Gregory Mertl Piano Concerto – music with a strong narrative

How to best to describe the music of Gregory Mertl? According to the composer, it “often enfolds as a narrative generated from its opening ideas.” The three works on this release all have a forward-moving narrative.

Yet each work achieves that in a different fashion. “Afterglow of a Kiss” for flute proceeds in fits and starts. While sometimes prickly, I’d call it non-tonal rather than atonal. The piece sounds grounded — just not in a traditional dominant-tonic sense. In this narrative, there’s a gradual move from chaos to calm. That calm only arrives towards the end of the 7-minute work (and it’s not all that calm).

The solo flute part is challenging — but not too challenging for Immanuel Davis. Despite the demands on her instrument, she maintains a beautiful, well-rounded tone.

“Empress” is as calm as “Afterglow” is agitated. The work proceeds through a series of long, drawn-out chords that gradually mutate. As the work progresses, the music gains momentum. Here the narrative seems to be that of awakening. The harmonies increase in dissonance and the mood moves from lethargic to energetic.

According to Mertl, his piano concerto is a journey of discovery for the soloist. It reminded me a little of late Bartok — but only a little. In the first movement, the piano’s fragmentary themes slowly coalesce. It comes together in the second movement. The piano and orchestra take turns with the melodic material as separate — but equal — partners.

The final movement brings both forces together. The piano and orchestra fit together in an interconnected whole. If you follow the narrative thread, the work can take you on an exciting journey of exploration. And one worth the time investment.

The University of Minnesota Wind Ensemble performs on par with professional ensembles. Long, sustained chords were rock-solid, never wavering in tone. The ensemble has a strong, full-bodied sound. Kudos to Craig Kirchhoff for leading them in such exciting performances.

Also of merit is pianist Solungga Liu’s performance. Her playing in the first movement showed great sensitivity and power and dexterity in the third.

Gregory Mertl
Afterglow of a Kiss, Empress, Piano Concerto
The University of Minnesota Wind Ensemble; Craig Kirchhoff, conductor
Solungga Liu, piano; Immanuel Davis, flute
Bridge Records 9489

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