Ars Nostra: But Now the Night
Ravello Records

But Now the Night documents the live performance Ars Nostra piano duo Sang-Hie Lee and Martha Thomas gave at the University of South Florida Concert Hall in Tampa on March 20, 2016. In presenting five diverse works by Gerald Chenoweth, Eun-Hye Park, Lewis Nielson, Daniel Perlongo, and Paul Reller, the seventy-minute recording very much conveys the character of a live concert, and its contents and performances are engrossing. Purposefully conceived as a new music vehicle, Ars Nostra was founded by Lee, a Professor of Music at the University of South Florida, in 2008, and became a duo project with Thomas's addition. Driving the group concept is the idea that, naturally, a far broader range of textures and colours can be explored when two pianos are involved rather than one only.

Eun-Hye Park's 2009 Chera in Nain (A Widow in Nain) functions as an overture of sorts for the concert and is the only one of the five to feature a third party, in this case narrator Kyoung Cho. Drawing inspiration from a Biblical passage about a young man raised from the dead by Jesus (Luke 7:11-15), the piece establishes early the recording's cerebral tone in alternating rapidly between chiming piano episodes and Cho's spoken narratives in Greek and Korean. The four purely instrumental settings that follow Park's are all extended, the longest Lewis Nielson's 2013...Aber Jetzt Die Nacht... at nineteen minutes. Its title taken from a concentration camp journal entry, the work uses a number of bold techniques, including percussive knocking on the instrument's case and inside-the-piano techniques involving e-bows and a horse-hair brush. Initially characterized by splashes of dissonant abstraction and steady, rhythmic clusters, Nielson's material, which eventually eases into a comparatively calmer presentation, takes the listener on an explorative hike through knotty forests that are often dense, sometimes disorienting, and understandably dark.

Gerald Chenoweth's 2008 four-part tone poem Celestial Phenomena opens on an aggressive note when chromatic chords suggest the awesome magnitude of the “Big Bang” before awe-inspiring wonderment of a different kind is conveyed by “Starshine” and “Night Sky - Dawn.” If there's one setting that's more accessible than the others, it's Paul Reller's 2008 Sonata For Two Pianos, an oft-rollicking piece that subtly draws from jazz while still hewing to the contrasting tempo delineations that mark classical sonata form; during one section, an almost Gerwshin-esque swing permeates the material, as dense as it is, until a calm, contemplative episode arrives to guide the piece to its resolution. 2009's six-part Windhover for Piano Duo by Daniel Perlongo, is, like Reller's, also accessible though for different reasons. The density level that characterizes the other works is less extreme here, so much so that it initially resembles a solo piano piece, and the tone of Perlongo's sweeping material is generally consonant, Romantic, and even in places Impressionistic. Don't be surprised if your thoughts occasionally wander to Rachmaninoff, Faure, and Debussy as its fifteen minutes unfold.

If there's a flaw to the release, it has nothing to do with the material or the pianists' performances, both of which are fine, but rather the recording quality itself. While But Now the Night does capture effectively the experience of the live concert, it lacks the warmth and intimacy that an in-studio presentation of the material might have provided. By comparison, the live recording sounds as if the performance is happening at a physical remove and thus feels a bit chilly, though an increase in volume does help to compensate for that deficiency.

November 2016