Composed and performed by Christoph Pagel
With contributions by Florian Gladis (piano), Joanna Kim (piano), Frank van Essen (strings), James Harman (guitar), and Victor Fickinger (beats)
Reviewed by Pam Asberry
Christoph Pagel is a composer and pianist from Berlin, Germany. Although not his first album, this is the first one with a general theme: the many faces of the city of Berlin itself.
This ambitious, eclectic and lengthy album contains 23 separate tracks and is 78 minutes in length. The instrumentation is varied; there is solo piano, piano duet, piano with strings, piano with guitar, and electronica.
The album opens with the piano solo Sunday Afternoon Paris, which opens with a wistful theme abruptly interrupted by dark bass melody in a minor key accompanied by a frantic right hand accompaniment. This piece was written on the heels of the Paris bombings in November, 2015, in which 130 people were killed and 352 more were injured in a series of terrorist attacks.
Track 18, Bodelschwingh, was recorded by an American pianist, Steinway artist Dr. Joanna Kim of Atlanta, Georgia; Track 11, Vorstadt (Suburb), was composed and performed by Florian Gladis; and Track 9, Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise), is a lovely piano duet co-written by Pagel (his first). The rest of the solo piano pieces were composed and performed by Pagel. Of these, Track 8, Die neue Stadt (The New City), is my hands-down favorite. Written in the style of the German romantics, this gorgeous piece is exquisitely performed and is a “song like a prayer,” representing the city “as it could be, with bright streets, electric cars, people who help and care for each other. The last piece on the album, Einheit (Unity, Track 23), is another amazing composition. Written to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Berlin wall coming down, this piece is a musical prayer that Germany will always maintain the unity it has found within itself and with the rest of Europe. And Track 19, Unterwelten (Underworld), was created using only the strings of the grand piano. The resulting dark, haunting sound fittingly describes the frightening atmosphere in the world of tunnels and tubes that exist beneath the city, protective bunkers remaining from the Second World War.
Other tracks combine piano with strings arrangements done by Frank van Essen from Collendoorn, Holland. Another favorite, Die Spree (The River Spree, Track 6), falls into this category and is a vivid sound painting of the mighty rolling river that runs through Germany and the northern Czech Republic. What a glorious sound! Spiel des Windes (Play of the Wind, Track 3) is also delightful. Open and airy, it features a playful piano melody with a string countermelody rising and falling the way autumn breezes chase the leaves.
And then there are the piano and guitar pieces with guitar tracks provided by James Harman of San Francisco, California. My favorite of these is Track 5, Stadtautobahn (City Highway), with its rolled ostinato chords on the piano depicting the rolling of the wheels and the improvisational guitar solos painting pictures of the changing scenery outside the window. I also enjoyed Jazz im Englischen Garten (Jazz in the English Garden), the perfect background music for a quiet afternoon at a sidewalk café.
Interspersed throughout the album are unusual morsels like Pulsschlag (Pulse Beat, Track 2), with piano, strings and driving rhythmic “beats” (provided by Victor Fickinger of Amsterdam, Holland) representing the “the inner clock searching in vain for a fraction of ‘lost’ time,” and three versions of Schweben, Fragment (Floating, Fragment, Tracks 7, 12, and 16), less than a minute each – more electronica representing the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life.
Nominated by Enlightened Piano Radio for 2018 Album of the Year, StadtStille offers a unique listening experience and created within me a yearning to visit the city of Berlin and experience it for myself. Until then, I will have to content myself with listening to this remarkable music (and acquiring the sheet music book when it is available). Highly recommended!