Hans OTTE (1926-2007)
Das Buch der Klänge (The Book of Sounds) (1979-82): Parts I-VII [67:24]
Ralph van Raat (piano)
rec. Haitinkzaal Amsterdam 11-12 August 2009
NAXOS 8.572444 [67:24]

This work precedes Hans Otte’s later piano masterpiece Stundenbuch (Book of Hours) with which I was much impressed in Roger Woodward’s recording (see review).

The Book of Sounds has been recorded by modern music champion Herbert Henck on ECM 1659, but Hans Otte’s own 1984 recording from the Kuckuck label and now also available on Celestial Harmonies has a luminous, magical quality which comes across even from the few samples I’ve managed to catch, so any new recording will have to meet a pretty high standard.

Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat is building up a respectable discography with the Naxos label, focusing on modern composers such as John Adams, Frederic Rzewski and Magnus Lindberg. This welcome familiarisation with the music of our time might well be embarked upon by newcomers with this new recording of Hans Otte’s Book of Sounds. This is immediately approachable music, based on tonal sonorities, and exploring textures and moods through the familiar sounds of the piano. The initial impression is like a moment of Debussy snatched from the air and extended, or a fragment of Erik Satie, compressed or filtered to create something new.

The composer wrote, “This ‘Book of Sounds’ rediscovers the listener as a partner of sound and silence [and] rediscovers the piano as an instrument of timbre and tuneful sound …” Contemporary music aficionados are more than likely to regard such essays in mellifluous sonority with a suspicion of superficiality, but Hans Otte’s music stands up far better to tests of quality and content than most examples which fall under this category. There is far more going on here than any kind of flabby new-age flim-flam. The subtle use of variation creates a restless momentum of changing harmonic relationships and melodic inner worlds, and there is always a sense of communication - not sound for sound’s sake, but sound carrying a world of emotion and landscape for the imagination.

The twelve parts of The Book of Sounds create enough contrast to maintain interest, as well as a kind of spiritual awe if you are open to that kind of suggestion. Quiet can be contrasted with drama, even some explosive bell-like accents in IV. There can even be some cinematic associations, with the sort of mystery atmosphere created in a piece like VII, or the sheer loneliness of IX. The longest part is nearly nine minutes in this recording, the shortest an almost aphoristic three. There are associations which arise through the harmonies and arching structures used, and composers such as American minimalists - perhaps Terry Riley or John Adams - and even Wagner, Messiaen and Ravel are understandably mentioned as forebears to some of these pieces. What is certain is that The Book of Sounds didn’t just appear on a whim, but was the result of years of personal exploration and technical perfecting by Hans Otte, of music which was the essence of this side of his wide-ranging creativity.

Ralph van Raat’s sensitive and technically refined performance has been captured very nicely on this CD, and while Hans Otte’s own recording may ultimately be preferable I can’t imagine anyone having any complaints about this disc at budget price. If you want something to take you to places way beyond the daily grind, or are seeking an open door into contemporary music, this is a fine place to start.

Dominy Clements

An open door into magical worlds.