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The Boston Phoenix Caine Mutinies

Uri takes on Mahler and Wagner

By Ed Hazell

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  It might seem cheeky for a jazz musician to go up against the works of Romantic composers. But with his two latest releases (both on Winter and Winter), pianist Uri Caine cuts the mammoth works of Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner down to size, recasting them with an ear to the end of this century. Urlicht: Primal Light finds his small ensemble ambitiously and successfully taking on the orchestral music Mahler -- it's one of the year's best. And with Wagner e Venezia ("Wagner and Venice"), he shrinks the behemoth visions of Wagner to fit string quartet, piano, and accordion while keeping the composer's tragic grandeur intact.

Jazz musicians have turned to classics before -- think of the Gil Evans/Miles Davis adaptation of Joaquín Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez on Sketches of Spain. But on Urlicht, Caine does more than plunder Mahler for a few stray melodies. Mahler's encyclopedic knowledge of the music of his time (including the classical repertoire as well as folk music and other "low" forms), his sense of ambiguity and irony, and his dark sense of humor provide fertile soil for Caine's postmodernist sensibility. Caine uses various combinations of just 14 musicians -- including long-time collaborators trumpeter Dave Douglas, clarinettist Don Byron, trombonist Josh Roseman, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Joey Baron, as well as DJ Olive and guest singers Arto Lindsay and Jewish cantor Aaron Bensoussan -- for this suite, which began life as the soundtrack to a silent-film biography of Mahler.

The disc is bookended by funeral music: Douglas leads the way on a New Orleans/klezmerish version of the Trauermarsch that opens the Fifth Symphony, and Bensoussan finishes by adding (entirely appropriate) funeral vocals to "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell"), which closes Mahler's great song cycle Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth"). By employing Bensoussan and infusing the Trauermarsch with klezmer, Caine is offering an ironic commentary on Mahler's subsequent conversion to Christianity (in order to be appointed director of the State Opera in anti-Semitic Vienna). And where hints of Mahler's Jewish origins surface -- the Gypsy/klezmer band that interrupts the First Symphony's funeral march (a parody of "Frère Jacques," though not every conductor gets the joke) -- Caine builds on it: the entire march turns gloriously, giddyingly klezmer.

There's a lot of imagination on display here: Caine recasts the anguished "Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen" ("Often I think they have merely gone out"), from Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children"), as a bossa nova with Arto Lindsay on vocals -- yet the Brazilian song form conveys the same lost innocence and longing that Mahler intended. Caine is even more ambitious in his handling of the Fifth Symphony's sighing Adagietto, which gets peppered with ominous fragments from the Mahler Ninth before subsiding into a schmaltzy phrase from the trio of the First Symphony's Scherzo. It opens up a world of cross-references that, one senses, Mahler wanted to be opened.

Caine's Wagner extrapolations are more modest in scope. The inspiration for the project came from a passage in Wagner's diaries in which he records hearing his overtures after a meal at the Quadri, a café in the Piazza San Marco then frequented by Austrians. Producer Stephan Winter asked Caine to arrange Wagner's music for an ensemble similar to the one Wagner might have heard, and they recorded the music live in the very same environs. Caine's string-quartet/accordion/piano arrangements of familiar Wagner opera passages capture the flavor of the originals. And the recording includes ambient sounds, such as the bells of San Marco ringing out at the end of the Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and the mundane sounds of café traffic, which add poignancy to the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

The Wagner e Venezia string quartet has Feldman and Joyce Hammann on violins, Erik Friedlander on cello, and Drew Gress on bass. Along with Caine and accordionist Dominic Cortese, they weave a "melancholy, friendly spell" similar to the one that Wagner fell under in Venice, where "grandeur, beauty, and decay [are] so close together." Caine undercuts the Wagner only occasionally, allowing, for example, the homely accordion to aspire to the majestically tragic Prelude from Tristan, creating an effect that's both subversive and touching. The Wagner disc amounts to an interesting detour for Caine; the Mahler endeavor is a major statement.


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