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Friday, October 26, 2018

Harriet Stubbs, Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception, Piano Music Modern and Less Modern

If I did not think Classical Music, Modern or Ancient, is fun I would not write about it. Why inflict pain on others? There is joy when you connect with a work and/or a performance. And it is not like some other joy once you get the spirit of listening well. It is a tabula rasa.

What is a joy may not be known until you jump into it. For example the joy of exploring the solo piano repertoire did not occur to me until I was music hunting at a record store around 1969, in the Classical Section and came upon one of the Vox Boxes  that caught my eye. The boxes contained three LPs for $3.99, which was a remarkable bargain then. The one I looked at was an edition of Chabrier's "Piano Works." And I checked it out. Nicely played, good music! So that was the beginning of the solo piano excursion of listening for me, a step beyond sitting down and learning a piece by hand, which in retrospect I might have done more!

That process continues now, some nearly 50 years later. Today I contemplate an anthology of piano music sorted and presented more-or-less by theme. It is pianist Harriet Stubbs' new Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception (Suite 2B Records 018). The album has a concept behind it, and all the well for that since it may draw in folks who might not get exposed to this music otherwise.

Suffice for now to say that the concept relates to poet William Blake's vision of heaven and hell and a journey from innocence (youth) to experience (maturity). The whole thing kicks off with John Adams and his somewhat cosmic Pomo piano venture "Phrygian Gates" and its accompanying reading of a Blake-derived passage as tellingly and intelligently recited by one of our primary embodiments of the passage from innocence to experience, the ever-worthwhile Marianne Faithful (who is now many experiential miles away from her innocent song "As Tears Go By" of yesteryear).

It sets the mood for what follows. I myself read the liners but think it is best for you to do that yourself when you get the album, assuming you do. Some of these works are about innocence, some experience, but of course none of that would matter if the selections did not make an impression both in themselves and together, which they do. Nor would it matter if the performances were in any way below par, which also is not a problem.

Ms. Stubbs has a poetic musical sense and her performances go for expression above all, and perhaps less for absolute precision. Perhaps only those who know some of these works intimately would notice. And in the end it is not out of a sloppiness as it is an expressive passion. So too if one sits down to a Sloppy Joe repast one should abandon the idea of counting the lumps of ground beef or then gauge the ratio of meat to sauce. But in this case one is sitting down to a plate of "Passion Joe" so to speak! Here it is an expressive whole that comes across to us with heartfelt sincerity and it is served up in ways that transcend some absolute measure of utter faithfulness, right? So too, the idea of "sounding right" is ultimately one that leaves a poetic impression and here Ms. Stubbs resounds with a rather profound poetic concentration.

The choice and sequencing of the musical selections themselves go a long ways towards defining this program as special. Each has a vibrancy of spirit and the sequence (perhaps influenced by producer Russ Titelman's uncanny sense?) has after a few listens (so to me) given out with a fine kind of inevitable suchness, and so a satisfaction.

From the Adams at the top and the Ligeti at the conclusion we get contemporaneity and here-nowness. In between it is a happy journey through sublimity, with Mozart's haunting "Rondo in A Major," five Shostakovitch "Preludes," Stravinsky's "Tango," Busoni's piano arrangement of the Bach Chaconne from the solo Partita No. 2 for Violin, Prokofiev's biting "Suggestion Diabolique," two movements from Scriabin's Second Sonata, a beautiful Brahms Intermezzo and on to the Ligeti to close.

These are examples rather glorious, all. And I am glad to hear how Ms. Stubbs strings them together like a popcorn necklace for the Holiday Tree. I will admit that I do not especially care how closely the selections hew to the thematic Blakean concept. It is enough to state the firm poetic thought at the beginning and then to set the music loose. Harriet Stubbs is most certainly the right kind of poetic pianomeister for this ambitious program. She turns the Ligeti 5th Prelude into the most heavenly of heavens. It is all angel's food cake there, and the juxtaposition with a brace of Devil Dogs (devil's food cake snacks mainly available locally in NY Metro) only serves to heighten the experience of experience and the naivete possibilities we can still sense though we are long beyond it experientially  I suppose.

So after a bunch of listens over here in the former servant's quarters of an ancient Cape May farmhouse I can say easily and with a surety that this music is something very worth your time and concentration. It is a happy thing. Harriet Stubbs brings out the poetry imprisoned in the piano as few around today can do. Recommended.

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