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Murail & Castiglioni

Tristan MURAIL Complete Piano Music

Comme un oeil suspendu et poli par le songe... (1967)
Estuaire (1972)
Territoires de l’Oubli (1977)
Cloches d’adieu, et un sourire... (in memoriam Olivier Messiaen) (1992)
La Mandragore (1993)
Les travaux et les Jours (2003)

Marilyn Nonken

Metier MSV CD92097 ( 2 CDs for the price of one 1; 57:31 + 39:19)

An important CD for all lovers of the piano; it gave me a thrill comparable to first hearing, decades ago, the Kontarsky LPs of all Stockhausen's piano pieces.

Tristan Murail (b. 1947) explores the piano itself, finding within its resonance, and bringing inescapably to our ears, harmonics and microtones - notes to hear although they have not been played - the supposed unavailability of which compounds the instrument's reputation as an equal-tempered anachronism, little changed since its heyday in the 19th Century.

Murail does not epouse the modern fashionable 'tortures' of the precious instrument; clusters (Cowell) preparations (Cage) using the piano's case and pianist's body for their percussive possibilities (Rzewski) electrical distortion (Stockhausen), nor does Nonken have to delve into its innards to 'scrape and pinch' the strings; how ungainly pianists often look doing so!

Whilst I don't despise the results of any of those innovations, Tristan Murail (aided essentially by a silent environment and superb studio recording) shows us through the fingers and pedalling of Marilyn Nonken that the equal-tempered instrument remains 'a vast reverberating chamber' with sonorities 'rich and complex, bursting with harmonics, and naturally untempered'.

There are mostly short pieces, whose sensual beauty and harmonic language does not disguise its origin in the French tradition of Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen, that making most of the pieces comfortable and accessible to sceptical listeners. Cloches d'adieu, et un sourire... (in memoriam Olivier Messiaen) and La Mandragore, Murail's tribute to Ravel, are good starting points.

The largest work, nearly half an hour long, is the Territoires de I'Oubli (1977) in which the pedal is held down continually; creating 'waves of sound' which rise to overpowering power - "Territoires de I'Oubli literally brutalizes the instrument (it is not unusual for strings to break during performance)" writes Dr Nonken.

Her notes (she is a widely published writer and edited Performers on Performance (Contemporary Music Review) are lucid and interesting, as is Murail's own essay Can one still write for the piano today? (translated by Sadie Harrison).

Castiglioni piano music

Whilst I've chanced my arm to propose Murail's as music for everyone, Niccolo Castiglioni's piano music (Metier MSV 92089, TT 59:50) received in the same post) has a more limited appeal.

"Whimsical and allusive - - icy, glittering - - fastidious" (says Michael Finnissy). Castiglioni favours high registers and brittle clarity, with a penchant for repetition "like the stuck grooves of ancient gramophone-records" which I found frankly irritating.

Teachers however should look at the imaginative Come io passo l'estate' childrens pieces (Ricordi).

I have been pleased to note how far Sarah Nicholls has come on since the Contemporary Piano Competition 2000. I enjoyed her collaboration with Sarah Leonard in Dallapiccola at the Italian Institute and it is perhaps a pity that one of their contributions to a recent Castiglioni concert there was not incorporated in this CD to provide more variety and longer playing time.

This is neat and accomplished playing, well recorded. Will Sarah be recording the Berio sonata which she premiered in UK?

© Peter Grahame Woolf