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Classical Notes | David Weininger

From a piano triumph to orchestral eloquence, three standout albums

To whet your appetite for the fall music season, here are reviews of some recent recordings of local interest.

MORTON FELDMAN: For Bunita Marcus

Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion)

Hamelin, a Canadian-born pianist who now lives in Waltham, has a reputation for technical virtuosity, often put at the service of repertoire well outside the mainstream. So Feldman’s hushed, incomparably spare 72-minute piano opus dedicated to composer Bunita Marcus is about the last thing you’d expect him to tackle. Which makes his triumph in this music unexpected and all the more rewarding.

Like other late Feldman works, “For Bunita Marcus” forges its sparse textures by repeating and varying a series of motifs made from a handful of quiet notes. The effect is like seeing stars from a distant galaxy flicker in and out of view in the night sky. Time and directionality, our usual guides to musical experience, disappear, and the stasis created has its own idiosyncratic beauty.

What makes Hamelin’s performance so remarkable is that he finds room for an amazing variety of color and nuance within the constricted boundaries of Feldman’s writing. That gives the piece a feeling of unfolding, even progress, while still honoring its intimations of timelessness. The result is, as Hamelin writes in his program notes, “an invitation to enter an alternate reality. A chance to meander through wall-less rooms . . . while enclosed in a nothingness in which sound is somehow allowed to penetrate and live.”


WAYNE PETERSON: Transformations

Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose (BMOP/sound)

One of the chief reasons that Gil Rose, founder and artistic director of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, decided to establish an in-house label for the ensemble was to document the important works of senior American composers that had been neglected elsewhere. Here is a paradigmatic example: a release devoted to orchestral music of Wayne Peterson, whom Rose calls a “maximalist” for his energetic, densely chromatic works. This repertoire is all but invisible in American orchestral programming today, despite Peterson’s winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1992 for “The Face of the Night, the Heart of the Dark.” That piece was commissioned and premiered by the San Francisco Symphony in 1991, which has never performed it again.


Heard here, “The Face of the Night” reveals a composer with superb command of orchestral sonority and vast imagination. A slow movement of nocturnal edginess gives way to a fast movement that introduces and develops musical ideas with such breathless momentum that any sense of stability disappears as soon as you think you’ve found it. Which makes the piece’s ending, a unison C with a depth of seven octaves, all the more delightfully shocking.

Two other works are included here. “Transformations,” written in 1985 for chamber orchestra, takes an initial set of gestures and spins an entire piece out of them with the same kind of rapid-fire invention as in “The Face of the Night,” though with fewer fireworks. “And the Winds Shall Blow” (1994) finds a wealth of timbral diversity in its ensemble of saxophone quartet, winds, and percussion. BMOP’s bracing performances of these three difficult works constitute one of the most eloquent arguments for the orchestra’s existence one could imagine.

KEERIL MAKAN: Letting Time Circle Through Us

Either/Or (New World Records)

Makan, a composer on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty, is best known for a series of stringent works that push, almost obsessively, the boundaries of the performer’s physical interaction with the instrument, sometimes tilting into pure noise. What a shock, then, to encounter “Letting Time Circle Through Us,” a 47-minute, one-movement piece that is Makan’s longest instrumental work to date, composed in 2013 for the New York-based chamber ensemble Either/Or. In place of the earlier music’s brute force is a sonorous, strongly tonal landscape whose horizons seem vaster than what six musicians could produce.


The piece grows out of the duality between what Makan calls “stable music” — chiming, open-ended chords that recur regularly — and “singular, novel musical events” that threaten to disrupt that established solidity. Makan creates a succession of fresh and inventive colors, especially when he places two unusual instruments — glockenspiel and cimbalom — in dialogue. Eventually the friction between the two species of music reaches a culmination, and the denouement that follows reconciles them in a sort of quiet ecstasy not unlike the conclusion of Stravinsky’s ballet “Les Noces.” “Letting Time Circle Through Us” would be a significant achievement by anyone, but from a composer who’s already made a lengthy stylistic voyage, it’s all the more impressive.

David Weininger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.