Last night the Faculty Artist Series recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) was presented by pianist Mack McCray. As a performer, McCray has had a long-standing interest in breadth of repertoire; and the program he prepared for last night was clearly interested in expanding that breadth. The first half brought together the sequencing of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Béla Bartók, in that order. The intermission was then followed by three pieces by Franz Liszt, each extending the duration of its predecessor.
This approach to juxtaposition is not without precedent. In the final decade of the twentieth century, pianist Stephen Drury prepared a program in which pieces by Stockhausen and Charles Ives were sandwiched between five of Liszt’s “transcendental” études as predecessors and Beethoven’s Opus 110 sonata in A-flat major as conclusion. The program was entitled Faith, the Loss of Faith, and the Return of Faith; and it was performed entirety without any breaks allowing for applause or intermission.
McCray’s presentation did not go to such ideological extremes. Indeed, if there was any ideology at all, it did not extend much beyond the immortal words of Duke Ellington:
It’s all music.
If the program had a lesson, the lesson was that music lives in expressive performance; and “all music,” no matter how abstract or how explicitly denotative, can lend itself to expressive techniques that turn marks on paper into an intensely engaging listening experience. In this respect it is worth noting that McCray provided his own notes for the printed program, from which it became quickly evident that he had established a strong personal attachment to each of the works he had selected.
As one reads those notes, one quickly realizes that each such attachment is rooted in the listening, rather than the playing. Thus, what became more and more apparent as last night’s program unfolded was the intense awareness one had of McCray listening to his own interpretations. It was as if the fundamentally musical qualities he had come to discover in each of the four composers were leading the way; and execution was a matter of in-the-moment awareness of the path set by those composers, where McCray was along that path, and where the path was leading.
In that framework one could appreciate why the Liszt compositions were arranged in order of increasing duration, thus contrasting with the first half of the program that involved juxtapositions of almost instantaneous brevity with more extended lengths of time. Such juxtaposition emerged as an unexpected commonality between Stockhausen and Beethoven. Thus the sequencing of the eight and ninth of two compositions, each of which Stockhausen called simply “Klavierstück” (piano piece), the first only about two minutes long and the second beginning with 139 repetitions of the same chord in decrescendo, followed by a second decrescendo of only 87 repetitions, could be seen to parallel the almost instantaneous Prestissimo (middle) movement of Beethoven’s Opus 109 sonata in E major followed by an intensely absorbing account of the Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo set of variations, in which the variations unfold in a context of such quietude that one believe time had chosen to stand still.
This sequence was then concluded with Bartók’s only piano sonata. Each of the three movements is of moderate length; but that same sense of stillness prevails in the middle (Sostenuto e pesante) movement. That movement, in turn, is preceded by an almost machine-like execution of folk-like material, as if Bartók had decided to teach robots how to dance. The concluding movement escalates the pace to Allegro molto and then gradually accelerates the tempo as it hurtles into the concluding coda. The result is that the “mere” juxtaposition of Stockhausen, Beethoven, and Bartók revealed itself as an intensely exciting journey unto itself, not just through a musical repertoire but also through our consciousness of “how time passes” (which happens to be the title of a theoretical paper that Stockhausen wrote).
While the Liszt portion of the program followed a similar logic, the execution did not quite rise to the same level of a compelling listening experience. In many respects Liszt was best in his brevity, represented on this program by the second of his “La lugubre gondola” (the funeral gondola) pieces inspired by a premonition of the death of Richard Wagner. Both compositions present Liszt at his most harmonically ambiguous, if not downright atonal, all packed into a brevity that anticipates the emergence of Anton Webern more than the passing of Wagner.
This was followed by the third piece from the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (poetic and religious harmonies) cycle, “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude” (the blessing of God in solitude). In many respects this is a tone poem, based on an actual poem about Saint Francis’ journey into the wilderness. There are any number of programmatic “sound effects” that track the lines of the poem; and McCray clearly knew how to connote the devotional spirit behind this music’s composition. However, for Liszt this may have been an act of personal faith and possibility even a reaction in response to his reputation for pleasing audiences through virtuosic indulgence.
Such indulgence was clearly on display for the remainder of the program, one of his “reminiscences” pieces based on themes from Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma. Writing about Joyce DiDonato’s latest recording at the beginning of this month, I observed that the bel canto concept involves prioritizing beautiful vocal sonorities (bel canto) above all other elements, be they musical, dramatic, or rhetorical. Liszt’s pastiche of Bellini’s themes may simply have been little more than a crowd-pleaser, concocted to remind his listeners of pleasant nights of the opera; but it may also have taken an ideological stance that keyboard virtuosity can attain the same transcendent qualities achieved by bel canto singing at its finest. In the latter case it may be fair to say that Liszt overplayed his hand, particularly since Bellini could not rise to the musical level of other operatic sources Liszt had explored, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni or the quartet from the final act of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. One could thus appreciate McCray’s own virtuoso qualities in realizing Liszt’s spectacle; but, compared with the rest of the program, the spectacle was a somewhat hollow one.
Fortunately, McCray concluded the evening with an encore that returned to the stillness of the moment captured in a selection of profound brevity. This was Giovanni Sgambati’s transcription of the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. This music was originally conceived as a flute solo performed with a string ensemble, but Sgambati excellently captured the essence of the melody in his approach to a piano setting; and the other-worldliness of McCray’s interpretation restored many of the transcendent qualities he had established over the course of his highly imaginative program.