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Dennis EBERHARD (b. 1943)
Shadow of the Swan: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Prometheus Wept (August 6, August 9, 1945) for Solo Bass and String Orchestra
Halida Dinova (piano)
Piotr Migunov (bass)
St. Petersburg Cappella Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Tchernoushenko
Recorded at the St. Petersburg Recording Studio, St. Petersburg, 25–27 Nov 2002 DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559176 [56:07]

 

The rear cover of this CD boldly states that Dennis Eberhard is "one of America’s leading composers" although I suspect that his work will be new to many British listeners. It is a shame then that the insert notes provided by the composer himself are not embellished with any biographical detail or background. Instead there is an account (somewhat disjointed) of the events that were influential in the composition of the pieces themselves and the inspiration afforded to the composer by his friendship and admiration for Russian pianist Halida Dinova, the dedicatee of the Piano Concerto.

Both works share the common theme of human-instigated technological disaster and the concern of nuclear proliferation. In the case of the Piano Concerto, the composer was at work on the second movement when he heard news of the Russian submarine, ‘Kursk’, stranded with its crew at the bottom of the Barents Sea. Prometheus Wept draws on unlikely parallels between Aeschylus and Greek mythology and the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, whilst the initial stimulus originated from a commission from Performers and Artists for Nuclear Disarmament for a memorial to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Eberhard states that the Piano Concerto was composed as "a celebration of our indomitable human spirit". It is a major concerto in every way: three substantial movements totalling over forty-one minutes. The work’s subtitle, Shadow of the Swan, is drawn from Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem ‘Requiem for Challenger’, in which the poet describes the explosion of the ill-fated spacecraft as "this great swan of death made from the last breath of seven evaporated souls". The imagery is powerful, as is the opening movement, The Fall. The music takes us from densely chromatic, billowing clouds of string sonority that gather ominously over the piano line through passages of anxious agitation and nervous repose, punctuated on a number of occasions by climaxes of cataclysmic proportions. The Polish school of Lutosławski and Penderecki could be cited as one of the influences here although the transformation is stark when, following the movement’s final devastating descent into the abyss, there is a sudden switch into music of contrasting simplicity in the second movement, Requiem. To draw a further Polish comparison, the string writing here recalls at times the Third Symphony of Gorecki; the stylistic metamorphoses all the more moving for its stark and sudden immediacy. So far so good. However, when the final movement, The Quickening, opens with familiar repeating ostinato patterns in the piano and wind accompaniment that could very easily be mistaken for the work of John Adams, the effect is both disconcerting and disorientating. Eclectic the language may be, but the stylistic shift is one step too far, the cumulative power of the music destroyed by the apparent stitching together of a pot-pourri of external influences. As a result, the work as a whole struggles to sustain its substantial duration - a great shame as elsewhere there is much to admire in the undoubted sincerity of Eberhard’s inspiration.

Combining texts from Revelation and Aeschylus, Prometheus Wept begins with a four-minute chant in Russian liturgical style, in which the solo bass progresses chromatically from the lowest to the highest notes of his register. The music for strings that follows takes us back once again to a language not too far removed from that of Penderecki, long string glissandi combining with passages of more diatonically orientated harmony to create a static and ultimately deeply depressing sound-world. In truth I had already lost interest by the time the bass had completed his opening declamation. Despite the gravity of the anti-nuclear statement the composer intended, the piece has the effect of numbing the emotions rather than striking at their very core.

Of the two works it is the Piano Concerto that comes off the best. It is a major undertaking that shows initial promise but in the end fails to deliver. Both the performances and the sound are acceptable although Naxos have produced better on both counts elsewhere in their American Classics series.

Christopher Thomas

 



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