Argentinian-born pianist/composer Fernando Otero won the Latin Grammy in the classical category in 2010 for his album Vital. That was a darkly beautiful record, but his new one, Romance, is even better. It’s a series of themes and variations in the style of a classical sonata, artfully split between instruments, interchanging between time signatures, interwoven like a secret code. Inspired by Argentine writer and clarinetist Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, it invites the listener to decide on a “modular” sequence of tracks, perhaps a wry nod to the reality of how listeners work in the iphone era. Taken in sequence, this is a harrowing ride that ends unresolved; however, if one plays the tracks in reverse order – or uses the austerely balletesque opening track as a conclusion – the grimness lifts considerably.
As he did with Vital, Otero works subtle mood shifts, but a haunted sensibility that’s often downright macabre lingers throughout the eleven tracks here. Otero plays with a murky elegance on all of them (in contrast to his often brutal attack on the keys, live in concert), yet the piano is not always the central instrument here. The ensemble behind him rises to the challenge of blending jazz-tinged neoromantic themes with new and classic tango within an overall ambience that defines the concept of noir. This is music raging, sometimes simmering, sometimes dancing, sometimes shivering against the dying of the light. This is a great album, a classic album, an achievement that ranks with the greatest work of Chopin, or Miles Davis, or Piazzolla, all of whom it resembles to some extent. It’s probably the best album of the year in any style of music. Otero reasserts himself as one of this era’s most important, compelling composers, and he covers a lot of ground. Otero and his ensemble are playing the cd release show tomorrow night, March 2 at the 92YTribeca at 9 PM. You have been warned.
A ghost-girl choir of Josefina Scaglione, Kristin Norderval and Dana Hanchard takes centerstage in the album’s most haunting moments. There’s a chilling, Satie-esque theme introduced by the piano that the strings pick up later on, and then the choir. Where will it end up? That’s the worrisome part. Otero works the entire spectrum of each instrument’s range, counterintuitively: the lows from Ljova Zhurbin’s viola, the highs from Adam Fisher’s cello, bassist Pablo Aslan switching in a split second from an elegant pulse to mournful bowed lines. Ivan Barenboim also switches between plaintive clarinet and brooding bass clarinet, running the gamut from jaunty optimism to sheer despair. Nicolas Danielson’s violin remains the one constant alongside the piano, a cynical dialectic of sorts.
Dreamy Tschaikovskian melodicism jostles against creepy, morose chromatics, agitated Mingus urban bustle, rapidfire two-handed Schumannesque stampedes with a surreal Twin Peaks glimmer and Shostakovian anguish. Stern classical scales quash any distant, tentative hope echoing from the choir; tiptoeing strings hand off to plaintive clarinet over resonant deadpool piano that rises only to an elegaic gleam. Again, you have been warned: watch for this on the best albums of 2013 page here at the end of the year, if we get that far.