Sean Hickey’s Cursive: another rewarding release on Delos

Delos LogoMichigan born and educated both there and in New York, Hickey divides his time between composition and his demanding “day” job as National Sales and Business Development Director for Naxos records. He has written works for orchestra, including a symphony, large scale concerti, chamber works and compositions for solo instruments and voices. His compositions are decidedly conservative in form and sound thus are approachable and always have something to say.

Following a well received disc featuring concertos for Cello and Clarinet by American composer Sean Hickey, Delos records has released a second disc this time focusing on his piano and chamber music. British pianist Philip Edward Fisher performs in the lion’s share of the works. Julia Sakharova, violin joins Fisher in “Ampersand” while Brandon Patrick George, Anne Lanzilotti, and Meredith Clark, perform “Pied-a-Terre” for Flute, Viola and Harp.

Sean Hickey

Sean Hickey

The CD’s title piece “Cursive”, commissioned by pianist Xiayin Wang in 2008 and premiered by her in New York in 2009, opens the program. A substantial eleven minute work, “Cursive” is a virtuosic display piece, but one that displays not flashy technique but a deeper virtuosity through focusing on unbroken, linear musical progression. The piano music of Prokofiev and Shostakovich came to mind, but not in a derivative way. Spiky, spare and a touch acerbic, tonal but teetering on the edge from time to time. On the surface “Cursive” sounds easy and even a bit backward looking, yet a deeper listen reveals the stream of conscious metamorphosis of the work, evoking a calligrapher with his pen furiously writing. A most fascinating and satisfying addition to the piano repertoire.

“Ampersand” for Violin and Piano stays true to its name by emphasizing and exploring the relationship of the duo. As with several of Hickey’s works, “Ampersand” is based on a small motif from which the work develops. A short figure at the beginning supplies the melodic and tonal anchor of the piece. The violin and piano comment upon, contract and expand on the various ideas in a wonderfully organic short essay. The work was written for violinist Juila Sakharova in 2006 and receives a definitive performance here, again in clear, balanced sonics.

hickey-cursive-art-cover“Pied-a-terre” is the only work on this disc not including piano. A short, wistfully delicate, seven minute tribute to a deceased family friend, “Pied-a-terre” skillfully blends the timbres of the flute, viola and harp. Marked “Enigmatically”, the work coalesces to a warmly reflective, melodic conclusion. Hickey nods to the famous Debussy sonata for the same forces but never slavishly imitates Debussy’s sound world; “Pied-a-terre’s” harmonies are more linear and pungent. A charming piece in every sense of the word and not at all a trifle. “Pied-a-terre” is worth repeated hearings and a welcome addition to the flute/viola/harp repertoire.

“Ostinato Grosso” (2004) at approximately 19 minutes is the longest and most substantial work on the CD. In three movements, a quick, percussive toccata, a meditative passacaglia and an extensive finale, “Ostinato Grosso” is a full fledged piano sonata in all but name. Hickey writes in the liner notes to the work “My attempt was to create an extended composition built upon a framework of repeated ostinato, but with nods to classical forms…”. As in “Cursive” the influence of Prokofiev (and Bartók as well, especially in the opening toccata) colors the piano writing but never overwhelms Hickey’s own distinctive voice.

As noted, the toccata is brilliantly percussive propelled by swiftly changing meters and leaping register changes. The darker passacaglia lends some emotional gravitas with its chordal melodic line and arching form. The finale returns to the brilliance of the toccata; a vibrant, clashing tour-de-force that nonetheless ends quietly and ambiguously.

Four short character pieces “Dolmen” (1998) (a ghostly essay on the stone age burial monuments found in Europe),“The Birds of Barclay Street” (2001) (a post 9/11 meditation on the famous video of birds scattering as the planes hit the Twin Towers), “Hill Music: A Breton Ramble” (2002) (a colorful and dancing travelogue of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia) and “Reckoning” (2012) (an unpublished in memoriam to a friend here receiving its only “public” performance ever) fill out the hour long program. Each work is a well crafted and thoughtful miniature tone poem.

Each encounter I have had with Hickey’s music has been pleasant and rewarding. So bring on the “Olympus Mons” Symphony and let’s hear the Concerto for Mandolin, winds, percussion and double bass written for the amazing Avi Avital.

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