Liner notes for Hanging Gardens

Hanging Gardens, my double disc of works by Debussy and Second Viennese School composers, is out in July. Here are the notes I wrote for the album:

Claude Debussy and the Second Viennese composers followed different paths of philosophical development, inspired by the trends of art and literature in their age, but they were aligned by a common embrace of sensuality in music. Theirs was a strongly shared language, and my interest as a pianist is to explore fields of intersection between these two musical worlds often thought to be opposite in character. Writing for the piano, an instrument equally wide-ranging and intimate, helped all these composers to explore decadent dimensions of harmony, form, and sound color.

For this recording, Debussy’s two books of Préludes and selected individual pieces offer a chance to view the music of Arnold Schoenberg’s school, assumed to be arid and formalist, through a tinted lens. The Préludes, influenced by otherworldly Symbolist poetry and the aesthetic of ancient classical art, give snapshots of places, objects, natural phenomena, and fleeting moods. Small musical forms bely the ambition of Debussy’s endeavor: he conjures minutely detailed scenes, each of the twenty-four pieces wholly distinct in feeling.

Both Schoenberg and Anton Webern thrive in similarly miniature constructions. Schoenberg’s song cycle The Book of the Hanging Gardens portrays a doomed, desperate romance in brief tableaus set in a mythic, lush landscape. Featuring some of Schoenberg’s earliest atonal pieces, the cycle is energized by its intentional instability. Its richly ambiguous harmonic language is well-matched to Stefan George’s poetry of emotions stretched to the breaking point. The heightened poetic sensitivity is reflected in the composer’s tactile approach to sound: this can be heard especially in number 11 of the set, which depicts the lovers touching each other lightly in the afterglow of passion. This movement can be compared to the exotic flirtation of Debussy’s Voiles, and the heat of La puerta del vino.

Alban Berg’s whole-tone patterns in his early Sonata draw a clear link to Debussy. The innovative, pervasive development of a simple motive leads Berg to coloristic extremes. And Webern’s Variations finds expressive continuity and intense energy in spare sounds or silence. Webern forges a totally original piano texture: notes become points of light, forming shapes in a gorgeous void. Debussy and the Second Viennese opened music to a sensual, seductive unreality that diverse composers, to our own age, have accepted as a promise of possibility.

Jacob Greenberg