Liza Stepanova’s new album Tones & Colors is not about synesthesia. Instead, the pianist explores the connection between visual art and classical music from across the centuries via an ambitiously vast, meticulously played range of works beginning with Bach and ending in our time with George Crumb. She’s playing the album release show this Jan 6 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $25. Considering that she’s sold out Carnegie Hall in the past, picking up a ticket now wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Stepanova smartly programs the album as she would a concert. It opens with a triptych of Spanish composers, followed by a quartet of pieces devoted to nature and impressionism. From there she makes her way through music influenced by art from previous eras, then gives the album a comfortable finale and a surprising encore.
She opens on a boisterous note with Granados’ The Strawman. Stepanova’s emphatic wave motion as the waltz picks up steam makes perfect sense considering that the piece is inspired by Goya’s painting The Straw Manikin, which depicts a group of women throwing a stuffed man back and forth. Is there cynical battle-of-the-sexes commentary in the music as well? That’s hard to say, but there’s humor and more than a hint of sarcasm in this performance.
Bury Them And Be Silent, from Moroccan-born composer Maurice Ohana’s 1944 suite Three Caprices is one of the rare treasures here. Another piece inspired by Goya – in this case, a grim Napoleonic War-era tableau – is the inspiration. Stepanova takes the listener on a morose stroll to graveside shock and then back – it’s arguably the high point of the album. Then she cascades, ripples and lingers in the colorful battle imagery of a Turina work inspired by a Velasquez celebration of medieval Spanish conquest.
Another rarity began as a collaboration between 19th century German composer Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn) and her painter husband Wilhelm, who illustrated her score. Stepanova’s agent could license this to innumerable horror or suspense films: its broodingly circling, baroque-tinged ilnes compare with anything any composer of soundtracks is doing in a neoromantic vein these days.
Stepanova makes jaunty work of Martinu’s Butterflies in the Flowers, which draws on the lepidopterous oeuvre of painter Max Švabinský. Debussy’s Goldfish ostensibly is not meant to be a depiction of fishbowl life but a musical attempt to mimic the layering often used in 19th century Japanese art: with a light touch on its machinegun rhythm, Stepanova maxes out its dynamics and contrasts.
Sculptor Heinrich Neugeboren once created a piece meant to capture a pivotal moment in Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat minor, BWV 853, from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Stepanova gives the opening segment a romantic treatment in contrast to the sculpture’s architecture. Then she has fun with the muted inside-the-piano voicings of George Crumb’s Giotto-inspired, characteristically mystical miniature, Adoration of the Magi.
The most obscure work on the album is a careful, Bach-inspired fugue, one of only a few compositions written by 20th century painter Lyonel Feininger. Stepanova closes this concert in a box with a lively, understatedly precise performance of Liszt’s solo piano version of Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. The first of the encores is György Ligeti’s Etude No. 14, parsing the geometrics of a column by sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi with cell-like boogie-woogie allusions. The final number is a selection from late Romantic composer Leopold Godowsky’s cheery musical homage to the French rococo painter Antoine Watteau. The album hasn’t officially hit the web yet, consequently, no streaming link – stay tuned!