Fred Van Hove –The Solo Recordings
Between 1977 and 1986 Fred Van Hove ( Antwerp, 1937) did 3 solo piano recordings for FMP and its affiliated label SAJ. ‘Verloren Maandag’ (not included here) is a collection of miniature pieces played on the pianist’s own upright and recorded shortly after the break up of the trio with Peter Brötzmann and Han Bennink. The CD at hand presents the long overdue reissue of the two more substantial recordings: the fascinating live recording ‘Prosper’ from 1981, and the dramatically overlooked studio masterpiece ‘Die Letzte’ from 1986.
The clarity of ideas and sureness of expression demonstrated on ‘Prosper’ show how Van Hove had developed a powerful and highly personal language since the more tentative early solo recordings, done for the small Vogel label in 1972 and 1974. (‘Fred Van Hove Solo’ and ‘Live at University’, each initially released in a limited run of 500 copies, were finally re-issued by Unheard in 2002).
By 1981 Van Hove had learnt how to make the best of a not so great piano, in those days a fairly common presence on the touring circuit. On ‘Prosper’ he makes optimum use of the instrument’s shortcomings, by choosing playing strategies that turn the harsh sound and shaky tuning to his advantage. In passing, he shows that Paul Bley is not the only pianist entitled to be proud of his capacity to ‘make a grand piano sound like a battered upright’.
This lends a sort of clumsy charm to ‘Other Piece’ and ‘Prospers Wals’ and probably saves them from being overly cute. At the time an important part of Van Hove’s activity was dedicated to improvising with silent movies and it’s easy to imagine a scene from a 1920’s experimental movie by Murnau or Dreyer while listening to these rather stark pieces. But the most interesting part of ‘Prosper’ is Van Hove’s ability to take one small piece of musical material and develop it into a full-fledged statement: gradual displacement of a simple rhythmic motive on ‘Sharp wie ein F’; the unfolding of glissandi in ‘Chiens Chauds’; the high register ripples and chords gradually building into a giant tremolo in ‘Grote Tremolo.’ One regret: calling the otherwise terrific piano and voice piece ‘Toespraak’ (Speech) really is an all too easy give away.
‘Die Letzte’ offers a quite different approach. No complaints about the piano here and no traces of Van Hove’s occasional penchant for a mild form of program music - trying to match musical story telling with descriptive titles. Here the improviser offers us 35’26” of pure music. It appears dense to the point of suffocation. Every single space is filled with information and saturated with activity: layers of sound and rhythm moving over layers of sound and rhythm moving over layers of sound and rhythm.
This makes for a dangerous proposition but Van Hove pulls if off brilliantly. Each of the four pieces stands out as an object lesson in organic development and thinking by association. And each one of them appears as if created on the spot in one long sweeping movement, seemingly totally spontaneous yet executed with superb control of continuity and driven by a relentless rhythmic intensity.
Released on vinyl on the brink of the CD era the masterpiece that is ‘Die Letzte’ went largely unnoticed at the time. Ironically, Van Hove him self felt quite depressed about the record and initially considered not releasing it. The reason? He had felt as if he had been unable to recapture the kind of intensity he experienced a few weeks earlier while playing a private concert with a trio (Wolfgang Fuchs and Günter Sommer) at exactly the same location, and subsequently developed a case of emotional resistance to the music. In the end he did agree to a release but decided this would be his last solo record ever: ‘Die Letzte’.
Fortunately, it did not live up to its title. Although it took a while for Van Hove to overcome his reservations about recording solo, the approach taken for ‘Die Letzte’ laid the foundation for later major statements such as ‘Flux’, ‘Passing Waves’ and ‘Spraak ‘n Roll’. Today, ‘Die Letzte’ stands out as a highlight and a turning point in the solo output and the musical life of one of the world’s great improvisers.