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June 2008

Ketil Bjørnstad/Terje Rypdal
Life in Leipzig
ECM Records

The partnership of pianist Ketil Bjørnstad and electric guitarist Terje Rypdal works like a marriage of opposites. Their styles are diametrically opposed—Bjørnstad the classical musician, Rypdal the rocker—but their chemistry has stood the test of time.

Their new disc, Life in Leipzig, draws from a 2005 concert at the opera house in that German city. The first four pieces are presented as movements in a suite, as are the seven that follow, so the album feels halved, much the way a disc of piano concertos would be. Bjørnstad, playing a brilliant-sounding Bösendorfer, begins with low-end rumbles and adds some midrange clangs before Rypdal joins in with his wailing guitar. A classically structured motif of chords evolves, and Rypdal plucks with a bit of feedback. Bjørnstad settles into what almost sounds like a Rachmaninoff concerto, and Rypdal all but disappears. Bjørnstad’s left hand develops what could be described as classical stride, and Rypdal returns with a vengeance, letting loose with a searing riff. Bjørnstad’s classical stride continues while Rypdal builds an epic-rock crescendo. All of this occurs in the eight-minute opener, “The Sea V.”

This juxtaposition—classical pianist vs. in-your-face electric rock—pervades the entire album, even as the ideas and aesthetics vary. A lot of thought, too, goes into these improvisational works: “Alai’s Room,” “By the Fjord,” and “The Sea IX” each find Bjørnstad searching for the appropriate notes and emotional nuances. But at its most base, this duo is a study in contrasts, an experiment in both negotiation and defiance. The beauty of “The Sea II” lies in this very concept: clanging chords pitted against pealing notes, gorgeous piano phrases set off against visceral electric shredding. It makes you wonder if Vladimir Horowitz might have enjoyed playing with Eddie Van Halen.

Originally published in June 2008
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