Bruce Levingston: Windows
Sono Luminus

Without wishing to presume too much, the impression forms as I listen to Windows, Bruce Levingston's sixth release on Sono Luminus and his follow-up to 2016's Philip Glass homage Dreaming Awake, that he never feels more complete or alive than when his hands are touching the keyboard. On Windows, he wholly inhabits the material, whether it be a contemporary piece or one by Robert Schumann, and no seeming separation exists between the musician and the music, so total is his connection to it. Lauded by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and others for performances at venues such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, Levingston, who began playing at age four, is the artistic director of Premiere Commission, Inc., a non-profit foundation that has commissioned and premiered over forty new works, including two on this release.

The impeccable command for which Levingston's become known are again evident, this time in an inspired set-list that achieves a satisfying rapprochement between old and new—if, that is, it's fair to brand Schumann's timeless works old. Though nearly two centuries separate the compositions by David Bruce and James Matheson—2011's The Shadow of the Blackbird and 2015's Windows, respectively—from Schumann's Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) (1838) and Arabeske (1839), interesting connections impart a sense of cohesiveness to the album. For his five-movement suite Windows, Matheson drew for inspiration from stained glass works created by Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse for the Union Church of Pocantino Hills, New York that were inspired by ancient imagery and scripture. To complement the title setting, Levingston sought out composers whose material exemplifies similar affiliations to other art forms. Schumann was heavily influenced by poetry and literature, thus making him a natural fit for the project, whereas Bruce's two-movement piece was inspired by Schumann and the poetry of Wallace Stevens.

With respect to the latter, it was Stevens's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, a meditation that captures life's mystery without attempting to demystify it, that captivated Bruce. In text by the composer included in the release booklet, he states, “If the blackbird in the poem is a mysterious, mystical bird, which is sometimes real, sometimes symbol—it might be god, life, or death—then how much more mysterious is its shadow.” Certainly mystery is paramount in Bruce's fantasia-like conception, whether it be the rapid gestures and virtuosic runs that dominate its dramatic first movement or the destabilizing shiftings of tempo in the second. Moving in and out of sync, the movements' contrapuntal patterns alternately speed up and slow down to intensify that feeling of disorientation; the second one's particularly powerful in that regard in the way a slow, rocking figure is juxtaposed with a delicately voiced single-note melody. While it's hardly the only example that testifies to Levingston's exquisite handling of tempo and dynamics, it's a remarkable one indeed.

An entirely different set of moods asserts itself via Schumann's thirteen-part Kinderszenen (originally twelve in number, he added the coda-like thirteenth later), a collection of miniatures focusing on the innocence of childhood, and the stand-alone Arabeske. The Kinderszenen settings might not pose the greatest technical challenge to a pianist of Levingston's calibre; they're challenging in a different sense, however, in the degree of sensitivity the pianist is called upon to evoke the unsullied wonder of childhood experience. “Curiose Geschichte” (A Curious Story) is a remarkable illustration of his command of tempo; note, for example, his masterful use of ritardando as the stately march melody reaches its end. As affecting though in different ways, “Wichtige Bebebenheit” (An Important Event) and “Ritter vom Steckenpferd” (Knight of the Hobby-Horse) exude the high-spirited vitality of youth, while the gentle “Träumerei” (Dreaming) and “Kind im Einschlummern” (Child Falling Asleep) are distinguished by delicacy of touch. In its reflective character, the elegant conclusion “Der Dichter spricht” (The Poet Speaks) serves as an apt segue-way to Arabeske, with its ornate design and graceful, open-hearted expressiveness; further to that, the latter's worldly tone suggests a transition from the carefree Kinderszenen into the complex realities of adulthood.

Matheson's title work caps the release with evocative settings that distill the visions of Chagall and Matisse into musical form. If the low-pitched block chords and spidery melodic patterns of “Jeremiah” introduce the suite on a somewhat foreboding note, “Isaiah,” with its slinky trills and unison figures, feels more playful by comparison. Appropriate to its subject matter, “Crucifixion”is ponderous, whereas “The Rose” opts for seven minutes of entrancement in weaving chiming block-chord patterns into a quietly rapturous design. Still, as partial as I am to contemporary material like Matheson's, it's Schumann's Kinderszenen that leaves the strongest mark, but that it does so is more attributable to its realization by Levingston. Stated otherwise, it's not so much the material itself, wonderful though it is, but more the pianist's rendering of it. The range of emotional expression and technical command he demonstrates in this performance is exceptional.

February 2018