Bryce Dessner exhibits the scope of composition with ‘El Chan’

Tuesday, April 9, 2019 - 5:10pm

Bryce Dessner

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NOSELL

Concertos for two pianos and orchestra are somewhat rare, maybe because it seems like such overkill. The conventional piano concerto stages a dialogue (or a competition, or a fight) between the orchestra and the soloist, which can usually nearly match, or at least analogize, the orchestra in power and scope. It’s less clear what a concerto for two pianos is really accomplishing by the addition of the third character — a piano duet, by itself, can accommodate nearly any piece of orchestral music. Many pre-20th-century examples of the form simply trade the role of the soloist between the two pianists, leaving whichever player not playing the prominent role to fill in gaps in the texture or mirror the orchestra. One recent example of the form, Philip Glass’s double concerto, works in part because Glass’s style tends to be more planar than dialogic — the piece plays interlocking masses of sound off each other. Glass uses the piano not as an analogue for an orchestra, but something like mallet percussion.

A younger composer who borrows heavily from the minimalist tradition that Glass helped create is Bryce Dessner, whose latest set of recordings includes a concerto for two pianos played by the French duo Katia and Marielle Labèque. This piece splits the difference between Glass’s static, rhythmically inflected style and the more narrative concerto tradition, balancing a sense of thematic development with a bright, clear harmonic language and motoric rhythms. Dessner doesn’t shy away from the intricate, nearly overloaded textures that are possible with the instrumentation, and the spontaneity with which he combines themes and gestures is thrilling. Phrases ricochet around the orchestra, woodwinds scribble around the edges of phrases, abrupt shifts in texture and color abound. It’s like a liquid minimalism, just as likely to disperse into skittering phrases as it is to condense into a stampeding rush.

The second piece on the album, “Haven,” is scored for piano duet and two guitars, played here by the Labèques, Dessner and the guitarist David Chalmin. “Haven” is a much more restrained form of music than the piano concerto, and carries a superficial similarity to the earlier, pulse-driven form of minimalism from the late 1960s. Like much minimalist music before it, it establishes a basic, repeated shape that then accumulates and disperses dissonance, like a river flowing over rocks. “Haven” doesn’t have the monomaniacal intensity of early Glass and Reich, though — it’s rather sectional, and can be read as following an overall A-B-A structure, like a sonata. Similar to the piano concerto, Dessner uses minimalism as a stylistic resource that can be channeled into more conventional forms.

“El Chan” is the final piece on the album, for piano duet. The set of miniatures are dedicated to Alejandro González Iñárritu, who Dessner worked with on the expansive score for The Revenant. Dessner’s language acquires a slightly more ominous, but still luminous, cast: dissonances accumulate in clouds above triads and seventh chords, frenetic gestures are cut short by bass hammer-strokes. The music feels more differentiated, a jagged, misty landscape. The final piece, subtitled “Mountain,” ends with a series of slow, widely spaced chords, not suggesting tension or resolution but simply hanging, suspended.