The cello and piano
have long since been regarded as complementary instruments,
and the two combine to stunning effect with the release of
this 1997 album by Norwegian pianist
Ketil Bjørnstad and
American cellist David Darling.
Darling is no stranger
to such collaborations, having worked with Canadian pianist
and inaugural Narada artist Michael Jones on a number of
projects in the late 80s. Bjørnstad, meanwhile, is better
known for his jazz compositions, and this work is definitely
a departure from his usual territory. The pianist is,
however, classically trained, studying in London, Paris and
It was whilst recording
the quieter moments of this album's predecessor, ‘The Sea’
(in Bjørnstad's words, music that was "often raging") that
creative opportunities for developing more sedate music came
to light. The approach Bjørnstad took was to study music
from the late renaissance, in particular that of English
composer William Byrd and composer, organist and choir-boy
Orlando Gibbons, and to try and ‘translate’ this into a
modern idiom. However, as Bjørnstad points out, "Byrd was to
inspire specifically only Parts I and III, and Gibbons Part
XII.... Byrd's bright ‘Qui Passé’ posted a direction, yes.
Then the music began to flow."
The end product,
therefore, is an album with classical moments, but is
otherwise difficult to define. Contemporary Instrumental
would seem to be the best description.
What I like most about
this album is the respective roles the piano and cello take.
The cello usually serves to embellish the melody from the
piano and, although its presence is felt, it is never
overwhelming. The piano is the instrument in charge here.
The track titles-
simply Roman Numerals- offer no hint as to the inspiration
behind each track or what is happening; that is left
entirely to the listener.
The CD opens with the
renaissance-inspired ‘I’. Calming, sedate music. The cello
actually has a greater role in this composition, partnering
the piano with glorious results. The piece sets the high
standard for what awaits the listener.
One of my favourite
tracks is ‘II’. Minimalist piano combined with exquisite
cello playing, the cello really adding atmosphere to the
piece. It is simply gorgeous.
The third track is more
of a period piece. It is short, almost hymn-like.
Definitely my favourite
track on the entire album is ‘IV’. Assuming The River is its
meaning in the literal sense rather than being
representative of the symbolic journey of life, the river
here is in full flow, heading perhaps towards a destructive
waterfall. This is one of those pieces which is totally
enhanced by the presence of both instruments, and I don't
think would work nearly as well with solo instrumentation.
With the piano capturing the rapid movement of the water
downstream, the cello serves to add an element of imminent
danger, of risk, giving the piece a feeling of uneasiness.
It is a simply wonderful track that succeeds at every level.
‘V’ starts off very
darkly. Foreboding in fact. After around 1:30, the piece
changes, and just as a river might evolve and change its
path, so does this track. Around a minute and a half later,
the listen is returned to the deep, deep notes from both
instruments. All is not well! And it is this constant
changing of mood that makes this piece gripping from start
to finish. Dare the listener imagine what might be
Another of my favourite
tracks comes in the form of ‘VI’. The waters are calmer
here. As I listen, I can imagine the light from the morning
sun dancing and glistening like a thousand jewels from the
steady flow of crystal-like water. This really is a
The seventh track is a
length piece, quite mournful in feel. Dark and brooding.
Unsettling in some respects, it is nonetheless very
I love the unorthodox
cello playing by Darling during track eight. The piece
quickly becomes more intense. The cello takes more of lead
here than in other pieces. The track is basically devoid of
melody and is more of an atmospheric sound-scape. It's
unusual, challenging and yet rather engaging. I wouldn't be
surprised if this had a larger degree of improvisation than
in other pieces. Refreshingly original, it's out there on
Track ‘IX’ is another
lengthy composition and, whilst still retaining an element
of darkness, is lighter in tone. The piano is back in
The tenth track is more
buoyant- uplifting almost! This comes as a welcome relief to
the listener, and the ensuing piece is a melodic affair,
lasting a little over three minutes in duration. The waters
are settled once more. The danger has passed. All is well.
The album's penultimate
track, ‘XI’ has a very slow tempo and is very minimalist in
form. Perhaps the river has run its path. I love the spaces
between the notes. This really is a delightful piece of
music, and one that should be savoured.
A very short track
closes the CD. This is the composition inspired by Orlando
Gibbons. It is a lovely way to end. The river's journey is
Lovers of piano and
cello should definitely seek out this CD. The recording
quality, in keeping with ECM's reputation, is top-notch.
Although both men are credited on the cover, the
compositions are written by Bjornstad. Readers may be
interested to know that the album was recorded in June 1996
in Oslo, Norway, and was engineered by Jan Erik Kongshaug
and produced by Manfred Eicher. The two musicians went on to
produce a further collaboration ‘Epigraphs’ in 2000.
I spotted this CD by
chance in HMV at Oxford Circus in London. I was curious and,
as I was unable to listen to samples, phoned a friend who
listened for me. She, in turn, gave it her seal of approval
and the purchase was made. I am very glad I made that call.
‘The River’ is a superb
CD from start to finish. A collaboration made in heaven.