Gloria Cheng / Calder Quartet

The Edge of Light

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The repertoire on this release by American pianist Gloria Cheng is a bit obscure, but therein lies its considerable interest. Olivier Messiaen's eight Preludes of 1929, written when the composer was 20, were student works, showing the influence of Debussy and the entire French tradition before him, but they are full of an energy in which that tradition was shed like a snakeskin. Great blooms of metrically free music in quasi-mystical textures bloom forth from these little pieces, and Cheng catches the dynamic so accurately that you are almost waiting for the next surprise. Not everything here is compelling: the Piece for piano and string quartet of Messiaen (1991), one of the composer's last finished works, is a slight thing reminiscing about Messiaen's interest in birdsong; the work was written for the 90th birthday celebration of a music publisher. And the two short works by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, both world premieres but one of them entirely unmentioned in the booklet, are likewise a bit slight. The finale, however, is something else again: Je sense un deuxième coeur (I feel a second heart) is a full-scale transfer of the intense language of Saariaho's operatic language to the piano quintet medium. It is related to the Saariaho opera Adriana Mater, which treats the theme of a pregnant woman in wartime, and Cheng's playing gets at the unique mixture of mystery and violence in this material. It is a truly riveting finale, and the substantial bookends of the program basically singlehandedly remake the repertoire.

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