"…Piano Icons for the 21st Century ... My disc of 2000 is without hesitation Elena Riu’s extraordinary CD of 20th century piano music featuring, among others, works by Part, Sculthorpe, Mompou and the premiere of Tavener’s Ypaköe …"
Gramophone, January 2001

"The Venezuelan pianist Elena Riu, with her mixture of radicalism and unworldliness is the perfect interpreter of John Tavener"
The Independent


Elena gave the world premier of Sir John Tavener’s Ypakoe at the 1999 City of London Festival.
The piece – his first work for solo piano in over twenty years- was specially written for Elena.

John and Elena were introduced by Peter Philips back in the late eighties. A mutual interest in mysticism, good weather and Spanish wine kept them in touch and led to the gestation of this work.


Hilary Finch, The Times, Friday July 9, 1999

Divine Solo Meditation
Recital – Elena Riu, Ironmongers’ Hall

The matching of faces to spaces is at least half the fun of the City of London Festival. Inuit throat-singing in St Bartholomew’s, Venezuelan puppet theatre in Bishopsgate Hall; and now a Venezuelan pianist presenting a John Tavener premiere among the wood panelling and gleaming silverware of Ironmongers’ Hall.
On Monday Tavener himself was present to hear Elena Riu give the first performance of his Ypakoe, a 20-minute meditation for solo piano on the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. The composer has described the piece as "a totally spiritual concept – to atone the individual’s (performer’s of listener’s) will to the divine will.". Only those to whom this means something will know what he means. But anyone with ears to hear will surely sense out the power of the polarities at play in the music: the opening confident, earthy tread of chant, and the winged trilling of the work’s penultimate section; the brilliant flashes of figuration, and the final, inconclusive still small voice.
Here, it seems, is the meeting of the human and the divine, the Fall and the Flight – in short, the central mystery of the Incarnation. They meet as the chanting and trilling of right and left hands are calmed into harmony, in a central, bare chorale, and in a climactic memory of a chorale prelude whose own trilling apotheosis was so exuberantly recreated by Riu.
This powerful premiere was cunningly programmed, so that the new work seemed to celebrate so much of what had preceded it in the first half: the meditative Charmes of the Catalan composer Mompou; the ornament and artifice of his earlier compatriot Soler; and the impassioned verbal inflections of Janacek’s In the Mists.
So far, so good. But Tavener’s Ypakoe was a hard act to follow. And a Mozart sonata was perhaps not the way to do it. Better to have dares to leap directly into the path of those other lords of the dance, Albeniz, Piazzola and Nazareth, whose tangos formed a seductive and strangely fitting end to the evening.


Michael Church, The Independent

Esoteric allusions in exotic hands

After a 20-year break, the composer John Tavener has returned to writing for the piano, with results to be unveiled tonight. Given that he started life as a pianist, and that he routinely uses the piano to compose on, why the long gap? "It’s an instrument I don’t particularly like listening to on its own," he replies. "And I find it very difficult to write for, perhaps because I know it too well." Then he elaborates. On any instrument you play, you tend to write for yourself. I, for example, have a very wide hand-span – I can easily play consecutive 10th – and this shows through in what I write. One doesn’t have the same creative freedom as one does when writing for an instrument one doesn’t play. And even then you have to fight the sort of tendency that you notice with Stravinsky: no matter what instrument he uses, you always sense that this work was originally conceived at the piano." Hence Tavener’s strivings with the cello and the soprano voice.

I haven’t heard the eccentrically titled Hypakoë, but I have seen the manuscript, and very daunting it looks. This is less for technical reasons – though there are four solid pages if consecutive trills – than for philosophical ones. On the opening page, in Tavener’s elegant scrawl, is an introductory paragraph explaining that the Greek title refers to "the Hypapoë of Easter", and that the 20-minute piece is a meditation on the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. "The music is of an esoteric nature, rather than an exoteric nature." No, don’t look it up: "exoteric" is merely an esoteric way of saying "for the uninitiated".

The score is studded with liturgical allusions. "Let all mortal flesh keep silent..." "The Lord awoke as one that sleepeth..." What hope do the uninitiated have of understanding such stuff? "It doesn’t matter to me whether the audience understand those allusions or not. They were in my mind as I wrote the music, but those who hear it can interpret it as they wish. It’s not a sophisticated piece. It’s got a peasant-like quality – a hair- shirtedness – and a lot of sounds from Russian medieval chant." Another Eastern sound comes when the performer is asked to produce the effect of the kanun, the Phoenician zither.

So when Elena Riu takes the stage at the Ironmongers’ Hall in London tonight, she’ll face an interesting challenge. She is at least aware of the ironies of the situation: a mystical work commissioned by a City financier (Sir Nicholas Goodison), and premiered for a select audience of well-heeled folk. She’d play it again at 10pm for a second audience if they’d let her; she’s spreading the gospel with further performances in Dartington (25 July) and Edinburgh (7 August). She’d ideally have launched it at a "democratic" venue like St Martin-in-the Fields, "but absolutely not at the festival Hall, which would be completely wrong for this work".
On meeting this petite Venezuelan pianist you realise that Tavener has found his ideal interpreter, for she brings her own combination of radicalism and unworldliness. The daughter of the Catalan communist philosopher Federico Riu, Elena was originally destined for a literary career and only gravitated to the piano in her twenties. As a result, her approach to music remains refreshingly unorthodox.

"It’s not just notes: I always try to discover where composers are feeding from," she says. With the Tavener piece, it helped that she shares the composer’s interest in Orthodox mysticism, but she also soaked herself in visual imagery, including Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev, which chronicles the life of a 15th-century Russian icon-painter through the turbulence of civil war.

On a record to be released by the Linn label in September, she has teamed Hypaköe with Janacek’s In The Mist, plus an intriguing collection of miniatures by three composers who, in her view, are on a similar wavelength: Peter Sculthorpe, Federico Mompou, and the inevitable Arvo Pärt. As a fellow-Catalan, and after long discussions with Mompou’s widow, she has a hot line to the mysteries of that composer’s Charmes. Mompou himself described his terse pieces, which appear to evaporate in the air, as "spells to alleviate suffering and call up joy"; they’re perfectly attuned to the Tavener project. And to get into the mood to play art-inspired works by the Australian Peter Sculthorpe, Riu surrounded herself with Aboriginal bark-paintings and prints by Hiroshige.
But if she has a crusade, it’s for the music of her origins: last year she ran the Spanish Plus series at the South Bank, including a recital of sonatas by Antonio Soler which she has now committed to disc. Soler has been all but eclipsed by his teacher Domenico Scarlatti. Riu is determined to redress the balance. She loves the fertile unpredictability, which she brings out exhilaratingly in performance; one can well understand the furore his musical theories provoked in their day.

She thinks far more money and thought should be spent on devising concerts for children; she regularly plays for handicapped audiences in Camp Hill communities. When I first encountered Riu, she was giving a masterclass on Granados and Goya at Dartington summer school, and she’ll be back there this month. Let’s hope she creates some clones, for we can do with more of her sort.