Piano Circus keep juggling the keyboards
4 stars Piano Circus Playhouse, Oxford
The 60 fingers and multiple keyboards of Piano Circus have come a long way since they formed in 1989 with the express purpose of performing Steve Reich's Six Pianos, one of the classics of pure minimalism. The group has consistently worked hard to expand its repertory, and the latest addition is Scutigeras, a 45-minute work specially commissioned from Heiner Goebbels, given its premiere as part of Oxford Contemporary Music last Sunday.
It is not, strictly speaking, a "new" piece. All three movements began life in other works, and have been adapted by Goebbels and Richard Harris of Piano Circus; they have reworked several movements from the recent Surrogate Cities cycle, as well as an extract from the music theatre piece Black on White, and the 1991 ensemble piece La Jalousie.
These are by no means straight arrangements: the six players alternate between two grand pianos, four sampling keyboards and a spinet, transform the piano sounds in various ways, play a variety of conventional and unconventional percussion, and incorporate a variety of mechanical and natural sounds. The opening, D&C, is the nearest to a straight transcription, full of characteristic Goebbels riffs, propulsive energy and dizzying changes of perspective. The central movement is a sequence of shorter movements with baroque echoes, interleaved with urban sounds. The finale is La Jalousie, interspersed with readings from the Robbe-Grillet novel that inspired it and coloured with the sounds of a Mediterranean night. It is a strange, totally compelling sequence.
Piano Circus seemed to relish the tasks that Goebbels sets them - the constant migrations between instruments and the unconventional ways of producing sounds, as well as the sheer technical keyboard challenges. Scutigeras certainly exploits their capabilities more rewardingly than the sequence of shorter works in the first half of their programme, which was much more conventional. Only Erkki-Sven Tour's huge canon, Transmission, and an arrangement of one of Conlon Nancarrow's Studies made any real impression.
Tours to Huddersfield, Southampton, Cambridge, London and Cheltenham over the next nine months.
The Guardian (GB), 23 October 2001