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Thursday, August 03, 2006
"The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and... "
The Eleventh Finger
Jenny Lin

Fortunately, the Spinal Tap-esque title doesn’t refer to some additional appendage that pianist Jenny Lin has sprouted. The title is meant instead to convey the lengths to which Lin will travel in her quest to crank her instrument’s virtuosity knob up another notch. Accordingly then, the CD features nine pieces, many written specifically for Lin, that extend the limits of both the piano and the pianist.

The disc's opener, Arthur Kampela’s “Nosturnos,” gives Lin ample and varied opportunities to show off her chops. The two staples of contemporary virtuosity, breakneck speed and extended techniques (Lin even has to play inside the piano w/ a mallet), are, of course, both required. Endurance and versatility are also demanded as the piece clocks in at over 16 minutes and spans a similar number of styles. However, what really sets Lin apart as a virtuoso, both on “Nosturnos” and throughout the whole disc, is her subtlety and attention to melody. "Nostrunos" includes some shockingly pretty moments, and Lin slows down her frantic fingers and gives them full weight. Furthermoe, she manages to bring melodic lines out of even the densest of textures.

The pieces that perhaps best show off this interpretational virtuosity are the three Ligeti etudes (nos.16-18) that follow “Nosturnos.” Though the pieces were certainly recorded well before Ligeti’s death last month, Lin’s performances serve as a fitting tribute. Lin’s technical proficiency allows her to fully mine the grace, fluidity, and playfulness of the notoriously difficult studies.

Three of the selections on the CD provide Lin with a more literal eleventh finger - technological enhancement. Stefano Gervasoni’s “Studio di Disabitudine” manipulates the two lowest notes of the piano electronically while preparing the highest one in a more traditional manner. The timbral modifications blend smoothly with Lin’s unaltered playing, which remains clear and confident despite the fact that Gervasoni’s score stipulates unnatural and difficult fingerings. In contrast, Elliott Sharp’s more divergent processing on “Suberrebus” feels a little out of place here. James Tenney’s offering, “Chromatic Cannon,” proves to be the most successful of the three, perhaps because it uses the simplest technology – tape playback. However, the piece also stands out by exploring virtuosity via a Minimalist aesthetic (despite its titular chromaticism) that puts Lin’s aforementioned subtlety to good use.

All in all, the disc is a thorough exploration of what it means to be a virtuosic pianist these days and a challenge to ten-fingered Lin’s peers. One caveat - even with Lin’s particular brand of thoughtful virtuosity, the music is nothing if not intense. As a result, the disc is best consumed like single malt scotch – savored in responsible doses.


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