Classical CD Reviews

Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt – Night – Sony Classical

The many facets of night are fathomed on a fascinating folk/classical collaboration.

Published on May 28, 2013

Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt – Night – Sony Classical 88691976572, 50:57 ****:

(Simone Dinnerstein – piano, co-producer; Tift Merritt – vocals, guitar, harmonica, co-producer)

Classical music has a long tradition of translating and modifying popular and folk music into its own vernacular. This convergence sometimes places string ensembles with popular-music compositions (like the Kronos Quartet doing Jimi Hendrix, or the Angry String Orchestra retooling Metallica), or soloists interpreting rock music (such as Christopher O’Riley performing Elliott Smith). But an extension and combination of two music forms is a bit less common. Genuine collaborations exist, and notable examples include Philip Glass’ 1986 collection Songs from Liquid Days (with David Byrne, Paul Simon and others) or Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet’s Shakespeare-inspired 1993 venture, The Juliet Letters. Obviously there are others which might fit into such a genre-mix. The latest partnership to tread into this territory is the genteel Night, a 51-minute, 14-track project which features classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein (known for her exceptional Goldberg Variations on Telarc in 2007) and folk/country singer-songwriter Tift Merritt. Night is on the Sony Classical imprint, which is no stranger to building new audiences for classical music by offering material with direct and accessible musical language For instance, the label has issued several prominent records by bassist Edgar Meyer, and violinist Joshua Bell. The release of Night is a hopeful sign such endeavors will not be delineated as idiosyncratic but become accepted in both popular and classical circles.

The 51-minute, 14-track outing reveals two artists from differing musical training and history who discovered they have common ground and bisecting interests. How it came together is a simple story. Gramophone magazine had Tift interview Dinnerstein when Dinnerstein had a new album coming out, and the two found they were kindred spirits. The pre-production and recording process is highlighted in informative liner notes (in English, German, and French). The program is split between Tift originals; covers of blues and folk standards; pieces from the classical idiom; and additional songs written by others specifically for this record.

Merritt fans will lean toward tunes which focus on her voice, which has a purity and intonation well-suited to the music on Night. The album starts with the picturesque “Only in Songs,” where Merritt sets the mood for an excursion through the shadowy subsurface of emotions, with typically melancholy lyrics: “The night is falling dark as a bruise/You wonder aloud, could someone love you/ all the way through.” Dinnerstein enters near the end, and her minimal piano acts as a segue into the joint endeavor, the tender “Night and Dreams,” based on Franz Schubert, which combines Merritt’s coolly affective vocals, Dinnerstein’s progress through Schubert’s main theme, and a bluesy harmonica which undulates underneath. The two coalesce in a similar way on Henry Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament,” which utilizes the aria from his Dido and Aeneas as an underpinning for a personalized elegy and appeal for absolution. Merritt’s folk roots stretch on a sparse, solo arrangement of the religious folksong “Wayfaring Stranger,” which conjures one of Merritt’s influences, Emmylou Harris. Even better is Merritt’s solo rendition of “Still Not Home” (initially delivered as a tough rocker on Merritt’s Traveling Alone, which came out last year). While Merritt’s first version was a hard-hitting tale of a woman’s independence, this acoustic guitar/voice translation heightens the sense of psychological uncertainty, of needing to travel but with trepidation.

Dinnerstein’s listeners may enjoy her accompaniment on some tracks, such as the light landscaping she provides during Merritt’s requiem to lost love, the moving ballad “Feel of the World,” or the related keyboard shading Dinnerstein presents on chromatic character portrait “Colors,” where the white bones beneath the fingers, the red blood in the veins, and the blue of midnight insomnia illustrate a person’s depression. More likely, Dinnerstein’s solo selections will be of more interest, including a brief Bach snippet, “Prelude in B minor from the Clavierbüchlein” and in particular the world premiere of the nearly seven-minute The Cohen Variations, composed by Daniel Felsenfeld and forged from Leonard Cohen’s folk-pop hit “Suzanne.” This is an elegant, unadorned and impressionistic work which merges nocturnal composure with an open, more amplified expressiveness.

While the entire undertaking shows a willingness by both musicians to broaden their styles, not everything works to Dinnerstein and Merritt’s best advantage. Brad Mehldau’s “I Shall Weep at Night” (penned specially for Night) has a deliberate distancing, where the piano has a shortened emotional sweep and Merritt seems spiritually insulated: there is a lack of soul, so to speak. The concise rendering of the traditional folk number “I Will Give My Love an Apple” is meditatively satisfactory, but concludes too early, and thus feels underdone. Merritt and Dinnerstein finish on a positive perspective with a ruralized reading of Johnny Nash’s reggae-pop single “I Can See Clearly Now,” but the optimistic sentiment is somewhat diluted and marred by Nash’s one-dimensional lyrics, which contrast with the innately more enriched words on all previous tracks. On the other hand, the production (taped as close to a live setting as possible at New York City’s American Academy of Arts and Letters), is clear and sensitive; every element breathes and is nuanced, from Merritt’s voice to Dinnerstein’s piano, from the nimbly strummed guitar to the harmonica. Anyone who is curious and wants to delve deeper can also find supplementary specifics on the recording, the artists’ partnership, and how the 14 songs have symbolic connections, during a seven-minute, online promo video.

TrackList: Only in Songs; Night and Dreams; Don’t Explain; Dido’s Lament; I Shall Weep at Night; Wayfaring Stranger; Prelude in B Minor from the Clavierbüchlein; Still not Home; I Will Give My Love an Apple; Colors; The Cohen Variations; Night; Feel of the World; I Can See Clearly Now.

—Doug Simpson




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