A Trio of New Works for Piano: Orvin, Otte & Schmidt

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3 REVIEWS/3 RECORDS: It demonstrates the versatility of both contemporary composition and the instrument in question, to arrive in the New Year with three very different, modern piano works up for review.  Although operating in different fields, and with different scopes and intentions, these three albums have been reviewed together, so as to showcase their relative strengths and diversity.


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Daniela Orvin | Home
Seasides on Postcards (CD/DL)

First, is Daniela Orvin’s Home, a synth-washed, future-retro affair that owes no small debt to Vangelis’s score for Blade Runner.  It is a pleasant album that is minimal in nature without ever courting minimalism, instead opting for a harmonically and rhythmically reduced form that occasionally courts the domain of ‘furniture music’, but in a surprisingly effective manner. It is the strength of Orvin’s composition that very few of the tracks stand out, but instead work together to form an exceptionally cohesive whole. Each instrument – the piano, and the synths and occasionally percussive or vocal noises that frame them – is so well-crafted that what results is a rich and convincing sound world, and one that is endowed with a near romantic, restrained sorrow. Orvin utilises large, cinematic ambiences, yet constrains them with simple, repetitive chord structures – the first two tracks utilise the same basic chord progression, and explore a fairly traditional, if alluring, theme and variation across the instrumentation.

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Reverb swells and other atmospheric effects are used if not sparingly then at least with a certain consideration, rarely are we drenched in untamed f/x, despite the perpetual washy aesthetic.  Although the overall narrative is well constructed, Orvin throws in a couple of virtuosic piano  improvisations that shatter the mood in a manner that is either a refreshing break or mildly incongruous, depending on your tastes.  As it reaches its final stages, the album moves into an overwhelming epic last two tracks that reinforce and extend everything that has come before.  18:00, from my balcony cuts a delicate path across the piano with a swaying, lethargic melody that open up into distant, grating ambience, before giving way to the mammoth title-track, Home, which uses drifting retro-synths that slowly increase in density and volume, opening up into a driving, emotive synth-strings arpeggio that channels M83’s more symphonic moments. It is a truly wonderful closer, and one that serves to re-contextualise the album that precedes it in a manner rarely found outside of the classical world. 


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Hans Otte | The Book of Sound
Beacon Sound (2xLP)

In contrast, Hans Otte plays things far straighter with The Book of Sound, a faintly pretentiously-titled work that channels the proto-minimalism of Eric Satie.  Otte is a consummate pianist, and there is little to criticise in his approach, save for perhaps a certain lack of commitment to his subject. Whilst there are strands of both classical minimalism and the more contemporary filmic compositions popularised by the likes of Max Richter, Otte rarely courts the temporality of the former nor the beauty of the latter. Indeed, prior to writing this review, I was not familiar with Otte’s work, but he was a direct influence upon Richter’s generation of composers, and the relationship is evident. Where the album falters, however, is no doubt linked to its length – The Book of Sound clocks in at just under an hour and twenty and struggle to maintain momentum throughout that time. Though some isolated tracks work incredibly well – the opener, Part 1 is a particularly well-conceived composition – some of the latter tracks, such as Part 8, seem notably short on ideas.  Whilst the limited thematic development works superbly when Otte is courting Satie or pre-empting Richter – and to my ear, his work does sound an awful lot like these composers – his more experimental tendencies are deflated by the degree to which they are fairly tame compared to the numerous other composers working in the field.

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The special quality of The Book of Sound is that there is such a fine line between what works and what really, really doesn’t – the ultra-simplistic nature of the occasional muted refrains can be at one moment beguiling, and at another pointless, resulting in an occasionally frustrating listen.  At its best, Otte offers up some well-articulated moments of restrain and sorrow, and had the album been half its length I would have little to criticise with its style, performance and quality. However, the inclusion of some questionable and sometimes quite dull movements suggests that a degree of triage might well have raised the album to a much higher position. 

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Irmin Schmidt – 5 klavierstucke
Mute (CD)

Whereas the albums reviewed above wear their influences on their metaphorical sleeve, Irmin Schmidt’s 5 klavierstucke is a far more unique proposition. Neither romanticising traditional classical composition, nor rehashing minimalism, Schmidt instead opts for what amounts to a ‘study’ of the piano, an exploration undertaken on two incredibly beautiful instruments. Working with both a conventional grand and its prepared sibling, 5 klavierstucke presents a series of exquisitely recorded improvisations for solo piano. Should you ever run into the sort of person who purports to be unable to tell the difference between a cheap VST and an antique grand, you could do worse than to point them in the direction of this album – every key is rendered with such character and depth, such personality and richness, that the specific and bespoke nature of the instrument is captured with a clarity unheard of in the vast majority of recordings.  Schmidt’s performance, and his reserved, slightly whimsical exploration of the keys, meets the outstanding quality of the recording, resulting in a truly wonderful album that it is incredibly hard to find fault with.  Though Schmidt’s background is as a keyboardist, here he is without doubt a pianist, approaching his instrument with a subtly and understanding that betrays a longstanding engagement with the medium, as well as his own rich history in contemporary composition.

The use of rests, repetitions, and an evolving, organic tempi, coalesce into an immersive and dynamic journey that explores timbre as much as melody, inaction as much as action.  A more static left hand provides counterpoint to a more wandering right, with almost plodding, passive-aggressive bass notes framing the testing, cautious divergence of the higher frequencies.  Whereas it is not uncommon for composers to illicit a certain sense of tension in their work, Schmidt offers instead a more restrained, pensive aura, a sound-world that is emotional without ever being melodramatic. It is an extremely mature album, embed with an aesthetic grace and ambiguity that is so beautifully captured by the clarity of the recording. Whilst the balance between conventional and prepared piano is mostly excellent, there are perhaps a couple of moments where the more rhythmically straight nature of the percussive preparation comes across like a slightly naive take on Gamelan music. These sections are far more effective when, as is more often the case, they are integrated into the more traditional timbres. This is an incredibly small gripe given the overall quality of the album, which stands out as one of the finest contemporary piano-based works I have heard. 


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