Gloria Cheng: Piano Music by Salonen, Stucky, and Lutoslawski

Gloria Cheng, piano (Telarc CD-80712)

11 September 2008 4 stars

Gloria ChengThis new release from Telarc showcases the solo talents of American pianist Gloria Cheng, performing recent compositions of Steven Stucky and Esa-Pekka Salonen as well as an early and rarely heard work by Lutoslawski. The works chosen for the disc outline well the pianist's gifts within the contemporary idiom, and offer a combination that is current without being troubling to the ear.

Stucky's Four Album Leaves opens proceedings. A Francophone influence is apparent in this American composer's music: the third piece here bears the impress of Messiaen, the second of Ligeti in some of his more restrained piano Études. Stucky's sound is his own though, and his style quite accomplished. Moulded into the reduced format of piano miniatures as it is here, he is perhaps served better than he would be by an extended discourse. Cheng tackles the pieces with focus, and delivers a clearly defined presentation of their inner contours and variance of dynamics.

After this outburst of the new we are taken back to earlier and perhaps safer ground, with Lutoslawski's Sonata for Piano from 1934. This work does not feature in the repertoire and indeed is not well known; as shown here though it presents an interesting early glimpse of the composer who would later gain fame mainly through his large-scale orchestral works. The idiom clearly derives from such early twentieth-century composers as Ravel and Prokofiev, and indeed after Cheng's premiere recording of it here the piece may come to acquire more widespread programming. Cheng has had a personal involvement in the resuscitation of the work, which only came to be published after Lutoslawski's death. To inform her performance of it she engaged in discussion the composer's widow among others. The conservative pallet of the composition notwithstanding, it is enjoyable to hear its score come to life and to be played by such a capable and understanding interpreter as Cheng. The impression received upon hearing it reminded me of the earliest work of Bartok – for example his first string quartet – in relation to what came later for each respective composer.

Esa-Pekka Salonen's Yta II is a light-hearted work, something like an updated piano version of Flight of the Bumble Bee. Although the piece is interesting in an unobtrusive way – not venturing too far into regions unknown or pursuing any of the more abrasive suggestions thrown up in its course –, it is the virtuosity of the performance that here distinguishes its presentation. Cheng's playing makes the fragmented and stuttering textures appear seamless in their disjunct trajectory, and renders well a piece potentially full of mishaps for the lesser pianist and their unlucky audience.

The disc continues with the Three Preludes of Salonen from 2005, each of which has something of a nocturne aspect to it. Salonen's compositional kinship with Stucky, mentioned by the latter in his liner notes, is here apparent. They both share a vocabulary adhering in fidelity to their nineteenth century Romantic forebears, and a piano writing that, its compositional execution being well achieved, reaches the listener's ears in the form of a person they may have met before but cannot place – not a hint of the uncanny to it, rather of something familiar and a foggy memory. I found myself getting bored quickly, but this is likely to be appreciated by anyone with a loving for the rhetoric of such music.

Salonen's Dichotomie was written for Cheng to perform in 2000. One of this composer's gifts is his ability to match the material to its performer, and write specifically for them. Cheng thus puts in a definitive performance of what is in front of her here, but it says something about her general performance on this disc that this piece does not stand out any more than the other pieces on display. The character of the piece itself, as it initially presents itself, reminds of Stravinsky's sonata for two pianos, with its pulsations and its conservatism of tonality, as well as the juxtaposed blocks of slightly different character. It is also reminiscent of Vivier's (much more adventurous) Pianoforte from 1975 – although not for long. As contemporary music goes, this is not any more offensive than some of the tired avant-garde atonal composition peddled about: in both cases we are given something for which we have no need. Grandiosity of gesture and dynamic, raging onward, characterises the first movement, which would be fine if we did not already have Beethoven. Lots of people are happy to have another unchallenging imitation though, and you might hear the actual dichotomy of this composition – Mécanisme and Organisme – as being this one if you so wished. It might make it more interesting. Again though this is all about the performance, which is superb, and excites life out of the music.

The arch form of the CD brings us back to Stucky at its close, with his Three Little Variations for David – another set of miniatures, here somewhat in the manner of Schumann, playful and melodic. Brevity here as earlier lets the inner quality of the music breath an amenable air, each piece presenting an action that is done without overstaying its welcome.

This disc as a vehicle for Cheng and for recent composition is well judged and well executed, both in terms of its recording, which brings forth with clarity the brilliance of piano and performer, and in terms of the performance itself, which is rousing. Overall then a good showcase for Cheng's undeniable talent.

By Liam Cagney