May 02, 2013
(++++) MIXED AND MATCHED
Stravinsky: Petrushka; Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia; Tchaikovsky: Three Movements from “The Nutcracker”; Mussorgsky: A Night on Bald Mountain. Mythos Accordion Duo (Bjarke Mogensen and Rasmus Schjærff Kjøller). Orchid Classics. $16.99.
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Petrushka. Jon Kimura Parker, piano. Jon Kimura Parker. $14.99.
Gregg Kallor: A Single Noon. Gregg Kallor, piano. Single Noon Records. $13.99.
A novelty item at best, you might think on discovering the Orchid Classics CD of well-known symphonic music, all of it noted for particularly well-done orchestration, played on a pair of accordions. But these are not just any accordions, not just any performers, and for that matter, this is not just any music – it is music steeped in the Russian temperament and performed on bayans, which are Russian classical accordions with particularly wide range and extraordinary expressive potential. The result of mixing this music with these instruments is something quite special: performances so insightful that they reveal elements of the music that listeners will not have heard before, no matter how familiar they are with the works in their original incarnations. What Bjarke Mogensen and Rasmus Schjærff Kjøller do not do is attempt to reproduce orchestral sounds on their instruments – instead, they use the bayans’ unique capabilities to create interpretations of what this music would have sounded like if it had been written for these wind instruments in the first place. And they are wind instruments, although actuated by keyboards (as is the organ, another wind instrument) as well as by bellows. The expressiveness of these classical accordions is truly amazing to hear, and is testimony to a revival of classical accordion playing in Scandinavia, where youthful soloists such as Mogensen are bringing original accordion works by such composers as Per Nørgård and Ole Schmidt into new prominence. Mogensen and Kjøller, playing together with skill and sensitivity, show in these transcriptions just how much can be done by top-notch performers with music that was never intended for the bayan but that sounds quite surprisingly natural on it. Thus, the dance rhythms and dissonances of Petrushka come through here with remarkable clarity, as do the ballet elements of the “Miniature Overture,” “Arabian Dance” and “Trepak” from The Nutcracker – three very well-chosen excerpts. Grotesquerie is one thing the bayan seems particularly adept at presenting, and the strange expansiveness of In the Steppes of Central Asia sounds exceptionally desolate here, while the many peculiarities of A Night on Bald Mountain – although Rimsky-Korsakov somewhat tamed the piece in the version almost always heard and used here – emerge with renewed force and an unusually clear sense of what Mussorgsky was doing in his musical portrayal of the Witches’ Sabbath. It sounds clichéd to say that a CD has to be heard to be believed, but in this case, it happens to be true: no one who thinks of the accordion as a throwaway pop-culture instrument will believe the refinement, elegance and expressiveness of these performances without hearing them.
In some ways, Jon Kimura Parker’s piano versions of The Rite of Spring and Petrushka are greater novelty items than the Mogensen/Kjøller transcriptions – even though piano versions of Stravinsky’s ballets already exist. The reason is that Parker presents both ballets as complete works, and creates piano versions that very emphatically treat the piano as an orchestra in miniature. Stravinsky himself produced a piano-duet version of The Rite of Spring, to be used in ballet rehearsals, and a very virtuosic Three Movements from Petrushka piano display piece. But Parker has done something more: rather than build on these existing frameworks (of which he is well aware), he has gone back to the full orchestral versions and found ways to reduce them to piano form. “Reduce” is not quite the right word, though, because these transcriptions seem less reductions than reconsiderations. They are concert pieces, certainly not ballet accompaniments, and while they inevitably lack the many clever orchestral touches that Stravinsky brought to the music, they offer in recompense a very high level of clarity that, in effect, fully displays the works’ underpinnings, the skeletons that Stravinsky fleshed out in orchestral garb. “Procession of the Sage” and “Dance of the Earth” in Rite, for example, are absolutely marvelous mixtures of massed notes and pounding rhythms, and in fact Parker’s attentiveness to the rapidly changing rhythms of Rite is a major strength of his transcription and performance: this 100-year-old ballet sounds quite contemporary here, and it is sometimes hard to believe that Parker is playing with only two hands. Petrushka sparkles in Parker’s version, its delicate and grotesque elements nicely balanced and its dramatic ones suitably highlighted. Less intense than the transcription of Rite and less overwhelming, Parker’s version of Petrushka comes across just as effectively in its way, whether in the bustle of “Shrovetide Fair” or the oddly offbeat and rather hesitant “The Ballerina.” These are highly impressive interpretations both in terms of how Parker transcribes the works and in how he plays them – with a mixture of virtuosity and sensitivity that goes very well with Stravinsky’s own sensibilities.
What is mixed and matched in Gregg Kallor’s A Single Noon is something different. Kallor here merges elements of traditional classical music with jazz – not an unusual combination anymore – and also, more unexpectedly, includes both composed music and improvisations, which in combination are intended to call forth the feeling of life in New York City. This is scarcely the first music to do this, and it has sometimes been done to very good effect indeed – in, for example, Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town. But Kallor is striving for something else. The nine movements of A Single Noon are less an evocation of the city than a paean to it; as a result, the suite will be of considerable interest to lovers of the nation’s largest population center and of less attraction for those who do not know New York or are indifferent or hostile to its sensibilities. Like other musical portrayals of specific places, A Single Noon is more in the mind of the creator than in the ears of the listeners – speaking of Bernstein, it was he who famously observed that music does not mean anything. But Kallor, who performs his own music with relish and considerable skill, clearly wants this suite to mean something. Accordingly, he puts the many scenes and moods of New York on display through multifaceted music that ranges from the reflective (the central movement, called “Found”) to the distinctly propulsive (“Espresso Nirvana”). Perhaps the most interesting movement, which immediately precedes “Found,” is called “Straphanger’s Lurch”: it contains an extended improvisation and a strong flavor of pop music. However, it will be fully communicative only to those who know that straphangers are New York subway riders who stand during their travels – the leather straps to which they used to cling are long gone, but the name has persisted. The “lurch,” of course, is the motion of the subway train, although that too has diminished significantly in recent years as trains have become smoother-riding. A Single Noon is too provincial – a word New Yorkers would never want applied to themselves – to be involving for listeners unfamiliar with the city on which it focuses; it nevertheless gets a (+++) rating for its interesting musical elements and the verve and enjoyment with which Kallor presents them.