993 in a fine 3-CD set, “Piano Music in America 1900-1945”, CD3X 3027 (link to my review) – but he is fast enough, muscular and well-articulated. He must also be lauded for taking the second movement at a forward-moving tempo – this is not music that should be sentimentalized. The scherzo variation in Webern’s piece is a bit heavy-handed, I find. Stravinsky’s Tango could have been more spiky and disjointed – after all, it is not a Tango but Stravinsky’s take on the Tango.
This will certainly not replace Mussorgky’s masterpiece, and not even sit besides it, but it does offer an enjoyable moment of modern music.