Minimalist master finds his dancing shoes - Nils Frahm, Barbican, review

Nils Frahm at the Barbican
Nils Frahm at the Barbican Credit: Tom Howard

Three songs into Nils Frahm’s concert at the Barbican, the German composer played the track My Friend the Forest, from his new album All Melody, his seventh studio work. It could be described as a classic Frahm piece: built from simple, beautiful piano structures that melt into sadness.

For the past decade, Frahm has been creating these haunting minimalist masterpieces, bringing millions of listeners to a new generation of artists bracketed together as “new classical” or “contemporary classical”, such as the similarly melancholic Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds. Frahm and Arnalds once collaborated on a set of improvised pieces that would have had even the most happy-go-lucky shedding a wistful tear for lost loves and the inescapable sorrow of existence. 

But something seems to have changed, perhaps from around the time that Frahm created a brilliant reworking of Booka Shade’s techno banger Night Falls for the 10th anniversary release of the fellow German duo’s groundbreaking Movement album in 2016. Since then, Frahm appears to have found unexpected solace in synthesized bass and slamming kick-drum, much in evidence here in works from the new album, such as the superb rhythmic title track and Sunson. Heartbeat; increasing heartbeat.

At times the contrast between these poles was startling – as if Frahm had been busily meditating on the nature of a single flower, then suddenly opened his eyes to find vivid, noisy, urban life all around. In fact, he has been building a new studio in Berlin for the past two years, and there was a sense of the studio wizard here, mixing electronic sounds with organic ones inside two keyboard “pods”, typified by a child’s piano perched atop a pedal organ, close to a drum machine. 

The likeable Frahm punctuated his songs with self-deprecating interludes, in which he compared the electronic organ he had spent ages building to an album bought as a teenager, which you tried hard to like because you’d spent good money on it (although I really can’t say that I warmed to some of its panpipe-like programming).

The Barbican visit is part of Frahm's All Melody tour Credit: Tom Howard

The encore was a return to earlier piano-based tracks, such as the gorgeous, heartfelt Our Own Room from the soundtrack of the 2015 film Victoria, and the racing, serialist More, which he began by playing on the grand piano’s strings with toilet brushes. There’s warmth and depth in Frahm’s back catalogue, but his future may turn out to be harder-edged and dancier.