Thomas Larcher – Klavierstücke

Klavierstücke

Thomas Larcher / Arnold Schönberg / Franz SchubertKlavierstücke ECM New Series ECM 1667 (1999)


I attend a fair number of classical music performances.  It is common for the organizers to program these concerts with an assortment of pieces from different composers.  At worst, these present the thinnest possible justification to insert the personality of the organizers into the proceedings.  Rather than performances that simply draw out something from the compositions and the individual performances, there is an incessant focus on the reasons put forward for the juxtapositions.  This can go as far as performing only brief excerpts of pieces and alternating back and forth between two composers.

Pianist Thomas Larcher’s Klavierstücke follows the format of alternating between two composers: Arnold Schönberg and Franz Schubert.  These are not composers of the same school.  So obviously there is something inteded by the juxtaposition.  Surprisingly, the effect is quite wonderful.  Schönberg’s 12-tone compositions are the arch-modern radical music of the early 20th Century.  Schubert worked a century earlier, and is sometimes thought of a composer of pleasing tunes of a more undistinguished nature.  Larcher uses the stereotypical ECM records sound: somber, delicate, austere, with pervasive echo and minimalist self-reverence; and he ties together aspects of the two composers that way.  Alternating between older and newer compositions relieves some of the demands of a straight program of modern abstraction, but also demonstrates how Schubert’s compositions have substance too — and how Schönberg’s are more approachable than might be assumed.  There is an eeriness to the juxtaposition that seems credited to more to the composers than the performer, which is perhaps the greatest praise to be bestowed here.

I picked this up as (sadly) one of the only Schönberg albums available at my local public library, not realizing that it featured Schubert compositions too.  While the Schönberg performances on their own don’t rival Maurizio Pollini‘s definitive recordings, the juxtaposition offers a kind of sonic essay that is about contextualizing the music in degrees, or a continuum, of alienation and embrace.

Norman Blake – Green Light on the Southern

Green Light on the Southern

Norman BlakeGreen Light on the Southern Plectrafone Records 824761-42812-1 (2011)


A PBS television program called “Nashville 2.0” featured supposedly “new” style country music artists of various sorts.  It featured Jerry Douglas playing bluegrass guitar.  Liking what I heard, I sought out a Douglas album, which sounded like any generic commercial country record and nothing like what he played on the TV show.  But Norman Blake’s Green Light on the Southern was indeed like the best of what “Nashville 2.0” features for acoustic music.  This is a bit ironic, because Blake is a veteran Nashville session player, and his recordings exemplify the “new” face of Nashville better than the truly young guard.  But I digress.

I know Norman Blake primarily from his old Nashville session work.  He was a major force behind the fantastic guitar, banjo, etc. on so many Johnny Cash albums from the 1960s and early 70s.  On this record, his guitar fingerpicking is every bit as great as could be expected.  As a singer, his voice doesn’t impress — in a way, comparison to Elizabeth Cotten‘s recordings, with spectacular guitar playing and nearly unlistenable vocal warblings are apt.  For the most part, Green Light on the Southern is simply acoustic guitar with vocals.  The songs are all arrangements of traditional folk tunes.  If you can look past the shaky vocals, this is exactly the sort of thing country music does best, with earnest celebrations of home and the familiar and straight-faced, personal reactions to commonplace events.  It exemplifies what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called, approvingly, amour-de-soi:

“The primitive passions, which all directly tend towards our happiness, make us deal only with objects which relate to them, and whose principle is only amour-de-soi, are all in their essence lovable and tender; however, when, diverted from their objects by obstacles, they are more occupied with the obstacle they try to get rid of, than with the object they try to reach, they change their nature and become irascible and hateful. This is how amour-de-soi, which is a noble and absolute feeling, becomes amour-propre, that is to say, a relative feeling by means of which one compares oneself, a feeling which demands preferences, whose enjoyment is purely negative and which does not strive to find satisfaction in our own well-being, but only in the misfortune of others.”

Van Morrison – His Band and The Street Choir

Hi Band and The Street Choir

Van MorrisonHis Band and The Street Choir Warner Bros. WS 1884 (1970)


Van Morrison was really something in his prime, and His Band and the Street Choir came right in the middle of his prime years.  He drops the mysticism of the last records almost entirely.  For some, that makes this fare poorly by comparison.  Yet, setting aside the fact that both Astral Weeks and Moondance are some of the best albums of the era, His Band is a wonderful record all on its own.  It feels a little more extroverted, alternating between sort of a bar-room soul/R&B sound (“Domino,” “Give Me a Kiss,” “Call Me Up in Dreamland”) and more intimate folk (“Crazy Face,” “Gypsy Queen”), and a few tunes that fall somewhere in between (“If I Ever Needed Someone,” “Street Choir”).   So much of this is so good-natured, fun and impassioned, still with touches of poignancy, that it should be easy to love.  Some fans find a way not to love it — making it a black sheep in Morrison’s early discography.  Their loss.  This one is pretty great.