Sebastian CURRIER (b.1959)
Piano Sonata (1988) [24:43]
Departures and Arrivals (2007) [20:34]
Scarlatti Cadences (1996) [5:23]
Brainstorm (1994) [4:31]
Laura Melton (piano)
rec. Bowling Green State University, Ohio, 17-19 November 2009; 14 January
2010 (Departures and Arrivals). DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559638 [55:10]
American composer Sebastian Currier has made only one fleeting appearance so far in these pages, with his trio Verge in a review of a disc issued a decade ago by Crystal Records. That work was warmly received, and so are the piano works on this latest release under Naxos's enigmatic "American Classics" series, which now has so many items - getting on for 400 - it is virtually a label in its own right.
The two short pieces, Scarlatti Cadences and Brainstorm, were both written around the same time, and though quite different on more than one level, share a common thread, that of "combining of diverse, even opposing harmonic materials", in Currier's words. The first is an alternately serene and frantic piece, a kind of mid-20th century Scarlatti, whereas Brainstorm lives up to its title as a pulsating, generally chromatic scherzo that almost reaches self-combustion towards the end.
By contrast, Departures and Arrivals is a much more sedate work. The title has nothing to do with airports or railway stations: according to Currier, each of the six movements is in fact "an alternative path that starts with the same material", more literally in the case of the first three, abstractly in the last three. In other words, Departures and Arrivals is tantamount to six different versions of the same piece, reflecting Currier's interest in a kind of musical 'butterfly effect' - what would have followed if such and such a decision (note/chord/sequence etc) had been taken instead of the one actually written down. If all that sounds like an academic exercise, perhaps there is an element of desiccation to the result, but after all, as Currier points out, "this is like the actual process of composing where the first idea one thinks of is not necessarily the first idea one ultimately hears", and as such is a valid and intriguing artistic endeavour. The common material ensures that the pieces cohere as a work, and although Departures and Arrivals is not likely to surge into anyone's top ten favourite piano works, there is plenty to sustain the interest over twenty minutes, particularly in the last three sections.
The finest work on the disc is Currier's five-movement Piano Sonata, which he wrote while still a Juilliard student, and it is to date his only one in that genre - in fact he has not written a work for solo piano since 1999. The basic pattern is fast-slow-fast-slow-fast, and the overall feel that of a sonata from the middle decades of the 20th century - in other words, though not tonal in the traditional sense, nor is it especially modernistic or 'difficult'. Without diminishing their value, the first four movements are in a way entrées to the main fare, which is the chromatic, finger-breaking final movement, amusingly marked 'Multifarious', a set of variations with a couple of fugues thrown in for good measure.
Laura Melton, piano professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, has further experience of Currier's music, having recorded his works for piano and violin with Yehonatan Berick on Albany Records (as yet apparently unreleased). In any case, she makes light of the difficulties present even in the earlyish Piano Sonata to deliver a convincing interpretation of this music. Sound quality is very good. The CD booklet, for reasons best known to Naxos, does not give any biographical information about Currier beyond the desultory blurb on the back inlay.
Currier's new violin concerto Time Machines is scheduled to receive its world premiere performance in June, performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter with the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert - a sign that Currier's music is on the cusp of the kind of broader exposure it deserves.
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Currier's music is on the cusp of the kind of broader exposure it deserves.