Piano-Heaven Award Winner:

Montagnola

Bernward Koch

Erdenklang

2008

www.bernwardkoch.de

 

 

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I've always enjoyed the music of Bernward Koch, and his 2005 Real Music album "Walking Through Clouds" remains a favourite of mine to this day. I had been trying to acquire "Montagnola" for quite some time, and was thrilled when, in April 2008, it received a general release on the Erdenklang label in Germany.

A huge attraction of this CD was that it featured the composer playing solo piano (on a Yamaha Grand to be precise). As much as I enjoyed the tracks on "Walking Through Clouds", I always felt that the synthesiser embellishments were an unnecessary addition- Bernward's music is best appreciated in its purest form. When I also heard that the pieces were improvisations, I was mightily intrigued. The end result is an album that is unquestionably a ‘Piano-Heaven’ Award Winner.

"Montagnola" is a series of fifteen piano pieces dedicated to the memory of Hermann Hesse, who was a German / Swiss poet, novelist and painter. Born in 1877, he went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946 and with over 100 million books sold, has become the most widely-read German author. The album is named after the location of Hermann Hesse's eventual death in 1962, where he had spent the last 43 years of his life.

The CD opens with ‘Thank You for Your Love’ and the title of this piece confirms the very personal nature of this CD. Clearly, Hermann Hesse has had a profound effect on Bernward Koch, and this comes across in the music he has composed which is heart-felt to say the least. The first track is reflective at the start, but grows into what I consider to be a celebration of his life.

The album's longest piece (8:15) comes in the form of ‘Montagnola’. On the back cover of the CD, Bernward describes the Swiss location of Hermann Hesse's death as a "beautiful gem". The music created captures what I imagine to be the quiet solitude of this place- certainly the piece is gentle, restful and soothing. Some of the bars remind me of the style of Ludovico Einaudi. The picture below right shows Hermann Hesse strolling in his garden in Montagnola. *1

‘Dream’ is another quite lengthy track, clocking in at over six minutes. It is one of my favourite pieces. Quite upbeat, this is uplifting music- perhaps reflecting on happier moments or envisaging better times in the future. This track has a delightful melody and there are tinges of the great George Winston to be heard.

The CD's fourth track, ‘Little Ark’ is a gorgeous, short composition which delights from beginning to end. It is followed by ‘Peace Will Come’. This track might have been inspired by Hermann Hesse's difficult period during World War One, which saw him face a major crisis in his life and forced him to retreat to Montagnola. The ensuing composition with its low bars suggests troubled times and yet concludes with a sense of optimism; I really like the way in which this piece develops towards its eventual conclusion.

Track six, ‘Norwegian Memory’ is another short composition. It has a beautiful opening, suggesting this must have been a happy time in the writer's life. There is even a brief nod to jazz (just a hint, but it's there!) before the piano sparkles into life once more with a flurry of joyful notes.

I'm intrigued by ‘Playing Children’. The CD's seventh track is just thirty-five seconds long. It has a playful melody, but is there some significance in its length? Perhaps these times were few and far between. It's followed by another fairly short composition, ‘Longing’. A lovely melody gently serenades the listener.

‘Waves of Time’ is one of the more lengthy tracks. The style reminds me a little of Canadian composer Michael Jones (at least initially), with the repetitive right hand. It starts off with a distant feel to it, and the listener is treated to a range of emotions during the piece. The final part is repetitive and has a sense of foreboding.

I'm hard-pushed to select a favourite on this excellent CD, but I think that the tenth track, ‘Maulbronn’, would just about come out on top. I rather suspect that the piece is named after the famous monastery close to the German city of Maulbronn, named Maulbronn Abbey and built in 1147 pictured below right. * 2 This exquisite composition is minimalist in form and reflects the solitude and peace to be found in this place of sanctuary. The piece showcases Bernward Koch at his finest. Uncluttered. Pure. Stunning.

The closing section of the CD is top-notch. Following ‘Maulbronn’, comes another wonderful track, this time entitled ‘Dark’. It's a slow piece, dramatic in parts and, once again, very beautiful.

‘Snow is Coming’ is a fun composition. Beginning with a solitary flake, the weather takes a turn for the worse, and flurries of snow scatter the ground. The snowstorm has arrived. Bernward Koch's playing gives a sense of falling, and the quickening tempo represents the ever-increasing severity of the snow. The fun element to the CD continues with ‘Fountain’. This is an astonishing performance lasting a mere forty seconds. Great swirls of notes played with tremendous energy are unleashed- devoid of melody but highly impressive in their ability to create visual imagery of the track's title.

Coming in a close second place is ‘Black and White’, the album's penultimate track. The opening is stunning, and the piece is a delight for anyone with an appreciation for melody. I find myself wishing this track was longer- it ends quite abruptly and too soon! Still, a good musician always leaves his audience wanting more. And that is how I feel after hearing the closing track, ‘A New Life’ again featuring a lovely tune, with lots of emotions within its 6:17 length, and creating a sense of optimism with which to finish the CD.

This is an outstanding release from the German composer. I hope it reaches a wide audience, like Bernward's previous offering on the USA-based Real Music label. I am amazed these compositions are improvisations; they have the feel of a polished performance, and it is a testament to the undisputed skill of the composer that these unrehearsed pieces are as close to perfection as one could wish. Lovers of heart-felt, deeply personal, reflective and gorgeous piano music should acquire this release. The accompanying CD insert is interesting- it contains a poem by the great man (written in 1941 and entitled ‘Steps’) along with photographs.

Despite passing away nearly half a century ago, I cannot help but feel that Hermann Hesse would be deeply touched by this most befitting tribute. Close examination of the photograph on the album's cover showing a reflective Hesse overlooking his gardens in Montagnola, almost has the novelist nodding his head in approval. Bravo, Bernward. Eine außerordentlich gute Vorstellung!

*1 = Photo from www.Harpers.org

*2 = Photo from www.wikipedia.org

Photo of Bernward Koch taken from his web-site: www.bernwardkoch.de

S.C.

 

 

 

 

 

Montagnola

Bernward Koch

 

 

Bernward Koch

 

 

 

Hermann Hesse

 

 

Listen to

Maulbronn

Click the piano

 

 

 

Inside the monastery.

Maulbronn Abbey