On record – Lysander Piano Trio: Mirrors – 21st Century American Piano Trios (First Hand)

Cohen Around the Cauldron (2016)
Ghostwritten Variations (2015/16)
Love Sweet (2013)*
Titania and Her Suite (2014)
An den Wassern zu Babel (2010)
The Black Mirror (2013/14)

Lysander Piano Trio (Itamar Zorman (violin), Michael Katz (cello), Liza Stepanova (piano) with *Sarah Shafer (soprano)

First Hand Records FHR111 [71’26”]

Producer & Engineer Ryan Streber, *Paul Griffith

Recorded 2 & 3 January 2018 at Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York; * 21 February 2018 at Performing Arts Center, Athens, Georgia

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

An enterprising and finely realized collection of recent works for piano trio (all of them first recordings) by the Lysander Piano Trio, an ensemble now well established on the American recital circuit, which here gets to display its versatility and conviction in abundant measure.

What’s the music like?

As varied as the composers featured. Senior among them, Jennifer Higdon (b1962) contributes in Love Sweet a song-cycle very different from the extrovert orchestral works for which she is best known; the unusual yet effective combination of soprano and piano trio affording a deft characterization of these five poems by early twentieth century author Amy Lowell that trace the fateful unfolding of a relationship with ruminative poignancy. Following directly, Titania and Her Suite by Sofia Belimova (b2000) is a disarmingly assured miniature by a composer then in her early teens – its animated and unpredictable take on the figure from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream having a maturity and assurance as to put into the shade efforts by other more recent prodigies. Where its composer goes from here should prove fascinating.

Either side of these works, Ghostwritten Variations by Reinaldo Moya (b1984) draws on four seminal novels of the post-war era in four variations on a theme whose understated eloquence is ideally suited to the respectively searching, agitated, insouciant and disembodied treatments which follow – so making for an trajectory enhanced by this theme’s audible presence at each stage. As its title suggests, An den Wassern zu Babel by William David Cooper (b1986) draws on Psalm 37 not only as text but also the melody found in a setting contemporaneous with the German translation by Martin Luther; from which emerges a continuous set of six variations whose contrasts are permeated (never slavishly) by the spirit of German expressionism from the early twentieth century, and in what becomes a ‘mirror’ as revealing as it is disconcerting.

With its influences ranging from prog rock to klezmer, Around the Cauldron by Gilad Cohen (b1980) opens the programme with a vividly evocative sequence inspired by the three witches (also known as the weird sisters) from Shakespeare’s Macbeth; these seven tightly contrasted vignettes taking in a Witches Waltz of glinting irony then culminating in Sacrificial which is hardly less chilling than the Third Ear Band’s score for Roman Polanski’s (in)famous film rendering. Concluding this collection, The Black Mirror by Jakub Ciupinski (b1981) takes up procedures associated with Baroque painter Claude Lorrain – the piece slowly emerging from tentative piano phrases and string harmonics to a climax whose etherealized intensity could not be better described than by the composer’s description of ‘‘an explosion in slow motion’’.

Does it all work?

Yes – inasmuch that there are no also-rans among the pieces featured and, even if there were, the unwavering commitment of the musicians would likely be more than compensation; not least Sarah Shafer, whose singing adds much to the affecting aura of the Higdon song-cycle.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound presents an often difficult medium to best advantage, while credit should be given to the booklet which features succinctly insightful notes on each piece along with biographies of each of the composers and artists – not to mention those five Lowell poems.

Listen and Buy

You can discover more about this release at the First Hand Records website, where you can also purchase the recording.

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