Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Quiet Knockout from Bruce Levingston

Pianist Brue Levingston’s new Still Sound is a gorgeously conceptual album of nocturnes that follows a concert-like trajectory. It would be simplistic to reduce it to the mechanics of stately lefthand and glimmering upper righthand, although that’s a fairly accurate description of the most traditionally nocturnal pieces here. Intriguingly, Erik Satie is the connecting link, a brave move considering how specifique Satie is.  Levingston doesn’t take any chances with the famous Gymnopedie No. 2, but he does with Gnossiennes No. 2 and 3, and there his whispery, lento interpretation is a knockout, a welcome change from how most players shy away from anything more than letting Satie’s creepy, otherworldly angst speak for itself. Augusta Gross’ Dance of the Spirits makes a great segue: derivative yet inspired, it could be the long-lost Gnossienne #7.

The spaciousness of the Satie is aptly foreshadowed in Levington’s choices of openers, Arvo Part’s minimalist Fur Alina and the more rhythmic Variationen zur gesundung von Arinuschka. Gross, who serves as a parallel connecting element here, is first represented by the quietly macabre allusions of a brief diptych, Venturing Forth Anew. The brisk twinkles and ripples of Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 9, No. 4 make another tremendously successful segue; Levingston takes full advantage of the opportunity to hit it harder as it moves along and darkens before bringing back the opening ambience. Chopin’s distantly uneasy Chopin Nocturne in B flat, Op. 9, No. 1 leaves no doubt what Satie’s stepping-off point was. The album’s concluding tracks include William Bolcom’s New York Lights, which gets a wistful reading, Levingston’s lefthand mimicking the sonics of an upright bass feeling for steady ground around a central tone, and then a steadily gleaming take on Gross’ Reflections on Air. Out now on Sono Luminus, it’s a quietly powerful reminder of why Levingston has become the go-to pianist for many of this era’s most intriguing composers.

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May 6, 2012 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 9/25/10

Happy birthday Rama!

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #857:

Chopin – 24 Preludes – Walter Klien, Piano

We began this countdown last month not with single album but with a page full of obvious choices: Dark Side of the Moon, London Calling, Sketches of Spain and a whole slew of iconic, well-known ones that we figured needed no explanation. This one doesn’t need much of that either. There are a million Chopin preludes collections out there; we chose this one out of familiarity (admittedly, not a very good reason), the quality of the pieces (one classic after another) and the fact that Klien’s 1960 recording is truly excellent. For anyone who might be new to his music, pianist and composer Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was the godfather of gypsy rock, a paradigm shifter and the guy most responsible for jumpstarting the Romantic era (following the Classical era, of Haydn and Mozart) in western instrumental music. Much of his work is wrenchingly intense, dark, brooding and unselfconsciously anguished, as are many of these, notably the dirgelike C Minor Prelude and the otherwordly E Minor one, both of which have been in a million movies and which you will instantly recognize if you don’t already know them. More effectively than any other composer, he blended the austere, bitter minor key chromatics of eastern Europe with the simpler majors and minors of the west. Without Chopin, it’s hard to imagine Tschaikovsky, Rachmaninoff or for that matter Gogol Bordello. As popular as this particular album was, a search for torrents didn’t turn up anything promising, probably because search engines mistake Klien’s name for “klein.” So here’s one for a well-known, solidly good Maurizio Pollini collection.

September 25, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Kai Schumacher Plays Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated

Unconventional virtuoso playing a suitably unconventional composition. Kai Schumacher was a good choice to record Frederic Rzewski’s iconic 1975 homage to revolutionary ideals, considering the diversity of his background (conservatory, new music and fulltime gig as keyboardist in scorching German rock band Trustgame). The rock comes in handy here because this is a very physically demanding piece, requiring the pianist to play percussion, vocalize and do all kinds of messing around with sustained overtones. It’s proof that didactic music sometimes makes good listening. Essentially, it’s about how revolutions reach critical mass. Parts of it are rigorously mathematical, carefully grouped into growing clusters of notes to symbolize the growing numbers embracing a paradigm shift, but even more of it is unabashedly Romantic – no matter what ideology you give something, ultimately it’s the way it sounds, the way it comes across that determines whether the people sing along.

After the intial theme – famous Chilean composer Sergio Ortega’s revolutionary song, from which this pieces takes its title – ideas sprinkle themselves out from the upper registers, leading to a few staccato, seemingly random plinks – are they lost in space? No. They come back slowly. Twelve-tone rows cascade in jarring sequence, pregnant pauses go on for what seems like ten or fifteen seconds at a clip, and the various interwoven themes – Hans Eisler’s Solidarity Song, and the Italian Red Brigade anthem – move in and out of focus. A waltz and a deviously bouncy atonal fugue sandwich one of those pregnant pauses. Crescendos alternate between triumphant heroic themes and mad dashes of dissonance. Melody tantalizes much like the promise of post-revolutionary normalcy but obstacles keep it from reaching fruition. Schumacher keeps a level head and plays all but the most savage passages with an understatedly smooth attack, employing a vast range of dynamics for emphasis rather than launching into any kind of garish pyrotechnics. By the time the Cadenza comes around he’s been charged up by eight stabbing minutes of staccato noir cabaret and latin folk tune permutations to the point where there is no stopping anymore and the fireworks finally kick in, ablaze in hard-rocking Rachmaninovian fury.

As Schumacher relates in the liner notes, the piece concludes with a somber restatement of the Ortega theme –  a measure of defeat, or of defiance no matter what the odds? Maybe the listener’s interpretation might determine that. To paraphrase Aurelia Shrenker (whose own paradigm-shifting vocal duo project Æ with Eva Salina Primack we just reviewed), wouldn’t it be cool if this song was one that everybody knew?

March 10, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Fernando Otero – Vital

Album title: understatement of the month. Argentinian composer/pianist Fernando Otero gets around: he frequently plays with Arturo O’Farrill’s latin jazz orchestra, has collaborated with Dave Grusin and Dave Valentin and was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet for a Carnegie Hall premiere. Vital, his latest album is a darkly austere collection of miniatures for strings and piano, spanning the worlds of neo-Romantic, cinematic soundscapes and jazz. Many of these pieces are absolutely haunting, even macabre: this stuff packs an emotional wallop. It may be only February, but this is a good bet to show up on a lot of “best of” lists at the end of the year.

The album starts out with three pieces for violin and piano: a creepy noir waltz with piano and gracefully pensive Nick Danielson violin that segues into a thoughtful conversation between the two instruments, building with considerable apprehension. Globalizacion takes the form of a rapidfire, shuffling chase sequence – is it us chasing Jeffrey Sachs and his band of robber barons, or are we on the run from them? Siderate starts out as an uneasy Satie-esque tone poem with Hector del Curto’s bandoneon out front, Luis Nacht’s tenor sax rising to a blaring, impatient crescendo before the whole thing winds down with macabre-tinged piano.

Violin takes centerstage on the warmly Romantic La Abundancia, something akin to Jenny Scheinman meets Beethoven. The following track reverts to uneasy mode, a brief warped boogie segueing into what’s billed here as a dance but is more of a chase scene. On Reforma Mental, tinkling noir piano leads into a matter-of-factly ominous tradeoff between bandoneon and strings; the aptly titled, six-minute La Casa Vacia, for piano and violin is raw and woundedly evocative. The album winds up with the atmospheric, nocturnal Noche Iluminada, lit up with long passages for bandoneon and violin and the suspensefully cinematic Fin de Revision with its “what’s up” piano theme that quickly gives way to darkness again. The album’s just out on World Village Music.

February 10, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Miori Sugiyama Plays Chopin at Bargemusic, Brooklyn NY 2/6/10

A fresh, vigorous, potently counterintuitive interpretation of iconic Chopin works for solo piano. Miori Sugiyama’s formidable technique is matched by an equally fine-tuned emotional intelligence- she gets this music – and a hair-trigger detector for devices that might cross the line into cliche. Those she wanted nothing to do with. No disrespect to Chopin, but Romantic piano music can be just as stylized as any other genre and there are places where it’s hardly difficult to figure out what he wrote to pay the bills, and what came straight from the heart. Sugiyama wasted no time in going for authenticity of emotion. From a contemporary perspective, it wouldn’t be completely accurate to describe how she tackled the program as radical – no electronics or rock band were involved – but sixty years ago it would have been. When a familiar trope loomed, she’d get a running start and go sailing over it, sidestep it with a jump or a quick turn or simply trample it in a stampede to get to the good stuff. It was as effective a performance as it was personal and individual.

The Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23 benefited vastly from a strikingly rubato approach: Sugiyama didn’t let the courtly waltziness of much of it fake her out a bit, uncovering every raw, resonant tonality she could find. A pair of nocturnes (F Sharp Minor, Op. 15, No. 2 and C Sharp, Op. 27, No. 2) gave her less of an opportunity to mine for that kind of treasure: in her hands, they glimmered comfortably but not complacently. By contrast, the Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor, Op. 20 was a breathtaking showcase for a lightning sostenuto attack, rushing rapids punctuated by pregnant pauses, if ever so brief before the torrents returned. Ironically, the one piece that might have benefited from a straight-up reading instead of an attempt to find its inner menschkeit was the Scherzo No. 2 in B Flat Minor, Op. 31, a staple of classical radio for decades whose martial theme stops just short of bombast (with that one, the temptation is to ham it up Victor Borge style). Sugiyama wound up the program with an inspired, fluid precision that defied another kind of serious rocking as river waves got the barge swaying, definitely not in time with the music. The Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise in E Flat, Op. 22, more of a real nocturne than anything else on the bill, was given the chance to build gracefully. Sugiyama then blasted through a minuet passage, got it out of the way and brought the intensity to redline with molten-metal glissandos leading inexorably to a fiery conclusion.

Miori Sugiyama is also playing the big upcoming Chopin marathon at the World Financial Center, March 1-5: watch this space.

February 7, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Katya Grineva – Love and Fire: The Dances

The latest album by self-described Romantic pianist and Carnegie Hall favorite (she’s playing there on June 12 at 8 ) Katya Grineva is a treat for fans of canonical 19th century favorites, proudly idiosyncratic and unabashedly individualistic. Grineva was seemingly born to play the Romantics, wringing plenty of angst and longing out of a mix of familiar standards, Piazzolla classics and a perhaps predictably but aptly emotional take of the Ravel Bolero. On both the Chopin Mazurka in A Minor and the Waltz in E Minor, she mines the dynamics for heart-tugging shifts that stop just this side of overwrought – yet, by contrast, she lets the Albeniz Tango breathe for itself, a smart move. Granados’ Planera Spanish Dance is likewise allowed to shimmer and gleam, at a tastefully stately pace.

Most impressively, it’s the Piazzolla that best draws out Grineva’s intensity. Adios Nonino, a requiem written right after the death of the composer’s father, is stoic yet wrenching. An abbreviated arrangement of the sprawling crazy-love anthem Balada Para Un Loco is considerably more blazing and percussive than the original, and Grineva careens through its louder passages like a woman possessed, after which Manuel de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dances makes a perfect segue. The Bolero alternates between slinkiness and impatience, a nice contrast to see in a piece where some performers find none at all.  

Grineva’s Carnegie Hall show this week is billed as a family-friendly event, lots of familiar standards by Debussy, Satie and Chopin and others delivered with characteristic verve: bring a 15-year-old friend, family member or someone who looks hopelessly underage, and they get in free with your paid admission.

June 9, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment