I’ll admit it, this is a long review! In short, if you’ve ever been enthralled by a wise relative recounting stories, you stand a good chance of being thoroughly charmed by Renée Reznek’s highly personal account of South African piano music on From My Beloved Country. Buy it.
A Different Kind of Virtuosity
Great musicianship, I would argue, springs from awareness, insight and a penchant for communication – captivating and arresting in equal measure. The best performers truly understand music and help it to speak. A showman wants nothing more than to be lauded for their flare or technical prowess. A great musician, when they have something to say, manages to speak through music, rather than declaiming bullishly in spite of it. By this measure, Renée Reznek is certainly a great musician.
In her latest recording the South African pianist makes a clear and persuasive statement about music she holds dear. A close bond between performer and repertoire yields a particular directness and warm serenity, compelling us to listen at every turn. Displays of technical prowess are there for all to hear, but aren’t the focus of the programme. Reznek communicates these pieces – and, of course, communicates through them – with honest sensitivity. This is the real marvel and the real act of virtuosity.
The Personal Touch
The words emblazoned on the album’s cover – From my Beloved Country: New South African piano music – suggest it’s the influence of Rezenk’s home country that binds the disc together. While undoubtedly a significant motivation, I find the deeply personal nature of her recital a much more dominant theme, so much so that I don’t feel compelled to highlight all the allusions to South Africa. If anyone’s interested they can buy the CD and read the liner notes!
The programme has been put together with an expert ear and deep awareness of the music at hand. Play the recording on shuffle and the whole thing becomes less satisfying. The journey from piece to piece has been incredibly well planned. The execution is simply sublime.
Long, gentle lines, often in simple counterpoint and sometimes elegiac, lend a muted tone. Staccato interjections, usually chordal, punctuate the otherwise simple fabric, but do so sparingly and not just for the sake of textural variation. They always have structural purpose, giving those long evocative phrases a sense of form. I’m talking here about the programme as a whole and about individual pieces within it. Some of the works are entirely serene. Others combine elegant breadth with chordal interjections. Michael Blake’s Broken Line, while certainly self-interrupting, stands apart as the most consistently percussive work, acting as angular meta-staccato for the overall programme, sitting between his own Seventh Must Fall and Volans’ A Garden of Forking Paths, both of which are unashamedly melancholic.
This interplay of long-reaching phrases and short interjections is the very foundation of the recording’s success, musically speaking. The result is playful and intriguing. There are plenty of opportunities for Reznek to overplay contrasts in volume and articulation – to make the music more crassly Germanic, for want of a better term – but her musicianship is above such obvious temptations. The single instance of a powerful dramatic sweep is reserved for Hendrik Hofmeyr’s Partita Africana, in which a broad, brooding and dark first movement is supplanted by a lively dance-like second, whose brightness morphs into thrashing convulsions of terrifying intensity.
Importantly, every piece feels as though it belongs with the others. Rather than standing separately like exhibits at a museum, as is the case with so many albums of new music, the pieces here seem to hold hands and proceed together on a shared journey.
In general, the chosen repertoire is easily digested. There’s nothing particularly challenging on this disc. I’m not suggesting an absence of complexity or intrigue. But, where complexity exists, it sits within readily grasped structures. Speaking of challenges, the threat of one in particular looms menacingly on the horizon – the kind of challenge that offers no reward. In a collection of largely ‘post-minimalist’ repertoire such as this, there’s the ever-present threat of patience-testing banality. Within the sphere of post-minimalism – a woolly term I treat with great suspicion – it’s easy to encounter music that meanders meaninglessly. It’s equally easy to find music that deploys ceaseless repetition for the sake of compositional ease or, worse still, a desperate attempt to be liked. None of the pieces here commits such a sin. Those that come closest are expertly steered away from the precipice by Reznek’s innate musicality.
Troubled Narratives and Forking Paths
The only piece that really bothers me is the first: Neo Muyanga’s Hade, TaTa (Sorry Father). The liner notes reveal programmatic intent. Apparently the piece reflects on the fall of apartheid and, more specifically, the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990. Muyanga attempts a narrative form, tracing Mandela’s leaden footsteps, his freedom and speculates about the man’s internal musings. It’s too nuanced a tale for music to communicate alone. I hadn’t read the programme note before my first listening and wrote the piece off as disjointed. It’s a pleasant work, but for me it struggles to stand up as a piece of music in its own right. It requires programmatic explanation.
Hade, TaTa begins simply and beautifully, evoking a soundscape somewhere between Debussy and Thomas Newman. The moment ‘the prison gates open’ is one of wild incongruence. Within the context of the narrative it’s a momentous and symbolic occasion, certainly worthy of a standout musical event. However, the precise nature of the narrative isn’t evident from the music itself. Stories like this never are, whatever Wagner fans or adherents of topic theory tell you. In Muanga’s piece, the abrupt and jubilant shift sounds, at best, as if some joining material has been mistakenly skipped or, at worst, like an unwelcome intrusion. Either way it undermines the structure of the work. Gradually, this jubilant material establishes itself properly and in a manner concomitant with what went before. There’s a similar rogue shift of tone later when a ‘remembered song’ drifts into the sphere of township jazz. It sounds nice but musically out of place, albeit less disruptively than the gate-opening episode. In both cases the diversions slightly upset the balance of an otherwise understated piece.
Reznek’s recording includes two works by Kevin Volans. A Garden of Forking Paths is extremely pianistic, almost to the point of formula. The composers’ ‘post-minimalist’ style results in something meditative. The music’s goal, it seems, is to morph and stretch until stock pianism emanating from a single point in space transforms into an infinite plane of subtle, colourful harmony.
In contrast, the same composer’s PMB Improptu is flashy on a technical level, but not a musical one. The entire texture is underpinned by purposefully difficult fingerwork, oddly reminiscent of the organ part in Baba o’ Riley. Unevenness here provides much of the work’s interest and its technical challenge. I suspect PMB Impromptu would be great to hear live, where the tension between performer, instrument and score would be corporeally invigorating.
The off-kilter minimalism of PMB Impromptu is picked up again in Blake’s Broken Line. In a fiery display of technical skill, polyrhythms, crossrhythms and sudden shifts of tempo reign supreme. This is the piece on the disc most consistently rich in thick chordal textures and one of the works that could sink into tedium very quickly. Blake wisely keeps it on the move. The title is amply descriptive and explains the work’s inclusion in the programme. Despite all its rhythmic interplay and thick voicing, this is music with a melody-like sense of line. It’s not always clear where that line is going, but Reznek rises to its challenges with wit and vigour.
Blake’s other piece, which carries a political message, confuses me. Seventh Must Fall is supposedly a challenge to orthodoxy. Don’t expect anything on the level of Spahlinger. Blake tries to marry politics and music theory with self-defeating results, although the sound of the final piece is entirely pleasant. Everything hinges on the word ‘seventh’. In traditional tonal music ‘sevenths’ are most associated with a particular note in a chord or, indeed, the chord itself. These are treated as having tension-filled dissonance, which, according to tradition, must be resolved by allowing the seventh to fall. In this sense Blake’s title would be stating the obvious. However, the seventh Blake references is the seventh scale degree, more commonly referred to as the leading note. Leading notes are likewise full of tension. We want them to rise to the note above. That tension is properly resolved by allowing the leading note to ‘lead’ upwards. This is the tradition Blake hopes to subvert.
In a baffling move, however, the music itself steers clear of both definitions of ‘seventh’. Instead Blake writes a chain of resolving 4-3 suspensions and appoggiaturas (you don’t need to know anything about music theory to know that neither of those numbers is a 7). The piece opens with a B falling to an A, which could be interpreted as a leading note falling instead of rising in the key of C. However, the F major harmony makes this reading dubious. There’s no proper tonal context from which we can establish any particular key. So the music might be in C, but we could be in any of the white-key modes just as easily. We do hear C major chords, but there’s no attempt to prepare, lead into or embellish them with sevenths of any kind. Again, Blake gives us (seventh-less) 4-3 appoggiaturas.
Rather than subverting anything, Seventh Must Fall plays entirely to traditional harmonic rules, but, ironically, not the rules relating to sevenths. At best the title is an emphatic glorification of convention. It’s certainly not a call to dissent. Anyone who has doodled around at a piano has probably played similar stock-in-trade chords. They’re nice! But none of this is original and the title is thoroughly misleading. Despite mixed messages, the piece is familiar and agreeable.
A Unified Whole
I don’t want to single out Seventh Must Fall for its ‘failure’ to be original. It’s melancholic tone is perfect for the recording. Besides which, other pieces on the disc have been composed to predefined models as well. None of it really matters. Reznek has conceived a programme that stands as a unified whole, rather than a series of separate works. This is a complete listening experience whose quality is confirmed by its ability to absorb different musical styles without any feeling like diversions or novelties. Even David Earl’s schmaltzy Song Without Words feels at home, along with his differently sentimental Barcarolle. The disc’s other Barcarolle – Peter Klatzow’s allusion to late Viennese Romanticism, subtitled Arnold Schoenberg in Venice – fits just as snugly in Reznek’s programme, even if it does sound more like Berg than Schoenberg.
This recording is a fabulous opportunity for character exploration. The interesting cast of pieces, with its divergent personalities, is probably the most obvious avenue for such an exploration. But there’s also ample chance for Reznek to survey the nuances of her playing in a personal, inviting and ultimately persuasive way. Five Miniatures by Rob Fokkens – a delightful collection of vignettes – showcases this process in a self-contained microcosm, flickering between rich, velvety textures, brilliant tones and intriguing rhythmic interplay. Most importantly, Reznek can do all this while expressing, through entirely musical means, how important this repertoire is to her – a sort of love letter that writes itself. This is a celebration of Reznek’s South African roots, music connected with South Africa and works that have impacted her own life. It’s hard to imagine her finishing the final piece – David Kosviner’s self-consciously African Mbira Melody II – without a radiant smile on her face.
On From My Beloved Country Renée Reznek serves up honesty, celebration and reflection in equal measure. The result is charming, thoroughly enjoyable and refreshing.
From My Beloved Country is released on 31 March 2017 on the Prima Facie label.