Düsseldorf gadabout Volker Bertelmann has his fingers in a lot of pies, most of them on the right side of saccharine: the purring Morr-style electronica of Music A.M., the stolid pastoral groove of Tonetraeger, some admittedly strange co-writing credits with Teutonic vixen Madelin Zero. But he’s especially compelling in his solo work as Hauschka, an heir to the prepared piano technique propagated by Satie via Cage, and this mostly because he takes it upon himself to actually prepare the piano for something.
On Ferndorf, Hauschka’s fourth album and second for the increasingly transcendentalist FatCat imprint, that something is reminiscence. This doesn’t come through oppressively or even particularly conceptually – I’m merely trusting the press kit here that Ferndorf is where Bertelmann grew up and that each song invokes a specific place or memory – it just gives a context to the amiable tiptoe and noontide poignancy of each piece. Is that context necessary? No, and by design it’s personal and thus negligibly accessible (“‘Morgenrot’ refers to the window of his room which faced onto the rising red sky in summer mornings”). But that’s how it should be done, something Bertelmann appreciates better than does fellow piano-imagist Ólafur Arnalds. Ferndorf gains little from its back story but loses nothing without it; to a greater degree than most records of its ilk, it is resolutely what it is.
Which is ironic, sort of, what with the clavier tampering and all. But in truth the piano on Ferndorf, if a little more buoyant and percussive than most, draws no undue attention to itself. It remains the skeleton of each piece, but on the whole acts more as tour guide than one-man-show. In “Barfuss durch Gras” it plinks and writhes on a bed of strings and possibly horns, but just as often it cedes the foreground to the same instruments. Elsewhere Bertelmann interpolates electronic effects, adorning the glumness of “Eltern” and providing a secret pulse to “Freibad” (“an outdoor swimming pool in the forest, where Volker and friends would swim by moonlight”). It takes a little standing back to admire the breadth of moods he evokes with the same stately makeup, but that slow-release acquaintance is part of the album’s dignified self-sufficiency.
The flipside, of course, is that Ferndorf is too dignified to tug at your sleeve: it’s pretty and evocative and only about as immediately useful as Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack work. But just as Bertelmann is content to keep his mission personal rather than public, he gains more from sticking to the past than he loses by ignoring the present. He’s doing his thing, not yours, and the product is all the better for his knowing it. It’s unlikely that you need this, but it doesn’t let you down if you happen to want it.