January 14, 2016


The Spirio Sessions, based on music of Scarlatti, Gesualdo and Mozart. Uri Caine and Jenny Lin, pianists. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

The Latin Project. Boston Cello Quartet (Blaise Déjardin, Adam Esbensen, Mihail Jojatu and Alexandre Lecarme). BCQ Classics. $14.99.

     These albums are neither for traditional lovers of classical music nor for those who enjoy typical jazz expressions and Latin American dances. They are for listeners looking for something entirely new, something blending not only musical forms and musical styles but also the approach of artists to musical material. By definition and by intent, these are not recordings for everyone – they are for people seeking new looks at old music and new looks at new music as well. Hence, the piano duets in the Steinway & Sons recording called The Spirio Sessions offer neither the music of Scarlatti, Gesualdo and Mozart nor music that departs greatly from the composers’ originals. The album’s title refers to what is essentially a high-resolution player piano, a technology designed to reproduce a performer’s handling of music with extreme accuracy. A technological marvel this may be, but for most listeners it will be only a distraction from the music-making of Uri Caine and Jenny Lin. What they have done here is to perform some classical pieces as written and some as components of something that is certainly not classical but is not quite traditional jazz, either. There is nothing new about using classical works as the basis for improvisation, expansion and variation; but Caine and Lin are trying to take listeners on a new kind of journey, one they call “semi-improvised.” This means that much of the classical material is clearly audible even as the entire piece sounds not at all like what the composer intended. Sometimes this is done in reasonably straightforward fashion, as when the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K. 545 is immediately followed by an improvisation on the same movement. At other times, the works here are rather coyly stated as being “after” one composer or another: “after Scarlatti,” “after Gesualdo.” What that means is that piano versions of Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas or Gesualdo’s motets become the basis for free-ranging works that partake of some elements of the original music (at least some of the notes, some of the harmonies, some of the rhythms) but that sound only incidentally like the music as composed. In truth, a full hour of this kind of rethinking is a bit much, despite the multiple approaches used to enliven the reinterpretations (perhaps better called expansions and rethinkings) of the original music. But there is no particular reason to listen to this CD straight through – hearing it in bits and pieces seems quite apt. It is tempting to remember that Mozart himself was not above rethinking music for his own purposes, as in his K. 265 Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je maman"(the tune known in English as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”). But it is even more tempting to relate the Caine/Lin handling of this musical material to Ernő Dohnányi’s variations on that same nursery tune, which poke fun at the styles of multiple composers and are specifically subtitled, For the enjoyment of humorous people and for the annoyance of others. It is likely that not everyone will enjoy what Caine and Lin have done with these works by Scarlatti, Gesualdo and Mozart, but hopefully the recording will not go so far as to produce annoyance.

     The same wish applies to The Latin Project, featuring the Boston Cello Quartet and released on the ensemble’s own label. In truth, the design here is explicitly for fun, not annoyance. Several of the composers whose works are here arranged for four cellos are familiar ones: Piazzolla (himself an expert at integrating “high” and “low” music through his insistence on pulling the tango from the brothel to the concert hall), Chabrier, Albéniz and Granados. But the focus here is actually less on the music than on the performers, who sound as if they are having a grand old time swinging along with the Latin American rhythms of these works and combining their rich and richly varied string sound with that of percussion (played by Will Hudgins) on four of the 12 tracks. One work here is a world première commissioned by the performers: Bossa do Fim by Paul Desenne. But in a sense, all the pieces on this CD are premières, since the four-cello arrangements are scarcely familiar ones and the overall feeling of the recording is one of jazzy, freewheeling improvisation – even though jazz elements are actually only some of the ones heard here. This is one of those discs that seem to exist primarily for sonic purposes rather than strictly musical ones: no one is going to look here for the definitive interpretation of Chabrier’s España or Albéniz’ Rapsodia Cubana. But the sheer richness of sound of the four cellos, the effective interplay of the musicians, the unusual auditory experience of hearing dance music arranged and played as it is here – these are the pleasures of The Latin Project. There is nothing parodistic here, nothing akin to, say, the use of a kind of double-bass dance in The Elephant from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. There is, however, a kind of joie de vivre that permeates the disc and comes through quite clearly to listeners who are looking for some sounds that have classical roots but that go well beyond what one would expect from four members of the cello section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

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