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Musical Reflections

Review from Klassic Magazin (Germany)
Criticism of Birgit Wertenson, 26.11.2006 Interpretation: Five Stars *****

The American pianist Bruce Levingston invites us discretely, but very generously, to dream of full romantic pictures. No, this must not be wrongly understood. Here one does not fall into a tide of romantically heated up mindless and cloying piano sound, and indeed, Bruce Levingston cannot be understood as a kitschy keyboard hero who would want to make one drunk with virtuoso cascades of piano sounds. Rather his invitation is to a meditation about subtle colors and sound. Levingston selects pieces of Erik Satie, Olivier Messiaen and Maurice Ravel and places at the top a first recording of a new work of Philip Glass. This is a very refined and well-thought out contribution to the CD market and it is not only due to his unadorned and clear interpretations.

The American pianist and the muse

The well-conceived selection of pieces shows above all a deep understanding and insight into historical musical relationships. When one understands how such histories are conceived one can better speak of a concept-album. The main topic of the concept can be clearly articulated: it is the seemingly endless riches of colors and sounds deeply explored by the composers and their interpreter. One may thus dive into a CD-compilation in which the neighborly placement of the pieces, like individual points of an impressionist painting, gradually form a total composition. And one finds not least on this voyage of discovery a thrilling guiding motive, which keeps itself hidden in the seemingly unique background of each piano piece in this journey of a builder of sounds. It concerns - enthusiastically anticipated - the creative expression and mutual inspiration of artists, composers, musicians, writers: thus it is finally about the muse.

Born in Mississippi in 1961, Bruce Levingston studied in Switzerland with Bela Borszomenyi Nagy and moved in 1984 to New York. Only a year after his arrival, he became closely connected with the local artistic scene. Since 1985, he has lived in an apartment in the legendary artist hotel Chelsea, which itself is an integral part of the local cultural color of the Big Apple. Levingston is actively engaged in new music in New York. He is known as pianist who has given concerts in Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and who founded the Premiere Commission in 2001. This institution provides commissions and first performance possibilities for young, talented composers.

Inspiration for Philip Glass

Philip Glass's Musical Portrait of Chuck Close is based on an idea by Levingston: the pianist says that when he saw Chuck Close's most famous painting, "Phil Manipulated" in 2003, the thought occurred to him that Glass could pay his friend back with a musical portrait. A few years later in April 2005, the resulting portrait was dedicated to Levingston and he performed the 2-movement piece for first time. The composer and the painter not only have shared friendship for many decades but also the same artistic needs. Close's work, for instance his self-portrait from 1996 on the cover of the booklet, consists of individual cells which are filled with different, ornamental colorings. One sees a parallel in sound with the minimalist Glass. In both movements of the Portrait, sequences of simple figurations follow one another: in the first movement the figurations are fast and joyful; in the second, there are oscillating, even bleak, broken minor chords. Rhythmic variations and harmonic modulations are slowly allowed to emerge.

Sound Portraits

Levingston approaches each piece on the CD with elegant restraint. In the Chuck Close piece he catches each sound of the figurations as if they were floating into an acoustical net through his soft and warm leggiero playing and the use of his flutter pedaling. The resulting sound conveys snapshots about which Levingston meditates. If he were like Chopin, who he refers to as a soul mate, he might build these snapshots into longer improvisations. But Levingston, a pianist who holds something in reserve, uses the trick of simplicity so not to break the meditative tenderness of this net of sound.

In an effectively smooth transition, the distant, mysterious figurations from Ravel's La vallée des cloches, repeating fine bell sounds, ring out and foreshadow the minimal techniques of composition that lay ahead. Even in the following virtuoso movements of the Spanish dance rhythms in Alborada del gracioso, Levingston executes these with a concentrated, finely delicate motor sensibility and without any over-the-top playing. Both pieces originate from Ravel's piano suite Miroirs. And both pieces are similar to the idea behind Philip Glass's Portrait: the experimental, joyful impressionist composer assumes the role of a multifaceted mirror, in which those to whom the piece is dedicated: - his pupil Maurice Delage and the music critic Michel Dimitri Calvocoressi - are reflected.

Messiaen's reflections in L'echange and Regard de la Vierge are spiritually inspired by the contemplation of the Christ Child. It is not easy to live up to their enormous pianistic challenges and at the same time maintain focus on the concentrated sound required. These reflections need time so that each detail of the sound and silence can be expressed. And Levingston is in no hurry. He brings with him sufficient mental peace and pianistic care. (Perhaps one can hope for a complete recording of the 20 Looks at the Infant Jesus?) And with the selection of the piano piece L'alouette Lulu (woodlark) from the Catalogue d?oiseaux Levingston lets the real source of inspiration of Messiaen ring out. One finds in each piece of the ornithologist/composer's works, at least since the 50's if not earlier, transliterated birdsong, expressing his spiritually-inspired admiration for nature.

First inspiration source Satie

If the CD now finishes with pieces by Erik Satie, this also has to mean something. Though many people think of Satie as a dilettante because of his anti-contrapuntal and economical way of writing, Satie's music was an important source of inspiration for numerous compositional developments of the 20th Century - its influence reaches from Ravel, Debussy and Messiaen all the way up to minimal and ambient music. Levingston selects the piece that, following Ravel's premiere of it in 1911, finally gained Satie popularity: the Sarabande No. 2. The set of three Sarabandes led Satie to further piano cycles, to the Gymnopedies and also to the Gnossiennes. Not many pieces are so simply written that even piano amateurs are not technically challenged, and also there are not many pieces which can be interpreted in so many different ways. They do not require pianistic virtuosity, but character. Therefore, the interpretation here is frankly a predetermined high point of the playing representative of the entire CD by the American pianist: reserved, intimate, meditative and richly colored.

©2007-2014 Premiere Commission, Inc. | Bruce Levingston Artistic Director