Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano (ECM New Series 2470-72)

Liaisons

Anthony de Mare
Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano

Anthony de Mare piano
All pieces were commissioned expressly for The Liaisons Project, Rachel Colbert and Anthony de Mare, Producers.
Producer for The Liaisons Project: Rachel Colbert
Recording producer and engineer: Judy Sherman
Additional engineer and editing assistant: Jeanne Velonis
Recorded 2010-2014 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, and Greenfield Recital Hall, Manhattan School of Music, New York.
Backing tracks for “Birds of Victorian England” engineered by Kevin Boutote
“Johanna In Space” backing track provided by Duncan Sheik
Mastering: Christoph Stickel and Steve Lake at MSM Studios, Munich
An ECM Production

Listen to that old piano roll play.
When I hear that old piano roll play,
I just gotta dance,
And what I mean is dance with you.

In her exhaustive biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life, Meryle Secrest shares the story of an adolescent Sondheim’s encounter with the 1945 film Hangover Square, and within it a piano concerto written by scorer Bernard Herrmann. The music’s bold mix of romanticism and Americana captured Sondheim’s imagination and was to become part of the origins of his intersections with the dramatic stage.

Sondheim has always composed at the keyboard, charting out his scores in great detail, to be orchestrated by (since 1970) esteemed collaborator Jonathan Tunick. Broadway has relied on this formula, which over the decades the duo funneled into surefire productions, but the project lovingly packaged in this three-disc collection from ECM takes Sondheimania to a new level through the intervention of rigorously trained note-smiths, each occupying a band along a spectrum of collaborations from a distance.

The roster of composers, who the behest of new music champion Anthony de Mare wrote new variations on the theme of Sondheim, reveals a depth and variety equaled by the songs they have re-imagined, as William Bolcom, Nico Mulhy, Steve Reich, David Rakowski, Eve Beglarian, Jason Robert Brown, Duncan Sheik, Eric Rockwell, Wynton Marsalis, Derek Bermel, Fred Hersch, Annie Gosfield, Jake Heggie, Kenjie Bunch, Ethan Iverson, Ricardo Lorenz, Paul Moravic, Frederic Rzewski, David Shire, John Musto, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Phil Kline, Bernadette Speach, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Andy Akiho, Ricky Ian Gordon, Nils Vigeland, Rodney Sharman, Gabriel Kahane, Thomas Newman, Jherek Bischoff, Mary Ellen Childs, Peter Golub, Tania Leon, and de Mare himself put a personal spin on the Sondheim songbook that is as true to life as it is to art.

Though Sondheim has historically been averse to being interviewed, in this collection we hear him speaking through the hearts of every composer who has felt his influential hand. In an album note, he himself describes these pieces not as “decorations” but “fantasias” of his songs. Indeed, Sondheim’s recognizable voice has been reworked with such fidelity—one original inspiring other originals to create new originals—that one need hardly peel away any layers of obfuscation to find him. Above all, however, it’s his scarcely rivaled gift for pastiche that resonates by virtue of de Mare’s encyclopedic flair.

According to Mark Eden Horowitz’s extensive liner text, the composers chose their songs based more on the lyrics and their stories than the melodies sung around them. And so, one can listen assured that de Mare’s consummate touch makes room on his metaphorical suitcase to display every sonic sticker of his travels. His dramatic, romping, emotional rollercoaster ride through A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the  Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1987), Assassins (1991), and Passion (1994) accordingly dwells as much on differences as similarities, bringing to fruition a “global” sound.

Not surprisingly, Sondheim’s masterpiece Sweeney Todd gets the most nods of the program, in addition to yielding a lion’s share of its highlights. One of those is Sheik’s “Johanna in Space.” This atmospheric gem opens with the chimes of a clock emulated on the piano and stretches itself over an electronic backdrop à la Tim Story. Todd’s ill-fated daughter is further subject of Brown’s “Birds of Victorian England,” which requires no small amount of heavy lifting from de Mare. As can be expected, Sweeney Todd engenders ample opportunity for over-the-top dynamics, epitomized in the spiraling density and fluent outcries of Bunch’s “The Demon Barber.” Other fine examples of the protagonist’s crushing pessimism abound, whether through the intimate knowledge of Newman’s “Not While I’m Around” or, in a satirical turn, Lorenz’s “The Worst [Empanadas] in London.” The latter requires a performer of de Mare’s chops to pull off the feel for rhythm and energy on which it subsists. De Mare welcomes the listener by shouting, “A customer!” as if in throwback to the speaking-singing pianist genre of which he was such a foundational proponent through his premiere of Rzewski’s De Profundis. It’s only natural, then, that Rzewski should have a piece included: the elegiac “I’m Still Here.” This and other selections from Follies, such as Wynton Marsalis’s Jelly Roll Morton-infused take on “That Old Piano Roll”, imply a bygone age with plenty of style to spare.

Company inspires a handful of homages as well, including Rakowski’s impressionistic “The Ladies Who Lunch,” through which Sondheim’s love for Ravel shines (as also in Bermel’s “Sorry/Grateful”); Rockwell’s tangible “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” in which the composer “imagined a pianist trying desperately to catch the attention of rowdy patrons at a cabaret with as wide ranging a series of pastiches as possible”; and Roumain’s “Another Hundred People,” which invokes the troubled crooning of a Kurt Cobain or Thom Yorke.

A Little Night Music lifts its story from the Ingmar Bergman comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, and its comic touches are duly noticeable in Speach’s “In and Out of Love” (a personal album favorite), which shuffles the harmonies of “Send in the Clowns” (see also Iverson’s whimsical take on the same) into a balladic “Liaisons.”

Sunday in the Park gives us Muhly’s minimal yet expansive “Color and Light,” which embodies the pointillism that so fascinated the play’s subject, Georges Seurat. Muhly’s feel for the piano as a textural toolbox translates superbly. Reich’s more compact “Finishing the Hat” is scored for two pianos (de Mare multi-tracks himself) and links a brief yet persistent chain of chords. Sharman’s “Notes on ‘Beautiful,’” on the other hand, originally a duet between Seurat and his mother, no becomes a conversation between the living composer and his deceased mother. De Mare’s rendition of “Sunday in the Park – Passages (encore)” opens a lifeline to possibilities, and makes us feel connected to our own.

Shire’s “Love is in the Air” puts a delightful spin on the original opening number of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, underscoring de Mare’s abilities to evoke the past in a language of the future, while Bolcom’s “A Little Night Fughetta” references Anyone Can Whistle, pushing Bach through a jazzy filter of development. Pacific Overture is another of the less represented but no less effective source texts. Gosfield’s “A Bowler Hat” displays a meticulous feel for deconstruction, while Kline’s “Paraphrase (Someone in a Tree)” paints the first meeting between American and Japanese officials in 1853 with unexpected colors. Merrily We Roll Along gives us León’s “going…gone,” another remarkable highlight that, along with Akiho’s “Into the Woods” is perhaps the most technically demanding of the program. Hersch’s “No One is Alone” is another ode to Into the Woods, this one pentatonic and alliterative. And let me not neglect Beglarian, who pays tribute to Passion in her “Perpetual Happiness.” This striking piece is as real as the music gets on Liaisons, and builds its wings one feather at a time, until flight is achieved.

Doing justice to all of the composers and pieces represented here would be a futile, wordy exercise. Suffice it to say there isn’t a single sour note to be found, and as a whole the album demonstrates that, while Sondheim’s music may sometimes play hard to get, it will love you through and through if you let it, because that’s all it wants to do.

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