MATTHEW WHITTALL: Leaves of Grass, 12 Preludes for piano after Walt Whitman – Risto-Matti Marin, piano – Alba multichannel SACD ABCD 333, 63:13 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Matthew Whittall is a Canadian composer currently residing in Finland, where he appears to have made somewhat of a splash, having been awarded a three-year artist grant by the Finnish Cultural Foundation in 2011. This is my first exposure to him, and it is a curious one.
I must say what he has done here takes a lot of nerve as the results are so highly personal and revealing. Okay, most artists when interpreting poets are revealing a personal side, but here Whittall lacks the advantage of the poetic texts themselves as this is a work for piano, and not everyone is going to come away from this music even remotely convinced of the composer’s take on these masterpieces. What he has done is selected a series of twelve poems by American poet Walt Whitman and given his instrumental (specifically pianistic) “take” on each of the works. While someone like Hindemith might be more instructive in a choral masterwork like When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, giving us a personal and textually considered interpretation of Whitman, Whittall freely admits that not everyone will agree with his “personal distillations of the atmosphere of each poem.” In other words, he is not trying to explain or portray Whitman’s work in any sort of concrete manner, but instead is looking to provide a general “feeling” that each piece inspires in him. This may or may not be mannered after specific meaning in the texts but also individual words or even emotions conjured up by phrases not necessarily pertinent to the overall meaning of the poem. In other words, here anything goes.
The music itself is post-impressionistic, not at all outside the more rigorous moments of Debussy’s wilder side, but also redolent of expressionistic harmonies as well, something I think even Ligeti would appreciate. Overall I found Whittall’s opus most engaging and thought-provoking, while his ability to compose for the piano is on a very high level indeed. Pianist and friend Risto-Matti Marin is on top of this sometimes fiendishly difficult music with aplomb, and the beautiful yet subdued surround sound makes for an excellent listening ambiance. This is well worth a try, and will surprise many. I look forward to hearing more from Mr. Whittall.
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