Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Terse, Tuneful Cinematics from Ljova & the Kontraband

[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily, which has appropriated the Balkan and Slavic sounds this blog covered for years]

Is there a more cinematic composer working today than Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin? It would seem not. Like all film composers, he’s called on to portray every emotion and every possible scenario within a very short time frame, which informs his writing beyond the world of film as well. His latest album, No Refund on Flowers, with his string ensemble the Kontraband is considerably more stripped-down and a lot closer to those shapeshifting cinematics than the group’s boisterous, lushly orchestrated, absolutely brilliant 2008 debut, Mnemosyne. Which is to say that its charms are somewhat more subtle. Its title is a wry reference to a sign in the window at Ljova’s corner deli, Sing & Sing Market at 96th and Columbus Ave. He distinguishes himself with a devious wit along with his nonchalantly sizzling chops on the viola and fadolin along with accordionist Patrick Farrell, bassist Mike Savino and percussionist Mathias Kunzli. Vocals are  by Ljova’s wife, the crystalline, brilliant singer Inna Barmash. What’s most obvious from the first few bars of the dancing opening track, Sam I Am, is how much fun this band is having. Who would have expected the tangoesque (Ljova is a GREAT tango composer) interlude, or the Russian chromatics thrown in for good measure, or the way the band lets the suspense linger without any resolution?

The Blaine Game, a tightly wound, shapeshifting romp centered around a fluid accordion riff was written in a Blaine, Washington coffeeshop between jazz workshops, Kunzli’s rattle doing a fair impersonation of an espresso machine. Barmash – frontwoman of the deliriously fun Russian/Romany band Romashka – sings the John Jacob Niles version of Black Is the Colour, with a tender, crystalline resonance and some spine-tingling high notes, maxing out the torch factor over what’s essentially a tone poem until it goes all psychedelic and eerie. It has very little in common with the old English folk song.

The swaying nocturne Yossik’s Lullaby portrays one of Zhurbin’s sons as the more serious of the two; his brother Benjy gets a joyous bounce with operatic echoes and a big crescendo. Likewise, Mad Sketchbook, a NYC subway tableau, grows cleverly from a catchy circular theme to frenetic clusters and then back. The centerpiece of the album is By the Campfire, a sadly pulsing, chromatically-charged waltz, with a creepy, explosive, crashingly noisy interlude, Barmash sliding up and leading the band into a raging march. The lyrics – which Barmash translated from a 12th century German poem – echo a sadly universal theme: “Lies and spite rule the world, law is dead, truth is poisoned – the wisdom of our age teaches theft, deceit and hate. ” The album winds up with a pulsing waltz that builds on a riff from Mahler.

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May 26, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, folk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ljova & the Kontraband Play Smart, Fun Music for Kids and Their Parents Too

Kinetically shapeshifting, stunningly eclectic Slavic string ensemble Ljova & the Kontraband played two shows Sunday evening at the National Opera Center, one for the kids and one for the adults. What was most striking was that even as bandleader/viola virtuoso Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin kept a mostly kindergarten-and-under audience attentive and often wildly involved – the perimeter of the room quickly becoming a proto-moshpit – he and the band never dumbed down the material. Nor did they condescend to the children: no babytalk, no “LLLEEETTT’SSS TTTAAALLLKKK IIINNN SLOOO- MOOO.” He challenged the kids, and bantered with them, and they rose to the occasion. As it turned out, one of the girls quickly identified his instrument as not being a violin. Another kid wanted to know why Zhurbin had switched to viola at age twelve after seven years playing the violin. “I like a lower sound,” he explained. “All the high notes on the violin made me want to freeze!”

You think an American kid can’t dance in 7/8 time? You didn’t see the five-and-unders having a ball with it at this show. “You can count to seven, right?” Zhurbin grinned, and it sure looked as if they did. What was funny, and maybe predictable, was how the girls (a slightly older demographic here) hung toward the front and watched, and took it all in, and responded eagerly to Zhurbin’s dry wit while the boys thundered around the room, amped from the steady boom of Mathias Kunzli’s frame drum, Jordan Morton’s nimble, trickily syncopated, richly dynamic bass, Patrick Farrell’s torrential, often seemingly supersonic accordion volleys and Zhurbin’s own dancing, constantly metamorphosizing viola lines. What was almost as cool was how the parents let the kids run free: no helicoptering, no mom in hot pursuit with bottle of hand sanitizer or baby wipes. Then again, it makes sense to assume that fans of this band would make cool parents. And they were down with the wrly edgy cinematics of Bagel on the Malecon and the uneasy yet tongue-in-cheek bouncy-house rhythms of Love Potion, Expired and the rest of a largely upbeat set while the herd ran amok

The second set was for the parents, the kids moving to an adjacent room for a set by a similarly lively group, vintage French pop revivalists Banda Magda. And it was a opportunity, as Zhurbin explained, to get more subtle and even more eclectic, showcasing a handful of tracks from the band’s excellent new, second album, No Refund on Flowers, as well as a few older crowd-pleasers and lots of pretty intense new material. This group has commissioned a lot of new material via Kickstarter (food for thought for other bands), and they played a few of those, notably a surprisingly stately, carefully considered wedding waltz for an older Vermont couple who never had a chance for a first one since the husband had to rush off to World War II.

They also romped through the deviously shifting metrics of Sam I Am – a dedication to an Upper West Side character from Zhurbin’s Columbus Avenue neighborhood – as well as a haunting Transylvanian theme, a dizzyingly polyrhythmic dance, and a broodingly stunning version of the old folk song Black Is the Color, Zhurbin’s wife Inna Barmash bringing the lights down with her plaintive vocals while Farrell switched to piano and met her intensity head-on, note for note. They closed with the similarly poignant, imploringly crescendoing Mnemosyne, the title track from the band’s previous album, Barmash leading the rising waves of angst. It was a far cry from the delirious dance party they’d just given the kids and testament to the ability of this group to switch gears in a split second and make it seem completely natural. Then again, if film music is your stock in trade, as it is with this band, that’s second nature.

May 13, 2014 Posted by | concert, gypsy music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ljova’s New Cinematic Album – A Movie for the Ears

Virtuoso violist and film composer Ljova’s new album is a lot like the Everything Is Illuminated soundtrack, but more emotionally diverse and ultimately not as dark. A cinephile since childhood, he includes pieces here which have appeared over the last couple of years in films by Francis Ford Coppola, James Marsh, Lev Polyakov and several others. Fans of gypsy music are probably wondering if this is the new Romashka album – well…no, although that charismatic and equally eclectic gypsy band is featured pretty spectacularly on side one (Ljova has arranged the album with a happy A-side, and a more brooding B-side that ends rather hilariously). It’s literally a movie for the ears: that these vignettes and longer set pieces stand up as well as they do without the visuals testifies to how strong they are. Ljova’s signature ironic humor is in full force here, although the strongest cuts are the darkest ones. Many of these scenes clock in at under two minutes, even less than one in several cases.

On many of these tracks, Ljova plays an invention he’s recently popularized, the famiola, a hybrid six-stringed viola whose tonal capabilities surpass those of a guitar. As a result, his own multitracked soundscapes take on an unexpectedly lush, orchestral sweep. Being Russian by birth, it’s no surprise that he tends to favor minor keys, although the stylistic range of these instrumentals (and a handful of vocal tunes) is amazing: a couple of bluegrass numbers (including one lickety-split romp with Ljova backed by Tall Tall Trees); several moody, classically-tinged set pieces; a stately baroque minuet that turns absolutely creepy a second time around; and an anxiously crescendoing theme that very cleverly morphs into something far less stressful in the hands of Romashka clarinetist Jeff Perlman. And guest guitarist Jay Vilnai imbues the most gripping track here, a noir tableau titled Midnight Oil Change, with a distant but ever-present Marc Ribot-style menace.

As varied and enjoyable as all these are, it’s the gypsy music that’s probably going to be uploaded the most: a big, climactic, triumphant scene; an expansive, trickily rhythmic anthem; a fragment of an old Ukrainian song delivered with chilling expertise by Romashka frontwoman (and Ljova’s better half) Inna Barmash; and a blithe, jazz-tinged theme that also goes completely creepy when they reprise it. And Ljova had the good sense to put a genial, Gershwinesque stroll in the hands of this band rather than doing it as chamber music, a choice that pays off deviously the first time around and absolutely diabolically the second. Put on headphones (not those stupid earbuds), close your eyes, watch the crazy characters in motion. Ljova’s next gig is with his folks, Russian song icons Alexander Zhurbin and Irena Ginsburg at Joe’s Pub at 9:30 on Jan 15, advance tickets are very highly recommended.

January 3, 2012 Posted by | classical music, gypsy music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Roger Davidson Hits the Klezmer Road

Whether Roger Davidson knows it or not, he’s just released an elegant gypsy punk record. It’s not likely that the eclectic composer, whose previous work spans the worlds of jazz and tango nuevo, launched into his new album On the Road of Life with that idea in mind. But that’s pretty much what he ended up with. “Pretty much,” because there are no distorted guitars or pummeling drums here – and also because Davidson’s intent was to write an original album of klezmer tunes. Whether this is klezmer, or Balkan music, or gypsy music is really beside the point – whichever way it falls stylistically, it’s a collection of memorably simple themes bristling with the scary/beautiful chromatics and eerie minor keys common to all those genres. Here Davidson is backed by what he calls the Frank London Klezmer Orchestra, an eclectic group with the great klezmer trumpeter alongside another klezmer legend, Andy Statman on mandolin and clarinet, plus Klezmatics drummer Richie Barshay, Avantango bassist Pablo Aslan and Veretski Pass accordionist/cimbalom player Joshua Horowitz.

Some of these are joyous romps. Freedom Dance has solos all around and some especially rapidfire mandolin from Statman. Dance of Hope is sort of a Bosnian cocek with mandolin and clarinet instead of blaring brass, and a tune closer to Jerusalem than to Sarajevo. There’s Harvest Dance, based on a crescendoing walk down the scale; Water Dance, with an absolutely ferocious outro, and Hungarian Waltz, which in a split second morphs into a blazing dixieland swing tune fueled by London’s trumpet. Yet the best songs here are the quieter ones. The title track is basically a hora (wedding processional) that builds gracefully from a pensive, improvisational intro to a stately pulse driven by Aslan’s majestic bass chords. There’s also Equal in the Eyes of God, which reaches for a rapt, reverent feel; Sunflowers at Dawn, which klezmerizes a famous Erik Satie theme; The Lonely Dancers, a sad, gentle Russian-tinged waltz, Statman’s delicate mandolin vividly evoking a balalaika tone; and the epic, nine-minute Night Journey, glimmering with suspenseful, terse piano chords, tense drum accents, allusive trumpet and finally a scurrying clarinet solo.

Davidson may be a limited pianist, but he’s self-aware – his raw chords and simple melody lines only enhance the edgy intensity of the tunes here. That he’s able to blend in with this all-star crew affirms his dedication to good tunesmithing, keeping things simple and proper, as Thelonious Monk would say. Fans of moody minor keys, gypsy music and the klezmer pantheon will find a lot to enjoy here.

August 23, 2011 Posted by | gypsy music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Radical Shostakovich Symphonies From the Mariinsky Orchestra

He was the perfect composer for another time and place, and in the post 9/11 era his work has taken on a tragic new significance. One of Dmitri Shostakovich’s greatest achievements was to give voice to a people who’d been terrorized. Apprehension and dread are everywhere in his music beginning with the wrenching anguish of his Fifth Symphony well past the venomous, vengeful Tenth and into his string quartets of the early 1960s. The most recent recording of Shostakovich by Valery Gergiev with the Mariinsky Orchestra features richly dynamic versions of two radically different works, Shostakovich’s Second and Eleventh Symphonies. Any preconception of Gergiev as a heavyhanded conductor goes out the window here: this version of the Eleventh is a masterpiece of peaks and valleys, terrifying crescendos and stunned, deathly, practically horizontal atmospherics (it’s also recorded much more quietly than previous releases by this orchestra).

The Eleventh Symphony has been described as cinematic, which is accurate as far as style is concerned. And while it was inspired by the brutal reprisals that followed the 1905 uprising in Russia, it is not any kind of linear depiction of those tragic events. And while it could be interpreted as foreshadowing the triumph of the Communists over the Tsar, it is just the opposite, a portrait of the Tsars’ victims as a metaphor for the millions murdered by Stalin. The second movement is officially supposed to portray the January, 1905 massacre in the St. Petersburg city square, but this massacre appears throughout the piece again and again: after the evocative tone poem that opens the first movement; more dramatically in the second, over and over, and in the third, adagio movement, as if to illustrate the cossacks blowing up a funeral procession (which US drone aircraft have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, in case anyone is wondering). The dynamics all the way through are brilliantly nuanced despite the fireworks all around: for example, a trumpet reveille toward the end of the second movement sounds perfectly distant from the bereavement of the dirge that follows, detached and oblivious to the horror left in its wake.

Likewise, the martial fourth movement offers the feel of a parade nobody wants to march in: to Shostakovich’s infinite credit, he doesn’t end it with the triumphant cymbal crash that punctuates the end of its first segment, instead letting it go on, sad, still and wary until a final reminder of the massacre. Shostakovich just won’t let it go: in 1957, with Stalin dead and Krushchev’s “thaw” underway, he didn’t have to anymore.

The Second Symphony, which opens the album, is a curio. Shostakovich was 21, ambitious and eager to accept commissions from Stalin’s henchmen over at the music office when he wrote it, just two years after his auspicious First Symphony. This wasn’t even designated as such until later and hasn’t aged well despite the young composer’s enthusiastic and considerably original embrace of post-Stravinsky atonalism. The ensemble play (and sing) its martial bombast with a straight face. It was viewed as propaganda at the time it appeared and seems even more so now. Without knowing the author of these two symphonies, one would hardly guess Shostakovich to have written the first one. But the second leaves no doubt. Harmonia Mundi’s distributing this one stateside.

December 7, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Huun Huur Tu Summon Their Ancestors

Arguably the best-known group singing the otherworldly, overtone-laden shamanistic folk songs of their native Tuva (in the far east of what used to be the Soviet Union), Huun Huur Tu return to their roots with their new album Ancestors Call. Many of the tracks here are original acoustic versions of songs that appeared in their swirling, lushly produced 2008 Eternal album with Carmen Rizzo. As with the rest of their work prior to that album, these austere soundscapes vividly evoke the desolate rigor of nomadic life on the steppes, with simple chord changes, Asian-tinged melodies and hypnotic vamps that often go on and on for minutes on end. Vocals are what they’re best known for, and that’s most of what they offer here: instrumentation is limited to spare fiddle, lutes and occasional flute. Lyrics are in their native dialect, a mix of traditional folk numbers and variations of what are obviously centuries-old themes. They open with a simple, tongue-in-cheek shepherd’s song, followed by a gently galloping battle anthem, and a fast, scurrying, tongue-twisting boast: the guy’s got a fast horse and a pretty girl and he wants the whole world to know, a universal song if there ever was one.

The best track on the Eternal album is also the most stunning one here, the long, atmospheric, hauntingly astringent tone poem Orphan’s Lament. Longing for home and family is a recurrent theme, whether on a simple, swaying, tongue-in-cheek-sounding number that sets jews harp up against woozily oscillating vocal overtones, or a nostalgic immigrant’s tale. A tribute to the beautiful women of one particular Tuvan clan is surprisingly gentle and ambient (an even lusher version can be found on Eternal).

A traveler’s tale gallops along hypnotically, while a prayer for prosperity summons the spirits from the lowest registers – to alien ears, it sounds practically demonic. The album concludes with the windswept title track and its insistent, clip-clop, syncopated rhythm. Huun Huur Tu’s longevity and consistency should come as no surprise, considering that previous generations who played this music did it for life. They’ll be on US tour in early 2011, watch this space; the new album’s just out on World Village Music (who just won a major Womex award: good for them).

November 2, 2010 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Stunning Black Sea Music Summit at the Met

Billed as Strings of the Black Sea, yesterday’s show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art lived up to the boast made by the organizers’ emcee beforehand: it truly was a landmark concert. It was a New York Eastern European music summit, sort of the Black Sea equivalent of those early 60s Rolling Stones Revues with short sets from a nonstop parade of icons like Howlin’ Wolf, Ike & Tina Turner, Otis Redding et al. The emcee wished aloud for a series of full-length concerts by each of the individual performers here next year, a wish that deserves to come true. As with Debo Band at Joe’s Pub on Friday, there was incongruity in seeing most of them rip through one adrenalizing dance number after another in front of a relaxed, comfortably seated crowd in the museum’s sonically superb Rogers Auditorium. But the audience was energized; the ripple of excitement after it was finally over was impossible not to connect with..

Christos Tiktapanidis got the party started, solo on politiki lyra fiddle (also known as a kemence). What he casually introduced to the crowd as slow was fast and what was fast was lightning-fast, a bracing display of fingerboard wizardry, all split-second doublestops, through a crescendoing opening taqsim (improvisation), a stark levantine dance and a happier number that lept from 5/8 to 7/8 time. Beth Bahia Cohen and Ahmet Erdogdular followed with a brief duo set on the Turkish tanbur lute: she bowed hers, holding it upright like a fiddle while he played his guitar-style with a pick. The two doubled each others’ lines effortlessly through another opening taqsim, stately songs from the 18th and 19th centuries, a rapidfire dance by Cohen on kemence and then an inspired, chromatically charged dance number sung by Erdogdular, who’s rightfully earned acclaim as one of Turkey’s foremost exponents of highly ornamented traditional Ottoman singing.

Julian Kytasty brought the lights down with a somber, haunting solo performance on the wide-bodied Ukrainian bandura, a sort of cross between a concert harp and a lute that frequently took on the incisively pinging, staccato tone of a qanun or a cimbalom. He began with a rueful number sung from the point of view of a dying warrior, encouraging his young protege to pick up where he fell. He explained that the blind minstrels who’d traditionally played this repertoire had been brought to extinction in the Stalinist terror of the 1930s. “Singers are never popular with the powers that be,” Kytasty reminded, in a song that “could be straight out of today’s headlines,” a brutally cynical number detailing how truth gets trampled underfoot and thrown into prison while lies are held high for all to see, to be celebrated by the status quo. His dynamically-charged, virtuosic picking took on a flamenco edge on another lament that he managed to fingerpick while simultaneously tapping out a beat on the body of the instrument.

Nikolay Kolev played solo on the Bulgarian gadulka fiddle, an instrument which has grown many additional strings over the last century: his has fourteen, including the resonating, sympathetic ones. He immediately took the intensity to redline, on a couple of wild, hypnotic, rhythmically tricky minor-key dance tunes, a ruthlessly, fluidly efficient romp in the Middle Eastern hijaz mode that began with yet another taqsim and an anthemic tune in 6/8 that vividly and uneasily bridged major and minor without quite being either. The final act paired violinist Nariman Asanov, one of the foremost (and few) Crimean Tatar fiddlers in the US, with ubiquitous and characteristically energetic, witty accordionist Patrick Farrell (who seems to pop up on practically every first-rate Balkan music bill in town, and leads the absolutely hilarious, unique Stagger Back Brass Band). With a singlemindedness that made it seem as if they’d played together for years, they slowly fanned the embers of a violin taqsim over an accordion drone until they were blazing and then romped through a brief series of fiery, minor-key dances, one with a wickedly catchy klezmer feel. Farrell finally got to solo as Asanov held the rhythm down and made the most of it. The entire crew, minus Kytasty (who needed a chair and mysteriously wasn’t provided with one) encored with a simple, memorable Anatolian folk tune, seemingly a tea drinking anthem, Erdogdular’s unamplified vocals soaring over the song’s darkly tinged, chromatic four-bar hook. The next concert in this series is at the Ukrainian National Home on September 25 at 7 PM featuring the North American debut of Ukrainian sensations Tecsoi Banda.

September 20, 2010 Posted by | concert, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Brick from the Wall to Wall Behind the Wall

In a good year, Symphony Space’s annual Wall to Wall music marathon could easily be the best concert of the year – for those who have the time. Fortuitously, for those whose schedules don’t allow a Shoah-length commitment, the venue begins these early in the day (hey – 11 AM on a Saturday is early). This year’s program was titled Wall to Wall Behind the Wall, i.e. music by former Soviet bloc composers, an eye-opening parade of first-class performers and works, many of them either New York or world premieres – the Symphony Space folks really outdid themselves this year.

The program opened on a familiar, cosmopolitan note with Bartok’s jazz-inflected Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano. It was premiered here in New York with Benny Goodman on clarinet and Bartok himself on piano; the Israeli Chamber Project – Tibi Cziger on clarinet, Itamar Zorman on violin and Assaff Weissman on piano – cleverly mined its surprisingly playful jumps and characteristically jarring, percussive riffage.

Russian Jewish composer Alexander Krein’s Esquisses Hebraiques was performed hauntingly and beautifully by the Colorado Quartet plus clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg. It’s a series of klezmer themes, laments as well as a dance. Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes made a particularly choice if obvious segue, on balance heavier on West than East, played by the same crew plus pianist Margaret Kampmeier.

Contemporary Armenian composer Tigram Mansurian’s Agnus Dei, done by Sternberg, Julie Rosenfeld of the Colorado Quartet on violin and her bandmate Katie Schlaikjer on cello plus Artur Avanesov on piano was a New York premiere, a wondrously soulful, ambient Henryk Gorecki-ish suite of shifting voices and warm, rapt textures. A world premiere, Zurab Nadarejshvili’s Dialogue with Urban Songs grew sneakily and very effectively from jaunty ragtime to creepy, played by the Poulenc Trio (Vladimir Lande on oboe, Bryan Young on bassoon and Irina Kaplan Lande on piano).

Russian-American composer Nataliya Medvedovskaya’s cinematic First Snow proved to be a vivid and apt work for the global warming era – she misses her home country’s ever-present winter snow. She described it to the audience beforehand as a cold piece, and as much as it relies on astringent atonalities, the way it tracks a winter storm – or two – is often unabashedly amusing. The Poulenc Trio were joined here by Anton Lande on violin. After that, another Twentieth Century Armenian, Arno Babajanyan was represented by his Poem, played by Avanesov on piano, knotty and dramatic but more mathematical than it was emotionally resonant. By now, it was around one in the afternoon; a flute suite was next on the bill, which for our crew of low-register fans was a signal that it was time to attend to a long list of Saturday chores (and then celebrate in the evening at Barbes with Serena Jost and Chicha Libre). Steve Smith of the Times got to Symphony Space at six and offers his insights on the rest of the program.

May 17, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Denis Matsuev/Valery Gergiev/Mariinsky Orchestra – Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.3./Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The elephant in the room is that with such a glut of Rachmaninov available on both mp3 and vinyl, did it make any sense to make this recording at all? Answer: a resounding, fortissississimo YES. Everyone who’s a fan of this stuff has his or her favorite versions. Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony did a wonderfully rousing recording of the Piano Concerto No. 3 with Abbey Simon on piano; for sheer velvet sonics, nothing beats the version of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini that Philippe Entremont did with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra roughly a half-century ago. Both of those achieved broad circulation and are commonly available wherever used vinyl is sold (you wouldn’t really settle for icky mp3s, would you?). So why bother with the new recording by pianist Denis Matsuev with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra? Because it’s just as good as those two if not better. And for what it’s worth, it’s also one-stop shopping, two classics for the price of one without the extraneous filler that sometimes gets squeezed into classical albums.

Maybe Russian pride has something to do with this, but whatever the reason, this recording has every bit as much precision as Slatkin’s and gives Ormandy a run for his money as far as lushness is concerned (James Mallinson’s production is noteworthy not only for very closely replicating the warmth of a vinyl record, but also for capturing the ambience of the concert hall – put your headphones on and you are there). And Matsuev’s interpretation is spot-on, coupling a strong yet fluid legato to the kind of percussive power that you need in order to drive all those ferocious crescendos home, replete with longing, angst and rage and not a hint of the cold, clinical precision that plagued so many Soviet recordings of this material. As far as that’s concerned, there’s plenty of dynamics but there’s nothing particularly subtle in either of these pieces, Rachmaninov veering between his usual white-knuckle intensity and perhaps the sonic equivalent of a too-strong handshake: not for everyone, maybe, but you can’t say it doesn’t grab you. Pianist and orchestra wrest a vivid downward trajectory into the sweepingly beautiful second movement of the concerto from the battlefield that opens it, and interestingly, they accentuate many of the pauses that demarcate the twenty-eight cinematic variations of the Paganini theme. It works both to smooth the transitions between them and maybe even to underscore what Rachmaninov might have had in mind, a series of foreboding miniatures linked with a robust, epically optimistic theme.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Go Behind the Iron Curtain 2/21/10

Is it because the Greenwich Village Orchestra has a shorter season, with more rehearsals per concert, that they get everything so right, time after time? Or is it just a fortuitous match of inspired players with a conductor who is such a passionate advocate for the music on the bill? Whatever the case, our roughly weeklong tour of under-the-radar New York orchestras, beginning with the New York Scandia Symphony, then the Chelsea Symphony ended with the GVO on Sunday afternoon playing a characteristically rich, intense program that actually could have been staged somewhere in the Soviet Union during the 1930s.

First on the bill was the Sailor’s Dance from Russian Romantic composer Reinhold Gliere’s nationalistic 1927 ballet The Red Flower (f.k.a The Red Poppy). Far from being opiated, it’s essentially orchestrated Soviet surf music, such that there could have been thirty years before the Ventures at least. On the podium, Maestro Barbara Yahr led the ensemble matter-of-factly, without the hint of a grin – that was left to the audience. It’s something of a shock that a surf rock band hasn’t discovered this yet. The theme is a two-minute hit just waiting to happen.

Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto was next. Around the time the piece debuted, a critic called it “Mendelssohnian.” He meant that as a slur, but ironically that description is spot-on. There’s considerable unease in the work, a Modern-versus-Romantic push-pull of astringency versus warm melodicism, but there’s also a dreamy, ethereal beauty to it, most notably in the concluding moderato movement where the line back to Mendelssohn is straight and true. Whether slipping so seamlessly from 3/4 to 4/4 time that it was practically unnoticeable, bringing the wash of atmospherics to a suspenseful pianissimo or guiding a vivid oboe melody casually out of the glimmering, nocturnal strings below, Yahr, guest violinist Joseph Puglia and the ensemble worked themselves into what seemed a trance and brought the crowd into the ether with them.

The piece de resistance was Shoshakovich’s Fifth Symphony. You know this one even if you don’t think you do, most likely either the big, Beethovenesque diptych of an opening theme, or the creepy waltz of a second movement that’s been featured in a thousand horror films. Shostakovich was thirty when he wrote it: he’d just been taken to task by the Soviet censors for being too western, too bright and by extension too dangerous. This was his response: by contrast to the Fourth Symphony and its cerebral, rigorously acidic architecture, the Fifth is all big hooks, a slap back at the Stalinists as if to say, be careful what you ask for. It established Shostakovich as one of the alltime great musical satirists, yet as Yahr took care to explain before the orchestra played it, parts of it are also extraordinarily beautiful. Essentially, it’s love under an occupation, a requiem for those murdered in the purges as well as an attempt to maintain a sense of normalcy while the outside world collapses.

What made this performance so utterly unique and such a perfectly lucid portrayal of the circumstances in which it was written was how integrally it was played, a unified whole torn but never completely ripped apart. Others have oversimplified it, exaggerating the tension between highs and lows, melody and atmospherics or between strings and horns: not this orchestra. Rather than highlighting one particular phrase over another, Yahr held it together with a steeliness that mightily enhanced Shostakovich’s clenched-teeth exasperation, irony and bitterness. The KGB is everywhere here, the horns, winds, or a single horn or woodwind voice signaling the alarm before the drums start up and the secret police pound at the door, whether as the bufoonishness of the waltz gives way to unfettered, sadistic menace, the gestapo interrupt the calm of a requiem by literally stepping on the melody (as they do in the wrenchingly beautiful third movement), or in the big boisterous finale where even as the party is winding up, seemingly on a triumphant note, the fascists are about to break down the door again. Shostakovich’s pal Mstislav Rostopovich was cited in the program notes as having said that if this symphony hadn’t met with such thunderous public approval, the composer would have paid for it with his life. Happily, he would go on to even greater heights of satire and savagery with his Tenth Symphony and its unsparingly brutal dismissal of Stalin (played with equally intuitive sensitivity by the GVO a couple of years ago). There was a reception afterward, a visceral sense of both triumph and relief in the air, which made perfect sense on so many levels. The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next concert is vastly different yet equally ambitious, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1914 and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, to be performed at 3 PM on April 11.

February 23, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment