Another of my sadly rare visits to one of my favourite venues in Vienna, the Radiokulturhaus. The comfort, intimate size and excellent acoustics of this space all combine to make attending concerts there a pleasure, while the programming is also adventurous enough to make it a fairly safe bet that you’re going to see someone interesting. Such was certainly the case here, as guitar and laptop wizard Fennesz trod the boards ahead of Ukrainian pianist and composer Lubomyr Melnyk. The concert was sold out, no doubt mostly on the basis of Melnyk’s burgeoning reputation as the fastest pianist in the world (19½ notes per second, fact fans), but also in part because it was part of a festival promoted by a sugary soft drinks manufacturer whose logo was displayed prominently on the stage.
The majority of the capacity audience were certainly there to see Melnyk play what I believe was only his second concert in Vienna, but as far as I was concerned Fennesz was the principal draw. The last time I tried to catch him was on my birthday last July at Karlskirche; I was touched that he’d arranged such a generous present for me, but when I went to get tickets the length of the queue, snaking right the way around Karlsplatz, made me abandon the idea fairly quickly. No such disappointment this time, as Fennesz played a riveting, albeit much too short (only 30 minutes) set that was rich in dynamic shifts and quicksilver atmospheres. Those who contend that Fennesz’s concerts all sound the same probably aren’t paying close enough attention, since on this occasion the maestro’s silvery guitar riffs assumed a stature far mightier than I had heard before, while the beats or traces of beats that hovered with gossamer elegance around the stage were an intriguing move away from art-house formalism and towards a more bass-driven environment.
All too soon Fennesz was gone, giving way to an unannounced performance by Latvian singer Mionia. I took this unwelcome intervention as an opportunity to get some fresh air outside, and retook my seat in time for Melnyk’s recital. But there was to be no getting away from Mionia, who joined the pianist later on as vocalist for the sentimental song “I Love You”.
As for Melnyk himself, I was pretty underwhelmed for the most part. His heavily touted language of “continuous music” never transcends the remarkable virtuosity with which it is delivered, and remains fatally unemotive and uninvolving. Consisting largely of note clusters played with mind-numbing repetition that coalesce into clouds of treacly harmony, it lacks both the emotional heft and the conceptual rigour of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, both of whom it occasionally brings to mind.
Melnyk is an engaging, yet somewhat rambling speaker. His lengthy introductions to each piece bring valuable context and insight to his work, but unfortunately tend to outstay their welcome. Much the same could be said for the work itself, whose durational quality has the potential to make considerable psychological impact on the listener, but which ends up dissipating into what sounds very much like New Age mysticism. There was nothing particularly mystical, though, about the way Melnyk hastened to the foyer after the concert to flog his extensive catalogue of self-produced CDs.