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Pictures - The 12 Pianists / Die 12 Pianisten

Release Date: 02/26/2013 
Label:  Ars Produktion   Catalog #: 38125   Spars Code: DDD 
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

PICTURES Die 12 Pianisten; Karlsruher Schlagzeug Ens ARS PRODUKTION 38125 (65:07)

MUSSORGSKY (arr. Ishikawa) Pictures at an Exhibition. YOSSIFOV Toccata. SCHNYDER Shourouk. BIZET (arr. Ishikawa) Carmen-Fantasie “Habanera.” Read more class="COMPOSER12">TUREK _kein liebeslied. ROSSINI (arr. Wrede) Tell-Ouvertüre

What a delightful CD! In fact, the needle went completely off the end of my fun-o-meter. Given that there is little repertory for an ensemble of this size and make-up, most of the pieces the group plays are arrangements—and clever ones—specially made for them. The shtick of the capital-challenged group, die 12 pianisten, is that its members do much more than just play the piano in the conventional way: Some of them play inside the piano, while others play outside, or engage in the antics of “handing off” the keyboard to each other, sliding down the bench, and taking over an intricate line from another member of the group. I’ve seen one or two of their YouTube videos, and it’s all most amusing, and leaves me wishing that they had made a DVD version of the present CD.

What I hear, however, is perhaps all the fun that my 63-year-old heart could withstand, so I am quite content with an audio version of this program. As you undoubtedly know by now, if you’ve read my Pictures reviews with any frequency, Mussorgsky’s masterpiece is pretty much idiot-proof, and has survived some very inept attempts at arranging it. This one, though, was done by someone, Noriko Ishikawa, who is much closer to the “genius” end of the spectrum than the “idiot.” Her arrangement, scored for six pianists and percussion, is brilliantly rendered, and is a delight from beginning to end. The first promenade is scored primarily for pianos, apparently just a solo piano at the beginning. The percussion makes a noticeable and grand entrance at the beginning of “Gnomus,” with a secco clash of the cymbals, and Ishikawa’s use of percussion continues in spectacular fashion from that point onwards. The melodic line of “Il vecchio Castello” is given to the vibraphone and then marimba, and one hears a beautiful change of color in measure 80 of that same movement. One of my favorite moments comes in the “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks,” where in mm. 5 ff, there is a dampening of the piano strings in the ascending line of the left hand. This, much more than Ravel’s pizzicato, sounds like hens clucking or pecking. It’s absolutely delightful, and is my favorite track on the CD.

Other striking percussive effects abound, including a cimbalom-like effect in the “Schmuÿle” section of the two Jews. I suspect this effect is produced very much like the sounds on the cimbalom, which is played by striking the strings with mallets. A particularly spooky effect comes at the beginning of “Catacombae,” where a rubber ball is slid across a tam-tam. I guarantee you’ve never heard anything like this! The percussionists get so worked up at the end of “Limoges” that they sound very much like a gamelan orchestra.

The half-dozen pianists involved in this piece also play brilliantly, incorporating extra contrapuntal lines here and there. Three instances occur in mm. 60 ff in “Gnomus,” throughout the fifth promenade, and in a rather spooky fashion as descending lines in “Con mortuis.” A particularly stunning effect comes in the middle section of “Baba-Yaga,” around measure 98, where the pianists add a series of pronounced dissonances to Mussorgsky’s harmonies. It’s not at all out of place in this wild arrangement.

Only in a few places does the arranger miscalculate. She begins “Byd?o,” à la Rimsky-Korsakov, very quietly, causing what should sound like eight oxen straining to sound more like seven swans a-swimming. I also think that her reversion to solo piano in the chorale section of “Great Gate” (mm. 64 ff) sounds out of place in the otherwise bell-rich setting. These are but minor miscalculations in an otherwise extremely imaginative and entertaining arrangement.

The other pieces on the CD make a good impact, too. These include the Toccata of Bulgarian composer Alexander Yossifov, a driving exercise with frequent outbursts in the percussion, the Arabian Overture “Shourouk” by Swiss-born Daniel Schnyder, with its exotic rhythms and augmented seconds, not to mention the imitation of the Arabic darbuka drum by a rhythmic striking of a prepared lowest piano string. Then there’s the Ishikawa-enhanced version of Bizet’s (or to be a purest, Yradier’s) “Habanera” from Carmen, which requires much switching of players on the piano bench (one has to imagine this), along with the use of castanets and tambourine to complete the effect. Given that it’s scored for 24 hands and only two pianos, you can imagine that there would be no way to get all those digits onto one keyboard at the same time, thus the alternation.

The CD is rounded out with the kein liebeslied of group member Thomas Turek, who apparently shares E. E. Cummings’s anti-capitalist views in his titles. The piece is a lovely sentimental miniature that owes something to the tango form and style. Closing the proceedings, is a transcription of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, another piece full of good humor and surprises.

This well-recorded and performed CD ought to win some kind of award for something, but I’m not sure what: Inventiveness? Uniqueness? How about the David DeBoor Canfield Award for In-Your-Face Brashness? Whatever, do acquire this CD for a musical experience that is sure to lift you up from the deepest doldrums.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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