Benny Andersson: Piano
Deutsche Grammophon

When I learned that Benny Andersson was readying a solo piano collection, the worst-case scenario immediately came to mind: a run-through of ABBA's greatest hits, incredible songs that while beloved are hardly in need of another run-through given the popularity of the group's catalogue and the success of Mamma Mia! as stage show, movie, and soundtrack. To Andersson's credit, Piano is an entirely different animal and an entirely satisfying one at that. True, the ABBA songs “Thank You For The Music,” “I Let the Music Speak,” “The Day Before You Came,” and “I Wonder (Departure)” do appear, as do songs from the musical Chess (Andersson with ABBA partner Björn Ulvaeus and lyricist Tim Rice) and the Andersson-Ulvaeus production Kristina från Duvemåla, but for the most part the Swedish composer has chosen material spanning his entire career, some of which, at least for ABBA obsessives, will be less familiar, and the release is all the better for it.

That the twenty-one-song set appears on the classical label Deutsche Grammophon feels apropos, given the refined delivery of these interpretations. Performed by Andersson on grand piano and stripped of elaborate instrumentation, these oft-tender songs hold up beautifully when his remarkable melodic gifts are so nakedly presented. As he recorded the album at RMV Studios in Stockholm on the island of Skeppsholmen, Andersson became ever more aware of how integral to his being the material is and how close he feels to it, regardless of whether it was created one year or four decades ago; of the project, he said, “In a strange way, I feel like I am playing my memoirs.”

His sensitive command of tempo, touch, and dynamics is evident throughout, whether it be the nostalgic rendering of “Thank You For the Music” or the sophisticated classical treatment given “Stockholm By Night.” Some songs, the lovely “Someone Else's Story,” “Tröstevisa,” “Happy New Year,” and “My Love, My Life” cases in point, are pretty in the extreme, whereas others, more modest in number, capture the composer's light-hearted side (e.g., “Målarskolan,” “Flickornas Rum”).

Andersson's understated arrangements, while not minimal, are free of unnecessary embellishment, the composer aware that the melodic content of the songs is powerful enough to stand on its own. A fair number of ABBA songs are joyous and free-spirited, but for this collection the melancholy side of Andersson's artistry is accentuated; wistful expressions filled with longing are the norm, the choices predominantly heartfelt ballad settings conducive to reflection; in a number of cases, it's almost impossible not to hear in one's head the original vocalist singing the song's melodies as the material's performed. It would be an exaggeration to call his playing a revelation (though the deftness with which he executes the rippling runs in “Mountain Duet” might surprise), but there's no doubt the album allows his refined technical ability to be appreciated anew when it's not competing with other instrument sounds in an ensemble arrangement. And even when a song's melodies are as familiar as those in “Thank You For the Music” and “I Wonder (Departure),” his affectionate recasting is so appealing, it renders the issue of familiarity moot.

February 2018