Karen TANAKA (b.1961)
Crystalline (1988) [6:53]
Water Dance (2008) [12:01]
Northern Lights (1996) [1:13]
Lavender Field (1994) [1:52]
Three Techno Etudes (2000) [8:31]
Children of Light (1998-9) [excerpts] [13:28]
Crystalline II (1995-6) [7:26]
Signe Bakke (piano)
rec. Sofienberg Church, Oslo, October 2008 and January 2010. DDD
2L 074 [51:24]

Mention of Japanese composer Karen Tanaka in these pages has been very brief, but always complimentary: her string quartet, At the Grave of Beethoven, reviewed more than a decade ago here, and two of her very short piano works featured on this new release, Northern Lights and Lavender Field, played by Thalia Myers on two anthologies, reviewed here and here. This appears to be the first CD devoted entirely to her works - the nearest thing to date was 'Invisible Curve', a disc of chamber music released on New World Records (80683) in 2008, which she shared with Chinese composer Chen Yi.

Crystalline I and II, which open and close this fascinating recital respectively, were written a few years apart, the latter an obvious follow-up to the first. According to the liner-notes, the title reflects the composer's intention to create a "rendering of a cool timeless world of glittering, sparkling crystals." The style and sonorities of Crystalline I, one of Tanaka's earlier works, give a good idea of what to expect from her piano music - detail, delicacy, consonance, timbral sculpturing, sensuality.

The 'prismatic' idea of the Crystallines recurs in the most recent of Tanaka's piano pieces, Water Dance - actually a set of three dances - which was commissioned by Norwegian pianist Signe Bakke herself, who has had a working relationship with Tanaka for some time. The 'water' element is not the musically archetypal undulation of waves or ebb and flow of tides, but more the play of light on the shimmering surface of a clear - crystalline, one may say - mountain stream.

One great service Tanaka renders art music in works like Water Dance or the Techno Etudes, is to expose the mountebankery of mainstream minimalism. Her music here is a minimalism of sorts, but so much more intelligent, more inventive, more profound than the piano music of, say, Philip Glass or Ludovico Einaudi, or a thousand anonymous Hollywood film scores. Tanaka studied at IRCAM with Tristan Murail, famed for his so-called 'spectral' music, which clearly had a strong influence on her own stated interest in the "transformation of timbre in space, analogous to a gradual change of light refraction in crystals and prisms".

A different side of Tanaka's pianism can be heard in the Children of Light, a set of simple but exquisite melodic miniatures written for children, both to enjoy and play - although one of them at least, African Elephant, sounds far from easy! Some of the pieces are so instantly, deliciously memorable that listeners will be amazed that this is the first time of hearing. As an educational bonus to children, there is an overall ecological theme - each piece describes the special natural beauty of or a threatened species of animal from different parts of the world. The eight varied items selected here are from a total of twenty; what a pity, on this evidence, that the rest were not recorded - there would surely have been enough space on this disc, which, though otherwise excellent in every regard, is rather brazenly on the short side.

There are two pieces in Bakke's recital with the title Northern Lights, one from the Children of Light collection, the second a stand-alone work commissioned by the Royal School of Music with Lavender Field for teaching purposes. The CD booklet gives Tanaka's instructions to learners for performing these rhythmic, succinct pieces - both of which, incidentally, were recorded by Thalia Myers on the CDs linked to above. For Lavender Field, for example, the player is told to "imagine weaving colour and scent with sounds. The harmonic series on E flat appears and disappears into space at the end."

In all the above works the pianist must show great finesse and sensitivity, a demand which Bakke meets with total reliability. In the curiously named Techno Etudes, on the other hand, the accent is firmly on virtuosity, particularly rhythmic speed - and again Bakke is equal to it. The music was commissioned by Japanese pianist Tomoko Mukayama, who originally asked for a work to synchronise with some pre-taped 'techno' music. Though the techno idea was thankfully dropped, the title stuck, as did the emphasis on an almost robotic drive and great velocity. This is hypnotic, primal music, and the CD notes argue the case, not altogether convincingly, that it expresses at a deep level similar ideas to the far more delicate, complex sounds of the 'crystalline' works. Quite inventively, the notes describe the particularly virtuosic first movement as sounding like "a frenetic boogie-woogie machine that sometimes seems to get stuck".

The sound quality on this hybrid SACD is immaculate, even listening in normal stereo. This is how solo piano music should be recorded. The booklet, the back cover of which is glued onto the cardboard case, has well-written, detailed notes in English and Norwegian. Oddly, Tanaka does not get a mention on the front cover or the CD itself.

Playing time aside, a superb release.


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Playing time aside, a superb release.