At the end of this past May, the ZOFO Duet of pianists Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmermann released their third recording. Sono Luminus has offered this as a package containing not only a standard CD but also a Pure Audio Blu-ray version and a digital copy available through mShuffle. The title of the new album is ZOFORBIT: A Space Odyssey.
The major work on this new release is Gustav Holst’s Opus 32 seven-movement suite The Planets. While this is best known as an orchestral composition, John York, who teaches piano at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith (where Holst had been Director of Music and the inspiration for his St. Paul’s Suite and Hammersmith) discovered an engraved copy of the score for four hands on a single piano. In May of 2001 Black Box Classics released the world premiere recording of York playing this version with his wife Fiona.
In many respects ZOFO’s decision to record this version parallels their recording of the four-hand version of Igor Stravinsky’s score for “The Rite of Spring,” which was featured on their debut album, Mind Meld. Both compositions are known particularly for their rich orchestral coloration, and in both cases the composers drew upon instruments that were seldom (at least in the first half of the twentieth century) included in symphonic orchestration. In addition that richness of instrumentation served to support equally rich textures of contrapuntal activity.
However, while the four-hand version of the Stravinsky score tended to clarify the complexities arising from the overlay of dissonant voices in counterpoint, Holst was not inclined to experiment with dissonance in a similar manner. He was more interested in developing images (somewhat in Claude Debussy’s use of that noun in his compositions for both piano and orchestra) of the seven planets, the number accepted (with the exclusion of Earth) when Holst composed the suite between 1914 and 1916. Furthermore, Holst’s images had nothing to do with astronomy but rather were based on how they were interpreted as signs by astrologers.
Nevertheless, even without an emphasis on dissonance, a considerable amount of meticulous detail went into how Holst fashioned his images. The result is that ZOFO faced many of the same challenges in performing his four-hand version as they had faced in their Stravinsky performance. Once again, they have risen to that challenge impressively and with similar effect. By abstracting out the dominating role of Holst’s selection of instrumental colors, the performance draws the listener’s attention to the expressiveness of his thematic material and the harmonic contexts for that material. One might even say that, in this four-hand setting, one is more likely to appreciate the virtues of this suite as music, rather than merely as “sonic spectacle.”
The album presents the work of three other composers, each of whom can be said to have approached that Debussy-like concept of imagery in his own way. Most interesting is probably the decision to include the first two pieces from the fourth (and final) volume in the series of pieces by George Crumb entitled Makrokosmos. The title is an explicit allusion to the six volumes of pedagogical music for solo piano that Béla Bartók published until the title Mikrokosmos; but it is clear from many of the titles of both the volumes and the individual pieces that Crumb’s own interests encompassed both astronomy and astrology. (Each of the first two volumes consists of twelve pieces corresponding to the signs of the Zodiac.) It is also worth noting that Crumb explicitly acknowledged the influence of Debussy’s two books of preludes, whose pieces are as imagistic as those he explicitly called “images.”
The fourth volume of Makrokosmos is the only one composed for four hands on a single keyboard, supplemented with amplification. It consists of only four pieces, each named after a specific star and ordered according to the brightness of the respective stars. The two movements performed by ZOFO on their new album are the first two of these pieces, “Alpha Centauri” and “Beta Cygni.” Crumb called the four pieces in this collection “cosmic dances;” but it would be fair to say that Crumb’s sense of dance in these short compositions is decidedly other-worldly. Nevertheless, ZOFO is clearly as comfortable with Crumb’s unconventional approaches to rhythm as they were with those of “The Rite of Spring;” and their interpretation of these two very short pieces leaves the attentive listener curious as to how they would approach the remainder of Crumb’s collection.
David Lang’s “Gravity,” which immediately follows the Crumb tracks, is also other-worldly; but in an entirely different way. The music has a free-floating quality that seems to apply its own take on Debussy-like imagery to the absence of gravity, rather than its influential pull. It is almost as if this final track captures the beginning of a wandering odyssey into deep space, instead of the “homecoming” that brings closure to the Homeric epic.
That sense of a vast unknown is also captured in the two opening tracks, the two movements of the Opus 24 sonata by Urmas Sisask. Sisask gave this sonata the subtitle The Milky Way; and, in many respects, it complements the descriptive approach that Holst took to the individual planets. Each of the two movements is structured as a gradual crescendo, as if each is a study that begins in a vast emptiness and eventually finds its way to a single source of gravitational pull. Of the four composers on this recording, Sisask is the most minimal in his use of both thematic and rhythmic resources; but his relatively short sonata serves excellently as an overture to the entire recording.
In conjunction with their new release, the ZOFO pianists will be doing a fair amount of traveling and concertizing between now and the end of the year. Their travels will be, for the most part, limited to the Western states until they return to Boyce, Virginia, in December for another round of recording sessions with Sono Luminus. Much of their activity, however, will take place in their “home town” of San Francisco:
- Sunday, September 21: As in the past they will participate in SFMusicDay: Live + Free, one and one-half days of free chamber music organized by the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music. They will again perform with the bass clarinet duo Sqwonk. The title of their program will be Sqwonkzoforus Rex.
- Friday, October 17: San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music will launch a new concert series at the newly renovated Officer’s Club in the Presidio. ZOFO will perform three 30-minute sets. Their program will include the world premiere of a composition by Kurt Rohde, “Altromondo.”
- Tuesday, November 18: ZOFO will present a program that has not yet been announced for the Olga Purcell Memorial Concert in the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral.
- Friday, November 28: ZOFO will give a benefit concert for the recently launched performance space 405 Shrader with program details to be announced closer to the time of performance.
- Sunday, December 7: ZOFO will be one of the participants in the Morrison Artists Series of free concerts offered in the McKenna Theatre of San Francisco State University. The program will feature the world premiere of William Bolcom’s “Primer,” as well as a performance of Terry Riley’s “Etude from the Old Country.” They will also perform selections from all three of their albums.
In the broader domain of the Bay Area, there will also be ZOFO performances in San Jose (for the Steinway Society of the Bay Area on Wednesday, October 22), Berkeley (in the Four Seasons Concerts series at the Berkeley Piano Club on Saturday, November 1), and Sonoma (at The Barn on Saturday, November 8). Venues beyond the Bay Area have been planned as follows:
- Saturday, September 6, Temecula, California: This will be the first performance of Riley’s “Etude from the Old Country;” it will also feature the four-hand version of Stravinsky’s score for the “Petrushka” ballet and selections form the Mosh Pit and ZOFORBIT albums.
- Sunday, October 19, New Mexico: In the morning ZOFO will present a Chatter Sunday at the Kosmos concert in Albuquerque, again performing selections from all three of their albums. This will be followed in the afternoon by a recital in the Placitas Artists Series in Placitas. This will again present selections from their three albums, as well as Riley’s “Etude from the Old Country.”
- Monday, October 20, Durango, Colorado: The last stop on the tour, whose details have not yet been announced.