The Altarus disc Donna Amato Plays Ronald Stevenson/Kaikhosru Sorabji/Alistair Hinton is a product of the polymorphously polyphonic school of über-pianism that flows in the wake of English composer Kaikhosru Sorabji. Sorabji was the composer of the largest-scale works in Western music history, and some of the hardest piano music this side of Leopold Godowsky. Sorabji's spirit and influence permeates everything on this disc, mainly through the works of his direct disciples, composers Ronald Stevenson and Alistair Hinton. In addition to the hovering presence of Sorabji, there is a second thematic concept at play in that most of these pieces represent transformations of themes initially developed by Norwegian master Edvard Grieg.
Best-known for his massive piano work Passacaglia on DSCH, Ronald Stevenson is represented here by three miniatures. His Den Bergtekne seems like a disarmingly simple creation until one recognizes the size of the expansive left-hand chords in the bass. The Norse Elegy for Ella Nygaars, written in memory of a famed cancer surgeon's spouse who tragically died of the disease her husband had cured in so many others, is touching, truly memorable, and the most accessible piece on the disc -- it practically begs to be better known. More violent and explosive is Beltane Bonfire, a piece that evokes a ritual in pre-Christian Scotland.
Sorabji's imaginatively titled Variazione maliziosa e perversa sopra "Le Morte d'Åse" da Grieg (that is, Perverse and Malicious Variation on Åse's Death) is a tiny bit composed to help encourage Hinton to complete his Variations and Fugue on a theme of Grieg, the result of a long gestation process. Sorabji wrote to Hinton "Every note was wrung out of the theme, as I expect you spotted." Perhaps on paper, but it is almost impossible for the naked ear to tell where the theme ended up in Sorabji's little nugget, so complex is the nature of the transformation. Hinton's Variations begin with a respectful, and even simplistic, evocation of the familiar Grieg melody, and over the course of nearly an hour subjects it to increasingly complex treatments.
Donna Amato Plays Ronald Stevenson/Kaikhosru Sorabji/Alistair Hinton is an impressive effort, particularly in the contribution from its star performer, who more than maintains the high level of virtuosity necessary, while keeping track of the emotional content of the music -- quite a high-wire act indeed. Nevertheless, it is clearly intended for listeners who have developed a taste for music of this kind. Those who dare will find that the music is like the photograph of pianist Donna Amato on the inside -- beautiful, bewitching, and a little eccentric.