Capturing the Past: Bruce Levingston’s Heavy Sleep

Solo pianist Bruce Levingston‘s Heavy Sleep, released this year on the Sono Luminus label, carries a conceit of heritage and lineage that makes an interesting concept and reason for this particular collection of works to coexist. The album features works by Americans Timo Andres and Mohammed Fairouz, in addition to J.S. Bach (with original works and arrangements by Reger, Siloti, and Kurtag)– the new work by Andres is said to echo Bach and Chopin, Fairouz tributes Ligeti; Kurtag, Reger, and Siloti arrange Bach (and it is argued, reflect on Bach in doing so), and the original Bach works offer the symbolic voices of man and God. The record makes a musical argument for close spiritual connectivity between these artists.

There’s really three releases here: Heavy Sleep, a single; the collection of Bach works, a record; and the Fairouz set, an EP. By that assessment, you’ve got quite a deal. Still, I would have liked to have heard more space devoted to the works of Andres or someone else, to have heard the ideas in Heavy Sleep furthered, or at least heard others facets of Andres’ style, and Levingston’s lovely realization of it. One reason for it could be simple economics. Andres was commissioned by Premiere Commission, Inc., a nonprofit foundation founded and artistically directed by Levingston that has commissioned and premiered over fifty new works.

Andres is a wunderkind rightfully compared to John Adams by the New Yorker in terms of his early career ascendancy. The eponymous track, Heavy Sleep is based on the poem ‘Nocturne’ by the Swedish poet Tomas Transtömer. Levingston graciously lays out some behind-the-scenes process in the liner notes (always read the liner notes– hard to do in the age of Spotify, but that’s another topic), offering a frank mea culpa of sorts: “I know, super nerdy,” Andres opines, describes his contrary-motion chaconne that chromatically modulates on repetition, a “Debussy + Bach vibe if such a thing is even possible.” “Maybe nerdy, but also gorgeous!” Levingston offers, and I certainly can’t disagree. He makes the Steinway Model D sing with clairty and depth.

Heavy Sleep, the title track, is one of foci of the record for those who care to listen, and it lives to its title for whatever connotations one might ascribe to it. Meditative, sombre but not brooding, many lines are pulled from the initial homophonic statement. Andres’ harmonic language has a jazzy sensibility that does hearken to Debussy, but not necessarily so. Chords build in waves, their tips leading from one crest to the next in an expectedly unexpected way. The piece was especially composed for Levingston, and you can hear it. Every note is authoritative, intentional, and personal. The next piece, Herzlich Tut Mich Verlangen (BWV 727), offers a shift in style that is far less jarring than expected.

Bruce Levingston - Photo credit Stephanie Berger

Bruce Levingston – Photo credit Stephanie Berger

Later, we hear Fariouz’ El Make Rachamim (A Prayer in Memory of György Ligeti), a five-part work that is on average far more active than the previous tracks. As one of Ligeti’s last pupils, Fariouz (coincidentally, the same age as Andres) speaks from a certain direct knowledge and with authority that is tangibly communicated through the notes. The five movements flow into each other; his integration of Middle-Eastern modes into Western sensibilities offers a fresh and purposeful approach that satisfyingly closes the record. The phrase ‘El Male Rachamim’ (God, full of mercy) is taken from a poem by Yehuda Amichai. The work is meant to accompany the ascension of the soul, and evoke the memory of the deceased.

As in any question of faith rendered to music, such faith is tested evincingly by the composer. The first movement is beguilingly shaded, twisted in its turns of phrase, and is a stark reminder of the kinds of doubts many might have at the door of death. The second movement, according to the composer, presents “an inner crying.” The third is a “full-on dance of death,” and Levingston invites a comparison to the Bach/Siloti Prelude. The fourth offers a classic sense of penultimate fragility before the finale bursts forth, which I won’t spoil here.

Heavy Sleep is a considerably meditative effort bookended by its highlights–two world premiere recordings of works by two of the United States’ luminaries in contemporary composition, left to the hands (figurative and literal) of a caring and virtuosic leader in the field.

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