Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Japan: Koto Classics

Hearing this album again brings back memories of almost a quarter century ago first coming into contact with the phenomenal music of Japan's classical period and, specifically, the highly expressive koto, which is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world.

In 1990, discovering this mesmerizing music for the first time was part of the realization that our "western" musics, varied and vast as they are, are just one part of an enormous global reservoir of music available to expanding understanding, perception and appreciation.

Of course, there has to be some acclimatizing to the different tunings, scales and sounds made in other forms of music.  For this listener, hearing the solo koto, shakuhachi, oud, sitarkora or any other number of instruments for other parts of the world, took less of a recalibration than hearing larger ensembles or vocalizations.

The koto, moreover, is a remarkable instrument in that it is both light in tone, but strong in resonance, powerful and heavy on one hand and light and melodic on the other.  It seems to embrace a broad spectrum of sound and perhaps makes it easier to absorb what is heard.

Recorded in 1966 and released as part of the extraordinary Nonesuch Explorer series, the album features the virtuosic playing and emotive singing of Shinichi Yuize, who is still living and is approaching his 93rd birthday.  Yuize has toured around the world and performed with such major figures of Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar and he served as something of a music ambassador for Japan.  When the album was made, Yuize was an artist-in-residence at Columbia University.

The remastering by the great Robert Ludwig, who deserves far more credit for all the amazing work he has done in all musical genres over the decade, further pulls the listener in to the very intimate soundworld created by Yuize's stunning playing and singing.

Koto Classics still has the same impact as twenty-six years ago, which really means that it is a timeless recording.  It will, undoubtedly, feel the same years from now.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Tim Berne/Science Friction: The Sublime And

Again, there is no explanation for waiting so long to highlight another record from the great alto saxophonist Tim Berne, but there is certainly no shortage of great material on which to focus.

This live double disc album was recorded at Winterthur, Switzerland in April 2003 and released that fall on Thirsty Ear Records and features Berne at the peak of his compositional and performing powers with a phenomenal band comprised of drummer Tom Rainey, keyboardist (including laptop) Craig Taborn and guitarist Marc Ducret.

All the hallmarks of Berne's writing style are there:  complexity of melody, harmonizing, shifting of time and rhythm, and lengthy tunes that give the musicians time to develop their interactive processes and soloing.

What adds further to the compelling sound is the electricity (literally) of Taborn's ambient and atmospheric, as well as rhythmic, sensibilities and Ducret's explorations of his guitar, including a remarkable solo on "The Shell Game."  Rainey, who has worked with Berne for many years, seems to be able to shift his role on a dime to accompany the other players and has some fine solos to boot.

As for Berne, his playing is always full of interest as he explores melody and harmony in so many striking ways and knows how to play in sync with his bandmates, no matter who they are and in what configuration they are in.

That's one of the most admirable things about Berne--that he writes and plays the music he wants, with the people he wants, and has adhered to that way of doing things for over thirty years.  He doesn't get much attention or big album sales. but his commitment to his craft is worthy of support for those who can get into his adventurous explorations in all of the various configurations over the years.

And, yes, this amazing live recording is sublime!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Frédéric Chopin: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3

Idil Biret, the Turkish pianist who masterfully performs the three piano sonatas by Chopin in this 1991 Naxos release, has recorded prolifically for the label including complete works by Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms and Rachmaninoff, much of which this blogger owns and greatly enjoys,

Her technique and sensitivity to the material is obvious, even to a true amateur listener such as this blogger, though the fact that the emotional expression in her work comes through so that it can be felt by anyone who pays due attention is testament to her remarkable abilities.

Biret, a native of Turkey, studied from a young age and learned under the legendary Nadia Boulanger in Paris, becoming a soloist in major concert halls from the age of 16.  Her work with Chopin led her to receive Poland's highest civilian honor, the Cross of the Order of Merit as well as a Grand Prix du Disque Frédéric Chopin award for her complete recordings of the composer.

The best known of the three sonatas presented here is, of course, the second, known as "The Funeral March" of 1837 with its very familiar dirge theme, but the third sonata from 1844 is excellent. The first, completed in 1828, when Chopin was still in his teens, was not published until after his death and may be seen as a student's experiment, albeit of a student of a genius level.

As stated in the notes and elsewhere, Chopin's music was not the bombastic, concert hall ready type exemplified by his flashy contemporary, Franz Liszt.  It was more nuanced and was very delicate and elegant and, as Ulrich Spratte states in the notes, was "in the more refined ambiance of the fashionable salon" rather than the grand hall.

In the hands of a peerless interpreter like Biret, this gorgeous music is given its fullest expression.  Biret and Naxos proved to have had a remarkable and rare partnership in presenting music like this that is a fantastic experience to hear.