by Walter Simmons
KILLMAYER: Nocturnes (to John Field). SCRIABIN: Sonata No. 10. Three Etudes, Op. 65. FISER: Sonata No. 4. Volker Banfield, piano. WERGO WER-60081, produced by Ulrich Kraus
This is an astounding record, and commands interest on many levels. Volker Banfield is a brilliant German pianist in his mid-30s who studied in the United States and has now returned to his own country. Not only do the pieces selected for this recording have great merit in their own right, but as a group they share a common aesthetic thread: each, in its own way, delves into dark, eldritch psychic realms. Banfield performs these works—each monstrously difficult, both technically and musically—with complete pianistic mastery and with unflinching interpretive conviction, making the entire record a complete, awe-inspiring artistic whole.
Wilhelm Killmayer (b. 1927) is probably the most fascinating composer in West Germany today. Wergo has released a number of his highly original, enigmatic works, as has Colosseum, another German company (see Fanfare 11:2, p. 72). Independent of any contemporary-music clique, other than the disparate group that might be termed “meditative metaphysical seekers” and includes Miloslav Kabeláč, Andrzej Panufnik, and others, Killmayer’s music displays impressive psychological depth as well as consummate control of musical materials. One clearly senses in Killmayer a powerful and individual creative mind. These 1975 Nocturnes are haunting quests in and around the rhetoric of romanticism. Familiar 19th-century phraseology slides in and out of focus like the unsettling shifts of perspective in a dream, creating at times an almost Jekyll/Hyde effect. These pieces leave far behind the superficially similar crazy quilts of Rochberg, Bolcom, and others, whose work appears as amateurish gimmickry by comparison. The primary impressions of Killmayer’s five Nocturnes are of poetic mood-paintings; the echoes and glimpses of earlier styles provide a secondary level of fascination. Pianist Banfield’s projection of these extraordinary pieces fulfills the challenges of the music, and he plays them as if they were acknowledged masterpieces, as indeed he should.
The jacket describes Volker Banfield as a specialist in the piano music of Scriabin, and his performances of these works, all among the most excruciatingly difficult of Scriabin’s demonic late pieces, confirm the claim beyond a doubt. I am one who feels that Scriabin’s great visionary impetus was matched by a compositional technique fully capable of consummating his intuitions into satisfying artistic entities, both large and small. But one of the reasons Scriabin’s skill is so often discredited is that few pianists possess the musical intelligence necessary to distinguish the kaleidoscopic textural threads according to their relative importance, while simultaneously retaining the unifying rhythmic sweep. I have witnessed pianists such as Richter and Horowitz fail to penetrate the pieces on this disc with the fluent comprehension that Banfield demonstrates.
Rounding off the record is the Piano Sonata No. 4 of Czech composer Lubos Fišer. Fišer, now in his mid-40s, is one of the more intriguing members of the group of Czech composers who seem to focus on the musical expression of the macabre. (Listen, for example, to Fišer’s virtually insane Crux for violin and percussion on Panton 11-0351.) The Piano Sonata No. 4, based on the opening motif of Scriabin’s Sonata No. 10, is pure Fišer. Not overly impressive on a structural level, the work is a string of episodes that evokes a menacing sense of terror through sharp, brittle outbursts, sinister ostinatos, and sudden dynamic contrasts. While not as sophisticated as Killmayer or Kabeláč, Fišer produces some stunning gestures and effects. Again Banfield presents the music in the most forceful, convincing way, concentrating on the dynamic extremes, powerful sonorities, and brittle articulation.
This is one of the most compelling records of piano music I have ever heard. Not only do I recommend it to those voracious contemporary-music enthusiasts, but also to every devotee of serious piano music and of intelligent pianism. With great eagerness I await more opportunities to appreciate Banfield’s artistry through further explorations of visionary piano literature. Wergo, new distributed in the U.S. by both German News and European American Music, has provided a fine sonic canvas for Banfield. Sound quality is rich and full; surface noise is minimal.