Vassous Nicolaou’s Piano Etudes


NICOLAOU: Etudes: Anodos; Monologos; Delays; Chimes; Mirrors/Interventions; Animadóttir; Entrap; Point de jonction; Presence d’un absence; Filter; Host du Angst?; Distory; Teso; Rebounsa; Tamara. Frames* / Tamara Stefanovich *& Pierre-Laurent Almard, pno / Pentatone Classics PTC 5187041

This disc presents us with 15 études and a piece called Frames by Vassous Nicolau (b. 1971), a composer who, despite his Eastern European name, appears to have studied and had his entire career in Germany. He studied at the Academies of Music in both Frankfurt and Cologne—it was at the latter that he met pianist Tamara Stefanovich, who in the liner notes confessed that they were “the ultimate nerds, working every possible second, obsessing about the quality of sounds”—as well as at the Paris Conservatory and IRCAM. Aside from pianists Stefanovich and Almard, both of whom are featured on this release, his music has been performed by fellow composer Peter Eötvös, Johannes Kalitzke, and several modern-music groups like the Ensemble Modern, New World Symphony, Ensemble Intercomtemporain and the London Sinfonietta.

Nicolaou’s music is harmonically dense, thorny and atonal. The first étude, “Andos,” flies by at a whirlwind pace, at times bitonal. He seems to have been influenced by Ligeti and Eötvös, among others. In the second étude, “Moppnologos,” the bitonality, its lack of a tonal center emphasized by using rootless chords, continues although this one is for the most part slower. To her credit, Stefanovich is not only a splendid pianist but deeply immersed in this music; she makes it “sing,” which is not easy considering its thorny harmonic progression.

Perhaps the most fragmented pieces in the album are the fourth étude, “Chimes,” and the fifth, “Mirrors Interventions.” Here Nicolaou uses short musical gestures to convey a mood without trying to create a continuous musical line, although in the latter he creates some wonderful atonal counterpoint by writing a complex counter-figure for the left hand.

For the most part, however, Nicolaou always seems to be able to convey both an emotional state and a coherent direction in his music despite its atonal/bitonal bias. For listeners who are repelled by modern music of this sort, however, I’m sure it will convey very little, however. You need to approach this disc with a completely open mind and let it come to you rather than trying to force it. I personally found this music to be quite fascinating although, since I can’t find any other music by Nicolaou online, I can’t say whether or not he is a one-voice or a multi-voiced composer.

As a set of modern études, however, it is unquestionably original and has much to say. I liked it very much myself, and recommend that you hear it at least once. It’s wholly unique!

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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