Friday, October 1, 2010

In review--Chopin's Anniversary Year (1810-1849)

Cèdric Tiberghien
Chopin Mazurkas, Polonaise-Fantaisie, Scherzo and Nocturne
Harmonia Mundi

Listening to a Chopin piece feels like the equivalent to luxuriating in a delicious cup of tea. The Romantic era Polish composer/pianist’s compositions alternating between introspective and invigorating. His work centered on one instrument, the piano for the most part and this deeply expressive music can and does rival bigger orchestrated works of the Romantic Era. Perhaps Chopin represented the microcosm in relation to the macrocosm or the individual in relation to the whole. Even the piano/composer virtuoso Franz Liszt praised his contemporary.

In the CD liner notes, Lizst cites, “…By restricting himself to the exclusive framework of the piano, Chopin has in our view demonstrated one of the most essential qualities for an author: a sure appreciation of form in which he is capable of excelling.” A half a century after Chopin composed his music, French Impressionist composer Maurice Ravel noted, (speaking about Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie), “A frequent reproach: Chopin did not develop. So be it then. But if there is no development in his music, there is a splendid expansion…”

Besides his expressive music, the composer lived a fascinating life, the kind of life we would expect from a musician on the leading edge of European art. He experienced a dramatic love affair with the writer George Sands (a woman), lived on a Catalan island for a time, and suffered from a lung disease that eventually ended his life at the age of 39. We also know that despite spending his adult life in France, Chopin’s homeland, Poland was never far out of his mind and that's where the mazurkas come in, a nod towards his Polish lineage.

On Chopin Mazurkas, Polonaise-Fantaisie... pianist Cèdric Tiberghien plays Chopin’s masterpieces and mazurkas with gusto. It’s as if he’s using the keys on the piano as a musical weapon, ripe with theatrical emotions. On Scherzo, Tiberghien’s playing explodes with angry bursts, but on the following tracks, mazurkas, his playing takes on dream-like qualities as the pianist practically channels the spirit of the composer. These mazurkas though miniatures as the liner notes cite, feel as if they have the world contained within each note. There’s nothing small or minimalistic here, but a swelling of romantic emotions. The Polonaise-Fantaisie journeys through several moods and themes, and we can see why Ravel was fascinated with the piece.

Tiberghien refers to the opening of Polonaise-Fantaisie, “Prepare for an extraordinary journey,” and that could be said for the entire program that appears on the solo piano disc. In addition, in Chopin’s hands, the piano represented an orchestra, showing us what miracles the piano can perform. You can’t take the instrument for granted any longer after listening to this recording. And why would you?

In review--Raga!

Ravi Shankar
Raga (A Film Journey into the Soul of India)
Archival DVD 1971/2010
East Meets West Music/Harmonia Mundi

When you think about it, times haven’t changed all that much since the late 1960s. Sure, the 1960s and 70s were littered with drugs, drop-out mentality and multimedia distractions in contrast to today’s distractions including the Internet, I-Pads and other digital devices, the same problem remains which is the lack of attention spans and impatience. Traditions that were revived in the 1950s and 60s through the return to cultural roots re-emerged with world music, but again we are faced with the digital distractions, including drum machines and synthetic instruments wedded to more traditional acoustic ones.

One of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s regrets from the 1960s, portrayed in the 1971 documentary Raga (A Film Journey into the Soul of India) was the distractions and impatience found in people from the West. But even in India, he laments about one of his Indian disciples who he claims will never learn the music tradition in the old way through no fault of his own, but changing times had left a mark on the younger generation. So in a way, the re-emergence of this documentary now reminds us that our own digital technology might have destroyed several generations in that they will never have the patience or focus to commit to any real disciplines or endeavors. And certainly, they’ll never possess the patience to learn a tradition such as Indian classical music which takes years to master, total dedication to the guru (music teacher), and total focus. We have moved too far from active hearing and performing to passive listening via the I-Pod stuffed into ears. This latter part is my own interpretation.

While Shankar’s documentary focuses mainly on the relationship between the guru and the disciple, he treats us to some spellbinding classical Indian music performances, montages of pop culture’s commercial transformation of Indian traditions (see montage sequence), and he brings up some thorny issues about west meets east, and preserving musical/spiritual traditions. I’m embarrassed American watching this documentary because of the footage of wannabe music students, the American sense of entitlement, and our superficial views about music, culture, and spirituality. Though the footage of the jugalbandi with French classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin offers reverential moments between Shankar and the European classically trained musician.

In the US, we are a society raised on sound bites and glimpses of the “American dream,” which for most of us is out of reach anyway. We’ve bought into the rags to riches story and our entire culture is based on making a profit rather than enriching the world with our talents. This 1971 DVD brings this message home even in this new millennium. Could Indian ragas act as our antidote to the mad rush we call our daily lives? (Incidentally when I look at what yoga has turned into, a money-making industry in the West, I feel saddened by the loss of yoga’s roots. Now you just see ads for glamorous yoga wear and pricy classes taught at trendy studios. Where is the peace and acceptance found in this fashionable yoga?)

But in the 1971 documentary, Shankar’s narration comes across as a long sigh when he shares his doubts about taking his traditional music to the West. He watched Indian music enter the western pop realm, (it had already appeared on Bollywood soundtracks), and speaking of movies, one of the most enchanting moments in the documentary revolves around Shankar conducting an Indian orchestra for a movie soundtrack. I’m guessing this was one of Satyajit Ray’s movies, in which Shankar composed the music.

If it’s any comfort to the master sitarist, every culture on this earth has been commercialized or marginalized by the West. Nothing is sacred any longer, and any tradition can easily be glossed over and made palatable to the marketplace. The United States in general looks outward for validation and for Americans who can and do look inward, there are all the Americans looking for the next big trend which they eventually discard for the next fix. Berries from Brazil’s Amazon Rain Forest? Percussive grooves from Botswana?

Or perhaps there’s another way of gazing at this situation and that is the desire to explore the world and connect with other cultures even if on a superficial level. That’s still a better path than closing the door on other cultures and becoming too insular. Perhaps as Americans who have lost our own cultural roots, adopting other cultures (and making them our own) is the best we have to offer. Some Americans have adopted other cultures as their own on an authentic and respectful level. I’ve met quite a few of them.

Shankar celebrated his 90th birthday last spring and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down, still out in the world performing his beguiling ragas, still building bridges between cultures, and still a musical force to be reckoned. His label East Meets West Music continues to release archival CDs and DVDs. And as we look back, we also see the present staring us in the face. Can we step back, slow down, and pay attention to this moment? In the end it’s all we have and then it’s gone. Perhaps Shankar will show us the road back to ourselves and our inner sanctum. In the meantime, listening to ragas might heal us of our attention span problem. and and

In review--The Tears of Our Mothers

Anna Prohaska and Bernarda Fink
Akademie Fur Alte Musik Berlin
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater
Harmonia Mundi

Easily one of my favorite classical music recordings for 2010, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater performed by the baroque orchestra Akademie Fur Alte Musik Berlin with soprano Anna Prohaska and alto Bernarda Fink hailing from the pianto genre. Antonio Vivaldi’s Sinfonia RV 169 (“Al Santo Sepolcro”) and Pietro Antonio Locatelli’s Concerto #4 (“Il Pianto d’Arianna”) frame Pergolesi’s masterpiece. We are also treated to Pergolesi’s Salve Regina for 2 voices. I have listened to this recording several times now and it grows in beauty and power with each listen.

Stabat Mater revolves around Mother Mary and the tragic loss of her son Jesus Christ, but the tragic theme expands outward and encompasses all mothers who have lost their children prematurely and through tragic means. This could include the anguish of losing a son or daughter to war, injustice, or the accidents of life. On one hand, we hear the mother’s love for her child which nourishes our souls, but on the other hand, we hear laments that pierce at our collective hearts.

The recording itself features stellar performances by alto Bernarda Fink and soprano Anna Prohaska, whose voices blend seamlessly into one another. The singers strike an alchemical note and now it’s hard for me to imagine any other duo performing this piece. The arresting Fac, ut ardeat cor meumn (track 13), represents the tour de force of this recording. The baroque orchestra Akademie Fur Alte Musik Berlin also appears in top form, not only backing the vocalists on Pergolesi’s works, but also performing the instrumental works by Vivaldi and Locatelli. A youthful vigor comes through and the performance feels fresh and invigorating.

Stabat Mater for strings, basso continuo, alto and soprano must be the most stunning baroque work I’ve ever heard. The manner in which the two voices soar, then collide into one another, at other times they blend seamlessly into one another, gives me goose bumps. The strings provide tension and a haunting quality not so easy to describe. I can’t even imagine what the composer was feeling when he penned this composition in the early 1700s. However, his biographer Charles de Brosses described the work as, “His Stabat Mater is regarded as a masterpiece of Latin music. There is scarcely another piece more highly praised than this one for the profound learning of its harmonies.” (Liner notes).

I think this work stands the test of 300 plus years and the vocals ring out with bell-like clarity heralding both ancient and contemporary times. As far as laments go, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater could bring a great deal of solace to funerals given for young lives cut short. However, I just enjoy listening to its beauty, grace, and elegance. For me, this music represents a joyful discovery.