Fernandez/Irmer: Ebro Delta
Agusti Fernandez (piano), Christoph Irmer (violin)
Violin and piano duets may come as standard in classical music, where the sonata format was king for so long, but in free improvisation it's a surprisingly unusual pairing. Perhaps that's because there are relatively few really good improvising violinists, or because those who play that instrument prefer to avoid the classical associations by playing with drummers or large groups. Whatever the reason, it's good to hear Irmer and Fernandez teaming up here to create something inventive and endlessly fascinating with that august combination.
Irmer, whose discrete presence on this year's Statements Quintet release on Leo will recommend this disc immediately to those who know, sounds as if the rosin on his bow is an inch thick. He has that biting tone which can so easily, in the wrong hands, turn into something unpleasantly grating. It's all the more surprising, then, that his tone is so inviting. Unafraid of the rasping extended techniques you'd expect in a free improvised setting, he seems to miraculously avoid anything which would set your teeth on edge. This, combined with his straighter playing which proudly refuses to conceal its classical roots, makes his playing flexible and organic, light-fingered and colourful, but always moving in a decisive direction. I compared his work on the earlier Leo disc to Mat Maneri's: in this more exposed setting, his differences from that player could hardly be more pronounced.
Fernandez, too, sounds as if he comes from a classical background. He too is able to use extended techniques, getting inside the piano and attacking the strings and even the wood to create noisy textures, but like Irmer his more extreme playing is embedded in a note-based sensibility drawn from Bartock, Hindemith and Messiaen. This doesn't make for tame or boring music; far from it. There's less tension between the two approaches than the production of a kind of spectrum which either player can occupy differently at different moments.
What this isn't is a part of a tradition which seems to be emerging of Romantic improvisation, music which rediscovers the conventional markers of "emotion" or "expressivity" in less severe traditions without the intention of simply pushing buttons or being more accessible. No, this is quite a cool album, characterised by austere gestures rather than expansive ones. That kind of music, like any kind, is sometimes successful and sometimes not. It's risky, because it bets everything on those gestures, and the interactions between the players, being interesting enough in themselves.
Fortunately, the bet pays off. This is a remarkably successful pairing, not only because Irmer and Fernandez are individually very good players, nor only because together they exchange ideas intelligently without simply mimicking one another, but also because they have the nerve to allow those virtues to speak for themselves. Less confident players might have included compositions, gimmicks, overbearing experimentalism or overstated expressivity, and the outcome would probably have been less favourable. As a concentrated burst of musical intelligence, this disc is absolutely first rate.