Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Elegant Duke

"The three greatest composers who ever lived are Bach, Delius and Duke Ellington. Unfortunately Bach is dead, and Delius is very ill, but we are happy to have with us today The Duke."
This must have seemed an extravagant claim when it was made by Percy Grainger in 1932, when Duke Ellington and his orchestra played for a class Grainger was teaching at New York University. Grainger was an early jazz afficionado. "There never was a popular music so classical," he once said. Grainger thought that Ellington's music "had a harmonic language similar to Delius." If the statement about Bach and Delius sounds odd today it would be more for its mention of Delius, whose star has faded a bit in the past years, but it's perhaps less outrageous today to rate Ellington so highly than it was then.

From Milan-based pianist Luigi Palombi comes this excellent new disc of piano works written by Ellington, presented as if it were a disc of Ravel or Faure. It begins with Ellington's first composition, the jaunty Soda Fountain Rag he wrote in the summer of 1914 (when he was working as an actual soda jerk). This is a straight-ahead presentation, though there's no lack of style, even elegance, in Palombi's playing. It's less brittle than Ellington's own solo piano playing, often considerably slower, and with less rubato. You know what Ellington (might have) said to Grainger: "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got some rubato." If you compare Palombi's version of the great ragtime Swampy River written in 1928, Ellington's version could have come from the poolroom, while Palombi sounds like he's wearing a tuxedo while playing at a Duke Ellington Tribute. Not to say this isn't a lovely performance; it has energy and verve, but without the full measure of authenticity. The piano sound is excellent; miles ahead of any of the surviving recordings of Ellington's own piano playing.

Here's The Duke, by the way, in a nice performance of his beautiful song Melancholia:

This is from a great two-CD album called Duke Ellington at the Piano that I came across on Spotify. Unfortunately the Palombi CD isn't up on Spotify yet. His version of Melancholia has a dreamy surface, but none of the depths plumbed by the Duke.

The best part of the Palombi disc is the Second Suite from Ellington's great Sacred Concerts. The three songs - The Lord's Prayer, Meditation, and New World - represent a high point in Ellington's late period when he came closest to writing music as strongly devotional and inspirational as Bach.

This disc will be released on March 25, 2016 on Amazon.

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