ARC 1 = GRANADOS: Goyescas, Op. 11; JANACEK: In the Mists; SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 9, Op. 68 “Black Mass” – Orion Weiss, piano – First Hand Records FHR127 (3/18/22) (74:51) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
Arc 1 inaugurates a three-part project (rec. 22-24 May 2014) by pianist Orion Weiss that addresses those keyboard works created in what he terms “the frantic years of 1911-1913 – the precipice before World War I.” The emotional curve moves from hope to despair, as the material and political forces converge to plunge the world into anxiety, chaos, and death on a global scale. Weiss contends that the composers in the present collection, aware of the impending disaster, forged works that reflect the spirit of the times in a darkly modern syntax.
Weiss opens with six-movement suite Goyescas (1911) by Enrique Granados, inspired by the paintings of Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), whose work depicts Spanish life at the end of the 18th century, a world simultaneously noble and sensual, melancholic and threatening. The suite has the subtitle Los majos enamorados, “The young lovers,” which, in this gothic context, reminds us the citation from The Book of Common Prayer, “in the midst of life we are in death.” The six pieces by Granadox economically rely on a few, interwoven themes, describe a love affair that suffers separation, sorrow, and the death of the man, ending with an Epilogo: Serenata del espectro, a guitar serenade by the dead man’s ghost.
From the outset of the first piece, Los requiebros, a courtship scene in E-flat Major, Weiss realizes any number of Spanish impulses – tonadillas, Spanish folk songs, castanets, guitars, jotas, and cante jondo, the “deep song” of the Andalusian, flamenco spirit. The love scene unfolds in vivid colors from the Weiss Steinway Model D, rife with roulades and sensuous, ornamental filigree. In Coloquio en la reja, “Conversation at the Window,” the liquid parlando style in B-flat Major, con sentimento amoroso, utters the lovers’ declaration of fidelity. The music intensifies, alternately lush and tenderly simple in texture, as Granados moves into keyboard’s upper registers. The constantly shifting metrics of El fandango de candil captures the hot-blooded, passionate embraces and the fatal separation of the couple. Now, the couple confronts their sorrow in Quejas, o la Maja y el Ruiseñor, “Laments, or The Maiden and the Nightingale,” and so we have the movement in the suite towards lamentation. El Amor y la muerte – Balada juxtaposes the eternal themes of love and death. Granados employs an augmented sixth chord in A Minor to highlight the sense of tragic awareness, besides employing passing, dissonant harmonies that often resound in the manner of Liszt or Mussorgsky.
Weiss notes that this music signifies longing, fear, and loss. The recollection of happy times in moments of sorrow recalls Francesca da Rimini in Dante. The latter part of this expansive movement assumes the fioritura and narrative style of a Chopin ballade, texturally thick and polyphonic. A pungent F-sharp could evoke the mortal wound the maja suffers, and the piece concludes with low bell-tones. The Epilogo is set in E Minor, abounding in guitar filigree and ornaments that often invoke Scarlatti, Weiss executes held notes that form a descending, chromatic melody; by keeping the hand still and plucking the keys, he achieves the guitar effect. This Epilogue quotes prior melodies either directly or in distortion, given that while the ghost proclaims his devotion, the woman receives no sense of spiritual consolation. Death has conquered all, even hope.
Leos Janacek originally conceived his four-movement, piano suite In the Mists in 1912; he decided to revise the score in 1924, particularly sensitive to the influence of Claude Debussy, whose Reflets dans l’eau had impressed Janacek. The emotional canvas of In the Mists remains narrow and claustrophobic: in 1911. Janacek wrote, “Perhaps you will sense weeping in it, the premonition of certain death.” The interval of a falling third, initially in the Andantino, marks the awareness of mortality.
The opening Andante, in ternary form, indulges immediately in ambiguous harmonies around D-flat, cantando, in a chorale statement that becomes agitated. The Molto adagio unfolds as a conversation between a lulling theme in 2/8 and its dance-character, and a sudden, second idea in 3/8, a frenzied Presto. Dissonant counterpoints add to the sense of alienation as the two impulses vie for dominance. Soft syncopations lead us into a vague space that dissipates. The Andantino in 4/8 proceeds in a lovely, arching melody that passes through different keys. A fiery eruption in harsh, punctuated accents occurs, only momentary, and the calm opening materials return to conclude this brief but disturbed piece. The last piece, an expansive Presto, 5/4, bears an Eastern European flavor. Not especially fast, the piece imitates guitar and cembalom effects, rocking back and forth between lyrical musing and explosive impulse, with a recitative element that vaguely hints at the Dies Irae in the midst of colliding harmonies. The primary melody returns, only to end grudgingly, via the falling third, on a chord in D-flat Minor.
Weiss ends this sojourn into existential doubt and impeding chaos with Alexander Scriabin’s 1913 punishing and virtuosic “Black Mass” Sonata, a work Weiss depicts as “a taut story of hope succumbing to despair.” A single-movement work ostensibly in B Minor – like the Liszt Sonata – the piece bathes and revels in spectacular chromaticism, often relying on Scriabin’s “mystic chord” of six notes built on fourths. Scriabin’s use of the minor ninth as a “unifying” device precisely invites disruption, which the composer characterizes as legendaire, exotic and a bit reminiscent in affect of Schumann’s designation in his Fantasie in C, Op. 17. The use of the moving trill, a device from late Beethoven, here assumes a diabolic intent, finding its “liberation” in a poisonous march impulse. That these sinister transformations lay in the opening, theme, “pure and limpid,” indicts all experience with the Jekyll-and-Hyde potential, the remark by Omar Khayyam that “you yourself are Heaven and Hell.” For this auditor, Scriabin’s massive gesture reminds him of the perception by Joseph Conrad, that all civilization rests on the cooled residue of volcanic action, and the seething magma lies just below, ready in a moment to vent itself and overthrow our vain sense of order. Highly recommended.