Piano Potpourri (CD Mini-Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Beethoven: Variations. Angela Hewitt, piano. Hyperion CDA68346.

You’ve got to love the quote from Beethoven that kicks off the liner notes for this new release by the wonderful Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt (b. 1958): “That piece of folly mine? Oh Beethoven, what an ass you were in those days!” Old Ludwig was referring to a set of piano variations that he had heard a friend playing, music that he did not recognize that young Ludwig had composed back in 1806, the year he had also composed his more memorable Fourth Symphony and Violin Concerto. These 32 Variations on an original theme in C minor comprise the opening set of variations on this entertaining release, the final recording Ms. Hewitt was able to make on her beloved Fazioli piano, which was accidentally destroyed when it was dropped by piano movers early in 2020 (she later that year acquired a replacement Fazioli). There are six other sets of variations on this release, the longest and most notable being the 15 Variations and a fugue on an original theme ‘Eroica,’ more commonly referred to as “The Eroica Variations,” but probably the most recognizable – even hummable, for that matter – music appears in the final two sets of variations on the program, 7 Variations on ‘God Save the King’ and 5 Variations on ‘Rule, Britannia.’

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.

The world lost a beloved musical giant early this year with the passing of keyboard legend Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea (1941-2021). My connection with and affection for Corea go way back, having first encountered his music as a G.I. in Germany back in the ‘70s through his Return to Forever LPs Light as a Feather, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, and Where Have I Known You Before? After my discharge from the Army and return to college, I picked up No Mystery and Romantic Warrior plus my first-ever ECM album, Crystal Silence, a duet album featuring Corea with vibraphonist Gary Burton. Around this same time my wife and I also had the great thrill of seeing Return to Forever in concert. This was shortly after the young Al Di Meola had joined the group on guitar, and he, Lenny White on drums, Stanley Clarke on bass, and Corea on keyboards delivered thrill upon musical thrill that evening. Not long after that, Return to Forever broke up, and Corea went on to many other projects both as a leader and as a sideman, gathering an incredible total of 25 (just this month, two posthumously) Grammy awards during his storied career, of which jazz-rock fusion was just one small part. He was a serious and very accomplished musician, conversant with a wide range of music, which is evident on what would turn out to be his final recording, this two-CD set of solo piano performances.            

“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.

The Russian-born German pianist Igor Levit (b. 1987) is one of the brightest stars in the pianistic firmament. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been active in presenting music online, and in his recent recordings he has taken on programs chosen not to showcase virtuosic pianism but rather to reflect on philosophical/spiritual issues; not in some glib New-Agey sort of way, but as a serious musician who finds himself challenged by and engaged with life and its potential for enhancement. As the liner notes point for Encounter proclaim, “the choice of works that are included on this album is not dictated by any interest in musical history but by one that is intensely existential. The present programme takes its cue from those moments when the heart rate grows calmer, when the information overload is reduced and our gaze is directed solely at what is essential.”

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.

Like Chick Corea, the versatile pianist Keith Jarrett (b. 1945) has had long and successful career, and even for a time shared keyboard duties with Corea in the legendary Miles Davis electric band of the late’60s (although unlike Corea, he hated the electric piano, but played it then because, well, it was for Miles). His recorded legacy is rich and varied: Forest Flower with Charles Lloyd; his American Quartet albums with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian; his European quartet albums with Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson, and Jon Christensen; his Standards Trio albums with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette; his solo piano albums, including one of the most famous solo piano albums of all time, his Köln Concert; his classical albums, including works by Bach, Bartok, Mozart, Harrison, Hovhaness, Shostakovich, Pärt, and others – it is an incredible recorded legacy. Strangely enough, however, and very much unlike his contemporary Chick Corea, he has never received a Grammy (although Köln Concert was named a Grammy Hall of Fame recording in 2011). Tragically enough, in 2018 Jarrett suffered the first of several strokes that have left him unable to play the piano. As a longtime Jarrett fan, that leaves me heartbroken; I cannot begin to imagine being in his situation.

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.

Pianist Brad Mehldau (b.1970) explains on his website that while sheltering at home with his family in the Netherlands during the COVID-19 pandemic, he wrote a dozen new songs about what he was experiencing and was able to record them safely in an Amsterdam studio. He characterizes the album as “a musical snapshot of life the last month in the world in which we’ve all found ourselves. I’ve tried to portray on the piano some experiences and feelings that are both new and common to many of us. In ‘Keeping Distance,’ for example, I traced the experience of two people social distancing, represented by the left and right hand—how they are unnaturally drawn apart, yet remain linked in some unexplainable, and perhaps illuminating way… There’s also been a welcome opportunity to connect more deeply with my family than we ever have, because of the abundant time and close proximity. The last three pieces hit on that connection—the harmony we find with each other, making meals together or just horsing around. ‘Lullaby’ is for everyone who might find it hard to sleep now. Neil Young’s words in ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ have always been counsel for me, now more than ever, when he instructs: ‘Don’t let it bring you down/It’s only castles burning/Find someone who’s turning/And you will come around.’ Billy Joel’s ‘New York State of Mind,’ a song I’ve loved since I was nine years old, is a love letter to a city that I’ve called my home for years, and that I’m far away from now. I know lots of people there and miss them terribly, and I know how much that great city hurts right now. I also know that it too will come around.” This is an album you can just put on, relax, and enjoy. It is not quite easy listening music, but it is human music, communicative music, music that really does seem to capture the spirit of that crazy year, 2020. And nicely enough, Mehldau builds up toward a positive, optimistic finish, capped off with his final cover, Jerome Kern’s “Look for the Silver Lining.” Having just received my second dose of Pfizer vaccine a few days ago, that is a song to which I can definitely relate.

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…

KWN

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa