Maya Beiser | Bowie Cello Symphonic: Blackstar | (Islandia Music)
4 out of 5 stars
This radical interpretation of David Bowie’s final album, led by Maya Beiser’s cello and backed with full orchestration, seems at first glance to be a dubious concept. It pays tribute to one of this generation’s most creative artists by covering one of his most dense, some may contend difficult, works; one that defied commercial considerations for a unique, often grating, always artistic sensibility many fans found simply too extreme.
While Beiser’s often intense cello playing and inspired orchestrations from Evan Ziporyn are far from easy listening, this clearly heartfelt, track-by-track, all instrumental reprisal of Blackstar, is wildly effective.
Like its source material, the music veers into avant-garde territory, shifting the sonics from Bowie’s heavily sax, somewhat jarring jazz tinged rock, to cello led orchestrations that maintain the songs’ basic melodic core while pushing, often submerging, into experimental waters. That’s especially true with the clattering percussion that provides “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” with its jittery, nervous energy. The following version of “Girl Loves Me” tamps down the eccentricities as Beiser’s cello translates Bowie’s vocals into her emotional bowing.
At over eleven minutes, the opening title track builds from a sparse, stark beginning of just percussion and cello to full, and often spooky, orchestration that shifts between seeming like the soundtrack to a horror movie, to a more pastoral approach that’s beautiful and more than a little wistful. It’s unusual to feature a cello as a lead instrument, but Beiser’s playing is so vibrant and powerful that it creates an alluring and often unsettling atmosphere which respects Bowie’s music while taking it in new directions.
Beiser and Ziporyn have already performed this on the road for special performances last year. So this studio representation reflects a maturity and comfortable approach to Blackstar, one they have lived with for a while, and the results are palpable.
Like Bowie’s final release, this is not for everyone (a digital download also features inspired takes on “Life on Mars” and “Ziggy Stardust” that may bring some rock oriented fans to the table) due to both the source material and the experimental nature of the interpretation. But for those ready for something truly unique that will push your ears into territory they likely haven’t been exposed to before, it’s a resounding success.
You get the feeling David would approve.
Photo credit: Sachyn Mital