PIANIST LOST: EXCESSES AND EXCUSES • Peter Halstead, Adrian Brinkerhoff (pn) • TROY 1204 (SACD: 73:22)
CHOPIN Nocturne in Db, op. 27/2. Prelude in Db, op. 28/15, “Raindrop.” Berceuse in Db, op. 57. DEBUSSY Read more class="ARIAL12bi">Images, Book I: Reflets dans l’eau. Suite bergamasque: Claire de lune. SATIE Sarabande No. 3. RACHMANINOFF Moments musicaux: No. 5 in Db, op. 16/5. LISZT Transcendental Etudes: No. 3 in F, “Paysage;” No. 11 in Db, “Harmonies du Soir.” Concert Etudes: No. 3 in Db, “Un sospiro.” Consolations: No. 3 in Db. COPLAND Down a Country Lane
PIANIST LOST: SUNKEN CATHEDRALS • Peter Halstead, Adrian Brinkerhoff (pn) • TROY 1205 (SACD: 55:38)
ALKAN Barcarolle in g, op. 65/6. MENDELSSOHN Venetian Boat Songs: op. 19/6; op. 30/6; op. 62/5; op. 102/7. CHOPIN Barcarolle in F#, op. 60. DEBUSSY Preludes, Book I: “La Cathédrale engloutie;” “Des pas sur la neige.” FAURÉ Barcarolles: No. 1 in a, op. 26/1
This is something so unusual, so extraordinary, really, that I hardly know where to begin. But begin somewhere I must, so let me start by giving an overall, general description of what these two volumes, titled The Himalaya Sessions—Pianist Lost, contain. Each is a thick paperback book, measuring 9x6, authored by pianist Peter Halstead himself. I’ll get to the detailed contents momentarily, but allow me first to continue with the big picture. Tucked inside each book is a full-length, 9x6 sleeve which houses two discs, one SACD, the other a Blu-ray disc containing the same program that’s on the SACD, but accompanied by photographs Halstead took in the Himalayas.
Note: these are only the first two volumes in a series of six, documenting the journey of a musician whose life ends in the high mountains of Nepal. Be advised, the story is fictional. Whether or not Peter Halstead actually scaled the Himalayas with Sherpa porters hauling his piano for him to play at the summit I don’t know, but I can definitely say that he was not killed by a Yeti on Mount Makalu; he’s very much alive.
In all fairness to our readers, I should mention that not every review of these volumes you’re likely to encounter, especially on the Internet, is positive. A few I’ve read, in fact, are, quite hostile, suggesting that Halstead is appealing to the musically naive, which Fanfare readers definitely are not.
What, I wondered, could possibly provoke such critical hostility? Well, this is where we get into the contents of the books. Halstead provides his own program notes to each of the pieces he plays, devoting sometimes several pages to describing each piece, not necessarily in analytical terms of harmony, rhythm, thematic treatment, formal structure, and so on, but more in the language of metaphor and metaphysics. In his explanation of Debussy’s Claire de lune, for example, Halstead tells us that this music “has a deep, unconscious structure which becomes more than a scaffolding on which the meaning of a piece is hung: the scaffolding dictates and becomes the meaning, as the accidental events of our lives often become elements which shape our ends. A haphazard kiss becomes a marriage; a gesture becomes a lawsuit; a flick of the wheel kills.” Halstead then follows these evocative similes with poems of his own choosing, the intent of which is to suggest the music’s moods and imagery.
You may have noted in the above header to Volume 1 the preponderance of the key of Db, which, it turns out, is no accident. Halstead tells us that “each piece on this album describes a part of a day, always in the same musical key of Db,” asking us to imagine, “What would it be like to live in Db: a quick stroll in the key of moonlight, evening, rain, and sleep?”
Technically, not every piece on the disc is in Db, something Halstead acknowledges in his notes. Liszt’s Paysage, for example, is in F Major, and Copland’s Down a Country Lane vacillates between F Major and Db Major. In any case, the idea that specific musical keys are connected to, and evocative of, specific emotional responses is an ancient and persistent one, dating back to the time of the medieval Church modes.
I have no problem with a program being assembled around pieces all in same key, but my personal opinion regarding the correlation between musical keys and the arousal of collectively experienced emotional responses is that it can’t be empirically proven (just look at the letters Fanfare receives from readers disagreeing over the emotional feelings expressed by a given piece of music), and in the end, it’s a futile, if entertaining, argument.
I would respectfully suggest, therefore, that you take Halstead’s writings with the proverbial grain of salt; then put the books aside and listen to the discs. Yes, they contain a potpourri of popular piano pieces, but I daresay you will hear them in some of the most sensitive, poetic, moving performances you’ve ever experienced.
Halstead is possessed of a silken legato and a subtle rubato that lend the rippling left-hand accompaniment in Chopin’s Db Nocturne, op. 27/2 a dreamy, ethereal quality. Bringing a similar touch and technique to Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, Halstead shines a light on the mirroring effects between the hands as the sun’s rays strike the undulating waves and cause dryads to dance on the surface. All I can say of Rachmaninoff’s Moments musicaux, op. 16/5 and Liszt’s Un sospiro is that Halstead’s playing of them will take your breath away.
Musical keys do not seem to be a dominant theme in Volume 2, for here we find pieces in G Minor (Alkan and Mendelssohn), A Minor (Fauré), F# Minor (Mendelssohn again), F# Major (Chopin), and one that is more or less in C Major at the beginning and the end and E Major in the middle (Debussy’s “Engulfed Cathedral”). No, the theme of Volume 2 is water—not the play of sunlight and moonbeams that refract on the surface in a kaleidoscope of sprays and mists, but rather that of dark and troubled waters: a sunken cathedral, footprints in the snow, barcaroles, and Venetian boat songs by Mendelssohn which call to mind the sad gondolas of Liszt. I’m rather surprised, in fact, that Halstead didn’t include the latter on this second disc.
Though not exactly neglected, Charles-Valentin Alkan is, I think, underappreciated and under-recorded. His exquisitely beautiful Barcarolle in G Minor, op. 65/6, however, has had fair attention paid it on disc, including by Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion. But it’s such a lovely piece, and it’s so delicately and fragrantly played by Halstead, I could listen to it all night long.
Three of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words bear the title, “Venetian Boat Song,” Book 1, No. 6, Book 2, No. 6, and Book 5, No. 5. The so-titled piece Halstead includes in Volume 2, identified as op. 102/7, is a posthumously published piece, not to be confused with an unrelated Song Without Words in D Major for cello and piano, which Mendelssohn composed around 1845 and which was also published posthumously, as op. 109.
Adding to Halstead’s above-noted silken legato and subtle rubato is a real mastery of pedaling, important in general, but especially so in these pieces by Debussy and Fauré. Indeed, there is much here to admire and appreciate on these two audio-only discs, not least of which is some of the most three-dimensional recorded piano sound I’ve heard, and I’ve yet to mention the two Blu-ray bonus discs. So, let me conclude by telling you what these extra discs offer.
Be forewarned that they will not play in your CD player, standard DVD player, or even in your computer’s CD-drive, if it’s an older model not equipped with Blu-ray technology. Fortunately, I have a multi-function Blu-ray player that plays just about every format there is, so I had no problem listening to and viewing these discs. What they contain is the same musical program in multi-channel surround sound that you will find on the audio-only SACDs. Accompanying the tracks, however, are full-screen, spectacular still photographic shots of snow and ice everywhere—snow-capped Himalayan peaks, glistening glaciers, and frozen valleys, in one of which the pianist is said to have disappeared to the strains of Debussy’s Des pas sur la neige.
The photos are stunning, awe-inspiring, even mesmerizing, but in the end, one wonders to what extent all of the pieces on these discs—except for the last-mentioned by Debussy—are evocative of mountains shrouded in eternal snows. Nonetheless, I would still recommend Peter Halstead’s albums to you for truly beautiful readings of some of the piano literature’s beloved pieces and for astonishingly lifelike recordings.
Sublime pianoFebruary 2, 2014By Patrick O. (Cambridge, MA)See All My Reviews"The sound of the piano on the Blue-ray audio disk is superb and the written material exceeds anything I have ever gotten with any music recording."Report Abuse