Ferndorf, named after the German village where classically-trained pianist Volker Bertelmann grew up, represents a significant step forward in the Düsseldorf-based composer's Hauschka project. His fourth full-length (the first two on Karaoke Kalk, 2004's Substantial and 2005's The Prepared Piano, and the third, Room To Expand, on FatCat) expands on the primarily piano (and oft-“prepared” piano) focus of the previous output by bringing other players into the mix, with cellists Insa Schirmer and Donja Djember added to five pieces and Schirmer, violinist Sabine Baron, and trombonist Bernhard Voelz added elsewhere. The guests' playing not only enriches Bertelmann's tracks with sensual colour and pushes the material towards a more fully-orchestrated style but also offers a counterpoint to his oft-staccato piano rhythms; in “Schönes Mädchen,” for instance, the strings' elegant glide obviously differs from the piano's clockwork pulse.
That Ferndorf is no somber affair is intimated at the outset by “Blue Bicycle” whose breezy tempo is suggestive of a cyclist's sprint through the German countryside on a summer afternoon. In the jubilant “Rode Null” (a mountain behind his parents' house), the rhythmic thump of a plucked string and pinging “prepared” piano shiver form a backdrop for buoyant string interplay. The expanded sonic palette enlivens “Freibad” (an outdoor swimming pool in a forest where Volker and friends swam in the moonlight) when trombone and strings complement Bertelmann's playing. Other moods in these largely three- to four-minute-long miniatures range from reflective (“Morgenrot”) to dramatic (“Nadelwald,” the dark wood through which he rode his sled during winter).
That the material is often wistful in character isn't surprising, given the nostalgic dimension associated with the album title. That some of the pieces sound more formally composed and others more spontaneous is also understandable, given that the five Bertelmann recorded with the cellists (“Blue Bicycle,” “Morgenrot,” “Neuschnee,” “Alma,” “Nadelwald”) are, in fact, improvised pieces while the others were completed using overdubs of the contributors' playing. Sometimes the difference between formally-composed and spontaneous collapses: in the emotive “Alma,” for example, the dialog between strings and piano is so carefully executed, it's hard to believe it's an improvisation.
Though it's become somewhat of a Hauschka signature, at times the prepared effects prove distracting. The piano melodies in the folk waltz “Heimat,” for example, are endearing enough all by themselves and the additional layers are more an interference than enhancement. The lovely “Eltern” would likewise be fine sans the “prepared” dimension, and so too would the melancholy waltz “Weeks of Rain” that closes the album. It's no accident that the sparser piano-and-strings arrangement Bertelmann uses for the elegant “Neschnee” impresses so much more. A subtler and more judicious distribution of the “prepared” effects in future recordings might be worth considering.