When Music Need Replace Words
Without Words Bruce Levingston, piano. Sono Luminus DSL-92269 Total Time: 72:40 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
With the wider availability of the piano, coupled with a burgeoning publishing industry, there was a need for parlor-like pieces that could be played by people of varying abilities. These pieces were often collected into “books” that could be organized around a particular theme, popular dance style, suites of interconnected pieces, or a variety of pieces not necessarily defined by the inherited forms of the 18th century. Both Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny, wrote a number of these sorts of pieces that were collected across eight books published between 1829 and 1845. The Songs Without Words are among some of the more popular works of the period with their tuneful sentiments and picturesque, evocative writing.
Enter pianist Bruce Levingston who has collected in this new recital some 14 of Mendelssohn’s pieces and placed them around a collection of musical responses by American composer Price Walden (b. 1991-). The latter are seven brief pieces bearing titles inspired by Mendelssohn’s music but taken now into new tonal areas.
The Mendelssohn selections are arranged more for contrast of key and musical progression here. The seven that make up the front of the release include the Venetian Gondola Song from Op. 30 (No. 6) ; a somewhat interesting “Duetto” between hands from Op. 38 (no. 6); and selections from Op. 38 (no. 2) 53, (no. 1); 67 (no. 3) and 102 (nos. 3 & 4). One hears echoes of Beethoven in some of the stormier moments, the clarity of Mozrt, with the lyricism of Schubert and even Mendelssohn’s own developing humor and charm shining through. We get a sense of the connection to the current style, as well as to what has come before. The album’s final seven Songs Without Words focus mostly on Op. 19 with four selections (nos. 1, 2, 5, & 6), 62 (no. 1); 67 (no. 5), and 85 (no. 4). Most of these pieces focus on the beautiful lyrical writing that abounds in these pieces and this is brought out quite well by Levingston in these performances. The more advanced skills of moments like Op. 102 (no. 3) with its tarantella rhythms is well delineated with crisp playing and a rollicking sense of fun.
At the center of the album is the new collection of pieces by Walden, commissioned by Levingston and premiering on this release. The opening “Prelude” has a sort of bell-like harmonic style that shifts across the range of the keyboard in a more declamatory way. The second number is a sort of arabesque where the chordal, cadential pauses (with their Satie-like dreaminess) recall aspects of the opening movement. The “Love Song” hearkens back to the Duetto from the opening set of Mendelssohn pieces. The two voices wind their way in dialogue between the hands coming together in the end. An equally beautiful moment of reflection occurs in the tranquil, “Berceuse” and even more intensely-moving “Elegy”. This is shattered by the more overt penultimate movement, “Protest”, before we are brought back to a sense of piece in the concluding “Lullaby”. Overall, the piece is a perfectly fitting companion to the music that surrounds it serving as its own mirror of pianistic writing and reflective music that evokes its own imagery for a new age. The music is equally accessible as well.
Without Words features some quite beautiful pianism from Levingston. The Walden selections are contemporary additions to the literature in exquisite playing here which carries over from the beauty of the more familiar repertoire. Levingston has a good sense of shape and forward motion in these pieces that are given intelligent readings. The recording captures the richness of the Steinway he is performing on with a proper presence in the sound picture. The album is easily recommendable for its combination of repertoire in excellent sound and performances.