Fanfare Magazine, Issue 39:3 January/February 2016
This short-length disc is the first in PnOVA's American Composers series, all of which are scheduled to be performed by respected UK pianist Martin Jones, well known for his recordings on Nimbus (he has recorded on a number of other labels as well, including Metronome and Lyrita).
Bruce Mahin is professor of music at Radford University. The 12 pieces here explore what the composer calls “bi-quartal harmonies,” in which harmonies are made using two layers: three perfect fourths in the upper stratum, two notes a fourth apart in the lower. The interval relationships between upper and lower strata set up the levels of consonance or dissonance. Like Bach, Chopin, and Debussy before him (so say the booklet notes), Mahin uses the form of the prelude to explore new harmonies. These harmonies can be remarkably jazz-like (as in the case of No. 2), while others can refer to the French Impressionists. Mahin's pieces seem perfectly to live up to the description of “Prelude,” in that they are concise (the longest is No. 11, but even that is less than four minutes) and essentially non-developmental. There is a particular poignancy to some of the Préludes: No. 5 springs to mind, with its deep-bass tolling, cantus firmus-like idea against registrally separated activity in the right hand, while the more jazz-oriented harmonies of No. 10 conjure up more autumnal spaces.
Only four of the Préludes have tempo indicators faster than Moderato (there are in fact five preludes marked Moderato), and one of those is split between Largo and Vivace (No. 12). This is reflective music, but music that is exploratory too.
At only 2:43, Prélude No. 7 punches way above its weight, speaking of vast spaces while invoking something of a Debussian sound-world, while the final prelude seems to seek to sum up the cycle as a whole. Martin Jones is the ideal interpreter. There is never any sense of less than total involvement in the music on hand, and throughout the impression of total concentration is palpable.
My copy is marked “357 of 500” and is signed by the composer, but there is nothing in the accompanying documentation or anything on the web I can find that indicates this is a limited run. Fascinating.
Fanfare Magazine Issue 39:2 November/December 2015
Although the music of American composer Bruce Mahin has been featured on three previous CDs, two on the Capstone label, and a third issued by Ravello, only the latter seems to have been reviewed in Fanfare. Since little biographical information about the composer was given in the conjunction with that review, or is provided in the notes of this disc, I shall provide a few comments gleaned from the ever-helpful Internet. Mahin received the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins University, the Master of Music Composition degree from Northwestern University, and the Bachelor of Music Theory-Composition from West Virginia University. He is currently serving as professor of composition and music theory at Radford University, and the focus in his work attempts to explain the parameters of musical expression in Modernist and Postmodern music and its relationship to visual art and poetry. His work with algorithmic compositional models led to the development of real-time interactive computer music systems, and the fruit of this work may be heard on his Capstone CDs.
The present disc is devoted to his solo piano work Préludes de Paris and its inspiration was the preludes of such composers as Bach, Chopin, and Debussy, all of whom forged new harmonic paths and key relationships in their freely conceived, non-developed structures. Each of these preludes is based on a melodic idea or two and draws its harmonic variation from a single chord progression. The harmonic system employs a layering, wherein the top layer utilizes three notes a perfect fourth apart, and a lower layer employing a fourth comprised of only two notes. The interaction of these layers produces varying degrees of dissonance, but nothing that is ever particularly jarring. The composer describes this system of harmony as Bi-tonal Quartal Harmony, and the interested reader may read more about it at mahinmedia.com/bitonal.
The set of 12 runs the gamut in moods, opening with a jaunty Allegro Assai, characterized largely by continual shifts of meter. This metrical irregularity persists into the equally, albeit more Pointillistic and less monolithic Allegro. Prelude 3, Moderato, is more metrically regular, and its almost uninterrupted flow of notes paints a picture of a gently flowing river. Prelude 4, another Moderato, is more Bach-like in its counterpoint, although its rhythms are strictly from our own time. The Fifth Prelude forms the biggest contrast to this point, and is cast in a very free rhapsodic structure. The length of the preludes ranges from around two minutes to nearly double that, such that the length of the entire set is just over a half hour. The cycle neatly displays the inventiveness and imagination employed of its composer throughout. Examples include the Ninth Prelude that is frequented by piquant harmonies in the piano's upper register, and the dreamy lullaby-like 11th Prelude that builds up to a most impressive climax.
In all of these pieces, the abundant pianistic gifts of Martin Jones are on display. He brings an admirable freedom of expression to these essentially rhapsodic pieces, and keeps the forward momentum of the music firmly in mind. The piano is pleasingly recorded, and assuming that the disc is priced commensurately with its playing time, I can give this CD a wholehearted recommendation. It will appeal to both pianophiles and to admirers generally of the piano music of such composers as Paul Hindemith and Niels Viggo Bentzon.
David DeBoor Canfield