Sophie Hutchings: Becalmed

From seemingly out of nowhere comes this often disarmingly beautiful and preternaturally accomplished debut album by Sydney, Australia-based pianist Sophie Hutchings. It would seem to be the perfect time for her music to appear, what with the recent acclaim with which piano-based recordings by Peter Broderick, Rachel Grimes, and Nils Frahm have been met, though one might just as easily argue that music so melodic and romantic is always welcome regardless of musical climate.

The eleven-minute opener “Seventeen” serves notice that Hutchings has no shortage of technical command at her disposal. Pensive and florid by turn, the piece wends its way through flowing passages both delicate and impassioned, slowing down here and speeding up there, until the impressionistic playing turns ever more dazzling when overdubbed clusters and rolling figures achieve maximum density—a bravura start to an album with many more pleasures up its sleeves (unbelievably, the title of the piece derives from the age she was when she composed it). Just as lyrical are “After Most,” where Hutchings' graceful piano playing is nicely complemented by Sophie Glasson's cello, and the third, untitled track, an elegant, spine-tingling miniature.

Becalmed is a bit of a family affair, with Hutchings' friends and family members contributing drums, cello, and violin to a number of pieces. Mostly that works to the album's benefit but not in every case. Augmented by the mournful swoop and cry of Jeremy Kong's violin, “Sunlight Zone” waxes elegiacally for a lyrical five minutes, while the haunted quality of “Toby Lee” is heightened by the inclusion of saw playing by Reuben Wills; Kong's violin also enhances the lilting closer “It Remains,” especially when it sweetly sings during the piece's coda. Elsewhere, however, Hutchings' playing is so strong it suffices perfectly well on its own; as fine as his playing is, her brother Jamie's drum and percussion contributions to “Portrait of Haller” ultimately clutter the track needlessly when her playing already voices the melodies and conveys the tune's intensity so effectively. Becalmed? Bewitching is more like it.

September 2010