Pictures in a Gallery

ALL MUSIC GUIDE (USA)


John Wolf Brennan: Pictures in a Gallery
solopiano - live in Lucerne and St.Petersburg
(Leo Records LR CD 464, 2006)
****(*)

Most of the music on this album was recorded live at the Rosengart Collection in Lucerne (Switzerland), where John Wolf Brennan performed solo piano improvisations surrounded by the works of modernist painters such as Picasso, Kandinsky, Miro and Klee. Prior to the performance, the pianist had studied some of the paintings, taking notes and visualizing ideas that could be translated to the piano. The result is a series of short improvisations inspired by these paintings. There is an obvious, albeit easy connection to be made with Mussorgsky's solo piano suite "Pictures at an Exhibition," but the connection is confined to a conceptual level only.

Musically speaking, Mussorgsky and Brennan could hardly be further apart. In this performance, Brennan focuses on concise ideas exploring contrasting textures and techniques. There is ample use of piano preparations (to great effect in the "Picasso Triptych"), a couple of duets with a pre-recorded part ("O pen, to be" and "You Can't Be Sirius!"), and even a melodica improvisation over a pre-recorded variation on Steve Reich's "Violin Phase" ("Paraph(r)ase"). Most of the "Picasso Triptych," "Klee Pentagram" and short pieces in between are angular and make use of the percussive quality of preparations and tone clusters. In the second half of the Lucerne performance (tracks 13-19), things get more melodious, even lyrical, with the introspective "Anyway - was there ever nothing?" (the longest track here at over six minutes) and the quiet "Meditation on a Medieval Song."

The last quarter of the album features a solo piano performance recorded three years earlier in St. Petersburg, Russia. Seven of the eight tracks in that section are grouped under the title "Pushkin Heptagon" -- we have left the realm of visual arts to turn to literature -- and feature more of Brennan's unusual prepared piano. The disc ends with a touching rendition of Sergey Kuryokhin's "The Last Waltz," which Brennan had previously recorded for his 1995 release The Well-Prepared Clavier. More varied than that earlier solo piano album, Pictures in a Gallery captures Brennan at his very best: moving, creative, surprising, relevant. This is one of the best illustrations of his skills, craft and art.

by François Couture

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