[16 August 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Baroque Conversations is not a baroque album, not entirely. From a “conversing” point of view, it follows through with a strange concept. Other classical musicians have juggled different genres on their releases: baroque with classical, classical with romantic, baroque with romantic, and so on. David Greilsammer takes the idea to an extreme by not only pairing baroque music with modern 20th and 21st century compositions, but jumbling the order as well. The listener is bounced back and forth from one century to another as if it were the logical way to approach this music. And to think that Greilsammer does this in concert!
But the Israeli-born pianist has actually pulled off something pretty convincing here. Oddly, when you hear Baroque Conversations from start to finish, nothing feels out of place. Every piece, no matter how diametrically opposed to its neighbor it may appear to be, doesn’t take an ounce of space away from another piece. How Greilsammer was able to establish flow here is probably a mixture of skill and mystery. One guideline that we are privy to here, no matter how vague, is the grouping of these fifteen tracks into groups of four. What is the theme of these four groups? Good question, because the answer is a highly literary one. Each “act” is explained only by a quotation for each in the liner notes; Jorge Luis Borges, Tonio Benacquista, Arthur Rimbaud and Gabriel García Márquez, respectively. My personal favorite has to be Borges’, which starts off like this: “There is an hour of the afternoon when the plain is on the verge of saying something.” What a perfect way to sum up the pregnant pauses of Mortan Feldman’s “Piano Piece”. Before it and after it are some very conventional baroque pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau and Antonio Soler. A bald-faced move, one that pre-emptively shoots down analysis by the second sentence of Borges’ passage: “It never says it, or perhaps says it infinitely, or perhaps we do not understand it, or we understand but it is untranslatable as music.”
Believe it or not, things just get bolder. David Greilsammer commissioned two new compositions by Matan Porat and Nimrod Sahar. Porat’s piece is called “Whaam!” and it’s just as confrontational as the title itself. It’s based upon a Roy Lichtenstein painted replicated on the inside tray of the CD’s jewel case – not something you see in many classical recordings distributed by Sony. It’s a painting of one airplane shooting down another with the caption reading “I pressed the fire control ... and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky ... .” The composition can’t settle on a style, something that Porat is probably proud of. For instance, there is a jazzy interaction between the left and right hand. If you were to judge the work simply on rhythmic attributes, you would place is back in the days of Jelly Roll Morton. But the harmony? Not even close. Every note in the chromatic scale gets bludgeoned, taking the ‘B’ out of R&B. It concludes with the piano slid being slammed shut. Sahar’s contribution is less forceful, but only by comparison. It’s a tense slice of prepared piano with a backstory to match. Nimrod Sahar wrote the piece to remind people of art’s danger and necessity. Actor Juliano Mer, who called himself “100 percent Israeli and 100 percent Paltestinian” was gunned down outside of a theater he helped create. The 2011 murder baffled many residents in the West Bank, including Sahar, who presents the slaughter as a musical question with no answers.
And yet these tracks do not steal away from the traditional baroque numbers. In fact, in this light, François Couperin’s “Les barricades mystérieuses” sounds like a much more recent work (it’s really from 1717). He even runs through a Handel suite in its entirety. The fact that Girolamo Frescobaldi is followed by Helmut Lachenmann, who is in turn followed by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck without causing so much as a ripple in the overall mood, makes Baroque Conversations all the more impressive. This might all make it sound like David Greilsammer’s technical abilities are easy to overlook, but it proves to be the opposite in this case. The ease and flow of this weird program of music allows you to sidestep context for a moment while you just listen to the guy play piano.
And yeah, he does that pretty excellently too.