|REVIEWS: divine art dda 25021 Decoding Skin (Philip Howard)|
The overload of cellular motifs comprising Paul Whitty’s brief study leads precipitously into Max Wilson’s tribute to the American jazz pianist – its quiet, static centre offsetting the Nancarrowesque activity on either side. Xenakis is represented by Evryali, whose extremes of motion and dynamism are realized with a palpable sense of the underlying drama. Butterfly Dreaming, Paul Newland’s encapsulation of Zen riddles, links hands – over a century on – with Satie’s Rosicrucian period, though now with a greater sense of space between the notes.
Of the two longer items, that by Michael Finnisy – taken from his multi-part cycle The History of Photography in Sound – evokes the pioneering fast motion stills taken in the 1870s by Eadweard Muybridge, their visual subjectivity complemented by intense photographic self-portraits undertaken by Edvard Munch during the 1900s. In its overall design, it seems prolix and uncertain next to the effortlessly sustained follow-through of Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari. Named (‘inspired’ may be assuming too much) after the archival remains discovered at the site of two palaces in ancient Syria, this is a study in the imperceptively shifting patterns and recurring phrases familiar from Feldman’s final period; music of intense beauty which infers so much more than it actually states.
Sound is clear if a little airless, robbing the playing of its full dynamic range. Howard contributes the informative booklet notes. Taken as a whole, this striking if not entirely cohesive programme augurs well for Philip Howard's future as a proponent of uncompromising piano music.
Not surprising, then, that he should favour composers who tax these capacities to their limits, though it would be unfair to say that his playing delights only in extremes: in fact, his performance of Xenakis's fearsome Evryali for instance, seems constantly to be struggling to penetrate under the furious surface to a less extroverted, more speculative and interiorized (even hesitant) musical substance beneath. One upshot of this approach is that occasional infelicities which do occur in the playing - a fluffed note, a blurred pedalling, a badly-weighted chord - are accepted if they do not interfere with larger interpretational issues: a risky strategy ultimately rewarded by performances which seem genuinely real and alive rather than pieced together in the cutting-room.
Whitty's de-coding skin, a fleeting firework of frenetic cellular permutation, opens the disc with Howard scattering brilliant shards of two-part invention all over the keyboard. Max Wilson's Zeitlin (on), which attempts to reconfigure elements of the playing of American jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin within a formally composed discourse, is more problematic, seeming to be caught awkwardly between the two without finding its own definition of purpose. Not so Newland's ...butterfly dreaming..., prefaced by three mysterious Chinese riddles on the nature of being and consciousness. The piece's sparse succession of delicate high chords, interrupted by single sfffz notes, finds enigma and fascination among its repetitions and abscences.
Finnissy's Eadweard Muybridge - Edvard Munch, from the monumental History of Photography in Sound, unfolds with an unmistakeable eloquence in two long and gently ruminative sections, each concluded by sudden bursts of speed which seem not so much visceral or histrionic as moments of dazzling light. Finnissy's relation to his subject matter - Muybridge's freeze-frame action photographs juxtaposed with the psychologically intense self-portraits of Munch - is one of philosophical contemplation rather than description or emulation, a distilled vision to which Howard brings an equally clarified pianism, revealing the sense behind the notes even when treating the complex counterpoint with a certain degree of rhythmic flexibility.
Last and best is Morton Feldman's Palais de Mari. This is an object lesson in close-up listening and feeling, capturing marvellously the music's elegiac purity: the final ten minutes, as the harmony seems gradually to be refined and resolved into utter clarity, is a deeply moving piece of playing, a fitting conclusion to this brave and impressive display of musical intelligence and integrity.
A similar sound-world can be found in Xenakis’s typically uncompromising ‘Evryali’ particularly as it forces towards its climax. Also one can hear its antecedents in Messiaen’s 1940s piano works such as ‘Canteyodjaya’ with its quirky accents and serialized dynamics.
In between these pieces is ‘Zeitlin’ by Max Wilson (who is also a practising psychotherapist). This treads a wobbly course midway between Conlon Nancarrow and Thelonius Monk; too short to make its presence felt.
We are told that Paul Newland’s ‘….Butterfly Dreaming…..’ has its origins in Satie. And here I should mention Philip Howard’s booklet notes which take a refreshingly new tack, in that they give us some basic facts about each piece. For instance "Newland is fascinated by music that contrasts apparent similarities with real differences, for example Satie’s ‘Trois Gymnopédies’", with his own brand of musical philosophy. Nowhere is this so noticeable or so fascinating as when he comments on Morton Feldman’s ‘Palais de Mari’, the longest work recorded here and one which ends the CD: "The saddest thing about today is that when tomorrow comes it will be lost forever. The pain of parting from the past weighs heavy on the heart". Wonderful stuff, ideal for this record label which is trying to forge its own unique image, and very helpful to the listener as Feldman’s twenty-six minutes of stillness passes in front of you almost literally making time stand still
No-one who knows the work of Michael Finnissy (one of Philip Howard’s teachers) would deny that he is a total original in British music and wonderfully prolific … perhaps overly so. His piece which rolls on for well over twenty minutes is part of a multi-part cycle ‘The history of Photography in Sound’. Its opening is a slow development of very quiet lines punctuated by silences which gradually diminish. After being lulled into a trance-like state brought about by seamlessly evolving counterpoint there is a sudden burst of wild activity. This happens at approximately eight minutes in. I can only say, and please forgive the analogy despite its accuracy, that this sounds as if a group of four year olds have been let loose on a piano to play anything they wish all at once. After a short time all is suddenly calm for well over ten minutes before a similar but briefer outburst comes towards the end. The coda, as it were, restates the mood and ideas of the opening. At twenty-two minutes the work is simply too long and Finnissy should learn from Britten who said that the composer’s best ally was the waste paper bin.
It is with some relief that Feldman’s last piano work appears. It alone is worth the money for the CD.
As for Philip Howard, I am full of admiration. This is his debut album. In 2003 he was the first British pianist for 35 years to win first prize in the International Gaudeamus Interpreters’ Competition. Technically he is totally assured in this challenging music. On top of that he has an innate ability to discover and use piano colour. This is just what is needed in this kind of repertoire; tough music but with a soft heart which needs to be found by performer and listener alike. However the rather boxy studio recording does not help. I can only try to persuade The Divine Art to look elsewhere for recording venues for its solo piano recitals.
The mix of young and more established composers is a fruitful one. The programme starts with a piece by Northern Irish composer Paul Whitty, a name new to me. Unfortunately no biographical material on Whitty, or any of the other composers on the disc, is provided
The fiendish, individual music of the great and sadly missed composer Iannis Xenakis is captured here in an account of the 1973 piece, Evryali. Evryali was one of the three Gorgons of Greek mythology (the others being Stheno and the much more famous Medusa), whose hair was comprised of serpents. Xenakis’s piece oozes energy and it is a pity that Howard misses out on the purely elemental side of this piece. A shame, as this is the stuff of legends and, indeed, nightmares, in its horrific imagery. Claude Helffer has made something of a speciality out of Xenakis’s piano music and his version on Montaigne MO782137 is ultimately to be preferred.
Paul Newland ( http://www.bmic.co.uk/Composers/cv_details.asp?ComposerID=1546) has stated that ‘simplicity allows the mind freedom to imagine’. Single, violent notes stab their way out of a pristinely beautiful pianissimo bed of sounds and punctuating silence. The work was composed in Hiroshima and the composer quotes haiku on the score – their enigmatic aspect suits Newland’s music perfectly.
The disc finishes with two works by established composers, Michael Finnissy and Morton Feldman, each of which is fairly extended. Finnissy’s Eadweard Muybridge-Edvard Munch of 1997 is very, very sparse music (Track 5). Muybridge was a photographer who experimented with successions of images of objects in motion (horses, wrestlers, etc); the Munch reference is to a disturbing series of photos that artist made between 1902 and 1908. Thanks to companies like Metier and NMC, Finnissy enjoys a fairly large discography at present, and Eadweard Muybridge-Edvard Munch is a welcome addition. There are more explosive moments (around eight minutes in, for example) and here, once again, perhaps Howard could have been even more frenetic in realising these outbursts.
The disc ends with Feldman’s very last piano piece, Palais de Mari. The title refers to archaeological discoveries around the ancient city of Mari in what is now Syria. The work contains shifting repetitions that inspire Howard in his booklet notes to wax lyrical on the concept of time and memory. Howard has all the qualities of intense concentration to bring the work off – and listen to the stunning way he projects the music around the seven minute mark as being as delicate as porcelain. This is truly meditative music that is ultimately uplifting and refreshing.
Highly recommended, but bear in mind it is no easy ride.
Paul Newland’s Butterfly Dreaming is a study mostly in slow motion, but the Xenakis piece, as so often with his work, left me cold. Max Wilson’s jazz-inspired, but not necessarily jazz-like Zeitlin is over almost as soon as it begins, but by far the most interesting work here is the shortest, De-Coding Skin by Paul Whitty, modern and challenging but genuinely musical in new and exciting ways.
Every piece is superbly played with total belief by this most gifted pianist and I trust this CD will get the attention it clearly merits.