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Walk in Beauty
Connor CHEE
Navajo Vocable, No.9 (2014) [3:32]
Peter GARLAND (b. 1952)
Walk in Beauty (1989) [16:55]
Kyle GANN (b. 1955)
Earth-Preserving Chant (2010) [11:24]
Michael DAUGHERTY (b. 1954)
Buffalo Dance (2012) [5:27]
John Luther ADAMS (b. 1953)
Tukiliit (2011) [6:47]
Raven CHACON (b. 1977)
Nilchi’ Shada’ji Nalaghali
(Winds that turn on the side from Sun) (2008) [7:34]
Martin BRESSNICK (b. 1946)
Ishi’s Song (2012) [8:43]
Louis W. BALLARD (1931-2007)
The Osage Variation (1967) [4:44]
Jennifer HIGDON (b. 1962)
Secret and Glass Gardens (2005) [11:47]
Peter GILBERT (b. 1975)
Intermezzi (2012-15) [9:22]
Carl RUGGLES (1876-1971)
Evocations – Four Chants for Piano (1937-43, rev. 1954) [11:26]
Brent Michael DAVIDS (b. 1959)
Testament of Atom (2008) [2:13]
Four American Indian Piano Preludes (1963) [6:36]
Talib Rasul HAKIM (b. 1940)
Sound Gone (1967) [9:13]
Emanuele Arciuli (piano)
rec. 2016, University of New Mexico Music Department, Keller Hall. Albuquerque
INNOVA 255 [2CDs: 115:39]

Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli is recognised as an original and innovative performer, his repertoire ranging from J.S. Bach to contemporary music, and with a particular affinity for American composers. This affinity has found its expression in Walk in Beauty, which reflects Arciuli’s love for the American South-West. Part of his collection of art from the area appears on the cover of this impressive two-CD programme, and many of the works performed were commissioned by him.

Summed up as “a spiritual hike through New Mexico”, we are taken straight away into the region’s native music with Connor Chee’s Navajo Vocable for Piano, No.9, which takes a traditional corn grinding chant and gives it a beautifully simple harmonic setting, elaborating further into a complete fantasy work, with rising virtuosity before the final return of the theme. Peter Garland’s six-movement work Walk in Beauty was inspired by the nocturnal peyote ceremonies of the Native American Church and the curing ceremonies of the Navajo. Taking us from sunset to sunrise, the music takes in the ritual style of repetition that reflects these ceremonies as well as drawing in significant names as participants in a series of ‘songs’. These include the dedicatee, pianist Aki Takahashi, as well as composers such as Lou Harrison and Conlon Nancarrow. The spirit of Erik Satie is also invoked as a ‘visitor’, and there is plenty of magical atmosphere, enigmatic dance and monumental climax to be found in this impressive ‘exotic sonata.’

Kyle Gann wrote his Earth Preserving Chant after hearing about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and integrating an American Indian style chant or prayer in response to Emanuele Arciuli’s commission. “The song would have to be a model of ecology, or carefully husbanded resources, using as little material as possible.” A gentle ostinato in open intervals provides a bed of sound for melodic shapes and developing pianistic flourishes above, the whole creating a meditative and quite hypnotic ‘pill’ to be taken before deciding on whether or not to drill for ever more fossil fuels.

Michael Daugherty’s Buffalo Dance conjures the paintings of American Native artist Fritz Scholder, celebrating “the spirits, dreams, stampedes, colors and storms” of these works in a forceful fantasy that takes full advantage of Arciuli’s remarkable technique. Tukiliit by John Luther Adams takes us north in its representation in music of Inuit stone sculptures. The title is the Inuktitut word for a stone object with special meaning, and the piece itself is both craggy and monumental in gesture, a reflection of stone’s permanence and the power of the beliefs invested in them.

CD 1 closes with Nilchi’ Shada’ji Nalaghali or ‘Winds that turn on the side from Sun’ by Raven Chacon. This departs from conventional piano sonorities in its use of electronic oscillation, the piano strings freed to vibrate by the player and tones feeding back through an amplifier turned up to 11. “The pianist finds that the subtleties in each gesture are determined by the reactions of the unwieldy instrument.” The listener hears strange sustained sounds that seem as remote from the piano as can be imagined, the aeolian effect indeed like a high wind blowing through the metal cables and struts of some abandoned factory.

A Native American theme opens CD 2, with Ishi’s Song from Martin Bresnick. Ishi was one of the last of the Yana tribe that lived in Northern California. He ended up at the University of California at Berkley, and the initial melody of Ishi’s Song is based on a recording of his singing in a language that is now lost. The upper line is a rhythmic pattern around three notes, below and above which the piano grows in intensity with figures that plunge and leap around the central ostinato, finally opening out into a reflective coda in which the inner monologue is re-harmonised with impressionistic colours.

Louis W. Ballard is represented by two widely pieces, The Osage Variation with its expressive lines being taken from a ballet score, and the Four American Indian Piano Preludes composed while Ballard was still a young student and taking lessons from Darius Milhaud. Ballard was one of the first, if not the first Native American to become a composer of Western ‘art’ music, but his music remains hardly known even in America. These pieces have a sparing power, the Preludes filled with narrative drama, forming vignettes such as The Hunt and Warrior Dance. These pieces are interestingly some of the more modern and experimental sounding of this entire programme, and with their strange, compact character, certainly deserving of attention.

Jennifer Higdon is one of the better known composers in this recording, her Secret and Glass Gardens “a journey of wonder and discovery… [reflecting] the paths of our hearts.” Written for the Van Cliburn International Competition, this is indeed a fantastical musical traversal of a space in which “every turn of a corner brings new discoveries.” The only problem with this kind of meandering is that it gives a rather formless impression, as if we were witnessing an improvisation by someone searching for ideas with flamboyant style rather than hitting us with their best material.

Peter Gilbert’s Four Intermezzi are “in many ways an oblique homage to Brahms.” Gilbert’s attraction to 19th century music finds its expression in “attempts to encounter it” rather than imitating or referencing it directly. This creates a personal and expressive pianistic soundworld with gestures and resonances that have a neo-romantic basis. With greater abstraction and less of a connection to the surrounding works this and the following Ruggles cycle are somewhat remote, but the Four Intermezzi still a fine collection, especially in the restraint of the final piece. Carl Ruggles’s Evocations – Four Chants for Piano “is a short cycle which does not reflect a coherent project nor a predefined dramaturgical strategy.” With their inclination towards dodecaphony and late-Romantic rise and fall of intensity the Evocations are comparable with Alban Berg to a certain extent. The best of these is the captivating final Adagio Sostenuto.

Brent Michael Davis’s jazz-infused Testament of Atom is a little lighter than the previous work, but by no means a casually thrown-together miniature. The title refers to an opposite stance to the religious ‘Testament of Adam’, thereby celebrating “the more natural world of science, evolution and free thought.” The final work, Sound Gnome, by Sufi convert Talib Rasul Hakim, is a slow and experimental work that takes on some of the hallmarks of Hakim’s former teacher Morton Feldman. This is arguably to be found in the sense of space and suspended time in some of the music, though the more overt repetitions come from jazz-influenced improvisation. Other effects derive from Crumb-like playing directly on the piano strings, but the overall impression is of a fine conclusion to this ‘Walk in Beauty’ – both spiritually and for its inner landscapes.

Well recorded and supplied with notes on each piece, many written by the composers themselves, this is an unusual but extremely fine and wide-ranging collection of piano works that has certainly broadened my horizons. The remarkable pianism of Emanuele Arciuli is rewarding in its own right, and his refined taste in music will provide a stimulating listen for anyone willing to explore.

Dominy Clements



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