Friday, October 17, 2008

In Review--Sublime Crossover Classical Music

Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin
Decca Records

I have never been a fan of Lee Ritenour's work and I associated it with smooth jazz. However, on Lee Ritenour (guitar) and Dave Grusin (piano) classical crossover album, Ampora, I am actually quite pleased with the music. I would even call it sublime. Musical guests include the folk singer James Taylor singing an early music folk song Since First I Saw Your Face, solo violinist Joshua Bell on Gabriel Faure's Pavane, Op. 50 and Antonio Carlos Jobim's Olha Maria (Ampora), soprano Renee Fleming also on the pavane and George Frideric Handel's Duetto: Scherzano Sul Tuo Volto, which she performs with classical trumpeter Chris Botti.

The recording starts off with nuevo tango that recalls the late Astor Piazzolla and continues with a suite of Latin American dances. This is followed by a pavane, then English folk songs, a Brazilian piece, Ravel's Ma Mere L'Oye (Mother Goose Suite) and ends with baroque music. The arrangements with guitar, piano, an orchestra and the guests soloists, offers listeners some heavenly musical moments. For fans of nuevo tango, early music, and exquisite soprano vocals, Ampora fits the bill.

This classical crossover album receives high ratings from me. And I will be featuring tracks from it on my radio show, Global Heartthrob. I also think that all of the music on this recording rates high as healing music, with the baroque music contributing the most linear music and the nuevo tango, the most sensual.

Decca Records

Thursday, October 16, 2008

In Review--Beethoven Sonata Cycle Completed

Andras Schiff
Ludwig Van Beethoven The Piano Sonatas
Volume VII (Sonatas opp. 90,101 and 106)
ECM Records

Andras Schiff
Ludwig Van Beethoven The Piano Sonatas
Volume VIII (Sonatas 109, 110 & 111)
ECM Records

Hungarian concert pianist Andras Schiff took on the great task of recording all of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas in chronological order. The pianist completed the cycle with The Piano Sonatas Volume VII and Volume VIII. Now, while I did not travel the entire journey of the 32 sonata cycle (I only heard 5 of the 8 CDs), I still experienced quite an adventure.

As you might imagine, Schiff embodied the Romantic Era composer since he was spending so much time with the sonatas and the composer. One read through the liner notes that accompany these recordings, reveals the deep and thoughtful, even heartfelt relationship that Schiff developed with Beethoven. He performs these sonatas from the inside out, which was something the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould did with J.S. Bach. Certainly this is my favorite way to hear classical or any music. Schiff, like Gould had the confidence to follow his own instincts instead of relying too heavily on his musical predecessors or Beethoven scholars. Music is more about feeling and following gut instincts than it is about thought and analysis.

At least one of two things occur when listening to these recordings. The first possibility is that a listener can deeply get in touch with their own emotions through traveling through Beethoven's vibrant moods. The second possibility is that listeners who might have just thought of Beethoven in passing, might grow enamored with the composer after listening to Schiff's honest and vulnerable performance, or should I exchange the word channeling for "performance"? Schiff brings Beethoven into listeners' stereos in such a way that it could only be mentioned as a spiritual experience as far as I am concerned. One might even feel Beethoven standing in the room with them.

After reading the liner notes for Volume VII and especially the section about Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, op. 106, also known as, "Hammerklavier," I was not so sure I wanted to listen to the recording. I thought that it was going to be a dark and painful experience in which I would have lost my way through the complex sonata. Even the liner notes mentioned the daunting complexity of the piece for both musicians and listeners.

However, even though I would not describe the sonata as lovely, I certainly would describe it as powerful and cathartic with sublime moments. The entire recording features athletic musical finesse on the part of the pianist. While I doubt any musician is going to have a nervous breakdown performing the piece as intended by Beethoven (as the pianist in the movie, "Shine" did with one of Rachmaninov's piano concertos), I imagine that the pianist must have felt spent or invigorated after performing it.

Volume VIII is much easier on the nervous system, but also features some mind-blowing sonatas. I know after listening to the 5 of 8 CDs of this cycle, I have come to know Beethoven a little better, not just as a master composer, but also as a human being whose emotions ran the gamut from utterly vulnerable, to victorious and even humorous.

I look forward to hearing more of Andras Schiff's recordings. In the way that he developed great respect for Ludwig Van Beethoven, I have developed great respect for Schiff.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

In Review--The Spirit of India

Gundecha Brothers and Pushparaj Koshti
Temple Voices
Sense World Music

Pushparaj Koshti
Sense World Music

The ancient vocal form Dhrupad seemed to be in slow terminal decline according to the liner notes for The Gundecha Brothers' latest recording, Temple Voices. Also in the liner notes, "The Gundecha Brothers are at the forefront of the revival in fortune that has overtaken the ancient vocal form, Dhrupad." It had fallen victim to the popularity of the Khayal tradition. Also from my understanding of it, Dhrupad had also suffered the reputation of being painfully slow, and one writer for The Rough Guide to World Music, Volume 2 had compared Dhrupad to watching paint dry.

I actually appreciate this ancient Indian vocal style. Yes, it unfolds slowly, but for those with patience (which is not many these days), this gentle unfolding does pay off. The vocal fireworks that contributed to the popularity of the Khayal form are not present in the same regard. Dhrupad is more subtle, and its journey more contemplative. Its liken to the journey where one stops to smell the roses, drink in sunlight and retreat a little from the chaos of living. And I even would go as far as to recommend listening to Dhrupad to increase one's attention span and patience. I have found it helpful in that regard.

If you listen closely to the Gundecha Brothers sing on Temple Voices, you will hear a rich polyphony of two voices, with some vocal overtones, especially when the brothers sing in baritone voices. You will also hear masterful performances that reward its listeners. (For more information about their education, garana and biographical details of these vocalist, please visit

The liner notes describe a Dhrupad performance as, "hugely concentrated expressive force but largely unadorned except for connecting slides and pitch-bending, rather buried beneath layers of ornament and frisky invention as you might hear in another Alap...Compared to many performers who like to show off their prowess as early as they can, a dhrupad singer will make you wait; but the payoff is all the more thrilling for the length of build-up."

Surbahar (akin to a bass sitar) player Pushparaj Koshti performs on the Gundecha Brothers' Temple Voices and performs solo on his recording, Surbahar. He performs instrumental Dhrupad--starting out on the lowest end of his instrument and eventually stretching out to higher notes. I will admit that it would be easier for newcomers to this form of classical Indian music to begin with vocal Dhrupad and work their way towards the instrumental form.

However, this rare Surbahar performance accompanied by the double-ended pakhawaj drum played by Manik Munde, has its spellbinding moments as well. The liner notes mention, "A degree of patience is required of a listener, or at least a will to let the big picture build over time. For followers of Western classical music the natural comparison would be with a symphony by Anton Bruckner, as opposed to a piano piece by Franz Liszt."

I might also add that a Dhrupad listening experience compares to a slow blooming flower that does not dazzle our senses right away, but chooses the right moment, when we have found a stillness of mind.


I would like to thank Robert Maycock for his informative liner notes. Certainly these notes assisted me in enjoying these two recordings.