Feeling uplifted with Karl Jenkins

Just three posts after writing about Ludovico Einaudi, I’m covering Karl Jenkins. In case you’re alarmed at my swerving into the mainstream, don’t worry. I’ll be back to investigating Scriabin deep cuts and making lofty rankings soon enough.

The truth is, these classical “crossover” artists are making up a larger and larger portion of print publishing. I’m kind of fascinated to see how the trend grows, and I want to keep the spotlight on composers who are worthy of attention (a very important distinction to make, the more of this music I listen to).

Picking up a copy of Karl Jenkins: Piano, you might feel a slight boost in your mood. Study the cover photo of a dove hovering over a shiny white piano. Read the subtitle: “Intimate and spiritually uplifting classics reimagined for solo piano.” Flip to the back cover and regard the photo of Sir Karl Jenkins himself, with his Ed Sheeran-esque mop and mournful mustache. This is when you know you’re in for a treat. The book even smells nice.

In case you’re not caught up on who this man is, or why he was knighted, Karl Jenkins is a super-successful composer of mainly choral music. Some of his works have been ambitious in scope, like Adiemus and The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace. His musical language is eminently accessible, but sometimes more interesting and surprising than  other popular composers like Einaudi or Max Richter. He juggles influences from pop to Baroque. This results in music with a strong sense of bass movement (sometimes using Baroque-style sequences), clear melodies, and elegant turns of phrase. All these elements elevate it slightly above your average “crossover” music.

Karl Jenkins: Piano is a collection of the composer’s arrangements of various pieces, in his words, “pared down to the bare bones and almost sound as they did when originally conceived at the piano.” In a way, stripping the music of its original choral or instrumental trappings reveals the harmonic mechanisms a little too clearly. “Benedictus” from The Armed Man, as a piano solo, sounds a bit like an Andrew Lloyd Webber song. But generally the music just feels good to play. Just sightread along and let it gush out.

Some highlights:

Cantilena. The first piece in the book draws on some Classical techniques to support a melody with a small range. Some of the bass movements that imply dominant fifth chords give a feeling of the music going somewhere.

Palladio. I remember hearing the original string-orchestra version of Palladio on the radio once. Not knowing of Karl Jenkins yet, I played a maddening game of “guess the composer” with myself. I heard barely any counterpoint, and a few dissonances that seemed just slightly beyond the Baroque. Whatever the case, now I know. The string version has more intense rhythms and can really get the blood pumping. I would have liked a more complicated, unabridged piano arrangement, but this one does fine.

Quirky Blue. I laughed when I opened up to this piece, nestled among solemn choral excerpts. It’s jazzy, swinging, and fun. Think baby Kapustin. Some of the left hand chords are quite a stretch, though. Sadly, no video on YouTube.

Ave verum from Stabat Mater. The first Jenkins piece I ever heard, a duet (at least in that version) for mezzo-soprano and baritone. Quite beautiful stuff. The original vocal context is much, much more effective, but if you love the piece you’ll enjoy playing it on the piano.

Canción plateada from Adiemus Colores. The gushiest of the gushes. I love it. Mixed meters and oozing chromatic lines make this one stand out. Pardon the poor audio quality in the video.

Want to buy it? Click here.


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