Rho Cas

Trained as a pianist, Ari Romppanen has written three amazingly original piano pieces. The most extensive of these Rho Cas (2005-2006), is a concise virtuoso number aiming at extreme impact, and as such a rare occurrence in the contemporary piano repertoire. The work stretches the resources of the virtuoso to their limit: all of the piano’s registers are in use simultaneously, the number of notes on the page is simply overwhelming, and the clouds of sound released by the instrument correspondingly dense. Pianist Emil Holmström, who premiered the piece and is a composer himself, says that after hearing the piece audiences generally seem dazed by the fact that it is possible to perform such a piece in the first place.

As difficult as a Liszt etude

Rho Cas” is quite possibly the most difficult piano piece I have ever played. Just puzzling out the piles of notes on the page took a lot of work – but interesting work. The physical coordination of playing the piece required at least as much practise as the toughest etudes of Franz Liszt. Rho Cas requires an extremely loose, lightning-quick technique. It was not until I had performed the work half a dozen times and made a recording for radio that I began to feel comfortable with it. Amazingly, allowing for its excruciating difficulty, the music actually feels quite natural under the hands – at a very slow practise tempo, that is!”

Put simply, the piece falls into three sections, according to Holmström. It opens with an extremely dense, violent and rhytmically pounding sections, after which – on page five or thereabouts – the music becomes more lyrical, lighter and rhytmically less frenetic. In the third section, the aggressive character reinstates itself, but the ending is broader and slower than the opening.

Dramaturgy of construction

“This is a highly constructivistic work, but the construction outlines a clear and accessible dramaturgy. The idea of cosmic explosion was one of the underlying ideas for the composer: the title alludes to the star Rho Cassiopeiae, which erupts at regular intervals and is nearing the point where it will explode as a supernova. Thanks to the clarity of this basic concept, no superficial or underlining gestures are necessary.”

For all that it sounds very primitive, the music was constructed and planned with meticulous care. Holmström, a pianist-composer himself, particularly admires the fact that the multitude of notes on the page is organized to such a degree that every single one is playable. At least in principle.

“For the performer, the saving grace is that the piece only lasts about five minutes. Learning and performing Rho Cas is a huge challenge, but thanks to the piece being relatively short, not an impossible one.”

Tuomas Mali (Finnish Works for Piano: Pianists’ Edition, Fimic 2009)

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