Beata Hlavenková: Theodoros
Minority Records

Carlos Cipa & Sophia Jani: Relive
Denovali Records

Stefano Guzzetti: At Home – Piano Book (Volume One)
Home Normal

Has there recently been an abundance of solo piano releases, or is it simply that a large number has crossed my path? The truth no doubt rests somewhere in between: undoubtedly a plentiful number of piano recordings has appeared at my doorstep in recent days, but the number of piano artists also appears to be growing. Maybe it has something to do with a desire for the warmth and humanity the acoustic instrument provides, or maybe it’s merely a reflection of the piano’s status as an era-transcending mainstay whose replenishing voice never fails to satisfy a basic listening need. Regardless, modern-day figures such as Nils Frahm, Francesco Tristano, Hauschka, and Dustin O’Halloran have all helped keep the piano tradition alive, but they’re hardly alone in that regard, as one also could add names such as Stefano Guzzetti, Carlos Cipa, Sophia Jani, and Beata Hlavenková to the ever-growing list.

Though Guzzetti studied electronic music at the Conservatory of Cagliari and produces material under the Waves On Canvas moniker, the Sardinia-based composer wears a different guise on At Home – Piano Book (Volume One), a thirty-three-minute set whose title signifies two things in particular: that it’s the first in a projected series and that its tone might be of a more relaxed nature, given that it was recorded at home. Track titles also allude to the possible character of the music, with “Little Dreams” and “Haiku” hinting that the listener will be presented with a music free of excess and designed for entrancement. And that is certainly what one gets in the lilting opener “To Sleep for a Day,” a melodious set-piece that manages to be stirring despite its concise four-minute length. As lovely is “The Road To You,” a Michael Nyman-esque setting that suggests Guzzetti not only has a soft spot for harmonious material of wistful character but waltz-time pieces, too.

The settings repeatedly vary in mood, and their titles suggestively conjure associative imagery: it’s easy to picture two young, 18th-century lovers running through mist-covered country fields during the dramatic “Escape,” for example. Elsewhere, “Little Dreams” exudes a gently radiant glow, “Harvest” and “Pluvieux” are respectively pensive and elegant, and “Haiku” is not only stripped-down but the shortest, naturally, of the nine pieces. Adding to the release’s appeal is its down-home quality, with ambient noises of the recording setting subtly seeping into the picture now and then.

If At Home – Piano Book (Volume One) plays like a collection of home studies, Theodoros by Czech pianist Beata Hlavenková plays like a formal in-concert presentation. Recorded at the Janácek Conservatoire in Ostrava, Czech Republic, Theodoros (a Greek word meaning “God’s gift”) appears more than four years after the release of her debut album Joy For Joel, the latter named after her first-born son Mathias Joel and the former named with her second son Theodor Eli in mind, and features twelve of her own piano compositions titled after the calendar months. Having studied at the Janácek Conservatoire and the University of Massachusetts, Hlavenková is clearly capable of dazzling the listener with virtuosic technical displays, but for this collection embraces the principle of simplicity in order to emphasize the material’s song-like qualities. That being said, she performs the material with a level of conservatory-level refinement that’s evident in even the least elaborate of the pieces. Her playing is earmarked by a beautiful sense of timing and control, and the pieces, while elegantly performed, lose nothing in the way of intimacy as a result.

Perhaps the album’s best example of her artistry is “Ioúnios,” a beautifully executed rumination that exudes wonder and hope. Listening to rhythm-driven pieces such as “Mártios” and especially “Aprílios,” one also isn’t surprised to discover that Hlavenková has performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival, among other places. In keeping with the calendar months concept, she presents pieces whose moods reflect the changes in the year, with some melancholy (suggesting the lonely quiet of wintry days spent indoors) and others breezy (emblematic of the freedom associated with spring and summer). One’s impression of the recording is enhanced considerably by its presentation: issued by Minority Records on 180 gram vinyl (the album also is available on CD from Animal Music), the release includes a sixteen-page, calendar-styled photo booklet, each copy of which is signed by Hlavenková herself—a detail that makes this excellent release feel all the more special.

Though the piano is the common thread connecting all three releases, Relive is a markedly different project than the other two. It’s a twenty-four-minute EP for starters, but that’s a relatively minor difference. More pertinent is the fact that its two pieces, “Anouk’s Dream” and “Whatever a Sun Will Always Sing,” were written for Carlos Cipa and Sophia Jani’s four hands (specifically for their performance at the 2013 Denovali Swingfest in Essen) and that they executed the material not only by playing in the customary way but by generating sounds from within the piano. The two applied various techniques to its insides, such as plucking the strings with fingers, beating them with objects, bowing them with nylon guitar strings, and creating harmonics while pressing fingers down on the strings during playing.

From the first seconds of “Anouk’s Dream,” the piano’s sound-world extends beyond its familiar realm into one where conventionally struck notes are augmented by shimmering strokes and percussive knocks, resulting in an ongoing dialogue between the reverb-heavy former and the textural latter. Given the piece’s fourteen-minute running time, it doesn’t surprise that it presents multiple shifts in mood and intensity, some aggressive and uptempo and others reflective, even somber. Such transitions never feel forced, however, but arise organically as natural developments along the musical journey. “Whatever a Sun Will Always Sing” begins broodingly, with low notes accompanied by a deep timpani-like rumble, before brighter patterns let the light in, so to speak. Compared to the opening piece, the contrasts are less extreme and the mood more ruminative, but the result is no less satisfying. If anything, the generally ponderous tone of “Whatever a Sun Will Always Sing” affords the listener an opportunity to recover a little bit from the fireworks-like displays of “Anouk’s Dream.” If Guzzetti and Hlavenková remind us once again that the sound of the acoustic piano is sufficiently captivating when presented in its customary form, Cipa and Jani show us that exploiting the instrument’s insides can be an equally viable strategy when it comes to producing music of compelling character.

February 2014