Piano Music by Douglas Lilburn
(2015 – Lilburn 100th Anniversary)
Works and performers
Sonata (1949) – Jian Liu
Prelude (1951) – Gillian Bibby
Sonatina No.1 (1946) – Gabriel Khor
Sonatina No.2 (1962) – Louis Lucas-Perry
Three Sea-Changes (1945-81) – Jian Liu
Nine Short Pieces (1965-66) – Richard Mapp
Chaconne (1946) – Xing Wang
From the Port Hills (1942) – Gillian Bibby
Adam Concert Room, Kelburn Campus
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music
Friday 31st July 2015
Robert Hoskins’ typically perceptive programme notes for this concert quoted a significant remark made by painter Toss Woollaston to Douglas Lilburn, which the composer later recalled. Talking specifically about work by New Zealand artists, Woollaston stated that “environment should give it character”. Lilburn seems, on the showing of some of the most important of his piano pieces in this concert, to have taken Woollaston’s remark to heart.
One is tempted to suggest that this wasn’t music for the city-dweller by inclination – as with most of the work by one of Lilburn’s compositional heroes, Sibelius, these sounds consistently evoked a more-or-less solitary interaction with nature, evocations of wild, uncultivated spaces, with detail wrought by natural, rather than man-made forces. It’s a world that the average New Zealander still “knows”, even though many such environments are increasingly coming under threat of compromise by various hermetically-sealed variants of so-called “progress”.
However, in the Adam Concert Room, listeners were invited by the composer through his music and the excellent performances by different pianists, to re-explore and enlarge their experiences of and attitudes towards these worlds – here were works whose structures connected us with familiar, mainstream frameworks and procedures, but whose language brought those techniques into a more localized context of relevance and meaning. Tones wrought vistas of all kinds and characters known to us, while rhythms illustrated detailing of lines, textures and sounds readily associated with these places.
As with the music of Vaughan Williams (a tutor of Lilburn’s at the Royal College of Music in London), the pictorial and atmospheric qualities of these works were merely the beginning for the listener – it was the distillation of feeling that came of the interaction that mattered more, one that surprised by its depth (as Schumann said of listeners to his music) for “those who listen secretly”. All music has a “face”, supported by underlying flesh and bone, and more deeply, with a brain in behind – and here, Lilburn’s music, like any other composer’s when investigated properly, responded in its own unique and powerful way, with what pianist Margaret Nielsen, perhaps this music’s greatest interpreter, would undoubtedly call “character”.
Whatever one’s interpretation of the interpretative and listening processes, it became obvious as the evening went on that the music’s unique world was here responding to the enormous care and attention to detail demonstrated by each of the pianists called upon to pay homage to the composer to mark his hundredth anniversary birth-year. The performing line-up was indeed impressive, as much through its range and scope of age and experience as its remarkable consistency of executant skills and strongly-focused individual variation of interpretation.
Jian Liu, Senior Lecturer in piano at the NZSM, welcomed us to the concert, readily conveying both his delight in being able to celebrate such an important centenary with an event such as this, and his great respect for the composer’s work, before beginning musical proceedings with the Sonata (1949), music whose innate strength was here given a kind of tensile quality, played as it was with enormous thrust and volatility. The sounds have a geographical quality – the sky above, the earth below, the hills all around – and Liu’s “glint” of tone and spring” of figuration made certain utterances leap forward, while imparting great strength and depth to more reflective passages.
I’d forgotten how uncannily reminiscent this music was in places of Schubert’s A Minor Sonata D 784 (no great surprise, really, as Lilburn was a devotee of the composer), the sounds similarly resonating around great octave statements, and ringing with bell-like tones amid the more urgent figurations. However, being rather less concerned than Schubert’s work with human sorrow and solace, the lines here readily “wreathe” around and about the shapes of each of the landforms, drawing in and impulsively intertwining the human spirit with the strange wildness of it all. Liu’s playing generated pangs of loneliness at the slow movement’s opening, though he also caught the grace and ease of those rhythmic trajectories which beautifully leavened the tensions for a few precious moments. And he gave full play to, the granite-like sounds which welled up towards the end , and just as quickly dissolved.
The finale begins almost like a ritualistic Spanish dance, before presenting us with a kind of “song of the high hills”, the wanderer perhaps giving vent to energetic exuberance (and in the process disturbing rabbits who seem to scamper across tussockland in mock fright!). Expectations, doubts, fears and satisfactions cross the wanderer’s face as the journey is launched further into unknown regions, and the journeyman is left to go on alone.
Gillian Bibby was next, giving us the Prelude (1951), and demonstrating an entirely different quality of sound to Jian Liu’s, richer, mellower and deeper-voiced, not, I feel merely a matter of different music, but of the pianist putting all of herself “into” the sound-spaces with great feeling. Especially resonant were the great chordal passages in the piece’s middle section, the warmth and feeling of those rolled chords an almost palpable experience for the listener!
To Gabriel Khor was entrusted the Sonatina No.1, another piece which for me evoked the spirit of Schubert at the onset with a running octave figure, the mercurial lines punctuated with powerful chords, delivered with, by turns, poise and energy. In this music sounds of birdsong alternated with sterner realities, the throwaway ending of the movement a portent of further austerities (the work of an intense young man!). After this I thought the second movement’s ritual-like opening a kind of paean of praise of creation, the movement’s wonderful contrasts of tone and dynamics fully realized by the young pianist, with an especially sensitive, beautifully ambient stillness in places. Then, what quirkiness the finale surprised us with! And how cleverly the composer maintained the obsessiveness of the rhythmic patterning, while managing both lyrical and declamatory sequences woven into the textures – here, it was all given a creditable and accomplished performance.
How interesting to experience so many different pianists in a concert! For here was another young player, Louis Lucas-Perry, ready to tackle the Sonatina No.2. proclaiming his own way of doing things by promptly changing the piano stool, and then embarking upon the “rhapsody of natural immersion” which informs the work’s ringing, singing opening, the music seemingly living upon impulse, as if in the grip of a “bright dream”. Louis Lucas-Perry’s playing took us into this world of ambient entrancement, the music’s peregrinations coloured by impulsive nature-rhythms and textures rising out of the composer’s much-cherished “then-and-now”identifications, something of a “landscape and memory” realization.
Jian Liu returned after an interval with the well-known Three Sea-Changes, the title containing an oblique tribute to Shakespeare and his magical oceanic evocations. The music draws from different times and scenarios in the composer’s life, the first bright and lyrical, recalling a mood of exultation, obviously a feeling he associated with Brighton, near Christchurch, one which Jian Liu “orchestrated” magnificently at the piece’s climax – how different to this “exuberant and sunlit” view is the second evocation, that of Paekakariki, which Lilburn called “a more expansive view”, one with much longer lines and swirls of impulsive energy, Debussian in their impressionistic colour, and creating far more of a solitary view than the opening piece. Finally the last piece is more of an inscape, here played with great sensitivity by Liu, mingling an inner tenderness with ceaseless oceanic murmurings. Margaret Nielsen has said that these three, independently-written pieces were brought together by the composer as a kind of commentary on the three stages of human life.
The next item, Nine Short Pieces, brought the all-too-infrequently-heard Richard Mapp to the keyboard to play parts of a collection once famously characterized by the composer to Margaret Nielsen as “Crotchety at 51”. She chose nine of the pieces the composer had given her, and put them in what seemed to her like an effective sequence. Robert Hoskins sees these pieces as a kind of extension of the “Sings Harry” song-cycle, Lilburn’s settings of Denis Glover’s poetry. Even without analyzing the music, one can hear things like the self-deprecation of “Harry” the hero of the poems, in sequences such as the mock-Gothic opening of the first piece, the speech-like exchanges of the third (the piano writing recalling Musorgsky!) and the spiky, almost twelve-tone character of the fourth – “Soliloquies for piano” would have suited these pieces as a title equally well, especially as reflections of the thoughtfulness of the composer’s other music and the wondrous results of parallel homegrown artistic activities wrought by his contemporaries.
Richard Mapp played them with characteristic insight, all such evocations and angularities delineated for our pleasure and wonderment. In his hands the opening piece rumbled and resonated amid punctuating shrieks, alarms and other surprises, suggesting a kind of “savage parade” to follow – an expectation completely disarmed by the quirkiness of the following “question answered by a question” exchanges, and after that, a twelve-tone-like series of impulses bristling with abrupt agitations. I enjoyed his lovely “voicings” in pieces like No.5 with its tenor-and-baritone duetting, the lines long-drawn and resonant Denis Glover’s “Harry” in full philosophical flight, perhaps?), and similarly relished his skilful treatment of the different “characters” of No.6 – cool, crystalline and sharp-edged lines set against wonderfully resonant and vibrant ambiences filled with light.
Set amid such characterful performances of the rest of his music, the great Chaconne here became a larger-scale version of Lilburn’s established preoccupations – the way into this music had, in other words, already been well-prepared. PIanist Xing Wang brought out those attendant resonances and after-glowings in her beautifully-shaped exposition of the work’s opening, giving the sounds plenty of space, and allowing the music’s shape to guide her in places. Here she encouraged the many celebratory cascades of sound to take on a kind of free-fall aspect, before rounding out our trajectories and leading us more circumspectly into the heart of what resembled a pulsating organism, her playing tracing the sounds along delicate lines reaching out to distant realms, as if defining the work’s spaces.
In general terms hers was a whole-hearted engagement with all of the piece’s requirements, were they massive, deeply-rooted chords, steadily-pulsed outlines of melody arching over great spaces, or skitterish irruptions of impulse scattering their energies like unexpected sunshowers. And at the end she made a virtue of the abrupt challenge of Lilburn’s Sibelius-like coda to the work, giving us a direct, straightforward statement of arrival, reminiscent of the final moments of the Finnish master’s Tapiola.
Finally, what better way to conclude this composer-tribute than to have one of the pieces performed by a fellow-composer? The task fell to Gilian Bibby, who gave us a rendition of the 1942 piece From the Port Hills, the surviving item from a collection of five Bagatelles written during Lilburn’s Christchurch years. One responded immediately to the pianist’s warm, beautifully-rounded tones, which imparted a Brahmsian feel to the textures in places, the sonorities at such times deliciously rich and deep at appropriate points, but serving to highlight the delicacy with which some of the secondary material was floated so freely and radiantly.
At the end one’s impression was of having experienced a truly significant and unique body of work – music whose sounds draw their inspiration from the places we ourselves know, and which we can justifiably claim as our own. Very great credit to Jian Liu, to the NZ School of Music, and to all the pianists who contributed to the concert. One feels certain the composer wouldn’t have wished for a better-organised and more satisfyingly-realised tribute in this “marvellous year”.