To Keep the Dark Away = Piano music of SCHULMAN, PROKOFIEV, WANGER, SHATIN – Gayle Martin – Ravello

In the course of documenting her friendship with composer Shatin, Gayle Martin drafts several Romantics.

To Keep the Dark Away” = SCHUMANN (arr. Liszt): Widmung; SHATIN: To Keep the Dark Away – Suite of 5 Pieces; Fantasy on St. Cecilia; PROKOFIEV:  5 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75; WAGNER (arr. Liszt): Ballade of the Flying Dutchman; Isolde’s Liebestod – Gayle Martin, piano – Ravello RR 7937, 64:38 (7/8/16) [Distr. by Naxos] ***:

Pianist Gayle Martin and composer Judith Shatin (b. 1949) have had a creative relationship as far back as 1997, when Ms. Martin performed Ms. Shatin’s Fantasy on Saint Cecilia at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. This disc features that work, along with Ms. Shatin’s piano suite To Keep the Dark Away Dr. Shatin teaches at the University of Virginia, where she heads the Center for Computer Music.

Pianist Gayle Martin wishes to impart (rec. 10-11 September 2015 and 5 December 2015) her vision of luminous and numinous experience, and so she seeks out those composers and literary artists who exult in a “secret song” of “emotional fervor.” To be sure, Martin’s rendition of Schumann’s Widmung in the Liszt arrangement proves lyrical and dramatic in its “dedication” to exuberant spirits. The piano tone – especially its mid-range – enjoys a warm luster, courtesy of Audio Director Jeff LeRoy and Studio Engineer Ryan Streber.  I still stand, however, by Ruth Slenczynska on this one.

The opening piece of the eponymous To Keep the Dark Away suite concentrates on individual tones and their luminosity within a limited harmonic spectrum. The model might be Scriabin, but the music lacks his natural mysticism. A Glee Possesseth Me might lay claim to aspects of Debussy as its inspiration, but the runs and accents want Schoenberg, too, to be its godfather. offers a mighty toccata of sorts, rife with repeated notes and runs in various registers, and some galloping chords. Whether the Book of Job or Nietzsche’s famous dictum about “what makes me stronger” provides the impetus is up for grabs. The Aurora Light does attempt some diaphanous, raindrop effects, an ostinato with individually bright filigree that more than suggests Bach’s C Major Prelude. Whose Spokes a Dizzy Wheel Makes would likely suggest Ezekiel and the Wheel, but the pointillism of the opening section belies the effect. A pattern of broken chords and quick runs and turns rather pulverizes the light, so maybe the light switch comes from Webern.

The hard patina Martin applies to “The Street Awakening” from Prokofiev’s own 1937 piano reduction of his ballet Romeo and Juliet sets the tone for the other four excerpts. “The Arrival of the Guests” sounds a bit clangorous and grumpy, perhaps intentionally, until Juliet leads several of them inside. “The Young Juliet” scampers through a bristling series of light-fingered runs with heavy bass cadences. In her dreamy moments, the patina softens, and Juliet’s capacity for passionate love – what Prokofiev had assigned a cello line – emerges. The ternary song ends with a return with a pearly rendition of Juliet’s true feelings, now aimed at the stars. “The Montagues and the Capulets” remains the most stentorian and internally clashing of the familiar excerpts, the instantiation of their traditional militancy. A true knuckle-buster, “Mercutio” ends the suite with a dazzling toccata. His dance allows Martin to mix a variety of colors, staccato and legato.
Composer Shatin adapted her Piano Concerto into a three-movement, twenty-minute suite Fantasy on St. Cecilia, a testament to the martyrdom – by a trinity of axe-strokes – to the (alleged) patron saint of music. The first section, quite dissonant and aggressive, Her Struggle, represents Cecilia’s confrontations with her community. The rhythmic patterns seem rather arbitrary and punishing. Her Passion, the second movement, expresses the spiritual journey, and it includes an allusion – quite displaced tonally in the course of this evolution – to a chorale from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Her Martyrdom, the last movement, juxtaposes the physical death of the protagonist against her moral triumph. An ominous march that erupts into discordant scales opens the movement. Pounding block chords and jabbing, angry accents mark Cecilia’s progress to her own crucifixion. After the jarring washes of sound fade, the transfiguration begins. The effect seems reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre, here testing the limits of the keyboard and dying off suddenly.

The two Wagner pieces come as welcome respite after the killing harmony of the Shatin. The Dutchman, of course, seeks that love which redeems him. Again, I find some of the fff chords overly aggressive, but lyrical elements the ballade resonate gently over the tumultuous d minor bass. The shellacking of the instrument really does not create drama as much as the kind of Wagnerian hullaballoo Oscar Wilde mocks. Martin tones down her attack for the Love-Death. It has become plain that a vast gulf lies between competent, academic piano playing and inspired poetry of motion as find in Gina Bachauer or Ruth Slenczynska. It’s been an interesting but also disconcerting run of notes.

—Gary Lemco

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