American Record Guide
by Jack Sullivan, Jan/Feb 2007
Laurel Firant writes in a rich neo-impressionist idiom all her own. Composed between 1977 and 2004, these pieces for piano solo and violin and piano have seductive atmosphere and sensuous chromatic harmony. 'Shahrazad' is an exotic homage to Rimsky-Korsakoff and traditional Turkish music; 'Amethyst' has echoes of Prokofieff's Visions Fugitives; 'Beautiful Dreamer' sets the famous Foster tune in a tapestry of dreamlike veils, with fragments of the song weaving in and out of ambiguous harmonies; 'Dance' is a Flamenco-tinged rumination for violin and piano that sounds a bit like the nocturnal moments in Ives. Earlier pieces like 'Orfeo' and Four Pieces have a harder edge and more classical exterior, but even Firant's Toccata sounds more like a luscious dream of this baroque form than the real thing. This recording has different players and venues; everyone plays expressively, and the sound is consistent in quality. An attractive release.
By Laura Silverberg
Journal of the International Alliance for Women in Music
Vol 13, No. 1, 2007
Laurel Firant's debut CD demonstrates that musical and extramusical allusions need not mask the composer's own voice. Whether by design or by coincidence, all nine works on this recording invoke either music of the past or literary myth. And yet- particularly in those works composed during the 1990s - Firant's approach to melody, harmony and form remains remarkably consistent. Her lush, chromatic harmonic language avoids prolonged dissonances and favors widely spaced chords. Melodies sound almost improvisatory, while recurring motives and rhythmic gestures provide coherence in the absence of overt formal schemes.
Born in 1954, Firant studied at Interlochen Arts Academy and the University of Michigan, and her music has been performed in the United States, Canada and Europe. With the exceptions of Four Pieces for Piano (1977-78) and Trancelation (2004), the music on this CD hails from the mid-1980s and 1990s.
The opening work, Shahrazad for solo piano (1993), presents a web of literary and musical allusions. The title refers to the Persian myth of Scheherazade, who avoided execution through her masterful storytelling. As Firant's liner notes tell us, the work quotes from Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, a Tuareq song and elements of Turkish quanun music. Perhaps even more evocative of the Scheherazade legend, however, is the narrative-like manner in which Firant weaves together the sections of the piece. New melodies constantly emerge, while recurring motives parallel the dense network of themes in Scheherazade's own tales. This free approach to melody also serves Firant well in Orfeo (1985), a three-movement work that depicts Orfeo's separation from Eurydice, journey to the underworld (one of the most dramatically dissonant moments on the entire CD) and subsequent loss of Eurydice.
Although based on the Stephen Foster tune, Firant's piano piece Beautiful Dreamer (1996) is devoid of nostalgia for 19th-century America. For most of the piece, only snatches of Foster's original emerge between Firant's chromatic harmonies and wandering melodies. Firant wrote that the piece plays "on the concept of dreams, as the tune is hinted at throughout the work [and] as reality is often hinted at and transformed in dreams. The climax at the end is a simple statement of the tune - like a realization upon waking that that was what the dream was all about." Composed in 1991, Album Leaf (also for solo piano) similarly invokes Chopin as a distant memory. While Firant maintains the pianistic texture and gestures of Chopin's nocturnes - even quoting directly from the Nocturne, op. 32, no. 1 - she contains these references within her own distinctive harmonic and melodic language.
Three works on the CD, Amethyst: Visions Fugitives, nos. 1-5 for violin and piano (1987), Toccata (composed for organ in 1997 and arranged for piano in 2004) and Four Pieces for Piano (1977-78), make only fleeting references to their sources of inspiration. The five short pieces in Amethyst are devoid of Prokofiev's angular rhythms, but nonetheless maintain the brevity and playfulness of Prokofiev's originals. By contrast, I found it difficult to hear the influence of Western European organ music in the Toccata, as Firant's liner notes suggest. The Four Pieces for Piano, inspired by piano works of Luigi Dallapiccola, are especially impressive for their diversity of style, reflecting a penchant for driving rhythms and gradually shifting melodic patterns that are absent from Firant's works of the 1980s and 1990s.
Both Dance for violin and piano (1994) and Trancelation for solo piano (2004) refer to dance music, yet have striking stylistic differences. The melodic and harmonic idiom of Dance resembles Firant's other works from the mid-1990s, but recurring dance-like gestures infuse the piece with new rhythmic interest. Composed a decade later, Trancelation offers rhythmic verve unparalleled in Firant's earlier works. The opening Cuban claves rhythm provides a background ostinato for more abstract melodic and rhythmic gestures, similarly derived from Cuban music. Trancelation consists of several distinct sections that transition seamlessly from one part to the next by altering the underlying rhythmic patterns. Overall, I found Translation to be the most compelling work on the CD; it offers a level of rhythmic vitality and formal integration that I sometimes missed in her earlier works.
Violinist William Bouton and pianists Robert Conway and Leonore Hall offer excellent performances sensitive to the melodic and rhythmic elasticity of Firant's music; Tomoko Deguchi masterfully achieves the rhythmic drive necessary for Trancelation. With the exception of the live performance of Four Pieces for Piano and Album Leaf, all works on this CD are studio recordings. Firant's liner notes, though brief, provide thorough guidance to the listener.
by David Lewis
Laurel Firant is a composer based in Ann Arbor, MI, whose instructors included George Cacioppo and William Albright. Capstone's Music for Solo Piano and Violin and Piano is a survey of compositions made by Firant between 1977 and 2004. So secure in her voice, even from the earliest pieces included, is Firant that stylistic changes in the music over this 27-year period happen only gradually, and from the outset it is obvious that Firant works her material over until all the nuts are fully cracked -- there are no loose threads or seamy transitions found here.
Firant seems to be struggling with some of the same issues many American composers who gained their education in the last part of the past century are facing; namely the reconciliation of serial tonal language with more impulsive and natural kinds of inspiration. Of the nine pieces here, Trancelation seems to have the most to offer, as Firant turns her attention to the question of rhythm and away from concerns of pitch choices; particularly as it is given a sparkling performance by pianist Tomoko Deguchi. Leonore Hall delivers a keen and deeply felt rendering of Firant's recomposition of Stephen Foster's Beautiful Dreamer, and likewise, Robert Conway's performance of the early Four Pieces for Piano is a very clearly delineated interpretation, benefiting from a surprisingly good recording taken from a live performance at the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor. In general, Firant's recordings are a leg up on the typical kind of disc of contemporary music compiled from a variety of sources -- wisely she has decided to do most of the recording in the studio, rather than collect the sometimes unfortunate recorded results from university-made and live public concerts.
At best, as in Trancelation, Firant's music is edgy, rhythmically challenging, and exuberant. At its least compelling, as in Dance (1994), Firant's music is a little stodgy and too dark for its own good. Nonetheless, Firant engages good performers, and has effected a quality product in Music for Solo Piano and Violin and Piano through her attention to detail in recording and in determining whether to redo something or to move forward -- there are no audible mistakes or other gaffes on this recording. With her ideal of perfectionism running this high it is only a matter of time before Firant is able to rear a disc of her music that will raise our expectations in kind. Music for Solo Piano and Violin and Piano is a good, and in a few places very good, start.