Richard Danielpour: Twelve Etudes for piano, Piano Fantasy, Lullaby, Song Without Words

Richard Danielpour is one of the most decorated, frequently performed and recorded composers of his generation. His commissions include works for some of the most celebrated artists of our day. Each of the Twelve Études is dedicated to a particular pianist with its own substantial technical demands, but all are conceived as concert pieces with a self-contained narrative. The variations in the Piano Fantasy are based on the final chorale of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. All of these world premiere recordings were made in close collaboration between the composer and acclaimed pianist Stefano Greco.

About this recording

Richard Danielpour (b. 1956)
Twelve Études for Piano • Piano Fantasy • Lullaby • Song Without Words

Work on my Twelve Études for Piano began in the fall of 2011 and finished in early 2012. The c. 40-minute work was commissioned by Vanderbilt University for a performance that was given in 2013 by three pianists who, at the time, were on the faculty of the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt – Mark Wait, Craig Nies and Amy Dorfman. Each of the études are dedicated to a pianist who I have known as a colleague, collaborator, or friend. The aforementioned three pianists who gave the world premiere of the work in December 2013 are the dedicatees of three of the études. Two of the études are dedicated to pianists who are recently deceased (Étude No. 3 is dedicated to Joseph Kalichstein who passed away just before the writing of these notes, and Étude No. 9 is dedicated to Leon Fleisher who passed away in 2020.)

Each of these études was written with the idea of a particular pianistic skill that any first-class artist would be expected to master. But at no time was I thinking that any of these études would simply be exercises; each of them had to be a piece of music with its own self-contained narrative, capable of being received purely as concert piece, but with a particular and clearly apparent technical demand.

Two of the études are primarily for the left hand. Étude No. 2 employs the playing of the left hand in the lower region of the piano, while the right hand plucks strings inside the piano with a guitar pic. This second, and most unusual étude, is also the most non-Western in its overall sound, with hints of Persian music evoking my own ancestral heritage. The second étude is dedicated to Gary Graffman, while the ninth, a left-hand étude with the right hand playing mostly repeated notes, is dedicated to Leon Fleisher. Both of these great pianists spent a great portion of their career playing repertoire for the left hand, in part due to injuries they had sustained. Both of these artists are not only pianists, but also as human beings were a great inspiration to me in my life.

The sixth étude, coincidentally an étude in sixths, is dedicated to my friend and colleague André-Michel Schub. I actually showed this étude to André as it was in progress; he lived not far from me on the Upper West Side of New York where I was composing the collection. The final étude, which is a study in phrased pairs, is dedicated to my dear friend and colleague Philippe Entremont, who at the time of this writing is a few months away from his 88th birthday.

The études are not ‘in’ a key, but rather built around a harmonic area. In each étude, the key is defined by the tonal area in which each étude ends. The harmonic ordering of the twelve études is built around the circle of fifths, with the first étude ending in C major and the last ending in F major.

The writing of this work was not nearly as difficult as my desire to play each piece in the set from start to finish after it was completed. I wanted to do this to make sure that the pieces were indeed playable and achievable in spite of their technical challenges. While I consider myself to be a somewhat competent pianist, I quickly realized that the technical demand for many of these pieces was substantial. I also always compose my first drafts at the piano regardless of what the piece in question might be. I do this consistently, and habitually, not because I cannot hear the work away from the piano, but because I need, physically, in a sensate way, to feel the work. I have never been able to separate the actual music from the visceral and physical demands that are symbiotically bound with the making of my music.

In late 2020, the Italian pianist Stefano Greco had expressed his desire to perform my twelve études. He asked me if a recording existed and I mentioned to him that there was not, nor had there been a public performance of the entire set by one pianist. Stefano Greco’s artistry was extraordinary; his early recording of J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue showed him to be a master of Bach’s music, but I was not only surprised and delighted to know that he not only wanted to play these pieces, but thrilled when I finally had a chance to hear him play some of my études through a connection on Zoom.

The recording of the work took place in late September 2021, while I was in Rome from 29 August to 10 October. I will always be grateful to Stefano for the hours of time that he invested in studying my work. By the time of the recording, he knew these études from the inside out, as if he had composed them himself.

My Piano Fantasy (“Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden”) was composed on a commission from the Gilmore Foundation in 2008 for pianist Adam Golka. This work, of approximately 18 minutes in length, is based on the final chorale that appears in Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The work is actually a free set of continuous variations, with the theme coming at the end of the work rather than at the beginning, as is commonly found in a set of variations. This idea creates a kind of revelation of a “hidden song,” which is only unveiled at the end of the piece. Years after composing this work, I have come to understand this work itself as a search for grace, that which is not earned in life but given as a gift. The revelation of that chorale of grace comes at the end of a fugue, which is the final variation of the fantasy. This fugue, which starts out tonally (the subject itself is derived from the Bach chorale tune), becomes more and more dissonant, and in essence “corrupted,” until at its darkest moment, the chorale quietly emerges note for note as it was originally written by Bach. The work ends quietly and peacefully, echoing fragments of the chorale tune in the harmonic language that exists throughout the rest of the work.

The two short pieces that complete this album, Lullaby and Song Without Words, are piano transcriptions that exist as instrumental interludes in the second act of my opera The Grand Hotel Tartarus. These two works, which are the equivalent of bonus tracks on this album, were included largely because of Stefano Greco’s desire to play them after having heard me perform them for him during my stay in Rome in the fall of 2021. At the time of my writing these notes, I am currently at work on the second act of the opera.

Richard Danielpour

Tracklist

12 Études for Piano
  1. No. 1. Five-Finger Arpeggios
  2. No. 2. Left Hand Étude, with Right Hand Playing Inside Piano
  3. No. 3. Full Sounding Chords
  4. No. 4. Rapid Scales
  5. No. 5. Octaves
  6. No. 6. Sixths and Trills
  7. No. 7. Mirror Étude: Repeated Notes Between Both Hands
  8. No. 8. Stride Étude
  9. No. 9. Left Hand Étude, “Singing Left Hand”
  10. No. 10. Arpeggio Étude
  11. No. 11. Repeated Notes with Ornamentation
  12. No. 12. Phrased Pairs
Piano Fantasy, “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden”
  1. Piano Fantasy, “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden”
Lullaby
  1. Lullaby
Song Without Words
  1. Song Without Words
Total Playing Time: 01:05:17

Listen and Get it!

Reviews

Nathan Faro
American Record Guide, January 2023

These are rewarding piano works from one of America’s leading composers. Stefan Greco gives superb performances… © 2022 American Record Guide

 

Richard Haskell
The WholeNote, December 2022

The Etudes are miniature gems (each never more than six minutes in length) and what strikes the listener most immediately is the appealing range of contrasting moods. Throughout, Greco demonstrates full command of this unfamiliar repertoire. [The Piano Fantasy] demands considerable virtuosity at times, but again, Greco meets the challenges with formidable technique. © 2022 The WholeNote Read complete review

 

James Manheim
AllMusic.com, November 2022

Onto this basic structure is grafted, naturally, a good deal of virtuosity, calmly executed here by pianist Stefano Greco. He worked closely with Danielpour in making the recording, and these readings may be taken as definitive. […] As with much of Danielpour’s other works, this may be contemporary music for people who think they don’t like contemporary music, and it expresses Danielpour’s ideas in an economical form. © 2022 AllMusic.com Read complete review

 

Jed Distler
Gramophone, November 2022

Richard Danielpour’s Twelve Études may not expand virtuoso boundaries to the extent that Chopin, Liszt, Godowsky and Ligeti did in their times. Yet they are thoroughly idiomatic, well crafted and as appealing to the ear as they seem rewarding to pianist Stefano Greco.

I second the composer’s enthusiasm over Greco’s masterfully internalised and excellently engineered interpretations. Highly recommended. © 2022 Gramophone Read complete review

 

Stephen Page
Lark Reviews, October 2022

This is a very enjoyable release of world premiere recordings. Contemporary American composer Richard Danielpour’s music brings a wide range of emotion and styles out of the piano. Together with the set of varied etudes we have the exuberant and expansive Piano Fantasy ‘Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden’ and two very recent short works, Lullabyand Song without words. © 2022 Lark Reviews Read complete review

 

Norbert Tischer
Pizzicato, September 2022

Richard Danielpour’s Twelve Etudes for Piano received its world premiere on December 4, 2012, at the Center for the Performing Arts at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt. In the 40-minute cycle, the composer roams through a wide variety of moods, but also presents challenges to the pianist such as playing with the left hand on the keys and plucking strings inside the piano with the right hand. Stefano Greco masters all of this with aplomb.

In addition to two miniatures, the Piano Fantasy subtitled ‘Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden’ from 2008 is also heard. It is based in continuing variations on the final chorale from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, although the theme does not appear until the end of the work. This piece also shows Greco as an excellent performer. © 2022 Pizzicato Read complete review

 

Lynn René Bayley
The Art Music Lounge, September 2022

Danielpour creates at least one truly creative piece out of “sixths and trills” (No. 6), and he gives the “stride etude” a bit of a Fats Waller swing. Stefano Greco, a pupil of the legendary Aldo Ciccolini, handles all of them with aplomb.

I say get the CD for the piano etudes; they’re quite interesting as well as engaging; and the Piano Fantasy certainly has some very interesting moments. © 2022 The Art Music Lounge Read complete review