horizontal line

This CD booklet calls Yvar Mikhashoff a ‘musical polymath’, an apt description for a pianist and composer who studied with Boulanger, worked as a ballroom dancer, edited Nancarrow’s music, commissioned Cage’s Europera 5, curated tango festivals and tirelessly championed 20th-century American piano music. This four-CD set, released to mark the 20th anniversary of Mikhashoff’s death in 1993, has its origins in the famous free ‘mega-concert’ he gave in New York in 1984 under the title ‘The Great American Piano Marathon: Seventy Works in Seven Hours from Seventy Years (1914-1984)’.

The discs, recorded in 1991/92 as he fought against the AIDS that would kill him, feature 62 works by 48 composers from an 80-year span (1911-1991). Mikhashoff had planned to record more, and not everything he did record has survived, so perhaps it’s unfair to point to absentees, such as John Adams and Elliott Carter, or to note that the great majority of composers he chose to record were white, male and born before 1945. While many immigrants to the US are included here, this only makes the lack of a substantial African-American presence all the more disappointing.

That said, Mikhashoff presents an impressive sweep of American piano music, from pre-modernist to post-minimalist, Antheil to Zappa, Charles Ives to Kamran Ince. Several composers appear twice and Cage appears on all four discs. Most of the pieces selected last under five minutes – Virgil Thompson’s two contributions are timed at just 19 seconds and 58 seconds – while only a handful exceed ten, the longest being Alvin Curran’s For Cornelius at 13:47. So it’s a mixture of slight and substantial, mainstream and avant-garde, high art and broad humour (Cowell’s Amiable Conversation, Brant’s Music for a Five and Dime), with occasional lip service paid to folk and popular sources, such as Roy Harris’s treatment of Streets of Laredo and Zez Confrey’s Nickel in the Slot. There are also seven first recordings and two first recordings for piano.

Mikhashoff’s real achievement here is to bring a sense of cohesion to such diverse materials through the excellence of his playing. He doesn’t impose himself, but embraces each composer’s aesthetic, playing each piece with total conviction and the appropriate kind of brilliance. He’s at home with everything from the extended techniques required for Crumb’s amplified Tora! Tora! Tora! to the dreamy lilt of various waltzes, commissioned in the 1970s for an earlier project and re-recorded for this one.

The title of Shani Diluka’s American disc is an awkward amalgam, referencing Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road and the Route 66 highway, which she cites as the two ‘mirrors’ of her ‘journey through American music’. Though her 14 chosen composers are a diverse bunch – from Amy Beach to Leonard Bernstein to Bill Evans – she plays them all in the same muted, over-refined style; it comes across as precious and, cumulatively, leaves the music sounding enervated, even soporific.

Natalie Dessay’s breathy, listless delivery of a Cole Porter number confirms there are no kicks on Road 66.

GRAHAM LOCK Read the full review on Agora Classica

   Read full review   

To continue reading, please upgrade to a premium account. You will have immediate full access.

Read more classical music reviews online here:

Piano International, 2014 - ©Rhinegold Publishing