Positive Feedback Logo

Pianist Hannes Minnaar - Artistry to Savor

11-15-2022 | By Rushton Paul | Issue 124

Hannes Minnaar (b.1984) is a pianist to keep one's ears on. He is is consistently described by critics as able to convey musical essence in all its purity, and I've become convinced this is true. I first came to know him through his contributions with the Van Baerle Trio and I've very much enjoyed his ensemble work. (If you don't know the Van Baerle Trio's complete cycle of Beethoven's Piano Trios, I highly recommend them to you, earlier review here). Recently I've been listening to Minnaar's solo piano recordings, three of which I discuss below. They are very rewarding and well worth hearing! 


Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations, Hannes Minnaar. Challenge Classics | Northstar Recordings. 2022 (DXD) HERE

This is a wonderful new recording of the Goldberg Variations that is delightfully fresh in it's interpretation and performance. In winning the Dutch Edison Award, 2022, for solo instrument performance, the jury report states, "Minnaar's playing with integrity is modest and unadorned, but always captivating. Both in the energetic and hushed movements, subtle dynamics can be heard, always with beautiful legato, singing tone and forward drive.

"Minnaar lets the music speak for itself and doesn't force anything, but still embellishes here and there in interesting ways. Everything sounds intelligent, light and flowing and perfectly logical. Nowhere do you feel that Minnaar is imposing his will, as if he has switched off his ego as an interpreter and is only trying to bring Bach's sound and spirit world to life in the best possible way."

And I think the jury report nicely sums up his very contemporary rendition of the Goldberg Variations. His playing is transparent and detailed, with crystal-clear phrasing. There is supreme control of touch and color but nothing sounds in the least artificial or mannered. Even where there is a very slow tempo, as in the notorious Variation No. 24, he sustains the melody and allows the music to flow. All in all, his performance is one of deep insight. This is a 'Goldberg' for the 21st Century.

And, as delightful as this Goldberg is, don't pass up listening to the bonus disc containing Gedeanken zu Bach by twentieth century composer Daan Manneke. Composed at Minnaar's request for his tour performing the Goldberg Variations in concert, the Gedeanken zu Bach makes a nice counterpoint to the Variations and is presented as a stand-alone work on this album. This by Daan Manneke is deserving of our full attention.

These wonderful performances are further enhanced by the utter clarity of the Chris Maene Straight Strung Concert Grand piano which Minnaar plays (see below for more information), and by the translucent sonics in which master recording engineer Bert van der Wolf captures the music.

The Chris Maene Straight Strung Concert Grand... This recording was made using a Chris Maene Straight Strung Concert Grand built in 2017. This remarkable instrument combines the knowledge and materials used in modern piano building with those found in older historical instruments. The most striking feature is that unlike in modern grand pianos, in which the strings in the bass and middle registers cross, in this instrument all strings run parallel to each other. As a result, it combines the solidity of a modern concert grand piano with the transparent sound ideal of older instruments.

Minnaar began using this piano during the recording of Beethoven's Piano Trios and it is this piano that gives both those recordings of Beethoven and this recording of Bach such a clear, translucent sound.

Nox - Music of Schumann, Zuidam & Ravel, Hannes Minnaar. Challenge Classics | Northstar Recordings. 2020 (DXD) HERE

Entitled Nox, the Latin word for 'night,' this is the night of Schumann's Nachtstücke, Robert Zuidam's Nox and Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit. For each composer, the music reflects differently on this overall theme. As discussed by Bas van Putten in the liner notes, for Schumann, "apart from the slow opening section and the fragile finale, the music is more descriptive of the fleeting transience of daytime than of the secretive, unending night." For Dutch composer Robert Zuidam (b. 1964), "night is the night of toil." For Ravel, it is "night as a monstrosity that—thanks be to God—turned out to be a bad dream."

But programmatic thoughts aside, this is a recital of beautiful, insightful, translucent musicianship. I set aside the story the music may be written around to let the music simply speak for itself. And Minnaar serves as an excellent guide, never inserting himself but instead playing entirely in service to the music. His interpretations have a depth that I find most rewarding, and he plays with a degree of humility that allows the music to flow without one becoming acutely more aware of the performer than the composer.

The opening movement of the Schumann Nachtstücke is maddingly metronomic—one asks will this never end?!? But it is a funeral procession, filled, as Schumann wrote to his sister Clara, with coffins and miserable, despairing people. Yet, Minnaar infuses it with a delightfully subtle flexibility of phrasing that I came to fully appreciate only on a second listen. Am I being contradictory? Perhaps... Perhaps I should simply have written about my second appraisal. But then I might not communicate just how successfully Minnaar delivers the complexity of Schumann's score. This is truly something you should experience. Tell me if I am wrong about how beautiful a job I think he has done here.

And then, suddenly, very satisfyingly, opening movement ends, and the second movement launches in a wild flurry of notes. All of which Minnaar manages with utter clarity.

Robert Zuidam's Nox is a nice complement following the Schumann. Minnaar has programmed this album well, in my opinion, for here we have a thoroughly modern, yet tonal, work that contrasts but does not clash with the other works. Inclusion of contemporary works with more well known repertoire is a programming choice I highly commend. It sets me in mind of Robert von Bahr's programming for his original LP releases on his BIS label—releases I eagerly anticipated because they exposed me to music I might not otherwise have heard.

Zuidam composed his cycle Nox especially for Hannes Minnaar after hearing Minnaar perform the Dutch premier of Zuidam's Tanglewood Concerto in Amsterdam in 2016. (The concerto had been written for Emmanuel Ax under commission from Tanglewood Music Center, where it premiered in 2015.) Zuidam was so impressed by Minnaar's playing that he wrote two Nocturnes for him. Eventually there were five of them, all but one dealing with aspects of darkness, and all five collected in Nox, performed here.

I hope to explore more of Zuidam's music.

Robert Zuidam, portrait

Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit is well known, but makes a nice addition to the program. And Minnaar makes this performance all his own. By bookending the Zuidam Nox with Ravel and Schumann, Minnaar has created a delightful triptych of exploration. The closing movement of Nox is a scintillating cascade titled Perseids passing, that is fascinating of itself. But when programmed as done on this album, it sets a nice entry into the scintillating mysteriousness that is "Ondine," the opening movement to Gaspard.

Did I say that I like listening to whole albums in the order intended by the artists? Well, this delightful program by Minnaar has now become my rebuttal to "track-ists" who just want to download the particular work (or track) in which they have an interest in the moment. There is so much more to learn, to enjoy, to explore with a guide such as here.

As in his other performances, Minnaar stakes his claim with his performance of Gaspard de la Nuit. He gets out of the way to let Ravel's music flow forth on its own. Minnaar's contribution is to lead us, and educate us, as he elucidates this music with refined, nuanced phrasing, utter control, and delicacy of touch. It is a performance filled with color, filled with secretive crevices to explore. His is a fresh traversal of Gaspard which I've thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend.

The album closes with "Dobrou noc!" (Goodnight!) from Janacek's cycle of fifteen piano pieces: On an overgrown path

And a good night this indeed has been. Not only because of the choice of works, but also because of Hannes Minnaar's imagination and skill, the album has become a single cohesive creative work of art. Listening to it all has been a magical hour and thirteen minutes, as magical as the night.

Again in this recording, Minnaar is playing on the Chris Maene Straight Strung Concert Grand (see above) and achieving superlative results from it's very clean clear sound. The bass range of this piano is particularly impressive—very deep, very resonant, but with a clarity I don't hear with many other pianos. Nothing ever gets "muddy." Bert van der Wolf's recording is, yet again, a paragon of clarity and transparency. Bravo!


Fauré Piano Music, Hannes Minnaar. Challenge Classics | Northstar Recordings. 2016 (DXD) HERE

The piano music of Gabriel Urbain Fauré (1845-1924) should not be taken lightly. His music has a unique voice. As Minnaar writes about this music, "In the intimacy of these genres, Fauré succeeded time and again in nothing short of exposing his very soul. And the French composer's style is entirely his own—original and personal—from the first note to the last." In this album we are engaged with a full hour and fifteen minute education on the joys that are the piano compositions of Fauré. I encourage you not to pass it by.

Moving from Nocturne to Barcarolle to Theme and Variations to Preludes, Minnaar applies his welcome reserve to allow the music to simply speak for itself. How many times have I said that in the course of this article? Well, I suppose it is a characteristic of his playing that I value and find ever so enjoyable. Combine that with his immense technique, control and delicate touch, and these pieces simply have a life of their own in his hands. 

And the music is immersive. Ann called for me and I didn't even hear her; she had to come into the room and prod my shoulder to gain my attention.

Yes, you could say I have enjoyed this album. Enjoyed it quite a bit.

Once again, Bert van der Wolf gives us immensely enjoyable sonics in this recording. Highly recommended.

Photos courtesy of Northstar Recordings and Challenge Classics