Niels Viggo Bentzon: Solo Piano Improvisations
Niels Viggo Bentzon (piano, prepared piano)
This is a strange proposition indeed. 26 pieces lasting around 40 seconds each, followed by three at around 15 minutes each. That's odd enough, but there's more. Bentzon works in a tonal sound-world of extremely simple, but often slightly surprising harmonies; gentle dissonances creep in, but nothing like you might expect from a composer who premiered in 1939 and worked in a university throughout the heyday of Modernism. What you get here is very subtle statements of themes, most of which might just as well have come from Brahms, except that they go nowhere, hanging in the air like unaffected sketches which never develop into paintings.
That is, the first 26 tracks do this. The extended pieces -- he calls them "symphonic variations", with a little justification -- are less interesting, if less hard to understand, too. The first and third of these are marred by absolutely terrible preparations, turning a resonant grand piano into a buzzing, plastick mess which seriously grates on the ears and seems not to affect Bentzon's playing one iota. That playing is reasonably intelligent, but really it's the sound of a university professor doodling at the keyboard. His technique is sure enough, if rudimentary compared with other improvising pianists, but his overall grasp on the longer pieces is slight. The middle movement, which leaves the piano au naturel, is more successful because Bentzon manages to hang onto an idea and develop it rather than moving from one motif, through variations, to another, to another, and another.
If he had recorded sixty or seventy pieces lasting under a minute, this would be a disk of rather outrageous novelty, and a peculiarly listenable one at that. Perhaps those "symphonic variations" are there to add classical legitimacy to the project, perhaps they're just another side of Bentzon's musical personality. Either way, this is a very long way from the avant gaarde, and it's hard to see just who is going to enjoy it. Certainly not the improvised music camp, who have plenty of top-notch pianists to choose from already, any of whom would send Bentzon scurrying from the stage. And not, probably, the classical community, which either has altogether more ascerbic tastes or prefers is composers long dead.Richard Cochrane