Guest Reviews

Welcome to the Guest Reviews page. This is a space for those who wish to post their own reviews of favorite albums, share ECM stories, and report back on live concerts of ECM artists. All review content on this page has been posted by the authors or by yours truly with the authors’ consent.

103 thoughts on “Guest Reviews

  1. Lachrymae
    Music for Wistful Moments

    This beautifully programmed CD presents three settings for viola and orchestra and a more eloquent statement about the beauty of the viola as an instrument would be hard to imagine (except for perhaps including Vaughan Williams’s Flos Campi). The viola finds that middle voice between violin and cello, a rich tone with a built-in quality of mournfulness. That quality has inspired the works on this recording and the result is some of the more wistful music ever written.

    Dennis Russell Davies conducts the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra with the superb violist Kim Kashkashian. The opening work is funeral music (Trauermusik) written by Paul Hindemith. The orchestra freely quotes from the ‘Grablegung’ movement of Hindemith’s hauntingly beautiful Symphony: Mathis der Maler, the viola emerging and receding into the orchestral fabric with plangent intensity. Sir Benjamin Britten’s setting for small string orchestra and viola of his Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland follows, demonstrating how this elegant set of theme and variations has successfully been transposed into different settings, each of which is unique (viola and piano, viola and harp, and this viola with strings).

    The final work is the stunningly beautiful and rarely heard Viola Concerto by Krzysztof Penderecki. For those unfamiliar with the Polish composer’s chamber works the highly personal sound of this work may come as a surprise. For a composer who has relied on sonically acerbic effects for his larger works, this piece is a minimalist diversion.

    The performances and the recorded sound are first-rate. This CD is another instance when programming is sensitive and interrelated and provides the listener with an extended mood of languorous beauty.—Grady Harp

  2. Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin
    J. S. Bach: The Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin
    An Approach to Bach’s Genius of Spirit rather than Wizard of Craft

    Gidon Kremer has again recorded the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin of Bach and while his facility and technical grace are intact, in this recording he appears to have been deeply influenced by his time with the moderns (Adams, Pärt, Schnittke, Piazzola, Glass, et al.). For this listener it seems that studying and performing these contemporary composers’ manipulations of sound and instrumental scope has enriched Kremer’s thought about the perfection of Bach.

    Not everyone will agree with Kremer’s approach to these works on this new recording, but for those who know Bach’s solo violin pieces there are pleasures in store. Remaining technically suave and with a luxuriant tone, Kremer seems to be communicating with the psychological Bach, offering different tempi and more soulful approaches than those of his colleagues. The results are mesmerizing.

    The sonics of this release are impeccable: the soloist is immediately in the room with the listener. This recording is a must for those who have followed Kremer’s impressive career and for those who wish to venture outside the norm for a fresh approach to the wonders of Bach’s genius. Highly recommended.—Grady Harp

  3. Miserere
    Arvo Pärt: Miserere
    Music for Solace, for the Soul, for Contemplation

    Arvo Pärt fills a void in the musical network of contemporary compositions. He creates much out of little, using minimal notes and phrases, repeating these with subtle variations, as though he were creating an atmosphere for Zen-like trance states.

    The three works here recorded with utmost clarity and restraint are from Pärt’s deeply religious vein. The Miserere emerges from the silence of the depths of the earth and transcends the human supplicants to become a pathway to the ethereal presence that in this realm is guardian to us all. The Hilliard Ensemble performs with radiant perfection. The Feste Lente is an adagio for strings with ad libitum harp and is quiet and simple and in direct communication with the spirit. The final work, Sarah Was Ninety Years Old, is more a cross between Buddhist intonations and Gregorian chant than anything else. This seems like music written for the high spaces in the domes of Europe’s largest cathedrals, the area where the sounds of light distant winds suggest the flutter of angel wings. And Pärt achieves all of this with three solo voices, organ and timpani.

    Perhaps saving this recording for darkened rainy afternoons brings this otherworldly music to life in an even more poetic way. There is an affinity for the transparency and repetition of notes in these works that marries well with birthing clouds and the rain that comes and goes. For soothing the soul this is one viable source.—Grady Harp

  4. Words of the Angel
    Trio Mediaeval: Words of the Angel
    Transporting Music

    Trio Mediaeval is the name chosen by three Scandinavian singers who specialize in the early music of the church. Gregorian chant or Plainsong is one of the oldest forms of Western religious music and though much of the original chanting was one-part intoning by the monks, the composers of the time gradually created polyphony and the results are well sampled on this beautifully recorded CD.

    Not only does this a cappela trio of women’s voices demonstrate a clarity of tone and pitch and timbre, they move through these at times complex harmonies with utter ease. In addition to excerpts from the Anonymous Tournai Mass, the Trio weaves the mysteries of English and Italian chant and even includes a truly beautiful contemporary setting of the chant form by Ivan Moody entitled Words of the Angel.

    This is one of those recordings that soothes the mind and soul and confirms the importance of medieval music in the development of music through the ages. A new recording by this group entitled “Stella Maris” is promised soon and having heard that recording it is even better! The Trio Mediaeval is a fine performing arts group that should have a long life. Highly recommended.—Grady Harp

  5. Harmonium
    John Adams: Harmonium
    And now Ladies and Gentlemen, John Adams

    HARMONIUM has long been this listener’s favorite large scale work by John Adams. As with others who encounter Adams’s compositions for the first time the language was at first a bit confusing – until of course more exposure results in a near addiction for the serenity of mind his pulsating works create.

    Now there are several recordings of HARMONIUM from which to choose, yet this initial live performance with the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus under the baton of Edo de Waart remains the most pungent. Perhaps it is the then freshness of the score that suffuses both the orchestra and chorus with the enthusiasm this recording captures. But the beauty and mystery of Adams’ setting of the John Donne and Emily Dickinson poetry is here magnificently rendered and is amazingly well enunciated. For example: in the opening of the second movement the words of Dickinson ‘Because I could not stop for Death he kindly stopped for me’ are utterly haunting, capturing all the mystical quality of Dickinson’s poem with a choral sound that is difficult to duplicate.

    Some would complain that the one work (32 minutes) hardly suffices to fill a CD; for this listener not having other works completing with the perfection of HARMONIUM is the perfect situation. Highly Recommended.—Grady Harp

  6. Lamentate
    Arvo Pärt: Lamentate

    Arvo Pärt continues to grow as a composer and this ‘requiem’ entitled LAMENTATE is a brilliantly successful composition. Written in response to his sense of encountering the concept of his own mortality upon viewing a sculptural work by avant-garde artist Anish Kapoor, Pärt composed this work for piano and orchestra. Divided into ten parts the work embraces the spectrum of living from crashing complexities of massive instrumental forces to quiet meditations and ethereal, spiritual lines of exquisite beauty. There are no voices for this ‘requiem’ and the work is not a true piano concerto in the strictest sense: the piano serves to embroider the orchestral tonal clouds and moves much the way Pärt has used the voice in his other compositions. The accomplished piano soloist here is Alexei Lubimov and the performance by the SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart is ably conducted by the gifted Andrey Boreyko who will be guest conducting the LA Philharmonic with the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15 soon. The recording opens with the a cappella Da Pacem Domine as performed by the Hilliard Ensemble, a 2004 work which retains the composer’s preoccupation with the art of Gregorian chant. While there are fortunately many recordings of Arvo Pärt’s works available, this is probably one of the finest and certainly an excellent starting point for those new to this gifted composer’s work. Highly Recommended.—Grady Harp

  7. Stella Maris
    Trio Mediaeval: Stella Maris
    Seeds Sown in Medieval Times Flower with a Contemporary Work

    The Trio Mediaeval continues its fine reputation and tradition as an exemplary group capable of capturing the essence of the Gregorian chant while encouraging contemporary composers to emulate this classic form of music with new compositions. For this, their third recording, the Trio continues to survey early music for a cappela voices and this time adds the tenor voice of John Potter as the ethereal leader in O Maria, stella maris, conductus. The result is incandescent music-making. In addition to the medieval works for which they are well known, this album presents the premiere recording of Missa Lumen de Lumine by contmeporary Korean composer Sunji Hong. While the twenty-five minute Mass incorporates the fundamental structure of the original chants, Hong suffuses the writing with subtle contemporary moods and passages that are astonishingly appropriate. The work is divided into Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. The performance is impeccable, contributing to the fact that Hong has amazing gifts as a composer. Highly Recommended.—Grady Harp

  8. Elegies
    Elegies for Viola and Piano
    Kim Kashkashian with Robert Levin

    Perhaps none of the composers of this lovely set of works for viola and piano had in mind the death theme surrounding the winter solstice, the end of the season of growing, a time for pause and even sleep to prepare for the rumblings of rebirth, but that is what comes to mind while listening to this very well chosen collection of elegies.

    Violist Kim Kashkashian and pianist Robert Levin seem extensions of each other, so well melded are these performances. While most will be familiar with the gorgeous Benjamin Britten Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland, there are enough unfamiliar works to spark even the most experienced listener. Some highlights are the Vaughn Williams Romance, the Adagio of Zoltán Kodály, and the Vieuxtemps Elegie. The spectrum even manages to include Elliot Carter’s Elegy so you can rest assured there is a wide spread of periods and oddly enough they all create a cohesive program.

    Kashkashian’s tone is never forced, always refined, and never pushing towards heart on the sleeve. This is a beautiful recording, especially for winter nights. Highly recommended.—Grady Harp

  9. Tabula Rasa
    Arvo Pärt: Tabula Rasa
    Arvo Pärt, An Esoteric Christian Priest for the 21st Century

    This must be one of the most beautiful pieces of the modern classical field. It is my favorite album by Arvo Pärt. Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten could be to me the most amazing 5 minutes of any and all music. This album is timeless and if you have not heard it yet, you really should. The power of Arvo Pärt’s minimalism is such that as much as you hear the music with your ears playing here in the outer space your inner space grows alive and that is where the real experience takes place. As organized religion is dying in front of our eyes the spirituality of events of a magnitude of this album here fills that emptying space. Arvo Pärt does not believe in where his spirit comes from, he knows it. Listen to his works exclusively for the next few weeks or months and his conviction may come upon you.

    The music of this album is brought to us by the shining stars of the music world. The first variation of Fratres is played by Gidon Kremer on violin and Keith Jarrett on piano. Their timing and silence, softness and urgency are truly superb. This movement calms you down and prepares for Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten whose music Arvo Pärt loved and whom he was planning on meeting but did not make it in time. Cantus is played by the Stuttgart Town Orchestra. Following Cantus is another variation of Fratres played by 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. I love having these two versions of the same theme here. That allows me to get deeper into this composition and to get more familiar with its texture. The title piece, Tabula Rasa is played by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra with Gidon Kremer and Tatjana Grindenko on violins and, shockingly enough, with Alfred Schnittke on the prepared piano. Alfred Schnittke happens to be one of the most talented modern classical composers himself. If you are not familiar with his music, I would strongly recommend starting with Concerto Grosso No. 1, with these 2 violinists.—Deven Gadula

  10. Rites
    Jan Garbarek: Rites
    Northern Sounds of Jan Garbarek

    Rites are a double album recorded by Jan Garbarek in 1998. It contains new (for 1998) music of this extremely prolific musician and new recordings of some compositions from his own past. Also included is a song called The Moon Over Mtatsminda, neither composed nor performed by Jan but very dear to his heart. Another song here is very dear to my heart. It is simply one of the greatest 5 minutes of music ever composed and performed. At least such is the spiritual content of that song to me. It is called We Are The Stars and it is performed by Boys From The Choir ‘Solvguttene’ accompanied by Jan Garbarek’s saxophone. I often play that song on repeat 1 for hours fairly loud, so I can soak in its energy. Rites are not your typical album by Jan Garbarek, but it is a powerful force… if you let it be. Not every single song included here is great but there is some magic mixed in.

    I started listening to Jan Garbarek back in 1990 when I got to know a painter Waldemar Mitrowski who ended up becoming one of my best friends. Here is one of all those born with wings but Waldek actually used to play Paths, Prints the most those days. I would visit him and watch him paint these incredible huge oil paintings, a few at once, and I had a sense that I had never experienced such tremendous force of creation right in front of my eyes. The music of Jan Garbarek played fairly loud provided a perfect climate to my experience and will always remind me of those times, of watching magic appear right in front of me. In a way that is how I can describe the music of Jan Garbarek in general. Very often listening to his music you get this strange feeling that his role is more of being a channel for some invisible force of creation rather than responsible for the actual act. Forget genres and classifications because he breaks such barriers constantly. Jan Garbarek reminds me of a geyser blasting with spirit every now and then. His music often falls into the ambient jazz territories, and he might have contributed more than anybody else into the development of that term, starting with his 1977 release Dis. At other times the mood of Jan’s music could be bordering on the filed of electronic music, or turning towards world and meditative new age. My favorite albums are Paths, Prints(1982), All Those Born With Wings (1987), I Took Up The Runes (1990), Twelve Moons (1993), Visible World (1996), Rites (1998), and In Praise Of Dreams (2004). Jan Garbarek has been involved in various incredible collaboration albums, including Vision (1983) with L. Shankar, Song For Everyone (1984) with L. Shankar, Alpstein (1991) with Paul Giger, Ragas And Sagas (1992) with Fateh Ali Khan, Madar (1993) with Anouar Brahem, Officium (1994) with Hilliard Ensemble, and plenty of other ones. He is the go to ambient saxophonist of the last couple of decades, and what might be interesting to all of the Porcupine Tree fans out there, Jan’s daughter Anja Garbarek is a musician as well and her album Ballon Mood, Smiling And Waving was produced by Steven Wilson. Some of my favorite songs of Jan Garbarek are the following: All Those Born With Wings 4th Piece, Rites, We Are The Stars, The Healing Smoke, Twelve Moons, The Path, Parce Mihi Domine, So Mild The Wind So Meek The Water, Molde Canticle part 1, Red Wind, Raga 1, Knot Of Place And Time.—Deven Gadula

  11. Blue
    Terje Rypdal & The Chasers: Blue
    Terje Rypdal’s Meaning in Strings

    The music of Blue spreads across a wide field of styles but the overall mood is an uplifting ambient jazz texture approaching softer rock territories at times and at others loosing its jazzy overtones and becoming more ambient in tone. Song number 5 Og Hva Synes Vi Om Det (please try pronouncing this) if taken out of context could be easily classified as an ambient song by Steve Roach, Alio Die or Vidna Obmana or something along these lines. This album spreads a beautiful light climate around you and allows you to focus on the music or to stay unobstructed in its atmosphere alone.

    I remember when I first heard this music while watching a movie called Heat back in 1996, back when I still watched more than a couple of films a year. The entire soundtrack was interesting but when the only song from this album Last Night started playing I knew I needed to listen to more of it right away. I was familiar with Terje Rypdal back then from his work with Jan Garbarek whose albums I have been listening to for 20 years now. Besides Blue (1987) I guess my favorite albums by Terje Rypdal would be Descendre (1980), Odyssey (1975), After The Rain (1976), Skywards (1997) and a very modern classical ambient sounding Lux Aeterna (2002). To me Blue is a little bit less jazzy overall, and its climate is mellower, very diverse and so unique. If you do like this mood and are looking for other great ambient jazz albums I would definitely point you towards Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays’ As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls (1981) as well as Keith Bjornstad, David Darling, Terje Rypdal and Jon Christensen and their spectacular The Sea (1995), Both the above albums I consider the best releases coming to us from Manfred Eicher and his spectacular ECM. Thank you so much Manfred for finding your niche and for sharing it with us. I have been going through my collection lately to pull out songs dearest to me, usually the ones spirit of which affects me the deepest, or which I consider of melodic beauty. The following ones are my favorite songs by Terje Rypdal: Multer, Avskjed, Descendre, Waves, I Disremember Quite Well, Lux Aeterna 2nd Movement, Men Of Mystery, Skywards, Charisma, The Return Of Per Ulv, Over Birkerot, QED 4th Movement, It’s Not Over Until The Fat Lady Sings, Kjare Maren.—Deven Gadula

  12. The Sea
    The Sea
    One of my favorite 2 albums coming out of ECM Records

    Bjørnstad/Darling/Rypdal/Christensen’s 1994 recording The Sea is one of my favorite 2 albums coming out of ECM Records. It is one of my very favorite ambient jazz albums and as a matter of fact, one of my favorite albums, period. It is great music flowing through a very ambient background reminding at times of Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking Of Titanic. All instrumental parts are superb starting with Ketil Bjørnstad’s piano, through Terje Rypdal’s guitars, David Darling’s cello and ending with Jon Christensen’s drums. My favorite parts are 2, 3 and 5.—Deven Gadula

  13. Music for 18 Musicians
    Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians
    One of my favorite modern classical albums

    This is not only my favorite music by Steve Reich but one of my favorite modern classical albums, next to Songs From The Trilogy by Philip Glass, Farewell To Philosophy by Gavin Bryars, Symphony Of Sorrowfull Songs by Henryk Gorecki or Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt. Out of all these albums Music For 18 Musicians is of the highest energy and tempo. This music evolves and takes you in. It makes you feel like you are riding a fast and steady moving train through an amazing landscape you seem to be very familiar with after a while. It may feel a little monothonic but these are the rides which allow you to focus on your own real trip so you let the train just take you… I can listen to this music over and over all day; I really like repetitive elements. Good balanced life seems to me to be full of them. If we could just eliminate mistakes… Most of Steve Reich’s music is very good and original. My next recommendation would be Different Trains, which is an even more modern approach.—Deven Gadula

  14. As Falls Wichita
    As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls
    Ambient Jazz Masterpiece

    Jazz is one of the fields I don’t know very well. There is a lot of jazz music I have never allowed to influence me enough to listen to more. But I do love ambient jazz and this album is one of my favorites of this field, next to the phenomenal Bjørnstad/Darling/Rypdal/Christensen’s The Sea, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and In The Silent Way, Jan Garbarek’s Paths, Prints, All Those Born With Wings or I Took Up The Runes, Jean-Luc Ponty’s Open Mind and Terje Rypdal & The Chasers’ Blue. I am listing all these so different from each other albums which feel to me to be jazzy and ambient hoping that someone could send me an email recommending other albums I should listen to and might like, based on these. From all the above it would be The Sea and Pat Matheny & Lyle Mays’s As Falls Witchita, So Fall Wichita Falls which I love the most. What a spectacular and awesome title track. It influences our alert mind in a way drugs often do, bringing on a time distortion in music. If you like such moments you can also find them in Pieter Nooten’s and Robert Schroder’s music but definitely not to such extent. I find such moments fascinating. The use of numbers as lyrics was such a clever idea which makes this piece truly one of the kind. “September Fifteenth” is another very nice piece of music although without the title song’s force. The title song is cosmic and almost 21 minutes long; the rest is some of my favorite Pat Metheny music.–Deven Gadula

  15. Colours
    Eberhard Weber: Colours

    Colours is a reissue in one 3 CD-pack of the three recordings of the extraordinary bassist, composer and arranger Eberhard Weber’s influential group, Colours, which was comprised of Weber on bass, Charlie Mariano on soprano saxophone, flutes and various oriental reeds, Rainer Brüninghaus on piano and synthesizer, and Jon Christensen on drums, replaced by John Marshall for the second and third recording sessions. The group held together for half a decade, 1975-1981, playing live and recording. Their recordings, especially the first one, Yellow Fields (1975), influenced many musicians. Vibist Gary Burton added Weber to his group for two exceptional recordings, and also recorded Weber’s best known piece, “The Colours Of Chloë.” Weber showed up in collaboration with Ralph Towner and Jan Garbarek on Solstice, and the sound of Colours, as much as any sound, helped define the “ECM sound,” an amalgam of American-style jazz and a cooler European sound that was in many aspects influenced by classical music and musicians. (On these discs, listen to Brüninghaus’s long, elegiac piano solos in particular, or to the ensemble sound buildups that lead into solo passages.) But for all of its cooler sound palette, these are jazz performances. They are, at times, as hot as any jazz produced.

    The best examples of what this amazing group accomplished are on the first two cuts on Yellow Fields, the first and by far best of these three exceptional discs. On the first cut, “Touch,” the drummer and pianist lay down a pulse of sound–it throbs! Weber plays a looping obbligato on his handcrafted electric bass: his bass line obliquely implies the central melody but doesn’t ape it. Mariano enters on soprano sax and Brüninghaus lays down chord spreads behind him. Weber continues his oblique commentary. Christensen kicks up the pressure–same pulse, but with hard irregular cymbal splashes on top of the beat. The music flows, is intensely musical, and then Charlie Mariano enters on soprano sax. His solo is sheer bliss, long notes, lyrical keening sound. “Sand Glass” is three times as long as “Touch” at fifteen minutes: the piece is as good as anything recorded in that decade, which is saying a lot, as perfect as a piece of jazz gets.

    Weber’s bass never sounded like anyone else’s. He only occasionally plays straight rhythm, preferring to play alt melody lines along with, over and across the music produced by the rest of the group, with relatively few notes and lots of space inside his lines. His sound reverberates! I said once, I think to my son Jeremy, that if a whale sang jazz, it would sound like Eberhard Weber does. When Weber starts to solo, it sounds like a large, slow, graceful animal keening across distance. Charlie Mariano solos very effectively on “Sand Glass” not only on soprano but using two exotic sounding oriental reeds, the shenai and the nagaraswam. My one regret is that there is no occasion on these albums for Mariano to play alto sax, the instrument with which he came to public attention as featured soloist in the Stan Kenton orchestra and then in an outstanding quartet he co-led with his then-wife pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi. His alto was probably too hot, boppish, for the cool, orchestral sound that Weber wanted to attain with Colours.

    The second and third CDs, Silent Feet (1977) and Little Movements (1980), are good but no Yellow Fields. Christensen had left the group to work with Terje Rypdal and Palle Mikkelsen but Marshall was a more than competent replacement. He’s more directly percussive than Christensen. (Christensen plays sotile sotile, to lift a phrase from Collodi’s Pinocchio, the only book I read all the way through in Italian.) The difference: Christensen is a phenomenally inventive drummer and Marshall is simply a good one. Both albums feature long, somewhat flabby pieces (especially “Bali” in Little Movements) but the level of melodic invention and the lush sound and effects the group produced are still present and enjoyable. “Bali,” released 1980, echoes Steve Reich’s classical minimalism in parts, kind of a jazz version of a la Music for 18 Musicians (1974-6). Aside from the musical value of these three CDs, which is high, these albums have historical value: they highlight the half-decade career of an exceptional combo whose music offered an alternative course for that exciting improvised music called jazz. The album also points to Weber’s later career, not always in jazz, in albums such as his evocative Endless Days (2000). Thank you, ECM, for releasing these fine albums again after being unavailable for so long!—David Keymer

    1. Hi David,

      Nice review, however I need to suggest a few corrections when it comes to timelines and events.

      It’s not so much that Christensen had left to work with Terje and Palle Mikkelborg (not Mikklelsen; oops!) but that his increasingly busy schedule as a session drummer meant he had to make some choices and long stretches on the road was, for the most part, not something he ever warmed to (with occasional exceptions)..

      Let’s not forget that by 1979, Christensen was also playing with Jarrett, Garbarek and Palle Danielsson, not to mention being ECM’s de facto house drummer – in addition to Rypdal and Jarrett, also working in Miroslav Vitous’ nascent ECM quartet with Kenny Kirkland and John Surman, and would soon be recording with Garbarek’s group including Weber and Frisell, Mike Nock’s wonderful sole ECM outing, Ondas, Freigeweht, Rainer Bruninghaus’ maiden voyage as a leader for the label, French hornist John Clarke’s Faces and more – and that doesn’t include non-ECM sessions taking place in Norway that, for the most part, are only available IN Norway, and which I’d recommend folks look out for, now that the web has made it possible to actually find these recordings.

      He was a very in-demand player at this time, and I think his decision not to work with Weber had more to do with Weber wanting to tour a lot (a reason why Michael Di Pasqua ultimately replaced him after Paths, Prints, with Garbarek also).

      I, too, favor Yellow Fields, but only marginally; having been a fan of John Marshall in earlier British groups like Nucleus and Soft Machine, when he joined Colours back in the day, I was pleasantly surprised to hear him doing things I honestly thought were out of his reach. Of course he would continue to surprise with John Surman’s Quartet years later on Stranger Than Fiction and in the short-lived trio with Arild Andersen and Vassilis Tsabropoulos, He may not have quite the personality of Christensen, but I don’t think he’s a slouch, either – and proved as capable of color as he was groove, especially on those later recordings.

      A couple more points of fact: Yellow Fields was, in fact, released in 1976, not 1975, and by this time Weber had already recorded and performed with Gary Burton on RIng; meaning that Yellow Fields was not the reason Burton recruited him – if anything, it was Colours of Chloe, from 1974, that garnered Burton’s attention, recorded in December 1973 with Burton recording Ring half a year or so later. Ditto Solstice, which was recorded in December 1974, well before Yellow Fields’ September, 1975 sessions.

      No, while Yellow Fields would become another classic in Weber’s small but incredibly significant discography, if there’s one album that acted as a catalyst to catapult him to greater attention, it was Colours of Chloe, whose success drove Weber to put together the touring group that would go on to record Yellow Fields.

      Where we do agree, David, is on the importance of this box set – and that, in the final analysis, is the most important thing of all.


  16. Stone in the Water
    Stefano Bollani: Stone in the Water

    Italian pianist Bollani’s Danish Trio has been playing together for six years. It shows in their playing, in the telepathy of one member’s responses to another member’s musical moves. This is high quality piano jazz. The overall tone of the album is so low key that the casual listener may not notice how well these three musicians play together or how high a quality their playing is. The album includes songs by Caetano Veloso and Jobim, and a greatly reworked classical piece by Poulenc, as well as Bollini’s tuneful and musically interesting originals. The album was recorded live in New York last October. As with all ECM recordings, the production is high quality.—David Keymer

  17. Distances
    Norma Winstone: Distances
    The jazz equivalent of a high-end art song album

    This is a most unusual jazz vocal album, and a very fine one. We’ve grown used to exceptional sound production from Manfred Eicher’s ECM label but it bears noting that without the separation of the sounds of the three musicians, so that we can listen to them individually as well as collectively, and without the pristine clarity of the sound production over all, this record would be much less of a triumph.

    Winstone plus piano and reed–bass clarinet and soprano saxophone–three musicians–create an album of exquisite music that is half jazz and half classical art song, and all joy. Winstone’s vibrato-less contralto (?) voice blends perfectly with her partners. She improvises and, for the most part, they play what has been put in front of them–or at least that’s how it seems on listening. The result is fresh and exulting, controlled but liberating. The best songs are the original ones. The first song–“Distances”–is revelatory, absolutely wonderful.

    The least successful songs? There is a remake of the ballad, “Everytime We Say Goodbye,” that is almost banal. It definitely drags in tempo, but even this song is miles above most contemporary jazz singing in its overall quality. Later on in the album, a mock calypso song really doesn’t work: Winstone’s voice and tonality don’t enhance the song and for one moment she almost sounds amateurish. But I don’t care! This is the best vocal album I’ve heard since early Cassandra Wilson. The musicians on it are professionals. It has to be one of their finest moments.—David Keymer

  18. Time and Time Again
    Paul Motian Trio: Time and Time Again
    Even better than their previous outing

    From first cut (“Cambodia”) to last (“Time and Time Again”), Motian, Frisell and Lovano create exceptional, beautiful music. It may seem muted on first hearing, but tranquil it is not! Rather, these three master musicians, attuned to listening to each other by years of playing cooperatively, are constantly adjusting their playing to echo their partners, creating unusually exciting but subtle music. There is no standout cut on this album: rather, the ten pieces create almost a suite of mutually reinforcing–and mind-expanding–pieces. I have never heard guitarist Frisell, a notoriously catholic and adventurous player, play better than he does with these two colleagues. Lovano plays softer than he does on some of his more rambunctious albums but, as always, with exceptional music intelligence. What can be said about Motian? He is in all respects a master percussionist, skilled at indirectness and hinting, great FUN to listen to. But then all three of them are fun to listen to. Their last outing,I Have the Room Above Her, was so good that who would have believed they could top it. But they have.—David Keymer

  19. Round About Weill
    Gianluigi Trovesi/Gianni Coscia: Round About Weill
    In cerca di cibo
    Gianluigi Trovesi/Gianni Coscia: In cerca di cibo

    Gianluigi Trovesi is a hidden jewel in today’s jazz. Perhaps he’s undersung because he’s Italian: he performs and records in Italy, not in American jazz clubs or for a central American jazz label. Maybe, on these two albums, it’s because some afficionados look down on the “European” clean jazz typical to ECM records. Above all, I suspect it’s because the music he plays–though not the way he plays it–is hard to classify.

    Take these two albums. Are they jazz? Italian folk music? Composed or ‘classical’ music? Trovesi and Coscia mesh as well as any duo in jazz –think of the exquisite music made by duos such as Charlie Haden and Kenny Baron, Jim Hall and Ron Carter, or Gary Burton and Chick Corea on Crystal Silence. But the music Trovesi and Coscia produce on these two albums is devilishly difficult to classify. Sometimes they settle for composed lines, heartbreaking melodies played simply, simply. At other times, they clearly improvise, but seldom on recognizable jazz lines. They are demons–Trovesi especially–at quoting wildly from other pieces: they close one piece on the Weill album with “Blue Moon,” another time with (almost) “Frere Jacques.” But it’s jazz nonetheless, played by two hyper-alert and super-intelligent musicians who mine their musical ancestry to consummate effect.

    Of the two albums, my wife has a very slight preference for the Weill album, which is made up half of tunes written by Weill and most of the rest of the artists’ own tunes that fit the mood of Weill. Both clarinet and acordion capture well the cabaret atmosphere of so many Weill tunes, including different versions of “Alabama Song” and “Tango Ballade.”

    On the Weill album, Trovesi continues his fascination with John Lewis’s “Django,” the moving funeral dirge for French gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt first recorded by the Modern Jazz Quartet. (Trovesi plays “Django” on In cerca di cibo and quotes it on Around Small Fairy Tales.) This is appropriate because in some respects, Trovesi is like Lewis, though much hotter and more earthy at times. Both composed and have led groups that played music that critics saw as too ‘classical.’ Both used non-jazz idioms for jazz purposes.

    I own five albums by Trovesi now, which is all I’ve been able to find and buy to date. Around Small Fairy Tales features Trovesi playing his own compositions with a string orchestra. From G to G and Fugace feature his octet, which sounds at times like a slightly woozy stepchild of the great George Russell experimental groups of the very early sixties. In an age that slights the clarinet as a solo instrument, Trovesi is arguably the best clarinetist in jazz, a major soloist and melodist.

    I love this man and he’s never sounded better than playing with Coscia. Needless to say, these two ECM albums are impeccably engineered for sound.—David Keymer

  20. I Have The Room Above Her
    Paul Motian: I Have The Room Above Her

    This is exceptional music played by experienced and inventive artists–musical brothers who listen to each other intently. The tunes have melodies but you won’t be humming them to yourself afterwards. Nonetheless, they are melodic in the best sense of the word. Motian, Lovano and Frisell, all major musicians, have played together so long by now that they fit each other like glove to hand, making intensely musical statements on every cut of this album.

    Motian, 75, is amazing. He doesn’t eschew rhythm on these cuts but rhythm is clearly secondary. He drops the rhythmic drive that is central to the work of the great bop and post-bop drummers and instead produces a susurrus of displaced and subtle accents. His drumming is a matter of nudging and whispering, sounds wash up against the horns and disappear and reappear again.

    What can you say about Lovano and Frisell? Though I have favorites among albums by Lovano, I’ve never heard him play badly. Frisell, when he plays in a context like this, is always on the mark. He plays some amazing solos on this album.—David Keymer

  21. Belonging
    Keith Jarrett: Belonging

    Funky, ethereal, free, melodic, romantic, edgy…and classic. Jarrett, sharing the spotlight with Garbarek, offers a program of such variety and sheer finger-snapping lyricism that any jazz lover would be silly not to give it a listen.

    The recording clarity and richness is one of ECM’s finest – head and ears above most of what has come out in the last 35 years.

    Garbarek, for those of you who know his more ethereal and folky work, is at his Coleman/Coltrane/Rahsaan peak here – sailing, moaning, tossing tart, lopsided and twisty rhythmic nuggets into the mix one moment, going deeply gospel or romantic the next. A tone like deep-fried ice cream.

    Christensen, too – groove, experiment, agility, shading and tone, poly-rhythms – will appeal to fans of touches of DeJohnette, Erskine, Motian, Haynes and even Murray and Cyrille, but really a singular drummer. George Russell, who featured Jan and Jon in the late sixties, commented that for some reason, Norwegians seemed to swing like they came from 125th Street, but with their own kind of blues. Danielsson is a lyrical, fat-toned bassist who digs deep, anchoring driving and inspiring the soloists. An under-appreciated bassist who has a real showcase here.

    Jarrett is contained, in the best sense – sensitive as ever to the songs, grooving deeply and flying – especially on “The Windup,” a real showcase piece alternating between the funky labyrinth of the head and the free-blow of the solos.

    There is no reason not to have this album. It is a jazz watershed.—Dan Sapen

  22. Conference of the Birds
    Dave Holland: Conference of the Birds

    Dave Holland has developed his ensemble writing and arranging beautifully and consistently over the years. Any one of his albums can be recommended without reservation, from solo bass and cello, on to his duets with Rivers and Steve Coleman. His recent big band builds upon his greatest strengths while creating a powerful democratic ensemble for the expressions of some of today’s best players. Holland’s two greatest strengths are good taste and and a consistent imagination for what sounds good, regardless of complexity and virtuosic playing. OK, that’s three. Hard to stop. This album, the genesis of Dave Holland as leader, was a youthful work, with all the implications of that word (for a delicious cross section, try the Circle-Paris Concert, consider the trios with Corea and Altschul, consider projects with Braxton and Wheeler and bathe in the rich ensembles of the 80’s forward).

    While you can spend a jazz-life marveling at the virtuosity and sonic beauty of his playing, the most delightful thing about this album, for me, besides the Dionysian spirit of the free-time passages and the brilliant interplay of Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton, two very different but synergistic wind players, is the perennial Holland ability to write tunes that are playful and catchy at the same time that they are diving boards for the most unfettered but inspired improvisations. That’s right, catchy. And somtimes, as in the title tune, modest and beautiful. Every piece is a smile-inducing surprise, as long as one has no aversion or knee-jerk dismissal of “free” playing. One can listen to “Four Winds,” in its constantly shifting accents and meter, then skip to the next decade’s “Homecoming” on Seeds of Time straight on through to the present and hear what, in my pretty full experience, is non-pareil – dauntingly tricky tunes that maintain a playful catchiness, so much so that the casual listener will never have to know that time signatures are all over the map – the listening is as challenging and enjoyable as the best Bartók or Stravinsky, but they swing and you can hum them while driving.

    Then the ensemble – though I am partial to the band with Kenny Wheeler and Julian Priester, Holland is the Mr. Spock of the musical mind-meld with his drummer, as well as the ego-less complement to his soloists and unerring counter-pointer in his band arrangements. Drummers Barry Altschul, staccato, driven and precise; and Jack DeJohnette, flowing, utterly free in the range of dynamics and locked into a pulse that allows him utter virtuosity such that the time signature disappears and re-emerges as if by magic, could not be more different. Holland sounds like a twin of each, DeJohnette a prolific partner in countless contexts over the years. Here, it is Altschul playing with such energy and obvious fun that one cannot fail to smile at his most spontaneous inventions, nor tap one’s foot to his swing. Oh yeah, this “free” music is my favorite example of how swing can breathe in the absence of conventional rhythm.

    Rivers is a revelation here, though his Blue Note recordings of the 60’s were up there with the work of his more famous contempories. To this day he is a neglected paradigm unto himself, a wind-master whose re-emergence as a recording artist should not be missed; nearing 80 now, he is as hip then as any young cat, with a wisdom of the years and the chops of a prime genius. Braxton – also a paradigm unto himself, is at many points in his career indecipherable and seemingly intentionally subversive of the basics of playing a horn and respecting a tune – yet he can at best be riveting. Here, he is inspired, and in a rewarding partnership that, 30 years ago, may represent his most sympathetic context in which to sound out his spirit.

    Holland’s playing is wonderful to the ear and to his bandmates, as described. Important to aficionados of technique, Dave’s playing doesn’t sacrifice the visceral WEIGHT of the bass sound, the way so many post-LaFaro players do. Holland works his magic, at any speed, at any level of spontaneous invention or complexity, with a rich, consistent and controlled technique and sound that does honor to Mingus, and that I dare say would have made the fiery taskmaster smile proudly.

    This album, along with Ornette Coleman’s Change of the Century and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme or Meditations is essential for anyone wanting to venture beyond the mainstream and have both a sturdy bridge to the tougher terrain and a reference standard for how the bravely avant-garde (“advance-guard,” reconnaissance into uncharted teritory) should sound.—Dan Sapen

  23. Book of Days
    Meredith Monk: Book of Days
    Exploring all planes of sound and experience

    Meredith Monk is a marvel. She has contributed to so many aspects of our appreciation of avant-garde music, not only in her compositions, but also in her courage to explore the possibilities that lie within the human voice. This particular CD is an experience that rewards at every turn. The Book of Days references medieval literature and is a collection of works composed by Monk for 12 voices, cello, synth, hammered dulcimer, bagpipe & hurdy gurdy. Sound odd? It is. And that is fine – for starters. But for those who know of Meredith Monk’s work – and more important, for those to whom this fine artist’s gifts are new – this collection of moods and songs, performed to perfection by the astounding group of musicians gathered for this CD will transport the listener to another place in the universe, in time, in experience. Imagine being in a medieval cathedral, deserted except for wandering troubadors expressing their various lineages and secrets and you may get an insight to the glories that abound on this recording. It is a mystical experience, a skip along time’s trail, and a little miracle of production of sound you’ll never forget again.—Grady Harp

  24. Do You Be
    Meredith Monk: Do You Be
    Not the Composer’s Strongest Work

    DO YOU BE is a rather puzzling and frustrating CD. Apart form her other works this collection of works emphasizes more the piano than the voice. Whereas in most of her better known works Monk’s facile use of the voice as an instrument, in this collection the voice seems to be obbligato to the chords of piano music. The pieces here are for 10 voices, 2 pianos, synthesizer, violin & bagpipes and while they continue to fascinate and substantiate Monk’s position in the avant-garde realm, they can become wearing. Rhythms are important here and take a focus not heard in Monk’s other music. The performers are all first rate musicians and their virtuosity shows! A collector’s item more than a CD, the owner will likely not be listening to or experiencing repeatedly.—Grady Harp

  25. Voice in the Night
    Charles Lloyd: Voice in the Night

    Voice in the Night is a welcome homecoming for reedman Charles Lloyd. He hasn’t recorded in a guitar-based group since his two tremendously underrated (and rockish) albums for A&M in 1972-73. Here, he also pleasingly revisits a good deal of his earlier (and still his most personable) material: “Forest Flower,” from the famed quartet days of the late 60s, “Voice in the Night” and in the “Pocket Full of Blues” medley, “Island Blues” and “Little Sister’s Dance.”

    With the advantage of hindsight, Lloyd seems to sound warmer, somewhat romantic – and a touch more inspired than usual — with a guitar. Pianists seem to bring out Lloyd’s more aggressive Coltrane-ish side and often permit him to easily dabble in longer, spacier themes with exotic instrumentation. Even though he sticks to tenor throughout here (his exceptional flute playing is sorely missed coupled with John Abercrombie’s sensistive accompaniment), Lloyd sounds just right here: swinging and having fun too.

    This all-star aggregate, featuring Abercrombie on guitar, Dave Holland on bass and Billy Higgins on drums, recalls the other supergroup Lloyd captured on 1965’s superb Of Course, Of Course (Columbia, not on CD). The earlier date featured iconoclastic guitarist Gabor Szabo, an excellent foil for any of Lloyd’s moods (Szabo came to the Chico Hamilton group Lloyd directed at Lloyd’s insistence in the early 1960s), with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. Lloyd, Abercrombie and Holland bring a far different, mellowed perspective to this music.

    Voice in the Night suffers none of the austerity that rules much of ECM’s recordings and a few of Lloyd’s previous five ECM releases. Aside from toe-tapping interplay on the familiar songs, Lloyd and company offer lovely covers of Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” and, surprisingly, last year’s Burt Bachrach/Elvis Costello hit, “God Give Me Strength.” Quite often, though, the most interesting moments come on Lloyd’s newest material: the off-kilter calypso of “Dorotea’s Studio,” “Homage” (a sterling Abercrombie showpiece) and “Requiem.” However, anyone familiar with Lloyd’s magisterial “Forest Flower” from the Chico Hamilton days, or, more likely from the famed quartet days, will certainly want to hear the beautiful version Lloyd, Abercrombie, Holland and Higgins offer here. It’s worth the price of admission.

    Here’s hoping the somewhat reclusive Lloyd is planning a sequel to Voice in the Night. This is a quartet that offers much to explore.—Douglas Payne

  26. Tactics
    John Abercrombie Trio: Tactics

    Despite their popularity, organ trios have a bad reputation in jazz. Perhaps it’s the greasy grooves, or the domination of too many heavy-handed B-3 players. Guitarist John Abercrombie got his start three decades ago in Johnny “Hammond” Smith’s organ combo. But since then, he’s shown he’s anything but a stereotypical chord cruncher or fatback slinger. He’s traversed modal and bop, waxed lyrical and ethereal, gone all-out free and dug deep in rock and he seems sincere about each and every journey he takes. Abercrombie seems simply incapable of hitting a false note.

    In addition to the multitudes of other multifaceted projects he leads or to which he contributes, Abercrombie in 1992 formed this organ trio featuring the outstanding Cleveland native Dan Wall on organ and the indescribably sensitive and intuitive Adam Nussbaum on drums. Abercrombie was already (and still is) a contributor to Jeff Palmer’s organ quartets. But in Palmer’s group there is a conscientious, almost cloying need to expand upon Larry Young’s innovations. Abercrombie’s trio, on the other hand, is often inaccurately branded with continuing the Larry Young tradition (as is any organ group that isn’t mining the groove). But there’s something different — and more exciting — going on here. This is a trio that is dependent on one another’s aural creations. Much like Bill Evans’ best trios (with Scott Lafaro or Marc Johnson on bass) — and especially the Motian / Frisell / Lovano trio — this is a creative, synergistic musical unit.

    Perhaps because this is a live event (recorded at the Visiones club in New York July 13-15, 1996), Tactics is the best of this trio’s three discs (there’s also 1992’s While We’re Young and 1993’s Speak of the Devil). It’s an ideal showcase for all of Abercrombie’s capabilities too (not counting his guitar synth work, which is not highlighted here).

    As one expects from an ECM production, it’s beautifully recorded. Tactics sounds as if it was made in a pristine studio. And though every note Abercrombie, Wall and Nussbaum play is improvised (based on certain simple patterns), none fashion anything less than a thoughtful, unpredictable and amazing pattern. Perhaps Abercrombie’s guitar dominates; but it is so only in how well Wall and Nussbaum cushion the guitarist’s ethereal inventions. Included are two overly-performed standards (“You and the Night and the Music” and “Long Ago and Far Away,” which further link this group to the Evans and Motian trios). But Abercrombie and crew take these tried-and-true pieces to different spheres than one is accustomed. Nussbaum contributes one original, Dan Wall has two (including the surprisingly funky “Bo Diddy”) and Abercrombie includes three of his own (“Sweet Sixteen,” “Last Waltz” and the superior Coltrane ode of “Dear Rain,” his inventive mix of “Dear Lord” and “After the Rain”).

    Tactics is very highly recommended and, thus far, one of the best new releases of 1997.—Douglas Payne

  27. Points of View
    Dave Holland Quintet: Points of View

    British bassist and jazz veteran Dave Holland (b. 1946) has refashioned his ever iconoclastic quintet to feature Steve Wilson’s sax and Robin Eubank’s trombone interacting with former Quintet partner Steve Nelson’s pianistic vibes and Billy Kilson’s aggressively sensitive drumming.

    Holland cites the guiding influence of Duke Ellington in his Points of View. And while there is something starkly modern — even unique — in the bassist/composer’s conceptions, there really is evidence that the great Ellington has inspired Holland’s approach here. Witness the melodic contours, the imaginative countermelody, the rhythmic variation and a high level of writing specifically tailored to the individual voices carrying the melodies. It’s all there – even though it sounds like nothing Ellingtonian.

    This outstanding set features eight strong, diverse originals (five by Holland and one each by Eubanks, Wilson and Nelson), each departing from the too-often standard jazz vocabulary in unique ways. Consider the way Holland suggests the flights of freedom in West Coast cool on “Mr. B” (dedicated to fan Holland’s early role model Ray Brown). Or the way he uses a “Round Midnight” pastiche to explore bop alternatives in “Bedouin Trail” (nicely spotlighting Eubanks’ classy trombone).

    Also of note are the modally orchestrated “Herbaceous” (dedicated to Holland’s former trio leader and Parallel Realities section mate, Herbie Hancock – and featuring quite a workout by Holland behind the other’s challenging leads), the arched funk of Eubanks’ “Metamorphos, the swinging and serious lead off in “The Balance,” and Nelson’s appropriately set-closing Caribbean lullaby, “Serenade.”

    But such diversity should not suggest a random collection of styles thrown together to merely illustrate range. There is an engaging unity to the sounds heard throughout Points of View, primarily to the credit of Holland as a leader and his associates’ abilities as individual stylists. No one soloist shines greater than any other and each get a significant share of the spotlight for engaging commentary. In fact, in a blindfold test it would be difficult to tell which instrumentalist here is the leader.

    Points of View is fine creative music, often revealing new shades of enjoyment upon each new hearing. And once again, one of jazz’s finest bassists has assembled a tremendous ensemble offering plenty of fulfilling artistry. Recommended.—Douglas Payne

  28. Molde Concert
    Arild Andersen: Molde Concert

    This August 1981 concert recording featuring Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen’s fascinating and perfectly assembled quartet with John Taylor on piano, Bill Frisell on guitar and Alphonse Mouzon on drums was first issued by ECM on LP in 1982 with seven tracks and again on CD in 2000 with 11 tracks – to almost no avail in both cases.

    The 1982 LP was issued by ECM as A Molde Concert with typography only and no art whatsoever and the 2000 CD, titled Molde Concert, was issued with one of ECM’s typical Nordic-style photos – and Frisell’s name not so mysteriously acceding over Taylor’s name in the cover credits.

    It is a superlative performance, catching all four musicians – at varying stages in their careers – delivering a wonderfully unified performance that should have probably proven to be more exemplary than it did. Perhaps it’s the fact that this concert took place in Norway. Hardly the center of renowned jazz; at least, perhaps, until this recording.

    Andersen (b. 1945), who had already racked up experience with Jan Garbarek, Karin Krog, Don Cherry, George Russell, Roswell Rudd and Charlie Mariano among others, somehow formed what could now be considered this all-star quartet.

    British pianist Taylor (b. 1942) probably had the longest list of accomplishments at this point, accompanying at various points in his long career, John Surman, Johnny Dankwaorth, Volker Kriegel, Mike Gibbs, Harry Beckett, Cleo Laine, Kenny Wheeler and (his wife at the time) Norma Winstone.

    Mouzon (b. 1948), of course, had already traversed through Weather Report and the bands of McCoy Tyner, Larry Coryell and Gil Evans, as well as his own recordings for Blue Note and MPS (and the Jeremy Steig album mentioned below).

    Frisell (b. 1951) was probably the newbie of the bunch, having made only a few appearances on record by this time, from Hal Wilner and Eberhard Weber to Mike Metheny, but sounding like a pro – much more rock-ish than usual – every step of the way.

    “Cherry Tree” is fusion in an acoustic mold, with Taylor assuming a Corea-like mantle. This is the way jazz is supposed to be. The quartet carries its repartee through on the creative and inspired “The Sword Under His Wings” (featuring an excellent duet between Andersen, on bowed bass, with Mouzon in all his glory – and, later, one of Frisell’s interesting solos) and wraps up on the engaging and enterprisingly jazzy “Dual Mr. Tillman Anthony,” a (probably) Miles Davis song from 1967 which first appeared on the trumpeter’s 1976 record Water Babies.

    “Targeta” and “Koral” (carried largely by Frisell) are reminiscent of Keith Jarrett’s European quartet recordings, particularly those on ECM (surprise, surprise) that lean toward the gospel side of things.

    Frisell, who at this early point in his career had developed something of his own sound, channels a bit of Pat Metheny’s vibe, thus furthering the ECM connection – but what a glorious sound indeed: mixing the soul of jazz with the ache of rock.

    Frisell is outstanding on “Six for Alphonse” – which also features strong parts for Taylor, Andersen and the titular Mouzon as well. The guitarist engages beautifully with Andersen on the guitar-bass duo of “Lifelines,” which is a precursor to the music this duo made on Frisell’s debut In Line (ECM, 1982). Frisell stands out on “Cameron” and “A Song I Used To Play” as well.

    Taylor shines throughout, of course, and is most notable on the near-funk take of “Commander Schmuck’s Earflap Hat.”

    Andersen contributes all but one of the program’s compositions and is beautifully spotlighted on “Nutune” (with Frisell providing beautifully customary washes of supportive sound) as well as his own “Cameron” and “A Song I Used to Play.”

    Aside from all the interesting things going on during this set, it is interesting to note that Arild Andersen later featured both trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft in his band long before anybody ever heard of them.

    Molde Concert remains something worth hearing and savoring.—Douglas Payne

  29. Psalm
    Paul Motian Trio: Psalm

    Hard to believe this album was recorded nearly 30 years ago, in December 1981. It seems a lifetime ago, and indeed it probably has been a lifetime since then. Imagine the changes to jazz and to music itself. Just goes to show the timelessness of what ECM has tried to capture and, perhaps more notably, the timelessness of what drummer and composer Paul Motian (b. 1931) set out to accomplish.

    Imagine too, how each of the musicians in Motian’s band have changed since then too; although, it is with great pleasure to report that all five are still among us, continuing to make music today.

    Psalm is the first recorded evidence of drummer Paul Motian’s group with guitarist Bill Frisell (b. 1951) and saxophonist Joe Lovano (b. 1952) – many years before either found success on their own.

    Only the drummer’s fifth solo album since 1972 – and his fifth on the ECM label (he’s recorded prolifically since then for Manfred Eicher’s label as well as other discs for the Soul Note, JMT and Winter & Winter labels), the disc also features Ed Schuller (Gunther’s son, born 1955) on bass and Billy Drewes (b. 1952) on saxophones.

    It’s a most remarkable disc and, somehow, it takes on new meaning after all these years. I admit I heard this album about a half a lifetime ago and it didn’t move me at all. Now it does. The seeds of the entire downtown movement can be heard right here. Yes, right here. Can it be that Psalm was the first downtown jazz album of the 1980s? I think so, yes.

    Motian, as he often does on many of his discs, composed all of the eight pieces heard here. He has always been a slippery composer, avoiding overt melodies in favor of melodic lines or melancholy ideas that allow his band to improvise in, on or around. No exceptions here. However, there are some stronger than usual themes present.

    “White Magic” suggests Ornette Coleman in Prime Time mode, with Schuller laying down a particularly strong Charlie Haden-like line. On up-tempo tunes such as this and “Second Hand,” Schuller provides much of the group’s overall success.

    “Mandeville,” unquestionably the disc’s finest moment, presages Frisell’s launch into folk themes a decade and a half later. Here, Schuller actually suggests Marc Johnson (who, like Motian, a former Bill Evans sideman, would go on to work with the drummer years later) and Motian even provides something of a lesson plan here that the great Joey Baron could gravitate towards.

    Frisell sounds a little different here than expected. He is, of course, melodic and wonderfully respectful of the melody. But he brings something of an edge to his playing here that is the province of youth and rebellion; something that is as appealing and satisfying as it is challenging (of expectations) and unsettling (if you are looking for straight-line acknowledgement of themes). No doubt, he would deliver this wonderful theme much, much, much more differently today.

    Frisell is much more dominant here than I remember – surprising, considering his lack of identity or name recognition at this time – more or less providing the backbone for the quiet “Psalm,” the beguiling “Etude,” the haunting “Fantasm,” the quixotic “Yahllah,” the rockish “Second Hand” and the more rambunctious rock of “Boomerang.”

    It’s amazing to hear how distinct Lovano sounds here, too, having become more predominant as time goes on, but sounding confident and very much in his own bag throughout (“Boomerang,” “Fantasm”).—Douglas Payne

  30. Leclair Sonatas
    Jean-Marie Leclair: Sonatas

    Violinist John Holloway (b. 1948) has a special fondness for what has become known as the baroque period of the 17th and 18th centuries.

    He has often recorded the classics of the masters from the period, such as Handel, Bach, Vivaldi and Telemann. But he has also taken great pains to focus attention on the music of some of the period’s lesser known but not lesser talents such as Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707), Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704), Georg Muffat (1653-1704), Francesco Maria Veracini (1690-1768), Antonio Bertali (1605-1669), Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c. 1620-1680) and Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764).

    While Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann and, of course, Bach, hardly ever did anything not worth hearing, savoring and appreciating over and over again, this period of music – and all of its incredible composers – make for especially thrilling music to discover.

    Biber, most notably, is a revelation to this listener. His dramatic and always melodic compositions strike me as something like jazz mixed with the odd-sounding combination of church music and what became 20th century country and western music. There’s something very soulful, refreshing – even new – in this music and it takes someone as passionate and caring as Holloway to bring it back to life.

    Holloway, whose relationship with Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records goes back a full decade to 1999’s Unarum Fidium (ECM New Series 1668), has made an exceedingly notable impression with his two Biber-based recordings for the label, 2002’s excellent Unam Ceylum (ECM New Series 1791) and 2004’s almost-as-wonderful Biber/Muffat – Der Turken Anmarsch (ECM New Series 1837). These are all thrilling discs, made brighter by the ardor and virtuosity Holloway brings to the music.

    Holloway’s newest disc is the joyful Jean-Marie Leclair Sonatas (ECM New Series 2009), where the violinist reconvenes his brilliant trio of violin, violoncello (Jaap ter Linden) and harpsichord (Lars Ulrick Mortensen).

    These three were responsible for 2005’s lovely Veracini Sonatas – and it’s the same format Holloway used on the two Biber discs. It’s amazing how these three instruments can suggest something much greater, much more significant, something more orchestral than you can imagine by three sets of hands. It’s even more wondrous when you consider how Holloway’s musical endeavors “whisper” music like so much a part of nature.

    Remember those ECM ads from the 1970s where the label claimed to be “the most beautiful sound next to silence”? This is exactly what they meant.

    Leclair, founder of the French violin school, is highly respected among classicists but he’s hardly known at all among listeners today, especially among classic music enthusiasts. As a violinist himself, he brought great authority to his music – indeed, as he progressed, the music became more clever than listenable. He probably was not as successful as his compositions should have allowed him to be. Later in life, he wrote some ballets and operas, none of which were particularly successful. He died – or was murdered, under mysterious circumstances – nearly a recluse, all but forgotten and pretty much lost to the ages.

    Rather than offer an overview of Leclair’s sonata output – which forces me to recommend the 2001 CD, Leclair/Locatelli – L’Ange et le Diable CD by The Rare Fruits Council – Holloway chooses here to do five of the 12 sonatas from opus 5, which offer what he feels are the more melodic, less musically showy pieces in the composer’s canon.

    This is immediately apparent, with the warm and loving delivery Holloway and company provides throughout the disc. Leclair probably wasn’t the composer Handel or Bach was. But that hardly renders what he achieved as inconsequential. Each of these four-part pieces is lovely, intellectual and almost spiritual.

    While nothing here compares to the jagged edginess of Biber or the stately loveliness of anything by Handel, it is wonderful music delivered most lovingly by one of baroque’s most passionate spokespersons, John Holloway, and his incredible synergistic trio.—Douglas Payne

  31. Life's Backward Glances
    Steve Kuhn: Life’s Backward Glances – Solo and Quartet

    Where pianists are concerned, jazz and its patrons are vocal about their signifiers. It’s difficult to pick an era in the music that doesn’t have at least one representative one can argue about or one abstractor who leads the art into the next era.

    So how does one “peg” pianist Steve Kuhn?

    Perhaps it’s wise not too. The Harvard educated pianist had his earliest affiliations with Kenny Dorham, Stan Getz, Art Farmer and John Coltrane. All high-profile names to be sure. But Kuhn’s music, as commanding as it was, didn’t seem to fit in with any one these revered legends. Indeed, Coltrane fired the pianist after only two months.

    It seems to echo what it must have been like to work in the Bush White House. Tow the company line – in the name of whatever – or you’ll get booted.

    Kuhn is not about doing what’s expected. Even though the Steve Kuhn of the 1960s (Three Waves, The October Suite) is hardly the Steve Kuhn of the 1970s (Steve Kuhn, Trance) and nothing at all like the Steve Kuhn of the 80s, 90s and 00s, whose vast recorded output has been courtesy of labels all well outside the bounds of his native United States, Kuhn has never ever stooped to the predictable or declined to the marketable.

    He is an artist, through and through. And judging by the sadness of so much of his music, he has suffered as an artist often does. That’s probably why he’s never earned an American recording contract. American record companies don’t generally buy in to such rabid iconoclasm. Some of us, though, do. And, thankfully, there are great artist-oriented labels like ECM that do too.

    Following last year’s Japanese-only release of Steve Kuhn’s The Early 70’s, featuring the entire contents of Steve Kuhn (1971) and six never-before issued tracks from 1973 (four of which were later recorded for the ECM album Trance), ECM has issued this “three-fer” set titled Life’s Backward Glances, featuring three of the eight albums Kuhn has recorded for ECM (unfortunately 1978’s Non-Fiction remains out of print, even though it would have been perfect for this collection).

    It’s probably not the set I would have put together. But it’s a remarkable set none the less, spotlighting Kuhn’s solo Ecstasy (1974), the often brilliant Motility (1977) and Playground (1979).

    Ecstasy is a solo piano date. Motility finds Kuhn in a quartet with Steve Slagle on soprano sax, alto sax and flute, Harvie Swartz (now Harvie S) on bass and the unfortunately departed Michael Smith on drums. Playground is another quartet, with vocalist Sheila Jordan trading licks with Kuhn and Swartz again on bass and Bob Moses on drums.

    The first disc, Motility, contains many of the set’s greatest charms. Kuhn contributes some of his strongest playing on his own “Oceans In The Sky,” “Deep Tango,” “The Child Is Gone” and “A Danse For One.” Swartz contributes what are arguably the set’s two best tunes, “Catherine” and “Places I’ve Never Been,” which also elicit some marvelous passages from the pianist.

    Playground, the set’s second disc, is obviously more geared to Kuhn’s “songs” as they all feature vocalist Jordan emoting Kuhn’s plaintive and poetically simple and painful lyrics. Kuhn had performed some of these tunes before, singing himself on “Tomorrow’s Son” (aka “Time To Go”) and “The Zoo” (aka “Pearlie’s Swine”) – both heard on the 1971 album Steve Kuhn, featuring arrangements by Gary McFarland – and “Poem For No. 15” (aka “The Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers”) and “Life’s Backward Glance” from Ecstasy. Jordan seems to be recorded somewhat in the background here, which is a little strange at first, but becomes much more engaging as it goes on. Kuhn almost bristles with magic here, freed from the demands of singing himself, and expounding on his extremely unusual yet still entrancingly melodic songs.

    The set’s final disc, Ecstasy, is Kuhn’s very first solo recording, caught at producer Manfred Eicher’s insistence on the day after recording the excellent and more electric Trance (which is not included here) in November 1974. Featured here are the lovely and lyrical “Silver,” an ode to Kuhn’s former lover, vocalist Monica Zetterlund, “Ulla” (aka “Remembering Tomorrow”) and the eponymous “Life’s Backward Glance.”

    The beauty of Life’s Backward Glances is its artistic strength. There is a vitality here that justifies not only a significant facet of Steve Kuhn’s musical career but also showcases an iconoclastic artist with his own vision, his own voice and his own view and individual artistry. This is a highly recommended musical achievement by an iconoclast who still gets many recording opportunities, mostly thanks to the brilliant Japanese label, Venus Records.—Douglas Payne

  32. Holon
    Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Holon

    Holon is the second ECM disc of “zen funk” from Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin and the eighth in Bärtsch’s series of “Ritual Groove Music” sets since 2001 (the first six are available only through the leader’s web site). Composer and pianist Bärtsch (b. 1971, Zürich, Switzerland), together with Sha (b. 1983, Bern) on bass clarinet and alto saxophone, Björn Meyer (b. Stockholm) on bass, Kaspar Rast (b. 1972, Zürich) on drums and Andi Pupato (b. 1971, Zürich) on percussion, has forged yet another superb outing, laced with unfettered emotion, uncommon brilliance and uncompromising collaborative artistry.

    The instrumentation is slightly altered from the group’s previous and equally beautiful Stoa (2006), with the pianist foregoing his otherwise merely decorative Fender Rhodes and reed player Sha ditching his contrabass for alto sax on a very few occasions. But no one will notice the difference.

    This July 2007 recording, issued in February 2008, like previous Ronin recordings, consists solely of Bärtsch compositions. The composer again gives his songs such erudite titles as “Modul 42,” “Modul 41_17” (the first of the disc’s notable moments and 15 minutes of ecstatic engagement), the filmic “Modul 39_8,” “Modul 46,” which has interesting echoes of Claudio Simonetti, the playful “Modul 45” and the alternately winsome and dramatic “Modul 44.”

    But the lack of emotion and artistry in the titles is not at all reflected in the passionate delivery of the music. There is something here strongly reminiscent of such abstract expressionist painters as Barnett Newman, who also gave many of his beautiful paintings equally abstract and academic titles. Like a painter, Bärtsch and company are clearly more interested in providing the listener with a palette that he or she can interpret in his or her own way – without any juxtaposition of the artist’s intentions of prosaic and self-meaning titles.

    By way of a minor digression, I previously made a comment suggesting that Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin eschews the seemingly predictable course ECM takes, from its prevailing European austerity to the cash-cow recordings of Keith Jarrett, who I unfairly named (or blamed) in particular, for the great expanse of work ECM issues in many different musical genres. This unnecessary insult to ECM and Keith Jarrett was intended to flatter Bärtsch and what his Ronin accomplishes. But it’s just wrong and I apologize whole heartedly for it.

    As I delve more deeply into the fascinating sphere of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, I can connect some dots that I hadn’t heard before. Most notably, it’s easy to hear how ECM has laid the foundation for Ronin with its many piano-based recordings (from Paul Bley at one end to Tord Gustavsen at the other) and how Jarrett himself is much more fundamental and innovative in the ostinato jazz realm than he’s ever been given credit for.

    There is something especially European about Nik Bärtsch’s music (the group is, after all, European and if they don’t sound like it, then I can’t think of much American music of late that’s this inviting, inventive or involving), which is why Holon as well as the group’s previous Stoa have found a particularly good home at ECM.

    But it’s hardly austere. It consistently hypnotizes (ritual), it swings (groove) and it has a surprisingly strong impact (music). And, like the best of Keith Jarrett’s own compositions on ECM since the Trio recordings (particularly “Flying – Part Two” from Changes, “Dancing,” “Lifeline” and the rest of Changeless, “The Cure” from The Cure and “The Out-of-Towners” from The Out-of-Towners) – these are patterns, or modules in Bärtsch’s world, that work well on many levels; creating a basis of hypnotic music that prompts and provokes exciting intervention.

    Bärtsch mixes something of the East – a tradition, but not exactly an Eastern tradition – with something of the West – a feistiness and a fury, but not exactly the Western recklessness or predictability that calls itself jazz lately – and ends up with something that is compelling and renews itself pleasingly with each listen.—Douglas Payne

  33. Stoa
    Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Stoa

    Repetition has a long, revered history in music, from many of the world’s folk songs – particularly in Indian and Asian cultures – to the 20th Century classics of Phillip Glass, Wim Mertens and Steve Reich. In jazz, these musical patterns or compositions are referred to as “ostinato” – although since this music ends up sounding like funk or something criminally catchy or critically annoying, jazz never gives the music the respect it deserves.

    Oddly, though, the repeating patterns of ostinato music often build an attractive, hypnotic feel that can inspire provocative improvisation – especially in the hands of someone who knows what to do with it. Ostinati is not about proving one’s chops, showboating or personalities. It’s about the music. Ostinati shows how musicians can work within a song, building the music like an intricate puzzle, mirroring or reflecting a theme, playing to patterns and even discovering alternatives that invert, subvert or illuminate the pattern.

    No one understands this more or better than pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch (b. 1971, Zürich), who has devised a most wonderful disc with Stoa (2006), the first of his two ECM discs to date (he’s issued several other Ronin discs on his own label prior to this). The title is Greek for covered walkways in ancient architecture meant for public usage. Or, as Bärtsch’s notes succinctly and sufficiently state, these “pieces are spaces to be entered and inhabited.” How beautiful is that?

    This is his seventh (!) outing in what he calls “ritual groove music” and one could hardly argue or refute this. He further indicates that his music “draws its energy from the tension between compositional precision and the self-circumvention of improvisation.” Indeed. It’s a definitive concoction that straddles the emotions prevalent in both jazz and film music, which, lest we forget, also employs repetition for dramatic and emotional purposes (note Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut or John Frankenheimer’s Ronin for brilliant and superb examples of the musical crossroads where one might find music like Stoa).

    Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin evinces a particularly tight quintet featuring the leader on piano (and sporadic Fender Rhodes in some background soundscapes), Sha on contrabass and bass clarinets, Björn Meyer on bass, Kaspar Rast on drums and Andi Pupato on percussion. The group elaborates effectively on Bärtsch compositions with such seemingly academic titles as “Modul 36” (the disc’s best 15 minutes), “Modul 35” (the least convincing piece on display here), “Modul 32,” “Modul 33” and “Modul 38_17” (an utterly intoxicating and excellent piece of chugging funk that sounds nothing like funk).

    All of these pieces were apparently conceived while Bärtsch was briefly living in Japan, a lifelong dream of his. There is something of the mystery and the beauty of Japan in this material, but it never sounds specifically Japanese by any stretch of the imagination. It actually sounds like nothing less than pure imagination at work.

    There is no sense of erudite predictability or Jarrett-like leanings that you’d assume would be typical of any piano-based ECM date either. This is very soulful music and even though I’ve just discovered it some three years after the fact, it will make many repeated visits to my CD player. It would have been my favorite disc of 2006 if I had heard it then. But it’s the best thing I’ve heard since then.—Douglas Payne

  34. Neighbourhood
    Manu Katché: Neighbourhood

    This one took me completely by surprise. It’s one of those moody jazz explorations that digs its way deep into your psyche and doesn’t let go. Some might find it endlessly repetitive or dull, like the person who’s had to listen to it repeatedly with me this year. But it’s hard to deny the musicianship at play here. The European rhythm section sounds much better together than an American like me would have initially presumed. The fear factor for me was the presence of ECM mainstay Jan Garbarek (essentially Katché’s employer for the last 15 years or so). But his piercing, brittle tonefields never overwhelm or overtake the dark, noir mood drummer Katché establishes here. Katché himself is barely even noticeable on drums. It’s like Paul Motian inside out, if that’s even feasible. Katché has more smoldering, intoxicating things on his mind. He’s all about melody and mood here, and it makes for probably one of the finest listening experiences I’ve enjoyed this year. “November 99” (without Garbarek) is worth the price of admission.—Douglas Payne

  35. Requiem for Larissa
    Valentin Silvestrov: Requiem for Larissa
    The Vacuum of Death

    Valentin Silvestrov is slowly gaining the audience he so justly deserves. The Ukranian composer (born 1937) has suffered from attacks for his compositional style from both his country’s historical origin and from critics who claim he has not created a new language, apparently a quality that is necessary to judge him as a significant 20th century composer. But for those who have discovered his particular range of expressivity this recording of his ‘Requiem for Larissa’ (texts from the Mass, Taras Shevchenko), mixed chorus, orchestra, 1997-99 will satisfy that sense that his work is not only viable, it is also profoundly moving.

    The Requiem is not the usual template used by the church, but instead incorporates only those sections of the requiem mass that speak to loss and sadness, add the poetry of Shevchenko to speak the rest. A series of slow dark movements – largos, andantes, adagios – are very slowly traversed with an orchestration that allows the timbre of the piano and the synthesizer to be at its base at time and creates clouds of tonal clusters to create the atmosphere of complete and utter loss. His choral writing is very strong with keenly devised separations of the male and female voices while, though massed, seem like single outcries. When he adds the solo voice as in the 4th movement (the Shevchenko poem ‘The Dream’) he embroiders the solo with choral incantations and wordless music that approaches folksong sounds – perhaps the most personal movement of this great work. This is a work of profound beauty, a farewell to the composer’s wife, and to listen to these epic work could not fail but touch the heart of anyone who has lost a loved one.

    Vladimir Sirenko conducts the National Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of Ukraine with a fine sense of architecture and respect for the mystery that lies in the silences Silvestrov has so adeptly placed throughout the work. The recording from ECM is clear of surface and rich in sonority. This is a recording to cherish.—Grady Harp

  36. Stravinsky Orchestral Works
    Igor Stravinsky: Orchestral Works
    A New, Superb Recording of Stravinsky’s Orchestral Works 1927 – 1960

    Though each of the works on this new release has been recorded in different formats by numerous conductors and orchestras, this selection of Stravinsky’s purely orchestral chamber works as conducted by Dennis Russell Davies with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra jumps to the top of the ‘best recordings’ list!

    Davies has the verve and sense of humor and compassion to make these rather disparate works ring. The opening work is the too rarely heard ‘Monumentum Pro Gesualdo Di Venosa ad CD Annum’, a simply gorgeous instrumental homage to Gesualdo’s madrigals. The pitting of brass choirs against string and woodwind choirs creates the contrapuntal aspects of Gesualdo’s music as though each section of the orchestra was placed in various positions in a cathedral.

    The other works are far better known, but Davies infuses them with intelligence and style. ‘Danses Concertantes’ literally dance for him, the Concerto in D (Stravinsky’s version of the ‘concerto for orchestra’ instead of a solo instrument backed by an ensemble) is classicism personified and the closing ‘Apollon Musagete’ is both languid and dramatic. The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra is pitch perfect here and the recorded sound is first rate. Even if some of these works are in your library already, this recording is so fine that it should be added without reservation. Highly Recommended.—Grady Harp

  37. Kafka-Fragmente
    György Kurtág: Kafka-Fragmente
    As Fine a Performance as Any Available

    György Kurtág’s op. 24, ‘Kafka-Fragmente’ is as fine a way to become familiar with this contemporary Hungarian genius’ work as any. Though he rarely repeats a concept in his work despite the fact that his music is now in the ‘instantly recognizable’ zone, this 1985-86 composition for violin and soprano holds moments of timbre and sonority – if that word can be used for atonal music! – that rise out of the mysteries of creation that cover his career. The composition is unique in that it depends solely on the ability of a soprano to accept the partnership of one instrument as accompaniment. But writing that statement immediately calls for a retraction: the soprano and the violin each hold equal value in these fragments from Franz Kafka’s bizarre diaries. The ability of the violin to spread a pitch cluster over several strings invites the soprano to do the same – not necessarily of the sprechstimme quality but finding that inner place between two pitches that has yet to resolve in either direction. At times the violin dances and the voice dances, at other times the violin sans vibrato mourns and the voice groans and pleads. There are moments of snap and humor that are close to the Orientale sound: there are moments so mysterious that they seem to emerge from some other space unknown to anyone but the composer.

    Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments is broken into forty brief settings and organized in four sections. The central motif is “the path”. Kurtág goes to the very limits of what is technically possible, placing great demands on the voice and the violins, which cover a huge expressive range. The performances here by Juliane Banse, soprano, and Andras Keller, violin, are virtuosic. Both of these artists achieve the unachievable: they make this work sound simple to perform! Banse’s voice is rich, like satin when she wishes it so and like a crisp penetrating dagger when the words call for that sound. Keller is inordinately expressive and his tone never is less than sure and beautiful, even when stretched by Kurtág’s demands. This is music to live with in order to appreciate the richness of the score and the diligence of the performance. Highly recommended.—Grady Harp

  38. Tenebrae
    Gesualdo: Tenebrae

    The Hilliard Ensemble (DAVID JAMES countertenor, ROGERS COVEY-CRUMP tenor, JOHN POTTER tenor, GORDON JONES baritone) is one of the most sophisticated music groups of the day. The degree of their musicality is the pinnacle of perfection and they are able to move from composer to composer with utter ease and understanding of the performing principles of the days when that music was composed. They are the perfect choice for the recording of this huge work by Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Count of Conza (1561 – 1613). The Tenebrae (The Complete Responsoria) is a long and very complex musical work written for the evening service before Maundy Thursday and the rest of the ending of Holy Week. It is a work in which gradually all of the candles lighting the church where it is being performed are extinguished, plunging the atmosphere into complete darkness – the mood of the events of Good Friday to Easter Sunday are thus set.

    Though there are many settings of the Tenebrae, by far the most haunting is that of Gesualdo heard here. Gesualdo was as bizarre a genius as the musical world has ever known: he murdered his adulterous wife and lover, leaving their skewered bodies on the steps for all the town to see. He was considered insane, plagued by demons and required thrashings of his body nightly to rid him of this malady. There are many stories of this tortured man but the most amazing aspect of Gesualdo is that despite his mental anguish he was able to compose some of the most brilliant music of his day. His madrigals remain examples of advanced creative musicality even today.

    The Hilliard Ensemble may be only four men in number, but the acoustical ambience captured in this recording makes them sound like a massive cathedral choir – rich and responsive to space. This is period singing at its best and the manner in which they approach the Tenebrae is breathtakingly beautiful and apropos of the meaning of the music. It transports us to another time and another world and another realm that can only be called truly spiritual. Brilliant!—Grady Harp

  39. Messiaen
    Olivier Messiaen: Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité
    Messiaen’s at times Obtuse, Spiritual Universe

    Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992) was a unique 20th century artist, a profoundly religious man who was a composer, an organist, and an ornithologist (he believed birds to be the greatest musicians). His works for piano, for chorus, for symphony, and for his own favorite instrument, the organ, have been studied by many other composers but to this date none have achieved the degree of mysticism that was Messiaen’s mark on the world of music. As other music historians have noted ‘It is one of the paradoxes of Olivier Messiaen’s creative life that his musical mind was one of organisation, mechanism and rationale, and yet his music found its inspirational basis in the admitted uncertainty, abstractness and ambiguity of faith. That concept is thrust into the foreground in the organ works.’

    Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité, for organ, I/49 is one his grandest compositions and one that requires not only skillful keyboard manipulation but also makes demands of the available organ stops in the mighty instruments found, gratefully, more often in the symphony halls of the world. But for this listener the organ works of Olivier Messiaen are best heard in the acoustic of a cathedral. This impressive sonic achievement, with Christopher Bowers-Broadbent as performer and interpreter, is in great part due to the engineers of ECM. The sound reverberates in even the small home setting, allowing the listener to hear the spatially significant clouds of sound and color the composer desired. Here are also his use of the songs of birds that flutter through the composition subtly ad those single note melodies that seem to relate to nothing if not to the divine. A splendid recording , this.—Grady Harp

  40. Musik für Streichinstrumente
    György Kurtág: Musik für Streichinstrumente
    The Sonically Seductive World of György Kurtág

    György Kurtág could hardly be better represented than on this terrific recording from ECM, MUSIK FÜR STREICHINSTRUMENTE. For those who have not come under the spell of this formidable talent, this Romanian-born composer traveled to Paris after the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and there through his studies with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud along with his falling under the influence of Anton Webern and his long friendship with György Ligeti, he discovered his voice in contemporary music. In 1959 he marked his String Quartet as his official Opus 1 and on this survey recording this hauntingly beautiful piece is among the selections curated and performed by the Keller Quartet.

    Kurtág’s music is never less than surprising, even in repeated hearings. His uses of silence or pauses accentuate the emotion that his biting outbursts of angular and at times stringent sounds produce. ‘Understanding’ this work is less an appropriate process then simply experiencing it. The complexities that arise are equally matched by unique use of the bow on the strings, the pizzicato sections that disrupt the gliding glissandos of sound he asks from his players. In this selection are both versions of the abruptly brief but intoxicatingly explorative sound – Ligatura, Message To Frances-Marie (The Answered Unanswered Question) Op 31 a and b. The listener may feel prepared for the similarities and differences in these two modes, but the excitement of what Kurtág does is always so fresh as to make each experience with them like the first.

    The Keller Quartet performs with precision and passion, obviously in harmony with the thoughts between the notes of each of these experiments in sound. This is as fine an introduction to the music of Kurtág as it exists at the present time.—Grady Harp

  41. O Domina Nostra
    O Domina Nostra
    Discoveries from Górecki and Bryars

    Henryk Górecki is best known for his now, fortunately for us, fairly frequently performed 3rd Symphony ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’. And while his other music is less often heard, even in the symphony halls, this recording gives the opportunity to experience yet another of this great Polish composer’s major works – O Domina Nostra for soprano and organ. The work was conceived in 1982 in celebration of the 600th anniversary of the Black Virgin of Jasnogora, a sacred symbol of Polish independence to whom Poland’s prayers are addressed in times of crisis. It has been revised in both 1985 and in 1990 as a work for solo soprano and organ. Górecki, being a profoundly religious man as well as a believer in the maternal core of being, expresses this prayer to the Virgin mother of Christ, the link between the divine and the eternal. Sarah Leonard, who gratefully commits much of her career to the performance to contemporary music, intones these lines with limpid and ethereal beuty. Christopher Bowers-Broadbent is her equal partner in this mesmerizing work.

    The remainder of the ECM recording is devoted to organ music by Erik Satie (the Mass for the Poor) which dates from 1895 and is from Satie’s more medieval period: there is little here to suggest where his later works would go. And the Preludes of Darius Milhaud, while performed with secure grace by Bowers-Broadbent, are interesting compositionally but somehow fall short of touching the heart. The final work on the CD is a work for organ by Gavin Bryars, a composer new to this listener. The title of the work is The Black River and it is again a work of solo soprano and organ. Perhaps one of the best descriptions of Bryars work comes form a comment by Michael Ondaatje: ‘The music of Gavin Bryars falls under no category. It is mongrel, full of sensuality and wit and is deeply moving. He is one of the few composers who can put slapstick and primal emotion alongside each other. He allows you to witness new wonders in the sounds around you by approaching them from a completely new angle. With a third ear maybe. . .” Sarah Leonard intones the text with a radiant beauty of tone and Bowers-Broadbent again submerges himself in this very beautiful and new work.

    This recording is clear with great presence that never pushes the extremes of the organ nor excludes or allows the soprano voice to dominate. It is perfectly balanced. This is yet another treasure from ECM.—Grady Harp

  42. Ricercar
    Bach and Webern: centuries apart in time, contiguous in nature

    RICERCAR – an elaborate polyphonic composition making extensive use of contrapuntal imitation and usually very slow in tempo – is an fitting title for this performance of the works of JS Bach and those of Anton Webern, for many as antithetical a pairing of composers as could be imagined. But the influence of Bach on Webern is significant: centuries apart they both were fascinated with counterpoint and in many ways each developed a musical language that would outlast them for many years.

    ECM has programed a fascinating and thought-provoking recital in comparing and contrasting the works of Bach and Webern on this wholly satisfying recording. Christoph Poppen is the fine conductor of the Munich Chamber Orchestra and his performances of these disparate and yet complementary works is solidly professional. He opens and closes the recital with Webern’s transcription of Bach’s The Musical Offering Ricercar and in between he offers the shimmering orchestration of Webern’s 1905 String Quartet – one of the finest works on this near perfect program. For Bach devotees Poppen conducts a performance of Bach’s ‘Christ lag in Todes Banden’ electing to use the Hilliard Ensemble (four voices only) as the ‘chorus’ and soloists, wisely adding the fine soprano Monika Mauch to enhance the color. It is intimate and deeply moving.

    Webern’s five movements for string quartet (Opus 5) are presented in his orchestral transcription, again with the same degree of sensitivity and depth of understanding as in the other Webern piece. There is much more of Webern’s variety of tempi and dynamics and outbursts of color in this work. And the recital closes where it begins – with The Musical Offering of Bach – the ricercar as transformed by Webern in homage to the Master. This is subtle and completely satisfying programming on the part of Christoph Poppen, an intellectually satisfying selection as well as a performance of great beauty.—Grady Harp

  43. Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues
    Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues
    Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues: Fresh and Spontaneous and Brilliant

    Keith Jarrett is a fastidious musician, one who studies his craft as a pianist meticulously and with that preparation he seems to intuitively understand the composer’s intentions. Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, Opus 87 continues to gain acceptance on the performing stage despite the length of the work, especially when performers with the sensitivity and agility that Keith Jarrett perform them. This is notoriously challenging music not only for the treacherous territory and fingering of the fugues which have been rushed by other pianists as if trying to reach the next rest stop of the preludes, but also for making the 24 pieces work together as an entity. But with Jarrett the skill that he commands makes these fugues clever variations on the preludes.

    For this listener the sheer magic of this recording is Jarrett’s soulful playing of the preludes. Few other performers (including the infamous recording by Tatiana Nikolaeva dating back to 1987 and to this point being the gold standard for this opus) have found the ‘Russian spirit’ that Jarrett shares. Here is all the heart and passion of the most powerful movements of Shostakovich’s symphonies condensed in these brief melodic explorations. What Jarrett accomplishes here is beyond praise: the listener must experience these airbourne moments alone, with only the sound of Jarrett’s keyboard manipulation being present in the space.

    This simply is one of the recordings that is destined to be regarded as the finest of the recreations of the genius of Dmitri Shostakovich.—Grady Harp

  44. Litany
    Arvo Pärt: Litany
    The Essence of Meditation

    Arvo Pärt is represented on this excellent CD by three works – two works for string orchestra (Psalom and Trisagion) and one work that defies description. ‘Litany’, for ATTB soloists, chorus and orchestra is one of those works that do not even seem composed, so fragile and so penetratingly mystical that the music seems to just emerge from the universe. How the Estonian contemporary composer Pärt is able to achieve this is likely something we will never completely understand. We can understand the concept – a litany is a repetition of words or themes used in churches as chants, this particular litany is set to the prayers of St John Chrysostom, a man who lived with extreme asceticism and became a hermit in about 375; he spent the next two years continually standing, scarcely sleeping, and committing the Bible to memory. And perhaps it is this purity of asceticism that imbues this work. The voices of the Hilliard Ensemble glow with a haloed radiance and the orchestral writing is minimal but supportive of these sounds in an otherworldly manner. The ensemble – the Hilliard Ensemble and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra – are conducted by Tonu Kaljuste. The sonics are courtesy of a staff of engineers whose contribution almost equals that of the conductor. It is an extended nearly twenty-four minute meditation that will remain with the listener forever.

    The works for string orchestra are also very strong. The ‘Psalom’ pulsates in the manner of Arvo Pärt’s extended repetition of chords that change almost imperceptibly, the extensions of silence being equally important to the structure (if that term dared be used) of the work. For this listener it is the stronger of the two works of orchestra, the Trisalom having moments when the ecstasy of the mood is broken or interrupted, damaging the meditative state. These two works are performed by Saulius Sondeckis conducting the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. One again, the sonics are stunning.—Grady Harp

  45. Little Imber
    Giya Kancheli: Little Imber

    Giya Kancheli is a Georgian composer (although currently residing in Belgium) who, at least for the past couple of decades, has found a prominent place within the school of Baltic post-modernists, sharing some stylistic sensibilities with Pärt, Vasks and Górecki, while also forging his own distinctive sound. Although certainly no stranger to vocals, Kancheli brings them to the fore as instruments with the two works found within his latest release, Little Imber.

    “Amao Omi” is the more immediate of the two works, and meshes to effective ends the styles of Baltic folksong, liturgical choral music, and minimalism. The choir, set against an instrumental backdrop of saxophone quartet, is an interesting sound palette, and references other modern composers such as Philip Glass and Michael Nyman. The comparisons are only heightened by the slow, tonal pacing of the work. Although largely tentative and somber, there are occasional outbursts from the chorus – both in unison with the saxophone quartet, as well as accent stabs of punctuation – that bring added emotional energy to the piece. Although the lyrics are not provided, the title alludes to Georgian verse about war, and the pacing of the work, as it oscillates between quiet despair and moments of sudden panic, play to this theme.

    “Little Imber” is both complementary and something else entirely. A mix of choir, children’s chorus, male vocal solo, and chamber ensemble, it feels both through-composed and cinematic. There are so many separate elements of style sewn together in this piece that its patchwork focus is its main unifying theme. The non-classical timbre of the male lead acts almost as narrator to the festivities that bounce from something akin to simple children’s song to meditative choral elegies. A pastoral flute strain can emerge out of a hushed choral dirge, before leading the chamber ensemble back to somber sustains. The children’s chorus is often placed as an almost distant, angelic refrain to the mix. “Little Imber” is also tied to war through its title, as the people in the British town of Imber were deeply affected and relocated during World War II. The children’s chorus and male lead take on almost haunting roles in light of this, as if conjuring memories of those from the past.

    As both works deal with themes of war and suffering – although mainly through allusion – you might expect the overall tone to be a bit bleak. And though it does carry that through in places, it certainly is not the sole theme. Much of the music from the prominent Baltic composers marry this balance between dark reflections on their political and war-torn histories with an almost unshakable grounding in their religious faith and unifying national heritage. And so it seems here. There is a quiet resolve to this music, as a lone lantern bravely flickering in the window on a cold night.

    Overall, the pieces on Little Imber should find an appreciative audience with those interested in any of composers mentioned in this review. This set offers a touch more immediacy than some of Kancheli’s previous work, but continues the style he has established in recent years.—David R Perry

    This review originally appeared on blogcritics and can be viewed here.

  46. Dutilleux
    Henri Dutilleux: D’ombre et de silence

    The music of Henri Dutilleux offers a unique contrast to much of modern French composition. Not only does it rarely, if ever, offer any hints of nationalistic bent, but even its ties to modern compositional schools can be difficult, at best, to pin down. Dutilleux seems to revel in distilling the past century of classical music into his own idiosyncratic style.

    D’ombre et de silence is a rather generous collection of his piano compositions. Robert Levin serves as host and performer for the program (along with Ya-Fei Chuang during the “Figures de resonances” for two pianos), and brings a wealth of personal insight to the works. Levin met Dutilleux in the late 1970s via the pre-eminent French music instructor Nadia Boulanger. Since that time they have remained both friends and colleagues, and Levin brings that innate knowledge of the composer’s music to bear in these highly nuanced performances.

    After the brief introductory piece “Petit air a dormir debout”, the disc opens into the primary work of the first half, Dutilleux’s “Sonate.” Not only is it one of the composer’s most popular works, but it establishes a wonderful overview for much of the rest of the music that follows. Partly because in some respects it contains elements of all the styles that follow. Dutilleux’s influences and direction can be difficult to pin down, except to simply observe that they are the culmination of many trends that both preceded and grew with him. In the “Sonate” you can catch glimpses of everything from Prokofiev to the more current piano works of John Corigliano, while at the same time never landing squarely on any of their styles. The work fairly sparkles with hints of recognition while developing something both refreshingly familiar and decidedly unique. And far from being schizophrenic, these various bits are expertly and meticulously woven into their own cohesive sound world.

    The “Sonate” feels the most fully realised of the works on the disc, as most of the other works are shorter and wear their influences a bit more on their sleeve. The two movements from “Au gre des ondes” offer more than a slight nod in Satie’s direction, while “Blackbird” feels almost alive, and that it might have actually been taken from transcriptions of real blackbird songs.

    Although the music presented here is far from atonal, it’s also a fair bit removed from more traditional tonality as well. Dutilleux seems to share a similar fascination with fellow Frenchman Olivier Messian for polytonal works, or at least dominate passages. “Resonances” is a good example of this, where more tonally clouded clusters form the impetus of the work. “Figures de resonances” for two pianos likewise follows, and finds that exploration carried even further. In both cases the works feel quite natural and moving, if perhaps less centered when compared to some of his earlier works.

    With the exception of brief opener “Petit air a dormir debout”, the CD progresses more or less in chronological order. This makes for a fascinating study of one composer’s musical journey; from the youthful confidence of the “Sonate”, on through the more experimental incidental pieces, and then finally to the mysterious “Preludes” which wrap up the primary portion of the program as his most recent compositions on the album. The “Preludes” take that interest in wandering tonality and almost shift the focus over to a sense of space. The opening movement, and title track for the album, “D’ombre et de silence” uses texture and mood to suggest haunting shadows, perhaps better than traditional tonal centers ever could. Likewise the other two movements deftly conjure something “other” that is both rich and rewarding.

    The disc wraps with some of Dutilleux’s earlier works, at the request of Levin to help give the set a sense of completeness. In particular, the complete “Au gre des ondes” are played, which are almost all traditionally tonal and even include a couple of references to jazz, further branching Dutilleux’s tree of influences. D’ombre et de silence can be a challenging but highly satisfying collection of works for piano. Dutilleux’s distillation of influences, as well as his sheer meticulousness in form, both demand undivided attention and reward with an ever-evolving richness of sound.—David R Perry

    This review originally appeared on blogcritics and can be viewed here.

  47. Neharót

    Proper artist albums in classical music are often less realized than other genre counterparts. Whether because they rely too much on standard repertoire, or perhaps more strict constraints to a particular composer or period, the market is packed with all-too-similar releases—regardless of the technical merits on display—that do little to differentiate themselves from the score of releases that have come before them.

    Which is why Kim Kashkashian’s latest album, Neharót, is such a breath of fresh air. Mining only recent and largely unknown compositions, it fits snugly into the contemporary classical realm. But its the cohesiveness of the selections that sets it apart. Focusing on composers and styles from the Near East, Neharot both relates to Kashkashian’s heritage as an artist while also presenting a stylistic plumbline to center this particular program of material.

    The tone of the album is dialed in to ‘plaintive’ and ‘subdued’ in the opening and title piece, “Neharót, Neharót.” The work, whose title roughly translates from Hebrew to mean “rivers, rivers,” is by Israeli composer Betty Olivero. A grim and mournful reflection on the 2006 Lebanon War, the title is an allusion to the many tears shed over the loss of life from the conflict. Musically, “Neharot, Neharot” features the solo viola alternating between more energetic, weeping phrase to more somber and long lines, accompanied by small string ensemble, percussion, accordion and manipulated recordings of indigenous female voice.

    Kashkashian continues to explore her Armenian ancestry—as well as her ongoing collaboration with Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian—with “Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord.” Originally written for viola and piano, this arrangement features viola and percussion with a very sparse and reflective air. The viola solos freely over long and fluid lines, while the percussion is relegated to more bell-like and atmospheric accents.

    “Oror” follows as almost an intermission to the album. Mansurian’s solo piano arrangement of a work by Armenian composer Komitas gives the viola a rest, as the incidental and soundtrack-like piano song follows the descent of emotion from the previous work and offers a subdued resolve before the more emotional triptych that follows.

    Mansurian’s work continues with “Three Arias (Sung out the window facing Mount Ararat).” Although concerto-like in style, it differs in actual form. Written for solo viola and orchestra, the work plays out as three instrumental songs, taking advantage of the viola’s earthy (“human”) range and fashioning very lyrical pieces for the instrument to sing. Continuing the album’s theme of lament, this one has a decidedly more spiritual angle, as it imagines an Armenian looking out at Mount Ararat—one of their holy sites—that is now separated from them behind the borders of Turkey. This political border dispute mirrors some of the sentiments from the opening piece and continues the cultural and regional themes throughout the album.

    The idea of instrumental singing returns again with the closing “Rava Deravin” by Eitan Steinberg. Originally composed for voice and mixed instrumental ensemble, the composer arranged the version here for Kashkashian and string quartet. Also an Israeli composer, Steinberg crafted this piece from his original based on a poem honoring a traditional Sabbath meal. The piece moves from very soloistic passages with involved accompaniment, to more subdued lamentations with near drone-like backing. Many of the sections feature almost ecstatic and ornamental lyric phrasing for the viola and becomes a very rich—if non-traditional—showcase for the instrument.

    Aside from being simply a proper artist album—and a unified one at that—what’s more satisfying is that Neharót is simply a beautiful album. Kashkashian’s viola sounds as if it almost literally weeps and yearns, so expressive is her tone and lyrical phrasing. The pieces themselves are also very accessible, which makes it an easy recommendation to those who may or may not be otherwise interested in modern music, as well as to those simply interested in some exceptional viola playing.—David R Perry

    This review originally appeared on blogcritics and can be viewed here.

  48. Schnittke and Raskatov

    The story of Alfred Schnittke’s final composition — presented here as the premiere recording of his Ninth Symphony — is not without its classical intrigue. The image of a dying composer, battling poor health to allow his shaky hand to scribble out his final musical breath, immediately brings to mind the image from Amadeus of the great master struggling to finish his own Requiem before his flame was extinguished. It has a tragic romanticism to it, and is compelling as a tale. But is the end product as compelling as the idea of it?

    Schnittke’s final work was left in a state of a damaged relic, with some sections an almost illegible scrawl. His wife sought out trusted colleagues of her husband to complete his manuscript, finally settling on fellow Russian composer Alexander Raskatov. Raskatov’s task was to decipher the score and adjust as needed, in keeping with his intimate knowledge of Schnittke’s works and his stylistic development during his later years.

    The opening Andante starts early in a polytonal nature, with strings gently wavering between chords and clusters before launching into their rather fractured, and almost pained, journey throughout this movement. There is a restlessness at play here, with sections of subdued melancholic reverie set next to and against passages of discordant outbursts of brass punctuated by percussion. The composer’s wife had alluded to the sense that this symphony was done so with his own mortality and exit from this life firmly in mind. It’s easy to envision even this isolated movement as developing some of those ideas, mixing aspects of both a peaceful and painful departure.

    The Moderato and closing Presto movements seem to swim in much the same waters, but unfortunately with less determinism. Schnittke’s famed polystylistic approach could be seen to apply as much to his structure of symphonic form as it does to the execution within sections. The Moderato is cut from the same cloth as the Andante, but neither seems to develop the idea nor support it. The Presto is, predictably, both more lively and steadily paced, but its resolution feels unsatisfying and incomplete. And it may very well be incomplete; we may never know.

    But the story of this work’s unfinished nature seems to carry over to its realization as well. While the Dresdner Philharmonie plays ably, the performance seems unsure and errs on the side of reserved safety. You get the sense that everyone is turning around and asking the ghost of Schnittke, “Is that right?” The work is not without its own power and pathos in spots, but it’s tempered by a lack of direction.

    In the notes to this set, Raskatov is quick to point out that his accompanying piece — a rather non-traditional Nunc Dimittis — is inspired by Schnittke’s Ninth, as his suspicion was that the composer might have envisioned a fourth vocal movement. This is speculation, of course, but I think he wisely chose the course of distancing himself from not playing prognosticator to Schnittke’s unfinished business, but also to deliver his own inspired, and arguably more complete, tribute.

    Written for orchestra with mezzo-soprano and men’s chorus, the work is based on two sets of texts: a passage by Starets Siluan that seems to be inspired by the traditional nunc dimittis text from the New Testament book of Luke; and a passage by Joseph Brodsky, a favorite of Schnittke’s. Both the traditional text and the ones used here focus on images of passing from this life to the next after completing your calling or when your service here is otherwise done. It is, therefore, a fitting and posthumous tribute to the late composer, as well as a fitting parallel to the mindset he may have been in while finishing his Ninth Symphony.

    Raskatov’s Nunc Dimittis, however, is not more complete in terms of accessibility, but rather in scope and resolution. Here the Hillard Ensemble plays more subdued vocal texture, set against the often piercing and acrobatic twentieth-century vocal accents of the mezzo. But this piece feels sure of itself, and has a more noticeable and measured line. Although it isn’t meant to be a finale for the Ninth, the inspiration does come through. Instrumentation and tonal color is inspired by Schnittke’s final work, and in some way does help bring the overall experience to a more satisfying close.—David R Perry

    This review originally appeared on blogcritics and can be viewed here.

  49. Zehetmair Quartet
    Zehetmair Quartet: Bartók and Hindemith
    A Sound Pairing of Quartets

    Béla Bartók in his Sting Quartet No. 5 continued his use of the ‘arch form’: in the sonata style of the first movement each section of exposition is given in reverse order during the recapitulation – the melodies of each section are also inverted (played upside-down). But understanding Bartók’s techniques of composition are far less important to the overall appreciation of this superb quartet than is the overall scope of where this music goes. The incredible almost diabolically difficult demands of the rapid movements on the instrumentalists are balanced by the haunting, night music style of the Adagio and Andante movements. The Zehetmair Quartet traverses this challenging and exciting quartet with complete ease.

    Paul Hindemith’s String Quartet No. 4 may possibly be his third quartet if some historian’s notes are correct. It is by far his most frequently heard and is of his chamber music considered to be one of his finest. The piece is short with the creative ideas spinning past the ear so rapidly that the quartet seems like one brief statement instead of a five movement little masterpiece. It is well paired with the Bartók quartet in that there are hints of Bartók’s harmonic and thematic ideas embedded in, for instance, the third movement. Again the Zehetmair Quartet performs as though to this music born. This is a particularly fine recording from ECM and one that will hopefully marry those who love Bartók with those in Hindemith’s camp!—Grady Harp

  50. Lux Aeterna
    Lux Aeterna

    This rather extraordinary CD recital is well named LUX AETERNA: the most impressive composition on this richly detailed traversal of the capabilities of sound that can be extracted from two celli as selected and performed by Patrick and Thomas Demenga is the work that opens the CD. ‘Lux aeterna’ is by Alexander Aronovich Knaifel, born November 28, 1943 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a Russian composer best known for his operas ‘The Ghost of Canterville’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’. He is part of the avant-garde Soviet composers that includes Alfred Schnittke, Valentin Silvestrov, Arvo Pärt, and others. His works at times tax the listener by their seemingly endless length, but he has always manages to stay in the forefront of musical interest by his strange combination of instruments. Such can be said of the Lux Aeterna. Here two cellos play at the opposite ends of the dynamic spectrum while incorporating their voices in the medieval chant style that makes the work so mysterious. The complete name of the work is ‘Lux Aeterna, for 2 psalmodists’, and after one experience with the Demenga brothers and this bizarre composer most listeners will crave more exposure.

    The remainder of the works on this include a fine work by Thomas Demenga, ‘Duo? o Du…’ that echoes much of the language of Knaifel, a sonata for 2 cellos by Jean-Baptiste Barrière (2 May 1707 – 6 June 1747) which demonstrates just how fine these men are in the classical repertoire as they perform a work written for the viol. The recital closes with two fine contemporary works by the contemporary Swiss composer Roland Moser and by British Double Bassist/composer Barry John Guy, both writing works for two cellos alone. The Demenga brothers are put to test with these works and prove that they can carry off the entire spectrum of music written for the cello. This is a unique CD to add to the ever growing library of fine contemporary music produced by ECM.—Grady Harp

  51. In Principio
    Arvo Pärt: In Principio
    The Broad Spectrum of Arvo Pärt

    Though now the name of Arvo Pärt has become a household name in the field of contemporary classical music, few will be unable to deny that this particular CD, IN PRINCIPIO, is one of the finest recordings of the spectrum of the works of this Estonian composer. Often CDs that select certain works to fill out the time frame of a CD will pay little attention to the ‘filler’: on this recording there is no filler to be found. True, the huge work on this CD is the title work, a work for large orchestra and mixed chorus, a nearly half hour of sheer ecstasy. Based on the scripture ‘In the beginning was the word…’ Pärt grounds this solemn piece with a deep bass emergence form the orchestra, couples that with the very appropriate choral statement that lies on one plane, uttering the holy words, while the orchestra seethes below the vocal line. Some may find traces of other composers’ works – quotational themes so to speak – but that only serves to heighten the interest create by this magnum opus. This work performed by the Tallin Chamber Orchestra; Estonian Symphony Orchestra; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tõnu Kaljuste conducting, is well worth the purchase of this recording. The sound is spacious, as it must be, and the choral work never approaches the surface in less than a beautiful quality of tone.

    There are other works of chorus and orchestra which are stunningly atmospheric – ‘Da pacem Domine’, here heard for the first time in the accompanied version (the original work was an a cappella piece), and the ‘Caecilia, vergine romana’ written for the celebration of the jubilee of Rome in 2000. The remainder of the works here performed are for orchestra alone – ‘La Sindone’ (The holy shroud) which creates the sense of viewing through the shroud, so delicate and sparse is the writing, ‘Mein Weg’, and the quiet ‘Für Lennart in memoriam’ – Pärt’s elegy for Lennart Georg Meri, the late Estonian president. Each of these pieces stands alone as some of Arvo Pärt’s finest work. Would that we could hear them in the concert halls in this country more frequently!—Grady Harp

  52. Schiff In Concert
    András Schiff: In Concert – Robert Schumann

    András Schiff manages to traverse three major and lengthy important works by Robert Schumann in this consistently eloquent and soulful recording of a live concert dating back to 1999 before an ecstatic (and very fortunate!) audience in Zurich. ECM has captured the warmth of Schiff’s performance without neglecting to maintain the sophisticated keyboard pyrotechnics and fine pedal work. It is an unbelievably fine 2-CD issue.

    Schiff wisely opens his recital with the Humoreske for piano in B flat major, Op. 20 (‘a genre of romantic music characterized by pieces with fanciful humor in the sense of mood rather than wit’)- a work that virtually every lover of Schumann’s works cherishes. The performances manages to find all the solemn beauties few other pianists acknowledge without failing to deliver on the facile finger work the piece contains. He aptly follows this Opus 20 with Opus 21, the Noveletten (8), for piano, characterized so that these pieces as large coherent adventure stories, extremely amiable, cheerful, and the average top, in a reading so lyrical that we are once again reminded that Schumann was one of the greatest of the Romantic composers.

    Schiff ends his recital with the ‘Concerto Without Orchestra’ – the Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 14 and in Schiff’s perfomance the alternative title is well understood. This is a big piece that requires the attention of the audience to unify the total picture – that is unless András Schiff is at the keyboard. This performance simply makes sense – for some, for the first time, probably for the emphasis on the lyricism Schiff delineates. It is a resounding success of a performance. And after this glorious recital Schiff offers the audience another short Schumann piece as encore – the ravishingly beautiful Nachtstück No. 4 in F major and in keeping with the quality of this finely engineered recording, ECM allows the encore to drift quietly into space without the applause that has accompanied the other works, yet more evidence that ECM cares about the recordings they make available. This is a wonder of a recital that everyone who loves Schumann’s piano works should possess.—Grady Harp

  53. Orient Occident
    Arvo Pärt: Orient & Occident

    Arvo Pärt is enjoying a growing popularity among a wide variety of music lovers and this very heterogeneous group of works makes that understandable. For those who relish the near motionless meditative works best known to his audiences the Wallfahrtslied (Pilgrim’s Song) for men’s choir & string orchestra will be immediately recognized. The choral aspect is the usual Pärt near-monotone line for the voice, the meditative spirit that weaves its way throughout this lovely piece, an elegy or even requiem of sorts for a deceased friend. The male choral line seems to be intoning the longing Psalm while the orchestra offers the consolation of nature to the mourner. It works very well.

    The title piece for this well-recorded CD , Orient and Occident, is written for string orchestra alone and shows Pärt’s ability to stretch melodies over a rather narrow spectrum of space while never sacrificing the richness of the melodic line. It will take more than a few listenings to separate the Eastern and Western suggestions which seem to be present. The final work on this release is another ‘premiere recording’ of an extended work for full orchestra, women’s chorus, soprano soloist – Como cierva sedienta – and sounds less like a new work by Arvo Pärt than the others. There is far more coloration of the sore, more incidental excursions into new areas for the composer, and more demands on the vocal parts, especially that of the soloist Helena Olsson. It is a profoundly religious work that seems to embrace all religions. as in all these works the accomplished performances are by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tonu Kaljuste. It is an amazing journey!—Grady Harp

  54. Lieder ohne Worte
    Heinz Holliger: Lieder ohne Worte

    Most of us know Heinz Holliger as an impeccable conductor and oboist and teacher. In this complex collection of works contained on this Immaculately recorded CD we discover that Heinz Holliger is a composer of great interest and importance. This recording samples works over a period of about twenty years and each work here is a chamber piece. The lead title of LIEDER OHNE WORTE is apt for the entire disc, as each of these little pearls is a brief song where words would only cause discord. In Holliger’s word’s music-making is ‘a physical necessity. Those who can obtain peace of mind without this compulsion, should leave music to others.’ According to Philippe Albèra ‘Holliger’s compositions cross the internal frontiers which separate the reassuring world of good taste from the world governed by the violence of truth … [Listening], we are shaken by a great force.’

    Thomas Zehetmair is the violin soloist here, a fact that already alerts the listener that this is music of importance: Zehetmair’s ear and taste excludes works not significant. Some of the works are for violin alone and it is here that Zehetmair’s intensity of performance is most stunning. The works also include ‘duets’ for violin and piano, the fine pianist is Thomas Larcher. And there are works for harp alone and in ensemble, the gifted harpist being Ursula Holliger. Placing these compositions in a ‘category ‘ of music creation almost defies words. The planes of tonal expression seem endless and yet for all the technical facility they demand, they each remain related to a tonal center, as though each work begins with an idea, lets the idea dream and nearly evaporate, only to return to the core of the idea that began each piece.

    Zehetmair especially but also Larcher and Ursula Hollinger prove to be deserving of the degree of respect they have and to continue to garner. This is a stunning collection of works that need to be performed more often. They are a testament to the brilliance of Heinz Holliger.—Grady Harp

  55. Goldberg Variations (Schiff)
    Goldberg Variations
    Intensely Lyrical Bach

    András Schiff is able to make even those who have Bach’s glorious GOLDBERG VARIATIONS memorized from numerous other recordings (or having been able to play these extraordinary variations on their own) hear them afresh. Schiff’s approach is so intimate, beginning with the statement of the original aria through all the variations until the aria is once again allowed to sing alone, that he makes us feel as though he were sitting at the keyboard in a room occupied only by the artist with us as the only guest. This is transparent Bach, every phrase and variation stated with such clarity and beauty that the fact that these variations are technically difficult is simply submerged in the quality of music that flows from Schiff’s hands and heart.

    Works as important in music history and in the hallowed place in the heart of millions in the centuries since it was composed are bound to have strong opinions about performance – whether the work should even be played on the piano as opposed to the harpsichord, whether what Glenn Gould attached to these variations is valid or no, etc – and that is unavoidable. What András Schiff accomplishes in this recording is that touch with transcendence that makes all other arguments fade. Yes, there are many superb performances of this work and a legion of recordings that are exceptional, but returning to the very origin – the aria on which the work is based – played in the way Schiff caresses it without smothering it in either sentiment or academia, gives ample proof that the following variations of that little miracle aria will satisfy the way Bach wished them to satisfy. No matter how many recordings you may have of this work, expand your appreciation of it with András Schiff.—Grady Harp

  56. Voci
    Luciano Berio: Voci
    Berio’s Obsession with Folksongs

    Luciano Berio is certainly not the first composer whose output is heavily influenced by his obsession with folksongs: Mahler used folk songs frequently as the basis for both song cycles and symphonic themes, Bartók codified Hungarian folk music as did Kodály, Canteloube’s fame rests on his songs from the Auvergne region, etc. In this recording titled VOCI Dennis Russell Davies conducts the Vienna Radio Orchestra in instrumental works titled Voci, for viola and 2 instrumental groups with the astonishingly fine violist Kim Kashkashian as soloist. These opening works seemed misplaced on the recording for this listener. After the orchestral works are performed the mid portion of the CD is devoted to five Sicilian folksongs sung as though from a mountain top stance and resembling more the muezzin chants and calls to prayer than the sounds one would expect from a lonely shepherd! It would seem more listener-appropriate to place these songs first on the CD.

    But these are the seeds from which the other works here are derived. Far more successful is the set of variations ‘Naturale, for viola, marimba, tam-tam & tape’ that close this survey. Here the derivation of songs is more related to the singing we have just heard and make far more musical sense than the original ‘Voci’. But Berio is an acquired taste: getting to appreciate his music takes work on the part of the listener, work that is only at times rewarded with memorable compositions.—Grady Harp

  57. Six Partitas
    Bach: Six Partitas
    Exhilarating Bach!

    András Schiff has one of the finest reputations for performing Bach on the piano keyboard of any pianist today. Listening to the 2 CDs recorded immaculately from a live performance with the finesse we have come to expect from ECM is still an incredible experience, no matter how well the listener knows Schiff’s way with Bach. These partitas are so carefully considered and executed that they seem like a series of connected thoughts or reveries in Schiff’s mind and hands.

    ‘Partitas’ simply means pieces for a solo instrument and by that definition there are no hard and fast rules about how they should be constructed (partitas gave way to the more ‘academically correct’ sonata, works again for solo instrument but that follow a constructed scheme of composition). Schiff’s approach is one of respect of the many lines of invention that weave through the embellished core theme: his way with ornamentation is so assured and accurately executed that they truly embroider the melodic lines and counter lines. How he is able to hold our attention through all six of these impossibly difficult works is nothing short of amazing: the fact that they were recorded during one performance almost defies credibility.

    In a time when contemporary composers are gallantly pushing all the borders of classical music to expand our concept of music in strange and wonderful new realms, it is refreshing to return to the crystalline clarity of Bach’s music as an infusion of the basics in tonality, and who to better remind us of how magnificent these works are than András Schiff! This is a ‘classic’ performance that will surely remain a gold standard for many years.—Grady Harp

  58. Alina
    Arvo Pärt: Alina
    Cleansing and Purifying

    Arvo Pärt continues to explore areas of musical communication from one end of the sound and inventive spectrum to the simplest quiet moments of compassionate reverie. This recording, simply titled Alina, supposedly named for a college age friend who went off to school to enter the world and find herself, and each of the five compositions on this CD share much in concept and execution. ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ for violin & piano is a quiet, very intimate conversation between two musical instruments, fragments created by the piano are then ‘remembered’ by the violin. Sergei Bezrodney sits at the keyboard while Vladimir Spivakov remains in quiet repose that for the moments of this work make us forget that he is best known for his technical virtuosity with complex works. The CD includes two more pieces of this cycle and are equally hushed and brilliant.

    Alexander Malter finds the most quiet zone of keyboard acoustics in his performance of ‘Für Alina’ for piano alone. Cellist Dietmar Schwalke joins Malter for another version of ‘Für Alina’, equally as contemplative and soulful as the piano version. This is music to nourish the soul and the psyche. Listening to this beautifully recorded, quiet surface CD may become habit forming as it is some of Arvo Pärt’s most sensitive work. An astonishing beautiful experience, this.—Grady Harp

  59. Sonates pour violon solo
    Eugène Ysaÿe: Sonates pour violon solo
    Brilliant Works for Solo Violin

    Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was one of the wonders of the music world when he dominated the scene as the greatest violinist of his day. Unfortunately his performing career was relatively short, but his legacy lives on through his compositions for his chosen instrument, compositions that challenge the every best violinists to reach beyond human capabilities and ‘play like the devil’!

    This excellent recording of his six Sonatas for Solo Violin is given the kind of performance that will remain a gold standard for some time. Thomas Zehetmair again proves that there are few hurdles he cannot leap and each of the six sonatas are performed with panache, technical brilliance, and zest. The history of the sonatas and the violinists to whom they were dedicated is well known, but it takes performances like these by Zehetmair to point out the subtle references of the dedications.

    This is a virtuoso performance of virtuosic compositions and makes a fine addition to everyone’s musical library. Highly recommended.—Grady Harp

  60. Kanon Pokajanen
    Arvo Pärt: Kanon Pokajanen
    Extended moments of peace and spiritual resonance

    Arvo Pärt seems to have a direct connection with the spiritual world, so mystic is his output, and nowhere as mystic as this KANON POKAJANEN. Apparently the texts for this work are taken from the Russian Orthodox ‘Canon of Repentance to our Lord Jesus Christ’, a work which Pärt describes as follows: ‘Many years ago, when I first became involved in the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church, I came across a text that made a profound impression on me although I cannot have understood it at the time. It was the Canon of Repentance. Since then I have often returned to these verses, slowly and arduously seeking to unfold their meaning. Two choral compositions (Nun eile ich…., 1990 and Memento, 1994) were the first attempts to approach the Canon. I then decided to set it to music in its entirety–from beginning to end. This allowed me to stay with it, to devote myself to it; and, at the very least, its hold on me did not abate until I had finished the score. I had a similar experience while working on Passio. It took over two years to compose the Kanon pokajanen, and the time “we spent together” was extremely enriching. That may explain why this music means so much to me.’

    The work is for a cappella chorus and soloists and while most of the composition is meditative choral music of a somber range, there are sudden expansions of emotion that heighten the overall mood of the work. Somehow the purity with which Pärt realizes, develops, and resolves lines of melody finds resonance with everyone no matter their religious background. This music is universal, pure beauty, and emotionally involving. Tõnu Kaljuste, to whom (both choir and conductor) this piece was dedicated deliver a performance that likely will remain the gold standard for this work.—Grady Harp

  61. Well-Tempered Clavier Book IWell-Tempered Clavier Book II
    Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I & II (Jarrett)
    Simple, Clean, Cleansing Bach

    Keith Jarrett is such a fine musician that he, as a composer as well as a performer and a jazz interpreter as well as a classics interpreter, knows when to simply let the written notes be played the way they were written. His Bach is very straightforward: yes, he embellishes in keeping with the indications and musical period of Bach, but he never lets the embellishments sound as though they should call attention to the performer. Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier is performed on the piano while Book Two is performed on the harpsichord. For this listener his piano keyboard Bach is more interesting than his Harpsichord Bach and I’m not at all certain why he elected to change instruments. But perhaps that is simply one more aspect of Jarrett’s exploration of works he deems important enough to spend his concentration and time reproducing.

    One of the pleasures of Jarrett’s playing is his knowledge of how to bring a phrase to a close and for that matter how he prepares for the closing of a variation. It feels right, as though he has thought about Bach’s ideas and incorporated them into his own manner of performing. Both of these 2CD albums are very well recorded and make a solid addition to the library: piano keyboard Bach or harpsichord keyboard Bach – both make for repeated frequent listenings.—Grady Harp

  62. Te Deum
    Arvo Pärt: Te Deum
    A Solid Spectrum of the Splendid Works of Arvo Pärt

    Though this collection of works by Estonian genius Arvo Pärt was recorded in 1993 it remains one of the most accessible and well integrated collection of works by this esteemed composer whose admiration among music lovers around the world grows exponentially each year. This CD was brilliantly recorded by the excellent ECM New Series label in Finland with Tõnu Kaljuste and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. Despite other performances in concert of this mysterious work, this interpretation by Kaljuste and his fine forces remains the gold standard.

    The ‘Te Deum’ will doubtless always be considered Pärt’s masterpiece. Based on the Ambrosian Hymn, the work is in Pärt’s tintinnabuli style (a minimalist compositional technique in which a chosen triad encircles a melody: ‘Pärt’s tintinnabuli music is composed of two main voices: one carries the usually stepwise melody (M-voice) while the other follows the trajectory of the melody but is limited to notes of a specific triad (T-voice.) In the case of Te Deum, it is a D triad that is featured in the T-voice, and as such provides the harmonic basis for the entire piece.’) The work seems far more massive than the rather short thirty-minute duration, partly because of the power of the sound and the emotional commitment but also bearing in mind that it is a piece scored for three choirs (women, men, and mixed), strings, wind harp, and prepared piano, and this combination of parts creates a complexity of sound that can only be described as otherworldly.

    ‘Silouans Song’ is a work dedicated to Archimandrite Sophrony who served as assistant to the nearly illiterate but holy and wise elder at the monastery of St. Panteleimon named Silouan. It is a work for orchestra alone in an orchestration that uses only the fewest number of instrumental voices to convey a sense of suspended time. Of almost equal length is the setting of the ‘Magnificat’ for chorus alone with soprano solo. The core of this particular work rarely strays from one tonality and is one of Pärt’s most successful variations of the chant style of medieval times.

    The recording closes with the Berlin Mass and appropriately joins orchestra with chorus to end this collection of works. The setting of the mass is the traditional one but the hallowed variations between the feeling of pulled strings without vibrato with the lush vocal adornment is magnificent. Another fine aspect of this recoding is the book that accompanies it. The texts for the choral works are included as well as a series of photographs taken during the recording sessions and some lovely views of the mystical cathedral space where the recordings were made. This recording belongs in the library of everyone who yearns for solace and for spiritualism of Arvo Pärt’s sacred gifts to humanity.—Grady Harp

  63. The Seasons
    John Cage: The Seasons
    The Spectrum of John Cage

    John Cage (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was ‘an American composer, philosopher, poet, music theorist, artist, printmaker’ and for those who have not embraced the musical gifts of this great man, this CD is probably the finest place to start. The spectrum of works here range from early ones to his last piece. The recorded sound here is very fine and the contributions from the patient and detail-oriented conductor Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers Orchestra are exemplary. There are two versions of the opening work ‘Seventy-Four’ (Version I and Version II) and both are played with amazing sensitivity to the composer’s demands: “Orchestral parts without score to be played with video clock without conductor. Single notes in flexible time-brackets…There should be the usual imperfection of tuning perhaps slightly exaggerated so that the music is microtonal…” What results is a seemingly endless continuation of pulses of sound of various timbres that give the atmosphere of sitting alone in a fogged-in lighthouse, surrounded by complex but accessible emotions.

    ‘The Seasons, Ballet in One Act’ is a wonderful little work that changes each of the four seasons with the humor and subtle quotations from other composers. This is followed by the demanding and complex ‘Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra’, the fine soloist being Margaret Leng Tan, who seems so at ease with the demands as to make this work almost immediately accessible to the novice. There are then two versions of the delightful ‘Suite for Toy Piano’ which Leng Tan actually opts for playing on a toy piano (she is given the option of using a regular piano by the composer), and this work written solely for the white keys on the keyboard is full of fun and of amazing variations despite the limits the composer imposed on the work! The orchestral version is the work of Lou Harrison – and sounds much more like Harrison than Cage.

    In all this is a splendid recording, not only in the curated selection of pieces to be performed, but also in the quality of the performances themselves.—Grady Harp

  64. Játékok
    György Kurtág: Játékok
    Játékok (Games): A Well Named Collection

    György Kurtág keeps us guessing and entertained with his ingenious thoughts about music in our time. This marvelous CD is devoted to his piano music and both the composer and his wife Márta Kurtág perform these very brief encounters with sound in a manner in which they are aptly called ‘Games’. Among the sequences are brief homages to Stravinsky, Scarlatti, Ligeti, Farkas Ferenc as well as moments of variations on Bach chorales. The placement of these pieces is well conceived: there are I believe 8 books of these ‘Games’ and in some ways they are similar to Béla Bartók’s ‘Mikrokosmos’, except instead of leading the pianist (and listener) through pieces requiring progressive virtuosity, they instead must lead the player’s ear through more and more advanced manipulation of sounds and silences.

    Some of the pieces are a matter of a few notes, others hammer the keyboard in percussive strokes, some pieces are homages to Márta and are played by the dedicatee alone. Just when the listener thinks there can not more creativity available from Kurtág he and his wife break into another immaculate transcription of Bach to let the palette settle. This is a satisfying program in every way. Highly recommended.—Grady Harp

  65. Suites for Keyboard
    Händel: Suites for Keyboard
    Homage to Handel

    Jarrett’s recording of seven attractive Handel suites is, well, just delicious. His pianism, always at the service of the composer, is consistently lyrical, never rushed or hectic, with textures warm and rich. Each suite holds its own bounty, all of which Jarrett mines to the fullest. The pianist’s jazz background complements the music, imbues it with a depth and humanity rarely found, especially in baroque keyboard. As well, it’s more than apparent that Jarrett has made a conscious effort to get completely “inside” the composer, completely “inside” the music. He has succeeded incredibly well.

    Sample, for instance, his swirling, beautifully wrought playing of the opening Prelude from Suite 1, No. 1 (HWV 426), the purity of the following Allemande, and the yearning wistfulness of the Courante. Or feel the breathtaking melancholy of the opening Adagio of Suite 1, No. 2 (HWV 427). And the particular beauty Jarrett imparts to the Prelude-Fuga of Suite 1, No. 8 (HWV 433) is absolutely not to be missed. This is playing of such tenderness and honesty that it silences criticism, pays homage to Handel and offers us the most unusual kind of musical blessing.—Melvyn M. Sobel

  66. Schnittke Symphony No 9
    Enigmatic musical tombstone

    A release of a recording of Schnittke’s Ninth Symphony has been eagerly anticipated. The work preoccupied him until shortly before his death and the widow Irina Schnittke considers it his musical testament. As such it has, however, a somewhat dubious status. The CD booklet leaves no doubt that the composer was able to finish the work but a partial paralysis due to a stroke forced him to write with his left hand, resulting in a manuscript that was difficult to decipher (two quite astonishing facsimile pages from the manuscript have been reproduced in the CD booklet). Hence a “reconstruction” of the manuscript proved to be indispensable. However, there are other sources that claim Schnittke left the work simply unfinished. So rather than a reconstruction we are dealing here with a completion by another hand.

    Whatever the exact nature of the task, it was commissioned by the Dresdner Philarmonie, the Bruckner Orchester Linz and the Juilliard School in New York. First Russian composer Nikolai Korndorf took on the challenge to prepare the work for performance but he soon contracted a brain tumor and passed away (another example of the “curse of the Ninth?”). Then Alexander Raskatov accepted the task and completed it in 2006. Raskatov also wrote a composition of his own (“Nunc Dimittis”), also featured on this disc, in response to his confrontation with the score of Schnittke’s Ninth. Again, the status of this work and its relationship with the Ninth is, frankly, ambiguous. At one point the text in the booklet mentions that Raskatov “added” his own work, suggesting that there is a formal connection between his 16-minute vocal composition and Schnittke’s valedictory symphony. But elsewhere in the booklet Raskatov denies quite clearly that “Nunc Dimittis” was intended as some sort of finale for the symphony, pointing out that there is no thematic connection between the two works. Once more, googling around doesn’t resolve the issue. One wonders why this ambiguity surrounding Schnittke’s last symphony is allowed to continue to lead a quite unnecessary existence.

    Anyway, after listening to the music it is quite clear that Raskatov’s “Nunc Dimittis” and the Ninth project very different sound worlds. Both are fine works in themselves but should not be welded to one another. The Raskatov piece struck me as a very worthwhile composition, structurally cogent and imaginatively scored for an unusual ensemble including a mezzo soprano, a male vocal quartet, electric guitar (?) and an exotic percussion battery. The 16-minute work is couched in a distinctly Slavic, postmodern and quite accessible idiom reminding me of Gubaidulina, Silvestrov, Tavener and even Rautavaara. I wouldn’t consider it particularly Schnittkean although there are some echoes, maybe, of the sound world inhabited by the latter’s Second Symphony (“Sankt Florian”). “Nunc Dimittis” (“In Memoriam Alfred Schnittke”) falls into two parts. After a short incantatory introduction there follows a quite sombre but beautiful dirge dominated by the mezzo’s declamation of a Brodsky poem in Ligeti-like Sprechgesang. The latter half is a sober traditional Orthodox hymn intoned by the Hilliard Ensemble and with the countertenor and mezzo voices soaring above a ravishing orchestral fabric embroidered with birdsong-like figurations (reminding me strongly of Rautavaara’s “Cantus Arcticus”). All in all this piece is certainly more than a mere filler. It is a sophisticated, immediately persuasive work that nevertheless warrants repeated listening.

    Schnittke’s Ninth is a rather different kettle of fish. It certainly lacks the opulence of the Raskatov piece. The anger and agony, so forcefully present in many of his earlier work, is gone and has been sublimated in an objectified, eerily dispassionate musical language. There is something of the terseness of Shostakovich’s last works in the Ninth, but I find it lacks the former’s warmth. Schnittke’s last symphony hails from an altogether colder universe.

    It starts out quite beautifully from a rising, questioning chord and the sense of mystery and probing that comes with it pervades the whole work. The music sounds understated, hesitant and meandering. It seems to be built up from short cells or paragraphs, meditating on homophonous thematic material, concatenated over long stretches without an obvious perspective (to me) on a deeper symphonic logic.

    There are three movements, respectively labeled Andante, Moderato and Presto, but the differences in tempo are slighter than the markings suggest. In fact, as the work unfolds one has the impression of a rhythmically steady, progressive quickening of the pulse rather than of a set of conspicuously contrasting movements. Also the texture, dominated by almost ever-present strings with scattered, piercing interruptions of the brass, varies little over the whole work, reinforcing an impression of dreamlike uniformity. I really find it difficult to support the CD booklet commentator’s claim to “the great wealth of contrast and conspicuous vitality” in this score. Schnittke’s Ninth Symphony is not a beguiling work. It does sound somewhat otherworldly but in a very oblique, understated way. Definitely an enigmatic work that requires the right mood to settle down with it.

    The recording has been wel taken care of, as is customary, by the ECM team. They feature the same forces that delivered the Ninths’s 2007 world premiere. With around 55 minutes worth of music it is a fairly short disc, however. ECM might have added Schnittke’s rarely recorded “In Memoriam” – the orchestral version of his death haunted Piano Quintet – to complement this tantalising diptych.—Philippe Vandenbroeck

  67. Horizons Touched
    Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM
    Powerful stuff: a life changer

    This is a powerful book. In its own quiet and persistent way it has unlocked a whole new realm of musical experience for me. Over the last thirty years I have been mainly listening to classical music and gradually a sprinkling of ECM recordings migrated into my collection. First I setted on Jarret’s Bach recordings and later on I explored some of the contemporary Russians (Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Silvestrov, Kancheli). Maybe the first recording that occupied a special, jarring, unclassifiable position was Meredith Monk’s “Mercy” (which I wouldn’t have bought if it wouldn’t have fallen for a fire sale price in my hands). However, up to that point ECM’s profile didn’t have clear contours for me: it was offbeat, serious (even to the point of austerity) and seemed to center on a zeitgeisty musical canon of melancholy and loss.

    Then a friend introduced me to Brad Mehldau and I got hooked on contemporary jazz trios and solo piano. This led me to some of the protagonists of Nordic jazz and soon the ECM contingent in my collection was mushrooming: Bobo Stenson, Tord Gustavson, Ketil Bjornstadt. I followed the lead into Stefano Bollani, Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko and I started to be very grateful to Manfred Eicher, the leading light behind ECM. It was around that time, about two years ago, that “Horizons Touched” ended up on my bookshelf. Originally I perused the book as a catalogue, in search of new jazz repertoire. But reading some of the short written contributions by ECM musicians and other close associates whilst being exposed more intensely to the ECM sound, I started to have an inkling of the full breadth of Eicher’s project.

    I understand now that ECM is not in the first place a record label. The business aspect really is tangential to Eicher’s venture. I know it sounds presumptuous but one could say that ECM itself is a work of art that emerges at the intersection of three key elements.

    First there is the observation that ECM is not a business that is governed by fixed contractual relations with its its roster of musicians but a community rallying first and foremost around a shared vision on music. Albums are made on a project basis, driven by “a desire for it to exist, not by a desire that it should sell”. Hence, “the artist is no longer the commodity, it is the music that leads” (p. 89).

    Then, the musical vision seems to rely on a significant extent on the basic idea of “improvisation”, on the ability to let the music unfold in the moment within only rudimentary formal constraints. Hence the origin of ECM in free jazz and later folk. As the spirit of improvisation has never been purely entertainment, this is consistent with the idea of “community” rather than “commodity”. It is about a fundamental reverence for what is, for what we as fallible human beings can do, together. ECM stretches the ethos of improvisation, surprisingly, into the realm of “classical” music, traditionally so dominated by the rethoric of literal authenticity and by the logic of being subservient to the tyrannical wish of the composer. ECM responds by bringing back the excitement in classical music-making by putting musicians in the studio side-to-side with living composers who consider themselves not as a sort of independent entity providing the world with fifth symphonies and magical rings of operas. For Gideon Lewensohn, for example, composing is “not too far from preparing a good minestrone for people you like after choosing the ingredients in an open-air market.” And he goes on: “my personal working encounter with ECM, and its Manfred, offer me a `table’ for which it makes sense to prepare another work of music” (p. 311). Likewise, ECM attracts musicians that are not wedded to their image as star virtuoso performer but are willing to admit that “we are not so important” (Andras Schiff on p. 97) from which follows an interpretative honesty and a creative freedom that is able to shed new light, even on works that are firmly entrenched in the canon of classical masterworks.

    And then there is the third element, “the ECM sound”, about which a lot of ink has already been spilled. Whatever attributes associated with it – “transparant”, “clear”, “spacious” – for me its greatest quality is that it is a lively, authoritative sound: it draws one in the music, it commands to be listened to, it is an invitation to break free from the status of passive recipient. Instead of “consuming” music the sound beckons to actively retrace (or rather co-create) the moment-to-moment unfolding of a musical process that finds its origin in the breath of fragile, fallible human beings. And how much more rewarding as a listening experience this is! Again it is entirely in the ECM spirit that this signature sound emerges quite naturally: apparently most sessions comprise just two or three days of recording and one or two days of mixing, often without the aid of computer automation.

    The animating force behind all this is Manfred Eicher. Entrepreneur, mediator, producer, composer, artist: he is the spider in the web and the guardian of the vision. A complex, multifariously refracted images about what Eicher really “does” emerges out of “Horizons Touched”. He seems to do a lot and very little at the same time. In recording sessions he is able to get what he wants by energising the atmosphere, listening, listening very intently and communicating his intentions by a gaze or just a few enigmatic words. But his involvement can lead him to get down into the arrangements too. Bobo Stenson tells a story about the recording of “Serenity” (it’s not in the book) about Eicher actually sitting down behind the drums and playing (which has found its way onto the recording as a track titled “More Cymbals” after a common expression Eicher tends to use in the studio). Paul Griffiths, one of the lead editors of the volume, writes a quirky homage to Eicher (who is not explicity named in the piece) in the form of an imaginary dialogue and it starts as follows: “What does he do? Nothing. Nothing? He’s there with you. That’s what it is and that’s all what it is. This, then, is how it goes. You do what you have to do – play, sing, speak – but you’ll do it now in a way you could never have done before, without him being there, and that, as it well may be, you could never do again … ”

    All of this leads me to understand that ECM is a fragile, breathing whole. It is predicated on honesty, trust, on the quality of human relationships. And out of that basic given emerges something beautiful that draws other people in and energises the world around it. Isn’t this what “art” is supposed to do?

    And so it came that these recordings, formerly occupying a peripheral place in my music collection, now offer the inevitable prism through which I am listening to all music. Powerful stuff, this book.—Philippe Vandenbroeck

  68. Windfall Light
    Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM
    A beguiling catalogue of hieroglyphs

    Windfall Light follows upon Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM as an entry point in bookform to the engaging universe of ECM, the Editions of Contemporary Music, established by Manfred Eicher back in 1969. 40 years later it occupies a most respected place in the (serious) music industry.

    Horizons Touched was a prismatic testimonial of the spirit animating the ECM project through the eyes of many of the musicians and collaborators who were part of the ECM story. What I learned from that book is that ECM is unlike any other record label. In fact, to see it only as an economic venture – with a mission to efficiently push “audiocontent” into the market – would be to misunderstand what ECM is about. Remarkably enough, ECM in itself is a work of art, a breathing and living whole that links a community of artists to a community of music lovers, driven by an ethos of love and respect for the music and the creative process from wich it emerges. For me personally moving into the ECM orbit has resulted in a genuine revolution in the way I listen. There is something in the way in which ECM brings music in the listener’s personal sphere that forces us to take notice, to become an active part of the unfolding musical process rather than simply a consumer. The distinctive and authoritative ECM sound plays an important role in drawing the listener into the music. But it’s not only a matter of sonics. Also the careful packaging, with imaginative artwork on cardboard sleeves and CD booklets, prepares us by creating, in all kinds of provocative and counterintuitive ways, the right mood.

    Windfall Light is a book about the ECM artwork and covers. It supersedes the earlier ECM Sleeves of Desire : a Cover Story, published in 1996 and no longer available. As with the previous volume it’s Lars Müller who is responsible for the editing and publishing of the book. In a short essay, he explains how the book has been conceived as a visual score, punctuated by five short texts, challenging the reader through an idiosyncratic rhythm of CD covers, session pictures, double spread cover photos and a few stills from JL Godard movies. The final section of the book is devoted to a full catalogue, showing each and every of the more than 1000 covers produced over the years.

    What becomes clear from browsing through these pages and trying to make sense of this giant visual puzzle, is that there is, yet again, no “system”. There are covers with pictures, with abstract graphic work, with text. There is colour and there are grey tones. There are sharp pictures and there are blurry images. There doesn’t seem to be a trick to bring us, listeners, systematically in the right mood to listen to a particular piece of music. Most often the connection with the music is obscure. What we see is often provocatively un-photographic. We see a lot of scenes from nature, but hardly any genuine landscapes. Urban settings return on ECM covers in many guises, but pictures of architecture or cities as a whole are far and few between. There are motto themes but visually they are distinctly minimalistic. We see great expanses of (most notably) water and sky. The subarctic north is very present in its mineral pureness. We see urban non-places, filled with shadows and fleeting silhouettes. There is snow, that strange and amorphous element that is able to poetically transform our lifeworld overnight. ECM covers seem to tickle our receptivity to the music by withdrawing rather than to make a statement. Sometimes there is only the faintest hint of what the image is about. It speaks of transience and fragility. “The contrast of light and darkness, of proximity and distance, of clear etched contours and fuzzy boundaries presents the visible world as a reduced form of a richer reality that remains – and has to remain – invisible” (Hilmar Frank on Caspar David Friedrich).—Philippe Vandenbroeck

  69. Cantando
    Bobo Stenson Trio: Cantando
    Another great Stenson disc

    Although it doesn’t scale the same heights as Serenity, an undisputable high point in the trio’s discography, this is another very fine Stenson disc. Those familiar with previous ECM productions will find a typical mix of the trio’s own compositions, borrowed material, folksy tunes and more classically inspired material. Characteristic are also the finely judged modulations between improvisatory abstraction and beguiling lyricism. New is perhaps the wider range of exotic percussion sounds that young drummer Jon Fält (filling the void left by Jon Christensen) weaves into the musical fabric. Together with Jormin’s sometimes very Eastern sounding extemporisations on double-bass this lends at times an almost ritualistic quality to the music (particularly evident in the almost 15 minute long improvisation “Pages” and the Alban Berg-inspired “Liebesode”). Despite the evident mastery of Jormin and Fälts, the great attraction for me remains Stenson’s piano. He produces a tone that is instantly recognisable: disarmingly honest, “simple” and luminous. Listen to the wistful rising scale of open fifths in Petr Eben’s “Song of Ruth” and you know what I mean. I was lucky enough to experience the trio live in this set and I was amazed by the sheer exuberance of their music making. With a total duration of just over 78 minutes on this disc we are exceedingly well served (not always the case with ECM). The recording is excellent (as is customary with ECM). Altogether a very enticing package.—Philippe Vandenbroeck

  70. Trepulka
    Johann Ludwig Trepulka/Norbert von Hannenheim: Klavierstücke und Sonaten
    Intriguing collection of interwar sonatas

    It is due to Herbert Henck’s scholarship and artistry, and Manfred Eicher’s courage in letting the ECM catalogue stray far from the beaten path, that we can partake of the musical testament of two utterly unknown composers. Both had been forgotten for more than 50 years. A number of parallels tie the two lives together: Johann Ludwig Trepulka and Norbert von Hannenheim were born around the beginning of the 20th century and died in rather dramatic circumstances at the end of the second World War. The former perished as a soldier in West-Prussia during the final months of the Reich, whilst von Hannenheim died shortly after the war in an hospital for the mentally ill.

    The works collected on this CD represent their complete pianistic legacy available to us today. From Trepulka no more works for piano are known; von Hannenheim wrote much more but none of it seems to have survived the end of the war. Most likely his work was used as heating fuel by Russian soldiers occupying Berlin. Both composers wrote in a twelve-tone idiom but there the parallels stop. Interestingly, even a casual hearing reveals the significant differences in style. This can be explained by the fact that Trepulka was a pupil of the Viennese composer and music theoretician Josef Matthias Hauer who developed a twelve-tone technique a few years before Schoenberg, from whom von Hannenheim took his inspiration. However, Hauer’s twelve-tone system is different from Schoenberg’s in that tonal harmony is allowed. Hence the music sounds much more approachable than what we are used to from orthodox dodecaphony.

    Although Trepulka wrote the Lenau pieces, op. 2, when he was only 21 years old (they date from 1923/1924), the music sounds surprisingly assured. Stylistically I was quite surprised to be reminded of Satie, or early Messiaen. The music is measured, contemplative and bathes in that same kind of luminous, floating harmony that we know, for example, from Messiaen’s Préludes for piano (1928). The collection of seven pieces build nicely into a climax with the last and longest piece, a brooding, monumental fantasy built around bell-like, pealing chords.

    The von Hannenheim sonatas are very short pieces in two or three movements. The briefest of the sonatas barely lasts four minutes. All were written in a very short timeframe, presumably before 1929 (before his mental collapse in 1932). Compared to Trepulka, the style is predictably more nervous and ascerbic but altogether still quite lyrical to early 21st century ears. These are certainly pieces that warrant careful and repeated listening.

    This recording invites a number of disturbing questions. How many talented composers have perished without us having the slightest inkling that they ever existed? How many timeless masterworks have been grinded into oblivion by the wheels of history? How much masterpieces didn’t see the light of the day because their potential progenitor’s talent was prematurely, fatefully extinguished? We can’t be sure. The questions are particularly acute when we are reminded, as with this ECM recording, of the sad, sickening fate of the many gifted men and women that happened to be at the wrong place in the 1930s and 40s.—

  71. Sofienberg Variations
    Christian Wallumrød Ensemble: Sofienberg Variations
    A moving journey

    Christian Wallumrød seems to be a quintessential ECM artist: no frills, down to earth, self-effacing, yet deeply committed, profoundly original. There is a radical earthiness and simplicity in this music. Textures are sparse. It sounds like a “musica povera”, endulging in the unadorned timbres of simple, folksy instruments: harmonium, fiddle, trumpet, improvised percussion. Often they play solo, or in pairs. There’s not an awful lot of musical material. It tends to turn up again in the guise of variations. But every note counts. The music teeters, virtuosically, on the edge between the composed and the improvised. Hence it never annoys. Melodically and texturally it’s a strange amalgam of folk, jazz, baroque and avant garde music; It sounds very European, perhaps more Central-European than Scandinavian. There are flashes of Kurtág, Mahler, Bach. The ambiente is mostly serious, hardly ever exuberant. Tempos are slow to very slow. The music vacillates between the deeply contemplative, the melancholy, and even the outright funereal. Sometimes, only sometimes, it’s mildly tongue in cheek. Despite its apparent simplicity, the music evokes a vast sense of space. It seems we are on an endless journey, under a very big sky. A Winterreise.—Philippe Vandenbroeck

  72. The Promise
    Vassilis Tsabropoulos: The Promise
    A little lightweight…

    With Tsabropoulos it is not always easy to say on what side of the fine line between postpostromantic kitsch and a genuine, meaningful musical process we find ourselves. In principle I am happy to give him the benefit of the doubt. There is no doubt that Tsabropoulos is a very honest and sensitive musician who plays his instrument with a remarkable airiness ànd earthiness. The luminous ECM sound helps in transmitting the honesty and spaciousness of his vision. But there needs to be a critical mass of musical substance to sustain the listener’s interest. And it seems to me that “The Promise” falls a little short on this account. The level of musical invention is not on a par with “Akroasis”, the predecessor solo recording. The delicate architecture that made this collection of traditional Byzantine hymns such a rewarding journey, with a gentle arc linking the first hymn to the final prayer, is to my mind absent in “The Promise”. The session is less homogeneous too. Two tracks – “Tale of a Man” and “Confession” – sound like they didn’t make it to “Akroasis” in the first place.

    That doesn’t mean that this recording is not able to provide considerable listening pleasure. Apart from a rather cloying Rachmaninov-like fantasy (“Promenade”) there is nothing that irks on this disc. It’s extremely mellifluous and meditative and it may be just the right thing one needs to wind down after a long day. And, again, the ECM sound is able to bestow even the most mundane piece of music with a very special glow. But as a whole it is a little lightweight. I think Tsabropoulos can do better. Akroasis is proof of that. Hence: 3 stars.—Philippe Vandenbroeck

  73. Akroasis
    Vassilis Tsabropoulos: Akroasis
    Honest solo piano rendering of old Byzantine hymns

    This is a quite wonderful disc bringing centuries-old Byzantine hymns back to life from the piano keyboard. The collection consists of 5 traditional hymns, supplemented with 3 of Tsabropoulos’ own compositions. It’s definitely the kind of music that needs to be listened to away from the daily bustle. You first need some time to settle down. The music is not demanding, but very contemplative: simple song-like melodies, repetitive forms, very slow tempos, no abrupt changes in dynamics, clean and long lines, sparse textures. In the hands of a less honest and skilled musician I can well imagine how this music could degenerate into a new age kind of ear candy. Tsabropoulos’ virtuosity lies in his ability to play these old hymns with utter, heartfelt simplicity. In the short liner text he writes “I approached this rare musical expression with deep respect and attention to its unique melodic form, careful to remain within the context of a holy tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation.” For me this sense or reverence and respect clearly emerges from the space between the notes. Tsabropolous also mentions that ideally this collection should be performed (and listened to) as a set. The sequence of 8 pieces is, at 44 minutes, a fairly short journey but it’s a very rewarding one, building up slowly to the restrained ecstasy of the fifth hymn (Anastasis) after which comes a short Prayer to bring the cycle to a quiet end.

    I really can’t find fault with the recording. Eicher is listed as “executive producer” which is indeed different from most if not all other ECM recordings in my collection. I am aware of the magic that Manfred Eicher is able to bring to a recording session (see my review of Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM) but I can’t really tell from this CD whether he was present or not at this one-day session at the Dmitri Mitropolous Hall in Athens. As I said, Tsabropolous plays freely, unselfconsciously, as if in the company of friends and the piano sounds wonderfully weighty, yet vivacious, clear and limpid. For me it’s a best in class recording, as is custom at ECM.—Philippe Vandenbroeck

  74. Llyrìa
    Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Llyrìa
    Time for reinvention?

    I have been really captivated by NBR’s very distinctive mix of coolheaded Swiss precision and control, improvisatory flair and volcanic drive. The best tracks on their previous two ECM discs–Holon and Stoa–are those where the band really gets into the groove, spinning long, rhythmically flexible meandering lines (à la Steve Reich), that teasingly gyrate around an elusive climax. As in Reich the music is never static. There is constant movement, instrumental details constantly flashing up, minute variations traversing the musical texture. The real star of the band for me is drummer Kaspar Rast who in a spectacular way embodies that combination of awesome precision, remarkable self-restraint and spine-tingling rhythmic drive.

    If I have a gripe about Holon and Stoa it is that I feel there is more potential that consistently remains underexploited. Tracks (all of which are titled as abstract ‘Modules’) last typically less than 10 minutes, never more than 15 minutes. This is the kind of music, it seems, that would benefit from longer tracks allowing the band to explore the material in more diversified ways, building in more and longer waves of rhythmic contraction and expansion. So I was disappointed to see that Modules on the present recording are even shorter, all between 7 and 9 minutes.

    Llyrìa is a different record from the previous two ECM productions in the sense that it is more lyrical (as the title maybe suggests; on the other hand it also may refer to a recently discovered luminescent underwater creature). They are beautiful, mellow tracks, superbly played and very well recorded. A marvelous disc to chill out. But it’s not quite why I’m listening to a Bärtsch gig. We are very well catered for this kind of very tasteful, polished and soothing music elsewhere in the ECM catalogue. What I want to hear on a Bärtsch disc are epic battles wherein violent energy is sublimated into artful asceticism.

    Llyrìa is different but it’s also more of the same. Bärtsch’s Ronin shifts to another register but doesn’t change its formula. And I’m afraid that it starts to sound a little formulaic. There is a fair amount of mythography going on around Bärtsch’s Ronin. The master himself feeds these stories with his musings about Zen, martial arts, flocks of birds and schools of fish moving like giant clouds of organic matter. Then there’s the band’s curious discipline of playing a Monday evening concert at their Zürich club every week, for years on end (they have over 300 performances under their belt by now). All this is intriguing. But I wonder how long you can keep this up without it becoming a pose. Anyway, with Llyrìa being more of a transitional recording, I look keenly forward to Nik Bärtsch Ronin’s next production, in about two years time.—Philippe Vandenbroeck

  75. 44 Duos
    Béla Bartók: 44 Duos for Two Violins
    Bartók at his most uplifting and approachable

    This, once more, is a perfect ECM package. The 44 Duos are a work that is singular in its scope, form and instrumentation. The musicianship is of the highest order, but at the same time it is also relaxed and down to earth. The recording (at ECM’s familiar Kloster St Gerold in the Austrian Vorarlberg) is transparent, vivacious and set in a pleasingly resonant acoustic. Finally, the accompanying booklet is impeccably produced with an intelligent essay by Wolfgang Sandner (music editor at Germany’s leading broadsheet) and a very evocative picture by author/photographer Péter Nádas gracing the cover.

    This is Bartok at his most approachable. The 44 Duos were composed in the early Thirties as a kind of pendant to his ‘For Children’ for the piano. The initial purpose was didactic: a set of pieces for a German compendium of graded violin pieces. A little later this concept blossomed into the Mikrokosmos. Almost all are based on folk material, from all over the Balkans. Initially Bartok arranged them in order of difficulty but he anticipated that people would make selections of pieces for concert performance. In this recording, András Keller and János Pilz (both founding members of the Keller Quartet) have rearranged the order of the pieces so as to allow for sustained listening throughout the whole set. And this works admirably. It really is not a burden to sit through 52 minutes of music which occupies after all a relatively narrow textural bandwith. The overall impression is uplifting and cheerful but also epic, timeless. The music sounds like unbuttoned folk, yes, but in addition we hear echoes of Bach, Beethoven and, as Sandner discusses in his essay, also the grammar of New Music is brilliantly woven into the music. The avant garde echoes are subtly reinforced by the two very short works from other Hungarian composers–Ligeti and Kurtág–that are complementing this recording.—Philippe Vandenbroeck

  76. Shades of Jade
    Marc Johnson: Shades of Jade
    Meditative, stunning music that must be heard

    …and I mean must be listened to, in the proper environment, several times, and then the impact will sink in. The quality of the playing and the writing will wash over you and put you in a very positive frame of mind. I own hundreds of ECM releases and this one stands out as a true desert island disc, along with the recent releases of Tomasz Stanko and Norma Winstone. It isn’t a blowing session; it is a timeless piece of art that will be an important element of your music collection forever.—Craig L.

  77. Soul of Things
    Tomasz Stanko Quartet: Soul of Things
    Keeps you coming back for more

    I’ve had this CD for several years – along with Suspended Night and Lontano (and Leosia…yes, pretty much all of Stanko’s music that I can find). It has taken awhile for Soul of Things to reveal all of its treasures to me, but reveal it has. Beautifully recorded (naturally – it is an ECM production), patient to unfold, this is jazz to curl up to. Though the tracks are not named and the intent appears to be to look at a set of themes from different points of view, each has its own distinct personality and plenty of tuneful hooks. This is not blowing jazz, but a perfect melding of the talents of a youngsters with a jazz legend. All contributors shine on this one and it cannot be recommended more highly. To me, it stands just slightly above Suspended Night, which itself edges out Lontano – but I really wouldn’t want to be without any of them.—Craig L.

  78. Alina
    Arvo Pärt: Alina
    Music to absorb

    This review will be in fragments, as this is how thoughts come to me when listening to this remarkable CD. As I type this, I am listening to it on my iPod, where you can hear the breathing of the musicians, the gentle scratch of the bow on the strings. It is an intimate experience.

    The deeply impactful movie “Wit” uses parts of Mirror in Mirror in the soundtrack, and that was our introduction to this music. The search ensued, the CD purchased, and it is one of the gems in our large music collection. It transcends genre, and time.

    My dad passed away early last year from a stroke – when he was in hospice, we played this music for him on his last day. It seemed like the most peaceful, soothing, spiritual music that we owned. I hope that he liked it.

    This is not music easily understood in a time where movies are loaded with fast edits, where nightly newscasts have segments lasting 30 seconds. This is music to put on when you want to do some thinking, or some escaping, or some relaxing. One reviewer put it very well, in that this music can help you realize that life’s chaos, which brings stress and unfulfillment, is just noise, and that through these notes, you can realize that things will be OK.

    It is not for everyone – though looking through all of the reviews, it seems to suit many people for many reasons. All I know is that it is one of the most important works I own, and that I will return to it often for the rest of my life.—Craig L.

  79. Horizons Touched
    Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM
    A Stunning Must-Have for all ECM aficianados

    The ECM label (as well as the now defunct sister label, JAPO) has always had an air of mystery about it. They have a huge catalog, few of which are ever out of print or unavailable. Most of the earlier, seminal issues had no liner notes whatsoever – just incredible, impactful cover art or graphics to complement the music. The advent of the Internet allowed Googling of the artists, to learn a bit more about those who create or produce the music.

    Now we have this second book (the first being the just lovely Sleeves of Desire) to shed light on this most creative music label. And what a beautiful work of art this book is – loads of recreations of album covers, a nice logical flow, but mostly snippets (never enough, of course, for we who are and have been addicted to the label for many years) from or about the artists who make all of that compelling music.—Craig L.

  80. Three Day Moon
    Barre Phillips: Three Day Moon
    First, get Mountainscapes. Then, get Three Day Moon!

    I suppose that the recordings of Barre Phillips will never be widely available or popular. They are odd, challenging, and sometimes quite scary. The sounds that he evokes from his bass are remarkable. He is truly an artist – not just a musician, but a painter of images. And on this recording, he has Terje Rypdal stretching his sound pallette, using a guitar synth on some cuts. This is one of three ECM recordings that my roommate at graduate school back in 1978 introduced me to (actually, my introduction to the label that has become an obsession with me….). The song titles don’t really make sense, but I suspect Mr. Phillips was not concerned much about putting labels to his impeccable creations. It is not a CD for all moods….but to me, it should be an essential listen to all those who like to challenge their ears.

    Now, if only ECM will release the very, very creepy Barre Phillips release “Music By…“. That one is a genuine soundtrack to bizarre dreams and nightmares!—Craig L.

  81. Mountainscapes
    Barre Phillips: Mountainscapes
    Bizarre, but very relevant recording!

    So, I meet my roommate at graduate school back in 1978 and we immediately start comparing record collections (both mine and his very extensive). He has a few very interesting looking releases from a label that was new to me at the time – ECM – one of which was Mountainscapes, with a glossy sleeve that appeared to have a photo of some sort of scratched up and rusted barrel. (The other two from that label, Three Day Moon – also by Barre Phillips – and The Köln Concert, by Keith Jarrett – are similarly remarkable).

    A few things hit me right away after my roommate popped this on his turntable. After admiring the incredibly high recording standard (a constant aspect of ECM recordings), the uniqueness – strangeness, in fact – of the music was just striking. The song titles indicate that this is actually a suite – each track is essentially another interpretation of the central theme that Phillips & Co had in mind. Whether the bass was bowed or plucked, the track rhythmic or contemplative, images of storms, sunrise, sunset, loss and wandering all came to mind. When the final track kicked off with a chugging, repeated bass riff and the drums find the rhythym, the great surprise is the appearance of John Abercrombie playing in a style I’ve not heard since from him – fast, precise, so effective.

    Years later, when I finally found this on CD, it was a wonderful reunion with music that sounds just as fresh to me now as it did back then. This music creates a mood – it may be such a product of its time that works such as this will never be heard again.

    It is expensive, obscure, hard to find…but give it a try and be amazed!—Craig L.

  82. Watercolors
    Pat Metheny: Watercolors
    Deep Personal Meanings for this wonderful CD

    This is, I believe, Pat M.’s most underappreciated recording. First listened to in 1979 (my second PMG purchase, the first being the famous “White Album”, bought on a recommendation of a fellow Graduate student – a recommendation that significantly changed my music listening life!), this CD symbolizes the exciting early dating days with my wife of 20 plus years, my wonderful experience at Dartmouth college, and my music listening evolution of Rock into Jazz, particularly that on the ECM label.

    This is very pure music – no synthesizers, no unusual guitar effects, just emotive story telling from a very promising, very young talent that has created a remarkably consistenly excellent body of music that is his alone, and that easily becomes a vital part of everyone’s CD collection. There are no weak cuts on the CD (typical of Metheny’s output), and some, such as the incredible Sea Song, are amongst my favorite music of all time. Eberhard Weber adds a distinctive flavor to the session that was not repeated on any other Metheny CD.

    This music does not age, does not go out of date or style – so give it a try, and do yourself and mental well-being a big favor!—Craig L.

  83. Witchi-Tai-To
    Jan Garbarek: Witchi-Tai-To
    Stunning, Mandatory Jazz

    My roommate at college introduced me to the ECM label through Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert and two very obscure releases from a bass player named Barre Phillips – Mountainscapes and Three Day Moon (all 3 releases named above are highly recommended, by the way!). This marked my conversion from rock music to jazz, and I set out to the local bookstore to browse the bins (we are talking 21 years ago, so one could still enjoy flipping the album covers). I decided to purchase 3 ECM jazz releases – Ralph Towner’s Solstice, Sound and Shadows (superb!), the John Abercrombie Quartet, and Jan Garbarek’s Witchi-Tai-To.

    I am embarrassed to relate how many ECMs I now have in my collection, but it can be assured that Witchi-Tai-To remains a very important centerpiece, music that stands the test of time and always sounds fresh and challenging. The first cut, A.I.R. (All-India Radio), is a reworking of a Carla Bley tune that first appeared in a very different format and sound on the bizarre but wonderful Escalator Over The Hill. A great tune, and superb way to start the CD. Tunes 2 and 3 are fine, but the real gems are Jim Pepper’s Witchi-Tai-To (which you could hum all day, as it drills itself into your memory), and the great tune Desireless. Garbarek plays more tenor on this release than he currently does, and his tone is warm and rich, though not cloying at all. The rhythym section of Palle Daniellsen (bass) and Jon Christensen (drums) is still the one of choice for those who record on ECM – just great, great players. And, Bobo Stenson, at the time of the recording somewhat obscure, is now perhaps THE piano player most desired for recording sessions on ECM. If you own or have heard this CD, I am telling you nothing new. If you do not own it, do yourself and your ears a favor…and buy it!—Craig L.

  84. Paths, Prints
    Jan Garbarek Group: Paths, Prints
    One to return to, again and again

    I was fortunate enough to see the Jan Garbarek Quartet in Boston just before the release of Paths, Prints, and it was a remarkable concert. He is a special musician, and this is a wonderful CD that all jazz lovers should experience. Quite different from his “more typically jazz” European Quartet releases (Belonging, My Song, Nude Ants) and earlier ECM releases with a more chamber-jazz approach (Of Mist and Melting, Places, Photo With…), this CD set Garbarek off in a new direction, similar to the following Wayfarer and It’s OK to Listen to the Gray Voice (both recommendable, but not as fine as Paths, Prints). There is still a good bit of space in the music, but Bill Frisell’s guitar is quite unique in setting shapes and moods and context more than pointed solos, with Garbarek’s reeds creeping into the melodies through the side door – quite an eerie, beautiful effect. This CD has memorable tunes, fine solo playing, and it sustains the listener’s interests throughout. Despite the passage of many years since its release, it is jazz for today – it is great music. Try it!—Craig L.

  85. Sleeves of Desire
    Sleeves of Desire
    Spectacular Coverage of a Spectacular Music Label

    One of the best things about LPs, as opposed to CDs, was the ability to flip the sleeves in stores during browsing. I started listening to jazz in the early 1980’s, and was rapidly transfixed by the beauty and originality of the artwork on releases from the ECM jazz label, out of Germany. Since 1970, ECM has released nearly 700 albums of wonderful music, much of which defies categorization. What remains is their clearly identifiable (but often imitated – such as by Windham Hill) cover graphic style, making their releases art collector items as well as music. This book describes the history of the ECM sleeve art, as well as provides color pictures of essentially all of their releases up to the publication date of the book. This book is a wonderful gift to music, as well as art, lovers!—Craig L.

  86. Exploded View
    Steve Tibbetts: Exploded View
    After Reconsidering….Another work of Genius!

    I was about to review this and give a 4 star rating based upon my recollections of it, but a relisten changed my mind…Tibbetts CDs are so uniformly great that I overlooked this one a few years back. This one is louder than his others (prior to The Fall of Us All, that is), but it has great impact – and the wordless vocals are an effective new twist for him. This one is also the first to use the effect of strangling his electric guitar – boy, the studio must have been LOUD when he was recording some of these tunes….—Craig L.

  87. Northern Song
    Steve Tibbetts: Northern Song
    Hauntingly Beautiful Guitar Music; Underrated Gem

    I was terribly excited when, finding this LP back in 1984, I saw that one of my favorite musicians was on my favorite label. After hearing Yr, the tone of this release was shocking. Northern Song is a very contemplative disc, with lots of space, as if Tibbetts were exploring the acoustics and resonances of his expertly played acoustic guitar. Though I have read less than stellar reviews of this CD in various magazines and books, don’t believe them – this is a spectacular effort of the highest quality that transcends any categorization – it is not jazz, not rock – it is important music that can get inside of you and bring great pleasure.—Craig L.

  88. Safe Journey
    Steve Tibbetts: Safe Journey
    A Stunning CD that opens with an Awesome Attack on the Ears!

    Wow…going from Tibbett’s previous release, Northern Song…to Test, the first cut from Safe Journey, must be what it is like to run from a hot tub and jump into an icy pond. Only you want to replay the experience again and again! This CD is still a frequently played favorite, with many mood shifts, textures and sounds. Just how does he get the guitar to make some of those sounds? High impact, high quality, essential listening for all!—Craig L.

  89. Yr
    Steve Tibbetts: Yr
    Profound Music from a Guitar Genius!

    I first heard this when just released on LP, back in the early 1980’s, and the aural impact is just as great today! There are subtle differences between the ECM CD (note the added distorted bass guitar that enters half way through track 1 on the CD – a great effect – and the mix for track 4 is very different on the CD, much less “country-ish”). Though Tibbetts’ music has become more sophisticated – and louder! – on recent CD’s, all of the seeds for greatness are exhibited on this indispensable disc. This is truly great stuff!!!!—Craig L.

  90. Mosolov
    Herbert Henck: Alexandr Mosolov
    Dark and different

    Alexander Mosolov (1900-1973), too, uses his own distinctive scheme of tonal organisation, different from Roslavets, and different from the Vienna School as well. His sonatas are technically very complex and difficult, and symphonically oriented, exploiting the full resources of the modern instrument. The noctures are miniatures, less driven, less intense, gentler, but dark and brooding, a melancholy night, gloomy with a few glints of light.

    Most of Mosolov’s music is filled with raging passion and dark colors, sadness, despair, longing, resignation, no resolution, and no triumph. His expression markings include “lugubre” and “feroce” and dozens of shades in between. This represents his emotional range. Thematic material is obscure, no melodies, fragments of themes, shreds and shards projected with furious intensity, driven, but (certainly in this performance) not mechanical or motoric. This is in spite of Mosolov’s Futurist leanings and links with “machine music.” He always makes us aware of the piano as a mechanical device, but never merely that.

    Herbert Henck puts this difficult material across in a beautiful, spirited performance and finds a lot of lyricism behind an often forbidding surface. (But when you’re done listening you still won’t remember any of the tunes.)

    The recording and production are up to the highest possible standards, as with all of ECM’s releases, which are unsurpassed. The liner notes, by the performer, are exemplary and show him to be as eloquent on paper as he is on the keyboard. The notes significantly enhance the enjoyment and understanding of the music.

  91. Veracini
    Veracini: Sonatas
    Variegated Veracini

    Quite the inspired eccentric, Veracini; not Bach, nor Tartini; not Geminiani, nor Corelli (even when paying bizarre homage to the composer in the “Dissertazioni”); not Handel, nor Vivaldi. He seems very much an eerie synthesis of his contemporaries, but with a distinct symmetry all his own, and Holloway, the phantasmagoric empath through which Veracini’s extraordinary and ethereal works take earthly form via a transmogrification that is both palpable and thrilling throughout. The sonatas, more like cryptic musings from some musical afterlife, are gripping and laden with a metaphysical angst that is nearly indescribable–as if Veracini sought the transcendent nexus at which music, human existence and sublimity merge. It is all profoundly beautiful and moving, and the performances, full of depth, lyricism and equal amounts of pathos and restrained felicity, are emotionally wondrous. Special mention, too, should be made regarding the superb interplay of instruments, especially the contrast between Holloway’s silky-toned violin and ter Linden’s deep-throated cello, without which Veracini’s sonatas could never attain such a splendid recording.—Melvyn M. Sobel

    [Running time: 62:22]

  92. Hommage
    Hommage à R.Sch.
    György Kurtág moving into Robert Schumann

    Hommage à R.Sch. – Music of Schumann and Kurtág even as a title for a CD is creative. This is one of those recordings that invites the listener to more deeply appreciate the genius of Robert Schumann in three of his lesser known works for several reasons: the works on the recording are immaculately performed by Robert Levin, piano, Eduard Brunner, clarinet, and Kim Kashashian, viola, the spectrum of chamber music is a rare combination, and the additional work by György Kurtág that completes the recital is a revelation. It is a pleasure to see such sophisticated programming made available to the public.

    Kim Kashkashian performs ‘Pieces for solo viola’ with a strong affinity for the demands of these brief works and she follows these pieces with the complex Jelek for viola, Opus 5, again a brief work of six movements – Agitato, Giusto, a relatively lengthy Lento, Vivo, feroce, followed with a blissfully beautiful Adagio, and ending in Con slancio, risoluto. As a segue into Schumann the three soloists unite for the fascinating six movement work by György Kurtág – the ‘Hommage à Robert Schumann’, Opus 15/d, a strange but haunting revisiting the works of Schumann in sections each less than a minute long in which the piano, viola and clarinet make those typically terse statements that might just have been the moments of indecision in Schumann’s mind as he composed the earlier works on the recording! The final movement is a longer Adagio and is some of the more creative and fascinating of the many works of György Kurtág. Here as in the Schumann works the three instrumentalists prove themselves able to make the piece hang together well and to remind us of just how creative is Kurtág.

    The remainder of the recital is work by Schumann – the ‘Märchenbilder’, Four pieces for viola and piano, Opus 113 composed in 1852. These pieces are brief but elegantly lovely and Kashkashian and Levin collaborate beautifully. The final work is the ‘Fantasiestücke’, three pieces for clarinet and piano Opus 73, and again pianist Levin proves a superb partner to Edward Brunner’s clarinet performance. All three artists join in the ‘Märchenerzählungen für klarinette, viola und klavier opus 132, 1853’, a four part work that concentrates on showing the dexterity of each of the instruments – a challenge these artists meet well. This is a well-conceived and exceptionally well performed recital.—Grady Harp

  93. Leclair
    Jean-Marie Leclair: Sonatas

    When I was younger, Leclair’s chamber works, rather than his orchestral music, always appealed to me. Beginning with the Op. 2 Sonatas for Flute and Continuo (on a 70s 2-LP Telefunken, slip-sleeve set with Larde, Dreyfus and Lamy, which I still own), I was captivated by Leclair’s lyricism, melodic propensity, invention and unusual sensitivity. Unfortunately, even as late as 1979, there was a distinct paucity of available Leclair on vinyl. The Schwann Catalogue of that year–and, yes, I still have my copy–lists a meager ten entries and, with the exception of the Op. 2, none is a complete work; the British Penquin Guide of 1978–yes, I have this, too–lists one work: the orchestral suite from Leclair’s opera Scylla and Glaucus. Very scanty, indeed. Subsequent volumes fare no better; entries are virtually none-to-infrequent, until the late 90s and into the 00s, and especially with the prevalence of the CD.

    Now, of course, there’s a near plethora of Leclair to be had.

    Rags to riches.

    Why such a semi-analysis of availability, you ask?

    Simple: When a Leclair recording as enchanting as this 2008 ECM release with Holloway, ter Linden and Mortensen presents itself, there is cause to rejoice. (Frankly, anything issuing from this trio falls into the self-same category.)

    For me, the Op. 5 Sonatas for Violin and Continuo were a revelation, and a magical one, at that, especially in performances as luminous as these. From the bravura opening of No. 8 in D major to the deliciously melancholy Adagio of No. 4 in B-flat, Holloway manifests an almost mystical affinity for the composer (as he does, equally, in the ECM recording of Veracini Sonatas), his fiddling panache never strident, always rich, sweet-toned, warm and full of color.

    In truth, Holloway, ter Linden and Mortensen transform Leclair’s sonatas into works that inhabit a baroque world, near visionary, all their own–one far removed from dusty academia–in a special place where expressive charm, beauty and grace delightfully co-exist.

    With recorded sound that is exemplary, both atmospheric, yet clear, this disc is quite unparalleled.—Melvyn M. Sobel

    [Running time: 69:58]

  94. Symphony No. 4
    Arvo Pärt: Symphony No. 4

    Arvo Pärt has been a favorite contemporary composer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and audience for several years. Esa-Pekka Salonen urged him to write a commissioned work for the orchestra. The following was from the Program Note by John Henken at the time of the premiere in 2009: “Pärt was working at the time with an ancient canon in Church Slavonic containing a prayer to a guardian angel – the connection to ‘Los Angeles’ was irresistible,” as a note for the score indicates. “Pärt was further inspired to take the commission by the idea of seeing this work performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, one of the best orchestras in the world, under its music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, and in Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the most exciting concert buildings of our time.”

    Pärt’s first three symphonies were scored for relatively full orchestras, but the “Los Angeles” Symphony is for strings, harp and percussion. The first movement opens in what sounds like a better world, ‘perhaps that realm to which Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde ascend’. The violins begin with a sustained soft chord in the stratosphere, accompanied by isolated plucks from harp and cellos. The score remains sparse through its three movements. The percussion is either the tolling of deep timpani or the ring of high bells. There are deliberate march-like passages with simple harmonies. Chords, though, tend to smudge into each other rather than resolve. String textures are thin; nothing in this symphony is hidden. Single sounds become windows looking out to the world. New one adopts his preferred instrumental forces for the tintinnabulation style – strings with percussion.

    Arvo Pärt seems to have a direct connection with the spiritual world, so mystic is his output, and nowhere as mystic as this KANON POKAJANEN. Apparently the texts for this work are taken from the Russian Orthodox ‘Canon of repentance to our Lord Jesus Christ’, a work which Pärt describes as follows: ‘Many years ago, when I first became involved in the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church, I came across a text that made a profound impression on me although I cannot have understood it at the time. It was the Canon of Repentance. Since then I have often returned these verses, slowly and arduously seeking to unfold their meaning. Two choral compositions (Nun eile ich…, 1990 and Memento, 1994) were the first attempts to approach the canon. I then decided to set it to music in its entirety-from beginning to end. This allowed me to stay with it, to devote myself to it; and, at the very least, its hold on me did not abate until I had finished the score. I had a similar experience while working on Passio. It took over two years to compose the Kanon pokajanen, and the time “we spent together” was extremely enriching. That may explain why this music means so much to me.’ Somehow the purity with which Pärt realizes, develops, and resolves lines of melody finds resonance with everyone no matter their religious background. This music is universal, pure beauty, and emotionally involving.

    This is a landmark recording, performed to perfection by the orchestra that commissioned it. Hopefully it will remain in the regular repertoire so that we can grow into the mystery more deeply.—Grady Harp

  95. Zelenka
    Zelenka: Trio Sonatas

    Clearly unique and overtly forward-looking, Zelenka’s mesmerizing Trio Sonatas are well worth getting to know, especially when savored one by one, in this 1999 ECM release of exceptional clarity and beauty. Legendary advocate, Heinz Holliger, is this composer’s “comeback kid,” his first traversal mounted on LP in the early ‘70s, and it’s obvious that in the years in-between, he’s gained a substantial amount of attractive musical moxie.

    With Zelenka’s sonatas we enter a new baroque plane of innovative polyphony, melodic twists, quirky stylistic baits and switches, unique emotional perspectives (from giddy to nearly tearful), and uncommonly memorable experimentation.

    Zelenka’s “roguish” compositions, all scored for two oboes, bassoon and continuo–with the exception of the glorious No. 3 in B-flat, in which a violin replaces an oboe–without doubt, open the ears, blow away pre-conceived notions of the usual period idiom, and inform both artistically and intellectually.

    Holliger and his superlative troupe give their all throughout, breathing a rather existential life into every note of this marvelous, haunting music. The more you listen, the more hypnotized you will become.—Melvyn M. Sobel

    [Running time: CD 1: 50:15 CD 2: 50:05]

  96. Beethoven Piano Concertos
    Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5
    Till Fellner and Beethoven: Complete Satisfaction

    38-year-old Austrian pianist Till Fellner ‘plays with scrupulous musicianship, purity of style, and sparkling keyboard command’ – so agree the critics on both sides of the ocean. He is a dashing persona in live performance, always seeming at one with the composer whose works he is performing. This recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos #4 and #5 in the brief time since the release of this CD has become somewhat of the current gold standard among music aficionados, so clear is his concept and so perfectly balanced with the orchestral aspect of the works with Kent Nagano conducting the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal.

    While there are many recordings of the complete set of five concertos of Beethoven by one pianist, so often there are hits and misses in sets such as those. Whether or not Fellner will fall into the same category is to be seen, but for now he is so secure in the performances of these two last concerti that they becomes models of interpretation. He has fire and passion when that is called for and he also has the poetry and genteel serenity when the passages enter that realm. His technique is staggering and yet does not pull attention to technique per se. He understands the conversation with the orchestra and is so very at one with the organic whole of each of these two favorite works that he makes them seem new.

    Kent Nagano is a fine collaborator and the Montréal Symphony plays with supple finesse. Yes, we all have favorite pianists from the past that we hold as paragons of these works, but listen to Till Fellner and those considerations may just be altered!—Grady Harp

  97. Schiff WTC
    J. S. Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Clavier (Schiff)

    In the past, Schiff has left me disappointed, especially his rather speedy rendition of the wonderful French Suites (Decca). Actually, in general, his playing leaves me usually wanting. This said, however, the new ECM Well-tempered, Schiff’s second take on “The Bach Bible,” is quite a different matter, entirely: It is downright riveting. It is downright hypnotic. Eschewing the use of pedal–no mean feat–Schiff allows his massive technique free reign, delving into each separate work on its own terms and clarifying voices, harmonies, lines and melodies without a hint of his usual self-consciousness. The linking of preludes and fugues, by cutting short the track time between each, opens rather than constricts, the juxtapositioning becoming a marvel of wonder. Don’t look for romanticized Bach here; this is not Schiff’s forte. Look for depth of structure, hidden elements revealed, unity. And, as always, the ECM recording is exemplary.

    [Running time: CD 1: 51:55 CD 2: 53:29 CD 3: 66:06 CD 4: 72:45]

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