One can never have too many albums about hope, especially albums as soothing and life affirming as Australian pianist Nat Bartsch‘s new release. While listening, one can feel one’s cares drifting away, to the point that one might ask if Bartsch has known much suffering. The truth is that the earliest tracks were written in response to the Australian bushfires, later pieces were written during the pandemic, and one is dedicated to the memory of a favorite piano teacher. It’s not that Bartsch is unfamiliar with suffering, but that she gazes through the pain to the potential healing on the other side.
The slow, steady rollout began last year with the Searching for the Map EP, represented here by two pieces. The title track was written as the skies were filled with smoke, the name referring to the search for loved ones as well as the future of a nation affected by climate change. The ivory serenade comes across as wistful, the comfortable pauses between notes affording time to appreciate the reverb. The piece ends in suspension, resisting a happy ending. “The End of the Decade,” written on New Year’s Eve, unfolds as a solo piano piece, but adds strings midway. Their entrance is like that of a group of friends appearing at one’s door, bearing gifts. As the anthem rises, one is filled with hope for the new year, although the thought that this new year was 2020 is somewhat sobering.
Few track titles say “Australia!” as much as “For the Koalas,” a reminder not only of those cuddly creatures, but of the danger they faced during the wildfires. This first single features playful piano balanced by sullen swells of strings, which lead to a short, reflective mid-piece turn. “Brightness in the Hills” was released as winter turned to spring in the Northern Hemisphere and summer to fall in the Southern Hemisphere. Bartsch dedicates the track to her teacher Robin Hayne; in a loving turn she also offers the sheet music form as a teacher/student duet. Again the strings arrive late, but not too late. The first half of the piece is like a solitary life, the second like a group memory.
The miked century-old Tasmanian piano is a symbol of endurance, each creak clearly audible. In “Fight Not Flight,” one can hear the sound of birds. The whole album tilts toward its closing tracks, “Over the River,” “Emergence” and “Hope,” like the morning twilight tilts toward dawn. The world has been through a lot over the last two years. “Over the River” harbors the set’s most tempestuous segment, like a melting river beginning to flow. “Emergence” is like a window opened for the first time in months, eyes squinting at the sun. And “Hope” rises like a new idea, thought transmitted to paper, ivory and flesh. The future still beckons like a blank and beautiful page. (Richard Allen)