The fascinating ins and outs of a piano – Tania Giannouli’s Solo

July 24, 2023
3 mins read
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Summary

Tania Giannouli – Solo (Rattle)

GARY STEEL waxes passionately about a rather extraordinary release that is much, much more than just another solo piano album.

Greek musician/composer/improvisor Tania Giannouli knows the ins and outs of her piano, and she explores the whole instrument with all the dynamics and shadings of a dancer on Solo, her fifth album for New Zealand art music label, Rattle.

Her previous four albums have all been fascinating and challenging collaborations with the likes of oud player Kyriakos Tapakis and Taonga P?oro musician Rob Thorne, which means that until now, we’ve not had the chance to hear her unencumbered, free to explore her instrument. It’s a revelation.

For many, the idea of a solo piano album will be offputting. There are just so many so-so examples. Giannouli’s solo outing is utterly distinctive, almost magical.

She eases us into her world with the occasionally rhapsodic, trancelike and aptly named ‘Transportal’: beautiful, bewitching and beguiling. ‘Novelette’ plays a trick on the listener by at first cocooning us in a sweet, old-fashioned melody that charms but never falls prey to sticky sentiment, and eventually blossoms out into an improvisation that can’t help but summon the spirit of early ‘70s Jarrett, with its sense of fearlessness and its absence of any jazz tropes.

 

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Right from the get-go what’s audibly impressive about Giannouli’s approach is what we might call the dynamic range of her expressivity, and the way she translates that into the dynamics of the notes in a sonic sense. Beautifully recorded by George Kariotis and Alex Aretaios at Athens Concert Hall, mixed by Kariotis and mastered to perfection by Rattle label owner Steve Garden back in New Zealand, the recording cries out for a full-range hi-fidelity system to translate its fragrant subtleties.

What soon becomes apparent is that Giannouli doesn’t just tickle the ivories, but takes a whole instrument approach on Solo, plucking and scratching the internal strings, tapping and scratching and punishing the sustain and damper pedals for all they’re worth. Of course, there are plenty of avant-garde musicians specialising in performing on anything but the ivories of their pianos, but there’s nothing outwardly academic about Giannouli’s total piano exposition. Instead, the way she explores the potential of the entire instrument feels integrated, and she’s doing it in layers and for its expressive and musical impact.

She’s also no shrinking lily, pounding the keys when the moment calls for it and drawing out the resonance that only a strong fingering and an up-close recording can capture, together with the grain and all the other tiny details.

If there’s one criticism it’s that Solo goes on for a tad too long, and that about half its 24 tracks are very brief, which makes for an episodic experience. It’s all good, though, and value for money. Personally, I find that breaking off for a cup of tea or a brisk walk at the halfway point makes for an “intermission” type experience!

What I found refreshing about Giannouli’s new album was just how easy it was to enjoy and immerse myself in. Maybe part of that is down to the ways she tends to create riff-like repetitions with her left hand while expounding in flurries with the right, which grounds me while letting my imagination take flight. At times, rather than a solo piano record it feels like a “self-accompaniment”: her way of exploring the instrument’s sonic potential sometimes makes it seem as if more than one person is playing it at any one time.

It’s hard to tell whether the music is composed or improvised or a combination of the two. Certainly, parts of the longer tracks feel composed, while short fragments like ‘Metal Snake’, ‘Hidden’ and ‘Gecko’ sound fully improvised, while it’s hard to imagine that the gorgeousness of ‘Prelude’ is anything other than completely written out in little black notes.

My favourites? Probably tracks like ‘Intone’ and ‘Grey Blue’ where she really goes for it, producing a sonorous quality that has real impact perfectly suited to this old prog rocker.

Tania Giannouli is apparently a much-awarded and celebrated musician in her homeland, while like most Rattle acts remaining somewhat under the radar in Aotearoa. On the strengths of Solo, she deserves a much higher profile.

https://www.taniagiannouli.eu/

https://rattle.co.nz/catalogue/releases/solo

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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