The Heart of the Matter
John H. Pendley | the beautiful mountains of north Georgia | 12/24/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Music, like any other art form, is a way of knowing. Through music, I can experience both the creating and the performing artists' visions of life, love, death, truth, joy, whimsy, sorrow, the supernatural, or whatever they wish me to know through the music they make. Emile Pandolfi knows all this; I've heard him say that if a song doesn't speak to him, if he doesn't know its heart, and if he doesn't know how to reveal that heart to his audience, he doesn't play it.
In The Holiday Spirit is an album which displays Emile's prodigious talent for getting to the heart of the matter, for experiencing the music anew, and then for allowing his audience to experience it with him. He invites us-no, he charms and seduces us into a diverse array of emotional worlds. It's an album of music for the joy of the season, in the traditional holiday spirit. But it is not merely that. It is also a collection for repeated listening and genuine involvement.
Emile's playing touches the heart of The Coventry Carol. Though this is a carol to the holy child, it is in a minor key and darker than one might expect, for it begins knowing His end:
Woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Emile's arrangement opens in wistful simplicity, and mounts with an ever-growing feeling of melancholy. Could that persistent arpeggiated figuration deep in the bass be
inexorable time itself, rolling onward toward the child's tragic destiny? We end as we began, in simple mourning, the opening theme in its original, modest guise.
But it's not in Emile's nature to be in a dark mood for long, and he brightens our spirits immediately with The Christmas Waltz. This is pure Pandolfi magic, with a spirit so charming and gay that even I can dream of waltzing. The pearly strings of flawlessly articulated treble notes that Emile laces together, in melody and adornment, summon images of fine jewelry on elegant throats. And the sensational counterpoint in the left hand, near the end of the piece, swirls like the dancers themselves. A small, rare, unexpected, spectacularly rendered masterpiece!
There's usually a healthy dose of humor somewhere in a collection of Emile's arrangements, usually not far from the surface. After a tasteful introduction, his first statement of the melody in Home for the Holidays is a wistful sigh of pure nostalgia, much as yours or mine might be: "Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays." (Sigh!) There are some rolled chords and a few clichés, just the right whiff of sentimentality. Sort of like you or I might play it-assuming I could play. Then ... what's THIS? The second verse breaks into a groove of stride-jazz piano in an album Christmas carols! After a verse and chorus that fall into a warm and cozy pace, our wayward boy really starts cooking; this thing really struts and swaggers! OK, jazz and Christmas has been done before, but by jazz pianists, not-to my knowledge-in this kind of album. This is one of the surprises that marks Emile's imagination, one of the proofs that he really listens. And it's genuinely funny.
A professor of mine once described genius to me as Picasso seeing a bull's head when he looked at the handlebars and seat of a bicycle. When Picasso welded the two together, the rest of us saw it, too. Juxtaposition is the key element, and originality of vision. I'm not claiming that there's genius at play here, though I have some opinions on the subject, but I'd certainly never have thought of putting the first, melancholy verse of Home for the Holidays together with several foot-stomping jazz verses to complete the wonderful version that Emile has created.
If his rendering of I Saw Three Ships is the most impressive demonstration of his virtuosity on this album, A Cradle in Bethlehem proves that Emile Pandolfi appreciates the power of plain, unadorned beauty. This is a cradle song which I had not previously heard; now, I'll probably listen to it more often than anything in this collection. It begins, "A Mother tonight is rocking/A cradle in Bethlehem." A halting left hand pattern limps tenderly beneath a one note melody of singular beauty. How can such unpretentious plainness touch so deeply? Because we hear, in the hesitations of that left hand, the beating of the uncertain mother's faltering heart as she sings her lullaby. (As W. B. Yeats wonders in his poem The Mother of God, how must Mary have felt knowing whom she had born?) Slowly, intensity and complexity build as wise men come to worship; ancient Prophets and present angels are evoked as the music swells. This magnificent drama, however, is understated. Emile never tries to overwhelm the listener with huge fortissimos; there is always the feeling that, no matter how loudly he is playing, there could always be more, and I'm grateful to him for his impeccable taste, for sparing me the bombast. Throughout this beautiful song, we have never wandered far from the manger, and at the end, we return to mother and child. I may be wrong, but the once faltering left hand seems a little steadier, now.
When I think of the packed houses at Emile Pandolfi's concerts everywhere I've heard him play, for nearly fifteen years, I can't imagine why this marvelous recording hasn't been reviewed before now. I'm also the only reviewer of his latest album, Believe. I hope you'll read that review and buy that CD. But you can do yourself an even greater favor: if you get wind of an Emile Pandolfi performance anywhere within a couple of day's drive in the next year or two-or the next ten-gas up the car, do yourself and your SO a favor, and go to hear the man in person. Once you've done that, it's very unlikely that it will be the last time.
Most warmly recommended.
(You can get on Emile Pandolfi's mailing list by going to [...]. His newsletter will notify you of all his upcoming concert appearances.