Monday, June 16, 2014

Dionysis Boukouvalas, English Gardens

English Gardens is a CD on the Thalia label from 2011 by my friend Dionysis Boukouvalas. I promised him I’d write a review for my blog, but a number of momentous events in 2012 prevented me from finishing my task until now. All the works on the CD were captured in concert performances from 2004 to 2008, and a number of them suggest at least a partial role for improvisation. Boukouvalas is a wonderful pianist and, even acknowledging my own limited experience with the art, an inventive and surprising improviser. 

The CD’s eight tracks all cover very similar expressive terrain but from a number of different perspectives, so that the resulting program makes for a varied and satisfying concert experience. “A Dream Within a Dream” (2004) is the earliest work on the release. It is a post-minimal study beginning on a single D-major extended triad; gradually, he introduces a moving bass that reinterprets the upper parts into different harmonies, along with the introduction of a couple new pitches. Boukouvalas’s sense for harmonic change and constantly shifting but familiar patterns is quite deft. As the piece unfolds, small melodic motives eventually appear in the upper voices, and the rhythmic patterns become less regular and more expansive. This landscape is one familiar to many post-minimal works: Boukouvalas makes the experience more singular through his melodic ideas, which develop in unexpected ways, and through the ever-expanding garlands of sound articulated by the rhythmic patterning. 

Two of the works on the program exceed ten minutes—“Rustle of Light” (2005) is another essay in patterns that begins much like “A dream”; soon, however, the note choices introduce a few lovely cross-relations that perhaps suggest the choice of the album’s title: the expansive textures and wistful optimism evoke both William Byrd and Michael Tippett (especially his first sonata). “Autumn Path” (also 2005), my favorite track on the disc, is even more dynamic: a ruminative, mysterious opening with slow, resonant chords leads to an undulating, somewhat nostalgic-sounding melody. After five minutes the piece appears to reach its close, but one tiny element in that apparent final moment gives way to another lengthy section that begins by questioning what has come before and then reinforcing a feeling of even greater loss. The greatest surprise comes within the last 90 seconds: an explosion of sonority and figuration that ends in an ecstatic flourish in the keyboard’s highest register. What’s so compelling to me about this form is its inevitability: after my initial surprise, I couldn’t imagine the piece unfolding any other way, and experiencing it again and again makes the impression even more satisfying.  

The other works, while less ambitious, are equally effective. “Voyage to Innocence,” for instance, starts with a freer and somewhat more rhapsodic melody with spare but poignant accompanying chords. A simpler and eloquent melody contrasts from time to time and eventually prevails over the more rhapsodic, gestural ideas. It ends ambiguously: after all, innocence simply exists; it doesn’t need to make a grand statement. English Gardens, then, reveals a wonderful expressive range in Boukouvalas’s work that’s very hard to achieve.

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