[To be honest, I can’t remember what publication this was written for, in 1999. But it’s a pretty good example of my style, and I remember how interesting an experience it was to listen to the music, even though I wound up not thinking much of most of it.]

BERNSTEIN Complete Works for Solo Piano. Alexander Frey (pn). KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS 3-7426-2 (79:03)

Sonata for the Piano. Seven Anniversaries. Four Anniversaries. Five Anniversaries. Touches. Thirteen Anniversaries.

The title of this disc is quoted as given by the publisher, but apparently it’s not quite accurate. A 1983 Pro Arte recording of Bernstein piano music by James Tocco included a set of two brief pieces entitled Moby Diptych, two minutes long altogether. They are missing here, in case you care, and the Tocco recording is long out of print. Given the length of Koch’s CD, it would have been impossible to include them anyway.

The Piano Sonata, from 1938, has been recorded at least one before (Cala CACD 77006), played by Stefan Litwin on another all-Bernstein piano collection. It isn’t a major discovery, unless you are completely unfamiliar with Copland’s Piano Variations or you want to discover how completely Bernstein had assimilated the gestures of Copland’s music. Annotator Craig Urquhart wisely makes no claims for this thoroughly derivative piece, which Bernstein apparently had the good sense not to publish. It’s not exactly bad music, but it hardly seems necessary.

I am definitely not one of those listeners who dismisses Bernstein’s music; in fact, I think he wrote some wonderful things. But he was about as uneven a composer as you could imagine, capable of producing an embarrassment like the “Kaddish” Symphony or a masterpiece like Trouble in Tahiti. He wrote wonderful tunes for his musical shows, but after listening through 29 Anniversaries I must say I don’t think he had a gift for instrumental miniatures. These small, unpretentious pieces have some good ideas in them, but there’s hardly a memorable piece in the lot, and hearing this many of them is rather numbing.

Touches is as close to a major piano piece as Bernstein produced. It was written for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and attempts to test the competing pianists with a wide variety of moods, colors and textures in its nine minutes. It winds up sounding like a set of improvised variations, adventurous but still lacking any substantial content. Listening to this piece repeatedly was probably not much fun for the judges.

I don’t blame Frey for my lack of favorable response to this disc. He plays with color, pianistic resource, fluency, and obvious dedication throughout. I just don’t respond as well to Bernstein’s piano music as I do to some other segments of his output, and I suspect you won’t either. Leslie Gerber

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