Scott Wheeler – Portraits and Tributes

“The piano is an instrument I play, sometimes in public, though hardly as a virtuoso or a recitalist.” That’s how Scott Wheeler begins his liner notes. As he explains, “I have always used the composer as a sketch pad, a place to explore ideas in two-minute pieces that might turn up in larger works.”

The liner notes set the expectations for the listener — this is indeed a collection of 27 very short piano pieces, only a few of which pass the 3-minute mark. But I think Wheeler is perhaps a little modest. I didn’t hear anything rudimentary about the piano writing in any of these works.

I think there’s enough meat here for most serious performers. And while they may be sketches, they all sounded like fully-realized self-contained miniatures. I didn’t have to make any allowances for what I was hearing. To my ears, these all sounded like complete musical thoughts.

Most of the works are indeed musical sketches — musical portraits of various people in Wheeler’s life. And the music is as varied as the personalities they depict. “Pseudo-Rag: GS,” written for Gunther Schuller filters ragtime music through a serialist filter, approaching Schuller’s own musical style in sound (although perhaps leaning a little more towards the academic. By contrast, the “Calamity Rag,” dedicated to a jazz piano scholar, is a more straight-forward (and tonal) interpretation of the Joplin style.

“By the Sea” for Stephen Sondheim reworks a melody from “Sweeney Todd,” breaking it apart and reassembling it with pointillistic precision. “Epithalamion,” a wedding present for pianist Donald Berman is a technically challenging post-tonal toccata with a klezmer melody folded into it.

Some of these compositions sound avant-garde and atonal, some sound aggressively modern, some neo-classical, some even are a little jazzy. But in my opinion, there’s not a one that’s not engaging and well-constructed. And the wide stylistic range of these pieces makes them work quite well together as a coherent program.

Donald Berman’s thoughtful performances get the most out of the music. These may be short pieces, but they’re by no means slight. This is a release you can either enjoy one piece at a time or all in one sitting. A thoroughly enjoyable release.

Scott Wheeler: Portraits and Tributes
Works for Piano (1977-2014)
Donald Berman, piano
Bridge Records 9463

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