Werner Bärtschi piano
Recorded July 1988 at Kirche Blumenstein, Switzerland
Engineer: Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher
In this ECM debut, Swiss pianist Werner Bärtschi offers up an intriguing and carefully conceived program. Having studied with Klaus Huber and Rudolf Kelterborn, Bärtschi brings a decidedly compositional attention to his playing that lends itself well to the material at hand. He begins with Mozart’s C minor Fantasie (1785), which, as the longest piece, reads like a single human life. It is not a simple reimagining of the past but a reliving of it, for to play the piano is to articulate a biography in sound, using the body in imitation of what bore those same feelings in “real time.” After such a piece, the Four Illustrations on the Metamorphoses of Vishnu (1953) by Scelsi may seem like a startling transition. Yet humble quartet presents us with a rare programmatic gesture from the Italian, whose microscopic approach actually balances out Mozart’s broader strokes and veils the turmoil of mortality behind the surface of the spirit made flesh. Bärtshi surprises us yet again with Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina. This early 1976 version is like a dream we question upon waking: Did we really hear it, or did the music rise in our minds out of an unspoken memory? And so, when we next encounter Mozart in the 1788 B minor Adagio, we hear him with fresh ears and open hearts. Rather that scoping out the Mozartean influence in the surrounding works, we see the latter funneling into the former. Bärtschi follows with a piece of his own, Frühmorgens am Daubensee (1986/88), realized during an early morning hike in the mountains surrounding the eponymous lake. In it we hear snatches of something upon the wind, distant conversations, activities, worldly movements, the beginning of an avalanche that never quite forms. This salves us nicely for the relative onslaught of Busoni’s 1921 Toccata, a masterful yet demanding unfolding of theme and counterpoint. After such a towering cascade of notes, Mozart’s B major Sonata (1783) is like a gentle return, a pair of hands lowering us slowly to the earth, leaving us to slumber in a blanket of solid ground.
Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich provides a beautifully conceived essay which, despite risking an overuse of the word “oriental” (it appears no less than five times in the liner notes), makes a viable case for Bärtschi’s musical choices as being firmly rooted in the spirit of magic and fantasy that engenders the program as a whole. Where Jungheinrich characterizes this as a piano recital of “Mozart and…,” I would go a step further and say it is equal parts “…and Mozart.” yet although Mozart bookends the recital and inhabits its fulcrum, his infrastructural presence is no more significant than the validation of the superstructure. As such, the continuity between these pieces is a narrative rather than formal concern—not a linear continuity, but one in which the potential for speech is equally present at every stage.