The disc opens with a compelling, convincing performance by pianist David Holzman of Four Studies on Basic Rows. Written in 1935/36, Wolpe also revised the “Passacaglia” in 1971.
To 21st century ears, the music seems less modern than impassioned, austere and frequently jazzy. It is most certainly a daunting challenge to any performer attempting to traverse its wide-ranging landscape (perhaps moonscape at the end of its allotted time).
With the augmented fourth as its bedrock, the opening “Study on Tritones” can’t help but pay a curious pre-homage to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. The swinging rhythms and delicious intervals produce an alluring variety of moods and textures. Early on, Holzman confirms himself as a master of ever-changing flow even as virtually the entire keyboard is brought into play. Curious too are the repeated notes which almost seem “wrong” given the perpetually morphing canvas. Tolling bells most surely have their effect followed by welcome calm and a revisiting of the opening depths.
“Study on Thirds” zips by in a contrary motion infused flash. Its largely argumentative nature only briefly appeased by a kind of Trio that, still, is never far away from agitato. Short and busy as it is, Holzman, nonetheless, never loses the thread that artfully binds the whole.
One can readily imagine Beethoven (not so much Tchaikovsky) revelling in the dotted rhythm (think Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony: Vivace) and then dissonances that are so prominently featured in “Presto furioso.” (Or perhaps Debussy’s Golliwogg’s Cakewalk gone mad!—the overall effect being more mischievous than furious.) Holzman carefully lets the intensity build, allowing the extra-leg marches to balance the mood/struggle. The initial appearance of the many trills oddly brings the music just to the precipice of melodrama but never falls into the abyss before the last unified word concludes the energetic fray with a dollop of repose.
The stark, lean subject of the “Passacaglia” truly signals a marvellous “study” of intervals and their relationships as all manner of inventions and counterpoints are set against it. Here, the dotted rhythms and repeated notes can’t help but bring echoes of Brahms at the height of his developmental skills. The enormous dynamic scope is admirably contrasted by the emotional: during a much-needed “calmo,” a glimpse of childlike innocence becomes the perfect foil to the predominantly dark colours swirling into consciousness. Prior to the increasingly dissonant cries of the climax, a most effective few moments of stop and start ideally assert the composer’s inner fear of just what might come next (in 1936, those were most assuredly real and justified for anyone who chose to see—including Fritz Lang, cross-reference below). Then after a further tolling and more insistent lines (beautifully balanced by Holzman’s deft arsenal of touches) a reflective farewell is offered, leaving more a feeling of resignation than any inkling that the dilemma was resolved.
The remainder of the disc is comprised of shorter sets with an impressive variety of forms and styles, demonstrating Wolpe’s stature (not unlike Hindemith) as a composer’s composer.
Two Dances for Piano, from 1926, is the earliest music in this collection. The “Blues” is surprisingly upbeat (ah youth!) and has a few kernels of Stravinsky and Gershwin spinning into the mix. “Tango” is most appropriately seductive and sensual if a tad busy between steps.
There is a pair of Studies for Piano. Both seem to be more like character portraits in scope. Part 1 contrasts a quintet of miniature feelings and moods with two movements of reflection: “Moving, passionately tender” fulfills the former descriptor with aplomb yet the passion is too subtle or just absent to frame the tenderness with vrai love. Part 2 is more succinct. Its 45 seconds of “Vivid and enraged” (very busy anger, in fact) is complemented with delectable, repeated-note controlled broadness while the so-difficult-to-deliver “profound intensities” didn’t hit their intended mark in the ear or heart of this beholder.
Holzman does a superb job in the vital “push and pull” that must be present if Palestinian Notebook is to fulfill its promise of musical sightseeing. Especially appreciated are the “Invitation to the Dance” aura of “Yiddish Wedding” and delicate dreamy introspection contained in “Lullaby.”
The most recent music (1959) is saved for last and doesn’t disappoint. The easy going lyricism of “Vocalise” making a welcome first appearance followed with a raggin’ good time in “Lively. Why not?”
Absolutely! Why not pick up a copy and hear for yourself. JWR