Review by: Jed Distler

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 10

There’s no question that the dinky little toy piano has come into its own as a viable and serious concert instrument as more and more composers turn out substantial pieces for an increasing number of professional toy pianists. I take a little responsibility for that, having composed a good deal of toy piano music myself, and also presenting Margaret Leng Tan’s very first toy piano recital in 1995. She quickly became the instrument’s Wanda Landowska, and her 1997 Point Records CD The Art of the Toy Piano has been the lone occupant in every record store’s solo classical toy piano bin. Until now, that is.

Bernd Wiesemann’s recital “The Not-So-Well Tempered Clavier” offers new works by 10 composers, including Wiesemann. Its impressive sound quality alone attests to the toy piano’s timbral and expressive potential. From a listening and performing perspective, I know first-hand how the gamelan-like overtones of the toy piano’s steel rods resonate in a roomy, vibrant space. Cybele’s multi-channel SACD format recreates that sensation, whereas conventional two-channel stereo playback dresses the instrument down to size. So if you need a toy piano disc to demonstrate your home theater system, look no further. The music, however, is variable.

Oskar Gottlieb Blarr’s Läten für Den Zarewitsch purports to evoke the ancient Russian art of bell making, but the program notes’ images of huge resonance and the bloody 1591 murder of the tsarevich Dmitry at the request of Boris Godunov seems far removed from the music’s cameo-like aura. Oscar von Dillen’s mm3 for three toy pianos gently exploits each instrument’s slightly different tunings. The mathematical formula employed to construct Michael Denhoff’s PA-CA-TO probably holds more interest than the arid music it produces. However, Karl-Heinz Zarlus’ Nocturne offers a hauntingly deployed melange of sustained single notes, a triplet ostinato, and dissonant flourishes that make its eight-minute duration seem considerably shorter. Norbert Laufer’s multi-movement Bits & Pieces contains effective gestures and memorable melodies that tend to get cancelled out by virtue of the composer’s pallid harmonic sense.

The opening figure of Heinz-Dieter Wilke’s Piece for Toy Piano serves as the basis for all the material in this attractive, lyrical miniature. Zuckerregen, a three-part suite by Yasuko Yamaguchi, fares best in its sparse, single-line outer movements. And as much as I enjoyed the manipulation of microtunings throughout Christian Banasik’s Trimer for Toy Piano and Electronics, I feel the composer could have achieved a similar dramatic and dynamic build in a work half its length. Wiesemann’s own Bauhaus-Suite is the longest selection on the disc, and to my mind the most satisfying. The keyboard writing is more fluent, assured, and idiomatic, and imaginatively toes the line between simple and complex harmonic patterns. I’m particularly taken with the third-to-last piece, featuring a repeated melodic figure with varying accompaniments, and the opening movement, which takes its cue from 1920s vintage Kurt Weill.

Naturally I’d continue to recommend the aforementioned Margaret Leng Tan disc as one’s toy piano recital of choice, simply because the music is infinitely more vibrant, varied, and fun to hear (the disc also includes a piece of mine, so forgive my blatant bias!). Still, Wiesemann’s performances are those of a toy piano master who obviously has lavished great care and consideration upon his own work and that of his colleagues.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: None for this collection

Works by various composers -

  • Bernd Wiesemann (toy piano)

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