Tough not to completely give in to an album like this, where austerity is tantamount to a confession of faith and jazz rendered almost as psalmody. Mehldau’s concept, realized with spartan instrumentation, is grand: provide pianistic settings for the words of the young Rainer Maria Rilke—composed shortly after a stay in a Russian monastery—and allow for the vocals of opera stalwart Renée Fleming to serve as an invocation of the divine—jazz, literature and gnosticism configured as modern- day classical lieder.
In allowing us the vantage of Rilke the young man, Mehldau has opened up the possibilities of this music, which, accordingly, can be as fractious as it is devotional. The vocals, doubtless, are virtuosic, and quite gutting too—Fleming’s rendering of “His Caring is a Nightmare to us,” is so delicately piquant that when her vibrato lingers on a single syllable—“stone,” “die,” “love”—one feels all but cut off from any worldly hope, lest that hope emanate from art itself. Curiously, the disc concludes not with Rilke settings, but rather with treatments for the poet and Rilke successor Louise Bogan as well as for Mehldau’s wife, Fleurine. As for Mehldau himself—in this music that never once swings, has no real groove and exists, seemingly, for the singular purpose of reconciling spiritual faith and doubt—his playing belies a mastery of notes and tonal emphasis. He has the ability to place a three-note figure in a manner reflective of the poet’s heroic condition.