We’re extraordinarily lucky to have Vanessa Wagner. A first class pianist capable of genuine virtuosity, she chooses to use her exquisite craftsmanship to perform accessible minimalist works that are always at risk of getting dismissed by the snobs as too easy, too predictable. She shows what those in the know already know: this is music worthy of serious consideration.
That’s not to say that her virtuosity isn’t on display in Mirrored, her new album: both of the Philip Glass Etudes performed on this album are densely packed, full of both notes and drama, but Wagner plays them with the ease of a master. She handles with similar nonchalance Camille Pepin’s exuberant and physically challenging “Number 1”, which appears just after halfway, and Moondog’s leaping “Seahorses”.
The overall tone of the album, however, is contemplative, restrained, accessible and the virtuosic moments come as a welcome contrast. Nico Muhly’s gorgeous “Quiet Music” is case in point. Muhly is a sophisticated and adventurous composer (see his “Etude No. 3” on Wagner’s album Study of the Invisible, which we reviewed when it came out in May this year) but here he’s gentle, calm, and the spaces between the notes are as important as the notes themselves. There are moments however, particularly towards the end of the piece, when tone becomes unsettled and you find yourself wondering whether everything is as settled as it first seems. Fans of peaceful piano will find more security with Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Solitude”, Glass’s “The Poet Acts”, which opens the album, and Sylvain Chateau’s “Mineral”, which closes the album, fading out, unresolved.
All these pieces feel as if they belong together, which is evidence that one of Wagner’s greatest skills is the ability to make contrasting works cohere. In less experienced hands, the difference between Sakamoto’s “Solitude” (track 3) and Glass’s “Etude 4” (track 4) might be crass; in her hands, it feels like it makes sense. That puts her up there with Vikingur Olafsson, whom we raved about similarly just a few weeks ago. Pulling off this feat is much harder than it sounds, requiring not only a deep understanding of all the pieces but also the confidence to lean sufficiently into your own interpretation to make it work. It’s a similarly self-confident move to release two albums in six months but based on the evidence of this, if anyone can pull it off, it’ll be Vanessa Wagner. (Garreth Brooke)