Some years ago, pianist Stephen De Pledge, in recital, treated us to the exhilarating tangle of New Zealand composer Lyell Cresswell's Who's afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue.

A new CD of Cresswell's piano music and songs now puts it into context as one of the six short pieces of The Art of Black & White, offering musical interpretations of various painting techniques.

Impeccably recorded, De Pledge glides incisively from the cool, shivery dissonances of White Relief to the storm-tossed Impasto. De Pledge is also a simpatico accompanist in five Cresswell song-cycles.

What a pleasure it is listening to tenor Christopher Bowen, just a few months after his memorable Evangelist in Auckland Choral's St John Passion. Predictably, he illuminates the 11 songs of Snatches, from Baptised Generations, with the same vocal cut and clarity.


Poet Emily Dickinson's words, pointed and pithy, resonate in Cresswell's remarkably lean responses, as the tenor deals out images of despair and dark humour with Brittenesque flair. The five Denis Glover poems of Old Mick don't share the wistful, sepia-tinted nostalgia of composer Douglas Lilburn's iconic Sings Harry. Here, the versatile Bowen balances searing poignancy with occasional chilling outbursts of anger.

Soprano Jennifer Maybee takes on the thornier side of Cresswell, investing the wild writing of Das Lied von dem Fisch with the same theatrical intensity that she brought to the work in concert. It's a rollercoaster ride of witty musical quotes with all manner of unbridled vocalising while De Pledge relishes explorative soundscapes.

Four Sentimental Songs, written in 1971, is also radical fare, but the three settings of Tre Canti, to the poetry of the Italian Marco Bucchieri, meld the mellow with the passionate, magically so when soprano and pianist evoke the cold November winds of an imminent northern hemisphere winter.

What: Lyell Cresswell, The Art of Black & White (Rattle, through Ode Records)
Rating: 5/5
Verdict: Superb tribute to New Zealand composer, delivered with charisma and charm