Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH”


Sony Classical 19439809212

I first came to know these Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 (1950-1) in the recording by Keith Jarrett on ECM some years ago (1992). At the time I was not familiar with this post-Bach set of compositions (one might even call it a “meme”) written to showcase the newly codified “Well Tempered Tuning” but I was intrigued by Jarrett’s choices of repertoire. Not surprisingly, I immediately liked this gargantuan undertaking. I appreciated these pieces as listenable, stimulating musical compositions and a good choice of repertoire by the always interesting Mr. Jarrett. Many pianists have recorded this cycle of works though I can’t recall a recital of the entire set being performed live as occurs fairly frequently with the Bach cycles (he wrote two sets of 24 preludes and fugues in each of the 24 keys of the western musical scale).

Readers of this blog may recall my fawning over an earlier Levit release, a 3 disc set of piano variations containing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (1741), Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” (1819-23), and Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (1975). I asserted that Sony, whose recording (1955) of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations helped elevate that work into the popular repertoire, had at least implied that these three large sets of variations are musically on the same level of significance thus potentially elevating the Rzewski piece to the more mainstream repertory.

Now comes yet another 3 disc set from this fine Russian/German pianist who seems to be possessed of vision as well as virtuosity and interpretive skills. Levit is clearly comfortable with the “usual suspects”, the common repertoire of live piano recitals (Beethoven’s Sonatas, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Liszt, etc.) but is clearly interested in expanding the general repertoire by discovering lesser known works that he finds deserve to be heard more often. A quick look at the pianists other releases reveals a similar pattern even in works of a less grand scale than those discussed in this essay.

Anselm Cybinski’s fine liner notes derive from his reading of history, Shostakovich’s and Stevenson’s biographies, and his conversations with Mr. Levit. Here he describes what Shostakovich was enduring in the years when he brought forth these compositions, post WWII, life in the repressive Stalinist regime, recent censure by said regime, and his attempts to be return from this censure and be allowed to have his works performed again. He relates the story of the then 21 year old Tatiana Nikolayeva who premiered this work and played it before the committee. He also sketches the impact of various historical events on Shostakovich and his music.

The preludes are described as emotional responses to these varied events, a sort of exorcising of the emotional turmoil these events had on the composer. He describes in these notes the contexts which clearly impact the pianist in his understanding and subsequent interpretation of this music, contexts which help the listener grasp the deeper levels of meaning inherent (or at least implied) in these works.

He does the same with the Stevenson work, itself a response to the sufferings of a fellow artist, a sort of artistic dialogue analogous to that of songwriters and other musicians who used their art to make a point (Lynyrd Skynyrd writing, “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to Neil Young’s, “Southern Man” or Leonard Bernstein’s performance of Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” concurrently with the second inaugural concert for Richard Nixon as a political counterpoint are two such examples), not the same situations perhaps but artistic dialogues nonetheless.

Apparently Ronald Stevenson (1928-1915) wrote his gargantuan “Passacaglia on DSCH” in 1960 as a tribute to his fellow composer. There are many examples of Shostakovich using the German note spelling of “D”, “Es” (pronounced, “S”), “C”, “H” (German notation for “B”) all of which translates to the actual notes of D, E flat, C, B as a motif in his work so Stevenson’s use of it is quite apt.

This Passacaglia is a work which I had “known of” but never heard before hearing this recording. It is a marvelous work, not exactly easy listening but a very satisfying work which improves with subsequent hearings, revealing itself as a multi-layered masterpiece. And it is Levit’s vision that effectively gives this work, and the Shostakovich cycle a significant and, thanks again to Sony, a very large public nudge to get this music heard and played more often.

No doubt many reviewers will spend time comparing the various recordings of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and the Stevenson Passacaglia. For the record I did a quick search and found four recordings of the Stevenson work and at least 12 complete recordings of the Shostakovich. However, for the purposes of this review I will leave discussion of the merits and shortcomings of the various interpretations to people better qualified than I. The takeaway I hope to share with my readers is, “Get this set and enjoy it” and to musicians and producers, “Pay attention to Igor Levit’s artistic radar”.

From Appropriation to Incorporation, Cornelius Boots’ Innovative Shakuhachi Trilogy


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Portrait of composer/performer Cornelius Boots from his website

If one pays any attention to creative music in the Bay Area the name Cornelius Boots will come up with some frequency.  He is a good example of the rich cross cultural traditions which have flourished in this area.  California was (and is) in many ways the ground zero of east/west collaborations and Boots contributes his unique take on music and on some unusual instruments.  He is known for organizing the world’s first Bass Clarinet Quartet named, “Edmund Welles”.  He characterizes himself as, “Pied Piper of the nerdy, strange and enlightened.”  How California is that?

Boots has released a trilogy, virtually a manifesto, of his take on Shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute, and our current musical/cultural proclivities.  In particular he favors the Taimu, described as the “baritone brother” of the shorter, higher pitched shakuhachi which is seen/heard more commonly.  The strange breathy sound of this instrument is widely known in traditional Japanese music and it is associated with Zen Buddhist traditions (Boots uses two different shakuhachis in this recording).  Here is where I derive my title for this review.  What Boots is doing is arguably cultural appropriation.  That pejorative epithet is thrown about rather cavalierly these days but what this artist does in this trilogy is to cross the bridge from mere appropriation to incorporation.  He has absorbed the traditional aspects of the instrument and is now at a point where he can inject his own musical consciousness into and through this unique instrument giving listeners a perspective heretofore unavailable.  That is art.

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Shakuhachi Unleashed Vol. I

There is a curious unity to this trilogy of albums which suggests a major reckoning by the composer as he draws musical conclusions filtered through the lens of his experience and the traditions of his chosen instrument.  The unique playful cover art (by Nakona MacDonald) is one of the great unifying factors here.  In fact these CDs are dense with ideas and are worthy of close scrutiny to reveal their richness and how well integrated they are into this production.  Even the numbering of the tracks segregating each disc into a virtual “side A and side B” in the tracklist are a reference and homage to the days of vinyl records.  And of course the big unifying factor is the music itself.  All the music is the responsibility of Mr. Boots who also sings.  The only other noise is made by percussionist Karen Stackpole whose stomping is credited.

This first volume (2016) consists of:

Side A: Darkness

  1.  Blacken the Cursed Sun (Lamb of God)
  2. Heaven and Hell (Black Sabbath and Dio)
  3. Purgatory
  4. Until You Call on the Dark (Danzig)
  5. Damaged Soul (Black Sabbath)
  6. No Quarter (Led Zeppelin)

Side B: Salvation

  1. Hymn to the She Dragon of the Deep
  2. The Devil Points
  3. Taste of Nothing
  4. Year of the Gost God of the Flute
  5. Generuslu
  6. Behind the Wall of Sleep (Black Sabbath)

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Shakuhachi Unleashed Vol. II

This second disc:

  1. Run to the Hills (Iron Maiden)
  2. The Wayward Meteor (Man or Astroman?)
  3. Obscured by Clouds (Pink Floyd)
  4. Baby Bear Drinks Tea
  5. One Brown Mouse (Jethro Tull)
  6. Green Swampy Water
  7. Snake Dreams of Dragon
  8. Sycamore Trees (David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti)
  9. Creature Within the Atom Brain (Roky Erikson)
  10. Shadow of the Wind (Black Sabbath with Dio)
  11. The Greening of Mount Subasio
  12. Hung from the Moon (Earth)
  13. Over the Hills and Far Away (Led Zeppelin)
  14. Freebird (Lynyrd Skynyrd)

 

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Shakuhachi Unleashed Vol. III

Here now is the latest release:

Side A: Kung Fu Flute

  1. Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge (Fishbone)
  2. Fisticuffs (Primus)
  3. Return and Enter the Dragon (Bruce Lee Movie Themes)
  4. Death of the Samurai
  5. Battle Without Honor or Humanity (Kill Bill movie music)
  6. Big Boss (Bruce Lee movie theme)
  7. Kung Fu and the Silent Flute (David Carradine theme music)
  8. Hey Joe (Jimi Hendrix)
  9. Rebel Rouser (Duane Eddy)

Side B: Buddhist Blues

  1. Black Earth
  2. Purple Haze (Jimi Hendrix)
  3. Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part II (Pink Floyd)
  4. The Mysteries of Harmony and Focus
  5. Beautiful Demon
  6. Shakthamunki
  7. You’re Gonna Find Your Mistake (James Kimbrough)
  8. It Hurts Me Too (Elmore James)
  9. Breathe (Pink Floyd)

There are wide ranging references and playful references like “shakthumunki (shock the monkey)” exist alongside music obviously important to this artist including traditional blues and a curious selection of blues’ baby, rock and roll as well as some very personal compositions.  There is much to ponder here.  There are references to prog rock, movies, Lovecraft, covers of some familiar tunes.  References seem to exist here to beat culture as well as, more prominently, psychedelic culture.  But no Grateful Dead?  Well, that’s another thing to ponder as we follow the piper who calls us to join him.