Piano-Heaven Award Winner:

The River

Ketil Bjørnstad and David Darling

1997

www.keilbjornstad.com

www.daviddarling.com

 

 

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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 Oslo.

 

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 happening?

 

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 beautiful piece.

 

The seventh track is a length piece, quite mournful in feel. Dark and brooding. Unsettling in some respects, it is nonetheless very atmospheric.

 

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 its own!

 

Track ‘IX’ is another lengthy composition and, whilst still retaining an element of darkness, is lighter in tone. The piano is back in charge.

 

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 complete.

 

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.

S.C.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The River

 

The River

Ketil Bjørnstad

David Darling

 

 

 

 

 

David Darling left

Ketil Bjornstad right