Gilad Cohen: Around the Cauldron 
Reinaldo Moya: Ghostwritten Variations 
Jennifer Higdon: Love Sweet – To poetry by Amy Lowell 
Sofia Belimova: Titania and her Suite 
William David Cooper: An den Wassern zu Babel 
Jakub Ciupinski: The Black Mirror 
Lysander Piano Trio: Itamar Zorman (violin); Michael Katz (cello); Liza Stepanova (piano), Sarah Shafer (soprano)
Recording: Oktaven Audio in Mount Vernon, New York, USA (January 2-3, 2018 ) and Ramsey Concert Hall, University of Georgia Performing Arts Center, Athens, Georgia, USA (February 21, 2018 ) – 71’26 –
First Hand Records FHR 111 – Booklet in English
The Lysander Piano Trio’s “mirrors" is a totally delicious album you will not want to stop playing, partly because of the Trio’s hypnotic proficiency, but it also has an appealing introduction to some noteworthy composers of new music.
The album is 71 minutes long, but it is so densely packed with treats that you may want to spread the listening experience over several sittings. The title “mirrors” is inspired by the last work on the album, The Black Mirror by Jakub Ciupinski. The mirror in question is a little pocket mirror popular in the 18th century which enabled a person to capture the reflection of an actual landscape and create the impression of a miniature drawing or painting. This is similar to the way we can turn JPGs into watercolors by editing them with filters and screens on our smartphones. So, too, is the art of music a kind of changeling-mirror that distills and concentrates our experience of life and reflects it back to us as song.
Lysander offers six works by as many composers over a total of 19 tracks. Like many new works, our appreciation of Around the Cauldron by Gilad Cohen (1980-) deepens after one has read the descriptive notes in the informative booklet accompanying this album. While not program music, the seven movements outline the feel of a gathering of witches, perhaps the three who gather in Shakespeare’s Macbeth with the following labels: In Dusk, Pounce, Transmutation, Boiling, Witches Waltz (a catchy soundtrack in search of a Tim Burton movie), Newts’ Lament, and Sacrificial. The Trio’s brilliant traditional skill set is supplemented by deliberate squeaks, glissandi, stopped strings, snaps, and ripples on the piano, creating a magical atmosphere, teetering on the edge of hard rock, where merriment and menace meet.
Maintaining a theme more in sync with Halloween than Christmastide, the second selection is Ghostwritten Variations, by Reinaldo Moya (1984-), each of the four variations inspired by a work of literature that has captivated the composer, beginning with Mann’s Dr. Faustus and ending with Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Memory of Whiteness. The first variation creates a haunting sense of languor and surrender, while the second variation has an upward lilt and a light sense of traditional harmony. The work ends with some virtuosic effects on the piano where gripping low notes rise into a crescendo of classic elegance. A graduate from Venezuela’s El Sistema music education program and recipient of degrees from Juilliard, Moya is Assistant Professor of Composition at Augsburg University.
The next work deviates from the world of strictly new composers while remaining in a vital contemporary vein. Jennifer Higdon, one of the most admired American composers of our time, is represented in Love Sweet, a series of poems by Amy Lowell (1876-1925). The Trio is joined by soprano Sarah Shafer in this series of searingly passionate evocations of romantic love and timeless cries of despair. Shafer’s voice is clear and intense, whether luxuriating in mellow reminiscences or rising sharp as the point of a stiletto with sudden, piercing grief. Whether caressing the word “love” or whispering the syllable “death”, Shafer brings an elegant grace to each articulation and offers insight into the many faces of affection. At one point in “A Fixed Idea,” Higdon has managed to blend love and pain in the same heartbreaking phrase, and Shafer’s delivery of the message sent shivers down my spine.
A composer to watch is Sofia Belimova, whose sparkling Titania and Her Suite, a single-track selection characterized by rippling piano riffs and a general air of capriciousness, is next on the album. I played Titania in a college production of Midsummer Night’s Dream and can attest that this music conveys exactly the sense of flitting among the flowers and hiding in a mossy glade as the moon casts its spell on innocent lovers. Incredibly, Sofia was only 13 when she composed this trio six years ago.
Following Belimova’s brief fantasy is an attractive selection in the atonal style, William Cooper’s An den Wasser zu Babel, known also as Psalm 137, The Rivers of Babylon. I never thought I would live to see the day I would call atonal music conservative, but the work has a serious, familiar character that actually balances well with the more effervescent episodes of some of the works that precede it.
The album closes with its longest work, nearly 14 minutes in length, Jakub Ciupinski’s The Black Mirror. Ciupinski is quoted in the booklet notes as saying, “I wanted this piece to be a small-scale study of time, painted with dim colors, low contrast and simple contours.” The Trio plays this intensely unified selection with energy and verve. Glissandi on the strings cry like shore birds behind the icy sheen of the piano. Influences of Philip Glass and perhaps Bach intermingle. The final descending G-F-Eb-D progression sounds all the world to me like Bach’s Komm, süsser Tod. The final moments are a vortex pulling us deep into a world where one is never sure which is real: the flesh-and-blood observer or a flickering reflection in the mirror.