the blog of musician Dinuk Wijeratne

Category: disc of the month

Disc of the ? – the Art of Ignaz Friedman

This is actually a regular blog entry attempting to masquerade as a ‘disc of the month’ post (he said sheepishly). In my defence, owing to a terribly hectic yet artistically rewarding summer of great music-making and much intercontinental dining, I have fallen behind and thereby come to the sad realization that this whole ‘disc of the month’ series is not destined to be as, cough, ‘monthly-ish’ as it suggests. However, when I am struck by the urge to recommend something, I will certainly do my darndest not to keep it to myself!


As a music student in New York City I enrolled in an analysis class with the great Carl Schachter. By this time he was already a bit of a legend; arguably the most influential Schenkerian analyst since Schenker himself. Each week I would look forward to Prof. Schachter’s class with much enthusiasm. He strikes a wonderful balance between elucidating music cerebrally and intuitively – a rare gift possessed by college professors, in my opinion. One day he decided to discuss tempo rubato (literally, ‘robbed time’ in Italian, referring to rhythmic flexibility in musical performance). He played this crackly old recording for us, without first announcing the either the title of the piece, the composer, or the performer:

I remember instantly thinking that, until that day, I had not heard such sophisticated pianism. Firstly, I didn’t think that someone could elicit a tone from a piano that was so singing that it could completely defy the percussive nature of the instrument. The melody here floats so freely that it seems disembodied. When it’s in the treble, it glows; when it’s in the bass (check out 0’49”), it booms with rich orchestral resonance. All the while, a hushed accompaniment pulsates with a heck of a lot of momentum….but boy can it turn on a dime. And this brings me to the ultra-expressive, swoon-worthy rubato. Personally I find it totally sincere and never indulgent. Indeed, the virtuosity of this playing is not in the speedy fingers or flashy runs, but in how everything else is precisely controlled to evoke an emotional response. Yes, it’s never felt this good to be manipulated ;)

Ignaz Friedman (b. Poland 1882, d. Australia 1948)

Listening to this recording even today, many years later, I marvel at a testament of how the art of Ignaz Friedman can be transmitted through a haze of pops, crackle, and hiss. And all in a mere 2½ minutes, in the form of an unassuming little ‘Song Without Words’ by Mendelssohn (op.53 no.2). Within a miniature exists an entire world of musical expression that evokes the so-called ‘golden age’ of piano playing in full force.

Now that I have your attention (wry smile), let me ask you whether you think anyone will ever surpass Friedman’s 1936 recording of the Chopin E flat Nocturne op.55 no.2…..

At 0’23”, after the delicate balance between the melody and its accompaniment has been established, we are suddenly yet subtly made aware of a secondary voice (also played by the right hand). Subdued but with its own intensity, Friedman presents it as a quietly assured dissenting opinion, imbuing it with a human quality (hear it again for instance at 0’30” and 0’42”). His exquisite handling of voicing and balance reminds me of a Daniel Barenboim quote:

“The most important part of piano-playing is the symphonic element.”  –  from ‘I was reared on Bach’

Not forgetting that the two right hand voices – one dominant, one subversive – are imbued with such human qualities in this recording that they might represent ‘real’ characters in the listener’s mind. Sound takes on meaning, and then comes to life. In my previous post, I expressed that the spiritual significance of musical counterpoint for us listeners or performers might represent some kind of Utopia, in which conflicts and resolutions play in out in a more ideal way than they do in real life.

a great collector’s item (2CDs), now sadly out of print :(

Friedman’s recorded legacy is preciously small. It fits on about five CDs, and really doesn’t comprise any large pieces. I would recommend the NAXOS albums. However, we should be wary of branding him as a miniaturist (despite his genius for it) since he was in fact a globe-trotting repertoire-hound who, in 1904 for instance, performed the Brahms D minor, Tchaikovsky B flat minor, and Liszt E flat concertos all in one evening! (I’m still trying to get my head around that one). And for his most lasting impression on posterity? It is said that nobody could play a Chopin Mazurka like old Ignaz :)  The great pianist Stephen Hough, in his fantastic blog, even refers to the ‘charisma’ of Friedman’s Mazurka playing. Also, a brief but much appreciated webpage talks about Ignaz Friedman’s sorcery here. They include two complete Mazurka recordings. Have you ever heard such classy left hand swing?! He danced the Mazurka as a child in Poland; little wonder that it is ‘in his blood’.



Disc of the month, June 2012 – a perfect mix?

‘For such a visual medium, the cinema is profoundly located by our ears.’ – Anthony Minghella (1954-2008)

On my personal list of favourite film scores – nestled among famous ones by Bernard Herrmann, Toru Takemitsu and John Williams – is certainly the other-worldly collaboration of Gabriel Yared and Underworld, co-composed for Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering (2006). It is, quite simply, one of the most immaculate blends of electronic and acoustic elements I have heard on disc. A considerable chunk of its artistic merit is surely the actual production value of the recording itself, “mixed to perfection” I think to myself whenever I enjoy it on a really juicy sound system. And while so many subtle combinations of sounds float past me, I also think: “Why on earth wasn’t this soundtrack mixed in surround sound?!” That would probably take it from exquisite to mind-blowing.

Coincidentally, this month I also borrowed a DVD from the public library entitled Music by Gabriel Yared, a 2008 documentary that is short-and-sweet  at only 60 mins. It is wonderfully insightful, offering an intimate glimpse into the life of the oscar-winning, Lebanese-born composer.

Fascinated as I am by the nature of collaboration, I particularly loved being privy to Yared’s interactions with the late, great, Anthony Minghella, who died aged 54. I should take a moment to say how tragic it is for us to have lost a director of his calibre when he no doubt had so many great films left to make. A trained pianist, he was deeply intelligent about music and he was even invited to direct Madame Butterfly as the MET Opera’s season opener, also for 2006. His obituary in the NYTimes is a wonderfully illuminating article, if you would like to know more about him. It seems fitting to me that Minghella, who was able to deftly and poignantly weave so many elements into complex cinematic tapestries, should be served in his film Breaking and Entering by a score that does exactly the same. Minghella himself provides the liner notes to the album, which makes the CD a special thing to own (he writes beautifully. And yes, I still love buying hard copies. There is also that superior audio quality that the internet will still not provide, cough). Minghella talks of how he and Yared shared the kind of patience and respect for each other that allowed them to work simultaneously through the process, resulting in a very organic score, even remarking: “On Cold Mountain he sat across the room from me at my piano while I scribbled at the draft [screenplay] on my desk.” 

Wow. How many directors today embed music this deeply into their methodology?

Collaborations abound between parties of different disciplines – e.g. composers and performers, dancers and percussionists, etc. – but collaborations between parties of the same discipline, where creative input and credit must be equally shared, are different beasts entirely. You inevitably risk a clash of egos in coming to consensus whenever there are lots of valid ideas vying for precedence. And so I find myself even more impressed by this music, when I can only imagine what the process of compromise must have been for two parties as disparate as Yared and Underworld, the latter a collaborative duo in themselves. A room containing Yared, Minghella, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith must have seen a lot of compromise(!)  Yet what has emerged is a score/soundtrack that is truly another character of the film, and is incredibly, as Minghella again observes: “unlike anything of Gabriel’s I’ve heard, and certainly not what you might expect from Underworld”.

I personally think of it as their beautiful ‘alien lovechild’ ;)

I’d rather not get into a debate about whether the score to Breaking and Entering is greater than the film itself, as it is beside the point of this post. Certainly the movie deserves to be watched since it abounds with talent (Juliette Binoche, need I say more?). I also love seeing London from the perspectives of class and culture. There are so many sublime moments from the soundtrack, which on CD plays continuously as though it were an intimate 60-minute symphony, that it was very difficult for me to choose just one track to share with you. Here is St. Pancras, which of course refers to the railway station:

[audio http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1657910/02%20St%20Pancras%20mp3.mp3]

I highly recommend that you listen to this on the best sound system you can access. If you turn it right up, it will still be intimate; and the intimacy is so precious, yet also so preciously captured with brilliant audio engineering. We hear an exquisite mix of sound effects and musical elements that are both acoustic and electronic, their qualities shaped and blurred to the point where we don’t know which is which. It reminds me of what Leonard Bernstein said about ‘ambiguity’ creating the beauty in art. In St. Pancras, that software synth at 0:28 – didn’t you think it was a real instrument for a moment? When the multi-layered groove kicks in at 0:22, can we accurately dissect its components? And when it ramps up at 0:57, is that triple-meter cross-rhythm on a cajón?! How the heck did that solo cello appear suddenly in the foreground at 1:50? And the floating string chords? Where precisely are the attacks of all these sounds? I suspect there are none. They seem to materialize as if by magic. Studio magic apparently.

I have been heavily immersed for the last couple of months in a world of samples and loops, leading up to my WijeratneWorks project premiering soon, and I have to admit that when listening to the soundtrack of Breaking and Entering, I stand both humbled and envious. There is a lot I’m trying to take from experiencing its unique little universe, but in a perfect mix of a multitude of tiny elements, many are too mysterious to understand.

Disc of the month, May 2012 – Live Ellington gets me hot ‘n’ bothered

This past academic season, I taught composition at Acadia University while my esteemed colleague Derek Charke (of recent JUNO fame) was away on Sabbatical. It was a sincere pleasure for me to work with the students of the department. The personal perks of travelling to the gorgeous town of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, each week included the two hours of solitude I got to spend in the car. Prime opportunity for listening to lots of music, my favourite NPR show (On Point), and all the awesome BBC  radio shows I download onto my iPod (more on how I actually rip these later, evil laugh). Naturally this post can take me on any number of tangents from here on, but I’ll stick to the point and mention that one of the BBC programs on vintage Big Bands got me a serious Duke Ellington habit. I’ve had this addiction before, in college. It’s rather pleasant, I warn you. Needing my Ellington fix, I come across a totally random CD in the Acadia Library entitled ‘Hot Summer Dance’. It’s a winner for me in every sense. I listened to it non-stop for several days.

I should say that Ellington ‘Live’ is very special indeed. It’s not as clean as some of the studio stuff, but boy does it have fire. Has there ever been another Big Band of Big personalities, crammed into one unified unit, led by such vision to create such electric performances? The problem is that capturing them ‘live’ is not easy by any means. Enter producer Bob Thiele, who has somehow mic-ed up these guys with startling intimacy. We get the sense of the largesse of the venue’s acoustic – a ‘hot’ summer dancehall – and yet the intimacy of the band is right there: their comments to each other; Duke’s count-ins (gotta love ’em); the breathiness of the wind playing in all its glorious nuance. At last we have stereo depth from a live Ellington album.

I could go on an on, but you should listen to a track for yourself.

There are no decent clips out there, so I uploaded a favourite track to Youtube. It’s not on iTunes, but you can buy a hard copy from amazon.com. Interestingly, I decided not to choose an Ellington original, but his arrangement of a popular standard. The magic of this ensemble is all there: the sheer creativity of the groove, almost lop-sided sounding; Duke’s articulation on the piano, endearingly shaky; Jimmy Hamilton’s first phrase (swoon); the way the orchestration builds organically and effortlessly toward that first big tutti.