Anthony De Mare – Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From The Piano (2015)
FLAC (tracks) 24 bit/44,1 kHz | Time – 03:16:55 minutes | 1,4 GB | Genre: Classical
Studio Masters, Official Digital Download – Source: Q0buz | @ ECM New Series
Recorded: 2010–2014 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, and Greenfield Recital Hall, Manhattan School of Music, New York.
A starry who’s who of the contemporary music world… Each composer was asked to do a free treatment of a Sondheim song, and the results – on this irresistible new CD set are little short of breathtaking… the whole undertaking is a triumph. – San Francisco Chronicle
US concert pianist Anthony de Mare pays tribute to Stephen Sondheim in a fascinating project. De Mare invited composers from a broad variety of genres from Sondheims own world of musical theater to jazz, classical, pop, film and beyond to re-imagine a Sondheim song of their choice as a solo piano piece.
Contributing re-composers included Steve Reich, Wynton Marsalis, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Fred Hersch, Ethan Iverson, William Bolcom, Duncan Sheik, Nico Muhly, Eve Beglarian, Gabriel Kahane, Thomas Newman, Jake Heggie, and more – in total, 36 composers, ranging in age from 30 75 and representing seven countries and 29 Grammy, Pulitzer, Tony, Academy and Emmy Awards!
Each of the composers is having a conversation with Mr. Sondheim, Anthony de Mare told the New York Times, with his material but also his influence, his musical wit and his craft.
It looks, on paper, like a striking idea. Take a pianist (Anthony de Mare) who has been a virtuosic rising star in the classical and avant-garde arenas over the past quarter century. Commission a set of 36 interpretations, for solo piano, of music by one of musical theatre’s preeminent composers, Stephen Sondheim. Choose participants ranging from 30 to 75 years of age, from seven countries, and who collectively hold a total of 29 Pulitzer Prizes, Grammy, Tony, Academy and Emmy Awards, representing the broadest possible musical spectrum to contribute an arrangement of a personal favorite Sondheim song—amongst them artists from the jazz mainstream and its more modernistic cousin; contemporary post-minimalists; the avant-garde; contemporary classical and musicals composers; singer/songwriters; dance music DJs; and fellow piano virtuosos—all unified by their inimitably recognizable voices. Create a lavish three-CD box set that contains all 36 pieces (plus a closing interpretation by de Mare himself) and release it on ECM Records—the label that has, more than most, defined itself by not just making the lines differentiating genre, culture, approach and any other differentiator you can think of fuzzy, but in many cases erasing them entirely.
Sometimes things that look that good on paper don’t actually work in reality. But Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano is not just a standout release for the label, the pianist and all the artists commissioned to contribute arrangements—including Wynton Marsalis, Fred Hersch, The Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Steve Reich, Annie Gosfield, Eric Rockwell, Jason Robert Brown, Duncan Sheik, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Kenji Bunch, Mason Bates, Frederic Rzewski, John Musto, David Shire and 21 more—it’s a recording that should turn out to be another true landmark for a label that scoffs at anything that smacks of convention and constantly encourages cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural, cross-stylistic excursions: another Officium; another Tabula Rasa; another Siwan; another Köln Concert.
De Mare may be new to fans of ECM’s more structurally focused New Series, on which Liaisons most appropriately resides; but since his debut with the Young Concert Artists in 1986, the pianist has gone on to success after success, and collaborations with the likes of New York’s Bang on a Can All Stars and a name very familiar to label followers, composer/pianist/vocal experimenter Meredith Monk. Tackling over three hours of music isn’t something that gets done in ECM’s typical two-day record/one-day mix modus operandi; instead, Liaisons was recorded over a period of four years, and produced by Judith Sherman, whose name will be familiar to fans of Kronos Quartet, Steve Reich, Nexus, Paul Hillier, Robin Holcomb, John Adams, Bang on a Can and Philip Glass. Mastered by ECM’s Steve Lake and Christoph Stickel, the album is being given the “major event”-like attention it deserves, with the recording being performed in its entirety over three nights at three different venues in New York between September and November, following a lengthy series of live performances that have taken place, over the past four years, at various venues across the United States and Canada.
If there’s a single word that defines Liaisons, it’s this: surprise. Given de Mare’s muscular virtuosity—balanced by an attention to dynamics that allows him to, indeed, render 88 keys as an entire orchestra—it’s his ability to work with the 36 pieces where, as Sondheim describes it, “very few … are built like a song. They’re much more free-floating, there’s much more of a fantasia about them.”
High praise from a composer of musicals ranging from the light-hearted (1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) to the absurd (1964’s Anyone Can Whistle); the cynical (1970’s Company) to the historic (1976’s Pacific Overtures); and the darkly thrilling (1979’s Sweeny Todd) to the imaginary biographical (1984’s Sunday in the Park). Especially when these interpretations—as Sondheim also asserts—are written “by composers, not arrangers, and they aren’t decorations of the songs.”
Indeed, while a closer look will invariably reveal the heart of the song being arranged for de Mare, it’s not always an easy find. While American pianist and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom’s brief look at the title tune from Anyone Can Whistle (here called “A Little Night Fughata”) has, indeed, a contrapuntal foundation, the song’s core melody is clearly evident. Nico Mulhy’s “Color and Light” manages to evoke the dichotomic nature of its subject, pointillist painter Georges Seurat, and his work, as de Mare is compelled to find ways to make a piece filled with contrasting rhythms, jagged abstrusities and captivating lyricism. Its occasional moments of defined pulse are a perfect setup for the track that follows, Steve Reich’s surprisingly faithful “Finishing the Hat—2 Pianos,” which retains so much of the song’s heart while, at the same time, still sounding resolutely Reichian.
Which brings up another important aspect of Liaisons. With Manfred Eicher’s name nowhere to be found in this recording’s notes, given the ECM label head’s usual penchant for sequencing the material, the way the music unfolds across Liaisons is as appropriately narrative as any other ECM recording, and one where each disc possesses its own arc while, at the same time, being part of the larger arc of the entire 37-song set. Still, absorbing nearly three-and- a-half hours of music in one sitting is no small challenge, so it’s a good thing that each disc works on its own, as if each were one act in a three-act play.
They may not be placed consecutively, but the seven pieces drawn from Sweeny Todd could just as easily have been; but separating them allows them to become part of an entirely different whole. Kenji Bunch’s interpretation of “The Ballad of Sweeny Todd” (“The Demon Barber”) not only possesses a relentless pulse that speaks to the thriller aspect of this play of death and debauchery in Victorian London; it also builds in dramatics, over the course of five minutes, to a climactic peak rarely matched elsewhere on Liaisons. That “The Worst [Empanadas] in London” comes after a curious breather in Ethan Iverson’s contrast-filled version of “Send in the Clowns”—in equal turns Thelonious Monk-like blocky voicings and surprisingly soft and gentle interludes—only serves to demonstrate that Liaisons is here to tell a tale all its own. Still, Venezuelan expat Ricardo Lorenz finds a way to draw Sweeny Todd’s story back, with its rolling piano rhythm, positively playful approach and metric gradations that give the piece its own internal pulse, even as de Mare is faced with the challenge of keeping up (which he does with aplomb).
While Liaisons can be seen largely as a solo piano recital, neither de Mare nor Sherman are averse to more modernistic devices, should the composers engaging with Sondheim’s music demand them. It would have been impossible for de Mare to perform Jason Robert Brown’s version of Sweeny Todd’s “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” (“Birds of Victorian England”) on his own, predicated as it is on a series of bird-like trills that the composer extends and expands upon far beyond the scope of the original song; instead, composed for four pianos, three of them are prerecorded, with de Mare playing alongside them. Similarly, with Duncan Sheik’s version of “Johanna” (“Johanna in Space”), the singer/songwriter creates a celestial layer comprised of dozens of guitar improvisations fed through a tape echo, under which de Mare asserts the song’s more immediate melody.
It may come as no surprise that Wynton Marsalis’ look at “That Old Piano Roll” pays direct homage to Jelly Roll Morton’s ragtime swing, James P. Johnson’s stride playing—and, perhaps more curiously, later innovator Thelonious Monk, whose angular approach provides more of the contrast that seems to be an undercurrent of the entire recording. Still, Marsalis’ references are not juxtaposed; instead, they move forward in linear fashion, almost like a five-minute history lesson in pre-1960s jazz. It will also be no shock that Fred Hersch’s unerringly beautiful interpretation of Into the Woods’ lullaby, “No One is Alone,” is as fragile and imbued with delicate risk as has been the pianist’s own life. Neither artist’s contribution to Liaisons may be out of character; but both are just as captivating as anything else in the set.
But while there are a few pieces that are unmistakable in the pen from which they have come—all, in some way, speaking to the very things that define each of the 36 commissioned composers’ careers—even within that veneer of familiarity comes a degree of challenge and risk that lends Liaisons its unpredictability. Nor did the music necessarily come easily to all of the composers. Daniel Bernard Roumain, whose own Etudes4violin&electronix (Thirsty Ear, 2007) was as auspicious a debut as any that year, professes to have “struggled for several weeks to make ‘Another Hundred People’ [from 1970’s Company] work, and nothing worked. Finally after a late-night conversation with Anthony [de Mare], he encouraged me to simply ‘duet’ with the music, and have a conversation with Mr. Sondheim’s score.” At over seven minutes one of Liaisons’ longer tracks, it’s clear that sometimes the simplest advice yields the best results, as Roumain expands upon Sondheim’s music in ways that are, at times, easy to anticipate but at others, impossible to predict; a particularly challenging piece to perform in its cross-rhythms and left-hand/right-hand independence and inter-dependence, it’s also a climactic set-closer for the second of Liaisons’ three discs.
There’s more—plenty more—to be found on Liaisons, but at a certain point it becomes necessary to stop writing, to stop reading…and to start listening. There have been other tributes to the music of Stephen Sondheim, but none with as simple yet adventurous a premise as Liaisons: Re- Imagining Sondheim from the Piano. There may be, barring the occasional use of overdubs, no more than a single piano to evoke the poetry and the broad musicality that has defined Sondheim’s long career, but with 36 different composers to give 36 different slants on the music of one of biggest stars of musical theatre for more than half a century, there is no other tribute that gets to the heart of the now mid- octogenarian’s music with such accuracy—and, over the course of 205 minutes, with such precise pointillism. Beyond the stellar compositional contributions and beyond de Mare’s similarly superlative delivery, Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano is, quite simply, a recording of such resounding significance that it demands to be heard—and, if there’s justice in the world, deserves to command the same kind of success as ECM game-changers like Paul Bley’s Open, to Love, Keith Jarrett’s Facing You and Chick Corea’s Piano Improvisations, Vol. 1 & 2. –John Kelman, All About Jazz
Stephen Sondheim (b.1930)
1 A Little Night Fughetta (Arranged By William Bolcom) 01:42
2 Color And Light (Arranged By Nico Muhly) 05:37
3 Finishing The Hat – 2 Pianos (Arranged By Steve Reich) 03:21
4 The Ladies Who Lunch (Arranged By David Rakowski) 07:19
5 Perpetual Happiness (Arranged By Eve Beglarian) 06:01
6 Birds Of Victorian England (Arranged By Jason Robert Brown) 03:04
7 Johanna In Space (Arranged By Duncan Sheik) 05:57
8 You Could Drive A Person Crazy (Arranged By Eric Rockwell) 03:01
9 That Old Piano Roll (Arranged By Wynton Marsalis) 04:38
10 Sorry-Grateful (Arranged By Derek Bermel) 06:59
11 No One Is Alone (Arranged By Fred Hersch) 04:03
12 A Bowler Hat (Arranged By Annie Gosfield) 05:18
13 I’m Excited. No You’re Not. (Arranged By Jake Heggie) 05:15
14 The Demon Barber (Arranged By Kenji Bunch) 05:07
15 Send In The Clowns (Arranged By Ethan Iverson) 05:50
16 The Worst (Empanadas) In London (Arranged By Ricardo Lorenz) 04:53
17 I Think About You (Arranged By Paul Moravec) 09:00
18 Very Put Together (Arranged By Mason Bates) 03:08
19 I’m Still Here (Arranged By Frederic Rzewski) 06:44
20 Love Is In The Air (Arranged By David Shire) 04:05
21 Epiphany (Arranged By John Musto) 05:05
22 Pretty Women (Arranged By Mark-Anthony Turnage) 03:45
23 Paraphrase (Someone In A Tree) (Arranged By Phil Kline) 05:42
24 In And Out Of Love (Arranged By Bernadette Speech) 06:00
25 Another Hundred People (Arranged By Daniel Bernard Roumain) 07:18
26 Into The Woods (Arranged By Andy Akiho) 08:58
27 Every Day A Little Death (Arranged By Ricky Ian Gordon) 05:19
28 Merrily We Roll Along (Arranged By Nils Vigeland) 05:39
29 Notes On “Beautiful” (Arranged By Rodney Sharman) 05:27
30 Being Alive (Arranged By Gabriel Kahane) 04:45
31 Not While I’m Around (Arranged By Thomas Newman) 02:55
32 The Ballad Of Guiteau (Arranged By Jherek Bischoff) 05:53
33 Now (Arranged By Mary Ellen Childs) 03:22
34 A Child Of Children And Art (Arranged By Peter Golub) 08:25
35 Going.. Gone (Arranged By Tania Leon) 07:38
36 Everybody’s Got The Right (Arranged By Michael Daugherty) 04:36
37 Sunday In The Park – Passages (Arranged By Anthony De Mare) 05:20
Anthony de Mare: piano