Wednesday 27 September 2023

Drinking the stars: Mary Dullea plays the piano music of John McLachlan

John McLachlan: Drinking the stars; Mary Dullea; Farpoint Recordings

John McLachlan: Drinking the stars; Mary Dullea; Farpoint Recordings

Uncompromising perhaps, occasionally stark but always vivid and arresting, a survey of the Irish composer John McLachlan's piano music from the last 30 years in stunning performances from Mary Dullea

The Irish composer John McLachlan was born in Dublin and studied music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and Trinity College Dublin, and studied composition with William York, Robert Hanson and Kevin Volans. It is perhaps relevant to his own compositional style that for his PhD in musicology from Trinity College Dublin, he specialised in researching the compositional techniques of Boulez, Xenakis, Lutoslawski and Carter.

This new disc, Drinking the stars: Mary Dullea plays the piano music of John McLachlan on Farpoint Recordings, features two discs (a total of over two hours music) with Mary Dullea performing a range of McLachlan's piano music from almost the last 30 years. Whilst the majority of pieces are from the last decade or so, there are works dating back to the 1990s.

As McClachlan explains in his booklet note, this spread of time means that his approach in the works is quite varied, but listening to the whole one senses a fascinating with structure as opposed to focusing on harmony, or melodic material, and a certain uncompromising feeling to his approach.

We begin with Nuance from 2004 dedicated to the pianist Owen Lorigan. A diptych, it can be read as a prelude and fugue, the prelude full of textures that grow from the brightly rhythmic into something more disturbing. When the fugue arrives it is uncompromisingly chromatic, intense and rather remarkable. Grand Action, from 2006, was written in memoriam Kieran Clarke, a friend, pianist and piano technician of the highest calibre. Fast passages, reflecting on Chopin’s Op 10 No 1 (which Kieran played), are jaggedly placed together with silence and violence to create something that challenges listener and performer. December is the first of a set of pieces, Winter Music, and though they explore 'pseudo-repetition' there is also a descriptive element, I feel, in the rather expressionistic cast to the music.

Nine, which was completed in 2011 and dedicated to Mary Dullea, brings together nine miniature pieces written over several years, with the intention of creating a set of short pieces akin to a modern version of Chopin or Prokofiev. The titles are from Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and Finnish,  - Arpa (harp), Scala (stairs or scale), Ananda (bliss), κύματα (Kimata, waves), Nebula (cloud), Aurea (golden), Maya (illusion), Hikka (hiccup or hocket), Fretta (hurry). The result is a sort of set of modern preludes, each a particular character study, each highly concentrated, often featuring small gestures that mean a lot. So, for instance, in Ananda, it is the use of silence that we notice whilst in the following one, κύματα,  it is the numbing violence of the opening, these waves are violent. Hikka is exactly that, a delightfully jazzy hocket where you suspect the rhythms, flipping between lines and hands, are far trickier than they seem, whilst Fretta does exactly that, again with jazziness in the rhythm and an uncompromising violence in the harmonies.

We return to Winter Music for January, the material is different here but there feels a commonality of approach and a sense of disturbance and anxiety.

fíailí ceoil is Irish for musical weeds (pronounced ‘fyawly kyawl'). Whilst the title is a witty nod to early Baroque Fiori Musicali collections, it is also a modern take, nature struggling in wastelands. The material is rather restless but with a serious intent and you feel the way McLachlan draws you in and along. It is along piece that carries its structure with it, each section leading you into the next, taking you to unexpected places. 

Stone Bell and Sandwave from 2020 has its origins in pianist/composer Rolf Hinds' lockdown request for miniatures or postcard pieces, from any composers who heard his call. Fanfaron and Sazanami were written in direct response, other pieces followed and the composer re-purposed some existing ones. Again, the titles have a distinct sense - Fanfaron (swaggerer). Sazanami (ripple). Interse (part of the word ‘intersection’). Zebra (dedicated to Júlia Canosa i Serra). Nimbus (a halo). Cairn (a burial mound of stones). Aria (a melody). Zerkalo (Mirror). Comma. Narita (an airport in Tokyo). Celesta (a bell-like instrument). Béla (a homage to Bartók). Streel (to wander). Iwa (stone). Chikara (strength). Virelai (an old song form). Kengo (inner strength). Ague (fever, dedicated to the late Bill Bardwell). Suna (sand). Vita (life, in memoriam Savita Halappanavar).

We are in the world of the prelude or the character piece. Most are under two minutes long, each strongly characterised and define, contrasting highly with the ones surrounding. The result is dazzlingly kaleidoscopic and rather vividly projected here, so Dullea's martellato in Interse contrasts with the intimate, lyrical Zebra. The titles here intrigue, making you wonder what there is in the music.

Ockham's Razor and X were written in 1994 as a pair for a concert, the first to open it, the second as an encore. They are studies, not in piano technique but in compositional technique. The first striking and dramatic, the second more intimate, both seem to have an expressionist lyricism alongside the violent outbursts.

Next comes the last Winter Music, November, and it is derived from inverting the harmony of December to create something delicate, intricate and rather striking. Finally comes the title track, Drinking the Stars (2012), inspired by stories about the origin of champagne and resulting in something fizzy yet dramatic, buzzy yet striking.

The performances from Mary Dullea are simply stunning. At all times in the challenging and complex music she feels completely on top of the technical challenges whilst projecting the emotional complexities too. This is complexity that is not academic and cold, but emotional, and dramatic. Uncompromising perhaps, occasionally stark but always vivid and arresting.

The disc covering features three stunning images, monotypes by artist Joanna Kidney    

CD 1
[1] Nuance (2003) (8:45)
[2] Grand Action (2005) (5:32)
[3] December (Winter Music) (2013) (4:47)

Nine (2016)
[4] I. Arpa (0:43)
[5] II. Scala (1:01)
[6] III. Ananda (1:35)
[7] IV. Kimata (1:25)
[8] V. Nebula (1:18)
[9] VI. Aurea (3:13)
[10] VII. Maya (2:22)
[11] VIII. Hikka (1:08)
[12] IX. Fretta (1:18)

[13] January (Winter Music) (2019) (5:01)
[14] fíailí ceoil (2019) (24:27)

CD 2
Stone Bell and Sandwave (2020)
[1] I. Fanfaron (1:16)
[2] II. Sazanami (1:33)
[3] III. Interse (1:07)
[4] IV. Zebra (2:47)
[5] V. Nimbus (2:15)
[6] VI.Cairn (1:33)
[7] VII. Aria (0.37)
[8] VIII. Zerkalo (1:57)
[9] IX. Comma (1:07)
[10] X . Narita (1:31)
[11] XI . Celesta (5:04)
[12] XII. Béla (1:20)
[13] XIII. Streel (1:34)
[14] XIV. Iwa (1:43)
[15] XV. Chikara (1:29)
[16] XVI. Virelai (2:18)
[17] XVII. Kengo (1:42)
[18] XVIII. Ague (1:58)
[19] XIX. Suna (1:19)
[20] XX. Vita (2:16)

[21] Ockham’s Razor (1994) (6:40)
[22] X (1994) (5:01)
[23] November (Winter Music) (2016) (5:22)
[24] Drinking the Stars (2012) (5:47)

Mary Dullea (piano)
All pieces recorded at the Harty Room, Queen’s University Belfast, 13-15 April 2022 except for Nine, recorded Castalia Hall, Ballytobin, Co Kilkenny, 4 August 2014

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