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Dusting Off Rare Keyboard Works

New albums bring attention to undeservedly obscure compositions for piano or harpsichord

June 23, 2002

The standard repertory for piano is large. But it is just the tip of an ivory iceberg of interesting music that has been written for keyboard during the past 400 years.

There are almost limitless discoveries to be made, and it turns out that we miss a lot.

Below is a look at little-known, and in some cases downright obscure, work by composers (some of whom are also downright obscure) that has fallen below the standard repertory radar.

*** 1/2

ANTOINE FORQUERAY

Suites for Harpsichord

Christophe Rousset,

harpsichord

Decca

Forqueray's life and music are enigmas. The Baroque composer, who was born in 1672 and died in 1745, wrote but five suites. Together, they make up about 2 1/2 hours of music and were published posthumously by his son in two versions, one for viola da gamba and harpsichord, and the other transcribed for harpsichord alone.

Who did the transcribing, and even who did the composing are not entirely clear (his son and second wife have both been proposed as candidates).

Here's what we do know: Forqueray was an unpleasant character, a wife-beater who had his son imprisoned for gambling and theft. And we know this: The suites in their harpsichord version are flights of marvelous fancy worthy of standing next to those by Rameau.

All the movements to the five suites are named after contemporaries (such as Couperin and Rameau), places, instruments or mythological figures. There is progression through the works from simplicity to extravagant bravura. "Jupiter," the last movement of Suite No. 5, is harpsichord music at its most dazzling. Forqueray had gifts for melody, harmony and sound effects.

The harpsichord is not always a colorful instrument, but here it is an auditory rainbow, especially when played with Rousset's joie de vivre.

Mark Swed

** 1/2

ANATOLY ALEXANDROV: Piano Music

Hamish Milne, piano

Hyperion

The obscurity of composer Anatoly Alexandrov is a penalty of his living most of his life in the Soviet Union without being either a persecuted musical innovator or an honored political hack.

His work embodies no overtly tortured persona, but neither is it devoid of a strong personal voice. Imagine Rachmaninoff purged of his romanticism, pursuing formal designs. The results are interesting and substantial, if not ultimately compelling and top-drawer. The disc spans the Opus One preludes, published in 1916, and two (of seven planned) Visions of 1979. (He died in 1982.) Hamish Milne is a strong advocate for this music, which helps fill out the history of music in our time. Chris Pasles

*** 1/2

LEOPOLD GODOWSKY

Sonata in E Minor; Passacaglia

Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano

Hyperion

Godowsky was celebrated in his lifetime as a hyper-virtuoso pianist. As a composer, he is famed mostly for 53 transformations of Chopin's Etudes, but his massive, five-movement sonata, occupying 47 minutes in Hamelin's exciting performance, is worth a listen. It's a tasteful, highly attractive work in an eclectic style owing something to Brahms, Granados, Richard Strauss, Franck and Rachmaninoff. Despite its length, it is not so much monumental as lighthearted, transparent in texture if demanding technically. It owes more to the salon than to the temple. The Passacaglia--described as "44 variations, cadenza and fugue on the opening of Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony"--is relentlessly clever, occasionally witty, often beautiful. For the pianist, like Hamelin, with technique to burn, it is an 18-minute showpiece. Daniel Cariaga

**

"Stephen Hough's English Piano Album"

Stephen Hough, piano

Hyperion

Following up his "New Piano Album" with a more specific focus, Hough turns in a collection of mostly pleasant, occasionally challenging 20th century English music, assembled from 1997-vintage leftovers from the aforementioned album and additional recordings from 2001. The disc is bookended by Alan Rawsthorne's now-rampaging, now-coy or whimsical Bagatelles and Kenneth Leighton's rugged, brilliantly percussive Six Studies, which surround a sequence of often gentle, at times sentimental musings of fluctuating interest. Only one major composer--Elgar, with "In Smyrna"--is represented. The most immediately appealing music is Hough's own pair of "Valse Enigmatiques," the first of which has a memorable motif that would have been at home in Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music."

Richard S. Ginell

***

"The World of

Ruth Crawford Seeger"

Jenny Lin, piano;

Timothy Jones, narrator

BIS

***

RUTH CRAWFORD SEEGER

Nine Preludes

JOHANNA BEYER

"Dissonant Counterpoint"

Sarah Cahill, piano

New Albion

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