Review: Kristjan Randalu

Kristian Randalu
(kings Place Hall Two, February 26th 2011, part of Eesti Fest)

Pianist-composer Kristjan Randalu, born in 1978, is an Estonian. But like the internationally-minded, strategically-placed small country he comes from, his life and his musical career from its earliest days have been outward-looking rather than national..

Both his parents are classical pianists, who emigrated. He studied as a youngster in three cities in Germany, and then in London and New York He has the accolade of having been invited twice to study at the elite Mancini Institute in California. He has been a finalist in the Monk Competition – where he came to the attention of Herbie Hancock who described his piano playing as “dazzling” – and was a prize-winner in Montreux.

On Saturday he performed a solo piano concert on the final night of Eesti Fest, a celebration of Estonian culture at Kings Place curated by Fiona Talkington. He told the sizeable audience in Kings Place Hall Two that he had last played a solo concert in London nine years ago when he was studying briefly at the Royal Academy of Music.

The first piece, Confidants, written at that time, showed some hallmarks of his style when playing solo. He thinks intensely, in long paragraphs, draws the listener into his narratives. His playing has melodic arcs, but there are often rebellious inner voices which develop a life, a repeat loop of their own. Once established, the repetition and accumulation of these ideas is what gives forward motion, and provides the material he works with, and against.

He seems to think polytonally. I was left to wonder if Russian composers like Prokoviev and the composer/pedagogue Kabalevsky aren’t somewhere deep in his musical consciousness. Randalu’s childrens’ songs are not gentle, they have that similar polytonal bite.

When he took a sweetly nostalgic melody, The Homeland Song, by that towering father-figure to current Estonian composers Heino Eller (1887-1970), Arvo Part’s teacher, it was the asymmetries that he brought to the surface. He would leave a world which was uncannily reminiscent of Finzi or Ireland behind, and get into a wilder outdoors with Mussorgsky. His right hand would suddenly skitter off, in the manner of the butterflies in Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, but finding some nicely jarring colour-clashes.

Randalu often adopts the static head horizontal posture at the piano characteristic of Bill Evans. His eyes look down fixedly at his hands – perhaps he likes to keep a watchful eye on that cat’s cradle of anarchic inner voices.

Randalu doesn’t either gift-wrap or deliberately state his endings. Having – very convincingly – drawn the listener in to his narrative, his way is often to leave the last idea hanging in the air, like a question, a trait particularly noticeable in “Regnana.”

The solo piano recital is an ultra-demanding format where there is no hiding-place. Randalu may not have either the showmanship or the flamboyant insouciance of the Finn Iiro Rantala, he may not have as many gears either pianistically and emotionally as Gwilym Simcock, but he constructed an interesting and varied programme which held the audience’s attention throughout, and thoroughly deserved the sincere applause it received.

But what I found most fascinating was that Randalu’s personality and his heritage mean that his music and its inspiration do come from somewhere else. There is clearly a steadily growing and individual voice here. I’d be fascinated to hear him next in a context requiring interaction with other musicians, and see the sparks really fly.

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