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Ronsholdt archive 8226712
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Niels RØNSHOLDT (b. 1978)
Archive of Emotions and Experiences Book 1: Birds
Lenio Liatsou (piano)
rec. 10-11 August 2020, Musikhuset Aarhus, Lil Sal, Denmark
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
DACAPO 8.226712 [42:37]

There are two ways of approaching this scintillating disc by Greek pianist Lenio Liatsou: first, as a straightforward CD of piano music; or second, as a kind of theatrical experience. Whilst it can be enjoyed as the first, I think the second takes the listener deeper into the world of the piece.

The staging of a live performance sees the pianist placed in a Perspex box. The ‘drama’ takes place in an imaginary future where the pianist functions as a archivist of almost lost human emotions and experiences. This archivist/pianist figure is described as “oracle like” and can only ‘speak’ to us through playing the piano. This dystopian vision of the future seems horrible close to home in our pandemic world. Whilst all of this is deliberately alienating, the sounds of the piano are not. In this first book of imaginary archives, the emotions and experiences centre on birdsong. Some of this is literal in a way familiar from Messiaen but it is also concerned with how we as humans experience birdsong. Given the developing environmental crisis, the poignancy of such an exercise seems extremely timely rather than fanciful.

If this programme sounds to you like pretentious twaddle (it didn’t to me) then never fear because these pieces also work terrifically as straight piano music. This is an entrancing composition that casts an irresistible spell.

To my non ornithological ear, the birds sound real enough but they are rendered in a very different way from the works of Messiaen. Rønsholdt’s musical language is much more consonant. The birdsong is very prominent in each piece but as the cycle progresses we begin to notice the subtle differences between each piece and not just in terms of the different birdsong used. As befits the dystopian archive project, this is, initially, a matter of fragments of mood and colour. There are no titles given to each section of the work so we are left to guess what emotion attaches to them. For all that it is built of bits and pieces, motifs and ideas recur so that the whole composition does acquire momentum. I found myself thinking of it as almost a set of variations on those recurrent musical elements. It is as if the composer is saying, ‘look how even in the most etiolated and unlikely of settings, life on earth survives’. Ultimately, the piece contains a message of fragile hope.

The other main musical influence, according to the composer, is the piano music of composers such as Schumann and Chopin. Think of the former’s Vogel als Prophet from Waldszenen and you will get a flavour of the influence. I would add Liszt to that, ahem, list. An example of the kind of piece Rønsholdt evoked in my mind would be the birds that Liszt’s St Francis preaches to in the first of his Légendes.

These two influences – birdsong and the nineteenth century virtuosic piano tradition – mean that this is certainly not a difficult listen. Throughout, Rønsholdt captures the wonder of hearing birds sing. Like birdsong, the music is precise, fragile and yet brimming with vitality. When the final piece ends with a certain abruptness and without any ceremony, as if the archive recording had simply ended, I felt a real sadness and reached for the controls to play the whole thing again. It is the sadness of when a bird we have been listening to flies off out of earshot.

Lenio Liatsou is a suitably magical guide. She seems to inhabit the world of the piece to an uncanny degree. The birdsong is interpreted with a fluidity and conviction that it is hard not to hear real birds in her playing. She brings a fantastic array of colours to bear on the music and is hyper sensitive to the little hints at the deeper mood of each piece that litter the score. If the title ‘archive’ conjures up something dry and academic, Liatsou is always aware that what she is filing away are emotional experiences. The recording given to her by Da Capo could hardly be better. I have heard a lot of superbly recorded piano music in the last twelve months and this is up there with the best. A lot of Rønsholdt’s writing is high up on the piano but it never sounds brittle in Da Capo’s plush sound.

David McDade

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