Terra Incognita: Impromptus by Franz Schubert and Thomas Osborne (Derek Polischuk)
Terra Incognita: Impromptus by Franz Schubert and Thomas Osborne (Derek Polischuk)
A new solo piano CD presents an intriguing juxtaposition of the traditional and the new, as pianist Derek Kealii Polischuk performs Schubert’s legendary Four Impromptus D. 935 Opus. 142, coupled with a world premiere recording of a new work commissioned by the pianist specifically for the purpose of serving as a companion to the Schubert master pieces – the four movement “Terra Incognita” by Thomas Osbourne.
Taking its title from terminology used in Medieval map-making, “Terra Incognita,” which translates to “unknown land,” is a term often encountered in the far edges of the map, where science blends with the map-maker’s imagination. These fascinating documents are the main inspiration for the work, which invites the listener to join the pianist on his journey to the far boundaries of piano playing, as he applies untraditional techniques and stirs the imagination.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)Four Impromptus, D. 935, Op. 142
1 I. Impromptu in F minor. Allegro moderato
2 II. Impromptu in A-flat Major. Allegretto
3 III. Impromptu in B-flat Major. Andante
4 IV. Impromptu F minor. Allegro scherzando
Thomas Osborne (b. 1978)The Ends of the Earth. Four Impromptus (2011)
5 I. Terra Incognita
6 II. Mare Incognitum
7. III. Terra Pericolosa
8. IV. Terra Nullius
Fanfare (May/June 2014)
This is a fascinating release.
The Schubert receives an excellent performance from Polischuk, fluent and with excellently aligned chordal work. Shadings are perfectly judged, and Schubert’s sense of timelessness is superbly realized in the A♭ Impromptu. Here, Polischuk is completely unafraid to take his time, while in the B♭-Major Impromptu rubato is perfectly judged, finding the pianist testing the boundaries of what constitutes too much without actually transgressing. The playful F-Minor offers pure joy.
Thomas Osborne (who has an impressive website: thomas-osborne.com) was born in Indiana and gained degrees from Indiana, Rice University, and Southern California. He holds what must be a dream job: associate professor of composition and theory at the University of Hawaii. His music is informed by many non-Western musical idioms. The work The Ends of the Earth, premiered by the composer himself at Michigan State University in 2011, is inspired by medieval maps, and more specifically their boundaries: the limits past which the then-geographical knowledge ran out. The first movement in fact gives the disc its marketing title: Terra incognita. It is an eight-minute sonic exploration of great beauty. Osborne uses extended percussion techniques (mallets to play on the piano’s strings and frame) as well as invoking gamelan, thus using unfamiliar ways of delivering sound to mirror the unfamiliar borders of the old maps. Inevitably, the ear catches resonances of the works of John Cage. The ocean-inspired second piece, “Terra Incognitum,” begins with an Indonesian inspired opening and ends with an Okinawan melody. I hope that sounds fascinating, because it is. There is much beauty here; the third movement brings in hints of Messiaen (“Terra Pericolosa”—Dangerous Land) both in the chords used and in the presence of birdsong. By using Theme and Variations, Osborne aligns it with the third of the Schubert Impromptus just heard. Finally, “Terra Lullius,” a fascinating melding of an incomplete Schubert Lied and an indigenous Hawaiian song. Invoking a monumental, timeless scale initially (and using silence intelligently and effectively), the movement skillfully works in the Schubert fragment, ending on a question mark.
"Dark and otherworldly, Osborne's Terra Incognita is indeed unknown territory both for listener and performer. Using mallets to play on the strings and frame, Polischuck extracts threatening, percussive sounds to alert and startle. Launching forth with clashing chords in Mare Incognitum, this movement develops to embody the tumbling of waves and the expansive swell of the ocean. Osborne's composition holds the interest as he uses Indonesian rhythms and finishes with an Okinawan melody - more commonly known as Ryukyuan music from the Southern Islands of Japan - to bring otherworldly melodies home. With hints of Mompou and Debussy, Osborne's opening to Terra Pericolosa is impressionistic. Polischuck shapes these phrases with alert spontaneity and excitement. A startling sense of discovery is felt in the clusters of chords at the close. Lastly, Terra Nullius (no man's land) juxtaposes a fragment of an incomplete Schubert song with 'Kaulana Na Pua' - 'Famous are the Flowers', a well-known Hawaiian song. By muting the strings of the piano and playing with the extremes of the piano's range - even strumming the strings to produce lute-like sounds - Polischuck conveys Osborne's fascination and enchantment. Here is that sense of discovery of uncharted lands and travels beyond the boundaries all conjured through the use of untraditional techniques.”
Lansing City Pulse
Sailing off the edge of the map into unknown territory might seem like a quaint idea in the age of GPS. Here there be dragons — ha ha!
That was nervous laughter. Have you seen the news lately? Been to a hospital or a cemetery?
The third part of “The Ends of the Earth,” a grand, terrifying and beautiful new work for piano by Honolulu-based composer Thomas Osborne, heaves like ocean swells, shudders like the crack of doom and tolls like a mariner´s bell. It´s a fantastic foretaste of the storms at life´s uttermost margins — part ecstasy, part fever.
Pianist Derek Polischuk, an adventurous professor of piano at MSU, and producer/engineer Sergei Kvitko of Lansing´s Blue Griffin Studios have teamed up to produce an expansive, magnificent recording that gives you the sound of the grand piano at full sail, from icy undertow, to sunlit ripples, to eye-stinging foam and then some.
Pairing a classic work with a new composition is a frequent stratagem in the classical world these days, but this pairing of wistful, charming music by Franz Schubert and dark tumult by Osborne is a success at every level. The two composers don´t seem to overlap at all — a stimulating prospect in itself — yet they resonate with each other in deep and mysterious ways, especially in Polischuk´s unhurried, intrepid hands. The connections bubble up mysteriously if you listen to the whole disc at once, preferably more than once.
Schubert´s “Four Impromptus,” D. 935, Op. 142, sail along with stately dignity, lulling the becalmed soul with a hymnlike melody and a set of bittersweet variations on a leisurely theme. Polischuk hits every chord with a sweet weight. Every now and them, a set of notes tumbles down like flecks of snow breezed from a crow´s nest, with no evident human touch. With a warm but not ingratiating touch, he lets the music resound as if it were coming from inside your mind.
In spite of its charms, Schubert´s music always seems to bump up against something big. The edge of the page, where the music stops and the white margin of mortality begins, seems to be the point of departure for the second half of the disc, Osborne´s companion set of “impromptus.”
To make the recital pop, Polischuk asked Osborne, a professor of composition at the University of Honolulu, for a new piece that would go with Schubert´s impromptus. Osborne didn´t try to “bookend” Schubert´s tunes. He pushed them off the deep end.
From the first notes, Polischuk plunges into a series of unorthodox techniques. He strums the strings, hits them with special mallets and drums the outside of the piano. When conventional piano playing surges back, it´s elemental in force. Shudders of repeated notes vibrate in suspension, like beads of rain caught in strobe lights. Overtones float like mist. In one series of rising chords, Polischuk sounds bigger than a full symphony orchestra.
Abrupt transitions from massive chords to tiny gestures take your breath away, although they must have created massive headaches for sound engineer Kvitko. Not your worry. That was his job and he did it superbly. Just crank it up and let the spray hit your face (even when you think you are standing at a safe distance on shore).
An undertow of fatalism runs through most of “The Ends of the Earth.” Polischuk keeps returning to the same leaden murmur of chords in the left hand. As with Schubert, mortality and sadness lie in a queasy green layer under the surface. Brief episodes refer directly to the fate of Osborne´s native Hawaii, including a quote from “Kaulana Na Pua,” a protest song written in 1893 against the overthrowing of the Hawaiian kingdom. At first, the tune is hidden in the watery turbulence. Later, heartbreakingly, Polischuk reaches into the piano and strums it directly on the strings, as if taking one last look at a past that never will return.
“Terra Incognita” is a thought-provoking mix of sensual pleasure and deep reflection. The ancients were on to something with their cartographical dragons and blank spots. Don´t let the familiar sails, timbers and spars of our day-to-day cruise fool you. We are sailing off the edge of the map every minute of our lives.