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Marc YEATS (b. 1962)
The Anatomy of Melancholy
Enma Eliš [13:36]
Ouroboros [17:38]
Professsor Wingards's Nameless Force [10:00]
The Anatomy of Melancholy [17:45]
The Viciousness of Circles [10:28]
William Mumler's Spirit Photography [10:20]
Ian Pace (piano)
rec. 2016/18, Concert Hall, University of Cardiff; The Performance Space, City University, London, UK

Marc Yeats of course is an established figure of some distinction in our contemporary music, but this particular disc had to be crowdfunded – and we are in the debt of those investors. It is the first CD collection of his solo piano works and all these works are first recordings. In the composer’s own notes the disc “includes pieces deemed by many pianists to be too challenging to play”. It should be said at once they are all in some degree also challenging to listen to. I do not use “challenging” as a euphemism here – to challenge is one of the aims of art, and to respond to the challenge one source of art’s rewards. So it is here. Lend a few concentrated hearings to this powerful and intense music and you enter a world few other composers even attempt to explore.
At the very least we should be intrigued by these titles. Enma Eliš references the Babylonian creation myth, Ouroboros is the ancient symbol of the tale-devouring snake, while Professsor Wingards's Nameless Force was a (bogus) naval weapon, and an expression found long after the composition of the work to which it is now attached. The Anatomy of Melancholy is the most straightforward, being presumably a reference to Burton’s 17th century magnum opus. The titles appear to vary in the degree to which they are intended to illuminate the character or progress of the music, but at least demonstrate the breadth of Yeats’ interests – and perhaps the extent of his whimsy. (That he can be delightfully whimsical is shown by his lockdown YouTube video, playing his recorder along to Brandenburg No.2 – worth a look).

The Anatomy of Melancholy is the most substantial work here and the title track, so let’s take that as the exemplar of the style. It plays for nearly eighteen minutes, though Yeats’ note rather hopefully refers to “fifteen minutes’ duration”. It also calls the piece “obsessive and highly driven”, which indeed it is, and compellingly so. At the start an obsessive figure in the high treble nags way over a rumbling bass, while an insistent theme prowls in the middle register. This section plays for more than the first third of the piece (six and a half minutes). This could all be an image of a disturbing melancholia, “proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain”. More animation follows, and some lyricism arrives (08:30), bringing balm. This cannot last one feels, and the final part ascends the keyboard until some repeated loud bass chords usher in a snowstorm of notes at the very top of the instrument - and then the piece evaporates as much as finishes.

At least I think that is what happens in the piece in first acquaintance. But each of these works has its own inner logic it seems to me, even if you need a few hearings for the shape to become clear. Certainly it all sounds original. So what can you expect of Yeats’ piano music? Well, there is often a frenetic activity, a high density of musical incident. There is too a high norm of dissonance, but nothing that should greatly alarm someone who knows the opening of Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. There is Prokofievian diablerie and percussive passages, some keyboard twitterings that might suggest the natural world of Messiaen, and occasionally the haunted stillness of Bartok’s night music. Yet Yeats does not actually sound like any of these composers, and if they were ever influences they have been completely absorbed. Yes it is bracingly and at times bitingly avant-garde, but so once was Bartok – and Beethoven.

As for the playing of Ian Pace, well it is best here to quote the composer again;

“Across the years due to a number of factors, mainly around the music's enormous challenges only a tiny handful of the pieces (often the least frightening and shortest of them) have been performed live…. In this amazing collaboration with Ian, for the first time, I have found a pianist who not only enjoys and can meet these musical challenges but is a pianist who actually wants to perform this work because of the very nature of the writing itself.”

Which is exactly how it sounds. Pace’s skill in negotiating the demands of such contemporary keyboard works will be familiar to those who know his important recording of Finnissy’s History of Photography in Sound. The very opening here of The Viciousness of Circles shows Pace’s bravura brilliance, able to command the notes even when required to leap up and down the whole range of the keyboard in fast music with much metrical dislocation. Yet he takes care of the sound and never crosses the line to the pugilistic . There is also a lyrical sensitivity when a storm yields to a quieter episode, and the quite frequent ruminative passages in these works always move subtly forward, and are not allowed to stagnate – there are more difficulties here than technical ones. This is playing of high commitment, abundant passion, and no little excitement.

There is a good realistic piano sound, with a reasonable amount of ambience - neither too close up nor too distant, and no discernible difference between the two recording locations used. Notes are by the composer, who might also have provided the attractive abstract cover painting (Yeats is also a visual artist). This is a disc which can be recommended to admirers of the composer of course, or of his exceptional interpreter. But it is also one for explorers of contemporary keyboard music, who have to hear this, and whose curiosity will be richly recompensed. Richard Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy” includes in its introduction a note to “The reader who employs his leisure ill”. Yeats’ disc will enable receptive listeners to employ their leisure well.

Roy Westbrook

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