Our red thread on June 6 was grand masters of the keyboard doubling as leaders of the band. Starting at the top with the new set of the Brahms Piano Concertos (ECM New Series 2021) András Schiff and the conductorless Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, we heard the opening Maestoso from the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15. This is repertoire beyond the usual ken of the original-instruments crowd, and the performance was accordingly startling: the orchestral palette unusually tangy, even raw, the textures counterintuitively contrapuntal. The press release references Arnold Schönberg, who called Brahms "the Progressive," even as he pointed to Brahms's immersion in Beethoven and Bach. Channeling his inner Marty McFly, Schiff hurtles back to the future, stripping away the accretions of "tradition" the better to show the music's prophetic qualities. Whether or not this is how you'll prefer your Brahms henceforth, it's an adventure.
Also on our playlist: Mozart Monument 1785, from Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Sony Classical 2021). Here, we dropped the needle on the Andante from the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467, and the Masonic Funeral Music, K. 477, in the parallel key of C Minor. In 1967, the Andante filled movie houses around the world as the theme music for Bo Widerberg piercingly lovely period romance Elvira Madigan—a pairing so evocative that the concerto has henceforth been known by the name of the movie, even by music lovers too young to catch the reference. For all its limpid beauty, Mozart's poetry here is strict, unfolding in an empyrean indifferent to the woes of mortal lovers. Anything but sentimental, Andsnes and his forces honor the impassive majesty of the music—as they also do in the funeral music, an orchestral arrangement of a chorale for male voices that treads more somberly. In their rigor and submission to human destiny, the movements are perhaps more alike than they seem on the surface. Andsnes makes us hear that.
I won't attempt to unravel the practice of the pianist-composer Michael Harrington. But here are two helpful hints. First, Harrington has drunk as deep at the well of Indian classical music as he as at the well of the Western classical music. Second, he has made a career exploring the intricacies of just intonation. Based on the diabolical mathematics of musical intervals, just intonation is the "problem" that "equal temperament" (in virtually universal use as far back as Bach) was designed to solve, at a cost certain musicians refuse to pay. Philip Glass has called Harrington "an American maverick," thereby placing him in the craggy pantheon alongside the likes of Charles Ives, Harry Partch, Carl Ruggles, and others who have blazed their own trails.
Here, from the composer, are a few words about his new album Seven Sacred Names (Cantaloupe), due for release on June 16: "I wanted to show how beautiful simple harmonies can be, especially in just intonation. . . and [to create a work] that would serve as an introduction inviting listeners and musicians to start perceiving just intonation as an infinite harmonic system encompassing limitless possibilities on a spectrum between simplicity and complexity."
As we listened to the tracks "Qadr: Etude in Raga Bhimpalasi" and "Mureed," a colleague popped into the studio to ask what on earth was on our air. He found it disorienting but magnetic. I'll go with that. A wilderness of mirrors. Count me in for the whole nine yards.