Bruce Levingston: Portraits: Glass, Ravel, Messiaen, Satie
Orange Mountain Music

Pianist Bruce Levingston brings his graceful touch to a diptych ‘portrait' by Philip Glass that pays tribute to American painter Chuck Close, himself the renowned creator of a marvelous legacy of large-scale portraits (including a well-known painting of Glass created before the composer became one of contemporary music's most influential figures), as well as portraits by French masters Maurice Ravel, Olivier Messiaen, and Erik Satie.

The works of Glass and Close (close friends since meeting in the ‘60s in NY's Soho Artists community) share certain characteristics: both assemble larger wholes from smaller, discrete elements that repeat in rigorous, rather mathematically precise manner to form carefully woven wholes. But, just as Close's works reveal a lyrical elegance and expressiveness that transcends whatever ‘mechanical' strategies are deployed in their execution, so too do Glass's works rise above their formal properties and become ‘musical' works above and beyond anything else. Certainly the hypnotically repetitive character of Glass's style is present in both movements of A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close but they differ markedly too: the first, perhaps representative of Close's initial success, is playful and exuberant, even kinetic, adorned with ascending and descending runs (in contrary motion) and a general air of jubilation; the quieter and more ruminative second movement suggests a connection to the struggles Close faced when a spinal aneurism forced him to redefine his style (wheelchair-bound, he taught himself to paint with brushes strapped to his arms). Still, though A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close is certainly a credible work, one wishes a more ambitious tribute might have been created, given Close's stature and the marvelous body of work he's amassed over four decades. A triptych, for example, might have more effectively transcribed the stages of his evolution: in addition to the existing two movements, a spirited third movement of more radical character would have better conveyed Close's heroic overcoming of physical challenges with his recent radically bold style.

Levingston follows the Glass composition with Ravel's La vallée des cloches (The valley of bells) and the more familiar Alborada del gracioso (Aubade of the jester). The former is a gorgeous evocation reminiscent of both Satie in its elegant simplicity and Debussy in its delicacy and languor. Given that an aubade is a poem or song about lovers separating at dawn and gracioso is the clown or ‘fool' of Spanish comedy, it doesn't surprise that the second piece alternates between bright, trilling passages and slower sections that are more nocturnal in spirit. Messiaen's dramatic L'échange, Regard de la Vierge, and L'Alouette Lulu come from Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations Upon the Infant Jesus) and Catalogue d'Oiseaux (Catalogue of Birds) provide a welcome counter to the more immediately accessible character of the other selections. By demanding that the pianist play with such control and deliberation, the Messiaen pieces perhaps show Levingston's talent in its best light; listening to him ever-so-judiciously navigate the tempo and dynamic changes throughout the nine-minute Regard de la Vierge is engrossing; an evocation of the nocturnal woodlark, L'Alouette Lulu alternates dance-like figures (the woodlark) with deep chords (the night) in captivating manner too. By now, the Satie pieces—Sarabande No. 2, Gnossienne No. 4, and Gymnopédie No. 1—are warhorses but they're no less exquisite for being so. The tender trio returns the recording to the delicate sphere of the Glass and Ravel pieces.

Of course, anyone desirous of a more comprehensive programme of Glass piano works will be disappointed that Levingston's recording totals a mere twelve minutes' worth; such listeners should thus seek out Glass's 1989 release Solo Piano (Sony Masterworks) or Orange Mountain releases like The Orphée Suite for Piano, Etudes for Piano Vol. I, nos. 1-10, and Music from The Hours. Anyone interested in hearing an expertly performed selection of piano works by Glass and three 20th -century precursors, on the other hand, could do a whole lot worse than Portraits.

April 2007