The title 'WANTED' stamped in big letters on the cover might be considered wishful thinking on the part of Aurora, because intrepid Norwegian pianist Håkon Austbø has chosen a very demanding programme here, both for himself and the listener. Even Asbjørn Schaathun's innocently titled Adagio and Allegro is a non-starter for tonal joy-riders!
To a non-specialist ear all the works here are likely to sound like concatenations of randomly generated sequences, tuneless, shapeless, pointless. Elliott Carter describes Night Fantasies as "a piano piece of continuously changing moods, suggesting the fleeting thoughts and feelings that pass through the mind during a period of wakefulness at night", but this work is more likely to have listeners attuned to Mozart or Chopin starting awake up in a cold sweat. As if to underline the hard work intended for the listener, Pierre Boulez is quoted in stark text on the front cover of the booklet: "Music is a labyrinth with no beginning and no end, full of new paths to discover, where mystery remains eternal."
Yet Austbø and Aurora, to their credit, are clearly not pitching this recital at a Classic FM or even a BBC Radio 3 public. That much is obvious from Austbø's intelligent notes, which assume previous familiarity at least with Boulez and Carter. Conversely, therefore, lovers of modernism in music - and they do exist! - will relish the thought of the serialism-cum-atonality, aleatoricism and general density these works present.
Norwegian composer Schaathun is the youngster of the bunch, but his music chimes very well with the modernist ideals of Boulez and Carter. Physis is a strange work, best described by Austbø: "The seven areas of ????? provide a fixed framework, each area consisting of a larger
section, played without electronics, followed by smaller ones using electronics (except in Area VII).
The smaller sections are always interchangeable, the performer choosing the order. Each section is
confined to a "register" numbered A to E whose tessitura goes from less than an octave to almost
the entire range of the piano. The complexity is mostly proportional to this span and reaches its
highest degree in the final section, Area VII, which contains only register E. Here, a series of 25 chords is superposed on a recurring rhythm of 35 durations, all played fortissimo." The computer component is not massive, and in no way diminishes the piano contribution. Occasionally the effect is like a strumming of the piano strings, but generally akin to an extra-terrestrial communication as imagined circa 1980.
Though Austbø has a long-standing commitment to the old masters, especially Debussy - see review of the final volume of the complete solo piano music for Simax - he has been performing and recording cutting-edge music of this nature for a good twenty years, and has made some memorable CDs, particularly for Simax and Naxos (see this review of his reading of Messiaen's Vingt Regards, for example). This is his third recording now for Aurora, a disc of piano works by 20th century Norwegian composers (review) following more of the same coupled with Messiaen's Oiseaux Exotiques (ACD 5057). On this latest release, with typical stamina and stunning technique, Austbø delivers a cogent, insistent argument of, and also for, these uncompromising pieces, enhanced by a spacious church acoustic.
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