CD Review: Mathew Fuerst: Works for Violin & Piano—Jasper Wood, violin and David Riley, piano (Albany 1530, 2015, 49 minutes)

Mathew Fuerst

As I’ve said before, I attended the Eastman School of Music at a time when there was an embarrassment of riches for contemporary music. My graduate and undergraduate colleagues read like a Who’s Who of new music: a short, incomplete list would include Alan Pierson, Stefan Freund, Payton MacDonald, David Crowell, Caleb Burhans, Hannah Lash, Kala Pierson, Kevin Puts, Seth Brodsky, Jeremy Grimshaw, Guy Capuzzo. And the list of ESM professors devoted to new music is just as impressive, including Robert Morris, Brad Lubman, Robert Fink (now at UCLA), and Martin Scherzinger (now at NYU).

I say this only to offer full disclosure; since I review new music, I’m bound to run into these people over and over again. This disc includes two other ESM friends, Mathew Fuerst and David Riley. I always had a special place in my heart for Matt, who’s not only a friend but a pianist and a composer—I followed a similar path but took a decisive turn into musicology. And since he’s a friend I will also drop the formality of referring to him as “Fuerst.”

He finished his education at Juilliard, studied composition with Robert Beaser and John Corigliano there (and earlier, at Eastman, with David Liptak, Christopher Rouse, Joseph Schwantner, Sydney Hodkinson, and Augusta Read Thomas); oh yes, and he studied piano with Alan Feinberg. His music is a model of what Susan McClary argued for in her essay “Terminal Prestige”—it balances novelty with convention and aims to arouse emotions in the listener, to move and excite zir.

The release spans a ten-year period, from the early student work Sonata-Fantasie No. 1 (2001, the year he earned his Master’s) to a third violin sonata completed in 2011. The former piece is exuberant and youthful, beginning with a dramatic and extremely dissonant gesture intermittently leavened by a less stringent idiom whose passagework reminds me, from time to time, of the first movement of John Adams’s Violin Concerto. In the exciting finale from the third sonata (“Moto Perpetuo”)—probably my favorite track from the disc—he presents a dizzying array of triadic harmonies that constantly and surprisingly shift as the result of parsimonious voice-leading. (He probably doesn’t know this, but it reminds me of some of my own music from the late ’80s, with the exception that Matt has a better grasp of form, variety in figuration, and composition than I ever did.) I sense in this work, as I do in the 2009 piano solo The Drift of Things (which Matt plays himself, and brilliantly so) the kind of excitement that sometimes comes from a composer who’s also an active performer.

The other compositions show a marvelous expressive range to his work. The brief “Aphorism” from Sonata-Fantasie No. 2 (2003) is a kind of updated Webern miniature, though not at all as dissonant and ascetic. A series of single, plaintive pitches in the violin are punctuated by left-hand sonorities in the lowest register of the piano; finally, out of nowhere, the piece ends as the right hand of the piano outlines an ascending whole-tone scale on B-flat. It doesn’t sound anything like what’s come before but it makes for a wonderful ending.

Wood and Riley have been playing Matt’s music for a long time and it shows. Their performances make the music sound like Brahms or Beethoven, it seems that familiar and also that nuanced. Albany’s sound is fine. Here’s a link to the recording at their website.

The Great Cage Recordings: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1)

It makes sense for me to begin with Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes; I’m a keyboard player and most of the music I review is for one kind of keyboard or another. It’s one of the first Cage pieces I actually encountered—I must have heard them as early as high school, or certainly no later than my undergraduate years, and like almost everyone else, found the timbre of the prepared piano enchanting. My later difficulties with Cage—which extended through the rest of my undergraduate and graduate years up to 1992—resulted from bad information, shortsightedness on my part, and terrible recordings, all of which made me unwilling to grapple with most of his music for a long time. Even so, one of my last Master’s papers at Peabody was an analysis of The Perilous Night (in Margaret Leng Tan’s superb performance, still available on New Albion), which my professor thought showed promise.

When I began reviewing recordings for American Record Guide in 1993, I got some Cage recordings and became friendly with Brian Brandt, the owner of Mode Records; he gave me a number of the recordings. The fine Sibley Library at the Eastman School of Music, where I was completing my doctorates in harpsichord performance and musicology, had many others. Sometime during those years I rediscovered the Sonatas and Interludes and they became important to me as a music-lover and as someone who wanted to talk about the pitches in Cage’s music. They are for me Cage’s most important composition before 1950, and one whose greatness he usually only matched in all of the best music he made afterward. There’s that great line in the “Lecture on Nothing” on his deliberately choosing quiet sounds in the advent of World War II; this fact, plus Cage’s own acknowledgment that the work responded to the seven permanent emotions in Indian aesthetics—including the erotic, mirth, the odious, all of which tend toward the final one, tranquility—makes the Sonatas a kind of expressive line drawn in the sand: an eloquent statement in the face of other works from the time aiming for a much grander (and sometimes frankly patriotic statements) on both sides of the Atlantic: Americanist symphonists like Harris, Schuman, and Copland, Messiaen’s Turangalîla, Britten’s Peter Grimes. It poses the possibility of an avant-garde serenity, a possibility hardly considered in the 1940s. No wonder Cage won a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Guggenheim on the basis of this piece.

There are a number of fine recordings of the work. I’ll consider only one here; later entries will discuss others along with shorter critiques of ones that aren’t as successful.

My friend and colleague Louis Goldstein recorded the work on December 20, 1994; it was released as Greenseye Music 4794 in 1996, along with a concert performance of Dream from December 11, 1995. Louie can do anything, but his readings of Cage and Feldman are striking for their expansive but vital character.

In the Sonatas and Interludes, he plays a large piano, which results in deeper sounds and, at least to my mind, more heterogenous ones, too. He has a grand conception of the piece: the tempos are usually broad (but not overly so) and the gestures measured but also somehow noble. When the damper pedal is engaged the sounds can reverberate for a long time.

The performances are full of small details that lend to the piece the grandeur I noted above. In the first sonata he uses very subtle rubato: first a noticeable (but nonetheless slight) pause after the first unexpected thudding sound. Then, near the end, he speeds up a bit to make the sudden appearance of mostly unprepared A-minor triads more dramatic.

Sonata 2 contrasts with the first: it requires a more rhythmically incisive manner, and once more Goldstein responds brilliantly. The variety of sounds adds to the appeal. Rubato is present here, but much more moderated (It appears, for instance, midway through the second half after one of the most metronomic passages in the performance). The different sounds also have an effect on the ending of the sonata, which sounds more abrupt than it does in other recordings.

Another highlight is the First Interlude. The preparations give a microtonal flavor to many of the notes that suggest a definite pitch. Still, the overtones are rich and very complex, another reason to favor a larger instrument. Later in the piece, the music gives way to several groovy, asymmetric ostinatos. He doesn’t play these as mercilessly as others have: they sound more mysterious, somehow. This particular movement is one I find it very difficult to stop listening to (Always a sign of a good performance.)

As the cycle unfolds, Goldstein projects a very clear and compelling structure for the whole, which for me culminates in the dramatic arc for the pieces beginning with the Third Interlude. This he plays more aggressively than most of the other performances I know. Thereafter, Cage seems to become increasingly preoccupied with the interaction between prepared tones and unprepared ones: these pieces remind me of Schoenberg’s famous remark that Cage would come to a wall because he had no sense of harmony, to which Cage responded that he would spend the rest of his life beating his head against that wall. By juxtaposing prepared and unprepared tones, Cage poses (perhaps in spite of himself) a new possibility for harmony.

I described the final Sonata XVI as “a music box quietly playing in some distant reality” (John Cage, 51). No performance I know suggests that effect better than Goldstein’s. It begins in a Gouldian tempo with a Fürtwängleresque expression in the first half; but in the second, everything becomes otherworldly, motionless, and serene—all the more so because of his choices for the first half.

Checking today online, I don’t see any evidence that the recording is still available, but in the meantime, a 1982 performance gives a sense of his great artistry.