A musician of less intensity and ingenuity than pianist/composer Brad Mehldau might well be overwhelmed in performing with an orchestra. But if Variations on a Melancholy Theme proves anything, it is those two major components of Mehldau’s artistic persona that complement the virtues of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
As implied by the record’s title, the brilliant pianist/composer seeks to grapple with one of, if not the most, unwieldy of emotions with his original extended piece. Kudos to him for evincing the humility necessary to realize he could not successfully engage in such action alone or even with his trio: the nuances inherent in the feeling are hardly so stable to allow for quick translation, but instead require a reading adorned with layers of delicate instrumentation. The chamber orchestra that actually commissioned the piece is more than up to the task, rendering the arrangements with the appropriate sensitivity.
As such, this album is of a piece, at least indirectly with Mehldau’s last recorded work Suite: April 2020. It’s a daunting task indeed to so openly exploring the various states of the human condition, even (or especially) if as a means to find some resolution in that which is so rife with surprise. Or as Brad himself outs it in an essay inside the enclosed eight-page booklet (much less lengthy than some he’s included with his albums): “While the theme evokes melancholy, I let it be used as a springboard for other happy, wild, violent, and reckless emotions as the variations progress.” Variations is no indulgence in dolor.
Accordingly, there’s a certain winsome air about the “Theme” that makes it somewhat less somber than might be expected, especially as woodwinds enter to accompany the piano. Many of the “Variations” last only between one and two minutes, but this work is hardly fragmentary: the recurring intervals of solo piano simultaneously echo what’s come before and anticipate what’s to come. And a with those individual pieces, the half-hour-plus total running time of the LP belies the density and intricacy of both the compositions and the musicianship.
At almost six and a half minutes “Postlude” provides final punctuation to the gamut of feelings Brad Mehldau references in his aforementioned observation. Likewise, the exquisitely animated near four minutes of “Encore: Variations “X” & “Y” supplies the optimum opportunity for rumination upon the subject(s) at hand. Prior to that dual conclusion, “Variation 4” is the definition of gaiety, one of the few appearances of percussion adds suspense on “Variation 8”– to the point, it teeters upon melodrama–and the contrast of ivories and orchestration generate a ghostly effect during “Variation 10.” The continuity of the various movements (mirrored in these multi-image cover graphics) is all the more remarkable considering producer Adam Abeshouse recorded, mixed and mastered these selections from select live dates, then threaded them together into a seamless whole.
The core of such technical proficiency is a corollary to the practiced expertise that lies deep within that element of spontaneity at the heart of jazz. Executed with supreme dignity and grace by Brad Mehldau and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Variations On A Melancholy Theme is a multi-faceted piece of beauty and, as such, constitutes a salve for the mind, the heart, and the soul.