Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In review--Bach, Bach, Bach...

Till Fellner
J.S. Bach
Inventionen und Sinfonien
(And the French Suite V)
ECM New Series

I first discovered J.S. Bach's piano sonatas in 1999 after watching the film, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, in which Bach's most famous piano works were featured. Since that time, I have listened to various musicians performing the solo works of Bach on a variety of instruments from piano and harpsichord to guitar.

My classically-trained colleagues and friends have told me about the challenges of performing Bach's repertoire. I have been fortunate to have heard this music played in the hands of masters. And this latest recording that arrived in my mailbox, performed by Austrian pianist Till Fellner, who received much acclaim for his previous Bach recording, Well Tempered Clavier book, has been added to this list.

Inventions and Sinfonia along with the French Suite V, feature a sensitive and delightful performance. Similar to Gould and pianist Murray Perahia, who I also admire, Till Fellner milks the keys on his piano for every nuance. He sails through a variety of moods, rhythms and textures and his beautiful interpetation of these compositions linger long after the recording has ended. And for those of you who enjoy Bach's music, this recording will give you an earful of baroque gems.

Sadly, the liner notes and the press release with an interview with the performer only discuss the technical aspects of Bach's piano compositions. I have never been good music theory student and I am someone who enjoys exploring music through biographical information and through learning about the healing aspects of music.

The questions I ask performers pertain to the healing effects of the music they perform. I want to know what attracts them to certain composers and certain musical works. At least in the biopic, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, the filmmakers revealed a virtuoso with severe health problems and this left me wondering if performing the music of Bach and Beethoven preserved the musician's life until his death at the age of fifty. Something kept him going despite his high blood pressure and other medical complications.

On the bright side I feel that listening to the music of J.S. Bach can preserve our health. While it is one thing to actually perform the music and another to let it seep through our ears, I have found many reports of people healing themselves of ailments listening to Bach. And for many of us, there is the pleasure aspect. Bach's music is easy enough for our bodies to digest and even if you just played this music in the background, a healing atmosphere would be created. I read too that listening to Baroque music while eating a meal, promotes good digestion.

Till Felner's lovely recording has been added to my musical medicine chest. And after only a few listens, I have become a fan of Fellner. He certainly seems to be enjoying himself performing these famous pieces, while also giving them a fresh interpretation--pleasing to the ears, heart and entire body.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In review--The Taarab of Tanzania

Culture Musical Club
World Village

Although Tanzanian taarab music is not completely new to my ears, I had to give Culture Musical Club’s Shime a few listens before reviewing it. So far the recording has captured the hearts of international music reviewers, including writers with New York Times, Chicago Tribune and the English music publication, Songlines. The music itself resembles Egyptian cinematic music with its Arabic modes, scales and rhythms. The instrumentation proves intriguing by combining North African-Arabic percussion, zither, double bass, oud, violin, and driving accordion, topped off with hearty vocals—both male and female.

It’s ironic that during this post 911 era world music audiences and even a broader audience have been exposed to music with Arabic roots and Muslim cultural influences. Usually as peace and cultural exchange efforts, labels and concert promoters have brought music of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other Muslim dominant countries to our awareness. And while I am reviewing this recording, I am also reading Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s Three Cups of Tea—a chronicle of a humanitarian American bringing educational opportunities to girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Education and music are the best means of ridding the world of ignorance and hatred. Musicians have a way of reaching straight into our minds and hearts, while also getting our feet to tap or our bodies to dance.

I do not know about any healing effects of Arabic polyrhythms and instrumentation. But as a culture exchange effort, Culture Music Club educates its listeners about taarab music and the culture that surrounds it. The musicianship and poetry on the recording also prove worthy of noting. The liner notes delve into the history of this musical club, which dates back to 1958 when it was founded on the spice island of Zanzibar.

With so many glowing reviews in the wake of its release, Culture Musical Club’s Shime acts an excellent introduction to taarab music and to multicultural Zanzibar. And those of you reading this blog that enjoy Egyptian and Arabic music in general will no doubt be pleased with this recording. It will get you up on your feet dancing.