Monday, 10 May 2021

CD Review - May 2021

John Mayer (1929-2004) was born in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) to an Anglo-Indian father and Tamil mother. He moved to London in 1952 with a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, and worked as a violinist and composer, then co-founded the Indo-Jazz Fusions quintet in the sixties, before teaching at Birmingham Conservatoire, where he established the BMus in Indian Music. His son, Jonathan Mayer (b.1975) started on the violin, but then from the age of 16 he trained as a sitar player, and he now composes and performs. On this disc, there are works composed by father and son, two each, and Jonathan performs sitar on his own compositions, as well as playing tanpura (like a fretless sitar, providing a harmonic drone) on his father’s Violin Concerto No. 2, from 1978. The violinist here is Sasha Rozhdestvensky, and he shows phenomenal technical dexterity, particularly in the perpetual motion and breathless energy of the concerto’s second movement. The opening movement, Alap, has a pulsing orchestral background, out of which the violin emerges in winding chromatic lines, up and down. The tanpura shimmers in the background of the third movement Raga, and its improvisatory cadenza for the violin is full of birdlike fluttering. The fourth movement has dark brass and sparse woodwind chords, with lyrical moments in the violin’s response, before the final movement Gat drives with jagged rhythms to an insistent conclusion. John Mayer’s other composition here is the Concerto for the Instruments of an Orchestra, from 1975. Across its four movements, Mayer often pits orchestral sections – strings, woodwind, percussion against each other in conversation, occasionally bringing them together. The music is quite episodic, and occasionally lacks continuity, but there are imaginative effects, such as the lively coda of the first movement, and the racing strings Scherzo and spiky woodwind Trio of the third movement. The second movement is the strongest, with its drone background and the winding melody emerging from the strings, before the woodwind take over, and a solo cello and cor anglais conclude with a heartfelt lament. Jonathan Mayer’s Sitar Concerto No. 2 begins with an extended solo for the instrument, with initial unison string responses developing into a more rhythmic, almost jazzy section. The central cadenza is hypnotic, and is followed by a surging orchestral response. The second movement focuses on repeated patterns, initially a four-note figure on the sitar, with thrumming strings beneath, whereas the third movement has a driving 7 beat rhythm in a kind of offbeat march, with a whiff of Hans Zimmer’s film music. It is the most western harmonically, and the sitar gets livelier and more elaborate as the movement builds, although the ultimate conclusion is inconclusive. Jonathan Mayer’s other work here, the single movement Pranam, begins with the sitar alone, with the orchestra joining as the sitar settles into a melodic pattern. The tabla joins (here played by Shahbaz Hussain), and rhythmic interest in the orchestra grows. Mayer builds layers of texture in the orchestra, then after a hiatus, the sitar is left keening above dark, low strings, before the violins emerge with a winding upward line. Once again, the tabla helps drive the momentum, and faster rhythmic patterns crescendo, almost burying the sitar, the woodblock adding further driving repetition to an ending reminiscent of John Adams. Debashish Chaudhuri conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in strong performances of these fascinating works.

Various. 2020. John Mayer/Jonathan Mayer - Concertos. Sasha Rozhdestvensky, Jonathan Mayer, Shahbaz Hussain, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Debashish Chaudhuri. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR88.

(An edited version of this review first appeared in Scene, May 2021)


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