Korean-born Ariel Gilley possesses a terrific pianistic technique and a real passion for what she writes for the instrument. Her interest seems to be in Christian hymn tunes; having spent time as a church musician, she had the desire to expand upon work based on this music and to make it more "serious". God of the Ages is a hymn tune known to a good deal of the world as "Morning has Broken", a piece regularly sung in churches of all walks of faith, and also covered by many – in and outside the religious context. So if you're a churchgoer, or even a Cat Stevens fan, then you are well on your way to knowing the music this hour-long piano sonata is built upon.
The piece is gorgeous – Gilley wrings every possible variation out of the hymn tune – but also uneven, particularly in the massively structured first movement. So much is going on that it's hard to take it all in and it feels a touch mannered and stiff. The stunningly executed chords and runs are thrilling, but the movement feels clunky and disjointed. I've listened several times, and come away unconvinced each time; everything is simply too busy.
That's all the more unfortunate when you consider that the rest of the piece is no less brilliantly executed but also more musically coherent. Sure, there are too many arpeggios for a work that is built on something so simple, but the clunky feeling of the first movement is largely absent going forward, giving the piece a genuine sense of direction. The inner movements have a tenderness about them that is entirely appropriate, and the hymn tune is never lost to us no matter how busy the piano writing becomes. The fifth movement Cantabile Expressivo is possibly the finest movement of all, delicate and sweet, with a wealth of colors. Throughout everything, Gilley is 100% committed.
If it sounds like I haven't quite made up my mind about the piece, it's simply because I like so much about it, but have serious reservations about some moments as well. Gilley views this as a virtuoso piece and a hymn of praise to God; it undoubtedly works as both, and her energy and purpose behind the project is admirable and shines in every bar. For a work that has so much going on, her playing is remarkably consistent. So I suppose that leaves me questioning the work itself, which is a shame. Both my friends in music and I believe that first movement to be a major hurdle; once past that, the piece is a touching tribute to one of the more recognizable hymns of all time. So this earns my recommendation, especially if you love hymns and want to see how a virtuoso can make them her own.
Copyright © 2012, Brian Wigman