Not sure I have very much to add to this brilliant article by Alex Ross in the New Yorker, except that I wish it would be Paavo Järvi, who is not even in the most often quoted lists of high-likelihood candidates, or if I have to chose a name from this “inner circle”, I’d take Nelsons.
While Brahms made it into the title of my blog, as he’s been historically my favorite composer, I may as well have mentioned Bach. I know I’m not very creative in my choice of composers as good old Johann Sebastian figures in so many best of composers lists, but to be fair, he’s there for a reason.
Bach in a way is the founding father of modern music. Anything before him sounds if you listen to it today very “old” (take early Baroque like Monteverdi or Renaissance artists), but most stuff from Bach, if you hear it today, sounds relatively contemporary in the chord changes and harmonies. Is it because the well-tempered scale was invented around that time? Well, more scholarly minds than me have certainly spent a lot of time thinking about it.
You can never have enough Bach. There is barely a month where I don’t add a new Bach album to my collection (latest additions were Claire-Marie LeGuay’s album and Pierre Hantaï’s English Suites). His St. Matthew’s and St John’s passions are a must hear every year doing the Easter period (and again, I’m not religious at all), there is no Christmas without his Oratorio, his Orchestral Suites and Brandenburg Concertos, while being the “pop” music of his time, still please after 100s of times being heard. His b-minor mass is probably the most beautiful liturgical work ever written (ok, it has serious competition, but anyhow). His sonatas for solo violin are about the only way a single violin on its own is enjoyable to listen to.
And now writing about another of his solo masterpieces: the Cello Suites (BWV 1007-1012). Pablo Casals did a great job promoting them, and his recording still is a must have. Unfortunately, from a recording point of view it is really not pleasure.
Now which one to choose if you want a contemporary one? A tough decision, given that pretty much every Cello player on earth has played (and often recorded) them. My personal favorite at this stage is Steven Isserlis 2007 recording on Hyperion.
Why this out of this extensive catalogue? Well in any case there are many other beautiful versions I appreciate (Starker, Queyras, Wispelwey to name just a few), what makes Isserlis so special to me is the purity of his tone. As both the bible and the Tropicana commercial say, “nothing added, nothing taken away”. He is not excessive in his tempi or phrasing, there is very little vibrato, the sound of the cello is beautiful, clear, but not overly heavy or dark.
In a way, this recording reminds me of one of those famous Japanese Zen gardens, just freshly raked. You don’t even want to touch the little pebbles, fearing to destroy the balance. This is where Isserlis takes me.
EDIT: August 27, 2015: Thanks to the Gramophone Awards 2015, I finally stumbled across the recent version by David Watkin. See my entry here. Watkins recording is a just outstanding, near-perfect version on a historic cello. I still love Isserlis, but this is even better.
Let me answer my rhetorical question immediately: obviously not, there are so many art forms out there today that trying to single out one of them is clearly ridiculous.
So let me rephrase: Is the Jazz Piano Trio my ideal art form? And the answer is, pretty close. There is something special about the intimacy of 3 musicians together, interacting and generating something amazing. It is in a way the modern equivalent of the String Quartet, which many consider the summit of classical chamber music.
I’d like to start by one album which I consider somehow the birth of the contemporary (meaning the last 30 years, I’m starting to get older….): Keith Jarrett’s Standards vol. 2 (footnote: vol. 1 is great as well, I just have a very slight preference for the 2nd volume).
Oh no, you’re going to say, not Jarrett again. Well first of all, you’ve been warned, it is in my subtitle of the blog, and second, I promise I’ll be talking about other musicians as well in the future.
Back to my old friend Keith (not that I’ve ever met him beyond being about 25 meters away last Friday): Why is this album so important?
The lost decade
Well, put yourself in the early 1980s (assuming you were already alive then, I was, but not for long). Jazz just came out of an entire decade of trying to break the “limits” of traditional jazz by first going “Free”, and later by going to Jazzrock and Fusion. Well, I’m sure to offend some here, but to me this was a complete dead-end, and both genres bore me to death (slightly exaggerating to make a point here).
As important as the 70s were for genres like Rock, for Jazz it is my personal lost decade. Most of my collection goes from 1956/7 – 1966, and then starts again in the 80s. So in the early 1980s, we have Keith Jarrett, who already did the amazing solo concerts in the 1970s including the famous Köln concert, apparently the best-selling solo piano album of all times, and had been playing some quartet work both in the US and in Europe (I’ll talk about some of my favorite albums from that period later, so it wasn’t 100% a lost decade, just maybe 90%….).
So then, early 1980s, the bass player Gary Peacock, the drummer Jack de Johnette, and Keith, get together to record first Standards vol. 1, in 1983, and then vol. 2, in 1985. Both are obviously inspired from the key representatives of the traditional piano trio, e.g. Bill Evans first trio, Art Tatum, or Oscar Peterson, but represent something new. And obviously, luckily, don’t contain any element of fusion any more.
Standards vol. 2
I’m not going to review Standards vol. 2 in detail, many smarter people than me have done that. It is an album I keep going back to again and again. I’ve actually just purchased it again very recently. ECM just released some weeks ago a new remaster, now in high-res format of up to 24/192 (bit/khz respectively). Whether high-res files are better than the regular CD format (called 16/44 or “red book”) is a debate I’m certainly not going to start here, you’ll have enough sites to get that discussion going. What is really better is the remastering. ECM; Jarrett’s Munich based record label is known for the excellent recordings, and this new remaster really sounds way better than the CD version. I actually still have the original vinyl in my basement, maybe I should actually get a record player again at some point.
(Footnote again: Do I advocate everybody to get the high res version? It is quite pricey, ECM has always been a premium label. So only get it if you have a decent playback chain and care enough about that album).
So to me, Standards vol. 2 is the “standard” (sorry for the cheap pun) to which I compare all my piano trio recordings.
Since then, the standards trio has recorded many live albums, most of which are outstanding and absolutely worth having. Examples include At the Blue Note, Whisper Not, Standards Live, and even again at the KKL in 2009, Somewhere. (a pity I missed that concert, but at least I have the recording, released in 2014)
Luckily, today we’re living in the Golden Age of the piano trio, we have so many fantastic artists out there that we’re not limited to Keith Jarrett any more. But we really have to thank him for revitalizing this genre (EST then took it to the next level in the 90s, but more about that later).
My rating: 5 stars
UPDATE (Oct 2016): I’ve since reviewed many more Jazz piano trio albums, you can check them all out by clicking on this link.
And please let me know if you have any recommendations for me in the comments section below!
Following my previous post, I was thinking to myself, what if somebody asks you for a recording in stereo? Not everybody is willing to put up with a mono recording. Well, my recommendation goes to Otto Klemperer in this case (Philharmonia on EMI).
Next question: what if I want a recording that is less than 50 years old? And here I get in trouble. While there are decent contemporary recordings out there of the Brahms Symphonies, like the recent cycles from Chailly (very straightforward, but some excellent insights) to Thielemann, none of them get it fully right for no.1. Same goes for Gardiner and Dausgaard, that I admire on so many other recordings, e.g. Schumann. Both relatively recent Berlin Phil recordings with Rattle and Abbado leave me cold.
In the end, I’m hoping one of my current favorite next generation conductors will pick this up and just hit the same level of energy as now 64 years ago in Berlin. Good candidates for this are Nezet-Séguin (although he tends to be speedy) and Paavo Järvi, who’s Beethoven cycle with the Bremen Kammerphilharmonie is outstanding. Or Andris Nelsons with the BSO. Well, fingers crossed.
In the meantime, I’ll just live with a mono recording.
P.S. (October 2016), somebody pointed me to this live recording by Klaus Tennstedt with the LPO. Still, no replacement for Furtwängler, but at least getting the idea:
And I’ll keep my eye open for future releases.
UPDATE August 20, 2017: Above I asked for Nelsons and the BSO to record a cycle. Well, now they did. And it is really good. See my review here.
Well, the subtitle of my blog is “From Jarrett to Brahms”, so I after writing about the former I may as well write about the latter.
Brahms will always have a special place in my heart, not only he was born in my favorite city in the world (no, not NYC; although that comes close), but his music combines the best of what the so-called “classical” music (which spans several centuries of written music): He has the greatness of Beethoven (his idol), the romanticism of a Schumann (his mentor), the structure of Bach (Brahms studied Counterpoint extensively), he comes from my favorite instrument (the piano), and no matter what piece you hear from him, it has something very uniquely “Brahmsian” about it.
Smarter minds than me have tried to define what that actually consists of, I won’t even try. I’m pretty sure listening to several of Brahms works (for a start, how about Symphony 1, the German requiem, some of his late piano pieces op. 116-119, and some chamber music, e.g. his piano quartet op. 25), and I hope you feel and hear the commonality.
The first oeuvre from Brahms that impressed me was his first piano concerto, in a decent but not outstanding recording with Solti and Andras Schiff. I still very much like this, but will write on it later on. I very quickly started diving into his symphonies, and no. 1 quickly became my favorite (these days, 4 comes very close in my personal preference, 3 is a bit behind, and 2 is nice to have).
By today, I’ve collected at latest count 30 version of “Sinfonie Nr. 1 c-moll op. 68”, to give it its official title. My first early favorite was Otto Klemperer’s version on EMI. Not to far after that, I discovered the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler, and all 3 versions I have from him are very very good.
I cannot decide which of these is my favorite, but most likely it is the version with the Berliner Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1951 (or 52?). The other versions I have are with the Hamburg NDR orchestra and the Concertgebouw)
How do I compare versions of this work? Well, usually I’d use a more differentiated approach, but on symphony 1 I’m simple-minded: the chromatic opening part, with the characteristic tympani. If this part doesn’t have the right gravitas and tension (up to a point where I feel all my muscles tensing), I pass on. An example of how not to do it in my mind is Günter Wand (an underrated conductor that I otherwise adore, especially on Bruckner), which takes the opening WAY to fast.
Luckily, Furtwängler keeps the quailty at very high levels up to the end. In this symphony, the first and forth movement are so heavy and important, that the two movements in between barely count. You get a “relaxing” Andante, and a very short and sweet (approx 5 min) Poco Allegretto in between. This is good, because if one had to keep the tension and the overwhelming feelings from movements 1 and 4 for an entire 5 min, you’d probably feel like being on Botox and Extasy at the same time.
So, as said before, movement 1 lives on the dramatic chromatic opening. But it gets even better: movement no. 4 is as ecstatic as the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th (without all over sudden somebody shouting “Oh Froyda” and all the other singing about freedom and equality that goes on after that which pretty much ruins this symphony to me). But you don’t get there easily. This movement with Furtwängler alone is more than 17, and you start very dark and desperate. Luckily we leave the desperation quickly, to a dramatic built up including the mandatory tympani, which gets us to the first amazingly beautiful horn solo at 2:57.
This solo is worth a quick excursion: this theme Brahms had already used earlier in a letter to his beloved Clara Schumann (yes, he was in love with his mentor’s wife, if you read his biography, you wonder why this soap opera material hasn’t made it into a major Hollywood movie yet), with the underlying text:
“Hoch auf´m Berg, tief im Tal grüß ich dich viel tausend mal!” (High on the mountain, deep in the valley, I salute you a thousand times). Yes, cheesy, even in the German original, but by then Brahms had moved from his native Hamburg to Austria, and fallen in love with the mountains, and you can really picture a lonely Alphorn playing that beautiful melody for the beloved.
But obviously at, 2:57 we’re not done yet, you 14 min more of “per aspera at astra” (you can google that yourself) fighting, with the occasional relaxing 2nd main motive, which Brahms even admitted was inspired by Beethoven 9. (When asked after the premiere if there are strange similarities between the two works, he replied sarcastically “And even stranger is the fact that every donkey seems to hear that immediately”.
Well in any case, in the last 5 min you get a lot of more brass, some more of the 2nd motive, some more of the Alphorn, tons of tympani some more fighting, which culminates in a dramatic climax in the last 2 min.
Obviously, my description of this amazing masterpiece is quite horrible. Don’t be misled: if you’re able to listen to this movement played by Furtwängler without getting goosebumps all over, you’re either deaf or challenged in some other way (or just have a different taste in music, but then you probably wouldn’t be reading this in the first place).
P.S. I’ve later published an addendum to this post here.
So, first entry. I had created this blog some time ago, thinking I’ll probably never write anything. The subtitle, from Jarrett to Brahms, I created with the site some time ago. Now I attended yesterday my first ever Keith Jarrett solo concert, so do I really have an excuse not to write about it? Why would you want to read this? No idea, I’m basically writing this for myself. I do love music, and I care about it very much and like sharing it, so if you share my passion, and maybe at least partially my taste, it maybe worth reading anyhow.
So back to the officially named “Kunst- und Kulturzentrum Luzern”, better known by its acronym, KKL. It is a beautiful building in on the shore of lake Lucerne, created by the French architect Jean Nouvel. In spite of heaving a leaky roof (google it if you want to find out more), it is a beautiful space, with loads of glass and steel. Inside you have a museum, some restaurants and cafés, a nice open roof top terrace with an amazing view over the old town and the lake, and most importantly, the main concert hall. It is a beautiful affair, and has excellent acoustics. It is mainly known for hosting the famous Lucerne Festival, but beyond classical you can attend contemporary music and the occasional Jazz concert here as well. They even go into mainstream by having some orchestra play the soundtrack to Pirates of the Caribbean and other stuff (why somebody would want to hear THAT in concert, escapes me, but I digress).
So back to me being in front of this beautiful building. You should know that being disorganized and traveling a lot for work I wasn’t part of the crowd who bought ALL of the tickets in the 48h after they became available. I went nevertheless, trying my luck on the grey market. And lucky I was (well if you consider overpaying 25% over the already pretty ludicrous (Switzerland is a rich country) list price of the ticket.) Note that normally I would have ethically objected to supporting the grey market on this kind of stuff, but for such a rare bird as a Keith Jarrett solo concert, my conscience quickly shut up.
An amazing experience
8pm pretty sharp (this is Switzerland after all), sitting more or less comfortable in my seat in the middle of the first balcony (at least the black market dealer had the kindness of actually choosing one of the best seats available), lights went out, a speaker welcomed us and warned us all to shut up, switch of mobiles, and ABSOLUTELY not to take any pictures of any kind. (It seems that Keith has decided to stop concerts in the past over this) We’re left with one grand piano on the large stage that can easily hold a full Mahler 8th orchestra including Choir, and about 4 microphones (this concert being recorded for ECM, hopefully it will eventually get released). There he comes, wearing his apparently usual outfit of pretty regular pants, shirt, and sunglasses (I assume to protect him from the spotlights). I’m not a religious person at all, but this was pretty close to a catholic mass in a way, with Mr. Jarrett being our high priest. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had smelled incense.
Then it starts, and here my words start to fail me. WHAT AN EXPERIENCE! I’m a regular concert goer and have seen many great artists both in the Jazz and classical fields live, but this was outstanding. Unlike earlier may of his earlier concerts, he now seems to shy away from the 20-30 min long improvisations that fade one into the other, and he goes for smaller pieces, each 3 to less than 10 min long (I certainly didn’t check my watch…), getting up for applause every time. In a way, this is similar to his latest release solo album on ECM, Creation, where the longest piece doesn’t exceed 9:25). What a marvel each of those little gems were! Let me state first of all that I’m a sucker for melodies, being a bit simple minded, and I don’t like it very much when musicians stray to far from that. Jarrett has his occasional moments where he seems to think “who needs tonality” and just improvises on (to illustrate, take Paris/London Testament Part IX). Luckily for me, there were only two “songs” of this nature last night, and actually sitting there as part of the magical experience I didn’t even mind these parts too much. Let me state the obvious: Having been there in person doesn’t make me a very neutral judge. But what I’ve heard last night takes the best elements of the “old” concerts (Bremen/Lausanne, München/Bregenz, Sun Bear), and combines them with the greatest moments of the new concerts (Rio, Carnegie Hall). Again, I’m not religious, but I wouldn’t mind having some higher authority to pray to that ECM releases this recording (apparently, Jarrett has to ok this and is notoriously hard to please).
Jarrett having fun
I don’t have any other data points to compare to, but overall, he seemed to be in an excellent mood. He was joking with the audience, at some point once the applause faded he just said “What next? What now?”, closed the cover of the Steinway keyboard and pretended to play (“You don’t hear a lot?” was his joking comment back to the audience). Later during the concert, he even went up, walked over to a microphone that had been sitting in the dark, and told us a story about how this entire concert was for his Grandmother, and her Hungarian origins. Walking back to the piano, he rhetorically, and smilingly, asked the audience “but why would you care about this?” He even tolerated somebody very loudly coughing about 2 seconds into a new song, stopping but just joking about it (I assume me and half of the audience were afraid at that point he’d throw a tantrum instead).
Overall, the range of styles we got was amazing, from small introvert pieces that played a lot with Counterpoint (you could hear he played a lot of baroque) too much heavier, larger pieces where every finger was busy. We even got a very special tribute to BB King, with a Blues/Boogie Woogie-type improvisation. But the best (again, I’m a sucker for melodies) part came with encore number 3, a short improvisation over “When I fall in love”. I’ve only heard this from him in trio form (e.g. Live at the Blue Note, Whisper now), but never heard it solo. SOOOO BEAUTIFUL (yes I know I sound like an over excited teenager praising Justin Bieber, but what the heck). Even better than my previous encore favorite (beyond the obvious Köln Concert Part IIc), My Song from the Carnegie Hall Concert. Overall, I’m very glad I finally made it to my first live concert.
If you like his music, and there is a concert coming up even on your continent, I urge you to hop on a plane and go there, no matter how expensive the tickets are. It is truly a once in a lifetime experience. And let’s not forget, Mr. Jarrett just turned 70. We all cross fingers he’s doesn’t decide to retire any time soon, but let’s enjoy it while it lasts. Let me stop here. In a later blog entry, I’ll talk a bit more about the other recorded live solo albums. No idea how often I’ll be able to write, but again, I just presume nobody will ever read this anyhow.