An Imaginative Pianist Hangs Mix Of Pictures At A Virtuosic Exhibition

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Pianist Stewart Goodyear plays new works and Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ on his new CD. (Photo by Andrew Garn)

Phoenix: Works by Anthony Davis, Claude Debussy, Stewart Goodyear, Jennifer Higdon, and Modest Mussorgsky. Stewart Goodyear, piano. Bright Shiny Things BSTD0154.

DIGITAL REVIEW – With Phoenix, Stewart Goodyear’s latest album (out via Bright Shiny Things), the pianist-composer from Toronto navigates a varied, and always challenging, program, albeit to mixed results. At the heart of it is a hefty dose of contemporary music — some 27 minutes, including two pieces by Goodyear himself that bookend the album — and an engaging Pictures at an Exhibition.

According to the press kit, the title is an allusion to Franz Liszt. It is from his ashes, not just as a piano virtuoso but as an arranger, that the phoenix arises, presumably as far as pianists of Goodyear’s caliber go. But if the connection is tenuous (Liszt figures in Phoenix neither as composer nor as arranger), what is persuasive is the positioning of Goodyear among the latest in a lineage of piano virtuosos who are also composers. In the most recent of his accumulating accolades, last October the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto named Goodyear, who is an alumnus, its first artist in residence.

The album’s strongest point is Anthony DavisMiddle Passage, with which Goodyear contributes to the documentation of contemporary piano music worthy of note, and with a great performance at that. Inspired by Robert Hayden’s imagistic 20th century poem of the same name — an unforgettable, brutal montage about the slave trade across the Atlantic — Davis’ 1983 piece employs a distressed, and distressing, harmonic language that is far removed from what we hear in the rest of Phoenix. From the first measures, Davis sets a tone of disquiet, but without giving it all away too soon.

He creates a feeling that something is awry. Percussive repetition in high and low notes and unnerving chromatic runs paint a soundtrack for the poem’s deponent (a witness), who reports from a cargo ship sailing from Guinea to Florida with some 500 slaves:

       “That there was hardly room ’tween-decks for half  

       the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;  

       that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh  

       and sucked the blood”

With Goodyear’s powerful grip over the keyboard and plangent attack — he is a Beethoven specialist after all — the pianist captures the sheer horror of Hayden’s lines with fine-tuned precision. It is a riveting performance of a dissonant and uncompromising piece that conjures an episode from a past not soon forgotten and nearly impossible to make peace with.

Goodyear displays his chops as a composer with Congotay — reduced for solo piano from its original version with guitar, bass, drums, and steel drums — and with Panorama, originally for piano and orchestra. The exuberant Congotay is a manic Caribbean romp in the mento Jamaican folk style. Though the arrangement is highly rhythmic with an infectious dance spirit, the Caribbean flavor of the original instrumentation suffers a bit. But when Goodyear’s hands fly into fanciful flurries up the keyboard, you’d almost swear it’s a piano-four-hands arrangement. A showoff encore to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Panorama boasts incredibly fast glissandos and technical fireworks with hints of Gershwin and Bernstein (think “Mambo” from West Side Story), and unrelenting gusto.

There’s some of that gusto, too, in Goodyear’s reading of Mussorgsky’s Pictures: his “Tuileries” and “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks” are as playful and downright fun as they should be. He takes a brisk pace for each “Promenade,” with assuredness and an upbeat personality. His turn through “The Old Castle” is melancholic but not affectedly so, achieving a perfect balance between left and right hand; “Catacombs” is brooding and menacing. There is a rush of anticipation and excitement to “The Hut on Hen’s Legs,” with remarkably clear phrasing in an upbeat tempo and well-accomplished contrast in the middle section. But in “The Great Gate of Kiev,” Goodyear’s sudden dynamic shifts come off as a bit dramatic. And yet, an unwavering momentum, especially in the octave-heavy grand climax, makes the final moments irresistible.

But Phoenix lose ground in the rest of the selections: Though coherent and technically unimpeachable, Goodyear’s Debussy is a little unsubtle. In L’isle joyeuse, he goes for clarity of articulation at the expense of the floating haziness that characterizes much of Debussy. In the first measures of La cathédrale engloutie, his playing is a little less subdued than ideal in terms of tempo and dynamics, which takes away from the buildup to Debussy’s mysteriously planing chords in the loudest moments. But when the tolling bell motif of the opening returns, Goodyear does take on that serene aimlessness that defines La cathédrale — music unshackled from time.

Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens, from 2000 — the remaining contemporary piece — pales next to the weighty Middle Passage, though that is not to say that it doesn’t have its own charm. The piece builds to a climax with a rich chordal outburst. When the meditative mood of the opening returns, it is cast in a more assertive character — a clearly expressed, yet unpretentious piece that harks back to Classical period molds.

In February, Goodyear performed all five Beethoven piano concertos with the Orlando Philharmonic; in Toronto, with just a day in between, he premiered his own piano quintet with the Penderecki String Quartet. Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was also on the program. There goes that phoenix arising once again.