PAUL LANSKY ‘Imaginary Islands’ = PAUL LANSKY: Shapeshifters; With the Grain; Imaginary Islands – Quattro Mani, duo pianists (Susan Grace & Alice Rybak, piano)/David Starobin, guitar/The Alabama Sym. Orch./Justin Brown – Bridge Records 9366, 70:48 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Paul Lansky had spent most of his compositional career writing for electronics and electronically-altered sound sources. A good example is the composer’s Table’s Clear for sound-processed kitchen utensils and children’s voices. Lansky was actually quite successful and well known in this genre, utilizing the resources of the electronic music studio at Princeton, where he has taught for several decades now.
Lansky’s switch to writing for traditional acoustic instruments and orchestra pieces like those present began nearly twenty years ago but – as the composer explains – a complete switch can be dated to 2005. The concerto for two pianos and orchestra, Shapeshifters, is the first of his orchestral works to receive much acclaim, and deservedly so. Specifically for the Alabama Symphony and the duo pianists Quattro Mani, this is a very nice four movement work wherein the music changes or morphs along the way in a manner suggested by the title. The first movement, “At Any Moment”, introduces a B-minor chord that takes the work in a sudden different direction. The second movement, “Florid Counterpoint”, makes much use of counterpoint to twist and turn the music into what becomes a very pretty, somewhat lamenting, melody. “Confused and Dazed” keeps switching thematic material back and forth in what the composer describes as a sort of collage. The closing movement, “Topology”, develops into an exciting danced music. Becky Starobin of Bridge Records had actually suggested that Lansky write something for the duo pianists Grace and Rybak, and a subsequent discussion with Alabama Symphony Orchestra conductor, Justin Brown, led to the present work. This makes for a very addition to the relatively small collection of works for two pianos and orchestra and the soloists due a splendid job.
With the Grain is a four-movement concerto for guitar and orchestra and makes another very nice addition to a relatively small repertory. Written in 2009 on commission from the Fromm Foundation for guitarist David Starobin (also connected to Bridge Records), the four movements are very cleverly named after various grains of wood and their visual characteristics, which, in turn, describe the nature of the music composed. Specifically, these four movements are “Redwood Burl” (slow, round, evolving shapes), “Karelian Birch” (long, sinewy, wavy lines), “Quilted Beech” (quiet, with soft contours) and “Walnut Burl” (busy, with aggressive twists and turns). This is a very nice work and David Starobin is a wonderful guitarist!
The third work here, Imaginary Islands, is another very compelling piece, almost a set of three tone poems. Each movement gives a sort of musical portrait of three imaginary islands. The movement descriptions, as Lansky says, tell the story. They are “Rolling Hills, Calm Beaches, Something Brewing”, “Cloud-shrouded, Mysterious, Nascent” and “Busy, Bustling, With a Heartbeat”. Lansky points out that the sound of each movement (each “island”) gives the impression that there is a back story; something “under the surface”. Written for the Alabama Symphony in 2010 under a grant from members of Sound Investment and the National Endowment for the Arts, this is a very pleasant and attention-getting work.
Paul Lansky’s “new” sound world is tonal, accessible, a bit picturesque and very nice. I look forward to hearing more from Mr. Lansky, especially in the concerto area. I felt that another pleasant “surprise” here was the Alabama Symphony Orchestra under music director Justin Brown. This is a very fine orchestra which deserves to be heard on recordings more often. Kudos to Bridge Records for bringing these works and this orchestra to a wider audience!
Live premiere recording of Bruckner’s 1881-1884 Urtext Edition, 7th Symphony