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In his latest recording, Tableau, Tempest and Tango, pianist Clipper Erickson explores diverse pieces by David Finko and Richard Brodhead — composers with strong Philly ties — plus a Mussorgsky warhorse.
Finko’s career is unusual by Western standards. He was born and educated in Soviet Russia and was attracted to music from an early age. But he came from a family of renowned scientists, and was expected to continue in that tradition. He dutifully studied at the Leningrad Institute of Naval Architecture, becoming a submarine engineer. At the same time, he continued to pursue his musical interests and graduated from what was then the Leningrad Conservatory in 1965, the same year that he premiered his prize-winning Sonata for Piano No. 1.
Finko emigrated to the United States in 1979 and, although he now lives in New York, has had many strong ties to the Philadelphia region. He taught for a time at Penn, and counts several locally based musicians as his champions. His Sonata for Piano No. 2 was dedicated to and premiered by Bryn Mawr-based Marcantonio Barone, and his Sonata for Piano No. 3 was dedicated to and premiered by Clipper Erickson. On this release, Erickson performs all three extant piano sonatas (Erickson will premiere a fourth in the near future), plus an early student work (written in 1961), Fantasia on a Medieval Russian Theme.
Wide expression, one voice
The music shows a wide range of expression yet carries a singular artistic voice. The earliest work falls inevitably under the long shadow that Shostakovich cast over modern Russian music. In the Sonata for Piano No. 1, the angst-ridden, ironic voice of Shostakovich still lingers, now imbued by colors of Yiddish folk theater (the work is dedicated to Solomon Mikhoels, a famed Russian-Jewish actor who was murdered by Stalin).
The next piano onata does not appear until nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1998, many years into a tumultuous lifetime. Not surprisingly, the large work is overflowing with emotion, sometimes violent, often fantastic, and consistently thoughtful. Ten years hence, we get the Piano Sonata No. 3 in one movement, a kind of yin to the yang of No. 2, exuding a potent spiritual yearning.
The music of long-time Temple faculty member Richard Brodhead is no less expressive but devoid of the neuroticism of Finko. His Sonata Notturna, written in 2016 for Erickson, is a single-movement work of strong theatrical impact, based, as the title implies, on the spectral stuff of dreams. The Tango Sonatina for Piano, too, has a nocturnal aura, but now we are in Buenos Aires. Do not expect the easy-to-digest dance rhythms of Piazzolla here; Brodhead is still in a surreal state, with multiple folkloric elements woven into a rich, haunting tapestry.
A musical warhorse
Erickson concludes this engrossing recital with a warhorse. It is one of the glories and challenges of our times that music lovers have such an embarrassment of riches to choose from in the recorded catalogue of the standard repertoire. However, this does raise the question of why performers need to present yet another Beethoven sonata recording or, in this case, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Remarkably, Erickson manages to present a rendition with a fresh perspective. This performance conveys something not typically associated with this brawny, vivid music: elegance. That elusive trait, as well as the power, insight, and virtuosity that Erickson brings to the new music of Finko and Brodhead, add up to an unusually invigorating recital for the musically intrepid.
What, When, Where
Clipper Erickson, piano. Tableau, Tempest and Tango. David Finko, Fantasia on a Medieval Russian Theme. Richard Brodhead, Sonata Notturna and Tanto Sonatina for Piano. Modest Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition. Album available from Navona Records. (603) 758-1718 or navonarecords.com.
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