Good Night! – Bertrand Chamayou, piano (Erato/Warner Classics)

Don’t listen to this album if you’ve got work to do or a project to complete. This captivating, engrossing album of lullabies, or berceuses, will make you want to ease back in your chair, or retreat to somewhere more comfortable – perhaps a chaise longue, or even your bed. Turn the lights low and allow pianist Bertrand Chamayou’s exquisite, expressive soundworld to envelope you (the album is recorded in Dolby Atmos immersive sound which is at once intimate and vivid).

For Chamayou, a self-confessed night owl who resists the calls of Morpheus and relishes the tension between the awake and almost-but-not-quite asleep states, the lullaby’s “place is halfway between dream and reality”, a curious borderland of the most varied emotions, from tenderness to fear (fear of the dark, fear of nightmares), delight to anguish when night thoughts can overwhelm and give little chance of rest. The lullaby is also representative of the special bond between babies and children and their parents and carers, who provide comfort and reassurance.

The inspiration behind this album was in part due to Chamayou recently becoming a father himself, taking on the roles of “tucker-up and comforter”. The piano repertoire contains some of the most beautiful examples in the genre, from the rocking bass line and delicate filigree figurations of Chopin’s Berceuse to Brahms’s ever-popular Wiegenlied (Cradle Song). But Chamayou also reveals some lesser-known lullabies by Lyapunov, Mel Bonis and Martinů. Nor is the night-time landscape always calm and restful: A probezinha (‘poor little waif’)from Villa-Lobos’ ‘Prole de bebê’ is tinged with melancholy; Busoni’s Berceuse is dark and hallucinatory, for which Chamayou creates an almost impressionistic wash of sound and colour, and Balakirev’s has a nightmarish funeral march at its centre; even Grieg’s Berceuse from Lyric Pieces Book 2, has an unsettling middle section; meanwhile, the spiky, tinkling notes of Lachenmann’s Wiegenmusik hint at the nighttime fears provoked by shadows dancing on the bedroom wall. But serenity is restored by Brahm’s famous lullaby which follows it. In Chamayou’s hands it is as warm and comforting as a mother’s embrace, enhanced by the Dolby Atmos sound which creates an enveloping resonance.

The album title comes from the first track ‘Good Night!’ from Janacek’s suite On An Overgrown Pat’, a piano miniature in which the briefest of ideas is obssessed over to produce music freighted with a poignant tenderness. Meanwhile, Bryce Dessner’s ‘Song For Octave’, written for his own son, has a hynoptic ostinato redolent of Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel and a haunting minimalist melody. Chamayou’s transparent sound here is utterly spellbinding (and it’s a piece I wanted to learn myself the moment I heard it).

At the risk of sounding a little trite, each work on this bewitching disc is lovingly played, Chamayou finding much beauty and elegance in simple lyrical melodies and gossamer figurations. His tempos are sensitive and supple, with an insouciant rubato which never feels contrived, and he convincingly portrays the individual character of each piece with clarity, wit and imagination.

We live in noisy, anxious times and this charming album offers much-needed respite and a balm to the soul

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A peaceful ostinato figure, grounded and tranquil, opens the work. After a few bars, a serenely beautiful yet simple melody is heard in the treble which melts into a series of increasingly complex variations, the initial theme dissolving into trills and grace notes, gossamer fiorituras and filigree passages. The curve of complexity turns full circle when the theme returns in its original form at the end.

This could quite easily be a description of Chopin’s lullaby, the Berceuse, Op 57, composed in 1845, but in fact the work in question was recorded some 100 years later for the jazz album ‘Everybody Digs Bill Evans’.

Bill Evans’ ‘Peace Piece’ came out of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Some Other Time’ (from On The Town). Evans borrowed the ostinato bass figure and improvised an increasingly decorative treble line over the top of two chords which remain the same throughout, just as in Chopin’s Berceuse.

What happened was that I started to play the introduction, and it started to get some much of its own feeling and identity that I just figured, well, I’ll keep going

– Bill Evans

While Chopin’s Berceuse, with its sense of freely evolving improvisation and fresh decorative ideas, is the most obvious model for ‘Peace Piece’, the work is also redolent of Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies (that repeating bass figure again) and the slow movement of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto. The trills and figurations in ‘Peace Piece’ are also reminiscent of birdsong; Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux was just appearing, but whether Evans actually knew this music is not known.

Evans, a jazz pianist by profession, was classically-trained at Southeastern University and Mannes School of Music, and his fondness for and mastery of classical repertoire (including by Bach, Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Ravel and Debussy) gave him extraordinary expressive freedom and inspired some of his greatest jazz innovations.

Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned with feeling being the generating force

Bill Evans

‘Peace Piece’ has a wonderful static, meditative calm, and in both ‘Peace Piece’ and Chopin’s Berceuse, the ostinato serves as a unifying, grounding element from which ideas flower and evolve over an extended narrative arc, while the reprise of the opening melody creates a sense of departure and return. Evans’ music, like that of Chopin, and also Scriabin, Debussy and Ravel, combines economy of musical statement with highly original melodic and harmonic concepts (in bars 47-49 of ‘Peace Piece’, for example, Evans uses a free tonal approach reminiscent of Prokofiev). He used oblique harmonies based on whole-tone scales, and abandoned functional or structural harmony, so that chords are specifically used for colour and timbre rather than strict harmonic progression. There is an introspective lyricism and intimacy in both his sensitive piano playing and his compositions which defies categorisation, proof that in great music creative influences transcend time and genre.

Evans refused to play ‘Peace Piece’ live, insisting it was the result of a unique moment in the recording studio, a moment which could not be recreated in concert (though he did eventually perform it just once, two years before he died).

Many classical pianists admire Bill Evans and ‘Peace Piece’ remains one of his most influential piano solos, some 40 years after his death. The French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet pays tribute to Evans’ genius in his ‘Conversations With Bill Evans’ album, and Russian pianist Igor Levit uses ‘Peace Piece’ as a fittingly consoling conclusion to his album ‘Life’. The British composer Gavin Bryars wrote ‘My First Homage’ (1978) as a homage to Bill Evans.

The score of ‘Peace Piece’ is published as a “written out improvisation”, offering the pianist the opportunity to either play it verbatim or to explore their own improvisations. Playing it can feel like a meditation, where time stands still – something an audience will sense too when the music is played well. It needs accuracy and attention to detail but also a willingness on the part of the performer to stand back and let the music just “be”, to exist in the moment of creation – as Evans insisted it should in that 1958 recording.

To me Bill was the Chopin of jazz. He was a great artist.

– Jimmy Rowles (1918-1996), American jazz pianist, vocalist, and composer

 


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