- Belcea Quartet, Tabea Zimmermann, Jean-Guihen Queyras: “Brahms String Sextets” (Alpha Classics)
- Rebeca Omordia: “African Pianism” (SOMM Recordings)
Two things have been stuck in my head lately. The first comes from Anna Stavychenko’s recent interview with my colleague Hartmut Welscher, given just before Russia’s invasion, while the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra director was on permanent red alert. When asked if she could listen to any music at the moment for comfort, Stavychenko replied that she couldn’t. “As a musicologist and music critic, classical music is mainly work for me, anyway. When I hear it, I start analyzing or comparing interpretations. It’s complicated. Speaking for myself, I don’t usually listen to classical music. I prefer electronica, techno, or something like that. But right now, at home, I’m not listening to any music. I’m too stressed.”
For whatever reason, the image that came to mind in response to that was of Major Charles Emerson Winchester on “M*A*S*H.” David Ogden Stiers played the Boston Brahmin with a cushy wartime posting in Tokyo before being dispatched to a mobile army hospital on the frontlines of the Korean war. Faced with a hitherto unfathomable amount of suffering and humanity, Winchester slips into the comparatively rational comforts of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. What’s complicated for one is a coping mechanism for another.
Lately, I’ve been siding more with Stavychenko. I haven’t wanted to listen to music (though I have been content to binge old seasons of “M*A*S*H”). When I have fired up Tidal, however, I’ve found my tastes sidestepping the thorny pleasures of a new Wolfgang RIhm compilation, the catharsis of a new work by David T. Little, or the intoxicating depths of a fresh read on “Pelléas et Mélisande.” Does my preference for the Adagio from Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto or the opening to Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet verge on the embarrassing?
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I’m not sure that I’m listening for a sense of comfort, hope, or consolation. Perhaps those have all lost their currency. Why, then, in the times where I want to listen to music, can I not stop playing the Belcea Quartet, Tabea Zimmerman, and Jean-Guihen Queyras’s new recording of Brahms’s two String Sextets? Why did we even need another recording of these two works?
The best answer I can give to the first question is: “No thoughts, just vibes.” It’s easy to slip into Brahms’s first sextet like a sensory deprivation tank. The opening movement begins with a warmth that barely registers at first; a room temperature that gradually increases to reflect your own body temperature. It seeps in, almost unnoticed, and it’s easy enough to float in the sweeping gestures that, at times, sound more like an orchestra than a chamber ensemble. It’s not perfectly calm; there’s a sense of longing, of pining, but that too may as well be part of our baseline after being so far removed from anything resembling neutral.
Having played together for nearly 30 years, the Belcea Quartet is well-matched to this sense of yearning-as-baseline. The blazing styles of Romanian violinist Corina Belcea and Polish violist Krzysztof Chorzelski are balanced out by a more chromatic introspection from their French colleagues, violinist Axel Schacher and cellist Antoine Lederlin. Fellow Frenchman Queyras and the German Zimmermann complement this balance, one that particularly shines through in the darker shades of Brahms’s second sextet. Though written shortly after his first, Jean-Michel Molkhou points out in the liner notes for this new recording that in this interregnum Brahms had lost his mother and ended a relationship with soprano Agathe von Siebold. Agathe’s name is preserved in the opening theme of the second sextet (A-G-A-D-B-E, which in German would spell out as A-G-A-D-H-E). That’s not to say that the entire sextet becomes a monument to the composer’s personal upheaval; perhaps it was even a means of disassociation for him. The Belceas, Zimmermann, and Queyras are messengers of that capaciousness.
The works featured on Rebeca Omordia’s “African Pianism” are similar to the Brahms sextets in that it’s easy enough to listen to them solely for the pleasure of listening. But it’s worth a deeper listen to appreciate the thoroughness of programming and nuanced curation that the Nigerian-Romanian pianist has put into her latest album. Featuring composers that span nearly 5,000 miles—from Moroccan composer Nabil Benabdeljalil to South African composer David Earl—the program is by no means a monolith. At times, Omordia seems to even question what it means to sound “African.” How can a continent home to several thousand languages and ethnic groups and a vast historical network of colonization come down to one key sound?
“African Pianism” owes its name to composer and professor Akin Euba, whose theory of the same name, as Robert Matthew-Walker explains in the liner notes, is based on the idea of using the piano—a decidedly western instrument—as a vehicle for “expressing certain features of Nigerian traditional music.” He wasn’t the only composer to use that term; it became the title for a dozen pedagogical etudes by Ghanaian composer J.H. Kwabena Nketia, a few of which are heard here, alongside Euba’s “Three Yoruba Songs without Words.”
Euba, who died in 2020, was born into a Nigeria under British colonization and subsequently lived through the country’s independence—and its turbulent aftermath. He’d grown up with what Matthew-Walker calls “the cloak of historical precedent,” which in this case refers to British influence across the culture, including in its music. He also felt the need to preserve the ethnic folk traditions that were a part of his Yoruban identity, and, beyond that, make sense of who he and his music were because of his multicultural upbringing—what he called “not a severance from, but a continuation of the past.” His “Three Yoruba Songs,” originally written for baritone and played here as songs without words, are one means of continuation. In his book Nigerian Art Music, Bode Omojola notes that these works blend traditional Yoruban songs with a western, 20th-century style of music through the common ground of atonality. Euba worked with “an interpretation which sees Yoruba drum music as having a quasi-atonal quality,” one made manifest on Omordia’s recording with percussionist Abdelkader Saadoun.
Listening to this trio with Omojola’s notes in mind gave me fresh ears after the first few listens: I’d been hooked, but admittedly ignorant of all the layers of significance. This may be one of the real takeaways of Omordia’s album. She presents music as a sort of third-culture kid and plays it with all the warmth and generosity of a fellow traveler. This is enjoyable enough on its own merits, but becomes doubly so when you start to fall down the rabbit hole of lineage and meaning. It’s a good reminder that there are still reasons to engage with the world. ¶
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