Hans Otte, who was born in 1926 and died in 2007, was musical
director of Radio Bremen between 1959 and 1984. He was a Hindemith
pupil and a fine pianist in his own right. The Book of Hours –
Stundenbuch – had a relatively long eight-year gestation and bears
the laconic, but detailed subtitle “forty-eight pieces for piano
for two hands, in two volumes”.
Almost all the movements
are refined and refractive and only one exceeds two and three
quarter minutes in length. Some indeed last no more than forty
seconds. Their concentration doesn’t imply terseness or superficiality.
But they do have the status of arrested time, a profoundly involving
sense of spiritual density despite their brevity.
Otte employs the idea of the medieval Book
of Hours – “of monastic life – of pilgrimage – of poverty and
death” – in a way that is explicitly studied, meditative and
spiritual. With the amazingly clear and warm recorded sound
and the excellent embracing acoustic, Roger Woodward’s Bösendorfer sings with luminous beauty.
With so much that
is refined and still, it’s hard to pick moments that are more
descriptive than others or that point to sources of inspiration
other than those already outlined. But there are pointers; Feldman
is perhaps an influence, Cage too. In the fourth piece of Book
I one can feel questing hints of Bartók. The circular, drifting
patterns of No.8 have a gravitational allure independent of
any putative influence. The stillness of No.11 carries its own
lucid charge. Elsewhere we can hear a sort of very stripped
down Debussy – an influence that Otte might have assimilated
anyway, but the fact that he studied with Gieseking is doubly
those brief eruptive moments that do exist, we feel a constant
skein of stillness and purity; the second piece from Book III
is an example of the more textually angular writing that provides
contrast in the Stundenbuch. In the main though the shifting
patterns, constant yet changeable as cumulus, affords the greatest
sensual and musical satisfaction. Whether glittering in the
treble infused writing of No.43 or controlling the stasis of
No.39 Woodward proves himself, as one has come to expect, a
subtle explorer of touch and refined poetry.
booklet might appear typographically austere but the composer’s
printed aphorisms better reveal the concentrated richness evoked
in his music.