In his 2011 book Verdi and/or Wagner, currently doing the rounds in libraries across the UK for obvious reasons, Peter Conrad devotes the best of 400 pages to essentially draw all sorts of divisive lines: the sensual Italian song versus the cerebral German symphony; the radically different conceptions of tragedy (“Tragedy in Wagner is an act of will […] Verdi’s characters, unlike Wagner’s, would prefer to be happy if they could”); and the overall cultural abyss standing between the abstruse German philosophers and the earthy Italian hedonists.

Uri Caine © Bill Douthart
Uri Caine
© Bill Douthart

Uri Caine arrives on stage like a typhoon and swipes away conjectures, prejudices and, above all, frontiers. He sits, scores scattered around him on the floor, and plays, deconstructing and reshaping music that is all-too-familiar yet forever evasive, ungraspable, mesmerising. He relentlessly stretches rhythms, harmonies and melodies, finding in syncopation a constant accomplice. Whether he would have alienated or fascinated either of the two musical giants remains an amusing yet ultimately unsolvable exercise. He certainly captivated the large majority of the audience, although perhaps overwhelmed some – very few – who ostensibly left the hall early.

The programme clearly favoured Wagner, at least in quantity. Caine chose to play – and play with – some of his most renowned music, including the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, the Tannhäuser overture, Lohengrin’s Preludes from Acts I and II, the “Ride of the Valkyries” and his Wesendonck Lieder. Extracts from Otello meant that Verdi also got his share of the evening. This is all familiar music to Caine, and much of it has been crystallised in recordings – “The Otello Syndrome”, an album released in 2008, is a case in point. Yet here we listen anew, quite literally.

It is hard, and possibly pointless, to describe what Uri Caine does to existing music. And it is hard because even the most detailed account of the ways he sculpts sound to suggest new musical universes falls many steps short of conveying the experience of hearing him play live. He is able to venture into untrodden territory, and at the same time never lose sight of the invisible thread that keeps the original work together. His improvisation bursts with wit and imagination, uncompromisingly evolving to become what it was not a moment before. There is no end to his creativity and exploring instinct.

One of the encores he played was the allegro of Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 16 in C major (K545). Having heard him play this same piece twice before makes this new take even more extraordinary, precisely because it is unlike any of the previous ones, and it will never be repeated.

In this year of endless tributes to Verdi and Wagner, Caine chooses to mark it by doing what he does best: taking their music to a novel – and often remarkably groovy – sphere and proposing new narratives for classic scores. Watching this miracle of reinvention in real time is an experience not to be missed.

****1