Lou HARRISON (1917-2003) 11. A Summerfield Set – I. Sonata (1988) 5:18
Conlon NANCARROW (1912-97) 12-14. Three Two-Part Studies (c. 1935, premiered by Yvar Mikhashoff in 1991) 3:29
Panorama of American Piano Music is a comprehensive survey of 20th century piano works, beginning with Ives’ “The Alcotts” movement from the Concord Sonata (1911) through 1991.
Every decade is represented with works from between those years.
Pianist Yvar Mikhashoff (1941–93) was a master at presenting marathon concerts on a single theme. The Panorama was one of them, exploring the remarkable diversity of 20th century American music, from serialism to minimalism, populist to avant garde experimentalism, short works for amateur pianists to virtuoso pieces. Never before has such a survey of piano music been represented.
Importantly, Mikhashoff often chose to represent composers not by their well known works but by selecting unusual or unknown, sometimes taken from manuscript scores.
62 works, presented in chronological order, from composers Antheil to Zappa, written between the years 1911-91.
Specially priced deluxe 4-CD set in slipcase with 28-page book containing many photos. Extensive liner notes by Drew Massey, Yvar Mikhashoff and Brian Brandt.
Panorama of American Music review – eclectic picks from intrepid recitalist Yvar Mikhashoff
Those who remember the Almeida festival in the 1980s, when it was such a vital and innovative part of London’s new-music scene, will also remember the part Yvar Mikhashoff played in it, as both associate director and resident pianist. In London and elsewhere, Mikhashoff’s recitals were often thematically organised marathon affairs – one at the Almeida in 1985 was devoted to the tango, while others traced the 20th century history of American music, including a famous “70 Works in Seven Hours from 70 Years” concert that he gave in New York in 1984.
This collection of 62 works by 48 composers is an expansion of a single-disc survey that Mikhashoff planned not long before his death in 1993, modelled on those marathons. Arranged chronologically, the panorama begins with the Alcotts movement from Ives’s Concord Sonata, and ends with Conlon Nancarrow’s Three Studies, composed in the 1930s but only performed for the first time (by Mikhashoff) in 1991. There are some real rarities here – Leo Ornstein’s terrifying Suicide on an Airplane from 1916, for instance, or Peggy Glanville Hicks’ Prelude for a Pensive Pupil from 1958- while the stylistic range is formidably wide, from Percy Grainger to John Cage, Carl Ruggles to Philip Glass. It’s sometimes bitty and nconsequential, but always engaging – and a fine memorial to an intrepid musician.
Yvar Mikhashoff (born Ronald Mackay) is both an accomplished composer and an undisputed champion of the contemporary solo piano repertoire. I first encountered him as one of the three pianists who contributed to the Nonesuch recording of seventeen selections from Waltzes by 25 Contemporary Composers, published by the C. F. Peters Corporation in 1978. He followed up on this project by commissioning 127 tangos from 127 composers between 1983 and 1991, an effort that led to an album on New Albion Records entitled incitation to desire: Tangos for Yvar Mikhashoff: 1945–1993.
Equally ambitious was a solo recital he gave at Symphony Space (in New York) on May 19, 1984. The title of the concert said it all: The Great American Piano Marathon: Seventy Works in Seven Hours from Seventy Years (1914–1984). I have no idea whether this gig was recorded in its entirety. However, the spirit of that event was revived this month when mode released a four-CD set of solo performances by Mikhashoff entitled Panorama of American Piano Music: from Antheil to Zappa: 1911–1991. This time the span of time was 80 years, but the number of compositions was still up there at 62. However, only 48 composers were represented.
Considering this collection triggered a couple of free associations. There first was to the anthology the S. J. Perelman had prepared for his humorous articles, most of which were written for The New Yorker. The title of the collection was The Most of S. J. Perelman; and, since the book was 650 pages long, it was certainly a model of truth in advertising. The other association was to the concept of “conceptual art,” works that are more interesting in their description than in their realization. I always felt that the best example of this genre was Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a man sleeping.
Fortunately, this collection is neither a massive joke on Perelman’s scale nor an exercise better treated as conceptual. Indeed, the A-to-Z strategy of including both George Antheil and Frank Zappa was a factor that first drew my attention to this collection. Both of these composers were “bad boys” of their respective eras; and they are joined by several equally interesting “bad boys,” who never received quite the same attention, such as Leo Ornstein and La Monte Young. Then there are the more “reputable” names in the collection, such as Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, and Leonard Bernstein.
Personally, I was most glad to see six of the waltzes from the Peters collection included in this set, particularly since, as far as I can tell, the Nonesuch vinyl has yet to make it to CD. I was especially pleased that Mikhashoff included two realizations of John Cage’s “49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs.” The “score” for this composition is a list (in text) of 147 addresses in New York City arranged into 49 groups of three (since each group is a “waltz”). This being a piece by Cage, the selection of the addresses and their subsequent groupings were determined by chance operations. Monumental as this may sound, Mikhashoff’s first realization is only seventeen seconds long. The second plays out over a more leisurely 73 seconds.
I am also rather glad that mode distributed this material over four discs. This is all music that deserves serious listening, and I think it would be counterproductive to approach it as a marathon. Indeed, I was a bit disappointed to see that Amazon was not offering this as a digital download. If ever there were a body of music that lends itself to “shuffled” listening (adding yet another Cage-like dimension of chance), this would be it. After all, one cannot take in a panorama as a single sensory input. Rather, one must treat it as an invitation to visit and explore; and there is much to be gained from exploring the 62 works Mikhashoff selected for this album.
What a unique and magnificent achievement this is.
Yvar Mikhashoff was much cherished by colleagues in Buffalo’s classical community – and elsewhere – for the best of reasons. There was no one quite like him and that applied to just about everything he did, too.
This four-disc set is finally appearing complete even though Mikhashoff died of AIDS in 1993. It is, in fact, intended as a way to observe the 20th anniversary of the pianist and polymath’s death.
In truth, it is, by no means, the only huge and encyclopedic set of 20th century American piano music but it is, by far, the most unusual. The selection encompasses, as the disc cover proudly proclaims, 48 composers, 62 works and four hours and 34 minutes of music.
It is in the individual pieces selected that Mikhashoff’s set is both uncommonly rich and unique. There are no less than four pieces by John Cage here as well as a generous selection of works by the “school of Cage” (Earl Brown, Christian Wolff and Mikhashoff’s UB Music Department colleague Morton Feldman, who became Varese professor of music the year Mikhashoff arrived).
And if you think that plots out the prevailing musical geography, forget it. There are pieces that Mikhashoff commissioned (Lukas Foss’ 13-minute “Solo” the longest included) as well works by “Kitten on the Keys” composer Zez Confrey, the Grateful Dead’s Tom Constanten and Frank Zappa. There is a gloriously generous helping of the marvelous but still often overlooked rhapsodic dissonance of Ornstein, Ruggles and Rudhyar at the same time as music by the formidable and popular American alumni of Nadia Boulanger’s tutelage (Copland, Thomson). And, a Mikhashoff specialty, all manner of famous mavericks and American musical tinkerers and eccentrics of genius (Conlon Nancarrow, Henry Brant, Wallingford Riegger, Roy Harris, Henry Cowell).
And while we’re at it, you can’t forget minimalists LaMonte Young and Philip Glass. (What? No Steve Reich? Nope.) “The Alcotts” from Ives’ Concord Sonata is given one of the tenderest readings you’ll ever hear. At the same time, said Mikhashoff student Haydee Schvartz, Mikhashoff played Crumb’s “Tora! Tora! Tora!” movement from his “Makrokosmos” so vigorously that the piano was “trembling” afterward … He left the piano completely out of tune and Gary Shipe had to come to tune it.”
Don’t expect immaculate playing here. It was, said producer Brian Brandt, sometimes recorded “endlessly” for days because they had the UB concert hall booked for entire days, thus making for “heady, marathon affairs” where “there was no clock to watch. Yvar always seemed to have the energy … Yvar worked quickly, sometimes recording only one or two takes of a particular piece or section. These were often not sessions of meticulous exactitude going after every note perfect.”
Mikhashoff, according to annotator Drew Massey, wanted “a sound as from a salon with a lot of carpets, and a Bechstein-type piano: cozy, warm, woolly.” And that’s what you hear – an epic but most intimate musical traversal of North America.