Iiro Rantala at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane

Ian Patterson By

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Iiro Rantala
Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane
March 8, 2015

There's a commonly held belief that anything that is free can't be worth a damn. Not so. Luckily, thanks to Dublin City Council, the Arts Council of Ireland and Improvised Music Company, spring in the Irish capital welcomes not only free music, but music out of the top drawer at that.

Finnish pianist Iiro Rantala' solo piano concert at the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane was the latest in a series of free, midday recitals on Sundays of both classical and contemporary music. Rantala has long straddled both worlds.

His two-decade sojourn in Trio Töykeät, alongside drummer Rami Eskelinen and bassist Eerik Siikasaari, established his reputation as one of the most outstanding of modern jazz pianists. Classically trained, and with a piano concerto and choral compositions to his name, Rantala has also collaborated regularly with symphony orchestras. His idiom is a thrilling hybrid somewhere between Franz Liszt and Esbjorn Svensson, by way of Art Tatum.

Rantala began a virtuoso exhibition with a delicate rendition of the balladic "Kyrie" segment of Bach's "Mass in B Minor," which the pianist described as "one of the most beautiful melodies ever written." Following a comedic interlude where Rantala maintained a jaunty four-note motif while late-comers took their seats, he launched into "Thinking of Misty," a rhythmically vital composition from Lost Heroes (ACT Music, 2011), inspired by—though in no way reminiscent of—Erroll Garner. Left-hand pulses of undulating intensity underpinned dancing melodies in the right, which alternated between short, repeating phrases, liquid glissandi and stabbing counter rhythms.

"I have my personal theory," Rantala told the audience, "that Johannes Sebastian Bach was the first jazz musician ever. So jazz is from Germany. Who knew?" The levity of Rantala's introduction contrasted with the emotional intensity of his subsequent rendition of Bach's "Aria" from Goldberg Variations. As Rantala gained wind in his sails his contrapuntal dexterity blurred the lines between the composed and the improvised. Whilst Rantala's theory on Bach is pretty old hat, his fresh, joyously unrestrained interpretation of the German composer's music was anything but.

Though classically influenced, Rantala's jazz roots run deep, as evidenced by his dazzling stride and ragtime figures on George Gershwin's jaunty "Liza," from the Finnish pianist's My History of Jazz (ACT Music, 2012). Rantala's quicksilver runs—punctuated by bouncing rhythms—evoked Tatum at his most feverish.

Rantala's original compositions displayed a more modern approach: a towel damped the piano strings on the melodically defined, rhythmically pulsating "Freedom," creating a pizzicato, quasi-electronic ambience not unlike German pianist Hauschka's soundworld. Two pieces followed back to back; "Bruno" and "Topi"—named after Rantala's sons—ran from a feel-good vibe played over a two-chord vamp to a more expansive and heavily dramatic narrative. The explosive finale brought with it a standing ovation.

The inevitable encore saw Rantala tease out a gentle, prettily embellished version of "Somewhere over the Rainbow." It concluded, in subtly persuasive fashion, a brilliant performance by Rantala whose virtuoso pyrotechnics, humor and emotive playing was simultaneously gripping and uplifting.

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