Julian Layn — Piano Sonata No.1, “The Queen”
Tonhalle Zurich, 2015-09-10
2016-08-06 — Brushed up for better readability
The above front page of the concert leaflet says it all. Julian Layn, piano, is presenting and performing his Piano Sonata No.1 in G♭ minor, named “The Queen”. Julian Layn is a Swiss composer and pianist. He is also holding a Ph.D. in theoretical physics: an interesting combination!
When I registered for this concert, I was totally devoid of expectations / knowledge (hadn’t heard the name at all), so I went to the concert with an open mind. Well, almost: Julian Layn has two sample tracks on SoundCloud, which I of course checked prior to the concert. In the aftermath, these samples confirmed my impressions from the concert. Still — and important to note — for reasons which will become obvious from the text below, my concert review can’t really be taken as a serious critique. I tried staying neutral, ideally describing the response of a naïve / unprepared listener (with general, classical musical background & experience).
Venue and Audience
On to the concert, which was given in the small hall of the Zurich Tonhalle. That’s a venue with some 630 seats. Already in the foyer I wondered about the small number of people; when the concert started, there were maybe 150 people. But this didn’t seem to be detrimental to the spirit of the audience, nor did it appear to be a surprise to the artist. I found myself in a small, sworn-in community of fans of the artist and his activities. All of the audience obviously seemed familiar with his music and style. The audience apparently also included members of Julian Layn’s own marketing organization, “Heavysonic”. Through this he is organizing concerts, producing and selling his recordings. The concert was videotaped.
Naturally, the small stage just featured the piano (a shiny Steinway D which has obviously been excellently prepared), several sets of microphones, and the pianist.
Artist & Composer
Here’s how Julian Layn describes himself:
I am a classical composer and pianist. My music can best be described as new classical with a romantic-era harmonic structure underpinned by a heavy basso-continuo-concept.
How I read his Self-Description
Based on his actual music, I tried translating / interpreting that description for myself:
is a fairly loose term. Quite obviously, Layn is not taking this in the sense of classical music in the common terminology. Let alone in the narrower sense of, e.g., the (second or first) Vienna Classic period. Maybe it’s classical under the inclusion of classical Jazz, or, more likely even, “classical” popular music, such as Pop, Rock, whatever that may be. I’m not familiar with these genres at all.
besides his doctorate in theoretical physics, Julian Layn may have gone through classical piano education, and his performance was certainly impressive. But in the width of the techniques applied (i.e., in terms of articulation, phrasing, agogics, dynamics, etc.) it can definitely not be measured with / compared to that of “classical pianists” in my terminology.
“New classical music“
at best classical Jazz, but even this with serious question marks. Probably classical something in the area of popular music, or popular music played with classical means?
“Romantic-era harmonic structure“
can’t imply harmonies in the style of the romantic area. I suspect that the focus is on “structure”, i.e., the description harmonic progressions and relations over time (or between voices, or sets of voices). Unfortunately, that’s a concept that is hardly intelligible by the unprepared listener, at least during the first encounter with a piece. Finally,
“underpinned by a heavy basso-continuo-concept“
to me (and not just to me!), Basso continuo describes the baroque practice of harmonized playing a (typically ciphered) bass line by a chordal instrument (keyboard or plucked, such as a lute), often supported by a low-pitch / bass melody instrument (bassoon, cello, viola da gamba, etc.).
In Layn’s music I can at best interpret this as “heavy continuous bass“: after some introductory figurations, Julian Layn’s music invariably falls into permanently rotating, often syncopated bass ostinato schemes in the left hand, the other hand is tuning in with additional, continuously meandering figures. Above this, a melody line is throwing in motifs and melody fragments, at times in a dialog with melody fragments in a middle voice. The sustain pedal is generally down (no dampening), except for changes in the harmony. Dynamically, the music tends to remain between f and ff, with a certain tendency towards uniformity (that I also feel when confronted with lots of today’s popular music).
Sure, with a little bit of imagination, one can / may find signs of classic, even baroque influence, such as from Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Ravel (in specific voices / components), and minimal music. But to me, this is perhaps (at best) Jazz. On to the actual program —
Piano Concerto No.1 in G♭/D♭ minor
In the first part of the concert (close to 45 minutes), Julian Layn presented excerpts from his past oeuvre: primarily his Piano Concerto No.1 in G♭/D♭ minor, named “Heavy Clouds Over Vast Wide Open” from 2002. Here, he played the excerpts “Thunderstorm Trilogy” (2nd movement), “Completely Lost” and “Lost in Space” (beginning and final sequence in the third movement). Harmonically, the Piano Concerto No.1 seems to be stuck in minor mode / tonalities.
Piano Concerto No.2 in D♭/A♭ minor
From his Piano Concerto No.2 in D♭/A♭ minor, named “The Ecocalypse” (still in the works) Layn played the excerpt “Skylla & Charybdis“.
In the aftermath, Layn’s piano concertos (compositions for piano solo, not concertos in the traditional, classical sense) are characterized by a dense(r) texture, with a tendency towards roaring tremolo endings. Dynamically, Layn’s music tends to be static, possibly with long, extended build-ups. “Skylla & Charybdis“, the beginning of Layn’s Piano Concerto No.2 in D♭/A♭ minor, named “The Ecocalypse”, is dominated by dark minor tonalities and loud bass tremoli, but overall, among the pieces presented in the first part, it is the piece with the most variability, the biggest range of expressions. In a moderate contrast to this, the piano pieces and the new Piano Sonata No.1 in G♭ minor (presented in the second part of the concert) tend towards lighter passages, sometimes even with slightly lyrical aspects:
“If You Believe” / Impromptu in B minor “The French Course”
Two piano pieces, “If You Believe” in A♭ minor (1994), and Impromptu in B minor “The French Course” from 1998. The piece “If You Believe” — even though in A♭ minor — is often brightening up to major tonalities. I felt a certain tendency towards harmonic trivialities. It accelerates towards the middle section. However, for the most part, the music presented appears to remain in the tempo reached after the introduction. Exceptions are the rare instances where the flow stops momentarily, in order to let the past harmonies fade away, and to start anew. Also rhythmically, the pieces to me sounded rather uniform, sticking to a pattern once selected, often with jazzy syncopations.
I felt that “The French Course” (Impromptu in B minor) alludes to baroque harpsichord music, such as the beginning of the Courante in J.S. Bach’s Partita No.4 in D major, BWV 828, of course again with syncopated accompaniment.
A Note on Layn’s Tonalities
Maybe some remarks on Julian Layn’s tonalities are in order:
- The Piano Concerto No.1 is in G♭/D♭ minor: G♭ minor is the parallel tonality to B♭♭ major (9 ♭, or 5 ♭ and 2 ♭♭). D♭ minor is the parallel tonality to F♭ major (8 ♭, or 6 ♭ and 1 ♭♭). On a piano with standard, equal temperament tuning, these are equivalent to / indistinguishable from F♯ minor (3 ♯), and C♯ minor (4 ♯), respectively.
- The Piano Concerto No.2 is in D♭/A♭ minor: that’s equivalent to C♯ minor and G♯ minor, respectively.
- “If You Believe” is in A♭ minor: that’s again equivalent to G♯ minor.
- The new Piano Sonata No.1 is in G♭ minor: that’s again equivalent to F♯ minor.
What’s the point in this? For all I can see (excluding metaphysical reasoning), all this does, is to make the written score (if written down / printed at all) virtually unreadable to pianists other than the composer.
Piano Sonata No.1 in G♭ minor, “The Queen” (2015)
Finally, the new Piano Sonata No.1 in G♭ minor, “The Queen” (2015): This composition (ca. 18 minutes duration) is based on two Themes (I, II), each always followed by an Intermezzo. From these Layn builds a modified sonata form:
Introduction (I) — Exposition (I) — Development (I) — Exposition (II) — Recapitulation (I) — Development (II) — Recapitulation (II) — Coda
In his description, Julian Layn talks about “harmonic structure“. This appears to imply that there aren’t two rhythmically and melodically contrasting themes. Presumably, the contrast is rather in the harmonic development within the two themes. After a single performance it seems impossible for the inexperienced listener to gather / recognize the structure. The structural elements may at best only be recognized after having listened to the piece multiple times. Or perhaps with a score. For sure, I was lost when trying to recognize the steps in the above scheme.
In my view, the main difference from the concertos to the new sonata is in the lighter, less dense texture, a less dominant bass ostinato, more sections in brighter / major tonalities (probably also implied by the general theme chosen for these pieces), and more use of polyrhythms and polyphony. I also felt that the breadth of harmonic variation was bigger. But also here, passages with just two voices and melodically and harmonically almost baroque spirit soon revert to Julian Layn’s preferred idiom (as described above), with syncopes and occasional, deliberately bent harmonies. Overall, I feel that among all the pieces presented I was “taking home” the most from the new sonata, as I seemed to have the biggest scope in expressions & musical features.
Julian Layn’s Playing
Layn appeared to play out of routine. Though, to me, it often gave me the impression that he could just as well have improvised the music. Sure, the playing appeared technically safe, mostly clear. Minor, inconspicuous insecurities in the sonata can be ascribed to the freshness of the composition. However, as described above, due to the almost permanent pedaling, articulation and phrasing could hardly be judged. The dynamic scope of his playing is generally rather small. But that seems to be in the nature of the composition / music.
The fan community definitely liked all of the music presented. Julian Layn rewarded the applause with two encores.
It’s not my music, for sure. I would call the evening interesting at best. Though, it sometimes felt like “sitting in the wrong film”. Or attending a church service in a community whose rites one doesn’t understand.
For the same concert, I have also written a shorter review in German for Bachtrack.com. See also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.