Silfra (CD review)

Hilary Hahn, violin; Volker Bertelmann (Hauschka), prepared piano. DG B0016798-02.

I know what you’re asking: What the heck does “Silfra” mean?  And what exactly is a “prepared piano”? First things first. According to Wikipedia, Silfra refers to an area “located in the ├×ingvallavatn Lake in the ├×ingvellir National Park in Iceland.” It’s “a rift that is part of the divergent tectonic boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates. By virtue of its location in the ├×ingvallavatn, Silfra contains clear, cold water that attracts scuba divers drawn to its high visibility and geological importance; divers are literally swimming between continents. The rift claims a shallow depth nearest to the bank, but deepens and widens further out.” The disc’s booklet note says that the place “is preternaturally still, colored in shades of blue and green not found anywhere else. To snorkel there in a snowstorm is to be suspended in an ancient space, feeling tiny and surrounded in all directions by an unending otherworldly landscape.”

Violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist/composer Volker Bertelmann (who sometimes goes by the alias Hauschka when performing on the prepared piano) took their inspiration from the “otherworldliness” of the Silfra region to compose and improvise the twelve selections on the disc. So, what we’ve got here is an experimental album of music recorded the first time the performers played it. The participants tell us “there were no retakes. These are the moments that brought these ideas to life.”  While it may not be high art, it is mostly appealing. 

Oh, and what is a prepared piano? According to my Random House Unabridged Dictionary, it’s “a grand piano that has been altered for some modern compositions by having various objects attached to its strings to change the sound and pitch, and performance on which typically involves playing the keys, plucking the strings, slapping the body of the instrument, and slamming the keyboard lid.” Sounds kind of wild, no? In this case, not quite. The twelve pieces of music Ms. Hahn and Mr. Bertelmann perform sound sometimes hauntingly beautiful, sometimes frustratingly common, yet continuously fascinating.

The first piece on the program they call “Stillness.” One can understand why. It feels as though it’s simply floating out there in the aether. Unfortunately, it’s very brief, under two minutes, and could have gone on longer.

The second piece is just the opposite of the first. “Bounce Bounce” sounds like an Ozark bluegrass hoedown. The artists tell us they intended the music to represent unrest, a rubber ball bouncing back and forth. I found it rather noisy.

“Clock Winder” was by far more to my taste, a series of sounds like the innards of a clock in motion. It has a strangely disquieting yet vibrantly humorous quality that is quite fetching.

And so it goes. Other tracks include “Adash,” with its weird, occasionally eerie stretches of rhythms and vibrations. “Godot” is, as the name implies, all about waiting, with Bertelmann’s prepared piano playing any number of parts in a quiet conversation with Ms. Hahn’s violin. At a little over twelve minutes, it’s the longest work on the disc.

“Krakow” is the most conventional piece on the program, a lovely melody the performers made in advance of the other music. It is the least gimmicky and sweetest music of the bunch in its lightly melancholy way.

I think you get the idea. Most of the music is serenely forgettable, to be sure, yet its misty, atmospheric, impressionistic visions and its varying harmonies and sensations beg one to listen again. Despite its not being great, classic, or enduring music, it might just be something you find yourself returning to a few times more than you initially anticipated. Of course, it helps to have two world-class artists to bring it all off. Otherwise, it would merely be a couple of people appearing to make it up as they go along.

Recorded and mixed at Greenhouse Studio, Iceland, in 2011, the sound is fine for what it is, with Bertelmann’s piano contraption spread widely across the soundstage and Ms. Hahn’s violin a bit more precisely located. Depending on the tune, the sounds of the instruments can be slightly vague or almost startlingly lifelike. But I don’t suppose the performers intended any of their music to be particularly realistic in any traditional sense, so the oddity of the sonics probably contributes to its overall eccentric, experimental feel.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa