Saturday, 11 February 2017

The latest release from Sheva Contemporary of Peter Seabourne’s Steps – An Anthology for Piano Volume 1 brings contemporary piano music that really speaks to the listener

British composer, Peter Seabourne’s (b. 1960)  ongoing anthology entitled Steps has reached five volumes, recordings of which are all now available from Sheva Contemporary following the release of Steps – An Anthology for Piano Volume 1;.htm performed by Minjeong Shin

SH 168

Steps are what the composer calls ‘a compositional travelling companion’ begun in 2001 and projected to run throughout the composer’s life. Volume 1 opens appropriately with Greeting! where a bell like motif sounds out, dancing around and broadening through some terrific rhythms, full of light, set over deeper chords for left hand.

Still recalls a funeral of gondolas in Venice with rolling chords for left hand over which a theme slowly climbs up through passages that bring a rocking motion, interspersed by the most lovely, thoughtful moments that generate much atmosphere. There are some beautifully fluid phrases as well as more violent passages of increasing passion before a sombre, hushed coda.

It was a poem by Swinburne, Before the Mirror that inspired The Little White Girl where a girl ponders her reflection in the mirror, wondering about the future. It brings a delicate theme of melancholy reflection that is developed through some wonderful passages of varying dynamics and rhythms, this pianist responding to every sudden mood change before returning to the faltering melancholy of the opening. This is a particularly distinctive piece.

El Suspiro del Moro (The Moor's Sigh) draws on the architecture and history of Granada, its title referring to the legend of King Boabdil, the last Moorish king whom having been driven out by the Christians is said to have looked back over his beloved city and wept. It opens slowly with a tentative theme that slowly expands and develops, beautifully shaped by this pianist. The music moves through richer textures before falling back to the tentative phrases of the opening.  One can hear a distinctively Iberian flavour emerging in the intervals as the music develops through some beautifully translucent, fluid passages, slowly gaining in passion. Indeed, it is impressive how the Iberian flavoured theme weaves through so many subtle variations with passages of transparent, delicate beauty. Quite wonderful. Midway it finds a faster, rhythmic pace, a rapid fragmented rhythm that constantly varies, dancing around with some exceptionally fine playing from Shin. The music grows ever more dramatic before finding a longer line to quieten and slow before growing again in power and anguish, only to conclude quietly and introspectively.

This is a particularly fine work, brilliantly played by this pianist.

Split the Lark (2001) was inspired by a poem by Emily Dickenson which describes how, ‘once the shell is cracked open, the concealed musical essence is discovered and comes flooding out.’ It moves from a delicate opening through bars of increasingly complex harmonies, always varying rhythm. Midway finds a gentler pace only to speed through faster, more dramatic passages before falling to a hush as the theme is quietly developed again. It slowly finds greater power, particularly in the left hand, before fading in the coda.  

Suspended Journeys (2003-04) is described by the composer as ‘almost a little three movement sonata which tries to combine the idea of forward movement with a paradoxical sense of stasis; journeys that have somehow failed to reach their destination.’ 19, partly inspired by the energy of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus B.1

No.19, rises out of the depths, moving forward in ever increasing surges through some remarkably fine harmonies and textures, richly woven and gaining in power. There are moments of gentler development before the more powerful version of the theme emerges deep in the left hand, pushing rhythmically forward, gaining in tempo, the music racing around through bars of terrific propulsion before the coda arrives.

Black is nocturne like, opening with a gently swaying, two note motif that soon rises and develops with an undercurrent of something more unsettling. Here again this pianist’s phrasing is impeccable. The music finds a greater strength with dissonant chords insistently sounding out before regaining its gentle swaying flow. It rises again through dynamic harmonies before quietening through some lovely, transparent textures to a haunting coda. 

A Touch brings a toccata, which is built through layers as it develops, darting around, with a sense of unstoppable drive. Later it finds a rhythmic spring with greater strength, particularly in the left hand before finding the opening lighter textures to dart to the hesitant little coda.

The second of these two CDs opens with Little Scene where limpid phrases gently trickle forward, occasionally underpinned by deeper left hand chords, chords that later help to develop the music through a richer, stronger passage through which is heard a lovely melody. The piece develops through some very fine moments of tremendous invention, gaining in strength before falling back to gently find its way to a quiet coda. This is a quite lovely piece, beautifully conceived.

The composer describes Over the Ocean as having ‘the sense of a sea voyage, of casting out towards the unreachable horizon.’ It opens powerfully with strong chords sounding out as the theme is slowly revealed. It falls back momentarily only for the massive chords to return bringing contrasting images of the sea. The lower chords threaten to rise up but a tense calm prevails. Soon the music does rise again with aggressive, powerful left hand chords over which the right hand brings broader phrases. A gentle, rather withdrawn passage takes us to the coda where hints of the deeper chords are heard.

Awake! the composer tells us, brings ‘a feeling of Spring – the awakening re-birth dance of Persephone.’ A two note motif is developed through often staccato phrases that bring sudden rhythmic changes, darting through mercurial passages to a quixotic coda, brilliantly played by Shin. This would make a great encore piece.

The Sun – just touched the Morning! is another piece inspired by an Emily Dickinson poem.  It slowly finds its way forward through tentative bars, slowly gaining in breadth and complexity, through some wonderfully expansive passages with this pianist finding a lovely longer line until falling to peter out.

In Winter was intended for younger or amateur pianists, the six pieces taking, as their starting point, poems by Stefan George and Sylvia Plath. Im Windesweben (In the murmuring wind) brings a chilled atmosphere with faster short phrases. Trills interrupting the flow before momentarily richer chords appear only to fall to the coda. A rocking motion slowly develops in An Baches Ranft (At the edge of the brook) as the music moves through some rather melancholy bars before Winter Landscape with Rocks brings a more powerful forward driving idea, full of complex harmonies.

Noch zwingt mich treue (I am constrained to be faithful) reveals a gentle, delicate idea that is slowly developed through some exquisite moments with the most beautifully conceived harmonies. The Lark in Winter has a buoyant, rhythmic skip as this jolly little theme skips forward. A quite lovely theme unfolds in The Rose in Winter, slowly and gently finding its way forward.

After the opening Greeting what better than Trois Petits Adieux (2001). Written as a parting gift for a talented pupil of a friend it opens with crotchet = 76, bringing an insistent motif that is overlaid by a little theme with some lovely harmonies and dissonances. Playful yet poignant has a rapid theme that skips ahead in hesitant little phrases, simple yet finely constructed before Sombre where chords from the lower keyboard open to which a light, delicate theme joins, finding a greater flow later. 

There are many fine pieces here that deserve a place in any recital. I do hope that lovers of contemporary piano music, particularly music that really speaks to the listener, will explore this fine new release. These are impressive performances from Minjeong Shin who receives an excellent recording. There are informative booklet notes from the composer.

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