Ingrid Karlen: Variations (ECM New Series 1606)

Ingrid Karlen

Ingrid Karlen piano
Recorded January 1996, Schloßbergsaal, Freiburg
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Swiss pianist Ingrid Karlen makes her ECM debut with Variations, of which the program is as provocative as the title is vague. Beyond variations in the traditional sense, these are, rather, mise-en-abymes of abstractions. Or so they might at first aural glance seem, for within these sometimes troubling clusters of false starts breathes a unity at once organic and contrived. Anton Webern’s Variations for Piano, op. 27 (1935/36) is the primary example, for the only variations they seem to engender stem from that which cannot be notated. These pieces behave as might a solo violin sonata, jumping fluidly and bow-like through their ephemeral 12-tone links. They are the anti-motif, a stretch of childhood unable to be sifted.

If these constitute the program’s foundation, then Valentin Silvestrov’s Elegy (1967) is its hollow keystone. Dedicated to ECM regular Alexei Lubimov, this sonic egg is just that: indestructible when pushed from both ends, yet vulnerable to the slightest variation of pressure at its middle. Not unlike the program as a whole, its open spaces are there for us to project our desires and expectations in a space where they will not be judged.

Petrograd-born composer Galina Ustvolskaya is channeled to us via two pieces which, though they make up more than half of the album’s playing time, are selfless constructions. In both the Sonata No. 3 (1952) and the Sonata No. 5 (1986), the sheen of declaration quickly fades in interrupted washes of high/low contrasts hugging a forlorn middle register. Karlen stretches both like freshly dyed cloth in a stream, occasionally beating them against a rock for emphasis. Only at such moments do we realize the heights to which we have ascended. The gentility leading up to these thrashings is all the more swooning for its being whittled at by a blade of intense virtuosity. Ustvolskaya’s music inhabits a fascinating middle ground, neither melodic nor indecipherable, lying somewhere between the permanence of the scar and the ephemerality of the suture.

Where else to end but at the beginning? Pierre Boulez’s Douze notations pour piano (1945) is the composer’s Opus One and reason enough to experience this recital. The sheer depth of dramaturgical whimsy in these little sketches makes for a thoroughly engaging experience, which I can only imagine blossoms a hundredfold at the keyboard.

This daring recital is not the first I would recommend among the growing number available on ECM. This is not a critique, but simply a word of caution to the faint of heart. Still, no matter how convoluted the music becomes, it is never cloudy or obscure. The brilliance of Karlen’s program is to be found in her shaping of negative space, in precisely what is not being played. It is into this extra-musical aspect where I believe she wants to draw our ears. And if we are willing to join her, we might very well find sunlight where only shadows seem to roam.

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