Pianist Ivan Ilic has already featured music by American minimalist composer Morton Feldman on his previous disc The Transcendentalist. His new disc (released 16 October) is devoted to a single work by Feldman, ‘For Bunita Marcus’, dedicated Feldman’s student who studied with him from 1975-1981. For seven years until Feldman’s death in 1987, he and Bunita Marcus were inseparable (though she refused his marriage proposal), composing side by side and sharing ideas.

The work typifies Feldman’s style: comprising small clusters and units of notes, mainly consisting of 3/8, 5/16 and 2/2 bars – tiny ideas which together form a vast and musical landscape, it is curiously absorbing music. What it lacks in texture, it makes up for in its meticulously placed sounds, and its intensity comes from its repetitive and reiterative qualities, with figures varied but not developed.

As Feldman himself said of this music “It can only work if you go along with the material and see how it is turning out.” There is an exploratory quality to Ilic’s playing, a sense of the music being wrought in the moment, spontaneous and unprepared. His touch is assured yet sensitive. Sounds chime, resonate and glow, and the work’s 22 sections unfold with a subtle and graceful expansiveness.

The disc comes with comprehensive notes to guide the listener through the work, but you, like me, may prefer to simply allow the sounds to drift over you.

‘For Bunita Marcus’ (1985) is released on the French label Paraty, distributed worldwide by Harmonia Mundi. The album is the final installment in Ivan’s Morton Feldman Trilogy, alongside the CD The Transcendentalist (2014) and the Art Book/CD/DVD Detours Which Have To Be Investigated (2014).  

Further information here

Meet the Artist……Ivan Ilic

Flowing Waters – Luke Whitlock
Suite Antique (piano solo)
Flowing Waters (piano solo)
Evening Prayer (piano solo)
The Faust and Mephisto Waltz (piano solo)
Three Pieces for Wind Trio
Flute Sonata

It’s always nice when someone contacts me to tell me about a new CD which they think I will like, and Luke Whitlock’s debut recording Flowing Waters is no exception. It was recommended to me by librettist Ben Kaye, and I have enjoyed exploring it over the course of several days.

This is the first album devoted to Luke Whitlock’s work (in addition to composing, he is also a producer for Radio 3 and 4) and it reveals a composer whose music is firmly rooted in melody, tonality, lyricism and expression. There are hints of folksong in the Suite Antique, as well as a very obvious hommage to the Baroque tradition of composing dance suites in the titles of the individual movements. It is also redolent of works by Debussy and Ravel which also looked back to Baroque antecedents, with quirky nods to Prokofiev and Shostakovich in the ‘Gigue’. The music is lyrical, elegant and witty, at times mininalist and at others more richly textured in the manner of Chopin or Liszt (‘Minuet’, a sensuous Chopinesque waltz), all sensitively executed by acclaimed pianist Duncan Honeybourne.

The title track ‘Flowing Waters’ was a commission from the Arts Council of Wales and the Welsh Government, and is a musical portrait of the River Teign in Devon. The piece opens with simple chords before moving into a flowing passage which owes much to Philip Glass in its spare textures and unexpected harmonic shifts, but also to Beethoven in the repeated LH quaver figure (the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata springs immediately to mind here) and also Liszt’s second ‘Petrarch Sonnet’ from the Années de Pelerinage. There are some Lisztian harmonies in the middle section of the work too, and the music plots a course through different tonal, melodic and harmonic landscapes, reflecting the winding and varied course of the river which inspired it. I was particularly taken with this track because it echoes a number of piano pieces (including several of Philip Glass’s ‘Etudes’) which I am currently working on.

The ‘Three Pieces for Wind’ trio are haunting and reflective pieces which depict certain landscapes and the listener’s interaction and response to them. There is a pleasing balance and sense of conversation and humour between the instruments (flute, clarinet and bassoon). The ‘Flute Sonata’, composed for flautist Anna Stokes (accompanied here by pianist Wai-Yin Lee), is the major work on the disc and reveals hints of Chopin and Poulenc in its melodies and scope. Meanwhile, ‘Evening Prayer’, which comes between the works for wind, is a tender meditation, redolent of some of Satie’s piano music.

The disc closes with ‘The Faust and Mephisto Waltz’, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Liszt whose music is taken from a score for a silent film. It is jokey and enjoyable in its pastiche, while presenting some technical challenges for the pianist (Duncan Honeybourne), and does indeed have a very filmic quality.

The music contained on this album is very accessible and will certainly appeal to those listeners who may initially shy away from “new music”. Recommended.

Flowing Waters is available on the Divine Art label. Further information here

Composer Luke Whitlock will feature in a future ‘Meet the Artist’ interview

The Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson died in March 2015. He was one of the most important composers of our time, a composer-pianist in the grand tradition of Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninov, probably best remembered for his monumental Passcaglia on DSCH. Pianist Christopher Guild’s first volume of Stevenson’s piano music was released on the Toccata Classics label in early March 2015, though I suspect Guild did not realise at the time that his recording would become a kind of memorial for Stevenson. The CD celebrates Stevenson’s shorter works for piano with a special focus on one of his major preoccupations: his love of Scottish and Celtic culture. The album contains three suites of pieces based on Scottish folk songs or songs for children, together with the more substantial A Scottish Triptych, three pieces each written some time apart, and A Rosary of Variations on Sean O’Riada’s Irish Folk Mass (1980).

The piano is the ideal instrument for miniatures, and Christopher Guild brings warmth, intimacy and wistfulness to the pieces based on Scottish folk tunes with his assured lightness of touch, sensitive voicing, clean articulation, rhythmic vitality and a keen sense of the fleeting moods and characters of each piece, and Stevenson’s penchant for complex harmonies and unexpectedly vivid dissonances. Meanwhile, A Scottish Triptych explores more plangent piano sonorities in its opening movement, and even utilises the piano’s interior (strummed and plucked strings) to produce unexpected colours and resonances in the final movement.

Christopher Guild is an enthusiastic advocate of Stevenson’s music, and the CD provides a poignant memorial to the composer. I look forward to Volume 2 with interest.

Recommended.

Meet the Artist……Christopher Guild

Toccata Classics

The word “transcendental”, at least when applied to piano music, usually suggests rampant virtuosity and piano pyrotechnics, and the first pieces which come to mind are Lizst’s Études d’exécution transcendante. Liszt himself chose the word to allude to the extreme difficulty of the pieces, the implication being that the musician who masters these works will be able to “transcend” their technique, musicianship and the expressive capabilities of the instrument.

In Ivan Ilic’s hands, the word “transcendental” has a different meaning. His new disc, ‘The Transcendentalist’, draws inspiration from  Transcendentalism, America’s first indigenous intellectual community, which included literary luminaries Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson’s manifesto Nature (1836) laid out the philosophy of the movement, which was founded as a reaction to and against rationalism and materialism. The music included on Ilic’s new disc is by  Scriabin, John Cage and Morton Feldman, together with a new work by Scott Wollschleger, ‘Music Without Metaphor’. The composers have connections to the tenets of the Transcendentalist movement: Scriabin’s mysticism, Cage’s interest in Zen Buddhism, Feldman’s intuitive approach to composing and Wollschleger’s synaesthesia, and the works on this disc display virtuosity in their originality and thoughtfulness, contemplation and introspection, rather than showy technical prowess

The works by Cage, Feldman and Wollschleger demonstrate the influence of Scriabin on American avant-garde composers, while Wollschleger’s deeply haunting  ‘Music Without Metaphor’ subtly reflects on and refracts the other music on the disc. Scriabin’s miniatures reveal hints of Chopin in the early Preludes while the later works are exotic and ambiguous, rich in pre-Shoenbergian atonality and unusual and arresting harmonies.

Ilic’s touch is assured, sensitive and as thoughtful as the music, his sound rounded, the pedal used tastefully to create halos of blurred sound, particularly affecting in Cage’s ‘In a Landscape’. The entire disc is contemplative, dreamy and genuinely spiritual. Play this at the end of a busy day, with the lights turned low, and surrender to the music and Ilic’s subtle delivery.

Recommended

‘The Transcendentalist’ is available on the Heresy label and as a download from iTunes and Amazon.

Ivan Ilic will feature in a forthcoming Meet the Artist interview

13 WAYS of Looking at the Goldberg: Bach Reimagined; Lara Downes, solo piano; Tritone Records

Pianist Lara Downes first heard the Goldberg Variations on an LP “as a little girl sitting in my father’s big chair”, played by – who else? – Glenn Gould in his iconic 1955 recording, the same recording my parents had, with the expressive photographs of Gould on the album sleeve. She was, like Gould, like many of us, “transported” by the music, the twists and turns of Bach’s creative process, and Gould’s interpretation and realisation of it.

Inspired by the poem ’13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ by Wallace Stevens, ’13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg’ is, like the poem, an exercise in “perspectivism”, a “re-imagining”, for each piece makes a nod, sometimes obvious, sometimes more tenuous, to Bach’s original, while demonstrating both the permanence of Bach’s great Baroque work, and its ongoing relevance and fascination today. In 2004, thirteen composers were invited to compose thirteen new variations based on Bach’s original. They are not all classical composers, and they represent a diverse and varied group – as do their interpretations. Many share rhythmic, melodic and harmonic motifs with the original, but each is individual, a short stand-alone work.

Catch a phrase or two of some of these ‘reworkings’ and you could easily believe this was Bach’s own creation in their closeness to the original (Fred Lerdahl: Chasing Gold, William Bolcom: Yet Another Goldberg Variation, Ralf Gothoni: Variation on a Variation with Variation), while others bear more than a passing reference to the atonality of Hindemith, Boulez or Messiaen (Mischa Zupko: Ghost Variation, Derek Bermel: Kontraphunctus, Stanley Walden: Fantasy Variation). And just like Bach’s original, there are stately chorales and sprightly dances. This album is almost a palimpsest of Bach: an imaginative and sensitive layering of new thoughts over the original.

The clarity of Lara’s playing ties these separate pieces together with crisp articulation, tender sonorities and arching melodic lines. To accompany the thirteen variations, Lara Downes includes on the album Bach-inspired works by two great American composers, Dave Brubeck and Lukas Foss, a fitting tribute to Bach and the lasting inspiration of his music. The final track on the album is the sublime ‘Sarabande’ from the French Suite V, BWV 816, whose exquisite simplicity echoes the opening ‘Aria’ of the Goldberg Variations.

For more information, please visit Lara’s website. The album ’13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg’ is available to download via iTunes.

I am very grateful to Lara for giving me the opportunity to review this interesting and arresting album.

More on the Goldberg Variations here.