Brad Mehldau – Variations on a Melancholy Theme (2021) [Official Digital Download 24bit/96kHz]

(Last Updated On: September 10, 2022)

Brad Mehldau – Variations on a Melancholy Theme (2021)
FLAC (tracks) 24 bit/96 kHz | Time – 34:07 minutes | 659 MB | Genre: Jazz
Studio Masters, Official Digital Download | Front Cover | © Nonesuch

Brad Mehldau’s Variations on a Melancholy Theme will be released June 11, 2021, on Nonesuch Records. The recording features the pianist/composer and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which commissioned this orchestral version of the work, which comprises a theme and eleven variations plus a cadenza and postlude; the album also includes an encore, “Variations ‘X’ and ‘Y.’” You can watch a video with excerpts from the piece below. (Mehldau originally composed Variations on a Melancholy Theme for pianist Kirill Gerstein.) Mehldau and Orpheus toured Europe, Russia, and the US with the piece, including a 2013 performance at Carnegie Hall. Speaking to the combination of classical form with jazz harmonies in the work’s musical language, Mehldau wrote, “I imagine it as if Brahms woke up one day and had the blues.”

Mehldau continues, “The theme itself has a wistful character, perhaps a feeling of resignation. There is some sense of finality and ending to it when heard for the first time already. So as I composed, a narrative challenge emerged; namely, how to embark on a story that begins with a conclusion. While the theme evokes melancholy, I let it be used as a springboard for other happy, wild, violent, and reckless emotions as the variations progress.”

While the impulse to mix jazz and classical music into a new hybrid is compelling and seems achievable, outside of works by Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, it’s never really produced lasting results. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, who has always held outsized ambitions to be more than just a jazz player, first premiered Variations on a Melancholy Theme with the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2013 at Carnegie Hall. Based on the keyboard variations used in Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Mehldau the jazzer has described the piece as what would happen if “Brahms woke up one day and had the blues.” Following its premiere, this series of what was originally 11 variations was retooled and for this recording became 12 short variations followed by a cadenza, a long postlude and an encore: “Variations “X” & “Y””. Precisely recorded by Adam Abeshouse in 2013 in the acclaimed acoustics of Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA, the pianist’s melancholia starts slowly, with a bluesy melody carried by the piano abetted by reeds and brass. By “Variation 3” it shifts—true to the pianist’s description—into sweeping, lushly orchestrated Romantic contours. Evolving into a tone poem led by piano, the most coherent passages in the entire piece are when the piano is the featured instrument as in “Variation 5” when Mehldau ranges up and down the keyboard accompanied at times by flute accents and bursts of clattering percussion. With “Variation 9” briefly toying with the notion of an atonal tangent and the closing “Postlude” becoming overwrought while trying too hard to be weighty and consequential, the overall effect falls short of being successful; an inspirational fusion of orchestra and jazz-influenced piano never quite emerges. The highlight here is the closing “Encore” where Mehldau, untethered from the orchestra, improvises a sprightly jazz coda. A pleasant if minor piano exploration with orchestral accompaniment, Variations continues the search for a musical alloy that remains elusive. – Robert Baird

Tracklist:
01. Brad Mehldau – Theme (02:11)
02. Brad Mehldau – Variation 1 (02:18)
03. Brad Mehldau – Variation 2 (01:59)
04. Brad Mehldau – Variation 3 (01:25)
05. Brad Mehldau – Variation 4 (01:29)
06. Brad Mehldau – Variation 5 (00:44)
07. Brad Mehldau – Variation 6 (00:50)
08. Brad Mehldau – Variation 7 (02:12)
09. Brad Mehldau – Variation 8 (02:41)
10. Brad Mehldau – Variation 9 (00:51)
11. Brad Mehldau – Variation 10 (01:05)
12. Brad Mehldau – Variation 11 (03:57)
13. Brad Mehldau – Cadenza (01:57)
14. Brad Mehldau – Postlude (06:29)
15. Brad Mehldau – Encore: Variations “X” & “Y” (03:52)

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