(Wigmore Hall. 20 September 2023. Live review by Sebastian Scotney)
You can tell instantly that it is Brad Mehldau playing. A particular touch at the piano, the shape of a phrase…it can really only be him. Maybe it was ever thus, but it is becoming more so.
In the first half of last night’s Wigmore Hall recital he played the premiere of “14 Reveries for Piano”, a completely new set of music (*). In the second half there was a selection from “Suite: April 2020”, followed by his takes on tunes by the likes of Radiohead, Neil Young, two of the Beatles, plus the jazz standard “Here’s That Rainy Day” (with a biblical downpour going on outside in the streets of London last night, what else could it have been?). But the main impression was that the core, the sound, the individuality are unmistakably his.
“14 Reveries for Piano”, the new set of pieces deals, among other things, with “several pianistic obsessions I’ve wrestled with as a player and composer through the years”, such as placing a melody within an “undulating texture”. His detailed and eloquent programme note (download link below) explains the structure and intent. At this first hearing I found it hard to pick up the tonal centres he describes. The language feels like a further personalising of the “Brooklyn Rider” music, where destabilising “rogue” notes and chromatic sequences make those tonal centres less clear. There was clearly symmetry and order here, with Bach-ian influences to the fore in the first and the last pieces. Writing about new music heard for the first time, one is really limited to thinking whether it encourages the listener to want to hear it again, and whether that second hearing should be as soon as possible. “Reveeries” is definitely not “easy” music – but it certainly passes both those tests.
One clever aspect of the programme last night is how it demonstrated the direction, the progression, maybe even the unifying which is happening in Mehldau’s work. The inclusion of a series of pieces from the “Suite: April 2020” album, music written in response to lockdown showed very clearly that “14 Reveries for Piano” represent a further development. The music is knottier, deeper, and in places more dense and intense, but in others it captivates by being more sparse and elegaic.
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As the night’s programme progressed, Mehldau started to veer off in surprising and fascinating directions as playing newly invented music from the written page gradually gave way to the inspiration and alchemy of the moment. There was much more accessible joy here: I have no idea how “Rainy Day” ended up in such gleeful triple time. And where did that ‘angry Jarrett’ suddenly come from, which seemed to inhabit his left hand (but not his right) in Paul McCartney’s “Golden Slumbers”? And how was Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” quite so beautiful?
Those questions don’t have answers.;the mystery of the art of improvising will always remain. And yet in the past year, Mehldau has taken a lot of trouble to open up in interviews (see link to one I did below) and also in the first of what will be a two-volume autobiography (review link below). He has explained in the new book how his astonishingly kaleidoscopic “personal canon” (of the music which he knows in depth) has been acquired. His restlessly lively mind has absorbed everything from Alice in Chains to the Zombies, huge quantities of the jazz canon, and also taken in Bach and “my master Brahms” along the way. We can now understand from Mehldau himself a lot more of what he and his music are “about”.
One thing very clear from all this elucidation is how much the concert hall has become a natural habitat for the pianist. And what is true of halls in general is also true of the Wigmore in particular. Mehldau made his debut at Wigmore Hall in 2004, became the first artist to curate Wigmore Hall’s Jazz Series in 2009, and the first jazz musician to win the Wigmore Medal in 2015. There is still, even now, a unique remembered buzz about some of his concerts at the hall, especially his first ever appearance anywhere in a duo with Chris Thile in 2011.
Last night was another special occasion, and Mehldau had attracted a completely full house to the hall, including an impressively high proportion of younger listeners. The pianist referred several times to the quality of the listening he had felt from the platform. What did we all experience? A new work which is neither straightforward nor simple, but it is manifestly a very personal and special statement from one of the very great musicians of our time.
(*) “14 Reveries” has been co-commissioned by Wigmore Hall. This was the first ever performance. It will also be heard at Cal Performances at UC Berkeley (10 Feb 2024), the Royal Conservatoire in Toronto (27 January 2024) and Carnegie Hall (31 January 2024)