Thursday, July 24, 2014

Edvard Grieg: Holberg Suite/ Norwegian Wedding Dances/Lyric Suite

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) was a Romantic pianist and composer whose use of folk music elements in his native Norway somewhat mirrors similarly explorations by contemporaries like Bedrich Smetana, Jean Sibelius, Anton Dvorak and others in other parts of Europe.

This 2-CD set on the budget German label, Pilz, presents a nice variety of the instantly-likable work of Grieg, including some of his better-known and more obscure works.  The Slowakische Philarmnonie, conducted by Libor Pesek, and pianist Stefan Jeschko perform wonderfully, showing that lesser-known ensembles and players sometimes get short shrift as their status allows for these budget labels to offer well-performed music at a low price with no noticeable reduction in quality.

The Holberg Suite was published in 1884 to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg and is based on musical forms (the air, sarabande and gavotte, for example) from the 18th-century.  Grieg is most renowned for his Peer Gynt suite, which will be highlighted here sometime, but the Holberg has as much going for it, including one after another of memorable and beautiful melodies, as well as striking harmonizing of instrumentation.  Notably, the Holberg was originally composed for solo piano and only later adapted for orchestra, where the richness of its melodies and general structure are more fully realized.

What follows are a quartet of "Norwegian Wedding Dances," and a smattering of lyric pieces for piano that are beautifully rendered and redolent of the Romantic style which was the rage at the time.  Particularly notable are the Halling Dances, which include some of Grieg's more recognizable melodic themes.

Then, there is the Ballade in G Minor, also known as "Ballade in the Form of Variations on a Norwegian Folk Song", the source being "The Mountain Song," is another gorgeous piano work of themes and variations which starts quietly and impressionistically and builds from there, with a clear (at least for this amateur listener) from Chopin and Schubert, as it develops impressively and more forcefully with crystalline arpeggios and strong left-hand block chords.  Jeschko, as throughout the recording, plays with virtuosity, authority and a balance of power and a light touch as called for.

The second disc is principally noted for its rendering of the Lyric Suite, derived from a larger body of Lyric Pieces Grieg composed with three of the pieces developed from original orchestrations of lyric pieces by Hungarian conductor Anton Seidl, though Grieg later revamped the trio and added a fourth entirely his own.  Grieg appreciated Seidl's work but felt that his lighter touch did not accord well with Seidl's more bombastic style developed partly from his training under Franz Liszt and more prominently from his long association with Richard Wagner.  In any case, these are very fine pieces performed with great skill by Marian Pivca.

A Concerto for Violin in D-Minor by the Philharmonia Slavonica, conducted by Carlo Pantelli, with Bruno Zwicker as soloist; a Symphonic Dance by the Nuremberg Symphony and a Valse Triste by the London Festival Orchestra, the latter two conducted by Alfred Scholz round out the second disc and are beautifully performed and also a nice selection of the variety of the composer's oeuvre.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Ornette Coleman: Change of the Century

There is a generation of jazz musicians that we are rapidly losing and yesterday another giant passed on.  Bassist Charlie Haden, whose work with Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett and his own Liberation Music Orchestra and Quartet West projects among many others put him at the forefront of so-called "avant garde" or "new jazz" playing, died at age 76 in Los Angeles after a long illness.

Haden, who came to Los Angeles to study music and met Coleman in the mid-1950s, first came to attention in the legendary Coleman quartet that made a splash at the Five Spot CafĂ© in New York in 1959 and in subsequent classic recordings for Atlantic Records.  The first, The Shape of Jazz to Come, has been featured here and is one of the great jazz records of all time.

The second album, recorded in Los Angeles in October 1959, is Change of the Century and its assertive, provocative title, as with its predecessor, is more than apt and delivers fully on its promise.  Coleman was hitting on all cylinders with his unusual composition and arranging method, as well as his emotive and innovative playing and his telepathic harmonizing with Don Cherry, on pocket trumpet, continues to astound.  Billy Higgins, an always-versatile drummer who could play as easily with the freest of players as well as the most traditional, is relentlessly swinging even as he adapts his playing to match the unusual structures established by the leader.

Then there's Haden, whose supple, flexible, creative and spot-on tone works in tandem with Higgins to keep those free rhythms with enough organization to allow the soloists to work without hindrance and provide the listener endless enjoyment—provided that the listener appreciates the yeoman work that a bassist provides.

This album is filled with great pieces, from the opening "Ramblin'" to the self-evidently titled "Free," the Higgins-showcase "Forerunner," which also has an excellent blistering Coleman solo and the sublime "Una Muy Bonita," which starts with Haden's low, simple but powerful underpinning riff and Coleman and Cherry's great melodic harmonizing to start a great piece of music.  "Bird Food" has a melody that is, of course, highly evocative of Charlie Parker, showing the importance of tradition expressed in new ways.  Cherry also gets an extended solo here.  Finally, "Change of the Century" features a head arrangement of great complexity and speed with that Coleman/Cherry interplay that may well have peaked on this album and its title track.  Coleman's solo work is also something to behold here.

Again, Haden's consistency, inventiveness and dependability in holding down the bottom is nothing short of remarkable on each of these tunes.  He does get to put his playing more in the forefront on "The Face of the Bass" but it is not one he uses to show off, but instead displays his technique in more subtle ways which make his understated playing all the more remarkable.  Sadly, as was too often the case in the jazz world, a heroin addiction led to Haden's departure from the Coleman quartet in August 1960.
But, as noted above, Haden went on to other impressive work, but his years with Coleman are likely the most memorable and it's hard to top the fabulous Change of the Century, which had the unusual distinction of being a sophomore release (well, in this case, a major-label followup--two albums on the Los Angeles-based Contemporary label predate the Atlantic albums) that was every bit as good as its forerunner.
30 years later, as part of the Los Angeles Festival, a reunion of the Coleman Quartet was scheduled at the beautiful old Orpheum Theatre in downtown.  The September 1990 performance, however, became a late-hour trio when Don Cherry came down sick after a dental appointment.  This listener, just starting to become exposed to jazz in a big way, happened to have great orchestra-level seats near the center of the former movie palace and listened with enthusiastic amateur wonder as Coleman, Higgins and Haden performed two hours of magical music.
It was an unforgettable experience and, pondering the death of Charlie Haden, it is one that came immediately to mind when the news was read.  Long may his music be heard and appreciated!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Salamat Ali Khan: Ragas Gunkali, Saraswati, Durga

The British Nimbus label has released many recordings of classical music from the Indian subcontinent over the years and this very fine album of Hindustani vocal music, recorded in November 1990 at the label's studio at Monmouth, England, by the master Salamat Ali Khan and his sons, Sharafat and Shafqat, features three long ragas. 

As pointed out in the notes, very helpful to an amateur (however enthusiastic) such as YHB, Hindustani music from northern India is also found in Pakistan, Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), Nepal and parts of Afghanistan.  It is also observed that Muslims and Hindus are practitioners of the ghazal form of the music and often perform together despite the political differences that have driven the two groups apart.

Salamat and his brother Nazakat became known for their vocal duet performances from childhood in the early 1940s and were partners until 1974.  Sharafat then began working with his father and Shafqat joined the two for this first recording session with this album.  The partition of India in the late 1940s meant that the Khans moved to Pakistan and performed there for many years, although their return to India much later was widely hailed, as audiences recognized the brilliance of these amazing vocalists.

The first, the Gunkali, running over 20 minutes, highlights the singing of Shafqat and, while this was his debut on record, his vocal technique is outstanding with power, deft handling of complex lines, and beautifully-controlled tremolo as he navigates the tricky crescendos and diminuendos germane to the form.

On the half-hour Saraswati, Salamat and Sharafat sing with the elder Khan leading and the younger supporting beautifully.  The song is filled with great technique and expressiveness, despite Salamat's recovery from a recent stroke, and his sons obviously learned well from their father's tutelage.  The piece begins quietly and solemnly with the two vocalists accompanied by the harmonium before the tabla breaks in with a flourish at 3:45.  From then on, the Khans work their magic with the fine underpinning by the instrumentalists.

The closing Durga, at a hair over 20 minutes, is a tour-de-force with Salamat and both his sons.  The intertwining and harmonizing of their vocals is a wonder to behold and makes this wonderful song the highlight of the album, even through the other two ragas are remarkable on their own.  The improvisations and vocal gymnastics are spectacular and the three frequently return together to the composed main vocal line.  The tabla player also has the chance to demonstrate more of his skill here than on the other pieces.

The supporting musicians do an excellent job of providing the right balance of playing to buttress the singing of these masters and include Sharafat on harmonium, tabla player Ghulam Abbas Khan, who had accompanied Salamat and Nazakat from the age of 13, and tambura player Christian Ledoux.

The notes also have a useful history of the "khyal" or vocal music embodied by the disc and detailed explanations of the form of each raga.

For a novice, quickly absorbing what he can of the amazing variety, tradition and beauty of the music of India and Pakistan, this is another phenomenal recording among many that will be highlighted here.  While Salamat Ali Khan died in 2004, his sons continue to work as ustads, or masters, in their field.