Too Much Tchaikovsky

Comfort and Adventure

  1. Good:

If I ever start making playlists again, or decide to re-organize my record collection, I could divide everything into just two piles, Comfort and Adventure. Lately I’ve been stuck in the Comfort zone, but that won’t last. Soon enough I’ll want to hear music that offers puzzles, surprises, danger.

A healthy mix works best. Music can be quiet, slow, and spare as long as it engages. Likewise, we welcome bedlam more often if it’s nicely organized. Balance is key.

That’s the attraction of Rivages (ECM), a new collection of sweetly addictive tunes from accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier and his new sidekick, guitarist Kevin Siddiki. Siddiki is classically trained but has improvised his way through a lot of different situations, including albums with my favorite oudist (oudician?), Anouar Brahem. Audiophiles might get a special kick out of this delicate, elusive interactions of guitar and accordion, especially in moments where each plays strings of single notes in counterpoint with the other:

 

A worthy (if noisier) runner-up: This is Not Our First Goat Rodeo (Sony), featuring Yo-Yo Ma and the usual gang. Better than their first effort, and it’s easy to hear why. The arrangements are more clever (i.e., chaotic, contrapuntal, engaging), the collaborative effort more spirited, the sheer variety of the set list more fun. Give it a spin:

 

  1. Even Better:

When’s the last time you dropped in on a pianist as good as Kirill Gerstein playing a new concerto with, say, the Boston Symphony? Bet it’s been awhile.

Now you can catch up via Adès Conducts Adès, a DG release featuring two new works by Thomas Adès. Formerly one of Britain’s Young Lions, he’s now pushing 50 but still full of surprises. Over the last decade, Adès and Gerstein have developed a professional relationship that produces significant—and exciting—results.

When Gerstein approached him to ask for a new piece, Adès suggested a “proper piano concerto,” meaning three movements, fast-slow-fast, lots of virtuoso display, the works. Here’s what tumbled out:

By the time it’s over, you’ll have gotten a whirlwind tour of The Twentieth-Century Piano Concerto: hints or heaps of Gershwin, Ravel, Prokofiev, Bartók and more, delivered with Adès’ trademark ferocity. (I don’t mean to imply this piece lacks “originality”—only that, like most classical music, it is well acquainted with its parents, cousins, and aunties.) Gerstein has titanium fingers—again, don’t take that literally. But I’ve watched him deliver knockout blows to Liszt and Rachmaninoff in concert, so “titanium” seems like an accurate description. What matters more is his extreme sense of rhythm. Gerstein began his career as a jazz pianist who studied at Berklee. The man’s got time. And Adès demands it in phrase after phrase: meticulously notated, this music nevertheless floats free of the beat, gently pushing ahead, pulling back, like Cannonball Adderley on a good night. Check out this excerpt from the second movement:

I like the low brass scoring and bass-drum accents; reminds me of Prokofiev but with chords from Planet Poulenc. Read more in Joshua Barone’s recent NY Times piece, which includes excerpts from Gerstein’s new album for Myrios, also strongly recommended.

The other work on the Adès album, Totentanz, is an orchestral song cycle: in a series of medieval German texts, the Grim Reaper confronts kings, clerics, and peasants; they’re not well pleased. It’s shorter than The Seventh Seal but louder.

  1. Drop-Dead Best:

So why not drop everything you’re doing for a couple of hours, settle in at your workstation (or preferably your big-screen web-linked television) and watch the Met HD presentation of Iphigénie en Tauride, an opera by Gluck (1714–1787)? It’s a great, great theatrical work by one of the most talented theater musicians in history. Iphigénie has everything an opera needs—great arias/ensembles/choruses brimming with emotion; richly atmospheric choreography/sets/costumes/visual effects; all of it packed into a storyline that pushes all the way to the end.

Peerless American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham acts and sings her way through a leading role for once in her life, instead of being stuck—as mezzos invariably are—playing the evil hag, older sister, or kid brother (witches, bitches, britches, as they say). And what a role: Iphigenia is a key figure from Greek drama, sister to Electra and Orestes, all offspring of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. In this tale handed down from Euripides, she has been rescued by Diana but sent to Taurida, a barbarian outpost on the Crimean peninsula where she’s forced to preside over ritual sacrifices. (I wrote about all this in #115.) A couple of Greeks are washed ashore after a storm, and cruel King Thoas slates them for sacrifice. Trouble is, they happen to be Orestes (Plácido Domingo) and his best friend Pylades (Paul Groves). Separated for years, Iphigenia and Orestes do not recognize each other.

Stephen Wadsworth was the organizing genius behind this celebrated production, supervising its inspired visuals, dances and stage business. Everything he put in actually worked, supporting the actors and the story. Everything!

This is where I shamelessly endorse Met Opera on Demand, the premium streaming service via which the Met has been offering one free opera from its vaults every 24 hours. If you subscribe (details here), you get access to everything, whenever you like. It’s worth it.

Iphigénie is also available as a $4.99 rental. Here is a (minimalist) trailer:

 

And here is an extended clip, taken from the climax of the opera. (If you think you might view the entire production, skip the clip.) Happy adventuring!

Header image: Susan Graham in the title role of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.