Tempo e Tempi
Carter: Night Fantasies; Two Thoughts About The Piano; Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat, Op. 110; Jeffrey Mumford: Two Elliott Carter Tributes
Pina Napolitano (piano)
Odradek ODRCD378 79:41 mins
As the impenetrable philosophical quote leading the liner notes suggests, Pina Napolitano is, in addition to being a formidable pianist, an intellectual and her impressive achievements in Slavonic literature bear this out. Juxtaposing Beethoven’s supreme works for piano with pieces by Elliott Carter, she issues a warning. Contemporary classical music, she says, is difficult: ‘it needs careful listening, sometimes toilsome and repeated – it is not “background” music’. Carter wanted his Night Fantasies, which is the fulcrum of this programme, to describe the activity of the mind suspended between slumber and wakefulness, ‘fragments of thoughts, memories, neuronal activity, firing connections and disconnections, REM states of sleep and dreams’. Listening to and playing the work, says Napolitano, all this comes to mind.
On a first listen, it seems rebarbative, but on a second I get the point. It really does feel like musical free-association, with smouldering and desultory passages periodically bursting into flame. Some effects on the canvas are painted with the finest brush, others come with massive force: the playing has both driving energy and fastidious precision, and everything has a bright and bracing freshness.
My first reaction to Napolitano’s approach to Op. 110 was negative – too brisk to allow the work’s mystery to come through – but on a second listening it felt right, because this is essentially a concept album, a tight piece of musical argument: she wants us to register the correspondences between Beethoven’s fantasies and Carter’s, both of which exemplify a pioneering modernism. And with Beethoven’s Op. 111 and Carter’s Two Thoughts the story is the same. Mumford’s 86-second Carter tribute is a mere breath of wind, and a second one which we are promised on the Odradek website proves unreachable. But this is a provocatively brave album.