|REVIEWS: divine art dda 25022 Piano Music for Children|
Not that all of this music is simple to play; some of the Bartók pieces in particular are very difficult, requiring considerable technical and rhythmic control. Raymond Clarke, an experienced recitalist who now teaches at the University of Bristol, has made a name for his performances of Szymanowski, Havergal Brian and other 20 th century composers, so that it is no surprise to find him at home with the idioms here. It goes without saying that he is technically well in command of this music, and his performances are poised, imaginative and strongly characterised.
Of the seven composers represented, there are four Russians, (Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachaturian), one Hungarian (Bartók), one American (Copland) and one Austrian (Webern). The most impressive are the twelve Prokofiev pieces from ‘Music for Children’, which are extraordinarily poetic within their tiny limits. Take The Rain and the Rainbow, with its gently clashing harmonies and wide ranging melody, or the jumpy rhythms of March of the Grasshoppers. Some listeners will recognise the lovely Evening and the perky March, which appear orchestrally in the suite Summer Day.
Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts (The Five Fingers) belongs to the same period as The Soldier’s Tale, and you can hear that clearly in the twitchy rhythms and modal melodic lines. Khachaturian’s attractive Pictures from Childhood were composed at various times between 1926 and 1947, while Copland’s Piano Album contains pieces from the later stages of his career. These Copland items differ slightly from the rest of the music here in that they are not specifically intended as teaching material, though they are still straightforward in style and texture.
Webern’s Kinderstück (Children’s Piece) is something of a curiosity, in that, though it was intended to be one of a whole set of such works for young pianists, the composer soon abandoned the idea, and the present piece wasn’t publicly performed until 1966, over twenty years after the composer’s death. Shostakovich’s Children’s Notebook of 1945 are the simplest and easiest to play of all the music here, but still highly characteristic of the composer. Clockwork Doll is probably the finest of them, looking forward as it does to the ‘magic toyshop’ music of the Fifteenth Symphony.
The best-known music is found in the numbers from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, six volumes of incredibly varied and resourceful graded pieces, assembled between 1926 and 1939. The amazing From the Diary of a Fly is here (look out for Huguette Dreyfus’s new recording on Harmonia Mundi of this and other Mikrokosmos items on the harpsichord!), as well as the wild Ostinato, a violent whirlwind of a Vivacissimo.
The CD is accompanied by a learned and informative booklet of notes by Raymond Clarke himself, and the piano is the excellent Steinway model D at Newcastle University. Clarke has only scratched the surface here; there are dozens more Bartók pieces, as well as wonderful works in the same vein by Kodály and Kabalevsky, to name but two. More please!
The opening Bartok pieces are wonderfully nostalgic, yet also stark and thoughtful. This is pretty much the same effect you get with Prokofiev’s Music for Children, Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts and Shostakovich’s Children’s Notebook. However, despite the ‘one-string-guitar’ theme, it is nonetheless highly enjoyable. Like nursery rhymes, there is method in this music – it comments on the human condition as much as any Bruckner symphony, it’s just that it does it in a far more subconscious manner and it takes an adult mind to make the most of this aspect.
Clarke has a nice angle on the pieces which makes them wonderfully reflective. This is a recording to savour when you have little else to do apart from listen and think.
DSCH JOURNAL (Shostakovich Society):
One or two of Stravinsky’s Cinq Doigts have a slightly mechanistic quality but that’s at least partly down to the composer. Prokofiev too had his motoric side, but in these pieces it’s played down (little hands are hardly ready for something akin to the Toccata!), which isn’t to say that there aren’t some lively moments. The important thing is to set the mood almost immediately and Clarke mostly succeeds though there’s a hint of defiance in Regrets.
There is also a rare chance to hear some piano music by Khachaturian. Pictures from Childhood from 1947 includes My Friend is Unwell, strikingly evocative of a child’s experience of grief, and the gently withdrawn A Glimpse of the Ballet, a two-part transcription of the Adagio from Gayaneh, while underneath all the activity the Study has some Spartacus-like harmony, as does the following Legend. The pieces themselves are variable, sometimes a little anonymous, but on this showing Khachaturian’s piano music could bear some more investigation. He wrote sixteen other pieces for children and a spattering of other piano works.
In the CD’s most striking contrast this is followed by Copland’s Young Pioneers, a sign of solidarity with the Soviets, but ironically it takes only a few notes to identify it as the work of an American musician and then to home in on Copland. The semi-hymning In the Evening Air, one of Copland’s last pieces, is equally typical. Wrenching us back across the Atlantic is Webern’s Kinderstück. Though not intended as an introduction to analysis, the serial technique is elementary but the usual Webernian minefield of performing instructions would merely bewilder many children. Clarke of course has the experience to make sense of the unperformable and while work won’t enter the slender body of Webern’s regularly performed pieces it is interesting to hear how he thought the technique could be applied to children’s music.
After its publication, Shostakovich had second thoughts about his Children’s Notebook, and when he recorded it in 1946 he swapped the third and fifth pieces around and added the then unpublished Birthday. Op. 69 was a celebration for daughter Galina, despite her managing only to première the first piece before stumbling, at which point dad took over. Most pianists follow the published order, tagging Birthday onto the end but Clarke follows the composer’s re-formed cycle of fifths, leading him to speculate that Shostakovich was planning a cycle of 24 but abandoned it when he realised that the later key signatures might prove too hard for the young. Reinforcing his theory, Clarke adds the little Murzilka that Shostakovich wrote around this time and which fits into the new key scheme. It’s a weird moto perpetuo that looks back to his earlier style of piano writing before coming to an abrupt halt. Whether Clarke’s theory is proved right (perhaps there are more pieces awaiting discovery?) it certainly fits well and brings the newly enlarged cycle to a satisfying close.
The difficulty in discussing music for children is that technically and emotionally it can lack depth, though much of this disc proves that this is not invariably so. But what can be said about Shostakovich’s March, just thirty seconds long and apparently of no musical interest? Obviously this isn’t biting satire, but we can simply enjoy its brainlessness. Clockwork Doll reworks (again) the Scherzo, Op.1, compacting it down to less than a minute, while the fanfares that open Birthday would do service again in the Festive Overture. All this bespeaks works that were tossed off in a spare minute or so, but they’re enjoyable enough to warrant an occasional return visit, especially in Clarke’s hands.
Some of Divine Art’s records have been marred by imperfect tuning; but not here, perhaps because the smaller, lighter pieces tested the piano less. The recording is slightly recessed. It is a mystery why it has taken over two years to be released. Clarke’s own notes are a real bonus, discussing the pieces from the inside, and explaining some of the (relative) stumbling blocks. Obviously the Shostakovich is only a small part of the disc; just 6:29 out of 77:18; but few would make that their sole purchasing criterion. The range of styles on display ensures that the disc never outstays its welcome, though with 52 tracks, none even reaching four minutes, there’s an occasional feeling of short-windedness. Perhaps dipping in is the way to enjoy it.
BRATTLEBORO REFORMER (etc):
The contents include four of Bartók’s “Ten Easy Pieces”, Stravinsky’s “Les Cinq Doigts” (The Five Fingers), Prokofiev’s “Music for Children”, Shostakovich’s “Children’s Notebook”, Khachaturian’s “Pictures from Childhood”, five pieces from Copland’s “Piano Album”, Webern’s “Kinderstück” and four pieces from Bartók’s “Mikrokosmos”.
Just about everything in this set is new to me, as I am sure it will be to most of you, and that makes the set even more interesting. Now I must admit that some of these selections are a bit short on charm, but pianist Raymond Clarke makes a good case for each of them. As I suggested, piano teachers will certainly want a copy of this program. The booklet is very generous with its backgrounds and analyses of the pieces, and it is especially valuable in pointing out how writing for children’s smaller hands presents unique problems that call for some clever solutions. So while the audience that will really find practical use of this album might be somewhat limited, there are certainly enough teachers, parents and libraries out there that should really have this CD on hand. The rest of us can simply enjoy the music.
BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE:
Prokofiev reused much of Music for Children elsewhere, and Raymond Clarke’s approach here is more Romantic in the slower movements, and incisive in the “Tarantella” – hard for any child to get their fingers round at this speed – and the “Marches”. He’s very good at setting the mood quickly for each piece, even more important in Shostakovich’s Children’s Notebook, where most of the movements have come and gone before you can blink. The great pity is that the piano isn’t completely in tune, and sustained lines especially suffer. “Sunday Afternoon Music”, from Copland’s Piano Album, is particularly unsettling, as are the isolated pitches of Webern’s Kinderstück. Luckily, the four pieces from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos come off better – this is music which goes way beyond its didactic purpose.