Matthew WHITTALL (b.1975)
Leaves of Grass: 12 Preludes after Walt Whitman, for piano (2005/2009): Book I [15:39]; Book II [17:03]; Book III [30:31]
Risto-Matti Marin (piano)
rec. St John's Church, Helsinki, Finland, 11-12 May 2011. Hybrid. SACD
ALBA ABCD 333 [63:13]
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 reviewed here. 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 of expression.
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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Whittall's Leaves of Grass is a stunning work.