‘Piano Icons For The 21st Century' was widely acclaimed upon its release and named a Gramophone ‘Critics' Choice': 'my disc of 2000 is without hesitation Elena Riu's extraordinarily fine CD.' John Tavener was inspired to write his first major solo work for piano in over twenty years after hearing Elena play. She premiered Ypakoë, a series of meditations on the death of Jesus, at the City of London Festival. The programme also includes Janacek's In The Mist, an intensely personal and darkly hued cycle, plus an intriguing collection of miniatures by three composers who, in her view, are on a similar wavelength: Peter Sculthorpe, the late Catalan composer Federico Mompou, and Arvo Pärt.
'A fascinating compilation... Riu's playing is entrancing.' Classic CD
‘Elena Riu, with her mixture of radicalism and unworldliness is the perfect interpreter of John Tavener.' The Independent
‘All the works are spellbinding in Riu's readings.' American Record Guide
‘...a remarkably enterprising and imaginative young pianist...the Mompou receives a superb performance, relishing every delicate change of colour and texture...' International Piano
Piano Icons For The 21st Century
Until the twentieth century, the Christian world was united by potent religious symbols. Despite the sometimes fierce divisions in doctrine and spirit between Catholic and Orthodox communities, and between them and the legions of rival Protestant sects, there were important ideas in common: the incarnation of Christ, his teachings, his suffering and death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead.
However, with the turn of the century this began to change. Religious education became less dogmatic, more liberal and in some places faded out altogether. Generations could grow up with only the vaguest notions of what Christianity was about. While some saw this as a tragedy, for others it was liberating. Anyone who felt the need for spirituality in their lives was free to seek it out in other religions or systems of belief; or ultimately if they chose Christianity, it was at least a genuine choice and not merely the result of social conditioning.
All the works featured on this recording are, in their very different ways, products of this new spiritual freedom. The artists who created them sought their own truths, their own icons, finding and expressing them in ways which often set them apart from the cultures in which they lived and wrote. Take Arvo Pärt for instance; born in Estonia in 1935, Pärt saw his country annexed first of all by Nazi Germany and then, for rather longer, by Stalin's Soviet Union. Under the Communists, religion was proscribed and in some cases brutally repressed. As a young composer Pärt participated in what could be described as musical ‘resistance' by using the forbidden language of Schoenbergian atonal serialism to protest against Soviet tyranny. But then, in the late 1970s, Pärt changed direction completely. From this point on the overriding concern was with lucid simplicity, with the total avoidance of romantic self-expression. He found the models he needed in the music of the Russian Orthodox Church and in the liturgical settings of medieval Catholicism. Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka (‘Variations for the healing of Arinuschka') is typical of this new eloquent simplicity. Written as a musical prayer for a friend, it repeats an austere, chant-like melody for the right hand of the piano while the left hand gradually intensifies the harmonies. Simple devices, long rejected as worn-out by twentieth-century modernists, such as the change from minor to major key half-way through the piece, are here invested with a completely new expressive power.
Like Arvo Pärt, the English composer John Tavener (1944-2013) progressed from complex modernism to a simpler style of composition, whose power to move listeners is still surprising. Also like Pärt, Tavener found a deep well of inspiration in the music and teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church. He described some of his later works as ‘Ikons', music composed to draw us to the contemplation of divine goodness, or to the central Christian teachings. Ypakoë, written for the pianist Elena Riu, refers to the words of the angels to the disciples who came to Christ's tomb on the morning of the resurrection: ‘Why seek ye among the dead, as though He were a mortal man?' The five movements approach the central theme of Christ's death and resurrection from different devotional angles: grief and rejoicing, praise and penitence. Again, simple chant-like figures dominate the music, with the pianist's two hands often singing out in counterpoint, and the occasional delicious dissonant ‘scrunch' as the modes collide. In ‘The Lord awoke us as one that sleepeth' the right hand decorates the left hand's chanting with high trills, a sound suggesting the wings of hovering angels, or the response of heaven to earthly prayer. As serene as Ypakoë is, the final section is open-ended; the music seems to break off mid-phrase as though Tavener were telling us that perfection is not to be sought in this world.
An Australian of European ancestry, Peter Sculthorpe (b. 1929) belongs to a young culture which is still very much in the process of discovering itself. The people once thought of as ‘displaced Europeans' have redefined their identity, influenced by their encounters with the Aborigine peoples as well as their proximity to East Asia (much closer than any European countries). All of this can be felt at work in the Sculthorpe pieces collected here. Djilile is based on an Aboriginal melody recorded in the late 1950s in northern Australia. The title means ‘whistling duck on a billabong'; a billabong is the backwater of a river, better known as an ‘oxbow lake' outside of Australia. Sculthorpe has used this haunting tune in several of his works, stating that despite its prevalence it was originally composed ‘simply for my own pleasure, and perhaps for the pleasure of others.' All the same, there is a hint of religious meaning. The call of the duck is a reminder that in some totemic Aborigine traditions, the spiritual ‘essence' of aspects of our world can be expressed and understood through song.
The same underlying idea can be found in Sculthorpe's ‘Singing Sun'; the sun itself has its song which varies according to its position in the sky. Some Aboriginal traditions incorporate this song in rituals designed to reflect - or aid - the sun's movement through the sky. ‘Singing Sun' comes from a set of pieces called A Little Book of Hours. The title recalls the medieval collection of prayers for the different times of the day, The Book of Hours, though the rites Sculthorpe has in mind are those of the Koori people of south-eastern Australia.
In Night Pieces, Sculthorpe turns northwards, across the Pacific Ocean, to Japan. The first three pieces are inspired by the Japanese idea of ‘setsugekka' - literally ‘snow, moon, flowers'. The concept, first noted in the writing of the Tang Dynasty Chinese poet Bái Juyì, relates to the intrinsically linked, transcendent quality of nature and natural phenomena; moonlight may make snow look like flowers, flowers like snow. Similarly, the moon itself may be white as snow, or float in the heavens like an enormous white flower. Accordingly Sculthorpe's ‘Snow', ‘Moon' and ‘Flowers' subtly reflect each other's harmonies, melodic phrases and textures. ‘Night' and ‘Stars' also derive from the same musical structure though each brings elements of its own, for instance the gong-like sounds heard in ‘Night'. Sculthorpe sums up this cycle of miniatures with a few lines by the Japanese poet Masaoka Shiki: The moon one circle; Stars numberless; Sky dark green.
1928) great choral and orchestral work Glagolitic Mass was first performed in 1926, two years before the Czech composer's death at the age So the old man, faced with the thoughts of death, turns No old man! No thoughts of death! No God!' There was no place for organized religion in Janácek's artistic credo. But that's not to say that his work lacked a spiritual dimension. Once, having sat through a particularly dry Music isn't about notes! It's about life, and blood, and nature!' Life in all its forms, the rhythms of nature, the music of the Slav these were the cornerstones from which Janácek drew his inspiration. Like many romantic nationalists, Janácek found a profound natural spirituality in the music of his people. The distillation of its essence preoccupied him in all his major works. It dominates the four-movement piano cycle In The Mists. Although it is easy to identify nationalistic elements in this music, there is nothing sentimentally folksy' here. Despite its apparent simplicity this music can be poignant, even one long struggle between resignation and newly-felt pain - pain which gains the upper hand at the end'. For all his belief in life and nature, Janácek knew there was a dark side to human existence and few of his works contemplate it as directly as In The Mists.
The dark side of human experience was one of the main preoccupations of the Spanish mystic St John of the Cross who was in turn a major influence on the Spanish, or rather Catalan composer Federico Mompou (1893-1987). Unusually, Mompou confined himself almost entirely to writing piano miniatures and a handful of songs. There is nothing for orchestra, or even for chamber ensemble, no sonatas - nothing on a large scale survives. Instead his piano works pursue ever more simple means, with much use of repetition (Mompou was deeply impressed by Erik Satie). Charmes was one of Mompou's favourites among his own work. Mompou saw them as primitive to invoke images of the to summon joy'. No. 4, like Pärt's Variationen, is specifically intended for healing'. None of these tiny pieces bears the slightest resemblance to the spectacular colourful magic of Manuel de Falla's famous Ritual Fire Dance. Economy is everything. The magic lies in the way Mompou invests the smallest phrase or detail with delicious maximum expressiveness through minimum means' - words which could, in fact, be used to describe all the works on this album. Stephen Johnson, 2000
Recorded at St George's, Bristol, UK, 6-7 April 1999
Produced by Andrew Keener
Recorded by Philip Hobbs