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David LEISNER (b. 1953)
Acrobats (2002) [12:48]
El Coco (1999) [3:27]
Nostalgia (1985) [5:55]
Dances in the Madhouse (1982) [12:13]
Trittico (1985, rev.2002) [12:38] 1
Extremes (1987) [12:30] 2
Cavatina Duo: Eugenia Moliner (flute); Denis Azabagic (guitar); 1 Katinka Kleijn (cello); 2 Joshua Rubin (clarinet)
rec. 23-25 May, 31 August, 18 November 2006, WFMT Chicago
ÇEDILLE CDR 90000 096 [60:08]

David Leisner is probably best known – certainly in Europe – as a guitarist. His recordings include a much-praised set of the complete solo guitar works of Villa-Lobos (AZICA ACD-71211), a Bach recital (AZICA ACD-71210) and the guitar concerto by Alan Hovhaness, with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gerald Schwarz on Naxos 8.559294. review

On this issue from Çedille, however, it is Leisner the composer that we get to hear. He turns out to be a writer of lively, engaging chamber music, not especially innovative perhaps, but always well thought-out, sensitive to instrumental techniques and colours and always rhythmically interesting. On the evidence of this present CD, Leisner is a composer who responds particularly well to the stimulus provided by literary or visual sources.

The earliest work here, Dances in the Madhouse, takes its inspiration from a lithograph by the American artist George Bellows (1882-1925) called Dance in a Madhouse (it can be seen online). Leisner elaborates Bellows’s image, creating four dances: ‘Tango Solitaire’, for a woman dancing alone; ‘Waltz for the Old Folks’, for an elderly pair untroubled by their madness; ‘Ballad for the Lonely’, a response to the presence in Bellows’s image of two profoundly unhappy women; ‘Samba!’, for a couple dancing pretty wildly. The music is quirky, the familiar dance rhythms occasionally distorted or lost, though usually reasserted during the course of each dance. ‘Tango Solitaire’ has some lovely melodic writing for the flute, while ‘Ballad for the Lonely’ is a poignant, desperate miniature.

‘El Coco’ also takes a visual image as a starting point – this time a print by Goya, ‘Que viene el Coco’ (see online), in which two children seek the protection of their mother when approached by a kind of hooded bogeyman. Leisner’s music, with its nervous fragments finally resolved into a longer melodic line nicely evokes both fear (the guitar at times mimics the threat, real or imagined, posed by the bogeyman) and final comfort. Leisner’s familiarity with, and understanding of, the Spanish guitar idiom is very evident here.

‘Trittico’, the composer’s notes tell us, echoes the form of a triptych, a three-panelled painting; this time, however, no specific painting is alluded to and the music is more abstract than programmatic. Here the Cavatina Duo is joined by cellist Katinka Kleijn, whose presence thickens the texture interestingly, especially in the more complex central movement – as in a Renaissance triptych, the aesthetic centre of gravity of ‘Trittico’ is to be found in its central panel. There is an attractive contrast between the more fleeting movement of the two outer sections and the slower, weightier, emotionally denser music of the central section (in which Kleijn’s cello is particularly prominent).

‘Acrobats’ has an origin in literature rather than the visual arts. Leisner’s starting point was a short story, ‘The Tumblers’ by Nathan Englander (from For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, 2000). In it a group of Polish Jews, destined for the concentration camps, are mistakenly put on a train full of circus performers on tour for the entertainment of the Nazis. Leisner’s piece imagines the Jewish prisoners going on stage to ‘entertain’ with some precarious acrobatics, their actions obviously having a larger relevance to their life-and-death situation. The music seeks – with fair success – to evoke their psychological state in these extraordinary circumstances, full of abrupt changes of direction, emotional switches, losses of balance, temporary restorations of balance. There is some mildly grotesque humour here, part of the larger poignancy of the whole. Again in three movements (‘In the Wings’-‘Flashback’-‘Up in the Air’) the interplay between Moliner’s flute and Azabagic’s guitar is particularly impressive in ‘Acrobats’, a fine, emotionally subtle piece, evocative of tension and phoney exhilaration alike, of simple fear and glimmers of hope (real or delusory).

‘Nostalgia’ and ‘Extremes’ are more abstract in conception and origin than the pieces discussed so far. ‘Nostalgia’ was apparently first written as the third movement of a sonata for violin and guitar, before achieving an independent existence of its own in a version for flute and guitar. Within its pretty straightforward A-B-A structure, the piece has the charm of a slightly sugary nostalgia, with a few passages of more directly passionate involvement. ‘Extremes’ is the disc’s second trio, in which clarinettist Joshua Rubin joins the Cavatina Duo. Its two movements are headed, simply enough ‘Introverted’ and ‘Extroverted’ and they very much live up to their names. The first is slow, brooding, darkly chromatic, with the colours of clarinet and flute very effectively juxtaposed in some rather knotted counterpoint; the second movement is energetic, altogether more open in from and emotion, though the complex interweaving of melodic lines for clarinet and flute is clearly another aspect of the same relationship as presented in the preceding movement.

Leisner’s music is not strikingly original, but it is intelligent, well made and everywhere marked by an acute ear for instrumental colour. This strongly tonal chamber music has an attractive intimacy and is well performed by all concerned. It also benefits from an excellent recorded sound.

Glyn Pursglove


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