Hauschka - Foreign Landscapes [Fat Cat - 2010]Hauschka is one Viktor Bertelmann, a classically trained contemporary German artist known primarily his work on the prepared piano. "Foreign Landscapes", however, is an album of traditionally orchestral chamber music, which features the prepared piano on only a couple of occasions. It consists of 12 pieces which are quite short by traditional classical standards.
Upon first listen I immediately notice this album has a bone dry, 'hands-off' production that does not do justice to the orchestral timbres or the compositions. It's distracting to a lover of ear candy and well recorded string sounds like myself. It requires work to immerse myself in the notes themselves.
Once, I do, I find pleasing harmony, tension and emotion in the pieces. The orchestration and interplay of the instruments is lovely, dominated often by horn chorales and regal, staccato brass unison lines. The playing is skillful, if restrained. The music is somewhat unadventurous, and often quite conventionally cinematic, perhaps better suited to a photograph of daily life on a quiet city street than the actual cover of the album, an austere, abstract monochrome sketch in a cubist / modernist style.
Hauschka's style produces some true gems. "Mount Hood" is something particularly special. A ghostly prepared piano, more audible here than anywhere else on "Foreign Landscapes", casts a veil of drifting strangeness over a mournful minor key arrangment arrangement as Bertelmann imitates the rhythmic irregularity of wind with his playing. It's easy to imagine wandering just below the rocky summit of a weathered mountain. Another piano performance (this time solo), "Early in the Park", includes a few 'prepared' sounds as subtle percussive accompaniment to the florid, clean notes of the melody, and feels more sincere and unabashedly emotive than the rest of the album, largely because Bertelmann himself is a more animated, expressive performer than the orchestral players he has trusted most of the album with.
The whole of "Foreign Landscapes" plods along at a monotonous pace, as the tempo changes and rhythmic elasticity so vital to emotional expression in classical music is mysterious missing from this music. There are, of course, slightly slower pieces like "Snow" to compliment upbeat numbers like the opener "Alexanderplatz" (which just screams to be included in the opening scene of an artful, cute indie romance flick), but within each track's 3 to 5 minute running time, little about the tone, feeling, density or intensity of the music changes. These tracks could have been performed to a metronome.
Bertelmann seems to struggle with developing his ideas; excessive repetition of themes happens in nearly every track, and the structures of the songs border on formulaic verse / chorus / verse. The mix has also been noticably compressed, which means that unlike most classical recordings, there are virtually no dynamics here.
All in all, "Foreign Landscapes" is a two dimensional classical recording that lacks the subtlety of the masters both in composition and performance. There are enjoyable moments and aspects, such as the pleasing instrumental blend, but there's something wooden and tiresome about it all. Perhaps these compositions would have sounded better as solo performances for the prepared piano. It's good that Hauschka is trying to branch out from his main instrument, but in my opinion he is still in a rough early phase of his development as a classical composer. I would likely prefer his works for prepared piano