Before last night’s show at St John-at-Hackney Church, I asked Nils Frahm about his fondness for performing in grand, opulent spaces. Of course, as a solo pianist, he would not be the first to forgo the plastic beer cups and sticky floors of most modern music venues, in favour of those decked out with chandeliers, marble floors, or at least a stained glass window. Yet Nils’ recording are so incredibly intimate and replete with the pervasive hums, clicks and clunks that are made known to us only in the quietest of moments, that it seems contrary to place them in such extravagant surroundings. He was of the opinion that music relies heavily on its context and that a live performance is inherently different to a recording. In a live environment, the performer has his audience’s full attention to a degree with which a recording cannot compete. The rules have changed; an audience expects entertainment, and the performer must provide it.
On Thursday night, Nils willingly provided a maverick performance. From the moment the church organ blared into life to the moment we all rose to our feet to applaud, we were treated to a virtuoso display of technique, tenderness, bombast and playfulness. His compositions segued into one and other and just at the moment a particular mood was beginning to feel grating, he took the set in another direction. Though delicate cuts such as ‘Ambre’ and ‘Unter’ were beautifully rendered on an open-fronted upright piano, it was the more experimental pieces that really grabbed my attention. These ranged from heavy, trancy synth melodies, to tribal sounding rhythms drummed out on the top of a grand piano. If it sounds gimmicky on paper I can assure you that the reality was both exciting and completely natural.
Therein lies the brilliance of Frahm; he is forever experimenting, forever innovating, but it never feels forced or pretentious. His music is distinctively his own; a combination of incredible simplicity and a deft sense of timing and melody. The piece that I think represents this best is ‘Said And Done’ – a long, slow burning epic based around a single hammered note. Live, it was thrilling to see him adapt and manipulate melodies and moods around this one, totemic note, until it seamlessly swelled into a beautiful arpeggiated exploration of the keyboard. It was during this piece, early into the set, that the first beads of sweat began to run down his face and drip at an ever increasing rate onto the piano. With the stage set up in the centre of the audience, Nils was not the only one in the spotlight, and as the evening progressed the church became uncomfortably warm.
This heat was the most significant criticism I had of the show. By the end it was quite an uncomfortable experience made worse by some horrifically puritanical chairs (and the fools who can’t go two hours without kicking over a can or turning their phones to silent). This meant that though Nils’ encore (an ‘Ambre’ based medley) was beautiful to the ear, to the arse it represented a bit of a challenge. By the end I was an achy, clammy mess so I thought back to Nils, drenched in sweat after only a few minutes and I consoled myself with the fact that his performance was so wholehearted and physically demanding that we should have considered ourselves lucky just to be there.
Our rapturous response felt natural in our holy surroundings, but this time the church echoed to cheers for something real. Nils was as down-to-earth as you can be whilst also being a solo musician comfortable playing 20 minute medleys to complete strangers, and this just made it all the more enjoyable.
“Sweating in the face” he explained, “I inherited it from my mother. I bet it looks pretty intense!” I crack a wry smile at his phrasing and wince a little at the thought of his mother’s sweaty face. “I don’t feel intense though, I am happy tonight” he concluded. He wasn’t the only one.