MERTL: Afterglow of a Kiss.* Empress. Piano Concerto+ / *Immanuel Davis, flautist; +Solungga Liu, pianist; University of Minnesota Wind Ensemble; Craig Kirchhoff, conductor / Bridge 9489
I have to say, right off the bat, that it is SO refreshing to hear a modern composer whose music is playful and actually fun to listen to. It’s not that Gregory Mertl, who received his doctorate in composition from the Eastman Schoolof Music and once worked with Henri Dutilleux and Mauricio Kagel at Tanglewood, is not a “real” classical composer. On the contrary, his music is both heavily detailed and imaginatively developed. But it’s also enjoyable and a little wacky, which I really like. Just listen to the opening track, Afterglow of a Kiss, for an example of what I mean. All of the elements that go into a well-written “serious” work are there, and Mertl’s scoring for wind ensemble is extremely interesting, but there’s also an element of sheer fun, such as in the jocular, double-time solo flute passage near the end, that makes you smile.
Moreover, this is even true of such slower, moodier works as Empress, scored lightly for flute, French horn and muted trumpets with occasional soft wind chords interjecting. It’s a serious work but not oppressive; it moves on light feet and lifts your spirits rather than depressing them. Note how sparingly he uses such lower instruments as the tuba, or the way he leavens the mood with harp, flute and oboe passages. Later on in the piece, the tempo increases and the mood lightens up considerably, while towards the end it becomes quite dramatic. This is, quite simply, fine music.
Interestingly, the Piano Concerto opens with the same jocular mood (and scoring) as Afterglow, using the piano as another, if more prominent, member of the percussion section. Much of the music written for the soloist is of an obbligato nature, playing fills and chords rather than dominating with a specific line of its own. Themes and even development sections break off suddenly, leaving the listener hanging, until a new tack or direction is picked up. The piano plays a succession of block chords while a solo trumpet plays staccato eighths against a xylophone. It’s really a quirky and unusual piece, at times a bit confusing but always likable. Running single-note figures in the right hand set up a brief canon or fugue-like passage near the end of the first movement, which ends abruptly on a crashing chord.
The second movement, still and quiet by contrast, begins with the piano and the winds alternating chords. This mysterious, almost allegorical conversation goes on for some time, with the orchestra expanding its chords to produce a quasi-melodic line, but the music rarely flows easily, melodically speaking. Rather, it moves along in stages and stutters, all of which coalesce structurally but challenge the listener to follow the music’s thread. This movement is not fun; even the loud passage in the middle is riddled with clashing harmonies and a feeling of unease.
The third movement is, again, back in Mertl’s more whimsical mood, playing the soloist against the orchestra in a sort of Kurt Weill-ish vein. Brief solo spots by the alto sax and other winds come and go throughout, and again the piano plays figures that are more obbligato-like than “soloistic.” Eventually, odd syncopated figures are played by the trombones against a backbeat of cymbal crashes; the music continues to morph and develop in its own quirky way, including what sounded at first like a piano cadenza but instead changed into a dialogue with the xylophone and winds. Eventually a grander, more “classical” feel comes into the music, although we still have some chattering brass in the background; the piano plays descending chime chords and the wind band pushes its way off into the sunset.
This is a very fine release, well worth exploring!
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley