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Pianist Stephen Beck Plays 20th Century Music at Bargemusic

by Don Hagar  Steven Beck

The waters were calm last Thursday evening for Steven Beck’s performance of 20th-century piano music at Bargemusic, part of their ongoing Here and Now Series. Which made it easier to listen to this somewhat difficult fare that included pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Wolfgang Rihm, Luciano Berio, and everyone's favorite modernist centenarian, Elliott Carter.

Beck set the stage with the relentless repetition of a single extremely dissonant chord that is the austere beginning of Stockhausen’s Klavierstucke IX (1954/1961). This simple idea was underlined by a simple gradation of loud to soft in each repetition. Chord repetition gave way to short rhythmic atonal phrases, mostly in the mid-range of the piano, which then progressed to music of rapid figurations in the high range. This formal arrangement of dense-to-sparse-to-trickling music was the sonic equivalent of solid matter transforming into gas.

Repetition of single notes was the unifying factor in Piano Piece No. 4 (1973) by Wolfgang Rihm, who was Stockhausen’s pupil. Whereas Stockhausen’s piece was created with distinct sections, Rihm’s piece is more freely structured, with different phrases easily blending with each other from one moment to the next. Copious silences aided this process, while at the same time removed musical expectations. These expectations were reestablished, however, as the phrases seemed to jump over the chasm of the silences and take up where they left off.

Both Stockhausen and Rihm wrote their respective pieces in their 20’s, while they were developing their already-formidable reputations. Berio was already established as a master in his 40’s when he wrote his Sequenza IV (1968) for solo piano. Mr. Beck conveyed the fluid character of this piece, the repetitions this time coming from the many rapid alternations between notes. Characteristic starts and stops, just as in the Rihm piece, helped to create disorientation and a missing sense of continuity in the listener. At the end, however, was a major 7th chord: a surprising resolution to this otherwise-atonal work.

The second half of the program was devoted to music by Elliott Carter. 90+ (1994), written for the 90th birthday of a friend of Carter’s, started with a persistent chord similar to the one in Stockhausen’s Klavierstucke. But here, it was complemented with fragmented melodic phrases that ebbed and flowed in density and speed with measurable regularity, ending in a slow precipitation of notes. Indeed, the difference in Carter’s music from those of his European counterparts was in the way he sculpted time in smaller structures and steadier beats, rather than in whole textural swaths. Carter’s music doesn’t need silence to collect itself before it continues.

Two Diversions (2001) displayed Carter’s penchant for juxtaposing voices in different speeds over each other. Reiterated chords in the first "diversion" keep regular time as bass and treble present their cases in varying speeds, while the music in the second is flightier, lighter, ending with a quick flourish in the treble as the bass slowly dies out. 

The program ended with Carter’s middle-period Piano Sonata (1945; rev. 1982). Expansive in length and Coplandesque in it’s sonic palette, this iconic work of American piano music seemed to contain the seeds of all the incredibly diverse music that was heard earlier in the evening.

Kudos to Mr. Beck for preparing such a tight, well-integrated program. Not only is he a master at his instrument, he is a sensitive musician who seems to embrace and understand this often-challenging music.