Nancy Zipay DeSalvo: Small Stones
Navona Records

Mark John McEncroe: Musical Images for Piano
Navona Records

An entire universe is encompassed by these new Navona Records releases, which illustrate how limitless the moods and styles can be when composers write for piano. On Small Stones, we have dynamic pieces by Jason Tad Howard and Daniel Perttu performed with great intensity by Nancy Zipay DeSalvo, whereas the double-disc Musical Images for Piano presents settings by Mark John McEncroe rendered into affecting form by Yoko Hagino.

Small Stones is an unusual recording in pairing Howard's miniatures, which in eight of its nine cases are two minutes or less, with the weightier subject matter of Perttu's sonata, which was inspired by a visit to Stonehenge he made in 2009. The challenges both compositions pose are considerable, but the performer involved is more than up to the task: a performer (as a soloist, accompanist, and chamber music collaborator) and educator, Dr. DeSalvo is Associate Professor at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, where she is Head of the Piano Area. Such contrasting exercises in compression and expansion make for gripping listening, even if the release itself is a modest thirty-four minutes in total.

Constellating around the pitch “C,” each of the parts in Howard's Piano Sonata No. 2 (aptly subtitled Nine Short Shorts for Piano) explores a different mood or style without relinquishing its tie to the shared pitch. In DeSalvo's hands, “Short Short No. 2” chimes brightly, its triplet figures sparkling like dew on a sunny spring morning. Though only two minutes long, the fifth not only establishes an evocatively serene soundworld but some vague hint of Siegfried Idyll-like flavour as it does so. In like manner, the brooding “Short Short No. 7” plays like a somewhat dark excursion into Satie territory, while at the more aggressive end of the spectrum is the third, which finds the pianist declaiming with vehement force. The grandiose “Short Short No. 9 Reconciliation: A Not Quite So Short Short Short” brings together melodies and rhythms that emerge in the preceding parts, a culminating move that lends the composition a satisfying resolution and connectedness. If there's a downside to the work, it's simply that the single-minute running time of certain movements doesn't allow for much in the way of development, and consequently there are times when a musical idea might have been explored further. That said, there's no question ample ground is covered despite the work's relative brevity.

Daniel Perttu's three-part Sonata For Piano, which unlike Howard's hews more closely to standard sonata form, exudes mystery in its dramatic opening movement “Allegro maestoso,” its tone an attempt perhaps on the composer's part to translate the fantastical character and structural audacity of the Stonehenge phenomenon into musical form. The intensity level hardly abates during the subsequent “Misterioso,” after which the densely layered “Presto” lifts the mood as it charges breathlessly through one cycling pattern after another. All three movements present technical demands DeSalvo meets with seeming effortlessness. She boldly brings Perttu's conception to life with a magnificent performance, one so impressive it's hard to decide whether one's more awestruck by her playing or the composition itself.

The predominantly introspective Musical Images for Piano inhabits a different realm altogether from the ones presented on Small Stones. It's not the first time, by the way, material from McEncroe's “Reflections” and “Recollections” has been recorded, with a set by pianist Helen Kennedy preceding Hagino's and Australian pianist John Martin also having issued a recording of pieces from “Reflections.” Regardless, the latest iteration, recorded in September 2017 at Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts, should be regarded as indispensable for admirers of the composer's work, given how definitively the twenty-four introspective pieces are rendered by Hagino. It's the Sydney-born composer's third appearance, by the way, on Navona, with his 2016 release Dark Clouds In Life and last year's Symphonic Suites No. 1 and 2 setting the scene for this piano collection.

For these “musical paintings,” as McEncroe calls them, the composer drew for inspiration from his Japanese garden, much as Monet used his own garden and nature as inspiration for his renderings. McEncroe derives immense satisfaction from his bonsai collection and gazing into his Koi pond while reflecting on key moments in his life. It's fitting that Monet's name is invoked, considering the generally Impressionistic tone of the 134-minute set, and that the first piece presented is titled “Introspective Moments” is fitting, too. Satie surfaces here also in the oft-unadorned simplicity and melodic richness of these compositions (“Ripples on the Still Water,” which midway through even seems to directly reference Satie, one example of many), how directly their essence is conveyed by the composer and communicated with heartfelt delicacy by Hagino. She shows herself to be an ideal conduit for the composer's world in presenting playing that's refined, nuanced, and sensitive to the emotions in play.

In keeping with the project's Impressionistic dimension, McEncroe has titled many of the pieces suggestively, with no attempt on his part to be coy. A clear picture forms of what to expect from pieces titled “A Rainy Summer's Day” and “Fading Memories,” though that hardly diminishes the listening pleasure experienced. In the case of “The Pendulum,” McEncroe even literalizes his gentle piece by anchoring it with a metronomic, clock-like pattern, while “Dance of the Pagans” presents a rare album excursion into uptempo fare.

As with any recording, certain moments stand out as particularly special, and Musical Images for Piano is no exception. Two such instances, “Shades of Autumn” and “A Lazy Summer's Afternoon,” are disarmingly soul-stirring creations that speak volumes about McEncroe's gifts as a composer. In its title, the former might reference a single season but is so expansive in vision it feels as if it an entire lifetime of experience is traversed during its mesmerizing nine minutes, and much the same could be said of the wistful latter, whose gentle explorations prove as affecting. The second volume isn't short on beauty either, as attested to by poignant reveries such as “Cindy's Song” and “Natalie's Theme,” the latter of which, along with “The Pendulum,” earlier appeared on Dark Clouds In Life performed by Kennedy.

Yet as powerful as each is, singling out individual tracks seems misguided when the recording in toto is so rewarding and, furthermore, designed to be experienced as a whole, not distinct parts. In the end, identifying the pieces collectively as “Reflections & Recollections” feels right, given their introspective and nostalgic character. Much like the other material issued on Navona, Dark Clouds In Life especially, McEncroe's Musical Images for Piano is conducive to deep dreaming.

February 2018