Piano Music of Ricky Ian Gordon: Audiophile Edition, 2011

RICKY IAN GORDON: Piano Music = 5 Dances; Desire Rag; The Caste System; They Dance; Ring-A-Ding-Ding for Piano Four Hands – John Nauman, piano/Sergei Kvitko, piano – Blue Griffin BRG223, 61:51 [Distr. By Albany] ***:

Ricky Ian Gordon (b. 1956) is a New York composer whose gifts have exhibited themselves in arts songs and musical theater. His opera based on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has received critical notice. Pianist John Nauman boasts Adele Marcus, Sascha Gorodnitski, and Julian Martin among his influential pedagogues. For the Ring-A-Ding four-hand piece, producer-engineer Sergei Kvitko joins Mr. Nauman on the Steinway, Model D.

The opening Tango – taken from a theater piece called Stonewall – purports to be about sex and violence. While the basic tempo rhythm persists, the melodic invention seems less secure, so it devolves into short jabbing riffs rife with passing dissonances. The Waltz comes close to having been written by Erik Satie. The liquid element in the development has some nostalgia in it that Aznavour’s character would play in his piano bar in Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. Bear Dance might borrow from Stravinsky, but its wayward ostinato plays more like an item from the many thumping pieces in Bartok’s Mikrokomos. Near the end of the work a series of sixteenths cascade to some frenzied motion. The Barcarolle serves as an elegy for AIDS victims, its tender gestures perhaps alluding to Britten’s Death in Venice, with its own debts to Thomas Mann. "Joy" projects a virtuosity that we know from both Poulenc and Liszt, although the writing here remains relatively uncluttered, light and improvisatory. Some wicked octave work in broken metrics provide a challenge, along with swirling arpeggios.

Desire Rag easy-goingly nods to Gershwin and Joplin and New York’s Upper West Side, maybe somewhere beyond Columbia University. The Caste System is a substantial three-movement suite conceived as a ballet ensemble. Rhythmic alternates long and short motives in dark currents that hint at Bernard Herrmann’s movie scores. The tricky dissolution of down-beats keeps us listening to this demanding etude. "Very Slow and Hesitant" evolves in pentatones, with six notes that move in whole-tones, feeling like Debussy’s Footsteps in the Snow. The piece ends enharmonically, the F-sharp having become G-flat. "Mechanically" again reverts to Bartok’s Allegro barbaro or some demonic fantasque by Prokofiev, C often clashing with C-sharp in clusters of sound that ask for potent stretches of the hand, as in etudes. The layering of the impulses makes for demonic stretti in jazzy bravura tradition.

They Dance derives from a song-cycle called Orpheus and Euridice, of which They Dance forms a sprightly piano solo in Part 5 of Act I. The modal progression borrows from Ravel or Severac, slurred by jazz and salon sensibilities. Debussy’s Le Danse de Puck seems nigh. Nauman’s sturdy staccati create a clarion patina for this atmospheric piece. Ring-A-Ding-Ding is one of the few pieces that has a listed chronology in this collection; here, from the 1990s. The verbal exclamations of "Ring-A-Ding-Ding" come from the composer in this spirited reading of a syncopated bit of light-hearted bravura for Nauman and Kvitko. The similarities to the first of the Gershwin Preludes for Piano may not be accidental.

– Gary Lemco, Audiophile Audition, 24 July 2011