There is a lot of reworking of the classics — those of the three Bs in particular — going on in contemporary music these days. Just to cite a few of many examples — Caroline Shaw’s now-somber, now-witty response to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Watermark; John Adams’s irreverent Beethoven homages like Absolute Jest and Roll Over Beethoven; the cool, distant electro-acoustic dreamscapes on Vikingur Ólafsson’s album Bach Reworks; Eric Lyon’s deconstructions of Brahms songs in Giga Concerto.
Sure, this kind of thing has been going on for centuries, yet it seems especially rampant now — and I sometimes wonder whether it is a tacit admission of a paucity of good, original musical ideas from today’s composers. Kind of like the film industry’s reliance on sequels, or the constant stream of tribute concerts and albums from today’s jazz performers, or even the pervasiveness of electronic sampling.
That said, here comes another variation on the theme, Reimagine: Beethoven and Ravel (Navona Records) from Ukrainian-born Inna Faliks, professor and head of piano at UCLA (which is just the tip of a lengthy résumé consuming more than a page of small print in the booklet notes). The idea grew out of a piano festival, “Dialogues,” in which Faliks commissioned six UCLA faculty composers to react to each of the six movements of Beethoven’s Op. 126 Bagatelles — a wonderfully eccentric collection of abrupt mood swings, dream state meditations, angry outbursts, and gentle reflections — and three others for Ravel’s by-turns watery, introspective, and grandly virtuosic Gaspard de la nuit (Treasurer of the night).
For the Bagatelles, Faliks juxtaposes the new pieces with the original individual movements, with the new ones coming first so that it seems as if Beethoven is reacting to them rather than the other way around. The compositions — miniature bagatelles all — start with Peter Golub’s paraphrase of No. 1 that seems to stumble in front of a distorted mirror. Jazz pianist Tamir Hendleman’s No. 2 takes off from the opening notes into something else entirely with an improvisatory feeling, though in a strictly classical idiom.
Richard Danielpour labels his take of No. 3 Childhood Nightmare, a dreamy reflective thing that follows the rhythm of Beethoven’s chords, while Ian Krause’s Etude 2A on the wild No. 4 follows Beethoven’s bipolar structure but in its own individual language. Mark Carlson’s No. 5 (Sweet Nothings) is an attractive, impressionistic response very much his own, nicely blurred around the edges, and Daniel Lefkowitz’s No. 6 takes the same tack as No. 1, while tracing the shape of the score more loosely.
Faliks’s renditions of the original Bagatelles are mostly straight-forward, faithful (a wrong chord at the beginning of the repeat of No. 5’s second part notwithstanding), and a bit restricted in their mood swings; some passages could use more rough humor. Also, it’s probably better to reverse the order of new-vs.-original with your player’s track buttons for a more immediate impression of how these composers are modulating their models.
For Ravel, Faliks omits statements of the original pieces — which she previously recorded in 2008 on the album Sound of Verse (MSR Classics) — and lets the new creations speak for themselves. In Variations on a Spell, Paola Prestini at first seems to break up the ripples in “Ondine” into murmuring fragments, eventually reaching a grand peroration of bell-tolling chords and octaves. Timo Andres’s Old Ground is two-and-a-half times as long as the original “Le Gibet” (The gallows), setting an evolving ostinato pattern that gets a bit bombastic when the big chords come in halfway through, closing on a somber note.
While inspired by “Scarbo,” Billy Childs’s Pursuit has a social agenda — the pursuit of Black men by racist authority, then and now — which he carries out with rapid passagework and introspection very much in a 20th-century Romantic mode that requires the same level of advanced virtuosity as Ravel. Faliks is well-equipped for the task, and does it with finger-busting passion.