Short but striking pieces at UCLA

Times Staff Writer

When a strong and reliable pianist is needed for challenging American music, Alan Feinberg will likely get the first call. Indeed, so associated is he with such duties, and with his own cleverly designed thematic recordings and recital programs of short American piano pieces, that he is easily shoe-boxed. Once again, he chose short pieces for his recital at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall on Saturday night, but I wish I knew a shoe store with a selection as wide and striking yet purposefully arranged.

The evening’s first half was Bach-based. It began with odd Bach, a chorale prelude transcribed by the old-school Russian virtuoso Samuel Feinberg, segueing into a miscellany of two-part exercises. Then came a vinegar-and-acid center of short preludes by Galina Ustvolskaya, the reclusive Russian composer whose spiky music bristles with a ferocious spiritual intensity and burning fire. Bach’s “Chromatic” Fantasy and Fugue followed. There were no pauses, except for one in which the pianist corrected an error in the program book.

Feinberg is a bold Bach player, and he flew in the face of period-practice fashion not only with the grand pianism of his Russian namesake’s texturally lavish arrangement, but also in his hard-hitting hammering of the first two Duetti and the Sinfonia No. 9. Although these are little pieces usually dismissed as lesson music, Feinberg underscored their harmonic and thematic restlessness.

Ustvolskaya’s tiny Preludes, written in 1953, are Bach without the niceties, simply the notes -- some mysteriously quiet, some startlingly explosive -- shorn of harmonic or sensual delicacies. The last prelude ends inconclusively, as if in mid-phrase, but Feinberg completed the thought with a magnificently apocalyptic performance of the “Chromatic” Fantasy and Fugue that came as huge pianistic release.


Ives, a Feinberg specialty, is not often associated with Bach and never with Chopin. The famously macho American experimenter rebelled against Baroque music’s contrapuntal conventions and thought Chopin a softy “having a skirt on.” Thus, two wonderful Ives pieces, the little known “Celestial Railroad” and the “Alcotts” movement from the “Concord” Sonata, were revelations in a Bach/Chopin context.

Ives was an amazing contrapuntalist who may have made up his own rules but did so only after having completely absorbed Bach’s. “The Celestial Railroad,” which eventually wound up much changed as a movement in the Fourth Symphony, is a riotous pianistic train trip after the Hawthorne story; “The Alcotts” is an evening at home with the transcendentalists.

In both, Beethoven’s Fifth is surreal parlor music surround by popular American tunes and hymns, and Feinberg gave this music an exceptional immediacy.

The Chopin at the end was another miscellany -- two Mazurkas, the Barcarolle and the Fourth Scherzo. Feinberg’s is a kind of American, even Ivesian, Chopin, with a strong emphasis on rhythm and careening sense of experimentation. It is a fascinating way to hear the Polish composer who is too often put under glass, even if the crashing conclusions of the Barcarolle and Scherzo somewhat overstated the case.

The touching and remarkable encore was a John Ireland song, “Life Is a Sickness Full of Woes,” transcribed by Robert Helps. This late American composer and marvelous Ives pianist dashed Ireland’s Chopin-inspired song with exactly the right amount of American hot sauce.