Sunday, November 23, 2014

Power Pop To The People

Alex Chilton holds on in Memphis

Let's get a few things out of the way. Like many people, I discovered Big Star retroactively, following the trail of breadcrumbs left by The Replacements. I'd heard of them, of course, often mentioned in the same breath as the Flamin' Groovies, but never heard a note - it wasn't easy to find their stuff for quite some time. When I did hear it, I connected with it immediately. Remembering Alex Chilton's voice on The Letter by The Boxtops, I kept thinking, "This is that guy?" Number One Record and Radio City are both classic albums and Third (Sister Lovers) is pretty fantastic, although fragmented. I also like a lot of I Am The Cosmos, the posthumously released album by Chris Bell, who was Chilton's main foil in the early days of Big Star.

On the other hand, I have often been confounded by Alex Chilton's post-Big Star career. While there are a few good songs (Like Flies On Sherbet, Bangkok), much of it is so shambolic or wrong-headed as to seem not only disrespectful of his fans but of his own talents. He also made a point of disparaging his achievement in Big Star, and the group in general, which bugged me. Nothing he said or played got in the way of my enjoyment, though - Big Star is in the firmament and poisoned arrows from any source can't knock them down.

Although F. Scott Fitzgerald stated that there were no second acts in American lives, Big Star sure proved him wrong when a one-off concert in Columbia, MO in 1993 kick-started a revival of the band that lasted until Chilton's death in 2010. An album of the concert was released that same year and was a delightful surprise. Featuring Chilton and original drummer Jody Stephens along with keepers-of-the-flame Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies on guitar and bass, it was a spirited and short set of well-chosen Big Star songs plus two covers. While there are some tentative moments (Stringfellow calls it a "delightfully fragile show"), there are a lot of fine details as well and in no way did it shame the legacy of the group. I listened to it quite a bit at the time and still put it on from time to time. I especially liked that they covered Baby Strange, one of my favorite T. Rex B-sides - it's always good to find a kindred spirit.

Part of the joy of Columbia was the simple thrill of hearing these great songs take shape in front of an audience, after so many years of hearing the studio versions. In 2009, we were afforded an even more spectacular opportunity to do so, with the release of the stunning Keep An Eye On The Sky box set, which included a complete recording of a 1973 concert at Lafayette's Music Room in Memphis. This is a trio version of the band, with Chilton and Stephens joined by Andy Hummel on bass. It sounds like there are about 10 people in the audience but the band is on fire, with Chilton ripping off leads, chords and complex figures, while Hummel holds down the anchor and Stephens drives the bus, heavy on the ride cymbal. Chilton is in fine voice, too, able to handle the range from soulful to raucous. They were already performing Baby Strange back then, as well as Todd Rundgren's silly Slut, which reappeared in 1993. They nodded to a third hero by including Hot Burrito #2 off the first album by The Flying Burrito Brothers.

There were also earlier releases of live material from 1974, with Chilton showing all too clearly the ravages of the lifestyle that is well-represented on the third album, but between Columbia and Lafayette you have a nice representation of Big Star on stage. Turns out there was more in the vaults, however, and not just audio but film of a complete show from 1994, now seeing the light of day on Omnivore Recordings under the name Live In Memphis. They played in front of family and friends (including Chris Bell's parents) at the New Daisy in what was apparently a warmly received homecoming. 

I admit to being slightIy skeptical of this whole enterprise and when I read that Chilton's former bodyguard (there's a tale) had shot the footage my doubts increased. It seems I needn't have worried. While I haven't seen the whole film, the clip of The Ballad Of El Goodo is beautifully shot, with multiple cameras, and nicely edited as well. In fact, watching this one song has me pretty convinced that this the ideal way to experience Live In Memphis. Watching Chilton's face, still boyish but a bit more lived in, as he puts his all into the song's imprecations to "hold on" is a window into both where the song came from and what it meant to him that night in Memphis after all he had been through. Based on that one song, I am more than eager to see the full thing, which is after all the only professionally made document of a complete concert by Big Star in any form.

That's not to say that the music on its own is to be avoided. At this point, the Posie-fied version of Big Star had played quite a bit in the wake of the 1993 concert, including shows in Tokyo and London, and had gelled more in the process. The set is longer than a year earlier, and looser, with everyone having a lot of fun, bantering with each other and the audience. The uptempo songs drive harder, with a sense of abandon that is very engaging. Looser also means sloppier, with Chilton up to some of his old tricks, entering verses and choruses off the beat and practically daring Auer and Stringfellow to keep up with his off-kilter guitar. 

There are more covers, including 35 seconds of Springsteen's Fire and an ill-advised "playful" take on Girl From Ipanema, which overstays its welcome even at under two minutes. Still, that's really the only cringe-worthy moment. The sound is good enough, although I go back and forth about whether dialing down the drums would be helpful or if their big sound adds to the live feel. Overall, Live In Memphis will be a balm to the ears and especially the eyes of fans of the band and Chilton. Kudos to the team at Omnivore for so lovingly rescuing this material from obscurity. 




Big Star had many descendants in addition to The Replacements, most famously and productively the great Wilco. Jellyfish, the early 90's group helmed by Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. and Jason Falkner (both now strutting their stuff in Beck's astonishing road band), is sometimes included in that cadre. While that power pop sound is definitely in their DNA, they probably take as much from The Monkees, Harry Nilsson, Cheap Trick and Paul McCartney's solo work. Now Omnivore (busy, much?) has prepared reissues of both Jellyfish albums in expanded editions, each featuring a wealth of bonus tracks - demos, live takes, one-offs - to come out on January 20th, 2015.

I never really took to Jellyfish and it's been at least a decade since I listened to Bellybutton. My impression is still basically the same, that here is a group of extremely talented craftsmen with a pretty broad knowledge of music doing exactly what they want to do. It's just not for me. Part of it is the overly brittle sound they chose for their music - I would just like a little more warmth and sense of interaction between the players. But in the end, my opinion doesn't matter much. Jellyfish has their fans and they will be over the moon with Omnivore's typically excellent archival work.

The first disc of the Bellybutton set includes the original album plus ten live cuts from three venues they hit while touring the album. They sound sleek on four songs from the Roxy, charming at the Hard Rock in San Francisco (performing McCartney's Jet, Falkner offers "That's all we know!" as the song ends), and positively storming on the big stage of Wembley arena in London. The second disc is all demos, nine from Bellybutton, one from the second album, five that were never finished, and a cover of Donovan's Season Of The Witch. All of this material will be available as a separate digital download called The Bellybutton Demos. 

For demos, most of these songs are nearly fully realized, with multiple instruments and a modicum of production. These aren't your "bash it out on an acoustic just to get the song on tape" kind of early takes, so they don't provide all that much insight into their writing process, except to point out that working in the studio was an essential part of it. Of the unreleased songs, Queen Of The U.S.A. had serious potential - all they would need to do is hack out the silly sound effects from the bridge and this thing could've been a hit. Always Be My Girl is tuneful and fast-paced - with a different drum approach, it could have been a With The Beatles outtake. Let This Dream Never End is almost pure lite-FM R&B, replete with Greg Phillinganes keyboards and Paul Jackson rhythm guitar. Michael Jackson, Elton John, hell, even Whitney Houston might have found success with it. Season Of The Witch is one of the great groove songs of all time, but Jellyfish never quite seem to find their place in it - completists will be thrilled, as they will be with the rest of this definitive reissue.


Since the demise of Jellyfish, Falkner and Manning have always been busy and in 2000 they teamed up with drummer/composer Brian Reitzell (Redd Kross, Air, numerous soundtracks, including Lost In Translation) to form TV Eyes. They made one album in 2006, which found release in Japan only, played three concerts, and promptly moved on. Looking for something different from what Falkner calls "the macho 'alternative' post-grunge fallout," they took inspiration from Gang Of Four and other post-punk bands, as well as early electronica like Kraftwerk, Japan and Gary Numan's Tubeway Army. The broad swaths of guitar also bring to mind the work of Bill Nelson, especially his Red Noise album, which proved old prog-rockers could get angular, too


Now, thanks once more to Omnivore, this material is no longer for collectors only, and it's worth investigating. While none of the songs equal their influences at their best, each one is fully realized and built-out with all number of layered keyboards, processed drums, disengaged vocals and cool sonic touches. Falkner, Manning and Reitzell are all pros in the studio and it shows, with Reitzell showing his hand in an genuinely haunting re-mix of Time's Up, one of the bonus tracks. What's also clear is that their affection for their sources includes a little well-placed amusement - they know Cars is a funny song as well as a great one - and although they steer clear of parody, they're not afraid of a little pastiche. So check out TV Eyes for some 
expertly assembled machine-tooled post-punk paranoia, especially if you don't mind a dash of fun in the recipe.










Sunday, November 16, 2014

Information For 16 Strings


Like the binary system, string quartets can convey seemingly infinite amounts of information using a simple and easily replicable structure. Two recent releases from Brooklyn Rider and the Juilliard String Quartet highlight some of those possibilities.

The Brooklyn Rider Almanac, featuring 13 new compositions commissioned by the group, comes swathed in layers of information before you even get to the music. The inspiration for the collection, the liner notes explain, comes from Der Blaue Rieter Almanach, the compilation of music, art and essays published in 1912 by The Blue Rider, an art collective based in Munich and centering around painter Wassily Kandinsky. Brooklyn Rider's name is an homage to the German artists and the inspiration for their Almanac comes from the way Kandinsky and company allowed different forms of art to inform each other. In fact, the spark for the Munich visionaries was provided by Kandinsky's Impression III, a quite wonderful painting itself a response to a performance of Schoenberg's Second String Quartet in Munich in 1911.

To carry through the idea, Brooklyn Rider asked the mostly young composers (at 63, Bill Frissell is the oldest) to compose a new work based somehow on the work of an artist they admired. Muses include everyone from William Faulkner to Keith Haring and from James Brown to Mierle Lederman Ukeles, the Artist in Residence at the Department of Sanitation. The composers themselves come from all over the map, including two of indie rock's finest drummers, Glenn Kotche and Greg Saunier, a few notable jazz musicians, such as Vijay Iyer, Frissell, and Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus and a few singer-songwriters. All of the writers for the album are people who perform as well as compose, which could be one of the factors that gives the Almanac its extraordinary energy.

Right from the start, with Necessary Henry! by Albanian cellist Rubin Kodheli, we are treated to a surge of churning power from the quartet. With inspiration from composer Henry Threadgill, Koheli works in all sorts of jazzy swoops and glides, along with percussive thwacks before driving the piece to furious conclusion of unison playing. It's a knockout. Maintenance Music follows, by Dana Lyn and inspired by Ukeles, brooding but tense for the first few minutes, then turning to playful skittery interactions between the players. That's the other thing: all of these works are short, with the longest nearing nine minutes and shortest under three, making for a nicely balanced listening experience. In fact, it may be the perfect shuffle play string quartet album. And you don't have to engage with the liner notes to enjoy it, although this is one case where they do make it more fun.

Padma Newsome of The Clogs portrays the Australian desert through the eyes of Aboriginal painter Albert Namatjira in Simpson's Gap, using sonorities that Aaron Copland would have found well suited to the American prairies. It's a broadly tuneful work that hides layers of pain and struggle beneath the surface. The Haring Escape by sax player Daniel Cords (no relation to BR's own Nicholas Cords) is suitably cartoonish in depicting the liberation of Haring's populist drawings from the stuffy environs of private collections and galleries, bringing to mind the ingenious musical engines of Raymond Scott. Aoife O'Donovan, a singer-songwriter, took her inspiration from William Faulkner for Show Me and conjures up song-like passages infused with the melodies of the American South. It's pure charm. 

My first reaction to Dig The Say, Iyer's James Brown homage was "oy," based on the clunky title alone. But damn if he hasn't gone and done it, convincingly translating James Brown's methods to the world of the string quartet. It's simply delightful - and slightly hilarious - to hear cellist Eric Jacobsen expertly play a Bootsy Collins bass line. As Iyer says, Brown's "...groove-based music features complex polyphony, expressive virtuosity, and a ritual-like intensity," all successfully captured here. Dig it. Iyer's description of JB's music could also be used for Greg Saunier's work with Sean Lennon in their improvisatory duo, Mystical Weapons. However, his work here is one of the more mediative pieces on the Almanac. Titled simply Quartet, Parts One & Two and inspired by Christian Wolff, a composer closely associated with John Cage, it features long, plangent lines and such clarity that it's almost as if the quartet was reduced by half. 

Saunier's work segues nicely into Morris Dance (for choreographer Mark Morris) by Iverson, which, as you would expect, features some parodic moments, most notably an oh-so-deep cello cadenza. The piece ends with a little singing, which is a nice touch and sets up the next piece, Exit, by BR's violinist Colin Jacobsen, which features Shara Wordon on vocals. He gets away with two muses, using words from Kandinsky poems while drawing on the "inquisitive nature" of David Byrne. It's a tuneful, circular work with as much singing and clapping as string playing. I've always enjoyed Jacobsen's contributions to BR's repertoire, and Exit, part of a song cycle called Chalk And Soot, is a striking new direction for him.

Five-Legged Cat by Venezuelan performer Gonzalo Grau, is almost as funky as Dig The Say. Besides the merengue rhythms of his homeland, Grau also looks to Chick Corea for "colors, textures and accents," and his work has all those things in spades, as well as being wonderfully entertaining and atmospheric. Christina Courtin, another young singer-songwriter who also plays violin, is quite self-deprecating about Tralala, seemingly almost regretful about choosing Stravinsky as her muse. Not to worry - there's a lot to be said for Tralala's folky playfulness and episodic nature. She works some dance rhythms in as well, which I'm sure old Igor would appreciate. 

Glenn Kotche, who's already having a bang up year, contributes Ping Pong Fumble Thaw. Electronic composer Jens Massel provides the catalyst and the title, with the piece moving quickly through four movements. Not surprisingly, it's a very percussive string ensemble we hear, with plenty of pizzicato and woody sounds. As with many of the Almanac's compositions, you should not restrain any toe-tapping while enjoying Kotche's miniature symphony. 

Finally, we come to Bill Frissell's entry, John Steinbeck, which grew out of the reams of music he composed for a commission from the Monterey Jazz Festival. It eventually became the album Big Sur and was composed there, not far from the settings for many of Steinbeck's stories. If your familiar with Frissel's guitar-scapes on from his own records or on albums for John Zorn's Naked City or many of Hal Willner's productions (check out Marianne Faithfull's Strange Weather), you will find the ambient textures of his brief quartet familiar. It serves as a contemplative coda to all that came before, ending what is certainly Brooklyn Rider's greatest accomplishment so far. Unlike a five-legged cat, they don't put a foot wrong on The Brooklyn Rider Almanac. 

None of the composers on the Brooklyn Rider album (or its members, for that matter) were even born in 1946 when the Juilliard String Quartet was founded. Naturally, it has replaced all of its members since then while maintaining a tradition of deep involvement with the music of its time with a strong focus on American works, while also bringing its own perspective to the classical repertoire. While there are likely several JSQ recordings that can be referred to as landmarks, perhaps none more so than the 1991 release of what was at that time Elliott Carter's complete string quartets, Nos. 1-4.

Well, as It happened, the irrepressible Carter wrote a fifth quartet, publishing it in 1995. Considering that he was productive until his death in 2012, just a few weeks short of his 104th birthday, I'm somewhat surprised it was only one more! Now the JSQ has reissued those four extraordinary performances along with a new recording of String Quartet No. 5. Don't toss out the older release too quickly, however: it included a definitive recording (with Christopher Oldfather on piano) of Carter's not insubstantial Duo for Violin & Piano, which was composed between the 3rd and 4th quartets and has now become somewhat of a digital orphan. In any case, of the first four quartets let me just say that if you've been following the string quartet's journey from Mozart and Haydn through Beethoven, Bartok and Shostakovich, you need to know these works. It may in fact be the only American cycle that can hold its own in that rarified bunch. 

Carter certainly did not let the side down with the 5th, delivering a fragmented and playful 12 movement piece that also displays the absolute limits of counterpoint and how interacting individuals can make up a whole. Still a landmark recording, it's almost as if Mt. Rushmore grew a fifth head - not something that happens every day and well worth celebrating.



Sunday, November 09, 2014

The Wilco Diaspora, Part 2: Tweedy & Son


When last we met the members of Wilco, nearly every member of the venerable band had released their own albums - everyone except for main singer and songwriter, Jeff Tweedy. Now his record is here, a double album called Sukierae, made in collaboration with his son Spencer under the name Tweedy. For years, Wilco watchers have been hearing about Spencer's drum prowess, and even hearing it on the last Mavis Staples album produced by Jeff, or on recordings by The Blisters, the OK indie rock band Spencer founded. But now we have the full parental endorsement, 20 songs, several of them featuring just father and son.

Let's get one thing out of the way: Spencer can play. Just 18 years old, he is a tuned-in, versatile rock drummer who easily handles anything his dad throws at him, from the punky blast of opening track Please Don't Let Me Be So Understood, to the tense art-rock of Diamond Light Pt. 1, or the chugging folk-rock of Low Key. It would be unfair to compare him to Glenn Kotche, Wilco's groundbreaking percussionist, but he's not missed in this context.

But as integral as Spencer is to Sukierae, make no mistake: Jeff is in the driver's seat, writing all the songs, singing, playing multiple instruments, producing, arranging and recording nearly everything at the Wilco loft in Chicago. The end result is as convincing a display of his casual mastery as we're likely to get. Despite sometimes sounding tossed off, almost all the songs resonate emotionally and contain well-turned hooks and tangy little touches that keep you coming back. I could see an argument for paring Sukierae down to a single disc, but if you listen in a sitting (try it, you might like it), there's an accretive effect of all the verses, choruses and bridges stacking up, seemingly generated from an unending fount of creativity. You might find yourself thinking American song is in a healthy place with this Tweedy guy.

His deep engagement with the history of his medium is reflected in that first song, with its jokey reference to the classic song sung by The Animals, Nina Simone, and so many others, and Hazel, the penultimate track, which calls back to an under-appreciated Dylan song of the same name from the Planet Waves album. Also, the sequencing of the record can't help but bring to mind the White Album, with its whipsaw shifts of mood and its variety of approaches. The sonic environment of Sukierae is more limited than the classic Beatles album, but Tweedy shows a lot of imagination in how he chooses to present each song.

Like The Beatles, Jeff Tweedy also knows when a little help can be useful, deploying Scott McCaughey (who played with R.E.M. for more than 15 years and currently heads The Baseball Project) on several tracks, mostly on piano, and calling in Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig (who perform as Lucius) to sweeten things with their background vocals on nearly half the songs. I especially love their work on sardonic rocker I'll Sing It, where they channel a little of that Flo & Eddie sound from Electric Warrior. Their Lucius bandmate Dan Molad is also heard on two tracks, but credited differently for some reason. There are three songs with Jeff on his own, with Fake Fur Coat an excellent example of the genre of "strumming and picking folk songs with lyrics that blend the surreal with the quotidian." It is, after all, Dylan's world and we can hardly blame Jeff Tweedy for living in it.

Although the lyrics can be oblique at times, there is a general sense of vulnerability, and even fragility at times. Nobody likes to cry in front of their kids, but there is absolutely no sense that Jeff is holding back to protect Spencer. While Jeff has had his rock star troubles, it seems like things turned out pretty well on the home front, and that feeling of familial cohesion is one of the external delights of the album. It should also be mentioned that father and son share at least one of the emotional cruxes of the album: wife and mother Susan Tweedy's diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, for which she is currently being treated. Sukierae (pronounced "sookee-ray") is one of her family nicknames, making the album partly a tribute to her - and it's one she and all the Tweedies can be proud of.

Coming soon: Wilco returns with two career-spanning collections, celebrating 20 years of excellence and exploration. The first, Alpha Mike Foxtrot, will be a box set of rarities and unreleased material, and the second, What's Your 20?, will feature that number of "essential" songs from their eight studio albums.

 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Bach & Levit: Partita Animals



You walk in a room, your view of the gilt-framed paintings obscured by the crowd, some your friends, and others your enemies. The air is a haze of smoke, redolent of wine, beer, perfumes, powders and sweat. As you step further into the space, the gorgeous young thing at the harpsichord begins to play something insipid, hoping to impress the vapid young men gathered around the instrument. Why must this always happen? Why is it not possible to make an entrance accompanied by something worthy of your presence?


Pure conjecture, of course, but who's to say this sort of experience wasn't the impetus for J.S. Bach to come up with the spidery opening chord and dramatic beginning for his Partita No. 2? All I can say is that when I hear it, I sit up in my chair, a master of all I survey. However, not every performance of Partita No. 2 has that effect on me. As part of my preparation for reviewing Igor Levit's new recording of Bach's Partitas Nos. 1-6 I decided to focus on one of the six pieces and get to know it really well. So I made a playlist of more than a dozen complete recordings of No. 2, with a little lagniappe from the Swingle Singers's Jazz Sebastian Bach album thrown in for good measure.

As I listened, I started forming very definite opinions on how this music is best played. Naturally, like anything else open to interpretation, beauty will be in the ear of the beholder, but I do think that Bach should not be easy listening. Put another way, Bach is known for writing a large body of utile music, such as to accompany church services or festivals, or to aid in the teaching of music itself. However, I don't think he ever put quill to parchment with the hope of creating wallpaper. In fact, we know that Bach was using the Partitas to establish himself as a composer of keyboard works, being known mainly for his choral works at the time he published the first one. Making a strong statement would definitely be on his list of priorities with these works.


The first recording on my list was by the legendary harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and my first reaction was, "Wow, but no - too weird. Haunted house!" Gradually, however, I began to come around to it, and the harpsichord in general, embracing the weirdness. I've always found that instrument a little tough to take but for this project I wanted to really give it a chance. After all, the harpsichord was Bach's axe of choice back then. He completed the book of Partitas in 1730 and didn't hear a piano that he liked until 1747, when he took on the sideline of selling the newfangled keyboards for pioneering manufacturer Gottfried Silbermann.


Admittedly, the Landowska recording was a little rough and ready, being from the 30's and slightly distorted. In addition to Landowska, I also grabbed Ton Koopman's recording, which was certainly beautiful if a little straight laced in comparison. Finally I discovered Christiane Jaccottet's brilliant performance, which seems to find the perfect balance between sheer beauty, drama and strangeness all tied together with a slightly searching quality as if playing the music in the process of discovery. The recording is close but not clinical, revealing some of the mechanical noises of her keyboard, but not distractingly so. Listening to the three harpsichord recordings in my playlist pointed put a key interpretive choice: whether to spread or roll out that opening chord or to play the notes in unison. Landowska and Jaccottet both opt for the former and Koopman for the latter.


I do not know enough about it to understand why rolling the chord is optional, but I can say that I like it better in general, whether on piano or harpsichord. While there were some recordings I took to that didn't spread the chord, it's just a bolder statement and seems to put the partita on a different footing. So I had my harpsichord breakthrough thanks to this process, although listening to it's brittle, metallic sound for extended periods still causes fatigue. But maybe that's as it should be. Are we supposed to sit and listen to all six partitas at once, with the endings running into the beginnings in unending stream of Baroque melodies? There's that wallpaper question again.


Speaking of which, as I compiled my list I came across the best-selling release by Simone Dinnerstein called Something Almost Being Said, which has music by both Bach and Schubert. While I have enjoyed some of her work, especially Night, her collaboration with Tift Merritt, I just can't tolerate her soft-edged, diffuse approach in this music. While I'm not an original instruments snob, I do think there is a point where a player can seem to be ignoring everything a composer ever hoped for their work. "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there," L.P. Hartley wrote and I don't think its a bad thing to allow some of that foreign-ness to exist in very old music. Something almost being said? I think not. I think Bach was actually saying something, and we should respect him enough to let the music do the talking.


For a great recording on modern piano, Glenn Gould is still the man. Stylish and dynamic, he manages to put a personal stamp on it while maintaining a clarity in the counterpoint that keeps you anchored. And you should hear what he does with that opening, putting a little hesitation between the first note and the rest of the chord, making a new sequence. While known as a bit of an eccentric, Gould had nothing on Julius Katchen's entry which is full of blurred passages, odd dynamics and rushed tempos. I think Katchen took more liberties than the Swingle Singers. Call it sloppy if you will, but the sense of ownership is captivating. Another fine recording is by Eldar Djangirov, known mostly for jazzy crossover stuff but whose stunning precision and expert pedal work do perhaps the best job of translating the qualities of the harpsichord to the modern instrument. Style to spare, too.

My playlist also includes David Korevaar, Martha Argerich, Andras Schiff, Roger Woodward, Lydia Gorstein, and Vladimir Ashkenazy, all of which have something to recommend them, as well as one smoothed out movement on harpsichord by Hermann Stinders, which does not. As for the Swingle Singers, their take is kind of charming and while I wouldn't want a whole album of it, makes for a nice palate cleanser.


So how does Levit do, shouldering his way into a crowded subway car of fleet-fingered, often imperious masters of the keyboard? Born in Russia in 1987, Levit has been playing since the age of three but waited until last year to make his recorded debut, first as a soloist on a live recording of Eric Tanguy's In Terra Pace, and then on his own album of late piano sonatas by Beethoven. The Tanguy album didn't make much of a splash (the music isn't terribly distinctive) but the Beethoven album was greeted rapturously. While I'm not going to investigate fully, from what I can hear he more than holds his own in another packed field, displaying astonishing technical assurance, lyricism and drama. His Beethoven sings.


He brings many of those same qualities to his Bach, playing the partitas in a manner that is unapologetically modern while nodding to Baroque style. His tempos may be more measured than some yet his well-defined rhythmic sense keeps things moving, acknowledging the parlor dances that give some of the movements their structure. He makes the most of the piano's dynamic range while avoiding an excess of romanticism. That said, a clue to his approach lies in a Schumann quote in the liner notes where he says, referring to Bach, "... I myself confess my sins to this lofty figure every day, while seeking to purify and strengthen myself through him." Levit has some of this interiority as well, giving the sense of a personal journey through the partitas, rather than just a display of virtuosity.


Throughout, Levit opts more for beauty than for some of the alien aspects of the Baroque approach, but without any sense of soft-pedaling (literally or figuratively) the work of a genius from almost three centuries ago. It's almost a high wire act on Levit's part, balancing all of these elements, and his sense of command is such that you never worry about him falling. This is an excellent recording and confirms Levit's place at the front ranks of today's keyboard artists. He makes a number of subtle, intelligent decisions and executes them with flair. If I would like to see him use more imagination when it comes to record-making I also understand his need to get some major repertoire on the books at this stage of his career. In the end, while Jaccottet might have the edge with Bach himself, I don't doubt that Levit would also get a nod of approval from the old master as he entered that imagined party seeking friends and recognition.