Review: Harriet Stubbs – Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception

Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception is the debut album by classical pianist, Harriet Stubbs, who first began to display her prodigious talent when she was awarded a scholarship at the age of five to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. During her time there, this apparently led James Gibb to make an exception to his rule of never teaching children to train her. That the talent of this Yamaha artist is prodigious becomes clearly evident after only a few moments of listening to this album, which aims to bring together a range of modern and more traditional classical music. As well as demonstrating the virtuoso skills of Stubbs, it will also introduce a new audience to compositions that they may not otherwise encounter. The Blakean connection comes, according to the booklet accompanying the album, through her work with Russ Titelman to transform the doors of listeners’ perceptions, “a Blakean philosophy” of progression from innocence to experience and then to higher innocence.

The Blakean connection is also clear in the opening track of the album, an arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates”, composed by John Adams in 1977-8: this is the most overtly Blakean of all the tracks included here because Stubbs has added a narration by Marianne Faithful, one which brings together multiple extracts from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The effect is strangely hypnotic and extremely compelling, with Faithful’s raking, rasping tones serving very well as the voice of the devil. In an interview with the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, she indicated that Patti Smith and Meryl Streep were also potential narrators, but that Faithful had been the most enthusiastic.

The selection of Adams as a vehicle for Blake’s philosophy is almost certainly not accidental: after all, it was Adams who began composing his piece for orchestra, Fearful Symmetries, in 1988 after the success of Nixon in China. His minimalist style, indebted to John Cage and with some similarities to composers such as Philip Glass or John Cage, is extremely evident in Fearful Symmetries, with its strong parallelisms and repetitions, although the arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates” tempers this considerably. Adams himself described the original as a “modulating square wave” that circled through the fifths, but the addition of Faithful’s voice breaks up the linearity of the music, an incarnation of Orc in opposition to the potentially Urizenic qualities of minimalism that transforms the listener’s perception of the track entirely.

After such a strong start – in Blakean terms – the rest of the album appears to move in a different direction that does invoke the Romantic artist so directly. This is by no means a comment on the qualities of Stubbs’s performances, which are always superb, from Mozart’s “Rondo in A Minor” onwards. Described by Hermann Abert as one of the “most important keyboard Rondos ever composed”, Mozart’s composition provides an excellent opportunity for Stubbs to display her virtuosity via its multiple embellishments and chromaticism. The lightness of her performance here does not bring with it the intimations of despair that some commentators have observed: instead, the doors of perception are being opened in very different ways, a world of sensual delight through which the listener can experience something of eternity.

There follow five pieces from Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes, Op 34 rather than the later (and longer) Op. 87, Preludes and Fugues. Like that later series of compositions, this version also circles through the major and minor keys, of which Stubbs includes No. 10 in C-Sharp Minor, No. 9 in E Major, No. 4 in E Minor, No. 20 in C Minor and, my favourite of the Preludes here, No. 14 in E-Flat Minor. The simplicity and passion of her performance here was the one that moved me most personally, although throughout all her own dedication and talent constantly shines through.

Of the remaining pieces, only one seems to invoke Blake again, however obliquely: Sergei Prokofiev’s “Suggestion diabolique”, number 4 of his 4 Pieces for Piano, and the one where the composer sought to challenge the strict roles of tonality, could be interpreted as another intrusion of the voice of the devil, although to be honest the relations to Blake are tangential at best. This is not to detract, however, from her virtuosity on all tracks. The most profoundly affecting for me, and my favourite from the entire album, is Ferruccio Busoni’s “Chaconne in D Minor”, adapted from Bach’s “Partita No. 2”. Busoni arranged this for piano in 1888 (writing it down in 1892) and it is a stunning piece of music: he was drawn to it because, among other things, it demonstrated how Bach made Beethoven possible, and its impressive range once more allows Stubbs to shine. This is also the moment, according to the liner notes, when experience enters the listener’s perceptions, and certainly there is a shift in the tone of the album with Busoni’s piece. Like other pieces, such as Alexander Scriabin’s “Piano Sonata No. 2 in G-Sharp Minor”, the technical demands are ones that Stubbs rises to with technical proficiency combined with passion, conveying fully the romantic and impressionistic sensations of such music superbly.

The album concludes with Gorgy Ligeti’s “Études, Book 1: No. 5, Arc-en-ciel”, a haunting track on which to end. A traditional form of étude (in contrast to those of, say, Cage), this shows a general theme of Heaven and Hell that contrasts with a number of contemporary composers such as Dmitri Smirnov or, more recently, Daniel Kidane: with the exception of Adams’s Phrygian Gates, the whole album has stronger links to traditional and romantic forms. The comparison is slightly unfair: Stubbs is a superb performer and arranger rather than composer, and many of the pieces included here offer wonderful opportunities for her to demonstrate her abilities.

Then why Blake? While the album identifies itself as “Piano Music Modern and Less Modern”, with the exception of Adams’s “Phrygian Gates” this is not a collection that often challenges the listener in the style of “difficult” modern classical music. Rather, its intention seems to be to open up a range of piano compositions to a new audience and thus to transform perceptions. In her interview with Trinity Laban, she observes that the aim of her album is to “cleanse its [classical music’s] listeners’ doors of perception, to encourage them to re-evaluate what classical music should be”. Unlike G. A. Edwards (who wrote an excellent review on his blog), I have a strong interest in how Blakean themes emerge in such music: strictly, they are motivated most strongly and obviously through her arrangement of Adams, but elsewhere Harriet Stubbs seems also to be infused with a sense of romanticism and energy that was the eternal delight of William Blake.

 

Harriet Stubbs, Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception, Suite 28 Records. RRP (audio CD) £14.54, (download) £7.49.