I must say that has happened with a new and very absorbing release In Memoriam Paul Zukovsky (CP2 128). It is a recording of the repertoire chosen by Paul Zukovsky for his last concert program at SUNY, featuring the twin pianos of Aaron Likness and Andrew Zhou. The concert was given the title "Mechanistic Music" and understandably that is key but with room for contemplation, as Maestro Zukofsky made us think and so here too for his parting gesture.
It all began when Paul Zukovsky became interested in the two-piano Craig Pepples composition "Monkeys at Play" (2013) and sent it to pianist Ursula Oppens who in turn suggested he introduce it to the piano duo of Aaron Likness and Andrew Zhou. And so began the process of formulating the program represented by this release and its general mood.
The Peeples work is given its world premiere recorded performance here and a fine thing it is. There is a wonderfully abstract mechanistic mood as we might expect. It is charming in its delightfully rugged, jagged presentation throughout its 20-minute sounding. It is delightfully brittle and the duo brings out its exploratory zeal just as we might hope for.
What ultimately became Zukofsky's 2017 memorial program gradually took shape as Zukovsky entered a last terminal stage of ill health. So the recording represents the final choices, which includes the rather obscure but no less absorbing "Zwolftonspiel" (1956) by Josef Matthias Hauer, here in its first recording.
Especially welcome is the Ives not well-known but no less wonderful "Impressions of the St. Gaudens in Boston Common" (1915) for a single piano (for the recording, Likness). There is the wonderfully mysterious Ives here and then a vague, poetic periodicity that we can feel as mechanistic, atypically so because Ives is Ives always. Beautiful music!
The wonderful Stravinsky 1944 "Sonata for Two Pianos" sounds as fresh as ever in the duo's hands. It is a vital reading and a major gem in the program.
And we conclude on a genuinely robotic yet most lively version of Milhaud's two-piano arrangement of Satie's "Cinema" From Relache (1924). We revel in this wonderfully toy-ful, playful reading that rivals the very best.
The subtlety of what Zukofsky groups together under "mechanistic" makes for something to contemplate. The Satie and Pepples are rather more overtly mechanistic than the Hauer, Ives, or Stravinsky. It is no doubt much to do with rhythmic density, and with Satie, repetition, but the Likness and Zhou dynamism and insistently urgent drive make it all a beautiful thing, The gleam of the shiny futuristic machines are not entirely about predictability, surely, but the presence of some future present presence as much as anything. The prescience of the earlier composers and the futurist nod of the later ones come together to make us think, to make us smile, to resurge through our aural senses with a considerable pleasure, all that.