Minimal Piano Works Vol. 1-9 Box set, Import
This unusual collection is dedicated to the very popular style: minimal music. Over the years this has evolved from austere, almost strict repetition with tiny movements to a more varied and free approach to material and technique. This set includes works for piano solo by most of the famous minimal composers. Starting with initiator, if you will, Cage, and followed by the first generation entirely devoting itself to this style: Riley and Glass. The next generation is represented by John Adams and Michael Nyman. Dutch pianist Jeroen van Veen is fascinated by minimal music. He was one of the participants on the highly successful complete recordings of Simeon ten Holts a Dutch minimalist complete works for multiple pianos. On this solo album once again he demonstrates with great flair his affinity with minimalism. The repertoire included here also comprises compositions by Satie, Friedrich Nietzsche and Arvo Pärt. There are two CDs with music by the pianist himself and several recordings of minimal pieces by other present-day French, Belgian and Dutch composers. This attractive set will appeal to a wide audience and may shed some light on the present state of minimalism.
A friend once commented to me, "I find that when it comes to minimalism, a little goes a long way." He would not be a big fan of these CDs. And to be fair, my daughter, who recently earned a degree in music education, has threatened to leave the house if exposure to what she takes as mindless musical repetition was not soon curtailed. But whatever your reservations, it's a staggeringly ambitious project, and I think a great success, a true feast for those open to going along for the journey. Forget what minimalism might or might not be: the past few decades include some deeply beautiful compositions.
This is a personal look by van Veen across a wide spectrum of music for piano, well-performed and well-produced, heavy on Dutch composers and including some curiosities like the Friedrich Nietzsche piece. The passion behind both performances and production is something the listener senses immediately. Liner notes include a fine, insightful opening essay on minimalism by van Veen. This collection is most highly recommended for lovers of piano, of contemporary music, and of music in the general vicinity of the minimalist genre.
Where program overlaps with the two-volume collection of "Minimal Pianoworks" published in 1999 and 2001 by pianist Joeren van Veen on his own label PIANO (most of the Glass pieces contained on Disc I, Pärt, Cage, ten Holt, Satie's Vexations and Nietszche's "Fragment an sich" from Disc IV), it appears that these are not reissues but new recordings, made in 2006.
As much as I enjoy "minimalism" when it describes the music of Feldman and sometimes Cage or, in Europe, Scelsi, Sciarrino, Lachenmann, Pesson - e.g. works with very few musical events, often slow moving, at the edge of nothingness, each event acquiring great dramatic importance -, I must confess to having problems with what I prefer to coin "repetitive music", best exemplified by Glass, Reich, Adams, Nyman, Riley - and it is mainly such works that are featured on this set. It is not the repetition I mind, but what I still haven't understood is, why does it have to be based on such simplistic and saccharine harmonies, that seem never to go beyond the level of the folk ballad. And this is indeed exactly what the music of the French Song and film-music writer Yann Tiersen of Amélie Poulain fame (Disc V, "The Movies") sounds like - and the pieces of Michael Nyman, on the same disc, aren't far removed. What is there to repetition that seems to exclude harmonic elaboration, I'll let it to musicologists to explain. Oh, it is entertaining, and VERY easy-listening, sentimental, often eliciting a strong sense of nostalgia. No wonder film directors love it. But it is also so sweet and fluffy as to make me feel like a surfeit of cotton candy. AND - it repeats. Oftentimes, especially with the music of Glass, it sounds to me like repetitive Rachmaninoff - I prefer the original, which has more diversity in its developments. I'll add that over three hours of Glass (discs I, II and III are devoted to him), sounds very... repetitive indeed: you get the impression that Glass invented something at one point, and then just milked it, repeating the same tricks and processes over and over; you've heard one, and you've heard, maybe not all, but most. I don't have the same problem with Riley's seminal "In C", whose shimmering colors and sense of ever-changing stasis I do enjoy, although Van Veen's arrangement doesn't have the dynamic exuberance of Riley's 1968 original recording Terry Riley: In C, and clogs the textures, pulling the piece too much towards "New Age" or space music for my taste.
Still, I was interested enough by some of the Glass pieces (Mad Rush, How Now) to order the scores. It is probably no coincidence that they are the longest pieces of Glass here represented (respectively 15:12 and 25:08): the duration of the repetition does produce a hypnotic effect, and they (especially Mad Rush) also have a sweep that is pretty irresistible. Among the non-Glass pieces, my favorites are Satie's tersely enigmatic and haunting Vexations (IV/7), Simon ten Holt's Solodevilsdance, a kind of "moto perpetuo" and a dazzling tour de force of 35 minutes (IV/5) - so much so that I immediately ordered Brilliant's 11 CD-set of his "complete Multiple Piano works" (Simeon ten Holt: Complete Multiple Piano Works [Box Set]). Klaas de Vries' Toccata Americana and Carlos Michans' Three Minimal Preludes (IX/1 & 3) are much in the same vein, irresistibly dynamic clockwork mechanisms. Tom Johnson's "An Hour of Piano" (VIII/2) sounds like an hour of fascinating, ritualistic music in a Japanese Shinto temple. Immediately after on CD VIII comes Jacob ter Veldhuis' Postnuclear Winterscenario nr 1 and it could be another Johnson piece. It moves slowly and implacably in a despondent mood, and around 8 minutes rises to a dissonant climax of great dramatic intensity. While after 45-minutes I thought Johnson's hour of music was starting to outstay its welcome, I would have been glad for Veldhuis' piece to last longer than its 9:34. Klaas de Vries' equally despondent Echo (IX/2) is perfect at 3:05.
Pianist Van Veen is also featured as composer, through his 24 Minimal Preludes (discs VI and VII). In the liner notes he avows the influence of Riley, Glass and Reich . It'll be no surprise that I like it best when he strays from the Glass model. Like the piano of Glass it sounds to me too often like cheap imitations of Rachmaninoff, or Satie - and I far prefer the originals. I prefer the staccato, pointillistic pieces, VI/3 with its spaced-out, pounding and resonant chords, VII/1, VII/4, the pounding chimes of VII/7. VII/9 is also quite original with its Cagean prepared piano and Crumb-inspired altered tones.
Whatever one's tastes, one definite drawback of the set is the absence of presentation of the individual works. We do get a good, general introduction on minimalism, by van Veen himself, and individual bios of the composers. But about the works themselves, nothing. You need to go on Phil Glass's own website to know that some of the pieces weren't originally written for the piano and are apparently transcriptions (but by whom?). And why two piano versions of the Opening from "Glassworks"? One is van Veen's transcription, but the differences aren't striking. There's also a third one played on organ. Since no one else but Van Veen is credited in Riley's "In C", I presume it is himself overdubbing himself on various keyboards and samplers. Why are two pieces of Nyman played twice, we aren't told either - maybe just to check if the listeners are awake. Truth is, as it all sounds alike, they aren't.
Not always for all tastes then, but some enjoyable discoveries nonetheless.