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Angela Boyd
MusicWeb International, January 2009

I really enjoyed listening to this CD of piano music by Sir John Tavener, played by the young Dutch pianist, Ralph van Raat (b. 1978). Potton Hall in Suffolk with the right degree of ambient resonance for these rather ethereal, yet minimal, pieces seems to have been perfect venue for this recording as does the choice of this Steinway piano.

The picture—“Stones” by Olga Lyubkina—on the front of the CD sets the scene appropriately with three rounded—look like granite—pebbles set one on top of the other on a bed of sand, with circular “furrows” or “ripples” around them…gravitating outwards in the style of a Japanese sand garden! An apt visual expression of the sounds of the piano in these Tavener pieces.

Everyone has heard of Tavener and his compositions, but what of Mr van Raat, with his easy-to-remember name, reminiscent of a worth Dutch burgher from school history lessons? Only a little information is available about him. I should mention his studies in Amsterdam, Paris, Helsinki, Chicago and Köln. He has won or been placed highly in several international music competitions, including first prize at the International Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition (1999) and second place for the Donemus Prize for Contemporary Music in the Princess Christina Competition (1995). He has made a name for himself with his contemporary music interpretations in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

The shorter pieces, Zodiacs, Mandoodles and In Memory of Two Cats are full of character and variety, enigmatic and humorous. You can just imagine the cats playing, sleeping in the sun, hunting and sitting on the composer’s lap! Zodiacs is rather quirky in character and has ripples of sound—hence the cover picture!

Mandoodles has glissandi and quotations from Chopin, and is almost jazzy in character then bell-like. Mandu must have been a beautiful cat, aristocratic and refined.

Ypakoe combines delicacy, with and without pedalling and van Raat brings out the contrasts between the delicate and more assertive passages, and the magic of the bell-like sounds. The delivery is clean, precise but imaginative and believable!

Palin is a varied work, with Tavener instructing the pianist to play “like thunder”; “like rippling rapids” and “like swaying bells at sea”. Ralph van Raat does all this and more; he also relishes the silences and combines all these into his performance, as the notes say, like a palindrome.

Pratirüpa is the longest work—nearly 30 minutes—and makes use of magical silences, glissandi and melodies evoking the sounds of carillons and temple gongs illustrating Tavener’s spiritual beliefs. It is long, but relaxed and spiritual…it grows on one slowly, with repeated hearings. The interpretation is elegant and minimalist and the slightly resonant acoustic is perfect for this work.

The CD ends with a quirky little piece: In Memory of Two Cats (1986) which must surely act as a lasting memory of the cats—darting and playing in the sunshine and shadows.

I will look forward to hearing other CDs by Ralph van Raat in this contemporary and minimalist style or others. His interpretations are clear and well-thought out and he plays with style and commitment.

American Record Guide, December 2008

This appears to be the first collection of John Tavener’s piano music, the performances apparently closely coached by the composer and with several revisions to the scores added, according to the pianist’s notes. The music is fascinating and should be of significant interest to pianists looking for interesting new repertoire. ‘Zodiacs’ (1997) is a little bell-like prelude written for the composer’s then-new daughter that serves to open the program. Ypakoë (1997) (Greek for “to be obedient”, “to hear”, and “to respond”) is said to be a meditation on the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Its sections of austere canons, chorales, Greek modality, and pensive reflection do tell a story of some kind, though I’d never guess that the ending stands for a dance celebrating the resurrection.

Palin (1977), short for “palindrome”, is the earliest piece on the program, and the composer’s first piano piece. Composed in a chromatic language typical of that period, the use of repeated notes creates glimpses of the tonal, and the general cosmic atmosphere points forward to later Tavener. The second half of the piece literally mirrors the first, following a (rapidly) repeated low C (shades of Berg’s Chamber Concerto).

Tavener seemed to have lost his pet cats (details undisclosed) in the early 80s, which caused enough grief to inspire two pieces on the program. The first, ‘Mandoodles’ (1982), is named for his first cat, Mandu, who apparently lay around contentedly, jumped about with conviction, and played Chopin. The musical portrayal is ingenious.

Pratirüpa (2003) (“reflection” in Sanskrit) is the most recent piece on the program and the lengthiest at half an hour. It is a patterned sequence of contrasting bits, sometimes poetically reminiscent of Chopin, sometimes strangely recalling Janacek, all interrupted by a crazy refrain consisting of an ascending white-key glissando leading to a hysterical descending chromatic scale in thirds (“outbursts of joy”, according to the pianist). The piece is striking. I could imagine Schumann coming up with something like this (though this certainly doesn’t sound like him). It’s one of the more remarkable works for the instrument written in the last few years. I haven’t heard the version for piano and strings, but I hear the work more as a private revelation. The program closes with a quiet little elegy ‘In Memory of Two Cats’ (1986).

Tavener admirers will need no encouragement to pick this up. I wouldn’t use this as an introduction to the composer, but adventurous pianists need not hesitate. Mr van Raat is beautifully recorded, and the production may be considered authoritative.

Raymond Tuttle
Classical Net, November 2008

…Ralph van Raat…playing is strong and seems to have a decided point of view—these are not “wispy” performances by any means…

…you might find this recording worth your time, as I did.

Pwyll ap SiƓn
Gramophone, September 2008

Edgy Tavener offers pitfalls but this alert pianist finds his way past them

One may not naturally associate Tavener’s luminous iconographic style with the percussive, hard-edged sonorities of the piano, so it may come as something of a surprise that his total output for this instrument is now of sufficient quantity to merit a whole CD’s worth of music.

Tavener’s music often displays an edginess that is absent from some of his most well known works, however, and his predilection for both epic and epigrammatic forms is also reflected in this collection. At one end of the scale lies the recent, large-scale Pratirūpa (Sanskrit for “Reflection”). Here, generative and additive processes are applied to a half-dozen or so musical “ideas”—presented throughout the work’s 30-minute time-span—creating an evolving block-like structure not dissimilar to Messiaen. Van Raat avoids the inevitable pitfalls of wading through the material in desultory fashion by imparting a new lease of life with each sectional repetition, keeping the performance focused and alert.

Interestingly enough, the earliest work on this CD, Palin, composed in 1977, does much the same thing in contrasting dense and chromatically saturated textures with more typically reflective and meditative moments, suggesting that Tavener was already treading a musical path towards consonance at the time of his spiritual conversion around the mid-1970s.

Tavener’s reference to past models is also evident in places. Ypakoë in particular evokes Bach’s contrapuntal language, while Mandoodles (1982) mischievously quotes from Chopin’s A major Prelude. This and the two epigrammatic pieces which frame the CD—Zodiacs and In Memory of Two Cats—ensure that there is plenty of contrast within and between the pieces included on this disc.

Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, August 2008

Sir John Tavener has become something of an icon these days, attaining the ultimate in respectability as Prince Charles’s favourite composer. He is most famous for his choral music, most notably the Song for Athene. This disc collects together a much more intimate aspect of his output that I didn’t know existed. On first hearing it’s a rather puzzling disc, but it repays the effort of repeated listening, particularly with the later works…The Eastern mysticism that Tavener has made his own—he has been a member of the Russian Orthodox church and imbibed its colours into his music—is present in most of these works. He does a good job of using the instrument’s more limited resources to achieve similar effects to those in his larger orchestral and choral works…Ypakoë, for example, has a simple, profoundly spiritual melody which is allowed to sing out towards the middle and end of the piece…Palin, his first piano work, features many instances when one key is sounded frequently and continuously for about 10 seconds at a time…The lighter works on this disc, tracks 4 and 6, are dedicated to the memory of Tavener’s cats, and they see a return to traditional, triadic harmonies. These portraits are affectionate and warm: we even have glissandi to represent the pets running over the keys. Mandoodles contains jazz rhythms and reference to a Chopin Prelude, and In Memory of Two Cats is simple, bell-like and appealing. As with Ypakoë, an austerely beautiful melody is allowed space to sound. It is at moments like these that the disc is at its best and these get their fullest flowering in Pratirūpa, the longest and most recent work here. by the Sufi philosophy that Tavener currently follows, it suggests that the real essence of spirituality soars above any one religion. The title is Sanskrit for reflection and it is in this piece that Tavener’s mastery of musical stasis is most apparent. There is little by way of melody here, but that doesn’t seem to matter as the piano evokes a mood of ethereal stillness, the higher consciousness that Sufi strives towards? The peace is occasionally interrupted by violence, including a moment when the pianist seems to thunder down most of the keyboard three times. It’s here, however, that we get closest to the religiosity of Tavener’s choral works and the evocative immobility can be hypnotic at times. 

All this suggests a sense of development in Tavener’s style, from overt modernism through to a more sophisticated use of harmonies in his later works. The disc—the only one of this music?—is a welcome step in plugging this gap and any of the composer’s fans who want to experience his broader range shouldn’t hesitate. Performances are highly committed and the sound is up to the usual Naxos high standard.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, August 2008

Ralph van Raat John Tavener Piano Music (Naxos): This impressive young Dutch pianist has recorded the entire output for piano of the impressive older English composer…Van Raat deftly conquers the many technical challenges.

James Manheim, August 2008

…this disc performed and nicely annotated by Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat…The album is very nicely recorded…

Jed Distler, July 2008

…Ralph van Raat’s accomplished and fervently committed interpretations sometimes push his instrument to the breaking point…

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2008

The name of John Tavener has received worldwide recognition as one of today’s most dedicated composers of sacred choral music. Born in England in 1944, he studied composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music with Berkeley and Lumsdaine, his spirituality as a young man heightened with a conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977, the year that brought his first piano work, Palin, and the memories of childhood in the dissonances of thunder and the tinkling of rain-drops that followed. Two works inspired by his cats, Mandoodles, and the bell-like sonorities of sadness In Memory of two Cats, the first from 1982 containing references to the music of Chopin. The most extended work—lasting around half an hour—comes with the 2003 score Pratirupa, a piece that also exists for piano and string orchestra. It is influenced by sacred religions of the East, its rapidly changing moods moving from the sound of temple gongs and ringing bells to aggressive outbursts and passages marked ‘as slow as possible’. Silence is here almost as important as the sounds. The disc opens with the very brief Zodiacs, written on the birth of his second daughter, and Ypakoe, the main thrust of the inspiration coming from the resurrection of Christ. The Dutch-born pianist, Ralph van Raat, has won numerous competitions that must have dominated much of his life since 1995. He shows a brilliant technical command when a show of expertise is required, but more important is that sense of inner peace and stillness that is the key to much of Tavener’s music. The recording made in England in 2007 is of exemplary quality. Little known piano music with much that is of interest.

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