This is an impressive, challenging debut from British composer-pianist Philip Howard, winner of the 2003 Gaudeamus Interpreters’ Competition: big pieces by Xenakis, Finnissy and Feldman rub shoulders with shorter works by his contemporaries Paul Newland, Max Wilson and Paul Whitty. Howard’s fingerprints as a performer are clearly evident throughout: a ferocious technical ability filtered through a bold and thoughtful interpretative intellect. Most refreshingly, he seems (perhaps by dint of being a composer himself) prepared to adapt his whole approach to the demands of some very different aesthetics, lapsing neither into received ideals of pianistic beauty nor into crudely iconoclastic dogmatism.
Not surprising, then, that he should favour composers who tax these capacities to their limits, though it would be unfair to say that his playing delights only in extremes: in fact, his performance of Xenakis’s fearsome Evryali for instance, seems constantly to be struggling to penetrate under the furious surface to a less extroverted, more speculative and interiorized (even hesitant) musical substance beneath. One upshot of this approach is that occasional infelicities which do occur in the playing – a fluffed note, a blurred pedalling, a badly-weighted chord – are accepted if they do not interfere with larger interpretational issues: a risky strategy ultimately rewarded by performances which seem genuinely real and alive rather than pieced together in the cutting-room.
Whitty’s de-coding skin, a fleeting firework of frenetic cellular permutation, opens the disc with Howard scattering brilliant shards of two-part invention all over the keyboard. Max Wilson’s Zeitlin (on), which attempts to reconfigure elements of the playing of American jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin within a formally composed discourse, is more problematic, seeming to be caught awkwardly between the two without finding its own definition of purpose. Not so Newland’s …butterfly dreaming…, prefaced by three mysterious Chinese riddles on the nature of being and consciousness. The piece’s sparse succession of delicate high chords, interrupted by single sfffz notes, finds enigma and fascination among its repetitions and abscences.
Finnissy’s Eadweard Muybridge – Edvard Munch, from the monumental History of Photography in Sound, unfolds with an unmistakeable eloquence in two long and gently ruminative sections, each concluded by sudden bursts of speed which seem not so much visceral or histrionic as moments of dazzling light. Finnissy’s relation to his subject matter – Muybridge’s freeze-frame action photographs juxtaposed with the psychologically intense self-portraits of Munch – is one of philosophical contemplation rather than description or emulation, a distilled vision to which Howard brings an equally clarified pianism, revealing the sense behind the notes even when treating the complex counterpoint with a certain degree of rhythmic flexibility.
Last and best is Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari. This is an object lesson in close-up listening and feeling, capturing marvellously the music’s elegiac purity: the final ten minutes, as the harmony seems gradually to be refined and resolved into utter clarity, is a deeply moving piece of playing, a fitting conclusion to this brave and impressive display of musical intelligence and integrity.
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