Wednesday, November 25, 2020

"Labyrinth", David Greilsammer's recent solo piano disc, offers an unconventional mix of works and superb performance

David Greilsammer (photo:Elias Amari)


“Labyrinth”, David Greilsammer’s most recent recording, a solo piano album recorded on the naïve label (November 2020), draws its inspiration from a personal and decisive inner journey taken by the pianist, one emanating from a dream. In the disc’s liner notes Greilsammer writes: “There I was, standing, surrounded by the walls of this immense and infinite labyrinth. I had never seen such a remarkable edifice – it was both terrifying and miraculous. An inevitable, relentless energy was forcing me to advance, like a desperate need to search for something... I kept walking, for many hours, perhaps weeks, perhaps years…I stopped, breathless, only to begin once more, rushing, falling…  Suddenly, I heard sounds, they were bizarre, abstract, attractive, and so I let them guide me and take me by the hand... fragments of numerous sonorities that were staring at each other, like stars in a galaxy, quietly gazing at one another. They seemed to be illuminating my way, accompanying me to the centre of the labyrinth...This dream, or this nightmare, has returned to haunt me...triggering doubts and sleepless nights, causing both excitement and anxiety. It challenged my beliefs, my emotions, and my strongest convictions. Of course, I would discuss this situation with several people around me, but my questions remained unresolved, and the dream’s appearance seemed to be accelerating, becoming more frequent over time. So, one day, I decided to stop talking about it. Instead, I decided to start searching for this labyrinth, in order to reconstruct it, and make it exist...And the only way to move forward and find peace was to recreate this maze with music, trying to reinvent the many pieces of this infinite puzzle, with the help of the sounds I had heard during my voyage, night after night…”


It was Aristotle who interpreted dreams as psychological phenomena, viewing them as the life of one's soul while asleep. To grant the listener a deeper understanding into the genesis of the disc, Greilsammer has admitted us into the workings of his dream world, firstly by way of his own program notes, then to hand the narrative over to his performance of several miniature works strategically grouped in threes in what he refers to as “chapters”. He sets out on the journey with a piece from Leoš Janáček’s “On the Overgrown Path”, a set of autobiographical pieces referring to the composer’s childhood growing up in Moravia: “The Owl Has Not Flown Away” propels the listener into a rich, evocative pianistic sound world, with its startling and alarming portrayal of the owl’s cry. Following an ethereal, pristine, richly ornamented rendition of “Les Sourdines d'Armide “ from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1686 musical tragedy“Armide”, we return to  Janáček with “Words Fail”. Then to Greilsammer’s  mysterious, evocative and dazzling playing from off the  circular notation of “The Magic Circle of Infinity” from George Crumb’s“Makrokosmos”, Volume I (subtitled "Twelve fantasy pieces after the Zodiac for Amplified Piano) as he fulfills the composer’s  request  that it be played “like cosmic clockwork”, Crumb’s piece bookended by two of Beethoven’s Op.126  Bagatelles - the first frantic and explosive, the second serene. Strange bedfellows? Actually, no. Not in this unique setting. And how about Contrapunctus I from Bach’s “Art of Fugue”, crystalline and eloquent, flanked by two of György Ligeti's highly virtuosic Études Pour Piano, Ligeti’s pieces merging the ideas heard in his inner ear with what he refers to as the “anatomical reality of my hands and the configuration of the piano keyboard.”?


The centrepiece of the disc, standing alone and literally placed between the first three chapters and the ensuing three, is “El amor y la muerte - Balada” (Love and Death Ballad) from Enrique Granados’ “Goyescas”, this piece taking its inspiration from the tenth painting of Goya’s “Caprichos” (1799) and its caption: “See here a Calderonian lover who, unable to laugh at his rival, dies in the arms of his beloved and loses her by his daring.”  One of the truly great outpourings of Romantic pianism, “El amor y la muerte” is both meditative and deeply emotional, turbulent and sublimely mysterious. Acutely aware of its profusely varied essence, Greilsammer wields the piece’s complex passagework and kaleidoscope of rich, changing textures, from the most fragile of filigree utterances to wide, sweeping gestures embracing the voluptuousness of the piano range. He produces a performance of both powerful emotion and exquisite poignancy, taking the listener beyond the programmatic content of the work and deep into the vast realm of fantasy.


Time to catch one’s breath! We hear two of Erik Satie’s "Danses de travers" (Crooked Dances) from “Pièces froides” (Cold Pieces), their limpid mood, frequently shifting tonalities and free rhythmical patterns still sounding invitingly contemporary more than a century later; these are punctuated by the unexpected harmonic forays, rhetoric and virtuosity encapsulated in C.P.E. Bach’s perfectly sculpted miniature Fantasia in D minor H195. 


"Repetition blindness is the failure to recognize a second happening of a visual display" (Wikipedia).  “Repetition Blindness” by composer, pianist and improviser  Ofer Pelz (b.1978, Israel) was not only commissioned especially for this program; the brilliantly pianistic piece, its two frenetic sections performed either side of a Marin Marais Chaconne, takes its inspiration from  works on the disc, quoting from Rebel’s “Le cahos” (Chaos) and sounding the owl’s strident cry from the opening Janáček piece, also basing the piece’s harmonic content on that of the two pieces. It makes for intense, riveting and active listening. Indeed, Pelz wishes to draw the listener’s attention to the fine differences between repetition and variation. Providing a brief hiatus between the piece’s two sections, Greilsammer takes the listener to the opulent Versailles court of Kings Louis XIV and XV to hear an elaborately-ornamented, albeit light-hearted reading of a Chaconne by Marin Marais. 


Touched off by  Greilsammer’s contemplative, otherworldly presentation of Alexander Scriabin’s “Nuances”  Op.56, the recording soars to a climactic and impassioned conclusion via Jean-Féry Rebel’s “Le chaos” (arr. Jonathan Keren), the composer’s depiction of the confusion reigning among the Elements introduced by chords simultaneously sounding every step of the D minor scale in what might well be considered the first notated tone cluster in the history of music, these to be followed, among other gestures, by contrasting  moments of euphoric sereneness. The recording culminates with one of Scriabin’s last pieces for piano, “Vers la flamme” (Toward the flame), Op. 72 (1914), a work totally based on an obsessively repeated semitone motif. “Vers la flamme” starts out sounding long, held chords interspersed with rhythmically uncertain phrase fragments, suggesting time suspended, progressively to create Scriabin’s incendiary vision through the gradual increase of complexity and an intensifying of keyboard textures. Greilsammer’s masterful handling of the flamboyant arpeggiations down in the lower register, whirling finger-work in the mid-range and dazzling, incandescent gestures in the piano’s upper region spiral to describing tongues of flame, as evoked by nebulous double tremolos, to present a triumphant, farewell burst of bright light, played out on the extremities of the keyboard.


David Greilsammer (b.1977, Jerusalem) is a bold artist, here presenting programming of a daring and fresh approach. Ground-breaking as it is, the program is impeccable in its planning, as he seamlessly crosses boundaries of time and place with the utmost of skill and eloquence. The Steinway Model D piano in the Sendesaal (Bremen, Germany) and the hall’s brilliant acoustics give prominence to Greilsammer’s love of detail, his pellucid piano technique and broad expressive spread. Indeed, he is a master of the musical miniature. Summing up the “Labyrinth” project, Greilsammer writes: “Like every personal journey, it was not the truth that I was looking for. Rather, I was hoping to make this labyrinth my own, revealing its patterns, its secrets, and its colours, like the discovery of an ancient fresco that had been hidden in the dust, for thousands of years.”

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