Reassessing Paderewski, Wizard of the Keyboard

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PADEREWSKI: THE AMERICAN RECORDINGS, 1914-1931 / COUPERIN: Pièces de Clavecin: La Bandoline (Rondeau); Le Carillon de Cythère. SCHUMANN: Fantasiestücke: Warum? Waldszenen: Vogel als Prophet. Nachtstück in F. CHOPIN: Nocturnes: in F-sharp; in F; in E-flat. Polonaises: in A, “Heroic;” in E-flat min. Waltzes: in C-sharp min.; in A-flat (2 tks); in E-flat. Etudes: in G-flat (3 tks); in G-sharp min; in C min (2 tks); in A min.; in C-sharp min.; in D-flat min.; in E; in A. Berceuse in D-flat. Sonata No. 2 in B-flat min.: III. Marche funèbre – Lento (2 tks); IV. Presto. Mazurkas: in A min.; A-flat (2 tks); in F-sharp min.; in D; in C-sharp. Impromptu in B-flat min. Préludes: in D-flat (2 tks); in A-flat. CHOPIN-LISZT: My Joys [Chant Polonais]. The Maiden’s Wish. PADEREWSKI: Minuet in G (4 tks). Chants du Voyageur: Melodie. Cracovienne Fantastique, Op. 14 No. 6 (2 tks). Nocturne in B-flat. LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 2 & 10. Etudes de Concert: La leggierezza. MENDELSSOHN: Songs Without Words: Spring Song. Spinning Song. DEBUSSY: Images Book I: Relfets dans l’eau (2 tks). Preludes, Book I: Danseuses de Delphes; Le Vent dans la Plaine; Minstrels (2 tks); Voiles. SCHUBERT-LISZT: Hark, Hark the Lark. SCHUBERT: Impromptus: in B-flat; in A-flat (2 tks). Moment Musical in A-flat. WAGNER-LISZT: Der Fliegende Holländer: Spinning Chorus (2 tks). SCHELLING: Nocturne à Raguze. STOJOWSKI: Chant d’amour. By the Brookside. PAGANINI-LISZT: La Campanella (2 tks). BEETHOVEN: Sonata No. 14, “Moonlight”: I. Adagio. RUBINSTEIN: Valse-Caprice in E-flat. RACHMANINOV: Preludes: in C-sharp min.; in G-sharp min. WAGNER-SCHELLING: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I. BRAHMS: Hungarian Dances Nos. 6 & 7. J. STRAUSS-TAUSIG: Man lebt nur Einmal (2 tks). SPOKEN WORD: My dear friends. My dear American friends / Ignacy Jan Paderewski, pianist/speaker / APR 7505 (mono, acoustic & electrical)

When I was much younger, I ran across a copy of Victor 78-rpm disc 6690. Side A was the first movement of the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata; Side B was Paderewski’s famous Minuet in G. Since I was of Polish descent, I approached the listening of this disc almost like the discovery of The Holy Grail. In addition to being a world-famous pianist, Paderewski was Prime Minister of Poland from January through November 1919 and, concurrently, Minister of Foreign Affairs from January to December of that year. He was later appointed Chief of the National Council of Poland—a Polish parliament in exile in London—from December 9, 1939 until his death in New York on June 29, 1941. Because of the Nazi occupation of Poland, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His body was not transferred to Poland until after it regained its freedom, in 1992. My Uncle Mike, who joined the Army the year before Pearl Harbor happened, was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the pallbearers at his funeral, thus the pianist had an almost mythic reputation in my family, not just as a great pianist but as the leader of a free Poland. (On an entirely different note, he’s also the person who introduced Zinfandel grapes to California way back in 1924; when the grapes matured, the wine was made for him by York Mountain Winery.)

I was bitterly disappointed by the record. There seemed to be a slip in fingering at the very beginning of the Minuet, and his playing of the “Moonlight” sonata was both too fast and lacking in atmosphere. I put it down to the fact that he was probably too old at the time (66) and thus past his prime. I let the record go from my collection a couple of years later.

moonlight-sonataRelistening to those selections now, in the light of what I’ve read in the booklet that Paderewski generally felt uncomfortable making records, I think he felt rushed making the disc, despite the numerous takes of the Minuet (12 of them!). I also think he’d have been more comfortable spacing that first movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata over two sides of a 10-inch record, which would have given him close to six minutes, rather than squeezing it onto one side of a 12-incher. (In the 1937 film, Moonlight Sonata, a 77-year-old Paderewski plays it more slowly.) And I’m still puzzled why he didn’t record it complete in the studio in 1926, as he did on Welte-Mignon piano rolls (see next paragraph) and at the EMI studio in London in January 1937. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only sonata he ever recorded complete.

I’ve just alluded above to some smudgings and finger-errors on these records, but if you go further back to the 1906 Welte-Mignon piano rolls, you hear a lot more fudging around with the music and an almost unbelievable number of mistakes. A good example is that “Moonlight” Sonata, the first movement of which he does indeed play at a slower tempo than his Victor recording (running 7:32 compared to 4:58), but far messier. It’s not even just smudged notes, but actual wrong notes, in addition to constantly slowing down and speeding up the rhythm that sounds like a taffy pull. This is not just “individual” playing; this is rubbish. I could play the first movement of the “Moonlight” better than that and I was far from being a professional pianist. Paderewski also takes the second movement much too slowly (and the trio section in the middle even slower than that!) with no forward impetus and his detached-hands style that does the music no good and himself no credit. And I’ll go even further regarding the Welte-Mignon system: I believe that its accuracy is highly overrated. It accurately reproduced ONLY tempo and phrasing, but not at all tone or touch and only a minimum of dynamics contrasts. Another good example is to compare his Welte-Mignon piano roll performance of Chopin’s famed “Heroic” Polonaise to the Victor recording. The piano roll version is so God-awful that it sounds like a very drunken and off-form Liberace trying to play it—and that is not an exaggeration.

The conclusions I came to when making these comparisons were two. One, Paderewski probably didn’t take these piano roll recordings very seriously or he’d have never passed them for release with all those technically errors. And two, I honestly believe that the tempo and phrasing of these performances (but not the technical errors) represent Paderewski’s earlier style as it existed when they were made circa 1906. Which now brings us to the Victor recordings of 1914 onwards, where one can hear that although there are still a few quirks that annoy modern ears, the playing is not only more consistent technically (although, as noted earlier, he sometimes needed 12 takes of something even as simple as his own Minuet) but not as far-off musically. This doesn’t mean that they’re perfect by any means, but better is better, and this is immediately evident in the first two selections, very strangely, music by François Couperin. Immediately we hear not only a more technically assured but more stylish pianist: these are very good interpretations that would not have embarrassed Wanda Landowska, and that’s saying a great deal.

paderewski-chopin-etudeThe one thing that is seldom caught on his recordings, but is caught in film clips of him playing, was his ability to “float” the piano tone out over a concert hall as if the music emerged from the sky and showered down on the audience. Film sound caught some of this, but not the dead, boxy studio records he made. Without at least some room ambience, and particularly in those claustrophobic studios of yore, some of his careful pedaling effects and unusual style of playing the left hand slightly behind the right at times, were obscured. The recording horn, or microphone, simply recorded it as a “slip” whereas in actual concert it created an ambience of somewhat magical proportions. One feature of his technique that was acceptable then but not today was his manner of playing the right and left hand very slightly apart from each other by a split-second (you might think of them as “rolled” chords). This gave some listeners the idea that he couldn’t play a chord properly, when in fact it was artistic choice. But like string portamento, this is a technique now so frowned upon that it is not only never taught but actively admonished.

As a result of this—and all you have to do is go and listen to Paderewski playing “live” on film to hear the difference—it’s hard to accept the sound of these records, as they existed on the original shellac discs and as they now exist on this CD reissue, as the “reality” of his art. The sound needs some slight distance, some perspective, some reverberance to make them come to life properly. And they also need, for the most part, to be cleaned up sonically much more than Mark Obert-Thorn has done. Obert-Thorn is great at finding the proper width stylus to play each record so that not a single note comes out distorted, and he also is an expert at re-equalization when that is needed. But he is British, and the British tend to be what I call “noise collectors,” meaning that the noisier a 78-rpm transfer sounds on a CD, the better. They firmly believe that the “overtones of the music are in the surface noise.” This is not true. Yes, it is true that too much processing of the record suffocates the soft notes, making them sound a bit muddy, but giving the records more noise-scraping than Obert-Thorn allows, then adding a judicious amount of reverb and echo, helps restore at least a modicum of ambience to the playing of the one pianist most noted for using hall ambience to create his magic.

But I also feel that Paderewski’s “mastery” of the piano was never quite perfect technically, else we wouldn’t hear so many fingering slips. My guess is that he was a bit better than Alfred Cortot and Artur Schnabel, but not as solid a technician as Walter Gieseking, Wilhelm Backhaus or Josef Hoffmann. Yet all these pianists, as well as some others from that era (like Vladimir de Pachmann, Ignacy Friedman and Benno Moiseiwitsch), all worked hard on touch and tone in addition to musicality, and this is now completely lost in pianism since the end of World War II. The only pianist I ever heard in person whose playing fused touch and tone with style and technique was Shura Cherkassky, and he is often acknowledged as the very last of that line. The coming of more objective pianists like Arthur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau, Rudolf Serkin and Dinu Lipatti—all very fine artists in their own right, of course—pretty much killed off the “touch and tone” style, which is a great pity. They threw out the baby with the bath water.

The 1917 performance of Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise heard here, though much cleaner than the piano roll, has to my ears a bit too much rallentando, a pulling back of tempo that drags the forward momentum. But if one listens to the Chopin recordings of Raoul Koczalski, who studied with one of Chopin’s prize pupils, one hears similar things in his performances, none of which are in the scores. Like so many composer-performers, then, Chopin had one conception of the music when he put it down on paper and quite another when he himself performed it. (You can hear the same thing in the recordings that Prokofiev and Sorabji made of their own music; Sorabji said his own recordings gave “the general idea of what I want.”) So is this right or wrong? Or just different? Today’s Historically-Informed Historicals will tell you that none of it is any good unless you’re playing it on keyboard instruments of the composer’s own time anyway, with tinny tone, lousy damper pedals and inferior wire frames, but that’s a whole other fetish. They don’t care, and never have, about how pianists or violinists actually played stylistically anyway because they don’t know squat about it.

As the set goes on, and one becomes more deeply involved in Paderewski’s sound-world, a certain consistency emerges, particularly if one reduces the surface noise level well below what Obert-Thorn has given us, and that is of a very poetic pianist whose occasional technical brilliance is merely the icing on the cake. The cake itself is that delicious blend of tone and touch, and despite the sonic limitations the acoustic recordings of 1914-24 capture his sound-world with a fair degree of accuracy. The famous Chopin Waltz in C-sharp minor, despite a somewhat exaggerated slow-down at the end of the opening theme, is played with such obvious love and understanding that one accepts it gratefully simply because it doesn’t sound like 300 other pianists’ versions of it. It sounds like Paderewski, and only like Paderewski.

Another feature of his playing that differs significantly from that of modern pianists is the way he plays mordents or turns. They just sort of roll off his fingers like a great singer singing a grace note…well, that’s another thing that’s changed over the years, too. Go back and listen to even such older pop singers as Irving Mills, Connee Boswell, young Bing Crosby or Buddy Clark sing grace notes, and they have a nicely rounded profile about them that trips easily from the lead note to the one following. Nowadays you don’t even have many classical singers who know how this is done, let alone actually do it. And of course, Paderewski—like Cortot, Gieseking and Cherkassky—sings on the piano. It is almost a vocal instrument, and in fact his peculiarly “soft” attack on the keys, even at full volume, only enhanced this illusion. Under Paderewski’s fingers, the piano was not really a percussion instrument.

I hasten to add, however, that Paderewski’s playing was NOT wimpy, or mushy, or any of those things that so many modern pianists seem to like indulging in. For all its singing tone and floating quality, it was still a distinctively masculine sound, just that of a man who is trying to seduce his listeners rather than putting them to sleep. He is not narcoleptic, just poetic. Hear, for instance, the way he makes the Chopin Berceuse float like zephyr but not numb you out like Sominex. Moreover, this is especially important when you hear him play his own pieces, and not just the Minuet. In his own Nocturne in B-flat, you hear much the same kind of magical tone and touch. No one today plays Paderewski’s music like Paderewski, thus what you hear on recordings is the aural equivalent of a flattened-out black-and-white image of, say, the Grand Canyon at sundown. Not only are the colors missing, but so too is the perspective.

There are other fascinating touches throughout this recital, as when he reaches the famed uptempo melody in the second half of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Although he increases the volume, he doesn’t “slam” into it, but gently “teases” the notes to produce a sort of lopsided Gypsy rhythm before then playing it “straight.” In the electrical recording of the “funeral march” from Chopin’s second piano sonata there is real magic in the soft crushed chords (how I wish he had recorded that sonata complete!). His performance of Chopin’s famed “Winter Wind” Étude (in A minor, Op. 25 No. 11) is, surprisingly, on the slow side. Artistic choice or lack of technique? He certainly played fast enough on other recordings from the same period (hear the Mendelssohn Spinning Song immediately following), thus I’d have to say that he wanted his listeners to hear every note articulated clearly, although this seems to run counter to Chopin’s feeling of a winter wind. Curiously, his recording of Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor isn’t really given a mazurka rhythm until the middle section, and then a bit fast; the outer sections almost sound like a fantasia of sorts, with the pianist emphasizing the unusual key changes in the downward notes at the ends of the phrases. It’s little details like these that keep you listening to him. And I liked the May 1923 take of his famous Minuet best of all of them; it has real lilt and forward movement, and all the notes are played properly.

paderewski-debussyPerhaps the most surprising of all his recordings, however, because they are not only good but his only examples of modern music, are his Debussy recordings. I thought Minstrels just a shade stranger than I liked, with a few too many ritards, but all of them have the kind of floating sound quality that Debussy himself prized, and of course with his manner of coaxing sound out of the instrument his tone and touch were, again, perfect for the material. Oddly, he races through Rachmaninov’s famous Prelude in C-sharp Minor to fit it on one side of a 10-inch disc yet is able to articulate all the notes clearly.

All in all, then, this is a good if slightly uneven representation of Paderewski the pianist, certainly better than his 1937-38 EMI recordings which really were past his prime (although APR has reissued those as well on a separate CD). The voluminous number of selections may seem daunting, but his mesmerizing style and touch keep the listener engaged even when one wrinkles a nose or makes a face at the occasional exaggerated rallentando or oddly-articulated phrase (as at the 4:40 mark in the Schubert Impromptu in B-flat). Yes, this is Old School pianism of a style now dead and gone, but I’d say that at least 85% of it is not only still valid to modern listeners but revelatory as to how some of these pieces should really sound.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Yondani Butt’s Very Good Beethoven

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BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1-9. Overtures: The Creatures of Prometheus; Fidelio; King Stephen; The Consecration of the House; Egmont; Coriolanus; The Ruins of Athens; Leonore Overture No. 3 / Rebecca Evans, soprano; Wilke te Brummelstroete, contralto; Steve Davislim, tenor; Neal Davies, bass; London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra; Yondani Butt, conductor / Nimbus NI-1713 (6 CDs)

In a world where new sets of popular Beethoven works—the symphonies, piano sonatas and concertos, violin sonatas, cellos sonatas and string quartets—seem to be recorded over and over and over and over again, with no real signs of greatness or even originality in their interpretations, it’s refreshing to find this mew set of the symphonies in digital sound at a budget price ($29.99). True, it doesn’t top my favorite sets of these works, those of Michael Gielen with the SWR Baden-Baden und Freiburg Symphony Orchestra and Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony, but compared to everyone else’s—including Karajan (four cycles), David Zinman, Leonard Bernstein, René Leibowitz, Charles Munch (fascinating but not quite home ground), Furtwängler (incomplete), Sir Roger Norrington, Christopher Hogwood, Tafelmusik, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and God knows how many others—these performances by Yondani Butt come closest to satisfying one’s taste for musically accurate but still deeply-felt performances that at least try to apply the composer’s own directions and tempos.

Granted, there are moments that to me fell a bit short of ideal, such as the somewhat tepid opening passage of the last movement of the Ninth, but for the most part Butt has the measure of the composer in a way I’ve not heard in the digital era save from Gielen. There is a rhythmic spring in his step; he understands not only the right tempos but the right phrasing, which is far more difficult to ascertain; and he knows when to apply rubato and when not to. I was also quite pleased to discover that these are not “historically informed” performances with whiny straight-tone strings, pitches below A=440, or other anomalies or quirks. Despite using a modern symphony orchestra, however, the sonorities are lean, clear and transparent, as they should be (something Leibowitz and Karajan never quite figured out) without sacrificing real phrasing and a fine sense of drama.

Perhaps one of the most deceptively difficult movements of any symphony to pull off successfully is the first movement of the Fourth Symphony. Only a truly first-rate musician has the instinct to pull back on the slow introduction in such a way as to produce the right sense of mystery in this work (Erich Leinsdorf failed miserably) before the score and the orchestra open up into the rather jolly tune that follows. Butt understands this and produces a fine reading, one of the best I’ve ever heard.

I’m thinking that if these had been live performances instead of studio recordings, the forward drive might have been greater, but since I’ve not heard Butt in live performance I can’t really say that with any degree of certainty. Yet every movement of each symphony delivers the proper Beethovenian effect. In the Sixth Symphony, Butt combines fairly quick tempi with the fine stylish elegance this work needs, and to my mind only Toscanini (especially in his 1939 recording with the BBC Symphony) really surpasses him in this symphony. In the last movement of the Ninth, the somewhat rough singing of basso Neal Davies is compensated for by some real interpretation of the lyrics, something you rarely hear. Butt takes the tenor solo at a faster clip than Toscanini, which is actually closer to score, and does not speed up the fugue in the middle of the movement, although he does miss some of the lightness and sense of mystery in the quiet choral section just before the “Freude, schöne Götterfunken” vocal canon that explodes afterwards.

I’m also pleased to report that Butt does not slough off any of the overtures, as so many conductors are wont to do. In fact, his performance of the Fidelio overture is far finer than the one that Claudio Abbado gave us as the opener to his sadly disappointing recording of the complete opera, or for that many many other versions (other than Gielen’s) I’ve heard in the digital era. He never quite gives us that headlong rush that Toscanini and Felix Weingartner so often achieved here and there, but neither does he let you down when you expecting the music to be enlivened and exciting. It’s just that his somewhat tempered approach never quite reaches that state I would call “unbuttoned.”

If you happen not to be one of those people who are impressed by Toscanini’s readings of these symphonies, you may very well want this set as a contrast to the sometimes hyper-explosive Gielen box. This one is a bit more of what you would call “home ground.” It is sure to please almost anyone you know who enjoys Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures, being a very “musical” reading of these thousand-time-done scores without wasting your time in the listening. I’m also very well pleased with the sonics, which are close yet still have a bit of ambience around the sound. In short, this is Beethoven done to a turn. I give it five fish!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Ken Schaphorst’s New Album Deceptively Innovative

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HOW TO SAY GOODBYE / SCHAPHORST: How to Say Goodbye. Blues for Herb. Mbira 1+. Green City. Amnesia. Take Back the Country. Float. Mbira 2. Global Sweat*. Descent / Ken Schaphorst Big Band: Schaphorst, *tpt/+Fender gtr; Tony Kadleck, Dave Ballou, John Carlson, Ralph Alessi, tpt/fl-hn; Luis Bonilla, Jason Jackson, Curtis Hasselbring, tbn; Jennifer Wharton, bs-tbn; Michael Thomas, a-sax/s-sax/cl; Jeremy Udden, a-sax; Donny McCaslin, Chris Cheek, t-sax; Brian Landrus, bar-sax/bs-cl; Uri Caine, pn; Brad Shepik, gtr; Jay Anderson, bs; Matt Wilson, dm; Jerry Leake, perc / JCA Recordings 1602

Jazz composer-bandleader Ken Schaphorst is chairman of the Jazz Studies Department at the New England Conservatory. That made me a bit suspicious, because throughout my lifetime—except for the phenomenal George Russell—most chairmen or women of jazz departments tend to get those positions through academic connections rather than outstanding talent. When was the last time you saw someone of the caliber of Jack Walrath or Ornette Coleman appointed to the chair of a university jazz department?

Happily, Schaphorst has real talent in terms of writing for big band. His approach is not unique or original, as were the scores of Rod Levitt, Clare Fischer, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Willem Breuker or Daniel Schnyder (for that matter, when is a jazz orchestrator going to start employing timbral blends borrowed from Ligeti, Ginastera or Lutoslawski, all of whom are dead and gone? Isn’t it about time jazz graduated into using updated classical music techniques?). Rather, Schaphorst borrows the kind of instrumental blends—soft brass mixing with saxes and winds—pioneered by the Claude Thornhill band of the late 1940s under Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan and further developed in the late 1950s-early ‘60s by Marty Paich, Allyn Ferguson and Mulligan himself. That being said, there is tremendous joy and elan in Schaphorst’s scores. The album’s title is a reference to the deaths of musicians Bob Brookmeyer and Herb Pomeroy.

How to Say Goodbye may be best described as a tune built around swirling eighth-note figures. That is pretty much the gist of this score, but the interest lies in the way the underlying rhythm becomes diffuse and develops into two (or, to my pears, three at one point) rhythms playing against one another. Moreover, the ensemble develops much more interestingly than the somewhat rambling trumpet solo; in fact, it sounds to me as if the orchestra is leading the improvisation and the soloist following along. An interesting concept I haven’t really heard much since Jelly Roll Morton used it in Red Hot Pepper – Stomp. I was particularly intrigued by the sudden shift towards a heavy march-like beat for the coda.

Blues for Herb uses a modification of the old Sy Oliver trick of pitting a baritone sax playing in its lower range against reeds and brass playing the top line. There is also a nice polyphonic passage for the saxes before Donny McCaslin emerges with a very nice tenor solo, inventive and a bit intense, using serrated figures and sixteenth-note swirls. Once again the music reaches a point of a complex beat, in this case almost suspending forward progression with long-held chords while McCaslin continues to improvise above them while pianist Uri Caine roils underneath. Schaphorst is very lucky to have the services of drummer Matt Wilson, whose recent CD I gave high marks to, in his rhythm section. Mbira I features an unusual solo by Schaphorst himself on Fender Rhodes guitar. Here he uses a much different type of orchestration, having the brass and reeds play a split-second behind one another in their first ensemble chorus to produce an almost “electronic” type of sound. Jerry Leake is heard on a variety of percussion instruments on this one, particularly behind Curtis Hasselbring’s superb trombone solo, and once again McCaslin contributes some nice playing as does Dave Ballou. The volume and intensity level of the band continues to rise throughout this piece before receding back into quieter space.

Green City has a distinctly Gil Evans kind of feel, much like the late arranger’s scores for the Miles Ahead album. Here Chris Cheek is the tenor soloist, and although he is not quite as original in expression as McCaslin, he has his own say. The middle section is scored for low clarinets, making an effective contrast in sound. Amnesia, with its odd feeling of being in 3 rather than 4 (or perhaps a mixture of the two beats), floats along in its own space, here somewhat reminiscent of a Johnny Richards score in timbre. Once again it is the orchestral score itself, and the way Schaphorst develops it, that commands attention, even over the ornate alto sax solo of Michael Thomas who also sounds as if he is embellishing what the ensemble is playing. At around 4:45 the piece comes to a dead stop before resuming in short, interrupted phrases at a much slower pace. Compositionally, this is surely one of the most interesting works on the album.

Although this was recorded in 2014, the title of Take Back the Country seems oddly prescient of our recent Presidential election, though the accompanying publicity blurb says it was written as a tribute to the late trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. Schaphorst employs a nice opening chorus mixing trombones with saxes in a way that puts a little bit of space between the notes even at a medium-fast clip. Trombonist Luis Bonilla takes a pleasant solo, followed by Landrus and Carlson. The latter’s solo, on flugelhorn, is really nice, underscored by some fancy cymbal work from Wilson,which then leads into a really cool uptempo chorus for the brasses—one of my favorite moments on the entire CD! Float is a pleasant enough piece, but here I felt the soloists, particularly pianist Caine, were the dominant forces behind it. In the second ensemble, I couldn’t help hearing echoes of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Imagination or reality? And no, I don’t really like the Battle Hymn, so it wasn’t wishful thinking on my part (the allusion resurfaces just before the five-minute mark).

With Mbira 2 we return to the feel of the first Mbira piece but with different timbral blends. This score sounds much more like conventional American jazz than African mbira music, however, and Brad Shepik’s bluesy guitar solo is quite fine. On Global Sweat, described by Schaphorst as “a vivid sonic depiction of a swelling storm” (not the now-debunked myth of man-made Climate Change), the music begins in an uneasy calm as the gathering of warm air is about to clash with the cold to produce a storm. Schaphorst uses some ingenious scoring here, developing his themes gradually as the music moves from a crawl to a slow waltz beat before eventually exploding in an eruption of gale-force brass and winds. Along the way there is a terrific polyphonic passage of overlaid themes and rhythms that is a real attention-getter. The piece suddenly ends, quietly, in the middle of nowhere.

The album closes with Descent, which despite its title is not a tune built around descending melodic structures or harmonies but rather an old-fashioned, uptempo swinger. Caine has a particularly happy piano solo in this one, and there is a quirky middle section with almost broken-carousel-type rhythm and harmonies beneath Ralph Alessi’s unusual and exploratory trumpet solo.

How to Say Goodbye is, then, a fine album mixing straightahead big band writing with some bold and innovative passages of wonderful imagination. Definitely worth a listen!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Dorothy Donegan: A Study in Frustration

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Let’s say you are a woman born in 1922—a good year, the beginning of the “Jazz Age”—but you have the handicap of being African-American in an era where it’s difficult for you to get ahead. Yet your family discovers that you have immense musical talent at an early age, so you are given lessons and you blossom. Despite the fact that you are black in a white-biased society, you have dreams of becoming a classical pianist. In you favor, you are light-skinned and very pretty. But by the time you’re eight years old and start your piano lessons, the Depression hits and all doors seem closed to you. Then you arrive in New York, impress some of the right people with your astounding talent, and are introduced to Art Tatum, the greatest pianist in the history of jazz. Tatum, too, is impressed by your talent—he was quoted as saying that “Dorothy Donegan is the only woman who can make me practice”—and you become his protégé. (Dorothy later said that Tatum “was supposed to be blind…I know he could see women.”) He tells you that you’re too good to work for substandard pay, thus you should always demand the same money as a male pianist. He even introduces you to Cab Calloway, who gives you a wonderful cameo appearance in his movie Sensations of 1945; in 1943, you become the first African-American to perform at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. The first half of your concert features Rachmaninov and Grieg; in the second half you “drag it through the swamp,” playing jazz. Chicago’s acerbic music critic, Claudia Cassidy, praises your terrific technique. Your career appears to be well and fully launched.

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But something happens. You never seem to get a handle on exactly what, except for the fact that you continue to hold out for top dollar. The jazz critics ignore you; you struggle for gigs, and even worse for recording opportunities. By the late 1960s you have a young son to raise. You try going back to classical music, the love of your life, but although you manage to get one or two engagements in ths post-Civil Rights era, you don’t have a high-powered agent and you don’t have a marketable name, not even in the jazz world. So you continue to play when and wherever you can.

Then suddenly, you catch a break—late in your career, perhaps too late to make a difference, but a break nonetheless. You perform at Carnegie Hall in 1981, and are heard by John Wilson of the New York Times, who writes that you are one of the greatest jazz pianists in the world. This leads to an appearance on pianist Phil Moore’s TV show, Ad Lib, and to bigger venues. In 1983 you are one of several pianists (Billy Taylor, Maxine Sullivan, Jaki Byard) chosen to perform at the memorial service for the great Earl Hines, and again you are singled out for praise. Suddenly, in your sixties, your career takes off a bit. You find a lot of work in Germany, and finally get to make some albums of your own. By 1993 you are a known commodity and are invited by President Bill Clinton to perform at the White House. Your fame is on the rise, but then you come down with cancer. Undeterred by the chemotherapy treatments, you continue to perform with your bald head wrapped in a turban. You are dazzling audiences again the way you did in your twenties, only now the money is better and you finally have name value.

And then, at age 76, you die.

This Hollywood movie-like scenario actually happened, and the recipient of those decades of hard luck was Dorothy Donegan. Jazz insiders knew who she was, but to the general jazz public she might as well have been invisible. Yet when she performed, she gave her all. If you watch the string of videos on YouTube of her dating from 1944 to 1998, you will see a woman who electrified audiences when she hit the keyboard. You’ll also see a performer with a “schtick” all her own. Donegan looked around the room when she played—often anywhere but at the keyboard. She made faces as if she were about to attack the keys like untamed lions. She hunched her shoulders, danced with her feet while seated or stood up and did a Jerry Lee Lewis-type of act. She would sometimes pretend to play badly before turning on a dime and producing perfect, two-handed Bach imitations. To many audiences, it seems, this was a bit too much; she was criticized for having “an excess of personality” when she played. Yet she still managed to evolve a style of her own, combining several Tatum-isms (she was, in fact, the only pianist besides the late Bobby Enriquez who could give you a nearly perfect Art Tatum imitation) with boogie woogie and the blues. Some of her playing sounded closer to that of Harry “The Hipster” Gibson than Tatum, and in some places she sounds prescient of such musicians as Phineas Newborn, Jr. or Horace Silver. She could play bebop with such incredible speed that she could even run Bud Powell into a corner. But she continued to struggle for decades while her male counterparts—and those women who would work for less money than men—got ahead.

It’s a little comforting to know that at least her last 18 years were relatively happy, but I have to think that for Dorothy fame came too late for her to really savor and enjoy it. Yet when one listens to her performances, one hears nothing but joy, the joy of producing music the way she liked it, emanating from her piano, even though at one point she tells a TV host that her real heart always lay with the classical side. Like all jazz musicians (even Tatum, to some extent), Donegan could “coast” on remembered licks, but more often than not she was inspired and inspiring to listen to.

I give you a few of her finest moments to savor:

1944: Her appearance in Sensations of 1945 in which she plays a swing arrangement of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 with another pianist, Gene Rogers. Rogers also has a dazzling technique, but it is not as beautifully coordinated between his two hands as is Donegan’s playing; even if you weren’t watching the video, you could tell the difference when he solos.

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1972: A blistering performance of Lover, combined with a rollicking blues-boogie rendition of Proud Mary.

1978s: A rare TV clip of Donegan playing and SINGING I Cried for You. This is the program where she admits that classical music is really the love of her life.

1980: A full set with her trio (other musicians, alas, unidentified) recorded in Aachen, Germany at the home of Friedrich & Gabi Klemme.

1981: Her appearance on Phil Moore’s Ad Lib program with a fairly good jazz singer, Spanky Wilson. I particularly loved their uptempo version of Summertime, and the funny, suggestive lyrics of a Pennies From Heaven parody called Benny’s From Heaven.

1980s: An absolutely dazzling arrangement and performance of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Flight of the Bumble Bee in jazz time. This one will make your head spin!

1991: A really lovely performance with Dizzy Gillespie of Sweet Lorraine.

1996: A TV appearance with the Count Basie band’s rhythm section in a program hosted by Steve Allen. On this program, Donegan plays a truly Art Tatum-esque rendition of I Can’t Get Started before moving into a boogie-woogie and classical music pastiche that is both wildly inventive and hysterically funny. For one of the few times in his life, Allen is at a loss for words.

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Dorothy Donegan surely deserves wider recognition than she has so far gotten. I would say that, if anything, her star has fallen again since her death and can’t get up. If you enjoy listening to her as much as I do, PLEASE PASS THE WORD AROUND! This great, great talent deserves wider recognition. I now rate her one of my top 10 favorite jazz pianists, and that is a rarefied list that includes only the crème de la crème: Hines, Tatum, Powell, Nat Cole, Tristano, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Jack Reilly and Enriquez.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Schulhoff’s Strange, Moody Violin Music

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SCHULHOFF: Suite for Violin & Piano. Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 for Violin & Piano. Sonata for Solo Violin / Bruno Monteiro, violinist; João Paulo Santos, pianist / Brilliant Classics BRI95324

My initial interest in the music of Erwin Schulhoff—and still my strongest connection to him—was through his jazz-influenced piano works of the 1920s and early ‘30s. Those are wildly innovative and interesting works which, though not really based on real jazz but on peppy dance music of the era, have a tremendous vitality and fascination. I’ve reviewed several of his more conventional classical works and have found some to be quite interesting and creative, others not so much.

Here we have the Czech composer’s complete works for violin: a Suite and two Sonatas for violin and piano, and one solo violin Sonata. Listening to the opening movement of the first of these produced some strange emotions in me.The music, though tonal, is very fluid harmonically, consitantly slithering (mostly downward) chromatically. This kind of odd harmonic movement made me feel uneasy and uncertain; somehow, it put me in mind of that scene from the 1950s sci-fi film Invaders from Mars where the young boy suddenly feels the ground beneath his feet giving way and is sucked into the Martians’ underground settlement. The second movement, a Gavotte, is a little more cheerful at first but eventually reaches a passage where the violin sustains a low-range D for what seems like a full chorus while the tempo slows down and the piano then plays its own descending-chromatic passage. The liner notes tell us that after 20 aborted attempts at composition, this is the work that Schulhoff finally chose as his Op. 1. The notes also tell us that it “exhibits eigtheeenth century influence…reminiscent of the classical structure of its genre.” Well, that may be so in terms of form, but I think annotator Ana Carvalho is missing the forest for the trees. The odd harmonic movement is by far the overriding quality of this suite, regardless of how much 18th-century form it emulates, and that is what strikes the listener and stays with him or her.

Of course, the emotional impact of any piece of music is often contingent upon the interpretation of the performers, and to a certain extent it is pianist Santos who projects the stronger emotion in this suite. Violinist Monteiro, though possessing a fine tone and technique, seems to be content with riding the top line without much in terms of personal involvement, at least not until he reaches the fourth-movement Walzer where he injects some rhythmic buoyancy in the way he bounces the music along. And yes, once again it is the downward chromatic movement of the harmony that arrests our attention.

Interestingly, the first movement of the Violin-Piano Sonata No. 1 sounds like a continuation of the Suite, but only because of the similarity of key. In terms of harmony this sonata, written two years later, already shows (if you will pardon my speaking generally about it) a shift from ambiguous harmony to, well, harmony concrète. No longer is Schulhoff slithering around the tonality, a man in search of grounding; he has settled on writing in a bitonal form, borrowed in part from Claude Debussy (with whom he was briefly in contact while composing it) but also looking forward to the bolder harmonic experiments to come in the next decade and a half. Where this music resembles the Suite is in its melodic and rhythmic treatment; these are still rooted in, so to speak, a Ravel-like format, exhibiting a lyrical flow of the top line even as the harmonies become increasingly bolder. There are also, particularly in the second movement (marked Tranquillo) a large number of portamento slides, harking back to a style of violin playing exemplified by Fritz Kreisler and Bronislaw Huberman, neither of which would have played a sonata this modern-sounding. Even the last movement, a peppy Rondo, has the kind of rhythmic feel (and more portamento slides) that would have attracted such violinists but the constantly shifting modern harmonies might have thrown them off the scent.

I found it very interesting to compare these performances to the ones by violinist David Delgado and pianist Stefan Schmidt on a 2013 release by Gramola of this exact same material. The opening movement of the Suite, for instance, is taken at exactly the same tempo as Monteiro and Santos, but the articulation, accents and phrasing are entirely different. Delgado plays his violin in a musically angular manner, perhaps even a bit more cleanly than Monteiro, but cleanliness of bow attack does not translate into any particular depth of feeling. I did sense a greater feeling from Schmidt in the first movement of the Violin-Piano Sonata No. 1, but once again the phrasing is angular and not flowing. This is the kind of playing that, had I never heard the Monteiro recording, I would probably have given a thumbs-up to, but as soon as you switch from the Gramola release to this new one you immediately feel the difference. Schmidt and Delgado may have more intensity at times, but it doesn’t penetrate much beyond surface excitement. It’s a bit like comparing Isaac Stern to Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: a bit more fullness of sound, but little of the from-the-heart feeling of the latter.

The Sonata for solo violin, finished in 1927 and published in 1928, replaces the jazz influence of his piano works of the period with the influence of Czech folk music. Here Schulhoff calls for an entirely different technique, rougher around the edges like the folk-influenced violin music of Bartók and Kodály. I noticed that, in terms of both musical layout and technical requirements, this sonata had very little in common with J.S. Bach’s famous solo sonatas and partitas. There is some counterpoint, but not to the extent that there is in Bach, only enough to urge the music along here and there, particularly in the first movement, very little in the second. That being said, Monteiro has a little bit of difficulty fully getting into the rough-and-ready requirements of the music (listen to Joseph Szigeti play Bartók for an example of how it’s done), but he is, again, far better at it than Schmidt, who apparently didn’t even try to sound much like a folk violinist. My lone complaint is that the third and fourth movements sounded a bit too much alike to me.

With the second Violin-Piano Sonata, we find ourselves immersed in fully mature Scholhoff. Here is music that not only speaks his own language, the advanced harmonies now subjugated to the melodic line, meaning that as the melody moves along the harmonic base changes to fit each note and phrase, but also sounds much more assertive. In this work I found less difference in the performance of Delgado and Schmidt on the one hand and Santos-Monteiro on the other as the angular melody and assertive rhythmic attacks sounded good played by both—and just maybe, in this work, the fuller tone of Schmidt worked to his advantage. Nonetheless, Monteiro does not hold back; he attacks this music with relish, fully understanding its idiom and purpose.

All in all, a fascinating glimpse of a different side of Schulhoff. In the end, I wasn’t so sure how I really felt about this music in toto; yes, it was interesting, but was it substantive enough to warrant repeated listening? That’s a question each listener has to answer for him or herself. I can only tell you my reaction; I can’t predict yours; but it’s certainly music worth hearing at least once.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Martucci’s Chamber Music Given Elegant Treatment

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MARTUCCI: Piano Trios Nos. 1 & 2. Piano Quintet in C, Op. 45. Momento Musicale for String Quartet. Minuetto for String Quartet. 3 Pieces of G.F. Handel transcribed for String Quartet / Maria Semeraro, pianist; Quartetto Noferini / Brilliant Classics BRI-94968

Several years ago, I discovered the music of Giuseppe Martucci through some rare broadcasts by Arturo Toscanini: the Canzone dei Ricordi with mezzo-soprano Bruna Castagna, the Piano Concerto No. 2 with Mieczyslaw Horszowski, the First Symphony, the Tarantella and the Noveletta. I thought it surprisingly good and interesting, but when I tried to share my enthusiasm with others in the music critic biz I was rebuffed with deprecating comments. The Canzone dei Ricordi was “drippy and depressing” (oh, like Bruckner isn’t?), the Symphony and the Concerto just ripped off Brahms. To them, Martucci wasn’t an original composer, just an Italian wanna-be hack.

But wait a minute. I’ve yet to hear any serious composer in the years between 1803 and 1850 who wasn’t influenced to some extent—and sometimes to a great extent—by Beethoven, and this includes Schubert, Schumann and young Brahms. And I’ve heard very few composers during the period of Brahms’ height who weren’t influenced by him, or by Wagner (who actually heard Martucci play piano once), and this included a fair amount of French composers. What I hear in Martucci is an Italianate expression of the Brahmsian approach to writing, but also a style informed to a large extent by Wagner (harmonically) and Schubert (melodically). Yet in the end, what I really hear is Martucci, a fine, serious yet lyrical composer who really did try to recover the lost art—in his time—of Italian instrumental writing. Yes, he was eventually superseded by such composers as Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ghedini, Rieti and Petrassi, but it was a start.

Pianist Semeraro and members of the Quartetto Noferini—specifically violinist Roberto Noferini and cellist Andrea Noferini, when they’re not playing together in the string quartets or piano quintet—do their level best to bring this music to life. They do not have what I would describe as a “dynamic” sound profile, but rather a lyrical and reflective one, thus the music presented here is not attacked with razor-sharp downbows or crashing piano chords. In lieu of that we hear sweet and gentle phrases coaxes out of the strings and a bubbling rhythmic undercurrent from the piano. Once in a great while, when the strings play rapid passages together, I hear very slight intonation differences. But taken in whole, these are performances of great love and respect for the music, and that overcomes any small defects one hears along the way. Yes, I would have preferred a bit more energy here and there, but these musicians make the music swell and pulsate; they give it life; they sing it from their hearts. And that is enough to make one realize that Martucco may not have been a great master, but he was indeed great enough to express something deep within him

Like so many Romantic-era composers, Martucci put melodic content above harmonic or rhythmic innovation. Having just reviewed C.P.E. Bach’s organ sonatas before listening to this set, I was a bit taken back by the more conventional harmony one hears in the later Italian composer, but this was to be expected. Even Brahms liked good melodies, only occasionally (as in his Fourth Symphony) moving past the creation of recognizable tunes to produce complex music that was tonal and melodic but relied more strongly on the interworkings of the score than the projection of songfulness. If I had to pick one movement here that I felt was a bit too songful and not strong enough structurally, it would be the Andante con moto of the Piano Quintet. Despite a wonderful moment around 6:50 where the music swells into a climax of remarkable proportions, most of it just sort of toodles along, and I’m not so sure these musicians know what “con moto” means because there is very little “moto” in their mojo. But there is a tradeoff. Pianist Aldo Orvieto and members of the Ex Novo Ensemble di Venezia play this movement a bit quicker on a Dynamic CD, but in turn they lose the feeling that Semerano and the Noferinis put into it. And certainly, the Noferinis rip into the Scherzo with tremendous brio and vigor.

I was particularly taken by the Second Piano Trio, a work of great vigor, invention and emotion. In her liner notes, Andrea Noferini correctly points out that Martucci’s style never evolved, even in the early years of the 20th century (he died in 1909), to the heights achieved by French (Debussy, Dukas and Ravel), Russian (Scriabin and Stravinsky) or German composers (Mahler, young Schoenberg). He was a bit too set in his ways; yet he, like York Bowen after him, found new expression in conventional tonality. Somehow when critics want to tar Martucci for not “growing” harmonically they exempt his model, Brahms, because somehow Brahms was superior to all living beings. Indeed, the huge (almost 11 minute) Scherzo is one of Martucci’s finest creations, and in this movement pianist Semeraro really opens up her sound and plays with both passion and vigor. It’s quite a performance!

The short pieces for string quartet are charming but lightweight, yet the main point of this set is not that Martucci was a transcendent genius whose music was far ahead of its time, but that he was a serious and uncompromising composer who did not crank out insignificant or inferior music to order but who spent a great deal of time and thought putting his scores together. And Maria Semeraro and the Noferini Quartet bring it to you at a bargain price. How can you go wrong?

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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C.P.E. Bach’s Organ Music Wild, Scintillating

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C.P.E. BACH: Organ Sonatas: Wq 65 No. 32; Wq 70 Nos. 2-6 / Iain Quinn, organist / Naxos 8.573424

According to the liner notes for this record—and before I quote them, I am going to make a personal caveat that the author does not present any proof and therefore her words may not have any validity regarding this topic—Caroline Wright speculates the following:

While his father’s prowess as an organist was legendary—in 1751, a year after J.S. Bach’s death, Georg Philipp Telemann lamented, “Departed Bach! Long since your splendid organ-playing / Alone brought you the noble cognomen ‘The Great’”—C.P.E. Bach may not have been quite so skilled. Confessing to Charles Burney in 1772 that he was so out of practice he had “lost the use of the pedals,” he seems not to have been a virtuoso in the manner of Johann Sebastian. Instead, he was better known for his performances on the other (stringed) keyboard instruments, and especially the clavichord. Perhaps this is why he wrote relatively little music for the organ: the Wq 70 set (comprising five sonatas and a D major prelude) as well as a handful of fugues and chorales are his only words explicitly for the instrument. That said, much of his keyboard music works equally well on the organ as on stringed alternatives such as the harpsichord or clavichord.

Let us analyze the above paragraph in the face of what we know about C.P.E. Bach as well as his older brother, Wilhelm Friedemann, who was by all accounts an organist on the same level of his father. The bald fact is that long-term organist posts at German churches, like the one J.S. Bach had at Leipzig, didn’t exactly grow on trees, particularly in the late 18th century. W.F. Bach had a terrible time finding a position, despite his pedigree plus the fact that his godfather had written him a glowing letter of recommendation. And who was his godfather? Why, G.P. Telemann, of course, so with that in mind some of his effusive praise might be taken with a grain of salt. Remember, “J.D. Power & Associates” highly ranks Quicken Loans here in the U.S., because both are part of the same banking corporation.

But look at the other facts. C.P.E. Bach neither tried to find a gig as an organist nor had one. He worked for nearly 30 years in the court of the flute-playing King Frederick the Great, where his job (along with that of his co-employee, Quantz) was primarily to write flute pieces for his employer and clavichord pieces for himself to play for Frederick. The only reason the Wq 70 sonatas were composed at all was because in that year, 1755, the princess had a new organ built for her with a very wide range of stops. Since Frederick knew very well that Bach’s father was a fine organist—old J.S. made the trek to visit his son at Frederick’s court, which visit eventually resulted in the Musical Offering composed for Frederick—C.P.E, not Quantz, was assigned the task of writing these sonatas for her.

And what music it is! Here is the wildly inventive, musically daring Bach of the Hamburg years in full bloom at an earlier period of time. These sonatas are simply astonishing: flamboyant and flashy, harmonically advanced, using a wide variety of stops for color and his now-familiar style of disguising the melodic line in ornamentation and unusual shifts of rhythm. In the third movement of the Wq 70/6 sonata, for instance, Bach changes the stops twice in the course of a few seconds’ worth of staccato chords at around the 2:35 mark, and this movement is also full of strange little luftpausen to catch the listener’s attention to the musical surroundings. Another good example is the first movement of the Wq 70/4 sonata, in which Bach uses unusual scalar passages which alternate between the major and the minor, quite daring for its time. They are about as far in style from the organ music of his father as Beethoven’s piano sonatas were from Mozart’s.

The Princess Royal must have been quite a spectacular organist in her own right, because these are NOT easy pieces to play, and it is to Iain Quinn’s credit that he plays them with relish and enthusiasm. He obviously loves these sonatas as much as I did hearing them. Quinn reminds me of the greatest church organist I ever heard play live, David Drinkwater at Kirkpatrick Chapel on the campus of Rutgers University back in the 1970s. (I sometimes just hung around when Drinkwater was practicing because he was so much fun to hear.) Incidentally, the instrument Drinkwater played was a classic Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, just like the one they had at Wanamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia back in the 1920s and ‘30s (Rutgers replaced it in 2013 with an electronic instrument). On this recording, Quinn uses a much smaller organ from the same state, New Jersey, the one at the Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. (Yes, I used to go to Princeton, too, but only to the book and record stores there, never to the Theological Seminary, so I cannot claim any first-hand knowledge of this instrument.) Small as it is (note the photo on the front cover), almost like a pocket-sized organ compared to the massive Rutgers instrument with pipes installed in the walls that went up damn near thirty feet, this organ has a wonderful range of colors which Quinn exploits with skill and imagination.

I can’t say enough about this album. It is absolutely one of the most fun discs of organ music you are likely to hear, particularly from this period of music history. If you enjoy organ music and/or C.P.E. Bach, you’ll love this disc!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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