MMC Recording’s most generous helping of Carl Vollrath’s creations for piano demonstrates as much about the artists, their instruments and recording engineers as it provides insights into the composer’s creativity.
Of the two discs, by far and away, the first outshines the second on nearly every count. Pianist Milan Langer puts his heart and soul into the 17 movements on his agenda—Vollrath couldn’t have asked for a better proponent. Of special note are “Blues” (Sonata for Piano No. 1) where Langer adds just the right amount of “hesitato” to the quiet, introspective essay, builds effectively and provides an unforgettable “calmo” return. “God Speak This Amen” (Henry V) from the Shakespeare group begins with solo voices that speak contrapuntally, followed by dry and reflective interventions and a beautifully rendered succession of chords that disappears magically into the mist. The gentle mood of “Sing Me Now Asleep” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)—effused with the styles of Erik Satie and Michel Legrand—perfectly sets the stage for triplet-rich “What Nymphs Are There?”
Compositionally, it could be argued that Vollrath is the reigning King of Contrary Motion. Without that technique (so reminiscent of scales and exercises in the Mediterranean Sketches’ “Energico,” used to provide contrast and zippiness in the final movement of Sonata for Piano No. 2) a dozen minutes might have been sliced off. A formula is frequently employed: declaim a “simple” tune, provide much contrast (mode/speed/voicing/subject) then return to consonance after several smacks of dissonant pain. Largely employed in the five sonatas, the strategy fills those pages but becomes too predictable in the three-movement works.
At times, the musical tableau (notably “Espressivo” from the Sketches—replete with moments of static calm and Gershwin-like melodies) cries out for a silver screen to provide the narrative. At others, the drama is much more self-evident (the arrival of the step-mother in “Cinderella’s Dream”).
The music on the other disc is performed by Vickie Griswold. With a, comparatively, second-rate piano and a penchant for rhythmic unevenness and abrupt pedaling, the result is far less satisfying than disc one. The music seems to be a compendium of the composer’s pedagogical works or publisher-inspired (Slumber Songs) bonbons (the exceptions being Sonatas 3 and 5). The music has precious little to say but would be helpful to any student. Even some of the titles were added by a third party (Jerry Baxter: Random Rhythms for Keyboard Ventures, Childhood Fantasies Are for Kids at Play). In the same spirit of the inner-child, here is a free association with the former group of miniatures:
- We’re off
- He who hesitates is
- Melodrama Express
- A bit of blue on the road to bed
- A walk on the Gershwin side
- Au contraire
- Register race
- Careful what you wish for
- Soap opera soliloquy
- No! I’m over here!
- Easy, dampened vision
- Catch me if you can
Use this disc to help the young ones in your life to let music inspire their imaginations; use the Langer’s to remind yourself how inspiring finely crafted music, in the hands of a great artist, can be. JWR