:ytsander Piano Trio (credit: Richard Blinkoff)

CD Review: Lysander Piano Trio’s “Mirrors” reflects upon 21st century music

Giorgio Koukl | 14 DEC 2020

For this album, the Lysander Piano Trio (violinist Itamar Zorman, cellist Michael Katz, and pianist Liza Stepanova) have chosen music of six American composers. Four of them, by Jakub Ciupinski, Reinaldo Moya, Gilad Cohen, and Sofia Belimova were commissioned by the ensemble, while the remaining two, by Jennifer Higdon and William David Cooper they premiered. Most of the composers are young, or even very young. With exception of Jennifer Higdon, a Pulitzer Prize winner who is well known, all others are quite new on the world scene. Clearly this is not a project in which a small, independent Cd company would invest huge amounts of cash, so listening to the first tracks was quite a pleasant surprise; not a single track is played and recorded in a “cheap” way, all seems very high in quality and surely played with commitment. The accompanying material, printed and going with a video, is of very high quality, no signs of “self-made” or unprofessional work.

"Mirrors" Lysander Piano Trio; with Sarah Shafer, soprano. December 4, 2020 First Hands Records (UK)

Lysander Piano Trio; Sarah Shafer, soprano.
December 4, 2020
First Hands Records (UK)

The opening piece, Around the Cauldron (2016) by Gilad Cohen, is divided in seven movements. The first one, “in Dusk,” starts in a very effective way, using glissandi, a percussive piano and very convincing, jazzy harmonies. With its less than 90 seconds it would definitely beg for more development. The second movement. “Pounce,” is only slightly longer. It continues similar to movement one with its explorations of pizzicato combinations, percussive piano writing and at times quite effective use of range of possible string effects. The third movement, “Transmutation,” returns to the material used in first movement with its slow downward glissandi, it is again less than 90 seconds long.

“Boiling,” the fourth movement, awakes in the listener the hope for something which ultimately will not happen. Unfortunately it is again too short and too similar to the other movements to give space to any hope for the future. The fifth movement: “Witches Waltz,” finally delivers what it is called after, a sort of kletzmer, distorted spooky waltz, but with no apparent bond with the rest. the sixth movement: “Newt’s Lament,” the shortest movement of all, is followed by the final one, called “Sacrificial,” where elements of “prepared piano” suddenly appear. All in all: a clear example of solid compositional capacities mixed with clearly insufficient abilities to develop the chosen material and above all to create a logical narration, an element which I definitely missed.

The second composer Reinaldo Moya is represented by his Ghostwritten Variations. Divided into five movements, it presents a much more coherent work. His language may be still a little dependent upon the Darmstatt school but it has the elegance and versatility of a good Alban Berg. I particularly liked the third variation with the title “Richard Powers: Orfeo – Peter Els” which presents a crystalline and seductive poetry, well played by the trio and very well captured on the recording.


Jennifer Higdon’s “Love Sweet” (2014) for soprano and piano trio is a set of five songs on love poems by the American poet, Amy Lowell (1874–1925) from her collections Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds (1914) and A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass (1912).


Sarah Shafer, soprano (credi: Vanessa Briceno)

Here the trio is joined by soprano Sarah Shafer. The music, certainly the highlight of the whole CD, reminiscent of the British style of Britten or Bridge, has some important components: a great degree of sensuality, a sure hand in giving a soprano voice all the technical means to express its beauty and a tormented autumnal melancholy. The voice here is the perfect leader, reducing the trio to mere accompaniment role nevertheless creating together atmospheres of pure poetry. The soprano voice of Sarah Shafer is simply perfect for this task. She is a born lied interpreter, never too heavy and in complete control of intonation. As all the texts are in English we can admire her wonderful and clear pronunciation, too.

The coherence of the single movements is definitely a product of great experience of the composer. Sometimes reducing the accompaniment to series of repeated notes Higdon leaves the space to the voice to fly and express the content of the poetry in a remarkable way. Definitely a good contribution to the scarce repertoire of this type.

Sofia Belimova’s miniature Titania and Her Suite (2014), written when the composer was only 13 years old is clearly too short. Despite many of its ideas sounding fresh and interesting, it would definitely require some development. It’s simply not possible to pack so much thematic material in two minutes duration and consider it a finished work. In this case I really do not see the necessity to present such “work in progress” on a CD.

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William David Cooper’s work An den Wassern zu Babel (2010) with its 13 minutes is one of the longest compositions on the CD. While certainly coherent in style in all the surface, it is also the least interesting work. There have been thousands compositions of the same content and development in the past, none of them really emerging to the fore. It represents a former creative world with all its intellectualisms, rhythmical solutions and boredom. There is a hard question which should be in mind of any composer: is what I am writing really vital and necessary? In the world of today where virtually all has been already made, said and done, it is a real difficulty to find a sense in the necessity to write music (or produce any other art).

Finally the minimalist music of Jakub Ciupinski, The Black Mirror (2013–2014) completes the CD. I am not at all a friend of all the minimalists who are out there right now. Most of their music is simply covering lack of ideas and a real incapacity to work with thematic material. But in this case I have to recognize a good degree of control on the sound development and a sense of dramaturgy displayed by Ciupinski. He is also the only one among the composers present on this CD whose title really delivers what it promises: a glimpse to a strange crystalline world, well played and imagined by the trio. The composer owns also a rare quality of throwing some new material into the endless repetitions just in time to not lose his audience’s attention. All in all a good contribution to the trio repertoire, even if, as a composition, heavily dependent on the quality of the players.

Even if it is not at all clear why these composers has been chosen from among the myriad of
existing artists, it is a choice and we can be grateful to the Lysander Piano Trio to be able to know and appreciate new compositional talents on the world scene. Mirrors, the title chosen for this CD, reflects well the intentions of the musicians. This project is for me a laudable undertaking, a sign of courage in the more than disturbed world of today’s chamber music.  ■

Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl is currently at work recording the solo piano music of Hungarian composer Tibor Harsányi.