written by Ben Hogwood
What’s the story?
Vanessa Wagner returns with a thoughtfully compiled album bringing together a selection of modern piano music that might be described as ‘minimal’. Her concept is to show how new music can still explore the instrument afresh, using the barest of melodic or harmonic material as its stimulus but finding something substantial within.
The selection here includes works by 14 composers, many of them rare and unpublished.
What’s the music like?
This is a really inspired compilation, logically ordered and with a natural rise and fall. In the process of the anthology, Vanessa Wagner shows off a wide range of approaches to the piano, from flowing, watery pieces to more percussive interludes. The music might be predominantly slow but Wagner finds its pressure points and releases its emotional energy in full, showcasing some fine compositions in the process.
The rippling surfaces of Suzanne Ciani’s Rain, first in the collection, are a kind of homage to a Debussy Arabesque. Harold Budd’s La Casa Bruja has a slower, more reflective beauty, as does the Brian and Roger Eno collaboration Celeste. Contrast these with the gently twinkling ivories of Bryce Dessner’s Lullaby (Song for Octave), and the thicker brush strokes of David Lang’s Spartan Arcs.
The two Philip Glass selections range from a sombre, deeply felt Etude no.16 to a staccato Etude no.6 that sounds a bit more like a fly buzzing against the insides of a jam jar. Wagner really gets Glass’s phrasing, and the powerful refrain that the piece returns to is forcefully and brilliantly played. Even more dazzling is the following Etude no.3, ‘Running’, by Nico Muhly, its thrilling discourse brilliantly distilled.
Elsewhere Moondog’s flowing Prelude no.1 in A minor casts its eyes towards the past, while Julia Wolfe’s Earring finds striking sounds in the piano’s upper register. Ezio Bosso’s Before 6 complements the activity of the Glass and Muhly Etudes with almost complete stillness, the effect both meditative and moving.
The most striking of the compositions, however, is the album’s centrepiece. Caroline Shaw’s Gustave Le Grey, based on a Chopin Mazurka, starts with clumps of chords and a solemn, slow bass. From these beginnings the piece progresses to contemplation, lost in thought in its centre before a searing expression of feeling, the piano cutting through in Wagner’s intense interpretation. A sense of pathos is evident at the end, a satisfying resolution.
Does it all work?
Yes, on many levels. What this compilation also does is somehow highlight the importance of the music of Erik Satie, without including any. Much of the music here is both minimal, interesting and emotional, mirroring the older composer’s achievements in his Gnossiennes and Gymnopédies. Wagner plays this music with great feeling and panache.
Is it recommended?
Without hesitation. This is a fine creative project, brilliantly scoped and realised. If you want to discover new piano music, here is a whole album’s worth on which to reflect and enjoy.