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Sean HICKEY (b.1970)
Cursive [11:00]
Ampersand [9:15]
Dolmen [5:16]
Ostinato Grosso [19:38]
Pied-a-terre [7:30]
Reckoning [2:17]
Hill Music: A Breton Ramble [6:04]
The Birds of Barclay Street [2:53]
Philip Edward Fisher (piano - all but Pied-a-terre); Julia Sakharova (violin - Ampersand); Brandon Patrick George (flute - Pied-a-terre); Anne Lanzilotti (viola - Pied-a-terre); Meredith Clark (harp - Pied-a-terre)
rec. dates not provided, Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary, New Jersey, USA

Sean Hickey got his musical start playing jazz guitar, but his classical compositions do not often show the influences of his youth. This is music of little compromise and much scholarship. Cursive is a long-form piano piece which Hickey rightly compares to Messiaen; the piece has a long dramatic arc which contains moments of respite that recall Messiaen’s notations of birdsong. The final climax takes a turn for the witty, although that is a dead-end. Ampersand has a more lyrical bent, Julia Sakharova’s violin given melodies which recall the catchy yet uneasy tunes of Prokofiev. A busy central section adds to this suggestion with a sort of Caucasus peasant dance.
Bear in mind that I’m not comparing this music to past composers to denigrate it or call it unoriginal; I’m doing it to give you an idea of what to expect. Sean Hickey has his own voice, and although it sometimes scolds, it’s a deep and rich voice. Dolmen is a haunting nocturne with full rich, chords, meant to evoke ancient Celtic mysteries. It is justly one of Hickey’s most performed works. Were I a pianist, I would want to learn it. Indeed, the composer may be at his best in short piano works: Reckoning is a hauntingly simple memorial for a friend killed in the 2011 Marrakesh bombing: “Philip Fisher sight-read the score from my laptop exactly one time, and that is what you hear.” The Birds of Barclay Street is Hickey’s most famous piece, a short, spare, meditative piano solo written on 12 September 2001 and performed since at memorial events for the prior day’s tragedy. Hill Music: A Breton Ramble is hands-down the most jovial thing on the album, incorporating not just a jig but a sly quote of “Chopsticks”.
Ostinato Grosso, on the other hand, is a big piano work, a three-movement 20-minute suite whose title lays out its modus operandi. I wish all his pieces had such helpful titles. He doesn’t stick to the ostinato consistently, though; the slow middle movement, for instance, has a soft coda which shakes off its earlier troubles. This is the toughest work on the album, to play — I imagine — and to hear. It’s luckily contrasted with Pied-a-terre, a piece for “Debussy trio” (flute, viola, harp) which does not stray too far from the Debussian roots.
Delos’s sound is consistently close but resonant. Philip Edward Fisher does heroic work as the star of the album, and the guest stars are good too, especially violinist Sakharova. The composer’s own liner-notes are thankfully approachable and easy to read. This is a far easier entry into Sean Hickey’s world than the recent orchestral album (concertos for cello and for clarinet, Delos DE3448), and also provides a more rounded picture of a composer with diverse ideas, interests and influences.
Brian Reinhart