Classically trained Russian pianist, Olga Stankevich places herself in a unique musical niche. Her instrumental compositions heavily utilize her skills as a musician and display a wonderful amount of intricate finesse on the piano. But her creations are far removed from her classical background as they incorporate layers upon layers of club ready synthesizers. This brings her music firmly into the realm of the dance club. On her 2014 album, Alone With the City, Stankevich brings us seven examples of her hybrid style and while many of the tracks work, a few of them find her piano playing buried too deep in the heavily produced synthesizers.
“Moscow Midnight” leads the album off with a strong introduction to what Stankevich is capable of as a pianist. It’s a well written pop piece with a simple percussion track. Her playing is rich and lush but also focused. By staying in the realm of pop compositions she’s able to keep the melody focused while still making room for ornamentation and some expansion on the melody. The keyboards that come in are mostly for accentuation and don’t detract from the piano performance. The occasional breakdown that the song goes into as well, keeps the track fresh and invigorating.
The song that follows, “Beyond The Time,” goes right for the modern sound by bringing in the synthesizers immediately. Outside of the typical keyboard sound there’s also the tone of an oboe like instrument that starts the song’s melody. Eventually the piano does come in and Stankevich displays amazingly nimble finger work as she cascades up and down the ivories. The synths never relent as they continue to pulse away. Additionally a faux string section comes in, heightening the tension and drama of the music. “Smile,” the piece that follows this also utilizes the synthetic string section to great effect. As strong as the piano playing is, the layers of instrumentation give the entire song a full and vibrant feeling.
The longest track on the album, “Recalcitrance,” is also the strongest. Unlike a club track that relies on extended repetition to make it longer and danceable, “Recalcitrance” grows and evolves over time, like a piece of progressive pop. The piano is right upfront to start, playing a slower and richer tone. By the time the drum track and synths begin to come in, the tone has been set to be a bit more ominous. The song has legitimate moments of tension, particularly around the two minute mark as Stankevich builds up the piano to a quick crescendo and surrenders to the gripping synths. The song continues from there, building up atmosphere and drama in an almost cinematic way.
“Sound Sleep” is a similarly dark song, relying on the richness of Stankevich’s piano to provide a deep, tranquil atmosphere. As opposed to “Recalcitrance” that was tense and climactic, “Sound Sleep” takes after its titular phrase by remaining somber and peaceful. The synth layers take on forms of background noise at points, resembling vocal choirs and birds and wind in the night. Fortunately, none of these really detract from the beautiful melody that Stankevich has at her fingertips.
The remaining songs, “Walk” and “In Limbo” are both guilty of burying the piano under too many layers of keyboards. That’s not to say that the piano is inaudible or not present, but it just tends to get buried in the mix. For example, “Walk” has a very simple refrain that Stankevich plays, but the increasing amount and variety of synthesized sounds makes the piano almost a superfluous afterthought. The problem with this is that it’s Stankevich’s ability as a pianist that makes her music so distinct. To mute this part of the sound suddenly makes her compositions no more distinct than generic club music in general. “In Limbo” isn’t quite as guilty of this, in large part because the piano part is much more complex than it is in “Walk.” Even then, the amount of overproduction and overemphasis on everything but the piano drastically weakens the piece as a whole.
Alone With the City is an incredibly distinct album in the club and solo piano genres. Olga Stankevich’s blending of these two sounds is remarkably effective when the house and trance influences aren’t overshadowing her classical training. For the most part, she gets the mix of these sounds exactly right, and makes a solo piano recording far more exciting than what other musicians would be capable of. It is by all means an adventurous recording and anyone looking for an instrumental record with a bit of a twist would be hard pressed to find something quite as interesting as this.