Opinion may be divided, even polarised, on the quality of Walt
Whitman's poetry, but there will likely be little argument
over these 12 Preludes based on his best-known collection, Leaves
of Grass. They’re by Canadian-born, Finland-based composer
Matthew Whittall, making his monographic debut with this beautifully
recorded hybrid SACD.
What a debut it is: Whittall's Leaves of Grass
is a stunning work. One of its greatest assets is the structural
and harmonic simplicity of much of the music: steeped in an
easy Satiesque indolence of what are at times almost minimalist
proportions, Whittall somehow fashions the material into one
deeply evocative experience after another.
Whittall admits in his notes to the deliberate inclusion of
well-known figurations from figures as different as Chopin,
Debussy, Webern and Reich in these pieces, both by way of homage
to admired composers, and in order to extend those musical ideas
which, in Whittall's view, have been all but appropriated
or sealed off by usage (that is: non-usage) from further development.
In truth, though, Whittall's music is his own, and bears
the stamp of originality.
The Preludes have no obvious musical connection to Whitman's
texts, to the extent that the shortest verse used by Whittall,
the three-liner Whitman called 'Song of the universal',
is turned into the longest of all the Preludes, at eleven minutes.
Indeed Whittall refers to the Preludes as "personal distillations
of the atmosphere of each poem", often based on nothing
more than, say, an impression of rhythm - in other words, programmatic
elements are implicit rather than explicit. Whether Whitman's
myriad fans will find that Whittall's music adds to his
words is debatable, whilst those of a negative or no particular
opinion of Whitman will be able to enjoy the music at least
as much without any reference to the texts.
Leaves of Grass is marvellously performed by Finnish
pianist Risto-Matti Marin, a year younger than his friend Whittall,
on this, his sixth solo CD. One of his most recent projects
has been for Toccata, volume I of the piano transcriptions by
August Stradal of all of Liszt's Symphonic Poems - glowingly
Such Lisztian virtuosity and stamina comes in handy for some
of Whittall's Preludes, but Marin is also a
performer of immense subtlety, capable of the finest shadings
As previously mentioned, sound quality is excellent - like sitting
on Marin's knee as he plays. The grass-themed booklet
begins unusually with the texts of Whitman's poems, in
English and Finnish. Whittall provides the notes, which are
detailed and interesting enough for the tiny, dense print to
be forgiven. One oddity, not explained in the booklet: the final
Prelude of the twelve, A Clear Midnight, fades into
nothing after four-and-a-half minutes, as indicated on the track
listing, but a minute later the music returns, more distant
and ghostly, taking the track timing up to the full ten minutes
required for the four Book III elements to add up to the separately
indicated running time.
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