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Michael DENHOFF (b. 1955)
Player Piano 8

Introvention mit Bach (...Steve Reich ist auch dabei...) [2:15]
12 Inventions for Player Piano(s) Op.88 (1999-2004) [39:48]
Cadenabbiaer Glockenbuch Op.78a (1996/2005) [17:05]
rec. 19-24 June 2005, Immanuelskirche,Wuppertal.
Experience Classicsonline

That must have been a heck of a week in the Immanuelskirche – I’ve only just noticed that all of the MDG Player Piano series have the same recording session dates. Prepared and produced under the expert guidance of Jürgen Hocker, this entire production of works by and in the tradition of Conlon Nancarrow is here recorded under ideal conditions, with Bösendorfer and Fischer grand pianos controlled by vintage Ampico player piano mechanisms from the 1920s. The mechanical noise of the blowers needed to operate these machines has been removed by the simple idea of having them in a different room to the space in which the pianos were recorded, and with MDG’s excellent recording techniques this is about as good as it’s ever going to be.

Influenced by Conlon Nancarrow, Michael Denhoff’s output for player piano is second only to the grand master of this medium, who is also very well served by previous volumes in this series. There are most definite echoes of Nancarrow in Denhoff, with the first of the 12 Inventions having a characteristic ‘walking’ bass with increasingly ‘unplayable’ material over the top. I’m reluctant to use too many quotation marks in reviews, but when it comes to player piano music it is sometimes hard to avoid them. The disc opens with the post-minimal Introvention mit Bach (...Steve Reich ist auch dabei...), which is a very nice introduction to the programme, and serves as a good clue to Denhoff’s relationship to the player piano. Like Nancarrow, he allows for a certain amount of wit, and the introduction of recognisable styles as partial influences on some of the pieces. Nancarrow’s work does however have a more thoroughly developed rigour, and a greater sense of logic seen through to its absolute and irrefutable conclusion. Denhoff is a little more eclectic, with occasional whiffs of Messiaen and others, but he also uses varieties of canons and similar techniques to pursue the sheer dramatic potential of the player piano.

There are some incredible pieces here. In the 12 Inventions there are two-piano canons, mirror forms and inversions, vast sound-fields of texture, those amazingly regular runs and impossible to imitate accelerandi, rhythmic relationships both percussive and exotic, and layering of material which teases the brain and makes listening to each piece like the reading of a poem or story which you know will take several perusals before its secrets can make themselves truly understood. This is not to say that the idiom of the music is particularly difficult. Yes, there are the more uncomfortable clusters of something like Invention No.5, but you can set this against the fascinating exploration of relatively few notes in Invention No.6 in which you feel your muso-intellectual sap rising to meet the more than inviting challenge. A kind of jazzy improvisational madness takes over in Invention No.9, and another delight is the metrical relationships in Invention No.10 which, over a deceptively plodding basic pulse, mixes rhythmic ratios to create great vertical heaps of almost baroque ornamentation. The final Invention No.12 is a gorgeously restive chorale of chimes, which links well with the next set of pieces.

The Cadenabbiaer Glockenbuch derives its inspiration from the composer’s fascination with peals of bells whose differing speeds create a chaos of overlapping rhythmic patterns. In collaboration with Jürgen Hocker, Denhoff has created a special version of this set of ‘etudes’ for the two Ampico player pianos recorded here.

This exploration of relatively few notes as a basis has a fascination as well as an essential weakness, as the sonorities of the original bells are inevitably more interesting than those of the strings of a piano. As well as this, the pieces are sequentially often variations of one or more of the previous pieces, so that for me a sense of saturation set in fairly quickly. This I have to be said is added to a somewhat embedded familiarity with these sonorities. I grew up in a small village whose church bells also went through these kinds of sequences. The tower was cracked so that real ‘bells up’ change ringing was impossible, and the patterns described in the pieces in the Cadenabbiaer Glockenbuch are to me like the ticking of Martinů’s clock. As a small child I experimented endlessly on our old Moon upright piano with those same five or so notes like a kind of obsessive Microcosmos (Bk.1) and so, however sophisticated, have to declare a personal love/hate relationship with this material. Denhoff’s studies in the Cadenabbiaer Glockenbuch are admirably exploratory and extensive, and the anti-metric effect of the two pianos creates some interesting effects. The final Postludium has a grand Cathédrale engloutie feel, but a few versions fewer of the other pieces would have done no harm in the final reckoning.

This disc is well up to the usual production standard of MDG’s Player Piano series, and anyone collecting the set simply must have it to go along with the rest. With only my very subjective and personal reservations about the Cadenabbiaer Glockenbuch echoing dimly, I can unhesitatingly endorse Michael Denhoff’s work for player piano and Nancarrow/Ligeti fans alike.

Dominy Clements


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