Arnold Schoenberg – Drei Klavierstücke, Op 11
Pierre Boulez – Troisième Sonate pour piano
Anton Webern – Variationen für Klavier op.27
Gilbert Amy – Sonate pour Piano
It takes courage and chutzpah to play this kind of repertoire, but James Iman clearly relishes the special challenges of this music, both interpretative and technical. He’s a keen advocate of 20th and 21st century music and his enthusiasm and commitment to it is impressive (we are friends on Facebook and his posts about the repertoire he is working on – from the “great” works of the 20th century such as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time to newly-minted music for piano – are intriguing and exciting, and have also introduced composers and music hitherto unknown to me). While some may regard this approach as “uncompromising”, I prefer to see James Iman as an intrepid musical adventurer. So first off, bravo to him for committing this music to disc. It is not performed that widely, programme planners and promoters regarding it as “too difficult” or “inaccessible” to sell to audiences (my view is that if this music is excluded from concert programmes, how on earth can audiences decide if it is too difficult or not…..?). And for the pianist, this music presents special challenges in the learning and practice process – as James Iman says, the works on this disc “lack almost entirely the comfortable octaves, thirds, and sixths of common practice music…..[and] the conventional gestures pianists are comfortable playing, arpeggios, chords and inversions, etc.” In addition, Boulez and Amy pose unique problems in that “they offer freedom for the performer to order the material — though this is within the confines are certain rules set out by each composer. This means that a lot of time is spent reading the rules and searching the score to understand the basic ‘lay of the land’“.
Iman’s adventurous approach is amply reflected in this his debut disc: here is piano music by four composers all imbued with a boundless spirit of adventure, experimentation, and innovation. Schoenberg’s Op 11 is the jumping off point for this pianistic and compositional adventure: the Op 11 had a direct influence on Boulez’s Third Sonata. Meanwhile, Gilbert Amy wrote his own Piano Sonata in the years following the premiere of Boulez’s Third. Webern had a significant influence on the way Darmstadt composers used the twelve-tone note row: Gilbert Amy introduces certain stylistic features of the Variation’s into his Piano Sonata. In addition, Boulez and Amy also make use of non-conformist scores – printed in multiple colours with innovative bindings they are almost artworks in their own right.
For me what distinguishes all the music on this disc (and I freely admit that I do not hear this kind of repertoire that frequently) is its composers’ interest in exploring and utilising the piano’s timbre and its percussive qualities – and this pianist’s acute response to this. It is not “tuneful” nor melodic music; rather it reveals piquant juxtapositions of sounds, individual notes, unexpected intervallic relationships, repeated motifs, rhythmic clusters, fermatas and silences. It’s all exceptionally well-executed, Iman’s playing admirably tempered to the resonances and micro nuances of this music, which is mirrored in the quality of the recording. His performance of the Boulez Third Sonata equals Maurizio Pollini’s animated performance of the Second Sonata at the Royal Festival Hall back in 2011. Few can rise to the challenge of this music and meet it head on with conviction, musicality, and a supreme alertness to its myriad details and quirks: James Iman more than achieves this. Indeed, throughout the album one has a very clear sense of his total commitment to this music, and also how comfortable he feels in this repertoire.
To those who claim this music lacks emotion, I would direct you straight to Schoenberg’s Op 11, played here not only with precise attention to detail, sonic clarity and rhythmic vitality but also a profound sensitivity to this music’s intensity, its fleeting writing and ambiguous emotional landscapes.
It’s no easy thing to be a specialist in 20th and 21st century music. As a performer the music itself is taxing. It’s also difficult to overcome the intensely visceral reactions people can have (the invective that can be deployed is occasionally overwhelming!).