Grew’s pieces themselves are captivating experiments in form and a masterclass in solo piano.

Discus: Discus 174CD

Stephen Grew – piano

Recorded on 6th November 2023 by Charlie McGovern at Lancaster Baptist Church, Lancaster, England

This set represents Grew’s decade or so battle to tame a very specific piano. The piano is a Kawai model 2A and can be found in Lancaster Baptist Church. As Grew notes, the piano has a ‘particularly unyielding’ action, and he has tried a variety of techniques to tease notes from this recalcitrant beast.

The longest pieces, ‘Passion in the keys – the miracle of mechanical ingenuity’, track 5 (at almost 22 minutes), ‘Raw Energy, High Charge, track 2 (at around 13½ minutes), and ‘Now we are here (with chips)’, track 1 (at almost 14 minutes), present different phases of this battle.

On the opening piece, ‘Now we are Here (with chips)’ he cajoles the piano into rumbling runs that build in intensity (in ways that might shake the church foundations or scare the church mice into hiding or disturb any parishioners visiting while he played). It is in the softer moments of this piece that you appreciate Grew’s tenacity to work this instrument because the softest notes are struck with force just to give them a slight sustain.

I’m not sure what ‘chips’ are referred to in the title, but he definitely earned a plateful to keep his energy up. I was struck by the punctuation of the title on the CD sleeve – with ‘we’ in lower case and ‘Here’ capitalised, which (intentional or not) conveys a sense in which ‘we’ are subservient and required to confront ‘Here’ (that is, this Church, with this piano).

Following the opening piece, ‘Raw Energy, High Charge’ has Grew pushing the arpeggios to an even greater extent, with faster runs and stronger, more forceful hitting of the keys. In ‘Passion in the keys’, Grew’s respect of the piano’s idiosyncrasies and the delicate balance between his and its intent becomes even more apparent.

This feeling of wrestling the piano is rather like the ways in which a wild horse might be brought to state to allow it to permit a saddle and reins to be fitted and a rider allowed to mount. The aim is not to subdue the horse (or piano) so much as to make it a willing accomplice in the enterprise of horse riding (piano playing).

If this album were simply a document of the process through which Grew and the piano arrived at their alliance, then it would be a fascinating account. But there is something deeper in the ways in which Grew’s compositions / improvisations draw out the beauty of this piano that had, perhaps, endured a lifetime of repetitively stately hymns and marches, and encourages it to realise a beauty. Even more than this, Grew’s pieces themselves are captivating experiments in form and a masterclass in solo piano.