The Bad Plus's Ethan Iverson on Living Piano Music

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Best known as the pianist for the adventurous jazz trio The Bad Plus, Ethan Iverson has performed with such legends as Billy Hart, Lee Konitz and Charlie Haden. Iverson's omnivorous musical appetite is apparent in his work; the Bad Plus has famously covered both Nirvana and Stravinksy and he writes extensively about jazz, classical and popular music at his blog Do the Math.

Iverson writes the following of his Mixtape:

I decided to serve up a selection of piano music by living composers. These selections go roughly in composer chronological order, from older generations to younger.

George Walker - Sonata No. 1: Theme and Six Variations
One of our most important American composers turned 91 last month. Originally Walker planned to be a concert pianist before institutional racism dictated a career in composition instead. Walker’s First Sonata from the early '50s remains one of his most performed pieces, and these lovely folk tune variations are a good way to ease into this challenging hour of piano music.

Aribert Reimann - First Sonata: Movement I
This early sonata is not really indicative of Reimann’s sprawling and epic mature work, much of which lacks conventional rhythmic notation. Reimann is celebrated as an avant-garde visionary more in Europe than America: his opera Lear was made famous by the late Dietrich Fischer-Diskeau. The First Sonata is a rare occasion when extreme atonality is aligned with the more conservative values of tunefulness and dancing rhythm. It’s almost like Prokofiev with bolder pitches. The whole record of Reimann piano music played by Matthew Rubenstein should be much better known.

Harrison Birtwistle - Harrison’s Clocks: Movement III 
Birtwistle and Reimann are two of the last living representatives of a certain kind of authentic and forbidding European modernism. Not many non-specialists have time for this genre anymore: in 1995 Birtwistle managed to create a minor scandal at the Proms in London with his ferocious but wonderful saxophone concerto Panic. Harrison’s Clocks from 1998 is hardly an easy piece, either, but for me it is accessible and compelling. Perhaps it is influenced by the innovative clockwork structures of the late Gyorgy Ligeti’s piano Etudes. Nicolas Hodges is one of the premier pianists of modern music and plays the whole piece as well as can be done.

Fredrick Rzewski - North American Ballads: Down by the Riverside
They only made one Rzewski, maverick socialist composer-pianist and master of multiplicity. While many others play his most famous works, especially the Variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated, Rzewski’s own performances are definitive, especially when (as in the case of “Down By the Riverside”) there is an improvised cadenza. “Riverside” is almost like a piece of jazz: you hear a familiar tune, then abstract variations, and a return to generous melody at the end. The concluding “three-hands” effect (a melody is heard between outer layers of counterpoint) is an update on romantic-era virtuoso traditions of Thalberg, Liszt and Busoni. At over nine minutes this is my longest selection but it is definitely worth it!

Justin Dello Joio - Piano Sonata, “Romance”: Movement II
During the year I was his composition student at New York University in 1992, Justin Dello Joio exposed me to a lot of wonderful modern music. One of the most compelling works was his own Piano Sonata, which I have kept returning to and learning from over the years. Justin uses a post-Copland “Americana” sonority in a personal and advanced way. The slow movement is a kind of high romanticism, written superbly for the instrument, and performed by one of America’s greatest concert pianists, Garrick Ohlsson.

Poul Ruders - Piano Sonata No. 2: Leggerio and Elegante 
The Danish composer Poul Ruders was one the first to successfully take the rhythmic energy of minimalism and combine it with advanced chromatic harmony. The whole sonata is full of unique ideas—the first movement is based on change ringing, inspired by Dorothy Sayers's mystery novel The Nine Tailors—but for the radio, it makes sense to enjoy the lighthearted race of the middle section. Apologies for the abrupt ending, it would normally lead into a granitic conclusion set at an incredibly slow tempo.

Because it is live, this performance of the Ruders sonata is not note-perfect, and perhaps it is more exciting that way. At the piano is Thomas Adès, who has become arguably the most celebrated classical composer born since 1970.

Thomas Adès - Darkness Visible
Adès has written several wonderful piano pieces: I have a special soft spot for the long and detailed Traced Overhead. For the radio, let’s listen to his transfiguration of an ancient John Dowland song, Darknesse Visible. The repeated-note technique required is formidable: I have heard one concert pianist say that Darknesse Visible makes Ravel’s legendarily difficult Gaspard le Nuit look easy.

Marc-André Hamelin - Twelve Etudes in All the Minor Keys: Prelude and Fugue
Speaking of insanely difficult music, three years ago Marc-André Hamelin released a recording of twelve etudes. (This disc was once a WQXR album of the week) Presumably eventually other pianists will play them: as of now, it’s safe to say that super-virtuoso Mr. Hamelin has them to himself. Like the Rzewski and Adès selections heard today, many of Hamelin’s etudes are arrangements of other music. His transfigurations of Chopin and Alkan are particularly diabolical. However, the concluding Prelude and Fugue is entirely Hamelin’s own, and shows off his harmonic and polyphonic imagination to striking effect.

Lera Auerbach - Selections from 24 Preludes (2-6)
Born in 1973, Lera Auerbach is the youngest composer on this program. These preludes were composed in 1999 and seem to come from the very innards of piano. Like Walker, Rzewski, Adès, and Hamelin, Auerbach’s stellar performance is presumably definitive. In this case, though, I’d argue that these preludes should played by pianists everywhere, especially due to their epigrammatic and accessible character, Auerbach obviously comes from the Russian “ironic yet heartfelt” tradition of Shostakovich and Schnittke but she does so in her own absolutely contemporary way. Let's begin with No. 2, the drowning assault of A minor.