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Outside Toys R Us, the toy piano is a serious niche instrument. It’s related to the xylophone and glockenspiel – the hammers hit metal rods instead of strings. Despite the instrument’s apparently limited expressive capacity, a repertoire has developed, following Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano (1948), and pianists such as Phyllis Chen have continued to develop its possibilities. An excellent example is this collaboration between composer Karlheinz Essl and Austrian pianist Isabel Ettenauer, featuring his compositions from 2005-2013. Ettenauer plays the Schoenhut – the Steinway of the toy piano world – and other models.

The delightful Kalimba, named after the African thumb piano, applies Cage-style preparation, using a loudspeaker inside the toy piano to mix in electronically enriched sounds and a thimble on the rods to produce glissandos. Confusingly, Sequitur XIV is actually written for kalimba and live electronics, and develops an eight-part canon. The lively WebernSpielWerk and Sequitur V feature laptop and interactive software, with Essl on ring modulator.

In Pandora’s Revelation and Whatever Shall Be, a music box provides acoustic raw material. The latter piece uses sounds from the instrument’s inside; an internal mic is attached to a custom-made computer program. At the end, a music box plays Que Sera, Sera, from which all rhythmic, melodic and harmonic structures have been derived. The result is colourful, varied and richly inventive music – a compelling release that shows the possibilities of the modest toy piano, when these are exploited in imaginative conjunction with other resources.

ANDY HAMILTON Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2015 - ©Rhinegold Publishing