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.
Brad Mehldau - Empty Concertgebouw SessionsHet Concertgebouw
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.
Brad Mehldau - Variations on a Melancholy Theme: Variation 4 (Official Video)Nonesuch Records
Variation 9 briefly toys 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.