When Alfred Brendel's Steinway played jazz
After Alfred Brendel retired from the concert platform in 2008 the Berlin Philharmonic Foundation decided to auction the Steinway d-524780 piano kept for his appearances at the Philharmonie. The successful bidder was Siggi Loch, who after a successful career in producing and managing rock acts reached the position of President of WEA Europe. But in 1992 he moved away from rock music to fulfill his dream of creating his own independent jazz label. Over three decades ACT Music has become one of the most important and respected global jazz labels, and has nurtured the talent of many musicians including Nils Landgren and the sadly-departed Esbjörn Svensson. It is notable that ACT have not succumbed to the 'smooth jazz' virus. Instead, guided by Siggi Loch, the label has continued to probe the cutting-edge of jazz with, for example, Sufi Jazz and Islam Blues CDs; this was the first World Music project that integrates the classical music of the Ottoman Empire with Western jazz improvisations and rhythms.
Michael Wollny, Leszek Możdżer, and Iiro Rantala, and, quite appropriately, the concert opened with two pianists improvising on the Aria from the Goldberg Variations.
This first concert was a huge success and began the Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic series which continues today curated by Siggi Loch. Almost all concerts in the 1200 seat chamber music hall and even in the 2250 seats big hall have been sold out, and in 2014 Siggi Loch was awarded the Order of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany. Several of the Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic concerts have been released on CD, including the first concert - see footer image. I would also single out Iiro Rantala's concert album Lost Heroes seen below. This is his tribute to jazz greats who have passed on; I would nominate Tears for Esbjörn (for Esbjörn Svensson) as one of my all time favourite (and moving) jazz tracks.
Iiro Rantala studied piano in the jazz department of Sibelius Academy and classical piano at the Manhattan School of Music. He has recorded Mozart's Piano Concerto no.21, c major, K 467 with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen for ACT, and another of his albums is Anyone With A Heart which applies the classical string trio format to jazz. Steinway d-524780 is also the instrument of choice for Iiro Rantala's album My Working Class Hero. All twelve tracks are genius-level transcriptions of John Lennon compositions, and I recommend it to anyone who wants their classical comfort zones challenged. Sample My Working Class Hero and Alfred Brendel's Steinway on video via this link. My header image is grabbed from that video; even with YouTube sound the lower registers of the piano are positively visceral.
A few years ago I asked why is jazz so underrated by the classical industry? Sadly, despite the outstanding missionary work of Siggi Loch, jazz is still grossly underrated. The only time that jazz is mentioned by the classical industry's website of choice is when a jazz great dies, and this mention is usually a barely disguised rehash of the press obits.
Iiro Rantala is blurring the meaningless dividing line between jazz and classical, as did many other great musicians including Igor Stravinsky - the Ebony Concerto written in 1945 for the Woody Herman band - and Leonard Bernstein - Prelude, Fugue and Riffs. In a comment on my recent post about Brilliant Classic's Cello Sonata Edition a reader pointed out that Nikolai Kapustin - who died in 2020 - was among the many composers influenced by jazz. Writing of the Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic series Deutschlandradio Kultur explained "Jazz history is being written here" and Der Tagesspiegel called it "A rare event for Berlin on which jazz and classical meet at the same level" - wise words the classical music industry should take note of.
This celebratory path has wandered a long way from Alfred Brendel's peerless interpretations of Schubert's Sonatas. But diversity in art music comes in many forms, and the legendary Steinway d-524780 now playing jazz is simply one of those many miraculous forms.