June 15, 2012
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After releasing a stunning collection of piano covers of Nobuo Uematsu’s music as his first album with the well-known classical music label Deutsche Grammophon, young piano virtuoso Benyamin Nuss returns with another solo piano album titled Exotica. Rather than the safe classical releases that labels tend to push for with their younger pianists, Nuss again opts to release a more unconventional album, this time focusing on a variety of composers with the intent of presenting a collection of songs that span the globe. Most of the songs are from 20th and 21st century composers, with a few new compositions for the album from Nuss and video game composer Masashi Hamauzu. Many of the songs do not have an overt stylistic link to their associated country, but rather have a thematic connection and use impressionism to convey their subjects. Despite so much varied material, Nuss holds the album together with great performances that tap into the stories being told in each song.
Providing an overarching structure of sorts, the three movements of Debussy’s “Estampes” take spots at the beginning, end, and middle of the album. “La soirée dans Grenade” is the first on the album, conjuring images of Spain with its soft guitar strumming imitation and use of the Arabic scale. Nuss expertly handles both the tranquility of evening and the excitement of nightlife in Granada depicted by Debussy, with appropriate sensitivity and flair for both moods as they switch from one to the other abruptly. The pieces that follow also bring up strong images, this time for Brazil. Nuss provides a stellar interpretation of three of Milhaud’s “Saudades do Brasil”, carefully balancing the polytonality of the melody and accompaniment while also playing evocatively and mysteriously. His tempi and dynamics are kept more reigned in than many existing interpretations, allowing the listeners to join in the seductive dances rather than having them simply observe the show.
Although Nuss’s virtuosity is displayed in many other aspects throughout the album, it would be a shame if he didn’t get to play his youth card while tackling some famously difficult pieces. Nuss takes on the outer movements of Ginastera’s “Danzas Argentinas” at breakneck speeds, keeping it all coherent where it could easily be muddled and messy. “Jardin sous la pluie” shows off Nuss’s ability to highlight a melody amidst a torrent of accompaniment that Nuss plays both ferociously and delicately as the piece calls for without missing a beat. Then there is Balakirew’s “Islamey”, which was once largely considered the most difficult solo piano piece. Nuss plays the technical marvel at a strong pace with great articulation, while also bringing out the musicality of the piece. The performance is playful, furious, charming, dazzling, and overall utterly captivating. It ranks among the best performances of the piece, and is sure to be the envy of his contemporaries. It would be easy for any pianist to get caught up in the spectacle of these pieces, but Nuss is able to play skillfully while also bringing out all of the different emotions and images present with a maturity far beyond his years.
A number of slower, more subdued pieces are included on the album as well. Nuss provides a fine interpretation of “Clouds” by Griffes, with a soft airy touch that carries his listeners through the sky with him. The tension-filled “Danza de la moza donosa” builds up beautifully under the wistful melody to a strong and emotional climax (though it might be perhaps too strong for some). “Les tours de silence à Bombay” ventures into darker territory, presenting to listeners the experience of visiting a dakhma with a befitting sadness and gloom. A highlight of the album is the lesser known “Dance Ghazal”, which Nuss plays at a perfect tempo and dynamic to reflect the longing for a love that is out of reach. Nuss shows a good amount of restraint and artistry by including these pieces on the album, which are rarely recorded by other pianists despite being very enjoyable and understated works with a lot to say.
The pieces that are of most interest are the new pieces by Nuss and Hamauzu, all representing Japan. Nuss’s pieces are both dedications, the first a short but sweet prelude that makes no attempt at overplaying any sort of schmaltz. The second is a tribute to those involved in the Fukushima disaster that can easily draw tears. Here, Nuss avoids the typically bleak emotions found in elegies and opts for a more reflective work that emphasizes the lives of the people rather than the drama of the disaster. In other words, the best kind of tribute. Jonne Valtonen makes an appearance on the album with his take on the Fukushima elegy. This arrangement is a sharp contrast to Nuss’s version, being much more grandiose and risky. In the end it works very well, offering a breathtaking take on the original without stepping over it. Hamauzu’s contribution “Sanzui” is an impressionist suite with a focus on water and conceptual images of Japan. The three movements carry very distinct atmospheres, but each has a sense of freedom and exploration, akin to water as it spreads through a new environment. Countless shapes and images can be drawn from these captivating works, made possible by Nuss’s energetic performances.
Benyamin Nuss masterfully guides his listeners through a musical journey on Exotica. His playing has clarity with great balance and technical proficiency, even up to some of the most challenging works that exist for solo piano. Nuss depicts his subjects with maturity, and shows a strong understanding of the composers’ intent in each piece. The inspired track list alone is enough to make this a unique album, but Nuss goes a step further and provides novel interpretations of several of the pieces, crafting a gorgeous new world to explore for all listeners. The new compositions by Nuss and Hamauzu are great treats, standing up to the better known works on the album. With all of this matched by crisp recordings and great sound production, Exotica truly is a must-have album. The physical copy is worth the cost over a digital edition, as it also includes an extensive essay detailing all of the composers and the stories behind the pieces. Admittedly, the album is rather far removed from video game soundtracks, but anyone who enjoys solo piano work or Nuss and Hamauzu’s previous work should check it out.
While there is no dedicated book of sheet music for the album, the score for the “Sanzui” suite can be purchased here. Sheets for most other works can be purchased separately at various locations.
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Posted on May 11, 2014 by Christopher Huynh. Last modified on May 11, 2014.