Till Fellner: In Concert – Beethoven/Liszt (ECM New Series 2511)

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Till Fellner
In Concert: Beethoven/Liszt

Till Fellner piano
Années de pèlerinage
Concert recording, June 2002
Wien, Musikverein, Großer Saal
Tonmeister: Gottfried Zawichowski
Engineer: Andreas Karlberger
An ORF Recording (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio Österreich 1)
Sonata No. 32
Concert recording, October 2010
Middlebury College Performing Arts Series
Mahaney Center for the Arts, Robison Hall
Tonmeister: Mark Christensen
Mastering: Markus Heiland
An ECM Production
Release date: November 2, 2018

But where of ye, O tempests! is the goal?
Are ye like those within the human breast?
Or do ye find, at length, like eagles, some high nest?
–Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

After a mosaic of recordings spanning the gamut from J. S. Bach to Thomas Larcher, Till Fellner returns to ECM with a pastiche of live recordings from 2002 and 2010. The first presents the Austrian pianist in his home capital for year one of Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. Inspired by the composer’s trip to Switzerland from 1835 to 1836 but unpublished until 1855, this aural scrapbook is alive with alpine imagery and motifs, encompassing firsthand memories, friendships, and even political views. It’s on the latter note that the collection begins with La Chapelle de Guillaume Tell. This stately introduction to an otherwise flowing work sets a precedent of architectural soundness that infuses all to follow. Contrast this with the watery beauties of Au lac de Wallenstadt and Au bord d’une source, and you already have a sense of the variety to which Liszt had eloquent access, rendered by Fellner with dynamic temperament.

While many sections, such as the sunlit Pastorale and Eglogue (the latter riffing on a shepherd’s song), are built around fleeting impressions, each nevertheless feels complete. This may be due to the fact nearly all of the music is revised from earlier material, an exception being the tempestuous Orage. No matter the duration, emotional integrity is the primary ingredient, so that the descriptions of Vallée d’Obermann’s thirteen precious minutes feel just as thick as Le mal du pays. Both seem to find the composer yearning for home when away from it, if not also for distant travels when in it, lending themselves to a score that only serves to nourish Fellner’s radiance. All the above shades of meaning cohere in Les cloches de Genève, by which the pianist elicits rich yet subtle sonorities.

If Liszt is a photographer, then Ludwig van Beethoven is a filmmaker whose magnum opus is surely the Sonata No. 32 in c minor. His Opus 111 shares its key signature with the Fifth Symphony and other monumental works, and provides a fitting end to his sonata cycle. As suggested in William Kinderman’s deeply considered liner essay, “The pair of movements of this sonata interact as a contrasting duality suggesting strife and fulfillment, evoking qualities which have stimulated much discussion, reminding commentators of the ‘here’ and the ‘beyond,’ or ‘samsara’ and ‘nirvana.’” Such spiritual language is no mere hyperbole, but an activation point of Beethoven’s grander concerns over the effects of art on the soul. As The Art of Fugue was to Bach, so is the Sonata No. 32 to Beethoven with regard to variation.

To be sure, Fellner touches upon those grander narratives, but more importantly keeps his ears attuned to the details. In the opening movement, for example, his arpeggios feel like quills on paper. Balancing stream-of-consciousness impulses with deeply articulated control, he links an unbreakable chain of progression. The second and final movement begins almost timidly, as if sifting through old notes for fear of what one might find, only to be surprised by a joy one never knew was waiting for rediscovery. Urgency compels the left hand while trills in the right signal a transformation of flesh into glory. “The transformational power of this closing music,” says Kinderman, “acts like a utopian symbol, which seeks to neutralize if not dispel the tragic reality embodied in the weighty opening movement of the work.” And perhaps weight is the most appropriate physical property by which to analyze what’s happening here, for regardless of size and scope, the relationship of every note to gravity is meticulously examined, its potential for flight believed in like a prayer.

Momo Kodama: Point and Line (ECM New Series 2509)

Point and Line

Momo Kodama
Point and Line

Momo Kodamapiano
Recorded January 2016, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 27, 2017

Four years after making her ECM New Series debut with La vallée des cloches, pianist Momo Kodama returns with a program that is equally adventurous in expectation and inevitable in hindsight, this time shuffling the Études pour piano, L 136 (1915) of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Etude I-VI for piano, SJ 1180 (2011-13) of Toshio Hosokawa (b. 1955) into an integrated experience. Having performed both cycles separately, here Kodama imagines them in dialogue with each other. “A number of elements in Hosokawa’s music,” she writes in her liner note, “make me sense a proximity to Debussy. One is the freedom of its formal design; another is its interplay and layering of colors. What I fins especially remarkable in both is a capacity for poetic utterance and ranges widely between lyricism and drama, between meditation and virtuosic display.” As in acts of translation between languages, what separates is also what binds, and Kodama is a masterful interpreter in that regard, fluent as she is in every dialectical nuance at hand.

“Hand” is indeed the operative word, as Kodama’s parallel communicators ride over the intimate cascades of Debussy’s Etude XI before swirling the waters below in defiance of prettiness. Thus, whatever conversational approach we might attribute to process isn’t necessarily between two (or more) people, but rather between different shades of the same musical self. Kodama’s rendering thereof illuminates a cohesive identity, and she, as surely the composers themselves, revels in disruptions, treating each as an opportunity for productive change.

Hosokawa’s Etude II, from which this album get its name, takes its descriptive heading with beautiful literalness, contrasting sustained notes and dotted clusters, the latter as sprays of baby’s breath in a wider bouquet. A spirit of favorable conflict prevails, as also in Debussy’s Etude III, wherein points and lines are converted into poetry. Not that what follows is a series of impressionistic vignettes, but a space in which every utterance counts. As dynamics lob from soft to loud and back again, we are primed for the versification of Hosokawa’s “Calligraphy, Haiku, 1 Line” (Etude III), of which dramatic outbursts amid resonant silences become organic allies.

As the composers continue to seesaw between foreground and background, something surprising begins to happen: we begin to lose track of who wrote what. For while the reveries of Etudes IV and VIII have an obviously Debussean flavor, we might also read distinctly Hosokawan associations into the second and first etudes. And while the tail-chasing details of Hosokawa’s first and fourth etudes reveal a childlike dedication to play (the latter’s subtitle, “Ayatori, Magic by 2 Hands, 3 Lines,” makes reference to the cat’s cradle game), his respect for Debussy peeks from behind the curtains of “Lied, Melody” (Etude VI), a high point that pushes darkness and light through lattices of memory.

Retrospection seems equally vital to sustaining Debussy’s mocking Etude I and Hosokawa’s visceral “Anger” (Etude V), and by the emotional clarity of those expressions turns anticipation into reflection. Like Debussy’s Etude VII, they draw a compass between our ears, for while the notes may go up and down, the hands travel right and left, leaving us with a navigational instrument to cherish as we leave this land behind into uncharted waters.

Alexei Lubimov: Tangere (ECM New Series 2112)

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Alexei Lubimov
Tangere

Alexei Lubimov tangent piano
Recorded July 2008, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekapel Elzenveld, Antwerpen
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Recording supervision: Guido Gorna
An ECM Production
Release date: August 25, 2017

For this landmark record of music by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), pianist Alexei Lubimov has assembled a rich conspectus. More than that, he has delved into the history of the classical keyboard and its precursors, coming up for glorious air with the rarely heard tangent piano as his tool of choice. As one of a handful of options available at the younger Bach’s fingertips, it comes alive in this unusual combination of scores and performances. The title of the program, Tangere, means “to touch,” and embodies Lubimov’s ideal as interpreter, if not also Bach’s as composer.

As noted by New York Times critic Cleveland Johnson, the tangent piano recalls the Middle Eastern santur, and indeed operates by a kindred principle of hammer and string. Like András Schiff’s ECM New Series recording of Franz Schubert on a Viennese fortepiano, its rewards far outweigh the time it may take to accustom oneself to its timbre.

Between 1779 and 1787, C.P.E. Bach produced six collections of fantasies, sonatas, and rondos “für Kenner und Liebhaber” (for connoisseurs and dilettantes), and it is from all but the second and fourth of these that Lubimov has plucked the juiciest fruits. The Freye Fantasie (Wq 67) that opens the program is also its longest, taking listeners through 11 minutes of time travel. In addition to its mature composing and foreshadowing of the even greater piano literature waiting in the coming century, it showcases the instrument’s gamut of colors, moods, and textures. The same characterization holds true for the Sonate II (Wq 57) that follows, sandwiching between its charming outer layers an inner oasis.

Selections from the Clavierstücke verschiedener Art (Keyboard pieces of various kinds) of 1765 and Musikalisches Vielerley (Musical miscellaney) of 1770 flesh out the middle ground with shorter bursts of creative exposition. Among these pieces are the delightful solfeggi, which pack the punch of extra-strength medicine capsules.

In this context, the Sonate VI (Wq55) comes across as downright cinematic for its use of space, movement, and framing. Its central Andante is so hauntingly suited to the tangent piano that it feels born from within its strings. All of which renders the concluding Fantasie II (Wq 59/6) a vessel for any virtuosity that preceded it.

András Schiff: Beethoven – The Piano Sonatas (ECM New Series 2000)

Beethoven The Piano Sonatas

András Schiff
Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas

András Schiff piano
Concert recordings at Tonhalle Zürich, March 2004-May 2006
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 25, 2016

Renowned conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow (1830-1894) famously said: “Bach is the Old Testament and Beethoven the New Testament of music.” But this analogy only feels true in chronological terms. In any other aspect, the reverse would be more accurate, for while in Beethoven we encounter the judgments of a vengeful God, in Bach we feel the salvation of grace. Indeed, ECM’s New Series had been enamored with Bach for years before dipping into the canon of Beethoven, and Hungarian pianist András Schiff (previously known for his spirited renderings of Schubert, Mozart, and Bach himself) did that and more, gifting us with revelatory performances of the entire Beethoven piano sonata cycle. Totaling 32 in number, these sonatas remain the heart of the iconic composer’s oeuvre, each its own ecosystem of influence.

“Unlike with Mozart and Schubert, there are no repeated gestures in Beethoven: everything unfolds and is developed in a new aspect.” So says András Schiff of the difficulties of approaching this cycle as a whole. Of course, such progressive demands present formidable challenges to the Beethoven interpreter, who must play as if caught in the immediacy of every musical gesture. “Like picture restorers,” he goes on, “we performers have to scrape off the layers of convention, have to remove the dust and dirt, in order to reproduce the work in all its original freshness.”

To that end, Schiff boldly decided to perform each sonata in at least 15 cities before sitting down for these live recordings at Zürich’s Tonhalle, the acoustics of which seem spun directly from the piano itself. Schiff believed the immediacy of live performance was vital in bringing Beethoven to life on CD. The only exception is the final disc, recorded in the empty hall of the Reitstadel in Neumarkt, Germany. Schiff also used three pianos: a Steinway for the more dynamic pieces and two different Bösendorfers for the lyrical. In terms of sound mixing, the left hand dominates the left channel and vice versa, thereby creating a virtual piano in the ears.

Volume I: Sonatas opp. 2 and 7 (originally ECM New Series 1940/41)
Recorded March 2004, Zürich Tonhalle

Kernels of what would later be construed as Beethoven’s genius are easily gleaned from these groundbreaking first offerings. Consequently, Schiff waited for decades to ease into this material, a decision that rewards our listening most profitably. Schiff is adamant about following the interpretive clues Beethoven has left behind in his scores, taking to heart—even as he sets aside—the elisions and additions of his predecessors. He greets each sonata as a new friend, idiosyncrasies and all. Although these sonatas are hot on the heels of Mozart, in Schiff’s estimation Beethoven is prose to Mozart’s poetry. If Beethoven is synonymous with drama, then let this be the curtain-raiser to Schiff’s epic endeavor.

Sonata No. 1 f minor op. 2/1 (1793-5)
Shades of Haydn (to whom all of op. 2 is dedicated) abound, but arrive at a series of distinct solutions, both open-ended and alternatively solved. Schiff manages to draw out a dramatic exploration of themes with limited means. Dynamic control in the Menuetto is strikingly effective here, while the Prestissimo is a thrilling conclusion to this earliest sonata and already speaks of a turgid energy dying for a way out. The final bars are filled with a lush restraint that erupts into the ultimate downward trill.

Sonata No. 2 A major op. 2/2 (1794-5)
A more playful, even humorous mood dominates the op. 2/2. A sense of freedom within bounds, like a child who is limited only by imagination in terms of what can be seen and experienced under constant supervision. This sonata is a grand experiment in movement. It runs, trips, falls, and picks itself up again in its repeated attempts to regain locomotive control. This seems to be one of the most difficult of the 32 sonatas to play, if only because of the demand for sustained focus and emotive energy that plows its whimsical soil. The Allegro is a grandiose series of textures all describing the same playroom and recasts us as parents watching over the children we once were. On the one hand we are joyful toward the innocent display; on the other we mourn the loss of our interest in trivial things. This isn’t the philosophical Beethoven, but no less a contemplative one unafraid to work through his own indecision in the open forum of our scrutiny. The Scherzo sparkles here with jewel-like brilliance before tossing us like a discarded doll into a satisfying conclusion.

Sonata No. 3 C major op. 2/3 (1794-5)
A verdant and dramatic Allegro starts things off with the slightest hint of Händel to keep our ears in check. Superbly controlled runs and arpeggios make this a joyful listening experience overall. The musical equivalent of a period of rest that precedes the return leg of a long journey: we relive the joys of our destination while yearning for those of home.

Sonata No.4 E-flat major op. 7 (1796-7)
This sonata offers such a wide variety of colors that one wonders where the young Beethoven found the time to pluck them from the proverbial tree. Of the early works, this more than any other showcases Beethoven’s unique “posturing” as one looking back over a much longer life. Already he displays a grand affinity for, and subtle reinvention of, the sonata form. We end on a curiously somber note, collapsing to the ground after a futile attempt at escape.

Volume II: Sonatas opp. 10 and 13 (originally ECM New Series 1942)
Recorded November 2004, Zürich Tonhalle

Schiff’s second installment is full of surprises and reflects the superior dedication of its execution.

Sonata No. 5 c minor op. 10/1 (?1795-7)
The op. 10/1 sonata feels like running. Like all of the early sonatas, it’s always moving. Whether slowly, briskly, or at a horse’s gallop, one feels it going somewhere, even if the destination isn’t always clear (not least of all to Beethoven himself). This leaves the performer to determine said destination and to commit to a path leading there. The op. 10/1 further reveals formative intimations of Beethoven’s “concertistic” leanings. Rather than exhibiting the embryonic characteristics of a composer in his mid-twenties, the forms herein act like fully realized beings who think deeply before speaking.

Sonata No. 6 F major op. 10/2 (1796-7)
The opening Allegro establishes a one-to-one correlation between form and melodic drive. Schiff’s playing veritably jumps off the page like a script dying to be orated before an enraptured audience. Arpeggios sing with grace and dutiful restraint as the right hand dominates with subtler pleasures. A contemplative Allegretto leads into a swinging Presto with all the verve of one who believes passionately in the value of darkness. Not that this is a morbid piece; only that its nooks and crannies are deep enough to inscribe loaded variations into an otherwise dainty surface. A standout in the entire cycle. What Schiff does with it is miraculous.

Sonata No. 7 D major op. 10/3 (1797-8)
A bit statelier in feel, this sonata nevertheless rushes forth with its own power. Among the quieter sonatas, it embodies a chamber-like sensibility. And even though it may not hit you over the head with its style, it packs a delayed punch, seeping undetected under the skin, lacing our systems with subdued petulance.

Sonata No. 8 c minor op. 13 “Pathétique”
Though often seen as one of Beethoven’s more “symphonic” sonatas, here the op. 13 if anything feels “sympathetic.” The opening movement fights its way to a centered mode of understanding in its attempts to overshadow internal pain. It is consolatory, patient, even kind. Its many spontaneous shifts are never instigated without careful reassessment of their own devices. The recapitulating motif is comforting, mellifluous in its persistence. The Adagio binds us. In doing so, it avoids falling into a trap of oversentimentality, unfolding instead with the uneasy grace of human (read: mediated) emotion. The concluding Rondo and Allegro twirl with the measured rhythm of a dancer who must leave her shoes in a dusty, shadowed corner at the end of the day, but who refuses to leave the studio without first giving her all in defiance of the wall-length mirror that stands before her.

Volume III: Sonatas opp. 13, 22 and 49 (originally ECM New Series 1943)
Recorded February 2005, Zürich Tonhalle

“Already in his early sonatas,” Schiff tells us, “Beethoven is a psychologist, not only as regards the organization of the movements according to their inner logic, but also in the unity between the various movements.” Thus does the trenchant pianist bring an analytical edge to his third installment in the Beethoven cycle. Its offerings are rougher around the edges, even as they continue to be microscopic in precision.

Sonata No. 19 g minor op. 49/1 (1797?)
This sonata sets the tone for a disc that is markedly miniaturistic. The gestures are quick and painless, never lingering too long on the tongue before subsequent flavors take over.

Sonata No. 20 G major op. 49/2 (1795-6)
There’s an overt delicacy to this sonata that is strangely invirogating in light of the last volume’s “Pathétique.” In contrast to the energetic infusions required on Schiff’s part to bring it to life, the Op. 49 presents a more relaxed Beethoven, rocking us gently through the final menuetto into the op. 14/1.

Sonata No. 9 E major op. 14/1 (1798)
While this sonata and its present company are relatively easy to play, they’re not without their difficulties (though one would be hard pressed to distinguish them from the melismatic uniformity of Schiff’s effortless stylings). While this might not be one of the most memorable of sonatas overall, its lively Rondo is a highlight among them.

Sonata No. 10 G major op. 14/2 (?1799)
For all its brevity, this one is charmingly captivating. The opening Allegro ripples like a fluid stream caressing rocks rounded by centuries of erosion. The Andante plods along with an almost pompous assuredness, swaying its head from side to side as it prowls the streets for attention. The closing Scherzo is deceptively constructed, cloaking itself in the mood of a sporadic chase, a cat in search of the elusive thematic mouse until…not a pounce but a strange remorse over the killing of one’s object of entertainment.

Sonata No. 11 B flat major op. 22 (1800)
This might very well be Beethoven’s “breakout” sonata, as it marks his return to the four-movement structure he made his own. With a sort of fractured bravado, it circles an axis of motifs like a bird whose confidence gives its victims that much more false security before diving in for a meal. The Adagio practically floats on its own ineffable air, wafted ever higher with each beautifully articulated trill. A compellingly woven Minuetto prepares us for a masterful Rondo as bidirectional runs travel into two succinct and conclusive chords.

Volume IV: Sonatas opp. 26, 27 and 28 (originally ECM New Series 1944)
Recorded April 2005, Zürich Tonhalle

This disc marks the end of Beethoven’s “early” period (though Schiff is quick to point out the arbitariness of such categorical distinctions). Here we see Beethoven the character actor, the pantomime and experimenter, donning a new mask with each successive gesture.

Sonata No. 12 A-flat major op. 26
As with every sonata on this standout disc, Schiff displays the utmost patience with the material. The gentle opening is an early morning brightening into daylight: brief snatches of dreams flit across the mind, only to be lost again as we try to grasp them. The Allegro bustles with the liveliness of daily chores, while a funeral march adds a new element into the mix.

Sonata No. 13 E-flat major op. 27/1 “Quasi una fantasia”
The second movement pulses with the precise syncopation of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and is a key moment of transcendence in the collection. As affecting as it is brief, it is suitably balanced in its weight and distribution. This is followed by a plaintive Adagio and the crowning Allegro, between which Schiff exhibits the diversity of his approach as he winds up for a rousing finale.

Sonata No. 14 c-sharp minor op. 27/2 “Moonlight”
Perhaps nowhere is Beethoven’s posthumously acquired pomposity more sensitively challenged than in this, the ubiquitous “Moonlight”-Sonata (the name is not Beethoven’s, given instead by nineteenth-century German poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab, who likened the piece to an evening view of Lake Lucerne). There are, perhaps, justifiable reasons why its opening movement has been so widely interpreted, excised from its connective tissue and upheld as a prototypical organ of its kind. Yet none of that seems to matter the moment it falls within Schiff’s purview. The rhythm is duly appropriate, never lagging while allowing for every note to speak its piece. Schiff makes a seemingly bold yet ultimately sensible move in following Beethoven’s controversial cue to depress the sustain pedal for the Adagio’s entire duration. This prescription has more often been overridden because of the modern piano’s longer sustain. Schiff’s magically realized solution seems as much a matter of his choice of instrument as of his technique. The central Allegretto is a vital hinge—“a flower between two chasms” in the words of Franz Liszt—to another recognizable burst of melodic intensity in the Presto, in which the sonata form is resurrected with ferocious efficacy.

Sonata No. 15 D major op. 28 “Pastorale”
The “Pastorale”-Sonata, with its instantly recognizable grandeur and intervallic range, marks a period in which Beethoven’s deafness was growing markedly worse. The subtitle was appended by publisher A. Cranz and should be taken with a grain of salt, lest one miss out on the contrasting dynamics of the two central movements. The Scherzo is one of Beethoven’s more charming creations and spices the mix like laughter before hurtling into a kinetic gigue and virtuosic finale.

Volume V: Sonatas opp. 31 and 53 (originally ECM New Series 1945/46)
Recorded December 2005, Zürich Tonhalle

Culled from Beethoven’s so-called “Middle Period,” challenge the heroism so often ascribed to his concurrent works (e.g., the “Eroica” Symphony). Rather, this is an introverted heroism honed in the artifice of its own self-conscious desire. Violence is shown to be futile, as bendable as the will of its practitioners.

Sonata No. 16 G major op. 31/1
Schiff characterizes this as Beethoven’s “wittiest” sonata. It also marks a shift from the classical style and indicates a composer desperate to forge his own path. At times parodic, this sonata leaves the listener with a sense of renewed vibrancy and proves that we need not always take ourselves so seriously to create animated art.

Sonata No. 17 d minor op. 31/2 “The Tempest”
Despite the dramatic implications of its subtitle (again, not the composer’s own), it is this sonata’s gorgeous Adagio that stands out and partners well with the closing Allegretto’s full sense of development and reprise. The “Tempest”-Sonata is, then, more than just turmoil. It is the sum of its parts, from the subtle and unseen to the antagonistic.

Sonata No. 18 E-flat major op. 31/3 “The Hunt”
This sonata is often noted for its jocularity, but Schiff manages peel back its veneer to expose a deeper psychology at work. Beethoven forgoes the usual ternary form in the Scherzo, thereby shading its sprightly mood with a hint of fortitude. A graver Menuetto and determined Presto bring necessary closure to its titular pastime.

Sonata No. 21 C major op. 53 (1803/4) “Waldstein”
The notorious “Waldstein”-Sonata is as economical at its center as it is expansive and epic at its edges. It is beyond programmatic, second in scope perhaps only to the “Hammerklavier.” This is a rollicking and sensory ride through pastures and mountains, rivers and snowdrifts, and all with the concentrated clarity of a composer hermetically devoted to his niche. The central Adagio is an exercise in mounting tension, whereas the final Allegretto sparkles with the effervescence of a natural spring. A particularly formidable section features a floating trill with the right hand as the left jumps quickly through its own set of hoops, all the while sandwiching a series of punctuating notes in the middle register. This precedes a long series of hills and valleys that boils into a bittersweet triumph, undercut as it is by the prospect of separation. The “Waldstein”-Sonata is kaleidoscopic, revealing new perspectives with every turn. The virtuosity here is a wonder, all the more so for Schiff’s ability to shake off romanticism and play with unwavering consistency. In doing so, he allows the variety of the piece to come through with surprising transparency.

Andante favori F major WoO 57 (1803)
This was the original second movement of the “Waldstein”-Sonata. After being criticized for its excessive length, it was (after much reflection on Beethoven’s part) switched out for the more succinct movement we have today. This little orphan survived well enough to earn the title of “Favored Andante.” It is almost a sonata in its own right, inverted and miniaturized as if for a shelf of curios.

Volume VI: Sonatas opp. 54, 57, 78, 79 and 81a (originally ECM New Series 1947)
Recorded April 2006, Zürich Tonhalle

In this sixth installment, continuing with the “middle” sonatas of Beethoven, emotions span the gamut from exuberance to anxiety. Schiff consciously places the formidable “Appassionata” second in this program, bowing to chronology over any a posteriori prestige collected along the way like so much canonic dust.

Sonata No. 22 F major op. 54 (1804)
This sonata, which Beethoven placed far higher than his ever popular “Moonlight,” ebbs and flows with a series of thoughtful ruminations and graceful attacks. The result is an accommodating piece, as brilliantly bipolar as it is unassuming—an enjoyable experiment in pastiche that seems to spit out its final thoughts like a conference presenter rushing to stay within time.

Sonata No. 23 f minor op. 57 (1804-06) “Appassionata”
A clear winner. Schiff’s playing courses like blood and with as much feel for change as one could ask for in a work for solo piano. That being said, one should not mistake Beethoven’s antics for showy musicianship. Accordingly, Schiff loosens the seams only so far before allowing the piece to dictate its own narrative trajectory. Just prior to composing this sonata, Beethoven was confronted with the irreversibility of his hearing loss, and so one might wish to see the “Appassionata” as a cry to hear rather than to be heard. Schiff finds in the octaval opening “an atmosphere of absolute danger.” Beethoven switches moods with the deftness of a seasoned quick-change artist, infused as the Allegro is with dark undertones and rhythms drawn from Scottish folk songs. The middle movement takes a very rudimentary theme and unpacks it for all it is worth. The finale is like a dirge in fast-forward, a tragic life condensed into nine minutes of fleeting youth and unrequited aspiration, and ends with a crunchy spate of frightening detonations.

Sonata No. 24 F-sharp major op. 78 (1809) “à Thérèse”
Beethoven was apparently partial to this sonata above all others. Either way, it stands as a vibrant testament to his dedicatory streak. Throughout its two-movement structure, the composer (and Schiff by extension) weaves a picturesque tapestry with essentially limited materials. The opening is filled with plenty of titillating flourishes to satisfy any type of listening while second movement nearly buckles under the weight of its profusion of ornaments, letting up just enough to maintain its integrity.

Sonata No. 25 G major op. 79 (1809)
Short and sweet is the op. 79. Its condensations, along with an undying sense of melody interspersed with unsettling mortality, make for (if you will excuse the alliteration) a pointillist portrait of playful proportions.

Sonata No. 26 E-flat major op. 81a (1809-10) “Les Adieux”
Regardless of what one wishes to make of the exact inspirations behind the programmatic titles of each movement (“The Farewell,” “The Absence,” and “The Return”), this sonata surely tells a story, albeit an elliptical one. The beauty of “Les Adieux” is its openness to interpretation: neither Beethoven nor Schiff want to impose an overarching theory onto the listener. It is a delectable and varied journey throughout which we encounter a variety of characters. In this sense, the sonata “speaks” in both whispers and shouts, relating a tale that never ceases to enthrall.

Volume VII: Sonatas opp. 90, 101 and 106 (originally ECM New Series 1948)
Recorded May 2006, Zürich Tonhalle

Continuing with its strict chronological adherence, Schiff’s seventh installment of the Beethoven cycle brings us squarely into the composer’s “Late Period.” The Sonatas opp. 90, 101, and 106 represent a turning point in Beethoven’s piano literature, blossoming with a more radical unfolding of internal conflict.

Sonata No. 27 e minor op. 90 (1814)
Characterized by Beethoven as “a contest between the head and the heart,” the op. 90 is a solitary endeavor into the hinterlands of introspection. Pastoral moments bleed into fleeting lapses of determination that quickly devolve into old habits.

Sonata No. 28 A major op. 101 (1815-17)
Where op. 90 is brooding, op. 101 is nostalgic. This sonata is one of the more romantic in the Beethoven catalog, and opens with assurance in spite of his near-total deafness (descriptive cues, such as “Somewhat lively, and with innermost sensitivity” for the selfsame movement, supersede the standard markings in order to better convey to performers how he imagined the music in his head). The sonata continues with its elegiac exploration of the past and its bearing on the present, culminating in an agitated finale.

Sonata No. 29 B-flat major op. 106 (1817-18) “Hammerklavier”
Considered by many to be the most daunting work of all piano literature, the nearly 45-minute “Hammerklavier” heaves like a gentle beast. Yet the seemingly insurmountable sonata is pulled off here with literary panache. The first movement delights with its palpability and energetic drive. The brusque Scherzo feels all the more so in the company of such towering neighbors, managing to hold its own while injecting much-needed whimsy. Next is the monumental Adagio, in which Schiff gives all the breathing room one could need in order to devour the final movement, building from a tentative Largo to an astounding fugue and coda in which each and every note gallops with equine agility.

Volume VIII: Sonatas opp. 109, 100 and 111 (originally ECM New Series 1949)
Recorded September 2007 at the Reitstadel in Neumarkt, Germany

Schiff is utterly committed to the urtext: he observes every prescription laid out before him. His approach is as constellatory as the music itself, carrying on with or without us. It is not so much timeless as it is timely and deserves at least one undivided listen in sequence, if only to absorb its messages in all their developmental glory.

In the Sonata No. 30 E major op. 109 (1820), two compact introductory statements pave the way for an intimate third movement. The music is tear-stricken and brimming with quiet resolution. The somber mood continues with the first movement of the Sonata No. 31 A-flat major op. 110 (1821) before giving way to some merciful humor in the second. The third movement is, for all its sparse distribution, a heavy lament. Though we do get some closure at the end, one senses that recovery is as ephemeral as the notes we have just heard. This sudden spurt of confidence seems a desperate slap in the face of mortality. The Sonata No. 32 c minor op. 111 (1821-22) provides a prismatic conclusion to an already multifaceted collection. In two movements, Beethoven expresses a lifetime’s worth of turbulence while managing to leave with the final proud nod of one who has won a long and fruitful argument.

Clearly, the demands presented to Beethoven interpreters are great. Not only must they play under the looming shadow of an enigma, but must also machete their way through centuries of scholarship, public dissemination, and imperialistic reputation. Schiff seems unable to escape the context of each sonata as he approaches it, even as he owns up to his modernity. His renderings have left an indelible mark on the Beethovenian pantheon. He plays as if every finger were its own pianist, offering music that demands attention not because it is Beethoven’s, but because it is ours.

(This seminal boxed ends with a disc of encores gathered from these concerts. Released also as their own album, they are reviewed separately here.)

András Schiff: Encores after Beethoven (ECM New Series 1950)

Encores after Beethoven

András Schiff
Encores after Beethoven

András Schiff piano
Concert recordings at Tonhalle Zürich, March 2004-May 2006
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 25, 2016

For this collection of encores, recorded during his cycle of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas yet never released until now, pianist András Schiff presents selections that, in his own words, “are closely related to the previously heard sonatas.” More than that, however, when taken as their own program, relationships within these pieces are as deep and meaningful as between them. Each is a satellite of the Beethovenian mothership, beaming down messages of darkness and light in kind.

The Allegro assai in e-flat minor from Schubert’s from Three Piano Pieces (D 946) introduces the disc with a synchronicity of medium and message that indeed echoes Beethoven in its grammar. With a dramaturgy perhaps only describable as oceanic, it sparkles with lunar pull. The Allegretto in c minor (D 915) that follows unfolds by means of a subtler narrative structure, spiraling in on itself, now with deliberation over desperation.

Alongside this door, Schiff opens another marked Mozart in the form of the little Gigue in G major (KV 574). This altogether exquisite piece is an Escherian staircase in sound, and serves as prelude to “Papa” Haydn’s Sonata in g minor (Hob VXI:44). That Beethoven deeply admired Haydn can be no secret after bathing in these spring waters. Schiff’s further distillation is worthy of that admiration as well, and feels as organic as the music is calculated, marrying as it does delicate restraint with robust linearity.

Were it not for the applause, Schubert’s Hungarian Melody in b minor (D 817), might be overwhelmed by the aftereffects, but as it stands inhales and exhales a full color palette in this folkish dance. Played, as written, from the heart, its charm is magnified tenfold by this performance.

Standing equally alone yet inseverable from the surrounding tissue, Beethoven’s Andante favori in F major (WoO 57), last heard on Volume V of Schiff’s magnum traversal, echoes an even more wholesome quality and shows just how completely Beethoven was able to tell a story.

How appropriate that we should end where it all began: with Bach. Between the tastefully wrought balustrade of the Menuet I and II from Partita No. 1 in B-flat major (BWV 825) and the Prelude and Fugue in b-flat minor (BWV 867) fromThe Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, one can almost taste the dust of Bach’s architectural wonder, which in this context seems like a return to fundamentals. Bones before flesh, and breath before bones.

Masabumi Kikuchi: Black Orpheus (ECM 2459)

2459 X

Masabumi Kikuchi
Black Orpheus

Masabumi Kikuchi piano
Recorded live October 26, 2012 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Recital Hall
Recording director: Satoshi Takahashi
Recording engineer: Masatoshi Muto
System engineer: Shinya Tanaka (SCI)
Mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo by Manfred Eicher and Jan Erik Kongshaug (engineer)
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 1, 2016

Recorded live on October 26, 2012 at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Recital Hall, Black Orpheus presents the late Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi (1939-2015) in a solo improvised concert. While some players, when given this much room to roam, travel ever inward, Kikuchi is that rare exception who builds monuments ever outward, and it’s all we can do to grab a railing or window for the ride. Having played with many greats across as many eras of jazz history—including Elvin Jones, Gil Evans, Miles Davis, and Paul Motian—Kikuchi was sufficiently prepared to strike his own match. And while his fire may have burned slowly but surely in an unassuming corner, its smoke infused the entire structure surrounding it. Such is the possessive effect of his music, which in Part III especially plays hooks to our loops in spiritual Velcro. Even before that, as Part I unspools its dreams into reality, thus revealing what Ethan Iverson in his liner notes calls Kikuchi’s “extraordinary vulnerability and corresponding extraordinary magic,” the truth of his hands is already obvious.

Kikuchi 1

Kikuchi’s sense of space is more about the space of sense. In Part IV, for instance, his ability to shape the resonance of a single note is like that of a master sitar player in his treatment of decay. His fingers feel connected to the key long after the hammer hits, indeed working that extraordinary magic into sounds otherwise thought of as liberated. And while there are more convoluted strains to be found here, as cultivated in Parts VI, VIII, and IX, there’s nothing remiss about their breathing patterns. That they share the same lungs as Part VII, a deeply affective sandwich of cloud-soft bread and raw meat, is all the more remarkable. Each mode nourishes the other, so that whether painting a moving image one frame at a time in Luiz Bonfá and Antônio Maria’s “Black Orpheus” or evoking the quiet joys of “Little Abi,” a tune written for his daughter, he understands that human bone is both the most resilient and weakest architecture, capable of bearing more weight than anything the body housing them can create before it collapses.

Kikuchi 2

Uros Spasojevic / Bojan Marjanovic: V

v

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines “flow” as a oneness of performer and process, and on electric bassist Uros Spasojevic and pianist Bojan Marjanovic achieve precisely that. That said, the Serbian duo doesn’t so much combine forces as close the gap between them, like two hands from different religious traditions coming together in a single prayer.

Spasojevic is unique for drawing out the bass’ corporeal qualities. In his solo “North,” he opens the curtain in a gesture so holistic that it seems to inhale and exhale simultaneously. With a tone that’s rounded yet which pierces the heart, he drops higher notes into a blurry pond, every ripple like a newborn song in search of words. The piano’s entrance in “Senok” reveals, with quiet assurance, an underlying Ketil Bjørnstad influence. Yet while the Norwegian pianist-composer’s cinematic lyricism is paralleled, it’s filtered through a color scheme all its own. Such an association suggests an ECM connection, and by no coincidence, as Spasojevic—who writes all the music here—cites the label as a staple of his listening diet. Such respect is further enhanced by the fact that the album was mixed and mastered under the attentive hand of Jan Erik Kongshaug at Oslo’s famed Rainbow Studio, and by the familiar thematic fragment of “Water,” which seems to have been lifted sanctimoniously from Kenny Wheeler’s “Nicolette.”

The sonic footprint of Vis as non-invasive as it is expansive. In “Guide” and “Change,” it reaches deepest layers of emotional transference, rendering hidden dreams with the pigment of open realities. “Hope” is a prelude to the title track, of which a pianistic lattice offers its plot to Spasojevic’s melodic fruit. As Marjanovic heightens his freedom of expression in spiraling architectures, he uncovers more than the album’s mission statement, but a land without borders. “End of the hill” thus surveys the album’s most abstract territories, making use of electronic augmentations and spontaneous impulses, while “Sea” closes the circle with another lone journey, of which every step brings us farther from a destination, letting us float instead across a misty sea, thankful for the beauty of unknowing.

Fred Hersch review for The NYC Jazz Record

the-ballad-of-fred-hersch

An intimate portrait of a pianist and composer at the height of his career, produced and directed by Charlotte Lagarde and Carrie Lozano, this documentary polishes facets of Hersch’s life that may be less obvious to casual fans. Viewers are introduced to Hersch as he descends the stairs of New York’s Jazz Standard to set up for a performance. From a web of starts, stops and stolen glances, the sound of a musician who now stands among the giants of jazz piano takes shape.

In the words of music critic David Hadju, one of a handful of advocates interviewed, “Fred’s music is borderless” and the film shows that characterization extending further to his personality. As one who embodies the art of improvisation outside the cage of performance, Hersch is invested in the outcomes of jazz beyond boundaries. It’s there in his organic mosaic of traditions and influences, in his willingness to work with a variety of musicians and in his activism as an HIV-positive gay man. The latter point, largely yet respectfully stressed throughout, is vital to understanding his music’s river-like qualities, which constitute nothing less than an ode-in-progress to life itself.

Nowhere is this so boldly expressed than in his My Coma Dreams, the preparations for and premiere of which dominate this documentary’s second half. Inspired by a series of vivid dreams Hersch experienced after an infection forced him into a coma in 2008, this multimedia work employs speech, video projection and live musicians to tell the story of his recovery. As pianist Jason Moran points out, however, more important than Hersch’s brush with death are the ways in which this magnum opus underscores his historical importance as a torchbearer of jazz’ reckoning with hardship. It’s a message underscored by his biography, which the filmmakers uncover through interviews with his mother Florette Hoffheimer and partner Scott Morgan, but also by his tireless mission to treat music as reality over fantasy. Hersch is keen on acknowledging the specificity of any given performance as an event and hopes that listeners may do the same in return.

((This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)