American composer and pianist Easley Blackwood continues to branch out in attractive new directions. On this album, Blackwood Plays Blackwood, he performs world premiere recordings of his own recent piano compositions. Challenging to perform yet easy to listen to, these new works blend traditional forms with inventive harmonies.
A student of Nadia Boulanger, Olivier Messiaen, and Paul Hindemith (at Yale), Blackwood first garnered worldwide attention for his vigorous, modernist, highly original First Symphony, premiered in 1958 by conductor Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As a pianist, he is cited in Baker’s Biographical Dictionary Musicians "for his performances of modern works of transcendental difficulty." During most of his 40 years as a professor at the University of Chicago (1958-1997), he was an exponent of atonality. He came to embrace traditional tonality by way of his landmark study of microtonal music in the 1980s.
On this album, the Indianapolis native performs five lyrical works for solo piano, completed between 1984 and 1996, including his first large-scale (28 minutes) composition for solo piano, the Sonata in F-sharp minor.
In the CD booklet, Blackwood writes that the idiom of his Five Concert Etudes, Op. 30, was suggested in part by discoveries associated with his research into microtonal scales. For unifying ideas, Blackwood then looked to sets of etudes by Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Scriabin, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, and Bartok. "The style that emerged from my first Etude seemed more Russian than anything else," Blackwood writes, "and I attempted to maintain a similar idiom with variations throughout the set."
Blackwood’s Two Nocturne’s, Op. 41, depart from the conventional format of a singing line over a simple chordal accompaniment. In the first Nocturne, a chordal accompaniment changes character, going from modal to atonal to chromatic and then modal again, as the melody repeats. The second Nocturne presents a variety of shifting modes.
The Seven Bagatelles, Op. 36, are entirely tonal, but unlike some of Blackwood’s other recent compositions, they do make occasional use of advanced chromatic devices, such as those found in early 20th-century works of Fauré, Reger, and Rachmaninov.
Blackwood composed his Sonata in F-sharp minor, Op. 40, in a key that is seldom found in the piano-sonata literature. The sonata, Blackwood writes, draws on "the full range of tonal harmonic vocabulary as found in Strauss’ Salome and schönberg’s Gurrelieder." Over the course of the piece, all key signatures are used, from six flats through six sharps.
This is the eighth Cedille recording featuring Blackwood as composer, pianist, or both. Previous recordings include piano music by Casella and Szymanowski; sonatas by Ives and Copland; cello sonatas by Blackwood and Bridge; Blackwood Symphonies Nos. 1 and 5; microtonal compositions by Blackwood; clarinet sonatas by Blackwood and Reger; and Radical Piano.