Robert Schulslaper
May 1, 2010

In her program notes pianist Marilyn Nonken observes that David Rakowski “asks us, as only a serious composer can, to come and play.” That instinctive urge, be it expressed in science, mathematics, or art, is often thought to underlie our species’ creativity. In music, a composer can transform whimsical, transitory, impulsive, or improvisatory materials into a “serious” work, or he can choose to inject humor via parody, quotation, or even rude noises. I first discovered Rakowski, who’s well known for his sense of fun, through his ongoing series of piano etudes, 88 to date (a very significant number for pianists!). Although his sly wit is usually expressed through purely musical means or in his punning titles, there’s one etude that brings the nose into play as well as the hands. He can be silly but he’s not a provocateur: His music is well written, attractive, and accessible.

When I read that he’d composed a new piano concerto I couldn’t resist hearing it and now that I have, I can say that the style of the piano etudes translates very well into the new format. It’s not just that the essential language is the same; Rakowski quotes specific ideas from his etudes, scattering them through the movements. Although he’s written four other concertos, “all of them with an ironic twist on the idea of concerto…for once I wanted to write a traditional concerto with traditional concerto interactions between individual and orchestra.” The result is occasionally a tour de force, especially in the thrilling, sometimes jazzy Scherzando and the last-movement cadenza. Rakowski frequently consulted with Nonken while writing the piece, at one time suggesting adding a toy piano. She liked the idea but handling two instruments must sometimes have complicated things for her, especially in one particularly memorable passage in which the soloist is required to play rapidly on both keyboards simultaneously. To enhance the sense of continuity among the movements, Rakowski introduces each one with a plucked A from inside the piano. Another unifying device was “to write fast outer movements with slow introductions using the same music.” While far from a traditional 19th-century Romantic concerto with big tunes, the piece opens with lyrically evocative music, setting a mood that’s then partially disrupted by strongly accented chords from the pianist. Rapidly repeated notes introduce a faster section and are also dispersed throughout the concerto, lending the solo part a toccata-like aspect. The orchestral instruments play with great agility, reminding me of part II of Persistent Memory and Winged Contraption (more about them in a moment). The third movement projects a mysterious atmosphere, with solo winds coloring the initially light scoring. When the strings enter they provide a softer cushion for the meandering soloist. Finally, the delicate toy piano closes the movement. Throughout the concerto Nonken plays the motoric passages with a winning combination of fluidity and strength and projects either calm or repressed tension in the slower movements. The orchestral contribution is exceptional, with the winds especially lithe.

Persistent Memory falls into two sections, first a slow-moving, sustained elegy followed by a more active series of variations that at times sound like a concerto for orchestra. Winged Contraption is similar in texture, tempo, and line to the second half of Persistent Memory: The composer’s personal harmonic vocabulary infuses both, with hints of traditional triadic tonality interspersed at the beginning of Winged Contraption. Otherwise the music in the purely orchestral works seems predominantly atonal but not in an overly spiky or aggressive way. Still, I hear some modernist angst. BMOP plays beautifully under Gil Rose’s inspired direction and the recording has great clarity, presence, and timbral fidelity. Nonken’s and Rakowski’s reminiscences lend a welcome personal touch. This is an excellent disc that should be heard by fans of contemporary music and especially those with a yen to add an exiting new piano concerto to their collections.

— Robert Schulslaper

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