The sudden, arresting gesture that opens Ed Bennett’s Gothic (2008) sets the scene for this disc. Clearly individual music, the gesture repeats time after time, with extended time for decay. The fact that the piece is inspired by the vast spaces of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris perhaps explains the emphasis on resonance, while the dark shadings refer to Notre Dame at night, “when it is not full of tourists, just quiet hunchbacks, ghosts and gargoyles.” Mary Dullea plays with the confidence of one fully immersed in the music of our time. Towards the end of the piece, repeated chords seen to transform (gargoylize?) the piano into a sharp-toothed nightmarish version of itself. The ensuing rest Bennett grants us in a return to the opening gestures is balm indeed; although even then it sits in gray shadows.
David Fennessy, a student of James MacMillan, wrote his The first thing, the last thing, and everything in between in memory of the Scottish poet and playwright Tom McGrath (1940-2009). Again, there is a ghost very much in the background: the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The piece is decidedly cumulative and includes long sustained notes on two voices (uncredited, as far as I can see). A similar quiet beginning with repeated gestures links Jonathan Nangle’s piece Grow Quiet Gradually (2008) strongly to the Bennett, although Nangle provides the more delicate creation.
Mary Dullea’s Ph.D. was built around music that explores sounds both inside and outside of the piano. It is this aspect that Frank Lyons chose to explore in his Tease (2009), a piece dedicated to Dullea. The title refers to the way that sounds are teased out of the instrument. There is an element of performer choice in this work: The 12 sections are ordered by the pianist, not the composer. Certainly the sounds we hear are not those one naturally expects from a piano. One suspects those enamored of the music of John Cage would find much to enjoy here. There is a terrific sense of adventure, as Lyons explores the cavernous effects that a piano is capable of; and the percussive rapid rhythmic relays one can generate, also. A real treat.
Dublin-born John McLachlan provides Nine (2011), the title referring to the number of movements. The titles of these short movements come from a wide variety of languages, from Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin to Finnish. Aphoristic, each makes its point with great economy and yet each speaks of a fresh compositional voice. The second movement, “Scala,” of course concentrates on scales, but in a most interesting fashion (think slowed-down Ligeti), while “Ananda” reveals a Webern-esque attitude to silence and the importance of the individual sound event. Each movement punches way above its (durational) weight. The longest (at 3:13) is the angular, lop-sided dance of “Aurea” (movement 6), but maybe the most involving are the final pair, “Hikka” and Fretta.” Fascinating.
The etude presented here by Grainne Mulvey, a pupil of Nicola LeFanu, was premiered in 1994. There is huge beauty here in Mulvey’s use of the piano’s fragile higher reaches and also in her use of overlappings, but there is a primal urgency to some of the more rhythmic writing. The combination adds up to compelling listening.
Finally there comes Homenaje a Maurice Ghana (1999) by Benjamin Dwyer, which quotes from Ghana’s Tiento. It’s a shame Ghana has never really been given the prominence or credit he deserves, and this is surely a step in the right direction (the curious might want to explore a recording of Ghana’s Etudes d’Interpretation by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on Harmonic Records 9354). Dwyer’s writing can be highly virtuosic, but it is all subsumed in the light of his overall statement. This is a serious homage, from someone who has really thought through his offering. Dullea’s technical prowess is beyond doubt, topped only by her innate understanding of this piece, and for that matter of every piece on this disc.
Those wishing to explore contemporary piano music will find much here. That the disc can be so geographically specific tells us much of what is going on in Ireland; and, indeed, makes us want to know more. Recommended.