The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan
[Article first published as Music Review: Solungga Fang-Tzu Liu - The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan: Piano Works on Blogcritics.]
Perhaps my readers will not be too familiar with enigmatic classical composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920). This comes as no surprise, because though Griffes was a brilliant Impressionist composer with a unique musical language, he only composed a handful of pieces during his short life. He could count among his influences French Impressionism, contemporary European music with its bitonality and tonal ambiguity, and Asian music, a compositional influence that was relatively new at the time. His music is therefore a dynamic and distinct blend of these influences: one hears something of Scriabin and Debussy in music such as the set Three Tone Pictures (1910-1912) or the simply titled Sonata (1917-1919), tied with this undercurrent of Oriental exoticism that makes his work so unique.
It is precisely this composer whom Taiwan-born concert pianist Solungga Fang-Tzu Liu has decided to showcase. The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan, released on Centaur Records, features a selection of Griffes’s most notable solo piano works. Liu, currently Assistant Professor of Piano at Bowling Green State University, is known as a dedicated performer of 20th-21st century music. In addition to her performances of Ravel and Prokofiev, she has many premieres and recordings of composers to her name, such as Steve Reich, Gregory Mertl, and Robert Morris. In this latest recording of hers, Liu takes the listener through a sensory experience not unlike an ornate tapestry of sound.
When one hears the Three Tone Pictures (1910-1912), which opens the recording, one cannot help but think of Debussy or Ravel. These meditative pieces act as mood setters, bringing to mind specific scenes or images. Griffes links all three pictures in this set to specific poems or texts (in this particular recording, the set is actually, perhaps mistakenly titled Three Tone Poems: these are pictures, but they are also highly poetic). “The Lake at Evening” is thus linked to the “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats:
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
And this shimmering little piece depicts this scene beautifully. “The Vale of Dreams” and “The Night Winds” are similarly prefaced with epigraphs by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). The former refers to “The Sleeper” by Poe, and with its Scriabin-like harmonies seems to evoke some mystic undercurrent of unrest with the perpetuity of the left hand. Midway, the piece ascends fitfully to a climax before descending back again into stillness. The poem that corresponds correlates to this feeling of unrest – this is no peaceful vale of dreams. The lady in the poem is described as sleeping, but in fact she is dead. The latter, “The Night Winds” seeks to evoke the mystic winds “murmuring in melody” mentioned in Poe’s “The Lake.” Overall, Liu’s thoughtful interpretation brings out the lovely nuances in this set, evoking the calm lake water with the ascending pulsing figures in the bass of “The Lake at Evening” and the soft but virtuosic rolling arpeggiations in “The Night Winds.”
The next set is the Fantasy Pieces (1912-1915). Much like the Tone Pictures, the three pieces in this set have texts attached to them. The “Barcarolle,” which is attached to a verse by obscure poet William Sharp (1855-1905) contains a rather innovative hint of bitonality. With the flying figures on the upper register of the piano along with the steadier, lilting theme in the lower register, it mimics the “passionate, impetuous old sea.” The “Notturno” is languid and calm, but also contains the most tonal ambiguity when compared to the “Barcarolle” and the “Scherzo,” evoking a dream state. The text comes from the poem “The White Moon” by Paul Verlaine. The selected lines, translated, are as follows:
The pond reflects,
Of the black willow
Where the wind weeps…
Let us dream; it is the hour.
The “Scherzo” is a personal favorite of mine. It is something like a danse macabre, wild and brilliant, with a memorable theme. Griffes himself wrote the text to accompany the piece: “From the palace of Enchantment there issued into the night sounds of unearthly revelry. Troops of genii and other fantastic spirits danced grotesquely to a music now weird and mysterious, now wild and joyous.” Indeed this piece brings to the listener a sense of something otherworldly.
Following this is the meat of the recording, the Sonata, revised 1919. Often spoken as one of Griffes’s highest musical achievements, this composition, though divided into three movements, is played as though it were one movement. A slower, more meditative second movement is framed by two faster, more agitated ones. This piece seems to resemble the Pleasure-Dome rather than the Fantasy Pieces or the Tone Pictures, both with its loud dramatic moments suddenly slipping into more pristine moments, and his use of Asian scales. It’s a piece that takes a lot of sensitivity of interpretation out of the performer, and Liu’s playing shone here.
The Roman Sketches are a set of four character pieces, each bringing to the listener a certain image: “The White Peacock,” “Nightfall,” “The Fountain of the Acqua Paola,” and “Clouds.” These, like the Fantasy Pieces, are based on poetry of William Sharp. William Sharp’s poetry is actually not regarded highly today, but they produced some of Griffes’s most descriptive music. Maybe they even presented the pictures better than the poet did! The Fountains are another favorite of mine. Liu really brings out the sense of the sublime and the ethereal in this set, from the spreading of the peacock’s tale, the dissonant yet sensuous nightfall, the beautiful wave-like motion of the “Fountain,” and the spacious “Clouds.”
Liu concludes the recording with the Pleasure-Dome itself. This piece is a favorite of Liu, who claims Mongolian descent. Again, one can think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem of the same name, which also inspired this work. One is grasped with a sense of the mysterious from the bass ostinato giving way to the opening melody. The listener is transported, perhaps, through “caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea.” The piece is a lush, sensuous tapestry of dance-like motifs and wandering passages, which bring to the listener’s eye the “sacred river / Five miles meandering with a mazy motion.” Finally, the opening melody reappears, majestically, before ending as it has begun into silent. However, the listener is left with this sense of waking from a particularly realistic (and strange) dream. I wonder if Griffes in composing this piece wanted to be like Coleridge, who writes in the poem, “Could I revive within me / Her symphony and song, / To such a deep delight ‘twould win me / That with music loud and long / I would build that dome in the air!” I would say that Griffes succeeded in capturing this pleasure dome with music, and Liu succeeded even farther in recreating it magnificently.
Overall, an excellent recording. Liu has done justice to this sometimes overlooked body of work with her playing, as well as paying tribute to such an unique and evocative composer.