CD Stock: EMI Classics 7243 557512 2 5
If you think this is going to be a rather less authentic version of Itzhak Perlman's In The Fiddlers House then you have got quite a surprise coming. That earlier release highlighted Perlman's musical journey into the world of Klezmer music (from the Hebew Klay Zemer - musical instruments) with a variety of the best Klezmer bands in the business, and was hugely successful. This outing sees Nigel Kennedy, who is not Jewish, partnered with a somewhat lesser-known trio of Polish Klezmer musicians who comprise the Kroke Band. I loved it - no two ways about it - and I much preferred it to Perlman's recording.
On the face of it, this just shouldn't be happening. Perlman has all the right credentials for this crossover. He is Jewish and Israeli to boot, so he should have this music in his blood. And so he does. The bands that accompany Perlman, such as the Klezmatics, the Klezmer Conservatory Band and Brave Old World are all top notch, and each more interesting to me on its own than Kroke. But with this new release, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In contrast, Perlman is so excited by the opportunity to play Klezmer, that he tends to grab the spotlight and the music focuses on his brilliance. He doesn't always get the best out of the musicians that surround him.
Kennedy does not fall into this trap at all, and becomes an equal player in the band, serving up chamber music that relies on the close interplay of musical ideas. He parks his ego outside the recording studio and we are the better for it. Despite Kennedy's astonishing virtuosity, I never felt he was self-indulgent here, unlike his early Vivaldi recording. There are moments of supreme virtuosity but never for its own sake. When he pulls out all the stops, it's at the service of the music, and in the context of what his fellow musicians are doing. He often plays in unison with Tomasz Kukerba (normally a violinist) on viola, and plays off the understated accordion of Jerzy Bawol and the supportive double bass of Tomasz Lato. On most tracks Kennedy plays violin, but switches on a few to electric violin, perhaps a little less successfully.
This recording, made in Krakow and London in 2002 and 2003, has a wonderful mix of musical styles, from Polish to Moroccan through Gypsy, and a very high standard of musicianship. The musicians are well served by the recording engineers who have succeeded in capturing the flavor of live performance in the recording studio. Sometimes the music projects a very rustic sound, but this is deliberate, in tune with the musical ideas.
My wife enjoyed this music because so much of it is based on East European traditional dance, which she loves. I'm not much of a dancer, but I will admit it is the kind of music that excites the senses and begs you to join in the infectious rhythms.
In case you want to try out a couple of tracks before buying, I recommend first "Time 4 Time". This track is set to the background of a ticking clock. Kennedy leads with Kukerba shadowing him on viola. A very slow melody is strung out in a very old fashioned way, then various accents punctuate the playing, which becomes steadily stronger and faster. The music then morphs into a very current world music style, his wordless vocals from Kukerba. Kennedy's electric violin sounds more like electric guitar here, and helps to raise the temperature.
Another favorite is "Lost In Time". Like "Time 4 Time", this composition is credited to the 4 musicians. Here Kennedy opens with a strikingly beautiful tune, and this time he is on his own. The music is strongly influenced by the Bach Partitas for Solo Violin, but also includes many more modern sources. I found his performance magnificent and the sound exceptional. Towards the end he accompanies a very delicate rendition of the tune on one string with unusual finger scrapings that add atmospherics to the experience. The track depicts the winter conditions in a quarter of Poland. Kennedy has a second home in Poland, and has spent a lot of time there - it shows. In fact in 2002 Kennedy was appointed Artist Director of the Polish Chamber Orchestra.
Perhaps the most interesting track brings together three fiddlers of different religions. The third is guest artist Aboud Abdul Aal. Kennedy, Kukerba and Aal each take turns to state the theme in "One Voice", each in his own way. Aal brings Arabic inflections to his playing, in contrast to Kennedy's classical way and Kukerba's East European sensibility. Then all three play together with their varied styles contrasting then complementing each other. This must be a joy to behold.
I enjoyed the fresh and unaffected playing on some familiar old tunes - "Ajde Jano", "Dafino", "Javone Jovanke" and especially "Kazimierz" - I've danced that one myself. Altogether there are 14 tracks on this album, with a generous playing time of over 65 minutes. None of these tracks seems to linger too long. I loved the artwork on the jacket and the insert - some of the best I've seen - almost worth the price of admission. But the text is a bit thin. We learn that half the tracks are traditional, one is by Goran Bregovic, and the band wrote the rest - not much else. Some of these songs were probably written for special occasions like weddings - each has a story behind it, and some have words to them. I would like to have heard more about those stories, what the titles and the words mean, and how the new songs came to life.
Never mind, this one's a keeper.