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Minimalist Dream House
Katia & Marielle Labèque (pianos)
David Chalmin (vocals, guitars, bass & electronics)* and Raphaël Séguinier (drums, percussion & electronics), Nicola Tescari (keyboards, electronics)**
Rec. July-December 2012, Studio KML, Rome DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 481 4468 [61:06 + 68:09]
Katia and Marielle Labèque have long been part of our musical furniture, making recordings for Philips and others back in the 1980s and ‘90s and carrying on as a creative powerhouse ever since. This Deutsche Grammophon release is a reduced re-release of a 2013 title on 3 CDs from the sister’s own label KML Recordings, which also included some Debussy and Satie tracks. This new alliance will of course give their more recent recordings greater exposure, but is it all good?
Attracted by the prospect of this Minimalist Dream House, I have to say I’m not entirely bowled over by this curate’s egg of a collection. There are very good things here, but also something of a mismatch of genres, and misfires when it comes to certain pieces. Such criticism is of course a matter of taste, and as usual I freely acknowledge my subjective point of view. Listeners make up their own minds, thank goodness, and long may this remain the case.
I’ve been sparring with minimalist music ever since I was a teenager, and as a composer have had plenty of fun working in an idiom which has thankfully managed to escape any kind of idealistic cul de sac – despite the ‘ism’ of its name. Writing a true minimalist piece these days is a tough challenge, but the freedoms of the style has opened up world of possibilities for all composers. Approaching it from the inside out makes little difference, however, if you can embrace music with minimal origins in the same way as you would any other music or performance from the point of view: ‘am I enjoying it?’ and ‘if not why not?’ – the latter of course bearing the weight of one’s own limitations in terms of experience.
Things get off to an unpromising start with a rather hacked first part to Philip Glass’s Four Movements. This is the kind of writing that needs more dynamic layering and subtlety, and our ears are rather assaulted from a place, from which there is no retreat. This may be a side-effect of the rather hard recording quality, as things are less troublesome when the dynamics drop, as in the sweetly resonant piece for film The Poet Acts further on in CD 1. Flow is however another issue in this piece, as it sounds rather lumpy when compared to Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russel Davis on their Orange Mountain Music recording. I would be the last person to claim rhythmic weakness in the playing throughout this piece, but it’s hard to find the ‘schwung’ here and in other comparable pieces such as the more energetic of Michael Nyman’s Water Dances. Things just sound loud and leaden.
John Cage’s Experiences, I is a charming and somehow deeply American piece written for one of Merce Cunningham’s choreographies. Also apparently in little danger of criticism is Arvo Pärt’s Hymn to a Great City, though this is rushed through with about as much devotional feeling as a commuter tearing into a bar of chocolate.
Contrasting with Bruce Brubaker and his Arabesque label recording, Marielle Labèque is fearsome in her performance of William Duckworth’s first Time Curve Prelude, Katia also quickening the pace and shaping the second into a more extreme dynamic shape. PreludeXVII is given a nicely poetic turn of phrase by Marielle. Over on CD 2 the Erik Satie-esque VII comes across nicely and XII is back into heavier mode, the groove not quite jumping but with good contrasts of colour. Marielle also plays all of the four selected Images and Postlude by Howard Skempton, all of which are musical gems in their simple directness and which to my mind are a highlight of the set.
David Chalmin's Gameland is a bit of an odd fish in this collection, starting out as a bit of free jazz and moving through a section of cinematic tension building, before establishing a high-tensile ostinato. This builds into a heavy-rock conclusion that reminds me of my least favourite aspect of Glen Branca's Symphony No. 3. Minimalism can take all forms and long may it be so, but if I want heavy drums and distortion guitar then I would tend to look elsewhere and in any case, this is what a former colleague would have termed 'a bit thin.'
Those of us who know Radiohead's 'Amnesiac' album will be familiar with the meanderingly expressive Pyramid Song; David Chalmin's vocals work very convincing over a warmly undulating piano backdrop. Brian Eno's In Dark Trees comes from his classic album 'Another Green World', and while a fair stab is made at creating a comparable driving rhythmic pattern,
this misses the original's sense of subdued menace, and I wonder quite how the harmonies relate from original to remake. Aphex Twin's gentle Avril 14th has been given a few different arrangements over the years, and this one is a fairly straight transcription, exchanging an expensive big piano for the innocent twang from the upright of the original.
Michael Nyman's Water Dances were written for the Peter Greenaway film 'Making a Splash' and released on the EG label in 1985. This version takes the Nyman Band recording into a brand new arrangement for two pianos which sounds very promising. Nyman's music can take a fair bit of mauling about, but where the quieter pieces work well, I'm again not comfortable with the rhythmic character of something like the final Synchronising, which just doesn't seem to gel, the syncopations tripping over each other and the whole thing sounding rather hacked.
Good music in good performances should make you want to lean in, want to hear more and access ever more detail. With its jangly synths, drums and rock-extras this, for me alas, is one version of Terry Riley’s In C which, the more I hear, the further away from it I want to be. There are some odd moments of probably unintentional phrasing, one of the pianos losing the plot around 18.30, for instance, and, well, let's just say the bits that actually do sound half decent seem more like happy accidents than anything else.
Free to X by Raphaël Séguinier is a drum beat with an electronic drone, the latter of which ultimately "ceases to be so friendly and swallows the rhythmic pulse in a cacophony of electronic noise." Really? Hmmm...
As suggested near the beginning this is a rather odd mixture, unable to decide whether it wants to go crossover or present something that will fit nicely into the kind or architectural interior that the cover design suggests - you know the sort, in which the effect is ruined if you leave a mug of tea and the newspaper on a table. It would be trite to exchange 'dream' for 'nightmare', but with such disparate idioms on a single album you'll not be giving this as a gift on Mothering Sunday. There are some pianists who seem born to create magic with minimalist music of the repetitive kind, but on this showing I don't feel this as genuinely being the Labèque sisters’ kind of music. If aspects of the programme attract, then download those tracks that appeal the most. If you're keen on drums and effects then you'll probably be bored by Skempton, and if you adore Skempton then you'll be likely to want to avoid some of the rough and tumble elsewhere.
Contents Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Four Movements for Two Pianos (2008) [23:20] John CAGE (1912-1992)
Two Pianos (1945) [2:19] Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Hymn to a Great City (1984-2004) [3:18] Philip GLASS
The Poet Acts (2002-2003) [3:42] William DUCKWORTH (1943-2012)
The Time Curve Preludes (1977-1978) [7:07] Michael NYMAN (b. 1944)
Water Dances (1985-2011) [11:23] Howard SKEMPTON (b. 1947)
Images (1989) [7:48]
Postlude (1978) [1:48] David CHALMIN (b. 1980)
Gameland (2011)*/** [6:06] William DUCKWORTH
The Time Curve Preludes (ctd.) [6:12] RADIOHEAD
Pyramid Song* [5:10] Brian ENO (b. 1948)
In Dark Trees (1975)*/** [3:49] APHEX TWIN
Avril 14th (2001) [2:11] Michael NYMAN
Water Dances (ctd.) [10:38] Terry RILEY (b. 1935)
In C (1964) */** [28:58] Raphaël SÉGUINIER (b.1979)
Free to X (2011) */** [5:03]