An evocative piano premiere

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

Leaves of Grass is a cycle of 12 piano preludes by Canadian composer Matthew Whittall (born 1975) that draw inspiration from Walt Whitman’s poetry as well as from iconic piano works of the past. Whittall openly acknowledges how the sweeping arpeggios in the Prelude called Song of the Universal are patterned after those in Chopin’s “Ocean” Etude (Op. 25 No. 12), although the churning, syncopated chords in its long opening section might serve as the prequel to John Adams’ Phrygian Gates. Similarly, Whittall cites Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie as the impetus behind the proclamatory white-key chords in Sparkles from the Wheel. However, in the sparse single notes of Lingering Last Drops, I hear less Webern than the slow-motion resonances of Morton Feldman. Jagged, rapid decorative high-register filigree and certain obsessive repeated chords bring Messiaen to mind. I especially like the prelude entitled A Noiseless Patient Spider; it opens with slithering chromatic phrases that stop in midair, then gradually evolve into big, declamatory chordal pillars.

Does the musical substance evoke the spirit of Whitman’s texts? If you listened to these Preludes without knowing Whittall’s literary subtext or reading his program notes, would you think “Gee, this music makes me think about Walt Whitman?” I doubt it. As a matter of fact, Whittall could have titled his cycle Twelve Preludes based on The New Testament, or Twelve Preludes after John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, and we’d be none the wiser. If Whittall’s style does not leap out with striking originality or a strong melodic profile, his assured and skillful command of modern piano idioms ought to attract advanced students looking for effective new works to perform. Risto-Matti Marin’s dynamic, incisive, splendidly characterized and superbly engineered performances make a compelling case for this evocative work’s premiere recording.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one

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