American Record Guide reviews David Rakowski: Winged Contraption

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American Record Guide
Mark Lehman
July 1, 2009

Born in Vermont in 1958, David Rakowski is best known for his long series of witty, extravagant piano etudes. They have been often performed, and recordings of them have been praised by ARG's reviewers: Bridge 9121 (July/Aug 2003), Albany 681 (Jan/Feb 2005), Bridge 9157 (Mar/Apr 2005). Rakowski has written much else, too, including three symphonies, five concertos, wind ensemble pieces, and chamber and vocal music.

Three of his works for orchestra fill this expertly played and vividly recorded disc. Winged Contraption, from 1991, is a single 10-minute span that might be described as a modern tone-poem. The music is chromatic but sumptuous in a modern-but-approachable and quite sophisticated idiom with affinities to many other contemporary American and Western European composers including (for just a few examples) George Perle, John Harbison, Richard Rodney Bennett, Robin Holloway, Peter Schat, and Theo Verbey. Long melodic lines arch out over bustling figures and explosive gestures, the whole conglomeration moving powerfully toward an abrupt ending. Despite the title, there's nothing rickety about the piece, though it does have a certain aerodynamic fluidity.

Persistent Memory, from 1997, is in much the same style, though it's twice as long and laid out differently, consisting of a slow, 9-minute elegy that breaks out into a much more active 12-minute sequence of bustling, billowy variations.

By far the longest composition here—and the best—is the 2006 Piano Concerto. There are four movements that total 34 minutes. I and IV are allegros with slow introductions, II is an adagio, III a scherzo. Each movement begins quietly and tentatively, with a stuttering, repeated-note figure that acts as a "motto"; and each ends with a brief, chiming flurry on the toy piano. The keyboard writing—much of it derived from the composer's piano etudes—is virtuosic and intricate, as indeed is the orchestral accompaniment. As the notes by Marilyn Nonken, who plays the socks off the solo part, point out, the piece is "architecturally complex and dramatically ambitious" though without renouncing the composer's ebullient "sense of play" (most notable, perhaps, in the jouncy asymmetries of the jazz-inflected scherzo).

Rakowski's concerto is a brilliant creation that offers a multitude of inventive details, lots of drama and excitement, and a satisfying sense of large-scale formal logic. If there's a weakness it's that the work doesn't quite manage to project an instantly identifiable personality. But it does offer the listener more than enough incentive to go back and listen again, as I did with increasing pleasure and admiration, as the work's individuality became clearer and stronger.