Our Daily Bread 526: Jill Richards/Kevin Volans ‘Etudes’

July 11, 2022

ALBUM REVIEW
Andrew C. Kidd

Jill Richards/Kevin Volans  ‘Études’
(Diatribe Records)

Kevin Volans is probably most famous for the 1984 Kronos reworking of White Man Sleeps. His beginnings in South Africa to the Neue Einfacheit (in English, New Simplicity) of West Germany with the theorist Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose seminal sine-waves and soundscapes shaped the landscape we understand in electronic music today, are well-documented. The Man With Footsoles of Wind, an opera about the enterprise of the influential poet Arthur Rimbaud in Ethiopia, remains very much on my ‘listening wishlist’. Volans is obviously a musicologist. He is undoubtedly a modernist. This is 2022. He has offered us Études, a collection of his own previously unreleased solo piano works performed by Jill Richards and a second-half where he performs Liszt. The listener has been invited into “a sound world” with “extremely complex and challenging arrangements”. There is also an allusion to twenty fingers playing, rather than ten. These are just some of the insights that accompany the liner notes. My following review reflects the two halves of this collection.

Jill Richards plays Kevin Volans

Jill Richards by Graham de Lacy

An étude is a short piece of music that demonstrates skill. The skill is in the composition as well as the performance. Jill Richards, an accomplished pianist and long-standing collaborator of Volans, opens with the Second Étude. It is a rift of split chords and dissociated notation. There are mirroring moments: chords that delve inwards, returning later at varying degrees, but never selfsame. The piece is steady but not stately. It is measured, and open. Throughout this first half, this openness, or rather, these open spaces, are particularly evident on the Seventh Étude where the musical interstices are left unfilled. He also offers more fleeting movements such as the brushed-stabs that flee as harmonic echoes on the Fourth Étude and the alarm-like opening to the First Étude. The latter piece has a walk-around dance motif which toes lightly over the weighty bass clef. Volans opts to juxtapose the tempos of his works on Études. He presses for accelerando whilst raising the reins of decelerando. The icy and pointed Third Étude marks a sudden departure from the glacial kinesia of the Second Étude. The notes of the former rise and fall. Nothing is sequential. There is rhythmic abandonment, best evidenced by the First Étude. The Sixth Étude is an example of anti-meter. It quietly stirs. The Seventh Étude is periodic and concludes by disintegrating completely.

Kevin Volans plays Franz Liszt

Kevin Volans by Jose Pedro Salinar

From the glissandos that flitter away like rippling caustics of light through water on Fountains Of The Villa D’este to the sweeping whorl of Transcendental Étude No 11 Harmonies Du Soir, Volans captures the beauty and rhythmic complexity of Lizst. On Cypresses Of The Villa D’este, a padding crescendo presses and stresses and accentuates. Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Liebestod (from the German, liebe, love, and tod, death) was originally the concluding act to Wagner’s operatic drama, Tristan und Isolde. The famous five-note motif is delicately played by Volans. The lovers are beside one another. The piano slowly grows, the tremolandi becomes stronger, the accelerando pulses, the appassionato intensifies. There is quiet transfiguration in its concluding major key. Here Isolde is weeping over the dead Tristan. The calando that Volans plays out continues to emanate away into the lull and loft of her tears that river and mouth and basin. The theme is solemn, yet the piano notes wave and glint away like sun-glitter. The listener is carried outwards to drift on this sonorous and sonic sea. My water metaphor was inspired by the libretto from Tristan: “ertrinken, versinken, – unbewusst, – höchste Lust!” (in English, “to drown, to founder – unconscious – utmost bliss!”).

I consider Études to be a diptych. Volans showcases his pianistic skill and appreciation of the transformative romanticism of Liszt. There is catharsis in the atonality and arrhythmia of his preceding compositions that blow open like air. In the interstitial spaces of each half, he beckons the listener into darkness, yet ultimately bathes us in light.

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