Winter Was Hard

Looking up from the endless chill and gloom of this past winter, I see that it’s been four weeks since I last posted here. Mea culpa.

I had been using weekly playlists as a shorthand way of producing implicit reviews, but even those fell by the wayside under an unexpected rush of writing assignments and adjusting to a new editorial deadline at the Brooklyn Rail. Still, the ears were open, and I’ve been able to put together a best-of-the-season list, the top new releases (or pending spring releases), that hit my stereo or computer from December 21 of last year to this past March 21 (items in bold are the best of each unranked category)

####Hors des categories####


####Classical Pre-WWII Tradition####

* C.P.E. Bach Edition
* Capella Amsterdam, Estonian Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, Caroly Sampson, Poulenc: Stabat Mater
* Ensemble Resonanz, Jean-Guihen Queyras,Berg: Lyrische Suite
* Jerusalem Quartet: Smetana & Janacek: String Quartets
* Kristian Bezuidenhout, Mozart: Keyboard Music Vols. 5 & 6
* Mattias Goerne & Helmut Deutsch, Schubert: Wanderers Nachtlied
* Simone Dinnerstein, Bach: Inventions & Sinfonias
* Nils Bultmann, Troubadour Blue
* Orli Shaham, American Grace: Piano Music by Steven Mackey and John Adams
* Michael Hersch, images from a closed ward
* LA Opera, James Conlon, Franz Schreker: Die Gezeichneten
* Ursula Oppens/Robert Levin, Bernard Rands: Piano Music 1960 – 2000*
* Leif Ove Andsnes, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, The Beethoven Journey: Piano Concertos 2 & 4

####Classical Post-WWII Tradition####

* Ten Holt: Canto Ostinato XL
* David T. Little, Haunt of the Last Nightfall
* JACK Quartet, Helmut Lachenmann, Complete String Quartets
* Rumori all Rotonda: Cage, Feldman, Hidalgo, La Rosa, Marchetti
* Matthew Barnson, Sibyl Tones
* Jovita Zahl, John Cage, The Works for Piano 9
* John Zorn, The Alchemist
* Bruno Maderna, Music in Two Dimensions: The Works With Flute
* Keeril Makan, Afterglow
* Aleck Karis, Webern, Wolpe & Feldman


Multimedia Miscellany

Things to hear, see and anticipate:

  • Vijay Iyer has big plans on ECM:
  • Simone Dinnerstein is holding a Google Hangout on February 12, 1-2 p.m. EST. Live from the Greene Space, you can watch it here, join the Q&A here, and tweet with hashtags #BachInventions and #GoogleHangout.

  • That same evening, there is free new music at 26 Willow Place, where Petr Kotick and the S.E.M. Ensemble, joined by baritone Thomas Buckner, are holding a workshop performance of pieces by Rocco di Pietro and Christian Wolff.

2011 Year's Best Classical

Because it was a good year, another Baker’s Dozen …

1. Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley, Shuffle.Play.Listen/Todd Reynolds, Outerborough: Tied because they are so closely related and so very fine. There are musical and stylistic differences, but the underlying values are shared, making these ideal companions and, most of all, discs you should own.

Reynolds’ release is a disc of him playing his own compositions and another where he plays music written for him by Michael Gordon, David Lang, Phil Kline, David T. Little, Nick Zammuto, Paul de Jong, Ken Thomson, Michael Lowenstern and Paula Matthusen. As a solo player, Reynold’s works with the looping, structuring and processing features of tools like Ableton Live and Max/MSP, and the works written for him make creative use of electronic means as well, building multi-tracked parts, rhythms and electronic sounds. The overall sensibility is at the pinnacle of pop-inflected Post-Minimalism, from Phil Kline’s gorgeous, intense “Needle Pulling Fred” to the chattering flow of de Jong’s “Inward Bound” to the thrashing crunch of Lang’s “Killer,” a piece that combines the best of Bang on a Can classics “Industry” and “Lying, Chearting, Stealing.” It’s fundamentally all Reynolds, the playing and the view. It’s his ecumenical view and smart, refined taste that brings the pieces together, and it’s his tremendous musicianship that is at the core. Across both discs, there is a sense of freedom and spontaneity that come out of his skill and expression as a musician and that gives everything the feeling that it is unfinished in the best sense, that when you hit the repeat button (and you will) you will hear something you didn’t the last play.

Outerborough is the best example of the restless, creative relationship between composition and pop music going on in contemporary classical, as is Shuffle.Play.Listen. Where Reynolds is pioneering original work, Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz are mixing together a wide range of superb modern classical music with O’Riley’s transformative arrangements of current pop music. The result is densely packed with great sounds.

The first of the two CDs is structured through a suite of music from Bernard Herrmann’s exceptional score for the movie “Vertigo.” In between movements, there is Janacek’s “Fairy Tale,” Martinu’s “Variations on a Slovak Folksong,” Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne,” (a reduction of his ballet Pulcinella), and “Le grand tango” from Astor Piazzolla. The playing is voluptuously fabulous, chamber music-making of the highest order. O’Riley has great touch and is a sensitive accompanist, while Haimovitz brings his unique ability to vocalize melodic lines to each piece, and everything sings, even the non-vocal compositions. The sequencing of the music is fascinating and rich.

The second CD traverses Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Cocteau Twins, Blond Redhead, A Perfect Circle and Mahavishnu Orchestra-era John McLaughlin. Like with Reynolds, O’Riley and Haimovitz accept as a given the quality of the songs and the play the shit out of them. Haimovitz’s ability to shape lines with the types of catches, fall-offs and the illusion of breathing that comes from the voice pushes these to an urgency of expression that makes the originals all sound a little cooler, and little more withdrawn. “The Pyramid Song” is haunting and plangent, “Melody” is ravishing, “Heaven or Las Vegas” is a flowing pastoral. The exception to this fullness they add to the pop music is the refined focus they give to “The Dance of Maya,” in a superb arrangement. The original is crushingly intense, here it’s quieter but just as provocatively obsessive. This great recording closes with “A Lotus on Irish Streams,” in a beautiful improvisation that rounds off all the music but leaves, like Outerborough, tendrils of questions and possibilities that will have you playing the music all over again.

3. Simone Dinnerstein, Bach: A Strange Beauty: Exquisite Bach playing, and refreshingly intelligent thinking about the composer.

4. Vincent Royer, Scelsi, The Works for Viola: Of all the avant-gardeists, Scelsi is the most deeply strange and, surprisingly, the most accessible. Audiences that know little to nothing of classical music find him compelling for the same reasons the classical world has been slow to turn to him: he speaks without guile and without any interest in the accepted protocols of craft directly from his soul to ours. The voice of his soul is in achingly beautiful microtonality, usually best expressed through string instruments. This collection of his works for viola is completely stunning. I’m thoroughly familiar with Scelsi’s work, yet the intensity of Royer’s playing was unexpected. If Scelsi’s music is a direct communication from the most abstract, non-verbal part of his mind and soul, then Royer seems to be communicating directly with the composer, or acting as a purely transparent vessel between Scelsi and us. It’s rare, even with the finest musicians, to hear such unmannered dialogue and expression with and from the the music. This is music-making on par with Uchida playing Schubert and is at the top of what is a growing Scelsi discography.

5. Chaya Czernowin, Shifting Gravity: I first heard Czernowin’s music at a Composer Portrait in April of this year, and it was enticing, so the release of this CD was a welcome balm for my curiosity. This is more than information, though, this is a terrific, vibrant collection. The music is for string quartets and chamber ensembles, at times enhanced with electronics. Czernowin’s language is right at the sharp point of contemporary classical tradition, making use of dissonance, atonality, gestures of timbre, the sonic power of rock and, always, a careful placement of musical events through times. Her structures and rhythms are subtle but so finely crafted that, as mysterious as the music can be, there is always the sense that something logical and meaningful will happen next, and it does.

6. Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, Ives/Brant: A Concord Symphony: Charles Ives’ body of work is unfinished. When he reached his compositional maturity, his work became restless, searching, striving, sounding at times like it was putting itself together on the fly. He stopped writing music long before he died, leaving an unfinished and expectant quality about his career, and he rarely finished a piece, in that he frequently went back to printed and published works and revised them. The notes on paper were a start, not an end.

Consider the symphonies — how many did he write? There are numbers 1 through 4, then there are the four orchestral movements that, when put together, become the American Holidays Symphony. He left behind sketches for another symphony, suggesting that someone put them together, and that become the Universe Symphony which exists in more than one, widely different, version. And there’s this, Henry Brant’s orchestration of Ives’ ‘Concord’ Piano Sonata. The ‘Concord’ is the single work that represents Ives’ aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual and moral values (expressed in the composition and also in his book length essay, “Notes Before a Sonata”). Brant’s adaptation turns this into another, true Symphony, and a great one, the most coherent profound of the bunch. The density of the piano writing opens up into clarity, and so the depth and complexity of the thinking can really be heard. Ives wrote all the notes, and of course it sounds like him, but with Brandt’s superior orchestral craft, and sounds like better Ives, as if Brandt was the editor that the older man needed all along to realize his ideas with the greatest expression.

It’s extraordinary music, and in the hands of the best Ives musicians of the current era Tilson Thomas combines intelligence and insight with the demanding technical skill the music requires, and the orchestra responds, in this live recording, with the type of energy and fervor that borders on agitation, and is really exciting. The paired piece, Copland’s cerebral, cool Organ Symphony is played with just as much commitment. The usual exquisite recording quality from the SFS Media engineers. This is some of the finest orchestral playing you will hear, and perhaps the greatest work from America’s most important, perhaps greatest, composer.

7. Marty Brabbins, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, William Walton Symphonies: Is it a lie if you believe it’s true? Walton’s Symphonies are solid works, this CD makes them sound like extraordinary ones.

8. Joel Frederiksen, Ensemble Phoenix Munich, The Rose of Sharon: A great survey of American music up to and through the Civil War, revelatory in some ways, and beautifully sung and recorded.

9. Pacifica String Quartet, The Soviet Experience Volume 1: Following on their great Shostakovich Cycle at the Metropolitan Museum from 2010 – 2011, the Pacific Quartet is starting to release their studio recordings of the music, filled out with quartets by Shostakovich’s contemporaries (in this first set, the Miaskovsky String Quartet No. 13). If my memory is still reasonably functional, the studio results are even better than the concerts. This first volume spans Quartets No. 5 – No. 8, and the performances have a sinewy toughness and a real understanding of psychological and aesthetic shifts, both quick and subtle, inside the pieces. I really like their lean sound in all this music, and their convey a special haunting quality when the composer calls for con sordino playing. One of their great strengths as a group is violist Masumi Per Rostad, who is one of the finer quartet violists in classical music, and the beauty and musicality of his voice — so important to Shostakovich — really makes these recordings sing.

10. Matthew Jones and Michael Hampton, Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet (arr. Borisovsky): I find Prokofiev’s beloved ballet score has its longuers, but not on this recording. The arrangement, by the composer’s colleague Vadim Vasilyevich Borisovsky, is excellent, preserving and emphasizing the melodic inventiveness, and the performance by Jones and Hampton is tremendous. They play the music as if it’s the finest they’ve heard, and want to tell us the good news. Hampton is a sensitive and powerful accompanist, and Jones is a tremendous violists, with a beautiful, powerful and flexible sound. A real pleasure throughout.

11. Marek Janowski, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Henze Symphonies 3-5: Amid the fertile plains of Twentieth Century symphonies, Henze’s work stands out. His fascinating idiom constantly wrestles with the legacy of Romanticism in music, in a constantly shifting pas de deux of rejection and reconciliation. That gives his symphonies a compelling mixture of unsettling thrills and soothing moments of clarity and introspection. His own recordings of these works are an essential part of any classical library, and the thinking and playing from Janowski and orchestra are even better here. These works are no longer new, yet they are still fresh, and the time they’ve had to marinated in musicians minds and under their fingers pays off here. I hope these musicians will be recording the rest of this body of work, and if so the project will rival the current Edward Gardber Lutoslawski project as monuments to the most important music of the previous 100 years.

12. Chiara String Quartet, Jefferson Friedman: Quartets: These are fine pieces, Friedman’s voice is a really welcome exploration of what Romanticism means and how it sounds after post-Minimalism. The combination of ferver and agitation, and the balance between tonality and dissonance, the overall clear-speaking, is reminiscent of and and worthy addition to the great, important legacy of George Rochberg (see any and all of the Naxos and New World discography for his wonderful music), and, since this is New Amsterdam, you get remixes from Matmos!

13. Carlos Kalmar, Oregon Symphony, Music for a Time of War: I missed this program at the Spring For Music festival at Carnegie Hall in May, and it was the consensus pick as favorite concert. So it’s been a treat to listen to this SACD, from a series of life recordings from the orchestra’s home. It’s a great selection of music, pieces that have questions about existence, how we treat each other, how we view the future during times in which we may think there is none, from Ives’ existential “The Unanswered Question” to Vaughan Williams’ blistering Symphony No. 4. It’s not just a polemic — these are great pieces that stand on their own as works of beautiful art — but as a whole it does remind us that, despite the relative comforts of our lives, our country is not only at war but committed to being at war for … well, forever. We’ve become the very model of a Nineteenth Century decadent empire, and if the musicians are the only ones to ask the questions we need, then so be it. A riveting, moving way to get the mind racing with thoughts of how things are, and how they might be.

Honorable mention: Quatour Diotima, Agrippina, Ezio, Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Kepler Quartet, Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Brad Lubman and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin

Playing Bach

I mistrust the current vogue for slicing and dicing the human personality into different kinds of intelligences, it smacks of the assembly line approach to humanity, the sickening triumph of industrial engineering as the way societies are ruled and run. Intelligence is a whole, seamless quality, with a shape that varies with each person; a little lumpier here, a little sharper there, a smooth, thin plane with this one. We lose perspective on actual facts and achievements if we laud this person with emotional intelligence, that person with some talent for spatial reasoning. It also devalues human talent. Not only is not every person equally intelligent, but some people are not intelligent at all. CEOs of corporations are supposed to be our betters in ability, yet how can we call anyone who follows the herd, or follows incredibly clichéd and banal business ‘theory,’ and drives their company into the ground, intelligent at all?

And if they, and anyone, are intelligent, then how can we comprehend Bach? As the title of an excellent book about him goes, he was the learned musician. One need know nothing of his biographical details to hear this in his music. His mastery of the complex and technically formidable compositional structure of fugue is an obvious intellectual achievement, celebrated in obviously intellectual ways that break down the music into some sort of mathematical puzzle. While that’s a valid way to appreciate it, I find the pronouncements that result about music being like math to be too easy, too dismissive of what music actually is, too quick to don the mantle of learning. Music is not mathematics, actually, music is physics. Mathematics is the language of physics, the way it is expressed from one person to another, and while that language can be used for music as well, it’s utility is limited.

Music is art. Composers and musicians craft that art out of notes (which are pitched and controlled sound waves). The math of Bach, and of fugue, is ultimately meaningless. A technically correct fugue can be expressively dull. Yet Bach’s are so lively, mysterious, rhythmically powerful and beautiful. And there is all the music that is just plainly beautiful, like the cantatas. Somehow, the oboe solo from Ich habe genug never seems to make its way into the mathematical/structural way of thinking. Yet what in Bach’s catalogue surpasses it?

Something does, but more on that later. The music has never really gone out of fashion, rare for a composer, and the ideas in it course like the Mississippi (quiet but overwhelmingly powerful), through Haydn, Mozart, Berlioz, Mahler, even Steve Reich, and thus the post-Minimalist generation. And musicians continue to play Bach for the beauty and fascination and challenge. Because another feature of Bach’s incomparable intelligence is that the music is full of so much fascinating beauty and so much profound material, yet has only the slightest instructions. The way the notes fit together offer so many possibilities, but a musician must bring real intelligence to the scores, must respond to the mesh of notes with real ideas. Bach exposes charlatans, especially technically accomplished ones, quickly and unmercifully.

What we end up with on records and in concerts is a lot of great playing and thinking, and a much smaller amount of really profound thinking and feeling, the kind of thing listening experience that becomes essential, something that you have to have around, for those moments when nothing else will do. This is why Glenn Gould is one of those transcendent artist, who everyone knows and everyone listens to. Critics bred in and raised on classical music can dismiss him for going against the grain, but the grain has no value. If there is anything in human experience that comes close to proving the existence of God, it is the very real spiritual ecstasy Gould is experiencing and conveying throughout his second recording of the Goldberg Variations. This is nothing like the clichéd spiritualism of Scriabin, it is the sense that if something so infinitely learned and beautiful as the Goldberg’s had come from the mind of a humble man, then surely man himself came from the hand of God.

It is going against the grain that seems essential in Bach, one must fight against him in a way so as to avoid being overwhelmed. He will win in the end, but a musician must face him and say something. That’s the quality that makes Simone Dinnerstein’s Bach so exceptional. Within the exacting limits of bar line and phrase, she fits in a richly expressive Romantic view of the music. And that’s what makes @Bach, a new recording from Evan Shinners, so stimulating and attractive. There’s the of-the-moment title and Shinners skinny-jeans-and-tie image, but underneath this mildly cheeky exterior is some seriously informed, seriously thought-through and seriously good Bach playing.

Shinners is playing the music on the piano, and he exaggerates what the piano can do, vis-a-vis music written for keyboards without the range and sustain of the modern instrument. In the B-flat Partita BWV 825, he does things guaranteed to put knickers in a twist, including playing the Sarabande like an extended fantasy, and moving the Menuetts through different octaves.  It’s not a gimmick, he’s making intelligent choices for how to apply improvisational ideas in the context of a clear, energetic reading of the music. This is true to Bach, his era and his legacy. The composer was arguably the finest improviser ever, and the concept of music notation and publication had not taken on the ossified notion of a “text” where every quaver and dot must be protected by guardians who love correctness and hate music. This living, breathing improvisatory spirit suffuses his performances of the Toccatas BWV 911 and 914. The balance of this concert recording is filled with a revery of the French Suite BWV 816 and a remarkable Concerto BWV 1052, the orchestral accompaniment arranged for a small ensemble of mixed strings, winds … and is that an accordion in there? Shinners plays this masterpiece with exuberance, irreverence and real seriousness. This is one hell of a debut, not only for the quality, but the ambition and attitude.

Shinners approach is just as much a part of the tradition of the music as Dinnerstein’s, as much as his style is different. The strength and centrality of Bach is so great, though, that not only does he withstand dismantling and reverse-engineering, but his lessons can be heard clearly in what might otherwise seem music from another dimension. I’m thinking here of a tremendous recent recording that I’ve been listening to often of late, the latest in the series of recordings of the unique composer Gloria CoatesString Quartets, one of the quietly essential parts of Naxos’ American Classics series.

Coates is like Galina Ustvolskaya, in that once she found her method, she stuck with it. Known primarily as a symphonist, her use of string glissandos as her fundamental musical material comes to its full fruition in the string quartet, where the four instruments spend long stretches sliding from one note to the next, at times in parallel, at others in opposition. While this may seem like a novelty, the craft and focus of her writing are deeply serious, and within the eerie, richly disturbing sound is a great deal of clear, lyrical expression. Her most recent String Quartet No. 9 adapts this technique via canon, and while her phrase belongs more the Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, her application is very much in the manner of Bach, especially as she develops the material in the second movement. Bach’s methods are even more apparent in the solo Violin Sonata, the opening Prelude rocking back and forth between moments of  Bach and Bartok solo violin ideas. She makes Bach sound new, and he gives her history.

You could say the composer has that effect on all who practice his music. Or, that’s as it should be, and where Bach playing is bad, the musician is revealed as ungrounded and outside of time in some static, desolate place. It’s there, or not, in the mind and the hands. The fundamental proving ground seems to be the Goldbergs. The Art of Fugue is Bach’s valedictory piece, regarded as something that needs to be solved more than played, but it’s the Goldberg’s that are the ne plus ultra of Bach’s art.

It’s because of their form and style. While fugue is technically demanding, a composer can write a successful fugue — one that follows all the rules — while still not making a necessarily good piece of music. To write a successful set of variations means necessarily writing a good piece of music — the form demands the composer explore their interior landscape and resources and produce new, freely formed and constantly interesting things to say about their own mateiral — and the Goldbergs are great. The opening Aria is Bach’s most beautiful melody, the thirty variations that follow a journey through the possibilities of the integrated soul of intellect and expression.

There are exceptional recordings of it on harpsichord and piano, a beautiful string arrangement by Dimitri Sitkovetsky and a newer, jewel-like one by Richard Boothby for his viol ensemble, Fretwork. There is also a new jazz exploration of Bach, through the Goldbergs, by pianist Dan Tepfer, Goldberg Variations/Variations, where Tepfer inserts his own improvisations on Bach’s material throughout the piece.

Bach has met jazz before, most notably through the jazz fugues of John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet, and most famously by the groovy Claude Bolling records. Tepfer is doing something different, although there is an antecedent, Uri Caine’s kaleidoscopic, exhausting The Goldberg Variations, where Caine takes apart and recontextualizes the music from two and a half hours. There are moments of real wit and insight, but it’s scattershot, maddening, incoherent and often shallow. And way too long.

Caine and Tepfer both start with, and in, Bach, playing the Aria straight. Caine uses a harpsichord, and seems to think that the proper way to approach Bach is as stiffly as possible, which is totally wrong. Tepfer plays Bach as well as I have ever heard, the first dozen bars of the Aria are on par with greats like Gould, Perahia and Dinnerstein; lyrical, rhythmically secure yet flexible, with a sumptuous, graceful beauty in the phrasing. A jazzy sense of rubato creeps in, however, and I felt an equally creeping sense of dread that this would be an album of ‘jazz’ Bach.

It’s something very different, though. Tepfer proceeds through a statement of each of Bach’s variations, then a pithy improvisation of his own based on that variation. Again, his Bach playing throughout is as fine as imaginable, with supple technique and deep understanding of the music. What makes this record the finest of 2011, across all genres, and one of the greatest discs I know, is the incredible musical, intellectual and emotional intelligence of his improvisations. Tepfer takes a small, identifiable element from a variation and spins it into his own short piece of brilliance — and the improvisations are brilliant, exploring and constructing themselves simultaneously. He manages to go far afield  from both Bach and his own idea, yet bring it all back to a succinct final moment with such logic and humanity that I can only compare it to the writing of Murray Kempton or Primo Levi.

This is a great musical achievement, exploring the simultaneity of time and content that only music can manage. Bach and Tepfer become integrated across epochs, concepts and styles, and the rigorous way the pianist keeps himself connected to Bach — and while the connection may become exceedingly fine, it is always present — is the kind of dialogue across history that creates new music. The journey of the two musics together is also one of parallel movement towards emotional tension and resolution. Especially from his Improvisation 10/Fuguelike on, Tepfer has a larger shape he’s building. The culmination is in the Variations/Improvisations 25 and 26, starting with Bach’s intensely interior, hesitant music which seems to be examining its doubts about itself, to which Tepfer responds with an equally desolate ballad, then the vivacious return to light and life, out of which Tepfer builds an incredibly powerful, joyfully roiling anthem. It’s less than ten minutes total, and the greatest minutes of music I’ve heard this year.

Utterly exhilarating, impossible to praise too highly, this is something few would dare and even fewer would accomplish. Tepfer’s Goldberg Variations/Variations belongs in every Bach and jazz lovers library. And that of every music lover.

Number One With A Bullet

It’s not often I get to review a number one record, much less two. In fact, it’s never. And, considering my taste, it will probably never happen again.

But as I write this, the two recordings in question are number one: Simone Dinnerstein’s Bach: A Strange Beauty , holds that place on the Billboard Classical chart, while The Decemberists The King Is Dead is the number one record in the US.

Dinnerstein’s unlikely path to becoming a star classical musician is told succinctly in this nice little profile from “CBS Sunday Morning” (although Serena Altschul sounds like she’s narrating phonetically). The fundamental thing is that while the combination of accident and daring have helped create her professional career, she is an exceptional musician doing something that is even more exceptionally difficult – bringing ideas to Bach – and doing so exceptionally well. Her new CD is indeed beautiful, and also enticingly strange.

What is strange about it, or rather what is unusual and important about it, is that in the course of sequencing two keyboard concertos, Nos. 1 and 5, BWV 1052 and 1056, some choral transcriptions and the English Suite No. 3, BWV 808, Dinnerstein does something that I have not heard any other pianist do. She expresses, through her playing, widely and wildly different views of Bach’s music and still sounds focussed and consistent. The composer, of course, can support this, as Bach is the intellectual giant of Western music, the man whose work is an endless labyrinth of ideas and possibilities. Other musicians, even Gould, tackle specific, albeit broad, aspects of Bach’s thinking, but on this one CD Dinnerstein traverses a few different concepts and has musically important things to say about each.

The keyboard concertos are played with a careful sense of inertia, as if she and the Kammerorchester der Staatskapelle Berlin were moving an object of substantial weight and great delicacy. The opening passages of the D minor Concerto are some of the most profound in Western music; the spiraling phrases present the idea that the basic fabric of the universe, information, can be spun out to an infinite and endlessly renewable point. Dinnerstein has a confident grasp of the immense vista of ideas and the wisdom to maintain a clear view of what she wants to say, and her phrasing is simply lustrous, each note articulated and singing. She reveals the certainty of the music, that the notes on the page are set and known, as well as the sensation that the works are unfolding spontaneously. Her tempos are slower than usual, and what’s fascinating is that they are slower than in her performances of the same music with the ACME String Quartet at Miller Theater. The music is beautiful and intellectually powerful in each instance, and in different ways.

The chorales are famous arrangements from Busoni, Kempff and Hess, the last, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, closes the CD with a stately, quiet simplicity. In the middle of all this is the English Suite, and it’s a classic performance. Her opening tempo here is quite fast, and also almost aggressively probing. As she moves from phrase to phrase, through the different dance rhythms, she subtly and effectively shifts the pulse back and forth, all the time following the musical logic that Bach is dictating. There’s a feeling that she is constantly considering the puzzle of meaning in the piece, coming up with answers and testing them as she goes along. It’s tremendously exciting, and deeply gripping, the brilliance of it wrapped inside wonderful playing, legato phrasing that maintains complete clarity of every voice in the contrapuntal, polyphonic textures. Her CD is Bach playing of the highest technical, musical and expressive order. This is a recording that rewards listening through it’s beauty, and will reveal bottomless depths through years of listening.

Dinnerstein will be hosting her own Neighborhood Classics series on Friday, February 4, at PS 142 on 100 Attorney Street on the Lower East Side. The violin and cello duo of Maria Bachmann and Wendy Sutter will play music from Kodaly and preview a new piece by Philip Glass. Tickets are $15 and sales benefit the school. Highly recommended for all the right reasons!

The Decemberists are doing a whole different thing, of course, and they do it extremely well. On their new disc, they’ve synthesized a sound that is a cross between Green Day and Wilco, without the snotty glee of the former and the pretensions of the latter. Add a touch of the Irish, and you have The King Is Dead.

It’s a smoothly done, accomplished mix. The songs all do their job in a more than serviceable manner, and there’s no undue weight to the record. It’s like a set of hits, each track pitched in that sweet mid-range spot, everything with a clear beat and rhythm, four bar phrases and all the clichés: the bridge on “January Hymn” modulates exactly where you would expect, the four harmonica phrase that opens “Down By The Water” has exactly that indeterminate-yearning-for-roots sound the music needs, the break beats on “This Is Why We Fight” are exactly how the “Music Production For Dummies” recommends. It’s not that the music is lifeless or insincere, it’s got energy, it’s sincere and wears its virtues lightly. It’s just that, other than the faux-antiquing of the sepia-toned production, the music is exactly what you’ve heard thousands of times before. An accordion or a banjo is not enough to transform mainstream, predictable pop into something with any sort of edge.

The Decemberists make high-production, blandly palatable pop music as well as anyone else. What’s curious about the success of the record is that the blandness has spread to some vague concept of old-time America mixed with the Portland-Brooklyn flannel and beards axis. Elvis Costello’s King of America opened up this sound world into pop twenty-five years ago, with a real understanding of the roots of the music, the sound of a record being played rather than constructed, and far greater song-writing. Perhaps it’s natural that it has taken a generation for the music industry to find a way to package it to make the little girls cry.

Bigger Than Jesus

He wasn’t Jesus, but in some ways he’s just as important. In music, there is Before Bach and After Bach, a period of time that bifurcates two completely different ways of imagining musical possibilities. All the pagan, Judaic and Platonic ideas and values that are the foundations of Christianity needed Jesus to synthesize into something coherent, new and full of possibilities. All the features of music that Bach used, especially polyphony and counterpoint, existed prior to his own era, but Bach used them, in concept and practice, in ways still so powerful, exciting and important that he changed the course of musical history. Not all music that comes after Palestrina comes from Palestrina, but all music after Bach comes from Bach, even if the point of that music is to attempt to refute his legacy.

Bach’s body of work is easy to enjoy (it is deeply pleasurable) and also hard to described. It is, at least in small parts, familiar to audiences who know little of the thousand or so pieces he produced, in that they’ve probably heard a bit of the Brandenburgs, and Glenn Gould’s last recording of The Goldberg Variations is in the collections of many pop and rock fans. His contrapuntal style has been clumsily incorporated by rock groups from Yes to Spinal Tap. The opening phrases of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor have been used to represent ominous terror in haunted houses and in Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person In The World” segment on Countdown. A little bit of Bach’s sound and quality is familiar, while his body of work and achievement remain mysterious to many.

Bach is an enduring mystery to musicians as well, which is one reason that Bach’s work will always be with us. Playing or listening to his works is like the experience of stepping off the edge of a beautiful vista. The landscape before us seems so clear and so seductively inviting, yet once we take that step it’s too late, and it’s a long way down. Fortunately, we never reach the bottom, because Bach seems to have unfathomable depths. While it’s a cliché that music is math, math is useful for describing music in the technical sense, just as math is the language for describing physics, and music itself is a result of the fundamental properties of physics. Math can be applied to how Bach sounds, in that each note and musical event accreted upon the last seems to open up new branches of reasoning and of proofs, the number of possibilities accumulating geometrically, all equally fascinating and attractive. Bach is like an architect, designing and building the structure while simultaneously describing the process to us. He’s like a magician in that what he seems to be explaining so clearly is still an incomprehensible ‘trick,’ one for which the explanation is just another way to demonstrate how indescribable it is. Bach is also deeply, passionately emotional, with a combination of warmth, tragedy and tenderness that is enthralling. I have never heard, because it is probably impossible, a dry, plain playing of the opening Aria of the Goldberg’s, because that musical phrase is so ravishing and sensual that a musician cannot help to caress it. The body of meaning in his music is as vast as the universe, as inexplicable, and as beautiful.

Since there is always something new to hear in Bach, he always sounds new. He’s a serious challenge to musicians; his keyboard works takes substantial skill to play, and great musical intelligence and emotional sensitivity to play with meaning. Bach is bravura for the soul, not for the eyes. He is full of content, and so the musician must have something to say in response to that, not just run up and down the keyboard. I cannot bear the thought of hearing Lang Lang play Bach. But hearing Simone Dinnerstein is an altogether different experience.

Dinnerstein is an exceptional Bach player, not only because she plays the piano with great clarity, touch and musicality but also because she has a great deal to say about the composer. Her recent concert at Miller Theater was a wonderful experience of hearing Bach presented with skill, thought and imagination. Titled “Bach and the Concerto,” Dinnerstein played solo and was joined by the seemingly counterintuitive forces of ACME, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, in stripped down orchestrations of the Keyboard Concertos in F minor, BWV 1056, and D minor, BWV 1080. ACME also performed orchestrated selections from Die Kunst der Fuge, though in the larger context of the concert this performance, with a capable but staid arrangement for strings, winds, percussion and keyboards, was an afterthought.

Dinnerstein began the evening with four selections from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Prelude and Fugues BWV 874, BWV 871, BWV 872 and BWV 878. These were deeply involving performances. While many fine Bach players will choose a specific aspect out of the myriad of dense information in these pieces, she has the intelligence and imagination to explore multiple arguments with a sense of simultaneity. She seems to be both channeling Bach and offering her own insights, a considerable feat when there are ideas in every voice, themselves commenting on each other in the extraordinary aesthetic structure that is fugue. We like to think that our age is more special than the previous ones, and there is a constant buzzing about multi-tasking and attention spans. Multi-tasking is, of course, a myth, nothing more than a buzzword, while Bach’s music, 400 years old, presents the densest and most exhilarating sensation ‘multitasking’ ever accomplished. Dinnerstein’s way balances a careful, pensive, poetic way in the preludes with an almost fierce manner in the fugues, and her technique is capable enough for both; limpid at tempos which are slower than expected Bach playing, crisp, powerful and never rushed when fast. She played these pieces with the emotional rigor of Richter and the intellectual rigor of Gould, which makes her style all her own.

Her masterful musicianship continued with the concerto performances, which were remarkable. She was accompanied in each by nothing more than a string quartet, and the effect was to compress hundreds of years of aesthetic and intellectual history into concentrated time. Hearing Bach like this is hearing both the Baroque beginnings of this kind of polyphony through the immediate lens of its apotheosis in Romanticism. Without his predecessor, there would have been no Brahms, and it was impossible to hear these arrangements without hearing both the sound and ideas responsible for Brahms great chamber music, along with comparable emotional intensity. In the concertos, the accompaniment is part of a dialogue between soloist and ensemble, and the bare-bones clarity of the quintet was revelatory. The musicians gave Bach force and fullness that was without weight, kept from floating away by the verve implicit in the music and the way they played it. This stripped-down sound was also an ideal setting for Dinnerstein, whose playing is pellucid and determined, focused expressing the music. The concerto often requires the performer to bring attention to herself, and it’s preferable to hear what she has to say about the music, rather than the playing itself, because she has so much to say. It’s Bach, the great old man with new ideas, and shows the immediate confluence between old and new music.

That’s something Miller Theater specializes in and their early music series is as robust as their Composer Portraits. In January, the series presented Emilio De’Cavalieri’s Lamentations of Jeremiah at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, in a performance by Le Poème Harmonique, led by Vincent Dumestre. This liturgical work was presented in a nicely ritualized context, the church perfumed with incense and illuminated by candles, with the lights of the building, including the candles and music stand lights, slowly extinguished throughout the playing until the final “Miserere mei, Deus” was heard in utter, contemplative, dramatic darkness. It was fitting, certainly, because this is music meant for contemplation, a public performance in the service of private reflection and dedication. The music is beautiful in a refreshingly plain fashion; Cavalierei was composing during the time of the mannered madrigal, but his work is anything but mannered. It is adorned, certainly, but through the vehicle of improvisation and ornamentation, demonstrated in concert by the dazzling soprano Claire Lefilliâtre, who combined a rich, clarion instrument with superb pitch and an adventurously chromatic ear. Improvisation was for centuries a staple of musicianship, Bach himself was a formidable improviser, and to be considered a competent musician one needed to improvise idiomatically. Somewhere along the way, perhaps as a side effect of the spread of music through recordings, teaching the playing of an instrument was separated from the teaching of how to make music on the instrument. One of the great things of value that the early music scholars, performers and presenters have given to us is the skill and pleasure of improvisation, and the developing crop of new musicians, eagerly tackling the most difficult works of their contemporaries and their predecessors, have been inspired by the past.

From The Comfort of Your Own Home

Since outside of science, bad ideas never die, they just gain an increasingly loud and ignorant constituency (see: Supply Side Economics), I know I’m never going to stop seeing/hearing how new media is going to get rid of the book, the CD, etc. Physical media will always be with us, and so will television, and the movies, and especially radio. New media, in actual fact and experience, has tended to expand the audiences for things, and it seems to be saving classical radio in New York. The sale of WQXR to WNYC has turned out to be a great success for both listeners and the station itself. Although the trend in Public Radio over the years has been to slavishly follow the lead of commercial radio and move to an all-talk format (a trend I find despicable both aesthetically and morally), the news that WQXR, now a classical, Public Radio station, had the highest cumulative audience in Public Radio for the month of December is wonderful, although I don’t expect facts to influence the callow corporate group think that pervades nationally.

Clearly, there are listeners, not just for recordings but for things like the New York Philharmonic broadcasts. WQXR also has an excellent internet component, Q2, which already hosted a notable Steve Reich festival and is beginning next week to broadcast a show dedicated to atonal music. I’m at least curious, since the announcement mentions that such non-atonal composers as Messiaen and John Luther Adams will be featured. That starts Monday and will be on the intertubes at 1PM every day. In the meantime, for a taste of what radio can do like nothing else, tune in on-air or via the web for a live concert by pianist Simone Dinnerstein and ACME, tonight at 7PM. They’ll be previewing parts of their Bach concert at Miller Theater Saturday night, as well as performing music by John Cage.

And if you want to venture out into the cold, come join me for some improvised music at I-Beam, near the scenic shores of the Gowanus Canal.