Here’s a rare album where the evocative, retro abstract expressionist cover image matches the music. Pianist Alexander Melnikov has teamed up with violinist Isabelle Faust and trumpeter Jeroen Berwaerts, plus the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Teodor Currentzis for a stunningly intuitive, sonically rich live concert hall-style recording of Shostakovich music just out on Harmonia Mundi. It’s yet another reason why Shostakovich’s catalog is always worth revisiting, for listeners as much as for ensembles.
The lush sonics, in particular, remind how much the shadow of Rachmaninoff looms over much of this. The solo playing, particularly Melnikov’s careful, precise, minutely jeweled dynamics and Faust’s equally considered, judicious atmospherics and pizzicato make a perfect match for Shostakovich the Late Romantic.
Which makes this album all the more fascinating: for anyone who’s immersed themselves in the composer’s string quartets or the symphonies from No. 4 onwards, it’s a real eye-opener. It gets off to a false start with the Piano Sonata, Op. 102, No. 2, a piece from the late fifties with a rather coldly celebratory first movement. But given more substantial material, the performers go warily but passionately into the ominous foreshadowing of the second movement and the brightly scampering music-box variations in the third. If the second is a requiem for friends murdered by the KGB, the third could be a thinly veiled depiction of the gestapo itself.
In a just world, this particular version of the 1968 Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134, No. 1 would popularize the piece beyond its status as noir cult classic: its distantly menacing, steadily crescendoing intensity, suspenseful orchestral accents behind Melnikov’s furtive piano and then its exhausted but dramatically cinematic, largo dirge linger long after it’s over. Composers these days are still trying to catch up with how this one balances atonalism and crushingly catchy melodic hooks. The backstory is that it was written for the composer’s pal, celebrated violinist David Oistrakh,who debuted it with Sviatslav Richter on piano. In fact, modern listeners may prefer this version over the original’s Richter detachment, with Oistrakh sounding a little overwrought.
The Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra, from 1933, plays up tension between a wholly Romantic theme and chilling countervoices, Berwaerts offering absolutely no hint that he’ll suddenly be cast in the role of bearer of bad news. Through its windswept, eerie second movement, suspensefully Rachmaninovian moderato third movement and the cruelly faux-operatic, unconvincingly triumphant final overture, it’s a harbinger of dread, in both a historical and musical sense – and one of the most casually stunning classical recordings of recent months.
The Yes! Trio with Aaron Goldberg on piano, Omer Avital on bass and Ali Jackson on drums have a new album just out on Sunnyside. Last night they played the first of their two record release shows for it at the Jazz Standard – if melodic jazz that’s equal parts wit and chops is your thing, you should see their show tonight (sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM). Avital and Jackson have a long history together since their days as young lions of the scene that coalesced around Smalls in the early 90s and re-energized jazz in this city, so they have a good idea of when the other’s punchlines might be coming – Avital tends to be the scene-stealer here but not always. Goldberg’s role in this tends to be a raised eyebrow, “I know what you’re up to back there,” although he’s not above leaving the gravitas behind and flying off with the rest of the crew, typically when least expected. Their camaraderie can be friendly, or droll, and it’s steeped in years of experience in a vast range of styles (the last time we caught Avital, he was playing a Paul McCartney model bass guitar, and then oud, in an Israeli rock band).
Their show last night was bright, bristling with energy and electric with anticipation. They opened with an expansive modal blues titled Mohammed’s Market, Goldberg holding it together with clenched-teeth composure, Avital taking the first of several tongue-in-cheek solos spiced with brief flashes of standards, cheesy pop songs, “charge” motifs and pretty much anything else he could scrape up in a flash, bending his high strings with a bluesy, guitarish grin. Goldberg related how they’d just written the song hours before, Avital singing the melody to the band rather than handing out charts: “As you can see, we don’t usually have music to go from,” Goldberg deadpaned. Jackson explained later in the set how he’d inspired Avital to write it: years ago, the two were touring the former East Germany a couple of years after the Berlin Wall came down. Fast food and vending machines had yet to make it into the train stations there, so “If you didn’t have breakfast, good luck!” he explained. Fortunately, he had a local to visit – an aunt – who took him out to stock up on snacks. On the train the next day, Jackson opened his suitcase for some munchies, causing one of his jealous bandmates to ask, “What’s that, Mohammed’s Market?”
They swung the next tune with a similarly bluesy edge, Avital taking another lengthy digression. The jazz waltz El Sol maintained a suspenseful vibe, straight through a whispery, conspiratorial outro. They hit their lone cover of the evening, Epistrophy, hard, matter-of-factly Monk-like, not wasting any time. Goldberg drew them out of yet another heavy-lidded, gleeful Avital solo with a build to a breathtaking, cascading, ringingly chromatic run up and then down again, which drew the loudest applause of the night. Their final number, Flow, was based on changes to Giant Steps. Finally, after an entire set of urbane elegance, Jackson put that approach down for good and rode the rims til the second verse, galloping and carnivalesque, with an interlude where he hit on the “one” in an attempt to out do Avital at the vaudevillian game. When he straightened out, he was still spotting random Kenny Washington-style off-beat accents to keep everybody on their toes – including the audience. A little later on, Goldberg let out a yell as the band went doublespeed, punching out the seemingly endless series of expanding intervals with triumphant precision. What these guys really ought to do is one of those “live at the Jazz Standard” albums like the Mingus Orchestra did a couple of years ago: the pristine sound and the band’s lively fan base would only enhance it.