Gramophone, December 2018. The Georgian-American composer George Oakley writes in an appealing and colourful style that blends elements of his Georgian folk heritage with European and American traditions. Wisps of Prokofiev can be discerned in several of the chamber works on this new disc, but so can ardent and propulsive music that sounds like the product of an original and fertile mind.
The writing for piano in all of these pieces sends signals about the composers own award-winning keyboard abilities, especially in the opening Toccata (2008), with its darting figures full of jazz character, and the closing Sonata-Fantasia (2010), a generous score that brings together all sorts of fierce and ruminative ideas. Inga Kashakashvili in the former and Tamar Mikeladze in the latter are stellar soloists.
Another bountiful work is the Sonata for cello and piano (2013), whose three movements give both players — here the superb cellist Lizi Ramishvili with Kashakashvili — many opportunities to head in poetic and vivacious directions. Oakley's versatility in tapping into expressive possibilities is also evident in Remembrance, a one-movement piece in three sections (Daydream — Dream — Awakening) of luminous conversations for clarinet and piano; the vibrant musicians are Anton Rist, clarinet, and Angelina Gadeliya, piano. That Oakley is thoroughly versed in styles of many eras, as well as pianistic means, can be heard in Four Songs on Shakespeare Sonnets (2011), which simulates Renaissance music through the prism of contemporary sensibility. The piano part at times is so alive that Shakespeare's words often fade into the background; but the songs, as performed by mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O'Connell and Kashakashvili, are affecting bursts of emotion.
Naomi Louisa O'Connell, mz; Anton Rist, cl; Lizi Ramishvili, vc; Inga Kashakashvili, Angelina Gadeliya, Tamar Mikeladze, p Naxos 559856 — 72 minutes
From the technical prowess of the Toccata for piano to the whimsy and sorrow in the Cello Sonata, George Oakley’s music feels as natural as breathing; the lines of melody and texture give and take and proceed with an earnestness akin to human speech, though certainly more colorful. O'Connell's performance of the Four Songs on Shakespeare Sonnets show her beautiful, caramel mezzo merging with piano lines that sometimes riff on the Baroque. I do wish the recording had been engineered so that the voice was more forward. This is a wonderful set of works by a composer whose every work opens up a wide, kaleidoscopic new world of melodic possibility.
Despite his name, George Oakley was born in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia. After completing his early studies in his native country, he moved to the USA, where he now lives. The influence of Georgian folk music can be felt in the melodic contours of his treatment of themes in the Cello Sonata and the Sonata-Fantasia, but for the most part his idiom is western and neo-romantic, with jazz syncopations and harmonies here and there, as in the energetic, appealing little Toccata; and the first movement of the Cello Sonata has more than a whiff of Debussy and Ravel. This work is substantial, in three movements, progressing from a sense of struggle, very chromatic, via a feeling of determination in the first movement to a long line of prayerful melody against a background inspired by Orthodox church bells, to a jubilant finale. Oakley more than rose to the challenge "as a non-native English speaker" of setting Shakespeare in works of unusual diversity and internal variety of mood, to match the sheer density of emotional colors in the texts. The 15 minute Sonata-Fantasia is a virtuosic showpiece for Oakley's own instrument, in a sonata-like sectional structure within a single span. Texts included. Naomi Louisa O’Connell (mezzo), Anton Rist (clarinet), Lizi Ramishvili (cello), Inga Kashakashvili, Angelina Gadeliya, Tamar Mikeladze (piano).
Born in Georgia, but now living in the United States, George Oakley is living parallel careers as a composer and pianist, Richard Danielpour among his recent mentors. The booklet note quotes a review which describing his works as "a return to a great tradition," which sells him short of his obvious desire to create a very personal musical voice. He does, in fact, join Danielpour in seeking out a new approach to composition that I continue to describe as a "modern tonality," where you will find atonality creeping in from time to time. If anything I find his scores somewhat unnerving as you settle down to a modern view of well-trodden paths, when the music suddenly flies off in an unexpected direction. That is particularly true of the 2013 Cello Sonata — a score I will often return to — when you suddenly find jazz in a patchwork full of various influences including Georgian folk music. It certainly offers many technical challenges to both cellist and pianist. In the Four Songs on Shakespeare Sonnets, he is obviously looking for a lyric quality, but I find that his writing sometimes does not rest happily on the voice, the piano so busy it takes our attention from the words. Yet this is a sizeable song-cycle lasting over twenty minutes and I would place it as a work you should hear. The composer's own programme notes does not explain the title, Remembrance, a short virtuoso work for clarinet and piano. He does divulge that the Sonata-Fantasia from 2010 came at a difficult part of his life, a single movement work in many sections showing a high degree of turbulence and unease. It certainly is a test piece for pianistic brilliance. Original performers are involved in many of the tracks, and all have that feel of authority required to champion unknown works. You will have to play the disc at a very low volume setting, but once found, it is of good quality with a very realistic piano tone.
(c) 2018 David's Review Corner