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Ralph Shapey: Radical Traditionalism

21 Variations for Piano (1978), String Quartet No. 6 (1963), String Quartet No. 7 (1972), Fromm Variations (31 Variations for Piano) (1966; 1972–73), Three for Six (1979)

Wanda Maximilien, piano; The Lexington Quartet of the Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago; Quartet of the Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago; Robert Black, piano; New York New Music Ensemble: Jayn Rosenfeld, flute; Laura Flax, clarinet; Daniel Druckman, percussion; Alan Feinberg, piano; Cyrus Stevens, violin; Eric Bartlett, cello; Robert Black, conductor

New World Records 80681-2 (2 CDs 76 + 69 mins) £12 from UK Distributor RSK ; 23$ from Squidco USA

This double CD of key works dating from 1963 to 1979, by an important American composer who is not a household name in UK, was received at the end of the year and is amongst the most thought-provoking and intrinisically valuable pairs of well-packed CDs to have come my way during 2007.

Several things coincided, one of them my re-reading an account from a pianist, known for his meticulous accuracy, of his disenchantment with many strands of the new music scene. I was reminded how he had talked to me about how a far more fêted pianist than he would ever become can get away with playing at least 50% of the notes wrong in a precisely notated major work, and with no attempt at rhythmic accuracy whatsoever in music whose intricate figurations are intended to be played as written, "not as a cue for vague, semi-improvised atmospheric effects".

That came to mind as I listened to two large scale sets of piano varations* from the '60s-'70s by Ralph Shapey (1921-2002). It was wonderful to be reminded of the 21 Variations for Piano, which I had studied at the keyboard during those long-ago decades, and even more exciting to newly make the acquaintance of the massive 31 Fromm Variations.

What impresses immediately is that this is music in which every note, and its placement within its chord, is clearly intended to be heard. The idiom was characterised by Shapey himself as "Radical traditionalist", exactly describing how the music sounds to a listener, unlike many titles attached to CDs. He expands that as embracing "two fundamentally contradictory impulses—radical language and romantic sensibility. The melodies are disjunct and dissonant; they contain atonal harmonies and extremes in register, dynamics and textural contrast."

Shapey's idiom may strike some as austere, and the technique demanded is solid, rather than flamboyant. Ralph Shapey took a long time to establish himself as one of the more important American composers, indeed he became so frustrated that he banned performances of his music for a period of several years around the time when the Fromm Variations (dedicated to one of the most perceptive of new music sponsors) was in slow gestation.

Shapey studied the "classical monuments" of Bach, Beethoven & Brahms and anyone who responds to the Goldbergs and the Diabellis (or to the piano variations of Webern and Copland) should find Shapey's two major contributions to the genre engaging at the least...

The Fromm Variations were first given by the protagonist of this timely re-release of Shapey recordings dating back to the '90s. Two of the string quartets also warrant repeated listening. No 6 has "each line struggling to proclaim its individuality" within a texture of dense counterpoint, with other passages of "extraordinary stillness". The subsequent No. 7 is a larger structure, culminating with a passacaglia which resolves into a serene conclusion.

To round it all off, pianist Robert Black takes up the baton to give us the exhilarating Three for Six for the "now classic post-Pierrot sextet".

The notes by Robert Carl are a model of informed enthusiasm from a former pupil, and friend of the composer until his death, and the whole presentation, with extensive discography and bilbiography, is exemplary.

Those collectors who are relatively impecunious learn to take advantage of good value resulting from the sorting out that tends to happen with reduced price re-releases of recordings which may not always have hit the mood of the moment when first put on the market; they get a secod lease of life and, as one company has told me. These recordings date from the early '80s and maybe now is the right time to reconsider Shapey and his substantial legacy.

Peter Grahame Woolf

*Shapey's scores are available from Presser USA (or on order from UMP in UK). The 21 Variations are fully printed, as I recall, and the 31 Variations are in facsimile of the composer's own handwritten score, very clear and rewarding to study. (Image from Presser Shapey page)