Erik Lotichius: Anaitalrax – 25 Virtuosic Piano Pieces
Solaire Records

Solaire Records has provided a great service to artist and listener alike in bringing this expansive, double-CD collection of music by Dutch composer Erik Lotichius (1929-2015) into the world. The release both raises the artist's international profile and offers a splendid entry-point for the listener previously unfamiliar with his work. Masterfully performed by Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat (b. 1978), the twenty-five piano studies constituting the two hour-long Anaitalrax were composed between 1983 to 2013 and provide an intimate portrait of a composer not afraid to look outside the classical realm for inspiration, with jazz, blues, and other popular traditions a sampling of the forms drawn upon for these pieces. One is as likely to hear echoes of Gershwin and Weill as much as Ravel and Bartók in the studies, which range from playful and light-hearted to nostalgic and melancholy. Though Lotichius conceived it as a tribute to one of his favourite composers, Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), Anaitalrax extends its scope far beyond that of a single composer.

Lotichius by all accounts had a tough go of it. As a young man he considered law and medicine as career directions before, with the blessing and support of his father, dedicating his life to music. But the avant-garde atonalism prevalent at that time didn't appeal to someone whose taste ran to melodic music of a more accessible kind, and as a result Lotichius toiled in relative obscurity. Times, of course, change, and today's post-serial audiences have shown themselves to be more receptive to his music.

The studies are hardly exercises in minimalism (apparently the composer himself referred to them as “demanding finger exercises”). A pianist of considerable ability is needed to meet their technical challenges (consider the fourth and ninth studies as representative examples), and van Raat shows himself consistently up to the challenge. Yet while the pieces possess the complexity and formal sophistication of a standard classical piano piece, they communicate directly due to their melodic richness and robust rhythmic drive.

As I listen to the twenty-five studies, a wide range of impressions and associations arises. The high-spirited opener calls to mind the vivacity and playfulness of Debussy's Children's Corner, whereas others evoke salon music or Broadway tunes. To the degree that Anaitalrax can be said to be representative of his style, Lotichius's material is more Weill than Wagner, and it wouldn't be hard to hear one or two of these songs woven into Brecht-Weill's The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper).

Lotichius's lyrical side often comes to the fore, during the wistful third and twenty-fourth studies, for example, both of which one could imagine played during the wee hours at a lower Manhattan nightclub; others, such as the eleventh, are marked by an exuberance so strong it renders resistance futile, whereas blues forms surface during the seventeenth, not the only time it does so. The sixth makes good on its ragtime connection, with swing-inflected rhythms and melodies emblematic of the style; the seventh, on the other hand, flirts with both tango and march rhythms. While there's never any doubt as to the seriousness of Lotichius's intent, the studies exude a lightness of spirit that makes them all the more appealing. Structurally, each one models unity in its form, with needless embellishment absent and every bar serving a specific purpose within the overall structure.

It's a shame Lotichius didn't live long enough to hold this wonderfully crafted homage in his hands, especially when Solaire has housed the CDs within an attractive slipcase and complemented it with an in-depth, forty-four-page booklet containing articles, essays, and photographs. Included in the booklet are a “Preface” by the composer's widow, Hantzen Houwert, an “Introduction” by van Raat, “Producer's Notes” by Dirk Fischer, and, of perhaps greatest value to the budding musicologist, a ten-part mini-biography by journalist Tobias Fischer that recounts many of the struggles Lotichius endured over the course of his career (a few unfortunate misspellings do occur, however, among them Philip Glass identified as “Philipp” and Lotichius's one-time school principal as “principle”). All things considered, a better tribute to this still under-appreciated composer would be hard to imagine.

October 2017