Who’s Afraid of the Modern Piano?

31 January 2009 • Deryk Barker, horizon.bc.ca

Victoria Symphony: New Currents Festival I • Alix Goolden Hall • Tzenka Dianova, piano

…a stunningly virtuosic account of Ligeti…. Dianova is a pianistic phenomenon.

“The typewriting machine, when played with expression, is no more annoying than the piano when played by a sister or near relation.”

It is difficult to know whether Oscar Wilde was trying to be more insulting to the piano, or to his relatives. One wonders what he might have made of Tzenka Dianova’s recital on Saturday afternoon, the opening concert of this year’s Victoria Symphony New Currents Festival.

As Composer-in-Residence Rodney Sharman pointed out in his brief pre-concert talk, this was the oddman-out of this year’s festival: only one of the five pieces was composed in this century, only one was written by a composer living locally. And they were the same piece.

Dianova’s own Through The Looking Glass was receiving its first performance; it is scored for “inside piano” and tape and intended as a tribute to John Cage.

Perhaps the Alix Goolden on a Saturday afternoon was not the best place or time to unveil such an essentially quiet piece — although I’m sure Cage would have enjoyed the traffic sounds from outside the hall. The music itself was brief and thoroughly enigmatic.

Gyorgy Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata was composed over half a century ago. Its eleven short pieces are based on an increasing collection of pitches — from two in the first to twelve in the last — and its minimal (not minimalist) techniques are both a challenge for the pianist and an extraordinary compositional device.

Dianova gave a stunningly virtuosic account of Ligeti’s early masterpiece, in which he seems both to summarise much of what had come before and prophesied much of what was to come: I heard passages which brought to mind Debussy, Messiaen, Alkan and Bartok, Rzewski, Sorabji and others. Remarkable music, remarkably performed.

Galina Usvol’skaya, we are told, “implored those who love her music to refrain from analyzing it”. Which neatly lets me off the hook.

Alternating between passages of thunderous chords played with the fist and quieter, almost lyrical passages, the music seems to obsess on a single note in the centre of the piano’s range, a note to which it kept returning even in the most chaotic moments.

Although not, I must admit, music which I can honestly claim to love, it is undoubtedly music with a distinctive — albeit violent — personality. And I cannot imagine it better played.

Nor, alas, can I imagine Philip Glass’s Mad Rush played with more colour and variety. Which means that the fact that I was bored almost to tears by the time the piece finished (was it still Saturday? I asked myself) was certainly not Dianova’s fault.

Personally, I find the old saw “familiarity breeds contempt” applies almost frighteningly to Glass: the more of his music I hear, the less I like it. From the relative simple, direct works of the 1960s and early 70s (Music in Fifths, Music in Similar Motion) he has at some point begun to believe his own publicity.

Mad Rush repeats the same simple — one might almost say trite — arpeggiated harmonic progression over and over (and over). I kept waiting for something to happen — but it didn’t. Or, if it did, I’d nodded off and missed it.

How odd that the most famous of the minimalists should also seem the least interesting; all five hours of LaMonte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano seems shorter than this.

Jonathan Harvey’s Tombeau de Messiaen, though, was another kettle of fish altogether. With its Ravelian title, the work is clearly a homage to two great French composers.

With a tape consisting of “piano sounds entirely tuned to harmonic series” and a regularly-tuned live piano, the resulting clash of tonalities was gorgeously otherworldly — at times it almost felt as if the ground was falling away beneath one’s feet. A truly wonderful piece, magnificently played.

As an encore, Dianova gave us a brief (and, I gathered, very free) transcription by Rodney Sharman of an aria by Puccini. It was delectable and gave Dianova another chance to display her talent for keyboard colour.

Sharman, taken by surprise at her choice, was clearly delighted.

All in all, it was a magnificent afternoon’s pianism. Dianova is a pianistic phenomenon.

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