Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Keiko Matsui Part Two

Let's start with a bit of music from her Deep Blue CD:

Rather than copy someone, and get charged with plagiarism, I instead provide a link to a great rundown of her life and career from

Starting with the next two CDs I'll be covering (pun intended) I've decided to keep listening notes. I have a fancy, shmancy notebook for this on order, but I'm starting with a small Moleskine notebook, where I put my jazz notes on the left page of the open book, and classical notes on the right (which currently has some notes on Brahms' sonatas for piano and viola).

These aforementioned CD's of Keiko's are her Night Waltz recording, and her Cherry Blossom CD.

Night Waltz is the earlier of the two recordings, and I found a nice video of her performing the title work.

This work is truly in three-quarter time, if my counting is correct, but a bit fast for a ballroom-style dance. It starts off the album, and might be considered a "fusion" work with her inclusion of a rockin' electric guitar.

The CD itself is short by today's standards, lasting only 41 minutes and fifteen seconds through nine works. When I listen, it is even shorter, as I usually skip over the two songs "Eyes Were Made to Cry" and "Where Wildflowers Grow." Again, the music is OK, but the lyrics turn me off.

If I were to pick a favorite track, it would have to be "Hope." I can't say exactly why; just one of those things, I guess.

I read in her bio (from the link I provided above) that Rachmaninoff is one of her influences, and maybe that is why feel drawn to her music. I can't say exactly why; just one of those things, I guess.

The next album, Cherry Blossom, is copyright 1992. In my notes, I noticed that, overall, the CD has the beginnings of her current smooth jazz sound. For example, there is a lot more sax, of which we'll hear quite a bit. The first track is entitled "Rainy Season" and it gets you in the listening mood. But I can't determine the link between the work and its name. I found this to be true on much of the collection. The CD title work, "Cherry Blossoms," sounds more Irish than Japanese. We know how important cherry blossoms are in Japanese art (Japan gave the US a gift of cherry trees, which can be found in the mall area in Washington, D.C.).

It's probably ignorance on my part, not recognizing the significance of the title. But, on the last two, I think I get it. The next-to-last work is called "Foot Steps" and you hear what sounds like sneaking around music. The last work is entitled "Dawn Opener," which starts out quietly like early predawn and finishes with the day in full swing. I've thought before that a Vermont morning would sound like that, and here she thought of it years ago.

I skip around "She Prays to the Wind," another vocal. Who knows? One day maybe I'll like these songs. I do generally like the music. I once despised opera, and I love it, now. So there may be hope for me yet.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Keiko Matsui - Part One

I'm taking a little side trip (as I warned you I would do) to talk about Keiko Matsui's recordings. I'm doing concentrated listening to the CD's I have, starting with the ones with the earliest copyright dates to the latest (this won't work all that well, as a bunch of them have the same date). I start with Under Northern Lights and No Borders.

I should state up front that my first experience with her was with the White Owl CD, and I was hooked by the end of the first work. So, for the early recordings, I may refer to that CD.

Under Northern Lights is the title of the first track on the CD so named, and it has some nice stuff, but the only works that stick out are the ones I don't like. On many of her early CDs she included one or two vocal works, and, except for one, I really don't like them. Generally, the lyrics are too schmaltzy. There are two such vocal works on this CD: "As Far as the Eye Can See" and "High Brow Country Affair," the latter of which I really, truly don't like.

No Borders has one of the best cover photos of her entire set of recordings. I don't know why, but she usually seems kinda sad on most of her covers. This one, though, is a great close up in black and white and she is actually, sorta smiling. The other photos in the notes look great as well. The CD has the only vocal I've liked, "Mover." From the notes I see that the vocals are sung by Greg Walker, with chorus by Maxi Anderson. Another name pops out at me, Nathan East. He plays bass for the jazz quartet Fourplay, as well as adds occasional vocals. So, East gets around in the smooth jazz world.

Two works on the CD are "Kappa (Water Elf)," and "The Wind and the Wolf," with the latter featuring her husband Kazu on the Shakuhachi, a sort of flute. I mention these, as they are on the White Owl CD as well.

As a sidebar, I find concentrated listening on a smooth jazz album is easier than on a classical album. Since the works are shorter, I can listen in the car without getting interrupted in the middle of a longer work.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sonata for Violin and Piano

I'm not sure where it started, but at least from Classical era compositions, a work named "Violin Sonata" would include a continuo, such as a keyboard, that was the accompaniment to the violin. In Brahms' three sonatas, the composer made a point of calling them "Sonata for Violin and Piano." This seems to me proper nomenclature, as both instruments play important roles, neither of which is accompaniment. In fact one of the CD liner notes refers to one of the pieces as (my paraphrasing) works for two orchestras. It is true that these works have a marvelous, full sound. With each repeated playing of the sonatas, I hear a new bit of music that adds to the beauty of the work.

(Incidentally, I recently saw a PBS special about Charles Schultz, the cartoonist who drew Peanuts. One of the characters in the strip was a piano player named Schroeder. Though Schultz preferred the music of Brahms, the name "Beethoven" sounded funnier, so that is what he had Schroeder play.)

Due to enthusiasm on my part, I have three recordings of Brahms' three sonatas for violin and piano. One of them is a two CD collection (which also contains the viola and piano sonatas, hence the second CD) performed by Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Barenboim. The second recording comes from the EMI Classics Great Recordings of the Century, with Itzhak Perlman on violin and Vladimir Ashkenazy on piano. The third recording also comes from the EMI Classics label, and features Anne-Sophie Mutter on violin and Alexis Weissenberg on piano.

The first sonata, well...what can I say? All three of these sonatas are fantastic. I guess rather than blathering on about how great these works are to hear, or their history, but I'll just put links for Sonata No. 1 Op. 78, Sonata No. 2, Op.100, and Sonata No. 3, Op. 108.

I guess the best way to go would be to write about my favorite performers for each sonata. First, I have to admit right up front that I didn't care for the Mutter/Weissenberg performance. (I'm not sure why I put this CD here, it should be with the rest of Ms. Mutter's recordings.) I mostly had a problem with the piano playing. The pianist sounded stiff, almost mechanical, especially when played side-by-side with Mutter's (as usual) superb performance. So, while I find the CD OK, it isn't as pleasant to my ear as are the other two.

For the first work, Sonata No. 1 in G Major, Op. 78, I give the nod to Zukerman and Barenboim. Their performance reached out of the stereo and grabbed me by the ears, as if to say, "Hear this! Have you ever heard anything like it!?" How can you fail to appreciate such a work?

For Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100, I liked the Perlman/Ashkenazy performance the best. Their choice of dynamics and tempi try to out-Romanticize this Romantic music, and it works pretty well. Small wonder it was chosen as one of EMI Classics' Great Recordings of the Century.

Finally, for Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108, I go back to Zukerman/Barenboim. It's a close call, and in fact I think the third sonata was the best for each of the three recordings. But while I liked the dynamics of Perlman/Ashkenazy in the second sonata, it was too much for the third sonata.

I haven't given the viola sonatas as much playing time as I'd like, so I'll devote more time to them and report back soonest.

Monday, May 03, 2010

What is a "Klavierstucke?"

The last of my solo Brahms piano recordings are entitled "Klavierstucke." Aside from this, I had to learn the definitions of some compositional form Brahms used in his solo piano works.

A Klavierstucke is a collection of works, some of which can stand on their own outside the collection.

The first CD is disc five in the collection of solo works. It consists of Ops. 10, 79, and 76. Op. 10 is a set of four "Ballades." Here is a video of the second ballade in the work.

According to Wikipedia, "A ballade (French for "ballad") refers to a one-movement musical piece with lyrical and dramatic narrative qualities." These early Op. 10 works must have been written around the time Brahms was staying with the Schumann's. There is also a ballade in his Op. 118 works, about which I will talk later.

I have two sets of recordings for the ballades, (as well as the Op. 79 rhapsodies coming up). The first, from the big collection, is played by Hakon Austbo (he is the performer of both discs five and six). In all of Austbo's performances I found the works played in what I would call a very workman-like way. It's not that they aren't played well, but they seem to lack a depth of feeling that is to be found in these works.

On the other hand, the second performer (who plays most of the same works as discs five and six of the big collection), Nicholas Angelich, puts the emotion into his playing that I imagine Brahms intended. Here's a sample of him performing the first ballade of Op. 10.

The next Brahms work I studied was Op. 79, "Rhapsodies." According to Wikipedia, "A rhapsody in music is a one-movement work that is episodic yet integrated, free-flowing in structure, featuring a range of highly contrasted moods, color and tonality." Both of these rhapsodies are in a minor mode (B minor and G minor), and exhibit the kind of free moving music and emotion for which this form is known.

I don't have a recording of Angelich playing the Klavierstucke Op. 76, just one performed by Austbo. For this work, I had to learn the definition of a "capriccio", which (again, from Wikipedia) " a piece of music, usually fairly free in form and of a lively character. The typical capriccio is one that is fast, intense, and often virtuosic in nature.." Op. 76 starts with two of these, followed by two "intermezzi," (I suggest you read the wikipedia link for this one). In all there are four capricci and four intermezzi in Op. 76.

Finally, we get to later works Brahms wrote near the end of his life. These consist of a Fantasien, Op. 116, an Intermezzi, Op. 117, and Klavierstucke Ops. 118-119. A new term for me came from Op. 118, which contained a "Romanze." I was lucky to find a video of Evgeny Kissin performing the romanze.

The Op. 119 consists of three intermezzi, and an ending rhapsody. As the last solo piano works written by Brahms, these works are simply beautiful. Here is the second movement played by Irena Koblar, Brahms Op. 119, Intermezzo in E minor.

I had a hard time getting into these pieces, which is why it took so long to write this entry. To fully appreciate the music, I had to simply sit and listen. I think that may be at the heart of many Brahms' pieces, which might be why Brahms had so many detractors in his lifetime. While some of his music grabs you at first listening (take his second piano concerto, for example), some requires multiple plays before you "get it." It's a little easier now, as we have instant access to the music (just play the CD again), whereas in Brahms time, to hear a piece you had to either hear it in concert, or play it yourself. As for the latter, his solo works could sometimes be too virtuosic for the average amateur pianist. So, if you find yourself paying for a seat at a concert, you want to hear music you will like and understand. I think this is as true today as it was in the 19th century. Some of Brahms' works (some, perhaps much of the classical music repertoire as well) requires the listener to work in order to understand the music.

So, on to some chamber works.