Beethoven: Variations. Angela Hewitt, piano. Hyperion CDA68346.
No, this is not a disc containing music with the profound musical and emotional depth of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, but it is a disc containing music by the master that delights and entertains us as we hear him having fun at the keyboard, something that Ms. Hewitt seems to be doing as she romps through these variations and leads us on a tour of some colorful musical byways. Hee haw indeed!
Chick Corea Plays. Concord Jazz CJA00284.
“I’m part of a lineage,” Corea once explained. “The thing that I do is similar to what Monk did, to what Bill Evans and Duke Ellington did, and moving back into another era of music, what Bach and Mozart and Beethoven did. These were all pianists who were composers at heart, who gathered their own musicians together to play. I feel so proud to be a part of that tradition.” When you look at the cover of Plays, his final album, for which Corea himself designed the cover art, you see the names Mozart, Scarlatti, Scriabin, Chopin, Evans, Monk, Jobim, Gershwin, Wonder – and Corea. As the program unfolds, he offers spoken introductions to help the audience (the recordings are from concert performances) feel at home with such a wide range of music from such a diverse group of composers. His spoken introductions and his spontaneous, improvisatory style of playing both serve to communicate his wide-ranging love for and mastery of music regardless of genre.
One fascinating feature of his live solo concerts is that he will often invite audience members to come on stage and improvise at the keyboard alongside him. He never knows who might turn up, and he has had children and competent amateurs come forward in past concerts, but on Plays, the pianist who joined him on stage turned out to be the conservatory-trained French classical pianist Charles Heisser and the French-Israeli jazz pianist Yaron Herman, who has released albums on Blue Note and Decca Records. When they were chosen for these brief duets, however, both were simply audience members. “I didn’t know they were pros,” Corea noted. “but it’s always a lot of fun when I invite pianists to come up on stage to improvise with me.” It’s fun for the listener, too, to hear these musicians doing what they love to do, creating music with their hearts, minds, and fingers. You don’t have to be a jazz fan, or a classical fan, or even a fan of piano music to enjoy this album. If you simply love music, I believe you will find that the late Chick Corea’s love for music will reach out and touch your heart as you listen to this well-recorded program of music that spans the centuries.
Encounter. Igor Levit, piano. Sony Classical 19439786572.
This two-CD set consists primarily of music in the form of arrangements. Disc one is devoted to two sets of arrangements by the Italian composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) of chorale preludes, ten by Bach and six by Brahms. As you might imagine from the type of works these are, they are not virtuoso piano works intended to dazzle; rather, they have a stately, flowing beauty that Levit communicates well. You hear Bach, you hear Brahms, but you begin to feel something beyond the notes.
Disc two finds Levit taking his listeners ever more inward, beginning with more music by Brahms, but once again not music originally composed by Brahms for the piano, but rather arrangements by Max Reger (1873-1916) of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs). The liner notes observe that “Brahms’s pitiless examination of mortality and death in his Vier ernste Gesänge was a reaction to the deaths of a number of family members and close friends in the years leading up to their composition. Above all, they anticipate the death of Clara Schumann, whom Brahms had loved all his life and who had suffered a serious stroke in late March 1896. The then sixty-three-year-old composer was also aware of his own incurable illness when he completed these songs that same summer.” Next in the program is an arrangement for piano by Julian Becker of the brief, somber Nachtlied (Night Song) by Reger himself, which was composed as a setting of these lines by a 16th century theologian: “The night has come when we should rest; may it please God to permit the devout to lie down in His company and with His blessing and be at Peace.” Following this brief but deeply moving three-minute piece, Levit concludes the program with the only composition that is not an arrangement, but was originally composed for the piano, Palais de Mari by the American composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987). Written in 1986, it was Feldman’s final composition for solo piano. This is spare music, quiet music, music that hints rather than declares, that sighs rather than sings. For more than 28 minutes, Levit uses Feldman’s haunting score to invite us into a quiet world of reflection, a refuge from a world of polemic and pandemic. This is an utterly beautiful release.
Budapest Concert: Keith Jarrett, piano. ECM 2700/01 B0032851-02.
Budapest Concert was recorded live on July 3, 2016 at the Bela Bartok Concert Hall in Budapest. The 1.5-hr concert consisted of 12 improvised selections (titled “Parts I-XII,”), the first four of which appear on CD1 (37:26), while CD2 (54:46) contains the final eight plus two encore pieces, covers of “It’s a Lonesome Old Town” and “Answer Me, My Love.” Jarrett comes out pumped with energy in Part I, the longest (14:42) and most intense, challenging music of the whole program. It is almost as if Jarrett was aware that he was playing in Bartok Hall and was determined to make music in that tradition and spirit. After that initial assault, he seems to relax somewhat, and the music becomes more accessible, especially on CD2, where Jarrett is able to spin some memorable melodies seemingly out of thin air.
Suite: April 2020: Brad Mehldau, piano. Nonesuch 075597919288.
Mehldau is another jazz pianist who is more musically versatile than you might think. If you really want to hear some peak jazz Mehldau, you really can do no better than his The Art of the Trio albums from the 1990s, especially The Art of the Trio III – Songs (Warner Brothers 9362-47051-2), which is absolutely amazing. On the more classical side, his solo release After Bach (Nonesuch 7559-79318-0) is well worth a listen. Enjoy…