Received wisdom dictates that the lowly accordion is nothing more than a noisemaker, an instrument only played by the nerdiest kids in your grade school and the purview of ultra-squares such as Lawrence Welk and Dick Contino. In its series Les Nouveaux Musiciens, which exists to highlight the talents of exceptionally gifted young musicians, Harmonia Mundi presents German accordionist Karin Küstner, who forms one-half of the accordion duo Accordeux with Sabine Raatz. As a whole, Oeuvres pour Accordeon: Karin Küstner not only challenges standard perceptions of the accordion but also puts to the test prevailing attitudes about contemporary music as well. Of the nine works presented here, seven of the composers are still living as of this writing, and the music demonstrates a wide variety of approaches. Yet all of this music is immediate and well-defined, both technically and artistically, and is easy to understand and appreciate despite the wealth of unfamiliar names.
The oldest piece on the program is an expert accordion transcription of César Franck's Prélude, Fugue et Variation, Op. 18, and is the only piece on the disc that is not an original work; Franck's somber and melodious prelude translates well to the sound of the accordion. The next oldest music are pieces by Astor Piazolla and Finnish composer Lasse Pihlajamaa, the latter being a virtuosic etude and character piece of very high quality. The works by Semionov and Bonnay echo the nostalgic café character most often associated with the accordion, but those by Makkonen and Frauendorf are made of tougher stuff and reflect the influence of minimalism. The main piece here is Viktor Vlasov's Gulag. The accordion's reedy tone and ability to audibly force air through its bellows is well-suited to portray a cold, dehumanizing Russian prison camp in black and white hues of soot-gray snow. Küstner is a gifted player of the accordion and makes the most of these visual characterizations in sound; the listener will be bowled over, both by Küstner's technical grasp of the instrument and her ability to achieve an expressivity on a scale that hardly seems possible.