Coping with crisisEast Carolina University presents a lively and varied roster of performances all through the academic year. They have continued in significant numbers during the pandemic, now in the virtual format. Sustaining musical activity and communication even in these trying times illustrates how viable and valuable the virtual medium is.

Under these auspices, Emely Phelps gave a very fine piano recital. Phelps has had a national and international solo and chamber career and is currently an artist-teacher of piano at Ohio University. She has also been an artist-in-residence at ECU.

Her program consisted of two works of about equal length. They were Kreisleriana, Op. 16, of Robert Schumann, and Fantasies and Impromptus, from 1981, by the well-regarded American composer Donald Martino (1931-2005). It seemed that perhaps the program was created out of earlier recordings of Phelps, rather than performed specifically for this event. The two recordings were clearly made in different places.

Whatever the exact circumstances of the program’s creation, it was a pleasure to become acquainted with Phelps’ artistry. Both works are put together out of a series of shorter pieces taken as a unified whole. In these widely diverse styles, Phelps wove together a connected unfolding of each of the two large-scale works.

Kreisleriana falls into the early period of Schumann’s composition in which he wrote almost entirely piano music, and left us some of the greatest works in that instrument’s repertoire. It is a piece of passion and free association, poetry and fire, assembled around the axis of ABA forms. The title derives from an important character in the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), the German author of fantastical tales admired by many in the Romantic era.

Beginning with the kinetic opening, Phelps captured the kaleidoscope of the piece. Exciting technical fire was contrasted with finely shaped lyrical lines; that contrast is the essence of the piece. The return to the theme in the first movement was the first example of a beautifully-played transition. The second movement gave voice to heartfelt lyrical expression, where the long lines were lovingly drawn out; this expressivity was true throughout the work and offered many beautiful passages. This movement brought another example of a fine transition, soft and delicate. Left hand lines had a chance to shine as well, and the movement ended with a wonderful wistfulness.

The whimsical fifth movement had attractive, clean articulation, a finely highlighted top line, and rich tone. The soulful sixth movement stood out for sustained, resonant tone on the chords. Yet the bass was never thick. The middle section had a fine, swaying quality, and there was a thoughtful and lovely resolution to the movement as it faded away. Schumann’s lyrical invention seems inexhaustible in a movement such as this. The final, eighth movement, again whimsical and delicate, had more full bass tone, effective strong contrasts, and a fine fade at the end, almost like a merry little character flitting off into the distance and out of sight. This was a touching ending to the fantasy nature of the piece as a whole.

Timing in and between movements – silences as well as sound – helped to shape the flow. Here and there lines didn’t fully project and there could even be some muddiness. The tone quality of the recording was not very bright. In a vivid piece such as this, a more projective acoustical character would have been appreciated.

The second half of the program turned to Martino. The composer of a substantial body of solo, chamber, and orchestral works, Martino won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. He taught at Yale University and the New England Conservatory of Music, among others. The Fantasies and Impromptus shows the obvious influence of his teacher Milton Babbitt in its craggy, disjunct writing. Yet it also shows the influence of his other teacher at Princeton, the American master Roger Sessions, in the lyricism of some passages and the sense of line.

There is significant kinship between the Martino work and the Schumann which preceded it, despite the vast difference in style. Both have widely varying characters in a series of movements, as well as the descriptive title “Fantasy.” (Schumann’s Kreisleriana is subtitled “Fantasies for the Pianoforte.”) Two of the Martino movements are subtitled “Homage” and distinctly remind one of the Schumann music heard in the first half. Martino was, as is known, an admirer of Schumann’s music, and he captured some of that lyricism in these homage sections.

In this piece, Phelps brought the same sense of sustained line which she had projected in the Schumann. Each movement cohered, even with the disjunct writing, as did the piece as a whole. The first movement opens with a grand start, and it became apparent right away that Phelps was breathing the lines, connecting the spread-out pitches into phrase gestures. Dynamics – those changes are a large feature of the whole piece – were effectively contrasted. A stand-out passage in this movement was the sonority from the trill at the climax through the dropping, quiet cascades which brought the piece to a fade.

After the big opening fantasy, the following impromptu was crystalline and mysterious. The impromptu following that had a mysterious, delicate ending. The longest impromptu is movement four, which is also the first of the two homages. The similarity to the rising motive which opened the Schumann seemed palpable. There are bits of tonality in this movement, and strokes of passionate lyricism too.

The fifth movement fantasy thrived on space, the time between notes, sometimes haunting. Here Phelps’ skill with long phrases showed itself with excellent effect, binding together the line through the spaces. This is the longest movement of the set, functioning as something of a central pillar in the whole work, which exceeds a half hour in length.

Three short impromptus followed, the second (the seventh movement) being the other homage, and again briefly suggesting Schumann. The last of the impromptus had extremes of dynamics and register, with an impressively played crescendo from nearly null in the bass to the big arrival at the final, large fantasy. This concluding movement moved among quiet, pregnant sounds, energy, and haunting moods. Near the end were atmospheric trills, beautifully played, redolent of the sound of Scriabin. The entire work ends softly, on a single note deep in the bass.

There was no audience and no applause, but enthusiastic appreciation was certainly well-earned.