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Listening Post: Brief reviews of select releases

Pop/Hip-Hop

Nicki Minaj, The Pinkprint (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic). One of modern popular music’s many problems is its insistence on telling what it perceives to be the truth. One might assume that truth-telling would be a good thing, but when it comes to today’s pop, one would be wrong – truth, it seems, has been reduced to an athletic and well-toned narcissism. Consider, for a moment, Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying,” an essay in Socratic form that, if I were King, would be required reading for every budding pop confessional songwriter. In it, Wilde extols the virtues of creative fabrication in art with the line “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.” Wilde’s point is that autobiography, revealed in clinical detail, is a lesser art form than is the conjuring of an imaginative reality. Clearly, Taylor Swift is unfamiliar with this suggestion, or at the very least, is unwilling to give it a shot. Swift is far from alone, for modern pop is a shaky edifice built on the belief that whatever relationship-based nonsense you’ve gotten yourself into is worthy of an unbearably lengthy and detailed concept album. Now Nicki Minaj has joined the fray, with her third album, “The Pinkprint,” a largely tune-less and forensically specific delineation of a recent breakup. Clearly, Minaj is hurting, to the point where she spends as much time in balladeer mode here as she does rapping. Sadly, she’s a far superior rapper than singer. In fact, as a rhythmic wordsmith, Minaj has repeatedly displayed jaw-dropping technique in the past. This time, however, Minaj wants us to accept her as a victim of heartbreak. Misery loves company, and Minaj wants some. Unfortunately, “The Pinkprint” fails to connect on a universal level, is oppressively text-heavy, and ultimately comes across as a major bummer. Beyonce shows up for “Feeling Myself,” but fails to ignite much in the way of sparks; Drake, Lil Wayne and Chris Brown can’t do much for “Only,” either. At nearly 80 minutes, “The Pinkprint” is also just plain too long. You, the listener, feel like you’ve been cornered in a barroom by someone who needs to unload far too much personal information on you. This is not to imply that Minaj is not due a certain measure of human empathy. It is to imply, however, that her unloading does not make for good art. ◊½ (Jeff Miers)

Classical

Schumann, “Kinderszenen,” and “Waldszenen;” Janaceck, “On the Overgrown Path, Book I” performed by pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin (Hyperion). The Marc-Andre Hamelin that the classical world is used to is one of the knottiest and most formidable of esotericists. And that’s a very different Hamelin indeed from the one heard here on this marvelous disc. Hamelin’s famous specialty is playing the living bejabbers out of the most difficult and most recondite pieces in the piano repertoire over many centuries, whether that means Alkan, or Godowsky or Leo Ornstein or the wildly underplayed piano sonatas of Haydn. Where Hamelin takes over from the late, great bear of virtuoso pianism John Ogdon is in the combination of monstrously powerful technique combined with hugely powerful intellect. A kinder and gentler Hamelin is gorgeously in evidence here. It begins with a full half-hour of the first book of Leos Janacek’s exquisitely sensitive and beautiful “On the Overgrown Path.” And then it concludes with favorite piano pieces by Schumann in which the young composer similarly had to advise his young inamorata Clara to “forget you are a virtuoso.” So much of this music is inspired by nature, but it is a kind of tone painting that succeeds more in depicting the poetry of music itself than of nature. ◊◊◊◊ (Jeff Simon)

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Vivaldi and Bach, “Magnificat” and “Concerti” performed by La Capella de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations with Pierre Hantai, clavecin conducted by Jordi Savall (Altavox, disc plus DVD). There has never been a disc book yet put out by Jordi Savall on Altavox that hasn’t been worthy in the extreme. What you have here are “two of the greatest 18th century musical renderings of the ‘Magnificat’: the second version of J.S. Bach’s Magnificat in D-major for five soloists, choir and orchestra ... and the first version of Antonio Vivaldi’s ‘Magnificat’ in G-minor ... for two sopranos and alto solo, choir and orchestra.” Filling out the disc are Vivaldi’s Concerto for two violins and viola da Gamba in G-minor and Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D-minor. The performances were recorded live in concert in Versailles. It isn’t just that the performances led by Savall are always of surpassing beauty, it’s that the lavishly illustrated and thick accompanying booklets are full of writing by Savall, which is always equally marvelous to read. Consider this quote from Stefan Zweig from 1939-40 which Savall extols “the most profound mystery in the world ... – that of creation.” The miracle of art, said Zweig happens “when suddenly something new is born which does not perish, which does not fade like a flower, does not die like a human being, but survives for all time and remains eternal like the sky, the earth, the sea, the sun, the moon and the stars ... Every so often we are privileged to experience this miracle of something being born out of nothing and yet defying the passing of time in another sphere: that of art.” Captured with infallible beauty and disc by Savall and his forces. ◊◊◊½ (Jeff Simon)

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