BOLCOM Piano Music
Prolific across almost all genres, William Bolcom (80 this May) is also a formidable pianist at both concert and cabaret level – evidence of which is apparent throughout this survey of those piano works which (at the composer’s suggestion) are not easily available elsewhere.
Among his American contemporaries, Bolcom was early notable for an arm’s-length embrace of the European avant-garde so that his earlier music is at once an interaction with yet also a critique of it. Thus the knowing expressiveness of the seven Romantic Pieces (1959); the tensile and not a little sardonic discourse of Fantasy-Sonata (1961), written in what might be called a serialised G major; and, above all, the fluid and never predictable interplay between formal and expressive gestures in the Twelve Études (1966) that culminates in the searching Bartók homage of ‘Apotheosis’, which is by some distance the most involving music to be heard on this set.
There, perhaps, lies the rub. Taking a likely cue from Luciano Berio (and with maybe even a nod to near-contemporary Richard Rodney Bennett), Bolcom is a stylistic chameleon whose own voice is not so much absent as (purposely?) underplayed. A musical chess player who knows every move in the book, he duly takes the pizazz of The Brooklyn Dodge (1972), the post-Romantic rhetoric of Ballade (2006) and sombre introspection of Night Meditations (2012) effortlessly in his stride, while rarely, if at all, revealing his own hand. When he does, as in the eloquent poise of the Rochberg Variations (1987), just where the presence of the older composer ceases and that of Bolcom starts is rendered intriguingly yet pointedly unspecific.
Maybe this hardly matters given the sheer finesse of his writing, not least as rendered by four leading American pianists. Anyone suitably provoked should accordingly investigate this set, each of whose discs is well planned as a stand-alone sequence. Piano tone is clear but never clinical and Bolcom’s own notes, informative and laconic, complement his music unerringly.