Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Fearlessly Individualistic, Counterintuitive Classical Hits From Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili

By oldschool record label standards, releasing an album of greatest hits from the classical canon guarantees yourself a pretty wide audience. The theory is that most of the crowd who will buy it doesn’t know anything beyond the standard repertoire and can’t differentiate between interpretations. From a critical perspective, this kind of album invites disaster, a minefield of crushing comparisons to every great artist who has recorded those same pieces over the past century. How does pianist Khatia Buniatishvili‘s new album Labyrinth – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the competition? Spoiler alert: this is a very individualistic record. And that’s a very good thing.

Consider the opening number, Deborah’s Theme, from the late, great Ennio Morricone’s score to the film Once Upon a Time in America. Buniatishvili plays it with such limpidness, such tenderness, such spaciousness that plenty of listeners could call it extreme.

Then she tackles Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1: so easy to play, but so brutally challenging to figure out rhythmically. Buniatishvili gives it just enough rubato to avoid falling into the trap so many other pianists have, taking the easy way out and turning it into a maudlin waltz. This is haunting, and revelatory, and augurs well for the rest of the record.

Other pianists approach Chopin’s E Minor Prelude with a nervous, scurrying attack. Buniatishvili lets it linger in a ineffable sadness before she chooses her escape route. Again, it’s an unorthodox path to take, but once again she validates her approach. The Ligeti etude Arc-en-ciel, one of the lesser-known works here gets a similar treatment, its belltone sonics exploding just when not expected to.

Not all of the rest of the record is this dark. Her piano-four-hands take of Bach’s Badinerie, from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 with Gvantsa Buniatishvili is a clenched-teeth romp. Yet the Air on the G String gets reinvented as a dirge: the first instinct is to laugh, but then again the choice to play it as Procol Harum actually works. She does the same with Scarlatti later on.

Buniatishvili builds baroque counterpoint in an increasingly crushing take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise: probably not what the composer envisioned, although there’s no arguing with the logic of her dynamic contrasts. She follows a deviously ragtimey arrangement of Serge Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise with a haphazardly pummeling and then luxuriant version of Villa-Lobos’ Valsa da Dor, which also works in context.

The pairing of French baroque composer Francois Couperin’s circling, delicately ornamented Les Barricades Mystérieuses with a Bach ripoff of a famous Vivaldi theme is an even whiter shade of pale. Fans of 20th century repertoire are rewarded with richly lingering version of Part’s stark Pari Intervallo and a hauntingly enveloping performance of Philip Glass’ I’m Going to Make a Cake (from the film The Hours).

There’s also an opulent interpretation of the well-known Brahms Intermezzo, Liszt’s nocturnal Consolation (Pensée poétique) and another Bach piece, the brooding Adagio from the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974. Oh yeah – there’s another famous thing here that clocks in at 4:33. Don’t let that lead you to believe that the album’s over yet. Stodgier classical music fans will hear this and dismiss much of it as punk rock. Let them. Their loss.

October 20, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Unmasking Mirna Lekic’s Lithe, Energetic, Brilliantly Thematic Solo Album

In 2017, when pianist Mirna Lekic released her solo debut album Masks – streaming at Spotify – who knew how much cultural baggage that title would take on! Lest anyone get the wrong idea, the themes she explores here have nothing to do with fascist regimentation or pseudoscientific propaganda. Au contraire: this is a playful, entertaining, extremely smartly programmed and insightfully dynamic collection of music. The connecting threads are childhood and phantasmagoria, typically the jaunty rather than sinister kind.

She begins with Debussy’s six-part La Boite a Joujoux (The Toybox), the last of his ballet scores. The contrast between blithely leaping passages and murky, resonant lows is striking, and Lekic cuts loose with abandon when the opportunity arises: this isn’t a cautious album. The opening prelude, for example, is slower, with more emphatic bursts – which give it character – than other pianists typically focus on.

Later, the toy soldiers on the battlefield have a light-footed strut that borders on satire (an approach that could also, without any subtext, simply illustrate a kid’s carefree imaginary world).

The Sheepfold for Sale is on the spare side, practically an etude in how to play Asian pentatonics with icepick precision. Lekic finds plenty of goofy humor in Tableau IV (A Fortune Made) and closes the suite on a high note.

A pair of very different works serve as the centerpiece here. Debussy’s Masques is somewhat more darkly phantasmagorical, and Lekic gives it a very saturnine ending. With its creepy single-note bassline, 20th century American composer Robert Muczynski’s Masks makes an unexpectedly good segue despite its thornier harmonies.

Martinu’s triptych Loutky (Puppets) bookends more traditional carnivalesque sounds around a famous, lighthearted Harlequin of a waltz: Lekic seems to draw what she can from what’s pretty insubstantial music.  She closes the record with another lesser-known trio of short works, Villa-Lobos’ Prole Do Bebe (Baby’s Family), which reveal a strong Debussy influence, both in terms of gestures and pentatonics. Dolls made of porcelain, papier-mache and wood, respectively, come across as remarkably agile, scintillating and finally, anything but wooden. Instead, Lekic leaves the listener with a smile and a romp.

October 8, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Thomas Piercy and Vilian Ivantchev’s Cafe Album

A collection of brilliant segues. For a casual listener, this is the perfect rainy day album, pleasantly pensive with a balance of melancholy and more upbeat material, especially toward the end. For more adventurous fans, it’s a smartly innovative concept that works all the way through. Clarinetist Thomas Piercy and acoustic guitarist Vilian Ivantchev link fourteen pieces together as a suite, beginning with the French late Romantics, taking a detour into the German baroque before following the gypsy path to Brazil and from there to Argentina, where the trail ends on a note that threatens to jump out of its shoes with joy. It’s a very subtly fun ride.

Having worked with both Leonard Bernstein and KRS-One, Piercy is diversely talented. He’s as strong in his upper register, with a buoyant, flute-like presence on Telemann’s A Minor Sonata, or soaring with bandoneon textures on the Piazzolla pieces here that close the album, as he is mining the darker sonorities of Bartok’s Roumanian Folk Dances suite, or Erik Satie’s Gnossienne or Gymnopedie No. 1. Ivantchev displays almost superhuman discipline, restraining himself to terse, rock-solid chordal work or precise arpeggios, with the exception of the Piazzolla where he gets to cut loose a little more – but not much. Ultimately, this album is all about connections, and the duo make them everywhere. Debussy’s Le Fille aux Cheveux de Lin (The Blonde Girl) follows so seamlessly out of Satie that it could practically be the same piece. Likewise, following the last of Bartok’s gypsy dance transcriptions with Villa-Lobos’ Modinha is so logical that it’s almost funny when you think about it. The duo close the album with two brief arrangements of songs by vintage Argentinan tanguero Carlos Gardel (Mi Manita Pampa and Sus Ojos Se Cerraron) into a stripped-down yet melodically rich version of Piazzolla’s four-part suite Histoire du Tango and then, seemingly as an encore, Jacinto Chiclana which ends the album on a note equally balmy and bracing. Piercy’s viscerally intuitive feel for the tension-and-release of tango lets the guitar hold things together this time, giving him a chance to launch into some quiet rejoicing. Piercy plays the cd release show for this album at Caffe Vivaldi on June 19 at 8:15 PM with his trio: live, they are considerably more boisterous.

June 15, 2010 Posted by | classical music, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Makoto Nakura Plays Bach, Osada and Bunch at Trinity Church, NYC 2/21/08

Interpretation has never been more fresh than it was this afternoon, as Japanese expat marimba player Makoto Nakura played a fascinatingly imaginative, spectacularly virtuosic program of classical and modern works. Although Nakura didn’t seem to even break a sweat, the passion of his performance matched his precision. He began with his own arrangements of two etudes and then two preludes by Villa-Lobos. Playing the marimba or vibraphone requires equal amounts of athleticism and meticulous skill, and Nakura nailed it all, both during the baroque-inflected studies that seemingly served as a warmup, and the more complicated, lyrical two works that he followed with.

Next, he tackled a piece written for him by Japanese composer Moto Osada, entitled Sylvan Lay and Pastoral Air. From traditional Japanese mythology, it’s a narrative of confrontation and forgiveness involving a couple of medieval warriors, although there was absolutely nothing remotely antique about this difficult, tonally challenging, intensely cerebral work. There were some striking passages, including an ominously percussive series of tritones early on, and one particularly impressive, rapid run down the scale midway through, but this is a piece that requires repeated listening.

After that, Nakura played his own arrangement of Bach’s popular Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Minor. This is one of those NPR Bach pieces, a well-known composition frequently heard around Christmastime during pledge drives, but Nakura made it all his own, from the sad tonalities of the adagio that opens the piece, to the interesting, Vivaldiesque “Siciliana” that serves as a third movement, to the rousing Presto that wraps it up. Following this with the Fugue from one of Bartok’s final compositions, the Solo Violin Sonata, was ambitious, but the move fell flat: as can happen in Bartok’s work from time to time, the piece is fussy and overworked, and the new arrangement did nothing to compensate for the lack of emotional compass.

To close the show, Nakura invited composer Kenji Bunch up to the mic to introduce his recent composition Triple Jump, also written for Nakura. Written specifically for the marimba, it’s an intriguing, smartly arranged three-part suite, the first evoking Chicago lounge-psychedelia instrumentalists Tortoise, the second being a thoughtful, somewhat pastoral evocation of stones skipping across a placid pond, the final being an impressively upbeat portrayal of muscle and sinew in action. A program like this might at first glance seem far better suited to something like the Next Wave Festival or an outsider jazz club like the Stone, but Trinity Church has incredible acoustics, the tones of the marimba bouncing around gorgeously, creating something of an organ effect especially when Nakura was using his soft mallets. Adventurous listeners got a real treat this afternoon. Three cheers for whoever booked this winter’s series here. And there wasn’t a single bus alarm blasting in from outside and disturbing the concert, either!

February 21, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, experimental music, Music, music, concert, New York City, NYC Live Music Calendar, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment