Modernist Poet of the Piano
Despite a slumping music industry, Naxos continues to exhibit an admirable commitment to alt-classical composers and musicians. The debut of the label’s “Artist Profile Series” is a case in point. It’s a multi-disc box set featuring the phenomenal Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat, who is arguably the leading exponent of contemporary classical music on his chosen instrument. Van Raat is one of a select few musicians who combine dazzling technical virtuosity with a rare ability to connect with the emotional core lurking within even the most angular and dissonant compositions. Listening to him play, one never gets the impression of rote familiarity, but a sense that he’s discovering the music for the first time. His mastery of texture, harmony and rhythm is nothing short of breathtaking. He intuitively knows when to be aggressive, and when to throttle back. And he plays with an astonishing and affecting lyricism that belies the notion that modern music is by definition inaccessible. Even as he interprets the most aggressive and complex modern composers, van Raat effortlessly conjures entry points for the most timid listeners. There are five discs in this box set, four devoted to individual—and individualistic—composers (John Adams, John Taverner, Frederic Rzewski and Magnus Lindberg), and a bonus disc that alternates interview excerpts with van Raat’s interpretations of pieces by Toru Takemitsu, Charles Ives, William Bolcom, Olivier Messiaen, and several others. The Q&A snippets offer fascinating insights into the creative process, as van Raat reveals how certain pieces of music have actually changed him as a pianist. From Takemitsu’s “A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden,” for example, he heard new sound colors that caused him to rethink his approach to his instrument. “When you think of the piano, you think of black-and-white keys, and also, in a way, of black-and-white piano sounds. But this orchestration made me realize the enormous amount of colors that you could basically imitate on the piano....So from the moment I heard Takemitsu, I knew that that was something for me to strive for in my piano playing, to get all those gradations of color in my own playing.” Whether discussing music or playing it, van Raat communicates an infectious enthusiasm, plus a deep-seated intellectual and emotional curiosity, that make him one of the most sensitive performers and proponents of alt-classical music today.
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