Album reviews

Gonzalo Rubalcaba – ‘Borrowed Roses’

Gonzalo Rubalcaba – Borrowed Roses
(Top Stop Music. Album review by Liam Noble)

There’s a certain melancholy to the title of this new solo recording by Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and it’s reflected in the music here, recorded on the newly restored Bösendorfer piano at his house. There’s something different about playing at home: and nowhere is this more evident than in the last track, Sting’s “Shape Of My Heart”, stripped of its pop-produced momentum and instead emerging as a simple meditation on the movement of line. It’s a performance that somehow could only happen at home, subtle chord substitutions have a slight pause around them, as if to check it’s alright to make such changes.

The atmosphere of quiet runs right through this recording, and for me that alone would be a reason to recommend it. There’s more air between notes than one might expect from a solo piano record, where the resonances after a chord is struck are often overlooked in favour of anxiety induced flourishes. But Gonzalo Rubalcaba knows this piano inside out, seems to sense the right time to hold back, to weight certain notes a little heavier than others. It’s almost as if, by the end of the recording, we know this piano as well as he does.

It’s a relaxed approach to repertoire too, with three Gershwin tunes (“Do It Again” is new to me, it was a nail-biting few minutes waiting for the Steely Dan tune to emerge, but I soon realised it wasn’t coming.) “Summertime” has almost passed through the “hackneyed” phase to being an interesting choice, and it’s always a relief to me when its idiosyncratic harmony is left intact. On top of this, however, Rubalcaba is able to spin subtle twists that colour rather than re-write the song. “Someone To Watch Over Me” is played almost just to hear the song. “Chelsea Bridge” has an almost casual pacing to it, but the delicate changes in harmony are just arresting enough to let us know that there’s serious musicianship going on under the bonnet. McCartney’s “Here, There and Everywhere” fits right into this repertoire: removed from its context, the American Songbook origins of his compositional method loom large.

“Take Five” is, by contrast, a feast of pianistic fancies. Whilst the head is played with an almost cautious delicacy and lightness (in some ways echoing Brubeck’s own touch on the famous vamp), the ensuing variations unfold and escalate under the rocksteady bassline. Chromatic lines, fragments, occasional harmonic colourations jostle together, and Rubalcaba’s incredible powers of rhythmic articulation are powerful yet musical: the return of the bridge is almost comical in its gentility.

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A similar mix of the virtuosic and the introspective throughout these tunes, and they’re a largely familiar bunch. But there’s a kind of halting yet rhythmic delivery, playful and humorous, a sense of revelation as each tune unfolds. It’s as if he’s writing them himself in the moment, whilst also searching out the quirks of his newly restored piano, and that gives the whole set a feeling of an intimate adventure.

Borrowed Roses is released today, 15 September 2023

LINK: Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s website

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