A Little Nile Music

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

**** MOZART IN EGYPT Various soloists; Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra; Milen Natchev EMI

*** 1/2 MOZART: PIANO SONATAS AND VARIATIONS Fazil Say, piano Atlantic

*** 1/2 KAMRAN INCE: "THE FALL OF CONSTANTINOPLE" (SYMPHONY NO. 2), "REMEMBERING LYCIA," "ARCHES" Alan Feinberg, piano; Albany Symphony Orchestra; David Alan Miller, cond.; Present Music Argo


Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the wildly imaginative reed player, claimed he did something for the first time in the history of Western music when he performed "Sentimental Journey" on one saxophone and the melody from the slow movement of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony on another at the same time. You have to split the brain in two parts, he told the audience at the Village Vanguard in 1970 (a live performance recently reissued on 32 Jazz). "It's like making one part of your mind say, 'oob la di' and making the other part of your mind say, 'What does he mean?' "

Kirk may have been first, but he is hardly last. On one track of a new Mozart recording, "oob la di" is a Nubian singer performing an Arabic lullaby, while the other side of the brain is presented with a lullaby that Mozart remembered his nurse singing, here performed by a Western countertenor. What does it all mean? Plenty.

The two melodies, from disconnected cultures, sung with different kinds of vocal production, don't exactly join seamlessly. But the sensibilities are close, and the effect is startlingly beautiful. These two disembodied solo voices float in an ether, somewhere outside conventional geography or history. We can hear that they are saying the same thing in the same way with different accents, as if they embodied the very soul and essence of the human condition.

This extraordinary collaboration is part of a recent CD entitled "Mozart in Egypt," which discovers one revelatory way after another to relate Mozart with Arabic music. The concept by Hughes de Courson and Ahmed el Maghraby is not only not far-fetched but practically inevitable. Mozart loved Egypt, and the notes tell us that Egyptians love Mozart, whose music "goes from the lighthearted to the sacred in a way which is very reminiscent of the great Arab composers."

There are problems, of course, in trying to marry Mozart and Egypt. Western music takes pride in the vertical arts of harmony and counterpoint. Arabic music is linear, one event following another. The result then is what the producers describe as a "crazy diagonal."

And yet it works. There is a performance of the slow movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, in which an oud (the ancestor of our lute) joins the piano in dialogue, mostly playing Mozart. Mozart sounds just fine on the oud, and its way of decorating a melodic line is not at all dissimilar to the Western approach. Best of all is hearing the piano and oud together, when one player takes the melodic line, the other harmony.

Perhaps this diagonal isn't so crazy after all but is actually the way of the Postmodern world. Indeed, in the early '70s, just around the time Kirk was experimenting with his own diagonals, Ihab Hassan, a literary theorist at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, found himself torn between his Egyptian heritage and attraction to clean, minimalist Modernism. This led him to search out a synthesis for the spirit of his time, a spirit he thought best represented by the global tastes of Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, John Cage and Marshall McLuhan. From this, Hassan developed some of the first theories of Postmodernism.

Such connections are not, of course, entirely new.

Mozart, as many Viennese did in his day, had a passion for Egypt. He titled an early opera (which survives only in sketch) "The Goose of Cairo." Midway through his career Mozart wrote incidental music to the drama "Thamos, King of Egypt." And at the end of his short life, he produced his Masonic opera, "The Magic Flute," which is full of Egyptian symbolism.

Today, 25 years after Hassan's first essays on Postmodernism, cultures have become interconnected like never before. But still, "Mozart in Egypt" can give a listener shivers as it demonstrates one way after another of combining 18th century music's Classicism with ancient Arabic traditions. Nothing quite prepares one for just how compelling the Symphony No. 25 can sound in 7/8 time or for how comfortably Arabic musicians on traditional instruments can jam with violin, viola, cello and clarinet in and around Mozart chamber music.

The deeply moving final selection is from Mozart's Requiem and it will, I suspect, continue to haunt me for a very long time. It begins with the sound of breathing, meant to induce a peaceful trance as part of Islamic Dhikr ceremonies. Sheikh Mohammed El Helbany begins a sacred song that segues into the first bars of Mozart's Requiem. Later we hear a child soloist in the Mozart answered by a Coptic song sung by an Arabic child, music that once accompanied the embalming of mummies. The joining of spirits of the living and the dead, of spirits from East and West, of the spirits of our time and ancient times, of the voices of children is profound. This is music a divided world desperately needs.

Since the British label EMI has chosen not to import this disc (you'll have to order it via your record store), maybe Warner should try to obtain it, because it is a perfect prologue for a new CD of Mozart piano sonatas released on Warner's jazz label, Atlantic. The performances are by controversial young Turkish pianist Fazil Say. These are not jazz renderings, but Say is also a jazz player and Atlantic's founder, Turkish-born record company legend Ahmet Ertegun, has taken an interest in him.

Say is something very few Mozarteans are anymore, a genuinely ethnic interpreter. Indeed, the most elegant Mozart piano playing is rarely tied to nationality and can come from just about anywhere, be it Japan (Mitsuko Uchida) or Russia (Alexei Lubimov), almost as if the cultivated Viennese style has covered the Earth like a thin layer of sweet schlag. Yet Mozart himself branched out musically as much as his times would allow him. He also had an infatuation for Turkish music (as did Beethoven, who included a Turkish march even in "Ode to Joy" of his Ninth Symphony, and other composers of the time). His opera "The Abduction From the Seraglio" is Turkish, and the popular Piano Sonata in A Major, K. 331, with which Say completes his recital disc, is known as "The Turkish" for its finale.

Say is not a genteel Mozartean, although there is indication that he could be if he wanted. Every now and then he will break off from a generally percussive style of playing and toss off a phrase, or maybe just an ornament, with a disconcerting air of sweet, delicate refinement.

But mainly Say--who also presents the sonatas in B-flat Major, K. 333, and C Major, K. 330, as well as the Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, maman," (or, if you will, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star")--goes in for more clangor than most listeners may be accustomed to. This is visceral, rhythmically emphatic playing. The tone is cold and steely, which a hard-edged, close-up recording only exaggerates (presumably intentionally). Tempos can be willfully unconventional (slow or fast). The Turkish finale of the A-Major Sonata is almost as metallic as some of the examples on "Mozart in Egypt."

These sonatas have been recorded dozens upon dozens of times, and they regularly find their way into the repertory of beginning piano students, so it should hardly worry us if Say intends to be different. Especially since the brightness of sound and the clatter make us feel that drums and cymbals and reeds are not far away.

It also may help to listen to Say in conjunction with a new CD of music by Turkish American composer Kamran Ince. Born in 1960, Ince shares many of the stylistic concerns of his generation, composers like Aaron Kernis, who have come after the generation of Minimalists and now include just about anything in their music from pulsating rhythms to Neo-Romantic lushness to interests in world music and popular culture. Ince's music alludes, in addition, to modern Istanbul and ancient Turkey.

It is hard to exactly put a finger on this style, but Ince is a big talent and every piece is full of stunning sonic ideas that seem pulled from here and there--Prokofiev is one surprising influence--but that cohere excitingly.

Two of the pieces are big works. "The Fall of Constantinople" is an epic symphony, Middle Eastern and Brucknerian at the same time, and it is compellingly performed by the Albany Symphony under David Alan Miller and extremely well-recorded. "Remembering Lycia" is a gripping, thunderous piano concerto. Say's clang and peal would be ideal for it, although it was written for American pianist Alan Feinberg, and he is magnificent on the recording. But then why shouldn't he be? This is true Postmodern music after all, music from everywhere all at once.

And the irony, the same irony of "Mozart in Egypt" and Say's Mozart, is that national characteristics in music seem best served not by assimilation but by coexistence.

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