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Paul LANSKY (b. 1944)
Four’s Company, for guitar quartet (2018) [18:53]
Angles, for piano trio (2017) [18:47]
Springs, for percussion ensemble (2016) [11:52]
Color Codas, for piano duo (2017) [11:20]
Curtis Institute Guitar Quartet
Weiss Kaplan Strumpf Trio
Sō Percussion
Quattro Mani
Rec. 2019
Lansky Edition Volume 17
BRIDGE 9532 [60:00]

Because of the time it takes for parcels to get from our dispatcher in the UK to me in New Zealand, there are occasions when I wonder “why did I request this”. This recording of music by American Paul Lansky is such an instance. The presence of a piano trio would have piqued my interest and I do remember listening to some samples on the Presto website, but the instrumental combinations in the three other works are not my usual area of listening. Anyway, having requested it, I have done the right thing and given it my best shot.

I was very surprised to find that this is the seventeenth volume of Lansky’s music that Bridge have released; equally surprisingly, it is the first that has been reviewed on this site. He studied at Princeton with Milton Babbitt and George Perle, has a PhD from there, and was on the faculty for 35 years. He has gained numerous awards and fellowships and is clearly a much-respected elder statesman of American music. His musical style is basically tonal, that much was obviously clear from the samples I heard, otherwise there would have been no chance of me requesting it.

I will comment on Angles, the piano trio, first as it was the impetus for even considering the recording, and the genre in which I have some experience. Lansky clearly likes word games, as illustrated by the titles of the first three movements: With Pluck, Take a Bow and About a Minute Waltz. With Pluck has, not surprisingly, a lot of pizzicato and piano without use of the sustain pedal. It has a certain appeal in its rhythms, but minimal melodic interest, and goes around in circles rather. On the evidence of these four works, this seems to be a Lansky trait, and not a particularly appealing one to this listener, for whom it sounds more like a lack of ideas. Take a Bow meanders away for six minutes without really engaging the listener – I could imagine it being played at a cocktail lounge, just there for background sound, not requiring active listening. The best thing to be said for About a Minute Waltz is that it is only just over a minute – mildly dissonant, percussive, cold. The final movement, titled A Sad Song, has some melodic interest but is spread rather thinly, and again, meanders, losing this listener along the way.

So to the other three works. In Four’s Company, it was hard to tell that there were four guitars involved. All four movements are on the slow side and without much dynamic variation, making for a lack of contrast. Again, there is a lot of repetition within movements, so it is a work that doesn’t go very far, and takes almost nineteen minutes doing it.

Works for percussion ensemble aren’t in my usual sphere of listening, and this has not done anything to change that. I’m sure someone attuned to the genre would be able to provide a useful analysis of its merits, but I found it interminable. I did expect it to be exciting if not especially interesting musically, but it wasn’t even that. I should emphasise that I am referring to the music itself, not the performance, which I am sure is perfectly fine.

Color Codas at least has some variation, the first movement percussively aggressive, the second slow and rippling and the last a moto perpetuo, but the same compositional traits are there.

I have already mentioned the repetitive nature of the music. Perhaps these works are intended to slot into the minimalist genre, but surely that doesn’t have to apply to the musical ideas. Let's put this reservation down to personal taste - others will undoubterdly respond far more to Lansky's style than I did.

My other overriding impression was how unemotional and cold the music was. Even the slow melodic sections were still held at a distance from the listener. I don’t believe this had anything to do with the performers, I’m sure it was the composer’s intention. If music doesn’t engage one of your emotions, be that joy, laughter, sadness, excitement or whatever, I see it as not succeeding.

The brief notes on the music contributed by the composer are only moderately helpful in terms of giving some context to the titles. For example, Springs is apparently so-called because percussion has the ability “to spring into action”. Make of that what you will.

Bridge clearly believes in Paul Lansky, and you may too. Certainly, none of the music was unpleasant or “difficult”, but I found it underwhelming and unengaging.

David Barker

Performance details
Four’s company: Westchester Studios, Rochelle
Angles: American Academy of Arts, New York City
Springs: Lee Orchestral Rehearsal Room, Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University
Color Codas: Packard Hall, Colorado College, Colorado Springs

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