CD Reviews

Eva-Maria Houben – 6 Sonatas for piano

February 8, 2014


I’ll be honest, my understanding of classical sonata form is limited. I had to go and refresh my knowledge on the subject before re-listening to this monumental set of six piano sonatas spanning across three CDs. From what I can tell though, Eva-Maria Houben has adhered to the generally accepted laws of the sonata here, with each of the six works made up of three movements and each exploring variations on an idea. If at first though it seems to be about where this beautiful release parts company with the traditional notion of the piano sonata, more is to be revealed on closer listening.

Eva-Maria Houben is a composer, organist and pianist, and a member of the Wandelweiser composers collective. Her music generally spans the gap between the stark reductionism of the early years of Wandelweiser and the romantic composers. Despite the austerity of some of her music, Houben’s work has always had a deep richness to it. From her early minimal organ tones that resonated with a earthy grey layers of texture to the way her more recent composition has dwelt upon the nature of how sounds decay it has always seemed to me that there is a deeply personal, emotional touch to her music, and in particular when she performs it herself.  The six piano sonatas here are all played by Houben, and are beautifully recorded. The three discs contain two sonatas each, so a total of six movements on each CD, with the sonatas not arranged chronologically, but the music all seems to blend into one long piece for me, that shifts often through its different sections but retains a similar sense of space throughout.

Its really hard to find words to describe the music here without stating the obvious over and over or taking wild guesses at the motivations behind it. Essentially we hear mostly very slow, spacious music made up of small clusters of notes. At times these clusters might seem more active or urgent than others, such as with the first movement of the second sonata, titled poco allegretto e grazioso, (perhaps after a Brahms symphony ) when a repeatedly struck high note that is alternated with a lower one is hit so hard that it almost seems to wander out of tune. Elsewhere though the music is slow and graceful in tone, though I don’t think I would ever call it solemn, as there is a joyousness to the music, a sensation of the composer / pianist really enjoying every note she places and allows to shiver away into nothing. Each of the movements here seem to be named after movements from famous classical works, each of them from the romantic period, most of them relating to Beethoven’s sonatas and bagatelles, though Brahms and Schubert seem to get a nod as well. For me these little attributions speak volumes. Although the deep, booming caverns of Sonata IV’s second movement are considerably more expressionistic than the repeated low notes of Beethoven’s eleventh sonata, the comparisons are clear, and above all the deep loveliness of both pieces of music have so much in common. I found myself taking my copy of Barenboim’s Beethoven sonatas down from the shelf and alternating between the Houben works and those that her compositions hark back to. It is as if she has distilled the essence of the classical piece and presented it again in her new, minimal work.

This is stunningly beautiful music that treats the history and tradition of the piano sonata with the highest reverence and yet also creates something new and achingly simple from it all. The music is issued on Houben’s own Diafani label, which in a little more than a year has issued an incredible twenty-one releases if you count the four new ones that arrived here this last week. Of those that I have been able to spend time with so far though, 6 Sonatas for piano stands out as my favourite, and the past week I have spent wallowing in its dense, rich minimalism have been extremely rewarding.

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