More than a decade ago now I spent an exciting few weeks visiting the Sound 323 record shop in London purchasing as much of the then relatively young Wandelweiser label as I could get Mark Wastell to order in for me. One of the releases I hoovered up back then was the first disc of Jürg Frey’s piano music, which includes pieces written from the late seventies through to the turn of the millennium, played by John McAlpine. That release remains one of my favourite on the label, as it manages to mix the quiet reductionist composition we knew Wandelweiser for back then with a certain melodic romanticism, balancing the two perfectly in my opinion. So when a new disc of piano compositions from Frey appeared late last year I should have been immediately overjoyed, but I will admit to having my initial reservations. To begin with, I had never heard of the pianist before, the American R.Andrew Lee, and the label that issued the release, Irritable Hedgehog didn’t seem to have much history with this particular end of the music spectrum. Add to this the fact that the CD’s liner notes describes Wandelweiser as “Bang on a Can with quiet marathons” and I was a little concerned that the current popularity of the Wandelweiser collective could have seen the music wander a little too far off of the beaten track. Suffice to say however, I was entirely wrong to ponder over the new release, as its a wonderful set of recordings.
The disc contains recordings of two works, neither of which have appeared on CD before. Klavierstück 2 dates back to 2001. Lasting fifteen minutes the piece seems at first to consist of a very rigorous, minimalistic structure, opening with a slow series of deep booming chords, most of which are allowed to decay slowly over several seconds into silence. After a couple of minutes these are replaced by a faster, higher set of repeated chords that last the bulk of the piece before, right at the end, the almost Reichian repetition stops and we get a couple of minutes of utterly beautiful, sparsely played melody that creates just the most wonderful little landscape with the barest of means.
There then follows Les tréfonds inexplorés des signes pour piano (24-35), a twelve section work that forms part of one of Frey’s ongoing series of compositions, with other sections scored for different instrumentation. The twelve section here are each relatively short, weighing in between two and eight minutes, but all have characteristics of their own, though they do all come together well to form one cohesive unit at the same time. This is probably a result of Frey having written the pieces as a series of miniatures over a period of two years, from 2007 to 2009. These pieces work really well alongside the longer Klavierstück work. If that piece managed to match a structured, controlled system against a completely loose, romantic passage so Les tréfonds… works in a similar manner, with some of the parts feeling like sections cut from late Feldman works, with loosely followed rhythms and repetitions, and others operating like extensions of the closing section of the Klavierstück, gorgeous little vignettes scattered amongst the less fluid parts. This is all very beautiful music indeed. Even at its fastest the music crawls, and each note hangs in space, their decay colouring the negative silhouettes between them, each a little musical world of their own that I found virtually impossible to allow to just play in the background. Like of of Jürg Frey’s music it is completely engaging in a truly human, simple manner. Each little piece seems to project a state of beauty, sadness and simplicity at the same time. Frey pares the emotion of sorrowful, beautiful music right down to tiny distillations. What Chopin said in streams of complexity, what Schubert told through richly patterned melody, so Frey retells with simple brushstrokes, which are reproduced here by Lee without fuss, but with immense skill. Stunning work then, and a new pianist to keep a close eye upon.