Out of the depths
MUSIC | Two new albums rise to heroic heights
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The Latin de profundis means “out of the depths,” a translation to which Merriam-Webster adds “from a state of affliction and anguish.” That’s probably because of the phrase’s association with Psalm 130, Oscar Wilde’s famous prison letter, or both.
Kenneth Leighton had neither Scripture nor Wilde in mind when he composed the harpsichord fantasia De profundis, the central piece of the new album by the English keyboardist Duncan Honeybourne, Metamorphosis (Prima Facie). Instead, according to the liner notes, Leighton’s title refers “to the opening of the work, in which the melody … is introduced ‘in the depths’ of the instrument.”
Fair enough. But listeners will imagine depths of their own as they engage with the work, and engage with it they will. De profundis may originate in the depths, but it struggles dramatically to transcend them. And by the time that its 28 jaggedly chiseled minutes end in a reflective if ambiguous denouement, the work has scaled heroic heights.
Shoring up Leighton’s magnum opus in Honeybourne’s program are Ronald Stevenson’s Sonata for Harpsichord (1968), John McCabe’s The Greensleeves Ground (1969), and Malcolm Lipkin’s Metamorphosis (1974). The oldest (Stevenson’s) was composed in 1968, the most recent (Leighton’s) in 1977, demarcating a decade during which something special must have been in the air breathed by harpsichord-minded composers. Cheers to Honeybourne for letting listeners in on what that something may have been.
The fifth and sixth symphonies of Anton Bruckner arise from depths as well, particularly the fifth, composed as it was during one of the polarizing Austrian’s periods of professional frustration. And with Anton Bruckner: The Symphonies, Organ Transcriptions Volumes 5 and 6 (Oehms), the German organist Hansjörg Albrecht has imbued those depths, already among the deepest in the demi-Wagnerian repertoire, with a seismic sonority.
The compositions don’t give up their secrets easily. But even if those who detect Bruckner’s devout Catholicism in everything that he composed are correct and his music contains no secrets at all, whatever it is that his fifth and sixth symphonies are giving up, they take their time doing so.
The critic Harold C. Schonberg described Bruckner’s oeuvre as “cathedral-like music of belief” because of its impetus and scale. But he could have just as easily been referring to the pace at which it comes together.