Perhaps 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 composed only 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 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, composes such as Steve Reich, Gregory Mertl, and Robert Morris. In this latest recording, 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.”