Piano Sonorities

Piano_Sonorities_CoverI’ve been travelling about a bit lately, so it’s great to get home and listen to some music; there’s lots to catch up on.

Immediately, I fell for Piano Sonorities, an utterly beguiling collection of piano music by Betty R. Wishart, played by Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi. This intimate and darkly ruminative record is one of my favourites this year so far.

Chiefly, I am totally smitten by ‘Variations on a Folk Melody’, where the theme and twelve variations unfold wonderfully, from the deathly Ashokan Farewell of a theme itself, into ruminative short passages that, to me, have echoes of Debussy here, madcap Gerwshin piano-roll outbursts there, and some agitated hyperextension that is quite intoxicating. The overall determination though is to return to the hymn-like observance of the main theme, such that there is a kind of imaginative history being written. The wistful fourth variation is a very good example. I conjured, for instance, the life story of a fallen soldier. Then, the passage of a nation, through a whole century perhaps. And suddenly, as if similarly encouraged, a dog at my window took up a plaintive howl in accompaniment. I knew how he felt. The emotional ranging of the ‘Variations’ is simply outstanding, I think.

‘Remembrance’ is a beautiful piece of music, its yearning and sense of despair conveyed wonderfully by Astolfi. It has something of that late, slow Schubert about it, an unending agitation over some sense of loss or remorse that engages and re-engages as if it can never be fixed. And on top, there is a more modern filmic sweep which makes ‘Remembrance’ its own music. The piece ends on a single plinked fragility, as if to say the wisdom of centuries will not assuage such anguish, but there might be a gap in the clouds somewhere. Magnificent.

The four intense pieces that make up the ‘Night Vision Suite’, designed as the composer says, to “create illusions or visions that vary according to each individual’s experience” are something of an atmospheric tour de force. From a sonorous opening, to something of a scurrying sense of weird darting in the darkness, I called up some ‘Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari’ imagery in the first movement, inspired by this devilish scuttling that intrudes into the slower opening and close. The second movement begins with an incredibly doom-laden opening which then loses itself in the perplexed and troubled rumination I get from solo pieces by Berg. Riven by a kind of inward dialogue of dislocated bother, it reaches a point of silence around half way through, and then with the toll of the bell, sets off once more into brooding. These testing conditions continue over the next two movements of this suite of wonders, and if we bring our own visions to this exceptional music, then I see – as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy would have it – a darkness.

The ‘Sonata’ (one of two on the record) has an outer shell of two adagios around a very edgy scherzo. The faster movement in the middle is from a kind of puzzled, tumbling and obsessive kind of mindset, brought on by the consideration of the first slow movement, and anticipating the defeated resolution of the final one, as if it is familiar compulsive ground. The last movement seems to fade away with single notes called then abandoned as if, in fact, all has already been lost for a long, long time.