Liaisons: Re-imagining Sondheim From The Piano
In 2007 pianist and new music champion Anthony de Mare launched the Liasons Project, for which a wide stylistic and generational gamut of contemporary composers were commissioned to ‘reimagine’ Stephen Sondheim’s songs. The resultant works largely consist of fantasias on Sondheim’s melodic lines, harmonies and accompaniments. One might say that the collection presents 21st-century parallels to the operatic paraphrase genre that flourished in the 19th century, most prominently under Franz Liszt.
Three hours and 17 minutes of new music is a lot for listeners to absorb – not to mention a pianist having to learn, perform and record these works to the highest standard, as de Mare undoubtedly does throughout. Although familiarity with Sondheim’s original songs might aid one’s perception of their ‘reimagined’ counterparts, it’s not really necessary in order to assess each work’s individual merit or appeal. It helps that de Mare’s running order for each of the three discs ensures effective contrast and flow. As such, I found it best to listen to a disc from beginning to end without referring to titles or the composers’ identities, taking notes along the way.
All of the music holds interest, although some selections succeed more than others. The pieces generally fare best when composers remain true to their own stylistic selves and stay focused. Steve Reich’s rhythmically complex, tersely communicative two-piano take on ‘Finishing the hat’ will no doubt take on a life of its own. Both Derek Bermel’s ‘Sorry/Grateful’ and Paul Moravec’s ‘I think about you’ commence with sparse, achingly lyrical lines that give way to increasing musical and emotional complexity (self-indulgence, never). Tania León’s ‘going…gone’ almost unrecognisably recasts the original ‘Good thing going’ in jagged, carefully constructed lines and paragraphs. In the gently post-minimal ‘Perpetual happiness’, Eve Beglarian lays out staccato repeated notes and sparse chords in just the right proportions, whereas Mason Bates’s ‘Very put together’ attempts to pack in many notes in many registers with scarcely room to breathe.
By contrast, Jake Heggie transforms ‘I’m excited. No you’re not.’ into a witty, well-crafted, neo-Prokofievian flagwaver, while the declamatory unison utterances and sinewy counterpoint in John Musto’s ‘Epiphany’ and wistful bluesy allusions of Frederic Rzewski’s ‘I’m still here’ exemplify unambiguously real piano-writing. Eric Rockwell’s straightforward yet heavy-handed ragtime/piano-bar treatment of ‘You could drive a person crazy’ pales next to the delicacy and subtle harmonic tinges in Fred Hersch’s ‘No one is alone’, although Mark-Anthony Turnage’s spacious and sensitive take on ‘Pretty women’ was quite the surprise. For that matter, de Mare’s own beautifully wrought mini-fantasy on themes from Sunday in the Park with George upstages lesser contributions from several highly touted composers and brings this fascinating, excellently produced collection to a fulfilling close.