House of Mirrors
The Piano Files
Douwe Eisenga: Simon Songs
Douwe Eisenga: The Writer, his Wife, her Mistress
That Douwe Eisenga's name isn't better known—on this side of the Atlantic, at least—must qualify as some kind of egregious error that hopefully will be corrected sooner than later. Since 2001, the Dutch classical composer (b. 1961), who studied composition at the Conservatory in Groningen, has produced a remarkable body of work that includes chamber operas, concertos, solo piano and saxophone quartet pieces, and small-group ensemble and theatre works. Melodious, mellifluous, and harmonious are but three words that apply to his material, which could be placed comfortably alongside works by Michael Nyman and Louis Andriessen in any conceivable concert programme. Like them (the former especially), Eisenga possesses the uncanny ability to write expressive, high-quality music capable of appealing to discerning listeners of all ages.
While they constitute but a sampling of his total recorded output, the four recordings reviewed here are representative of his music. Two are ensemble-based collections that present his material at its most colouristic, whereas the two others are solo piano recordings of contrasting conceptual character. The earlier of the two ensemble recordings is House of Mirrors, issued in 2011 and featuring the Rome-based Piccola Accademia degli Specchi (PADS) performing six Eisenga compositions. Overseen by artistic director Matteo Sommacal, the group features six musicians, pianists Giovanni Rosati (also the musical leader) and Assunta Cavallari, cellist Kyung Mi Lee, violinist Giuliano Cavaliere, saxophonist Claudia Di Pietro, and flutist Alessandra Amorino.
House of Mirrors opens with the aptly titled “Motion,” a splendid example of the composer's engaging style and PADS' high-energy attack. With all six instruments locking together with machine-like precision, the micro-orchestra brings the stately composition's syncopated swing to life, its staccato passages nicely offset by a few comparatively languorous passages. Though originally based on a 250-year old Sonata by the Dutch composer Christian Ernst Graf, the also-uptempo “La Musica del Giorno” developed into a quintessential Eisenga piece by the time the composer was done with it. The similarities between Nyman's and Eisenga's styles are perhaps most clearly audible during “Kick,” a ravishing, sixteen-minute travelogue whose chugging rhythms keep the music driving forward at a steady clip.
On the gentler side we have “Passacaglia,” which first appeared as an aria in the 2001 chamber opera Kabaal but on this recording benefits from a tender instrumental reading by the Italian ensemble. In sharp contrast to the energized “Motion,” the slower “Passacaglia” not only highlights the suppleness of the group's collective sound but also elegiac solo contributions by individual members. While “L'Atlante delle Nuvole” appears under the “Cloud Atlas” title on The Piano Files, it's here presented in an arrangement for sextet that naturally expands colouristically on the single-instrument treatment yet does so without losing the fragile delicacy of Eisenga's dream-like composition. House of Mirrors makes a compelling case for Piccola Accademia degli Specchi as a performing ensemble, given how full-bodied and luscious a sound its six musicians produce on the recording. As for the composer himself, no better argument for the superior calibre of his music is needed than “Passacaglia.”
A more recent ensemble-based release is 2015's The Writer, his Wife, her Mistress (speaking of Nyman, it's hard not to think of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover upon hearing the title), a 2014 theatre production about the poet Martinus Nijhoff, his writer wife Netty, and the English visual artist Marlow Moss, and what might have occurred had the three spent a summer together in Zeeland by the sea. The instrumentation on The Writer, his Wife, her Mistress is different from that used for House of Mirrors, with the recorded version of the theatre work (which includes new, mostly instrumental, versions especially written for the fifty-minute recording) featuring the Aurelia Saxophone Quartet, violinist Mathieu van Bellen, vocalist Simone Milsdochter, and Eisenga himself on piano.
“Waiting” introduces the recording quietly, tentatively even, with soft utterances by the saxophones that offer a peaceful, nine-minute prelude to what follows. As the setting unfolds the appetite's whetted for material of a more animated nature, which spirited pieces such as “Arrival” and “The Line” satisfy most capably; nowhere, by comparison, is the recording more heartfelt than during the lovely closer “Triangle.” Similar to House of Mirrors, tempos and dynamics vary from one setting to the next, and while piano and violin do make their presence felt (the latter most affectingly during “Netty's Aria”), the primary focus is firmly on the saxophone and the Aurelia players' deftly executed interplay. And though she appears on two songs only, Milsdochter's singing on “Three Sides” and “How Can I Comfort You” does add a fresh dimension to a recording that sees the composer's melodic gifts on full display throughout.
Though 2015's Simon Songs features an hour of sixteen compact piano settings (performed by Jeroen van Veen), they represent a small portion of the 996 total—yes, 996—pieces Eisenga intends to compose for this work-in-progress. By way of background, a number of years ago he discovered a PDF containing 996 short melodies that were, in fact, modern notations by Simon Plantinga of music published in Amsterdam between 1700 and 1716 and collected under the title Oude en Nieuwe Hollantse Boerenlieties en Contredansen (Old and new Dutch farmer-songs and concert dances). Inspired by the discovery, Eisenga decided to turn it into a personal project that in the case of each song uses a melody or a few notes as a starting point.
The sixteen songs span a generous stylistic and emotional range, with the greater majority delicate, pensive, and lyrical and a smaller number boisterous, uptempo, and exuberant. Just shy of seven minutes, the ruminative fifth is the longest, with most of the others in the two- to four-minute range. However different these lyrical songs might be, Eisenga's distinctive voice is audible throughout, and the elegant, melodically rich settings speak with an immediacy that's hard to resist. Adding to the recording's appeal is the songs' generally unadorned presentation, with the composer having chosen to present each one using only what's necessary. A seeming Ravel nod surfaces in the seventh, but this heartfelt collection is otherwise all Eisenga (and Plantinga).
Contrasts arise during The Piano Files, too, though in this case they're more pronounced when only five compositions are presented. Issued in 2009 and performed by Jeroen van Veen, Sandra van Veen, and Marcel Worms, the hour-long recording features works written for one, two, and even four pianos, and the track times extend from five to twenty-one minutes. “Cloud Atlas” first appeared as part of a collection featuring works by six composers inspired by David Mitchell's novel but in this context appears as a two-piano version (the author himself described the setting as “joyous [and] transcendent” and said that it made him “homesick for a place I've never been”); beautiful it certainly is, especially when the twelve-minute rendering spotlights a disarmingly introspective side of the composer. Elsewhere, Eisenga drew for inspiration from Tubular Bells and fellow Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt for his enchanting 2006 setting “City Lines,” whereas “Theme I,” a dramatic early piece, is notable for how effectively its steadily repeating patterns conjure a mood of heartache and sadness.
Though The Piano Files is strong from start to finish, the most striking setting is “Les Chants Estivaux” (The Summer Songs). Scored for four pianos (all played by Jeroen van Veen), the quadraphonic composition advances with insistent determination as it traverses multiple peaks and valleys over the course of its long journey. The material chimes incandescently as its interlocking patterns escalate in volume and intensity, and the piece grows ever more hypnotic as piano layers are added. As fine as they are, the other pieces can't help but be overshadowed by a piece so towering and the pianist's bravura performance of it.Of course, the four releases reviewed here form a mere microcosm of the composer's total output, but they do provide a solid indication of his abilities and interests. For those wanting more, others are available, among them Rose Road-City Lines (2006), The Flood, Requiem (2015), and Music For Wiek (2009); Eisenga is also hard at work on a number of future releases, including the second installment in The Piano Files project.