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Three Generations of a Russian Film Music Dynasty at Joe’s Pub

Sunday evening at Joe’s Pub, was pianist Alexander Zhurbin’s overture from the Russian musical Lips a pavane of lost souls, or a parody of a love song?

Both, actually. There are more optimal ways of recording a concert’s most memorable moments than scribbling in a darkened theatre and then trying to decipher those notes. And there was so much more, in almost two nonstop hours of music, than any hasty note-taking could cover. Shifting effortlessly through lush neoromantic themes, darkly gleaming art-song, bulgar punk and a few detours toward Brighton Beach piano-bar singalongs, Zhurbin and his singer wife Irena Ginzburg underscored their status as icons of Russian music over the past forty-plus years.

At this show, three generations of Zhurbins celebrated that legacy. Their son Ljova, the great violist, joined in on several numbers and contributed a couple of his own works. There was Garmoshka, a poignant, bittersweet theme whose title refers to a small Russian accordion. “Or anything you can squeeze – this song is almost about that,” he explained. The other was a stern, stripped-down take of By the Campfire, sung with bristling intensity by his wife, the riveting vocalist Inna Barmash. “The wisdom of our days teaches lies, deceit and hate,” she sang, in Russian, a perennially apt commentary from the 12th century Goliards which Ljova’s grandfather had translated.

The elder Zhubin has a vast body of work, both scoring and playing film and theatre music. Maybe because he’s been called on to write for so many different idioms, the songs and instrumentals on the bill evoked just about every emotion possible: depth and suspense and longing, but also sly wit and outright boisterous fun. Being set pieces, many of those numbers were tantalizingly brief. He built a swaying intensity using bell tones in a song from his 1975 rock opera Orpheus and Eurydice, the very first of its kind to somehow make it past the Soviet censors. Another theme, from the 1980 film Flying Hussars Squadron, had an even more ominously epic sweep. Often he’d begin a tune on a more lighthearted note before bringing in the clouds, as with many of the World War II-themed material from the popular Russian tv drama Moscow Saga.

Decked out as a punk cabaret star in a classy black top and leather pants, rocking a sharp blonde hairdo, Ginzburg channeled as just as broad a spectrum of feeling, unleashing her powerful yet often understated mezzo-soprano. The material ranged from the tender ballad Isn’t It Beautiful – a co-write with their husband – to more bittersweet, as in the Moscow Tram Song, dedicated to the popular Russian-Georgian poet and songwriter Bulat Okudzhava. After romping through a bouncy, theatrical medley of his songs, and then a similarly animated trio of tunes from Zhurbin’s 1987 musical Sunset, they closed with a reprise of their hit Life Is Like a Horse. At that point, everybody was onstage, the couple’s grandsons raising the vaudevillian factor a few notches at the end as the crowd clapped along.

Zhurbin and Ginzburg don’t have anything upcoming scheduled at the moment, although lately Joe’s Pub has been their home base. Ljova’s next New York appearance is with Barmash in their wild Romany/klezmer/rock string band Romashka at Flushing Town Hall on March 23 at 8 PM on a twinbill with similarly energetic western swing band Brain Cloud; tix are $16.

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Moppa Elliott Brings His Twisted, Hilarious Parodies to Gowanus

Is Moppa Elliott this era’s Frank Zappa? Elliott is funnier, and his jokes are musical rather than lyrical, but there are similarities. Each began his career playing parodies – Zappa with the Mothers of Invention and Elliott with Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Their bodies of work are distinguished by an equally broad and spot-on sense of humor, with a cruel streak. With Mostly Other People Do the Killing – the world’s funniest jazz group – seemingly in mothballs at the moment, Elliott has gone out and made a lavish triple album with three separate, closely related ensembles. The world’s funniest jazz bassist is playing a tripleheader, with sets by each of them tomorrow, Feb 15 at Shapeshifter Lab starting at 7 PM with the jazz octet Advancing on a Wild Pitch, following at 8 with quasi-soul band Acceleration Due to Gravity and then at 9 with instrumental 80s rock act Unspeakable Garbage. Cover is $10.

Where MOPDtK savaged Ornette Coleman imitators, fusion jazz and hot 20s swing, among many other styles, the new record Jazz Band/Rock Band/Dance Band gives the bozack to New Orleans shuffles, Kansas City swing and retro 60s soul music, and attempts to do the same to 80s rock. It hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, although there are three tracks up at Soundcloud. Throughout the record, Elliott is more chill than ever, letting his twisted compositions speak for themselves.

It’s redemptive to hear how deliciously Elliott and the “dance band” mock the hordes of white kids aping 60s funk and soul music. This sounds like the Dap-Kings on a cruel overdose of liquid acid, trying desperately to hold it together. Without giving away all the jokes, let’s say that drummer Mike Pride’s rhythm is a persistent punchline. And yet, as relentless as the satire here is, there are genuinely – dare we say – beautiful moments here, notably guitarist Ava Mendoza’s savage roar and tuneful erudition: she really knows her source material.

The horns – trumpeter Nate Wooley, trombonist Dave Taylor, saxophonists Matt Nelson and Bryan Murray – squall when they’re not getting completely self-indulgent, Mendoza serving as good cop. Guitarist Kyle Saulnier and pianist George Burton fall somewhere in the middle along with Elliott. As an imitation of an imitation, several generations removed from James Brown, Isaac Hayes and Louis Jordan, this is hilarious stuff. The arguably most vicious payoff of all is when they swing that unctuous King Crimson tune by the tail until it breaks: it’s about time somebody did that.

Advancing on a Wild Pitch – with trombonist Sam Kulik, baritone saxophonist Charles Evans, pianist Danny Fox and drummer Christian Coleman – is the jazz group here, akin to a less ridiculous MOPDtK. As with that band, quotes and rhythmic japes factor heavily into the sarcasm, but you have to listen more closely than Elliott’s music usually demands to pick up on the snarky pokes. This is also his chance to remind the world that if he really wanted to write slightly above-average, derivative postbop jazz without much in the way of humor to score a record deal, he could do it in his sleep. But this is so much more fun!

Again, without giving away any punchlines, the length of the pieces and also the solos weighs in heavily. Oh baby, do they ever. They savage second-line shuffles, the Basie band, early Ellington, 30s swing and doofy gospel-inspired balladry, among other things. If you really want a laugh and can only listen to one tune here, try St. Marys: the most irresistible bit is about midway through. Even so, there are long, unselfconsciously engaging solos by Fox and Kulik in the two final numbers, Ship and Slab, which don’t seem like parodies at all. If Elliott has a dozen more of these kicking around, he could blend right in at Jazz at Lincoln Center – and maybe sneak in some of the really fun stuff too.

Unspeakable Garbage’s honking instrumental approach to cheesy 80s radio rock is too close to its endless litany of sources to really count as parody. With blaring guitar, a leaden beat and trebly synth, they devise mashups from a list included but not limited to Huey Lewis, Van Halen, Pat Benatar and Grover Washington Jr. This predictable shtick gets old fast: Spinal Tap it’s not. You’d do better with Murray and his band Bryan & the Haggards, who have put out three surprisingly amusing albums of instrumental Merle Haggard covers.

A Viscerally Intense, Purposeful New Album From Violist Jessica Pavone

Violist Jessica Pavone has been one of the most consistently interesting and compelling musicians on the New York improvisational scene for the better part of a decade, someone who always seems to elevate other players to new levels of spontaneity. Everybody wants to work with her: trumpet icon Wadada Leo Smith, haunting psychedelic art-rocker Rose Thomas Bannister and the late, great guitar stormscaper Glenn Branca number among her many collaborators. Her broodingly surreal 2012 song cycle Hope Dawson Is Missing is a genuine classic, and her Dark Tips project with another hauntingly chameleonic multi-instrumentalist, Raquel Bell is magically murky. Pavone’s latest solo release, In the Action is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing on a killer twinbill on Feb 20 at 8 PM at Happy Lucky No. 1 Gallery, followed at around 9 by charismatic accordionist/multi-instrumentalist songwriter Rachelle Garniez, who’s playing with another first-rate violist, Karen Waltuch. The cover charge is a mystery right now; ten bucks would be a fair guess.

Pavone is not typically a showy player, preferring purpose, melody and texture. Muted, rhythmic white noise flickers behind uneasy, slowly resolving, multitracked close harmonies as the album’s first track, Oscillatory Salt Transport gets underway. Pavone wails on a pedal note when she’s not working twisted permutations on what could be the intro to a Scottish air.

With tons of reverb echoing from her spare, plucked phrases and overtones burning from her low strings, 2 and Maybe in the End could be a deconstructed 80s spacerock anthem at quarterspeed. Using her trusty loop pedal, Pavone builds vortical variations from a chugging diesel engine idle in Look Out Look Out Look Out: these stygian sounds hardly bring to mind the typical range of a viola. She turns the pedal off to begin the album’s concluding title cut, digging into her axe’s natural low registers in a return to allusions to British Isles folk, teasing the listener with that insistent opening cadenza up to a wry, completely unexpected false ending. As is typical of Pavone’s work, it has the freshness of having been made up on the spot even though a lot of it was probably planned out in advance. 

Extrovert Organist Brian Charette Keeps Pushing the Envelope

Organist Brian Charette is this era’s Larry Young, expanding the terrain an organist can cover. And he’s one of the funniest guys in jazz: onstage, his sardonic wit infuses the music as much as the between-song banter. After years of toiling as the main organ jazz attraction at Smalls, and touring relentlessly, he’s finally been getting the critical recognition he deserves. His  next gig is with his Sextette at Dizzy’s Club on Feb 13, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $30. With six guys in the band, this is a prime opportunity to catch Charette at his devious best.

The last time this blog was in the house at one of Charette’s shows, it was last fall and he was playing an intimate trio set with his mesmerising singer wife Melanie Scholtz at Rue B in the East Village. In terms of unselfconsciously spectacular talent, it wouldn’t be overhype to call these two the newest power couple in jazz. While this gig was completely different from what Charette does in a straight-ahead jazz context, he was still just as much of a shark on the prowl, chilling out between the rocks, waiting for a choice morsel of melody to sink his teeth into.

Scholtz sings in several languages including Xosa, a distinctive and particularly difficult vernacular from her native South Africa that includes clicks along with vowels and consonants. Playing percussion and syndrums, she looped her vocals on several numbers, constructing wildly spiraling, kaleidescopic melodies on a couple of them as Charette shifted from Afrobeat to dub to gospel to vintage soul to a little funk, sometimes all of that in the same serpentine composition.

Much as Charette’s erudite textures and idiomatic shifts were entertaining, Scholtz was a force of nature, rising from shamanic, unearthly lows to soaring highs, coyly fluttering intimacy and a gale-force wail. Spun through the mixer, those tones took on all sorts of unexpected, surreal shapes. Yet as psychedelically enveloping as all that turned out to be, it was when she went straight through the PA without any effects that she delivered her most spine-tingling moments of the night. She and Charette are off on European tour next month.

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra Bring a Wild Salsa Party to Curry Hill

Remember when you couldn’t walk down the avenue anywhere in the five boroughs without hearing salsa blasting from every other car and delivery van? Back in the day, it was such a welcoming sound to come home to, especially after being outside the country. Reggaeton and cumbia may have eclipsed salsa as Latino New York’s default party music, but it isn’t just oldtimers who’re keeping it alive. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra don’t play as many gigs as they used to, so if classic 70s salsa dura is your thing, their three-night stand at the Jazz Standard this Feb 21-24 is for you. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is a hefty $35, but remember the club doesn’t have minimums. On the other hand, nobody’s going to blame you if you can’t resist the barbecue: keep in mind they share a kitchen with Blue Smoke upstairs.

The band’s latest album, Anniversary is streaming at youtube. It’s a mix of originals and imaginatively reinvented standards. The opening track, Esa Nena sets the stage with a 70s Fania Records blueprint: blazing brass, playful polyrhythms, energetic call-and-response and a pulsingly catchy, vamping Afro-Cuban groove.

Yo Te Prometo is a bristling bolero in bright salsa disguise. Underneath the brassy gusts and insistent drive of Dime Tu, there’s a hypnotic thicket of woodblock and bongos, the timbales coming further toward the front alongside a honking Mitch Frohman baritone sax solo. The song’s message of solidarity carries special resonance in these xenophobic times.

Goza Al Ritmo has a shadowy solo from pianist Oscar Hernández. A tantalizingly brief, punchy trumpet solo and a go-for-broke outro cap off the mighty dance anthem Echa Pa’Lante. Guaracha y Bembe is a distinctly New York update on 50s Cuban big band majesty: singer Marco Bermudez calls this the soundtrack for a crazy night, and he isn’t kidding.

Y Deja and La Media Vuelta are more romantic, looking back to the 80s and then a couple of decades further, respectively. Cancion Para Ti is the poppiest, most 80s-flavored track here, Jeremy Bosch’s flute fluttering in and out. Como Te Quise has some unexpected baroque moments from the brass – Reynado Jorge and Doug Beavers on trombones, Hector Colon and Maneco Ruiz on trumpets.

Tres Palabras – another spiced-up bolero – has a deliciously lush, nocturnal atmosphere: it comes across as a more lavishly orchestrated counterpart to Bio Ritmo. Likewise, Somos Uno has a pouncing intensity along with a bubbling, triumphant trumpet cameo from Randy Brecker, The album’s final track is Soy El Tambor, a mighty, tumbling coda to over an hour’s worth of music. 

First and foremost, this is a party in a box. Lyrically, the songs celebrate pretty women, getting out on the floor and rhythmic sabrosura, with more serious references to the music’s cultural and historical value. At this point in history, salsa is a legacy genre like Chicago blues, roots reggae and bluegrass; there aren’t as many people taking it to new places anymore and this is one group who still are.

Murky Noir Classics and Devious Jousting from Baritone Sax Titan Josh Sinton

Gritty lows, epic solos, smoky riffage, paint-peeling extended-technique freakout: baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton does it all. He’s played on some of the most memorable big band gigs in New York in recent years, but he’s also a mainstay in the far reaches of improvisational music. That’s why his latest project, Phantasos – a Morphine cover band – might be a surprise, considering how straightforward it is. But for anyone who misses that iconic noir trio, Sinton channels Dana Colley’s blend of murk and lyricism while a rotating rhythm section adds a little extra slink. Nobody in the band is using a two-string bass, as Mark Sandman did, but the group’s debut at Barbes a week ago is the next best thing. Phantasos are back at Barbes every Saturday evening at 6 PM this month, tonight included.

Sinton’s latest album with his Predicate Trio – cellist Chris Hoffman and drummer Tom Rainey – is completely different, and streaming at Bandcamp. So much jazz improvisation is awkward and spastic: this is all about conversations, and good jokes, and spontaneous entertainment. Sinton opens it with a sepulchral solo miniature, the ghosts of baritone saxophonists past wafting and keening up through the valves.

Tellingly, there’s more than a hint of Morphine in the epic second number, Sinton pulling away from the catchy theme, up to a burning cello-and-bass interlude with Hoffman’s chords pulsing over Rainey’s colorful, textured syncopation. The sly humor and subtle drift back toward the theme in the jam at the end are characteristically erudite.

The staccato, rhythmic triangulation in Taiga is much the same, after the wry cat-on-the-steppes-in-midwinter interlude that opens it. A Dance is elegant and rather somber, from Hoffman’s long, terse solo intro, through hypnotically catchy, circling riffs, a divergent interlude contrasting Sinton’s carefree accents against Rainey’s majestic tom-tom resonance and an unexpectedly calm resolution.

After an amusing, improvisational rondo of sorts, the group stray even further outside in Unreliable Mirrors, with its rustles and flutters and a coy quasi-march, Rainey coloring the exchange with every timbre he can coax from the depths of his kit, finally rising to a chuffing crescendo.

Sinton and Hoffman growl in tandem as the aptly titled Propulsive steams aong,; then the volcano boils over with a memorable squall. Hoffman hints at a stroll in the improvisation after that, shadowed by fleeting sax and drums. Sinton brings the album full circle with a sly squawk.

Catherine Russell Brings Her Edgy Retro Swing and Blues Reinventions to Birdland

Catherine Russell has made a career out of bringing edge and freshness to old swing jazz tunes both popular and obscure. Much as she’s often mined the so-called “great American songbook” for much of it, she and her band steer clear of cliches. Other than the present, the time period they most closely evoke is the early 30s, before swing got watered down for segregated white audiences. And where so many other jazz singers mimic icons from decades past, Russell long ago developed a resolute, purposefully individualistic style, with a deep if not always immediately present blues influence – something you might expect from someone whose pianist father Luis was Louis Armstrong’s musical director. Her new album Alone Together – which hasn’t hit her Spotify channel yet – is just out. She and her similarly purist group are celebrating the release with a stand at Birdland this Feb 12-16, with sets at 9 and 11 PM. You can get in for thirty bucks.

They open the new record with the title track: ultimately, it’s an optimistic ballad, but both Russell and the band anchor it with a steady, gritty swing, pianist Mark Shane and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso ramping up an underlying, steely bluesiness. Likewise, Russell and Shane max out the irony in You Turned the Tables on Me, over bassist Tal Ronen and drummer Mark McLean’s steady stroll.

When Did You Leave Heaven has a plush string section, a subtle 12/8 rhythm and a spare, spacious soul solo from musical director/guitarist Matt Munisteri. They reinvent Early in the Morning as a barrelhouse piano cha-cha, punctuated with Mark Lopeman’s tenor sax and Munisteri’s wry Chicago blues solo. Then they turn Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby into a wary New Orleans stroll with a terse, edgy horn chart, probably the last thing Louis Jordan ever imagined for this song – at least until Kellso cuts loose with his mute.

Russell matches sass to knowing sarcasm while the band romp through You Can’t Pull the Wool Over My Eyes, Lopeman and Kellso trading off with trombonist John Allred with some lively dixieland. Her angst is more distant in Shake Down the Stars, Shane’s emphatic solo giving way to Kellso’s airier, more wistful lines. Then the group take their time with a gorgeously bittersweet, take of the blues ballad I Wonder, lowlit by Munisteri’s tremoloing guitar and resonant washes of brass.

The real gem here is the innuendo-packed hokum blues He May Be Your Dog But He’s Wearing My Collar, a 1923 hit for singer Rosa Henderson, who would no doubt approve of Russell’s defiance over Shane’s stride piano and Munisteri’s shivery slide work. The band romp through the sudden tempo shifts of Errand Girl for Rhythm and then flip the script with a steady, darkly ambered take of How Deep Is the Ocean. Likewise, they keep a purposeful slink going through their take of I Only Have Eyes for You.

They wind up the album with a tasty version of You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew, with a nod over the shoulder at those great 1920s Bessie Smith/James P. Johnson collaborations. Russell has made a bunch of good records over the years but this might be the best of them all.

Haunting Intensity from the Navarra String Quartet at Lincoln Center

Just about every month this spring, there’s a free classical concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd Street in conjunction with the current Great Performers series. There’s also just about every other stye of music made in every community in New York here too. It’s especially interesting to see who turns out for the classical shows. Last night a packed house representing just about every age group and community here in town was treated to a performance by UK group the Navarra String Quartet.

Cellist Brian O’Kane introduced Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks’ music as “Full of beautiful landscapes, very atmospheric…one can hear his love of nature and quite a lot of spirituality. In contrast, there are quite a few episodes of struggle after a very horrible regime in the Eastern Bloc.”

The group moved gently into the stillness, ghostly glissandos and subtle trills of the opening movement of his 1999 String Quartet No. 4. O’Kane anchored the group’s slow climb from brooding austerity to agitation and then back, violinists Magnus and Marije Johnston rising alongside Sascha Bota’s viola.

Furtively circling, rhythmic variations on a chase theme grew to a blaze, reflecting O’Kane’s comments about the music’s political content. The group channeled desolation and loss in a muted series of ominously stacked, Arvo Part-like harmonies, going deep into the relentless angst as the music peaked in a series of waves.

The contrast between the violins and the lower instruments underscored a growing terror as the chase scene recurred: no doubt this kind of thing happened all the time when the KGB were prowling Vasks’ home turf. Exchanges of guarded prayerfulness and forlorn resignation mingled in the mist; Bota adding  hushed, somberly tremoloing pedalpoint. The eerily wafting conclusion offered no sense of closure: the audience, who’d already been taken by surprise by the composer’s many full stops earlier i the work, slowly processed the intensity.

Right at the second the group returned to the stage for Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, a siren wailed down Columbus Avenue. Undeterred, the quartet built Parisian wistfulness toward a heroic overture, Magnus Johnston’s silken but aching lines telgraphing that all would not be fin de siècle contentment here.

The group’s vigorous pizzicato had the same effect in the waltzing second movement, foreshadowing the twists and turbulence that ends up infusing the dance. The wounded calm the ensemble built in the third was as it was gorgeous, especially when they hit the big crescendo. Likewise, their fiery launch into the fourth. Credit the quartet for realizing what a perhaps surprisingly good segue it made after the harrowing intensity of the first half od the program.

They encored with a moody miniature by Kurtag, “To calm ourselves down,” as O’Kane grinned. The next Lincoln Center atrium concert is on Valentine’s Day at 7:30 PM with energetic, individualistic Cape Verde islands singer/guitarist Tcheka. Show up early if you want a seat.

Poignancy and Exhilaration with Claudia Acuña at Birdland

There was a point last night during her first set of a four-night stand at Birdland where singer Claudia Acuña started pogoing across the stage. She got as far as guitarist Juancho Herrera’s pedalboard before she ran out of room and had to chill out a little. If you’d been on that stage with that band and that setlist, you would have been just as ecstatic – but you wouldn’t have sung as rivetingly as she did.

Because the majority of this particular setlist was hers. She opened with a punchy take of Hey, a no-nonsense empowerment anthem for women everywhere and closed with a shamanic, enveloping take of her mentor Abbey Lincoln’s Holy Earth. In between, she mixed a couple of acerbic Lincoln tunes and a knowingly angst-fueled take of Jimmy Van Heusen’s But Beautiful in with a gorgeously lyrical mix of songs from her new album Turning Pages.

Acuña gets all sorts of props for her often shatteringly direct alto voice, but here the crowd was just as blown away by her songwriting and the quality of the band. Pianist Pablo Vergara spun intricate, plaintive neoromantic filigrees, with a couple of starry solos as openers. Behind the kit, Yayo Serka played what seemed to be both sides of a conspiratorial talking drum interlude to start one number, underscored much of the material with a subtle clave and went way back to the banks of the Nile to foreshadow the end of the set.

Starting on Fender and finishing on upright, bassist Carlos Henderson’s minutely nuanced touch matched the bandleader’s subtlety, notably with his allusions to the steady propulsion of Bob Marley’s Exodus throughout an understatedly dancing take of Futuro, one of the new record’s standout tracks. Acuña explained that she’d written it to her yet-unborn son and then sang with hushed joy about how much she was looking forward to seeing him “Dancing through the constellations, and through the onion and garlic patch. That translation from the Spanish is less poetic  than the actual lyric.

The high point of the new album, and arguably the show as well, was the poignant, brooding anthem Aguita de Corazon. Lowlit by Herrera’s spare accents and Vergara’s rippling angst, the wounded payoff packed a wallop whenever the chorus came around. “I’m from Chile,” Acuña explained. “We have a tea for everything. You have a broken heart? We have a tea for that too.” It was strong and potent medicine in this group’s hands, guest Gregoire Maret’s harmonica reaching an unexpectedly wrenching coda after he’d taken his time, going deeper into the blues as the narrative unfolded.

His animated exchanges with Acuña’s scatting on the next number were more lighthearted, and a lot of fun. But ultimately, depth and emotional impact is what she’s all about, and she delivered all of that, whether the wistful hope of Tres Deseos – a wish song times three, basically – and Lincoln’s The World Is Falling Down, which she and the group built matter-of-factly and aptly, with a bittersweet knowingness that was closer to Rachelle Garniez than the woman who wrote it, a deeply personal political artifact from the Civil Rights era whose relevance hasn’t dimmed.

The album release stand continues tonight, Feb 7 through 9 with sets at 7 and 10 PM; you can get in for $20.

A Harrowing, Shattering Quartet for the End of Time Uptown

Olivier Messiaen premiered his 1941 prison break suite Quartet for the End of Time in the very same prison he wanted to break out of.

And got away with it.

The program notes for last night’s performance of that immortal partita at the Crypt Sessions uptown quoted the composer as saying that “Never before have I been listened to with such attention and understanding.” That the Nazis there missed the point speaks volumes. The prisoners obviously got the message.

Messiaen was eventually liberated from that Nazi POW camp, where he’d debuted it in on a grim, rainy night, playing a barely functional piano alongside a violinist, clarinetist, and cellist who had to make do with only three strings. Talk about chutzpah!

Almost eight decades later, amid the rich natural reverb beneath the vaulted ceiling in the stone crypt at the Church of the Intercession in Harlem, the quartet of violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Jay Campbell, clarinetist Yoonah Kim and pianist Orion Weiss channeled the terror and defiance and hope against hope that kept Messiaen going at a time when he had no idea that he’d survive the war, let alone be released the following year.

The official story, of course, is that the suite is a portrait of a biblical apocalypse. Considering that Messiaen was a devout Catholic and had a whole liturgical script worked out, there’s no reason to doubt that. But the subtext here screamed as loudly as it possibly could: GET ME OUT!

The four musicians had obviously sized up the sonics, realized what powerful amplification they had in the space’s rich natural reverb, and rolled with it. Kim’s long series of slow upward crescendos, requiring daunting displays of circular breathing, left the audience as breathless as she was. Campbell’s shivery, masterfully nuanced, white-knuckle ascent later on was every bit as haunting and elegaic. And Jackiw’s final pairing with Weiss at the end peaked with an almost horrific cadenza, throwing off the Nazi chains to make way for the opening of heaven…or maybe just a return to prewar normalcy

The interweave of birdsong (Messiaen was cruelly tantalized by birds singing outside his cell window) and stark, jagged close harmonies was all too clear early on. The escape sequence and subsequent chase scene – uneasy, sometimes Indian-tinged harmonies furtively scampering and spiced with one sudden, horrified cadenza after another – in the sixth movement could not have been more vivid, or Hitchcockian.

And in the preceding movement, Weiss’ decision not to go for the jugular with grand guignol but instead to hang back and let the menace linger was ultimately the key to the whole performance. Despite the temptations of innumerable creepy tritones and endless dirge passages rising slowly with mournfully tolling, upper-register belltone accents, the group went for foreshadowing. Yet at the end, Weiss didn’t try to mask Messiaen’s forlorn echo phrases, underscoring a vision of a very Pyrrhic victory.

The likelihood of this same group getting together for this same piece is pretty slim, but the next concert in the Crypt Sessions series, on March 7 at 8 PM, has a similarly dark theme. Baritone Lucas Meachem and his wife, pianist Irina Meachem – who will be six months pregnant by the time she plays the concert – will be performing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder suite.  To get tickets, you need to get on the email list – the website, http://www.deathofclassical.com says it all.

The crypt is easy to get to, two blocks up the hill from the 157th Street station on the 1 line. There’s plentiful wine and cheese and crudites and banter beforehand. The crowd tends to skew young, and old: lots of twentysomethings out on a date along with more than a few seniors doing the same. And there never seems to be anyone gratuitously gramming here; this crowd comes to descend into the darkness and listen.