More Music of Papandopulo

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PAPANDOPULO: Concertino in modo antico. Fantasy. Lyrical Trio. Rapsodia Concertante. 3 Movements for Orlando / Amaury Coeytaux, Vanessa Szigeti, vln; Andrei Ioniţă, cel; Oliver Triendl, pno / CPO 555 106-2

It really does amaze me how many superb composers whose work I now review on a regular basis I had no idea even existed 15 years ago, the most notable being Mieczysław Weinberg and Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji but also such names as Erwin Schulhoff, Alexander Tansman, Hans Winterberg, Karol Rathaus, Nikolai Kapustin, Tibor Harsányi, Nikos Skalkottas, Thomas de Hartmann and our subject here, Boris Papandopulo.

Since I was not provided a booklet with this release I can’t tell you the genesis of these works or when they were written, but although they are among Papandopulo’s lighter works, not quite on the same exalted level as his Piccolo, Xylophone and Harpsichord Concerti, his Piano Concerto No. 3 or his 5 Orchestral Songs for Baritone, they still exhibit a high level of craftsmanship and merit your listening. In an earlier review, I described some of Papandopulo’s music as combining “elements of folk music—particularly its strong rhythms—with an almost Baroque style of continually fast, virtuosic passages with modern harmonies,” but in the Concertino it is only the third-movement “Tarantella” that fits that description perfectly; yet the two preceding movements have great charm and are not without some harmonic interest.

There is s bit more of this in the three-movement Fantasy, with the first movement showing hints of Russian influence in one of its themes. By the last movement, Papandopulo is using minor modes which gives the music a strongly Eastern flavor. The Lyrical Trio opens with a cello solo which eventually leads into a short fugue before the music develops differently. Yet interestingly, the second movement also opens with a fugue! This is some of the densest and most complex music on this CD, although the Rapsodia Concertante also opens with allusions to Middle Eastern modes and harmonies.

Our four musicians are all superb, not only with outstanding techniques but also with full emotional engagement in the music they play. I wonder, however, if violinist Vanessa Szigeti is any relation to the legendary violinist Joseph Szigeti; that’s not such a common Hungarian last name. Recommended to those who, like me, enjoy Papandopulo’s music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Graham Dechter Kicks Butt on Guitar!

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DECHTER: Orange Coals. Reference. Corcao Brasiliero. Moonithology. Minor Influlence. Bent on Monk. Billy’s Dilemma. NEWLEY-BRICUSSE: Pure Imagination / Graham Dechter, gtr; Tamir Hendelman, pno; John Clayton, bs; Jeff Hamilton, dm / Capri Records 74158-2

This is guitarist Graham Dechter’s third CD and his first in nearly nine years. After listening to so many “jazz” guitarists who sound as if they’re afraid that playing with energy might break their delicate guitar strings, it’s a pleasure to hear someone who knows how to dig in on the instrument.

The publicity sheet accompanying this release states that the album title, Major Influence, is a reference to Dechter’s own personal musical influences. Among these are Herb Ellis, Wes Montgomery, Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi of KNOWER. I was a little surprised that Charlie Byrd, Django and Oscar Moore weren’t on the list as well.

Graham DechterDechter can clearly play his instrument well, not only with drive and a great beat but with interesting ideas and just enough flash to dazzle the listener without overwhelming him or her with too much. Every track is a gem, and his accompanying musicians play in a tight, swinging style as if they were one person playing three instruments at once, although pianist Tamir Hendelman has some nice but brief solo spots here and there. Bassist John Clayton also gets a brief solo on Moonithology, and both Hendelman and Clayton play full choruses on Minor Influence.

Even on a ballad like Corcao Brasiliero (mislabel as Major Influence in the album booklet), Dichter knows how to keep one’s interest via his deft handling of his instrument, but each track has its own delights because Dichter is just so inventive and plays with so much enthusiasm.

This is clearly an album that jazz guitar aficionados will want to check out. Dechter can relaly play, and his backup musicians are a nice, tight group.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Paganini’s Guitar Quartets

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PAGANINI: Guitar Quartets Nos. 1, 2 & 9 / Paganini Ensemble Vienna / Dynamic DYN-CD57912

In addition to these quartets that Niccoló Paganini wrote for guitar, violin, viola and cello, there are also several pieces that he wrote for solo guitar. Viewers of the YouTube uploads of these pieces all speculate that Paganini himself played the guitar, perhaps even started on it before he switched to violin, but the true story of their origin is even stranger.

From Charles Baudelaire’s Les Paradis Artificiels (1860):

There was a Spaniard, a guitarist, who traveled for many years with Paganini. This was before the epoch of Paganini’s great rise to official glory.

The two of them led the vagabond life of bohemians, of wandering musicians, of people without ties to family or homeland. Together, guitar and violin, they gave concerts in every town and village through which they passed. And thus they wandered from country to country. This Spaniard’s talent was so vast that he, like Orpheus, could say, “I am the master of Nature.”

Everywhere he went, strumming his strings, making them sing harmoniously beneath his thumb, a crowd always followed, With such a secret, one never goes hungry. They followed him as Jesus Christ was followed. Who could refuse dinner and hospitality to this man, a genius, a sorcerer who had touched the depths of your soul with his most beautiful, most secret, most mysterious songs! This man, I am told, could easily obtain simultaneous sound from an instrument capable of yielding only a succession of notes. Paganini carried their money, and managed their budget, which ought not to surprise anybody.

This Spanish genius of the guitar was in fact Paganini’s inspiration for all of his pieces written for that instrument, and I would go even further than Baudelaire. I would suggest that this “Spaniard” was probably a Gypsy guitarist, for until the boring curmudgeon Andrés Segovia came along in the 1920s, all Spanish guitarists were influenced in one way or another by either Gypsy plays or flamenco guitarists.

Thus when you listen to Dynamic’s previous release of Paganini’s guitar quartets (all 15 of them) or the many Ghiribizzi that Paganini wrote for guitar, you should always have the sound image of a Gypsy or flamenco guitarist in your mind’s ear: the hard, banjo-like downward strokes, the use of terminal vibrato at the ends of long-held notes, in short the kind of playing you can hear on records made by the great Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Alas, the Paganini Ensemble Vienna’s guitarist plays with a more reticent sound; in fact, at times he is just barely audible; but at least his technique is good enough to keep up with what Paganini wrote for him, and the lead violinist in this group has energy and chutzpah to spare.

But what of that earlier series on Dynamic of Paganini’s complete guitar quartets by the so-called Paganini Quartet? They are also pretty good performances, but not really as lively as this new release. What’s more, the guitarist on them sounds more as if he were playing a lute, which is altogether the wrong sound, and the lead violinist plays with too much vibrato—or perhaps I should say a wider and more noticeable vibrato. I once had an interesting exchange of emails with the late David Sarser, one of the prize violinists in Toscanini’s NBC Symphony, and asked him if Toscanini ever asked his string player to use straight tone. He said no, but Toscanini had a keen ear for string vibrato and insisted that all of the NBC string players have a consistently tight, fast vibrato, just enough to add some shimmer to the string sound without being too noticeable. Sarser was very proud of the fact that his vibrato was once measured on an oscilloscope and that it was absolutely, perfectly even to the point of perfection. This was the reason why, in the early years of the NBC Symphony, Toscanini could show off his violins by having 19 of them play in unison on Vieuxtemps’ Ballade and Polonaise or in Paganini’s Moto perpetuo. And a tight, fast vibrato, unlike straight tone, IS historically accurate in this music.

In the second movement of Quartet No. 2, Paganini hit upon a novel idea: give the cellist the lead line while the violin and viola play quick trilled passages above it, and it works. In the slow movement of Quartet No. 9, there are interesting moments where Paganini pivots the harmony from major to minor and back again. In the last movement, at long last, we hear the lead violin playing the kind of breakneck virtuosic music that Paganini was noted for.

Altogether, then, a good album, and I would hope that Dynamic will invite this particular quartet to re-record all of the Paganini guitar quartets.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Levi Dover’s Imaginary Structures

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DOVER: First Impression. In Hindsight. L’Appel du Vide. MK. Gallapagos. How the Light Gets In. The Fox and the Cat. Imaginary Structures / Levi Dover Sextet: Lex French, tpt; Erik Hove, a-sax; Olivier Salazar, vib; Andrew Boudreau, pno; Dover, bs; Kyle Hutchins, dm / Three Pines Records TPR-004

This CD, scheduled for release on October 8, is the debut album of Montreal-based bassist and jazz writer Levi Dover and his sextet. The publicity blurb for this recording states that they fuse jazz with 20th century classical and rock elements. The 20th century classical I embrace. The rock stuff, you can have.

The one thing that stands out from the opening number, First Impression, is that this is not really an “outside” jazz group, but a collective of modern but mainstream jazz musicians. Indeed, trumpeter Lex French put me in mind of Miles Davis, mixed with a little Gene Shaw. He’s a little busier than Miles was in the 1950s and ‘60s, but employs the same sort of soft approach while remaining interesting. Vibes player Olivier Salazar reminded me more of Bobby Hutcherson than of Terry Gibbs, and his style is both interesting and fits into Dover’s concepts.

Like so many modern jazz composers, Dover’s pieces are more or less outlines for what is to be improvised on, They are not melodically strong or memorable, but they are rhythmically and harmonically interesting without really swinging. In Hindsight is a good example; nothing much seems to be going on in terms of melody, but it’s the harmony and rhythm that inform the piece as a whole and the individual solos as they emerge and retreat. This might suggest to the reader that this is sort of “lounge jazz,” but despite its low-key (and low volume) approach, this is not so. The music has substance and direction; it’s just more subtle than overt. Alto saxist Eric Hove seems to be channeling Lee Konitz, and that works well in this setting.

With all that being said, I really did long to hear at least one line (composition) with a structure that I could hold on to…but then, look at the album’s title and you’ll get an idea of what Dover is striving for. It’s the illusion if structure that plays into one’s mind and perceptions, not the reality of structure.

An interesting album to be sure, as well as a different approach to modern jazz while still leaning a bit on the past.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Stawarz’s Lively French Suites

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J.S. BACH: French Suites, BWV 812-817 / Lilianna Stawarz, hpd / Dux 1739/40-2

By conventional standards, Polish harpsichordist Lilianna Stawarz has had a sterling career. From the CD Accord website:

After studying harpsichord under Władysław Kłosiewicz at the Warsaw Music Academy, she graduated with honors in 1988. In 1990 she received a degree from the Conservatoire National de Region de Rueil-Malmaison where she studied in the class of Huguette Dreyfus. She won second prize at the first All-Polish Wanda Landowska Harpsichord Competition and a prize at the Polish Piano Music Festival in Słupsk. She was also a finalist in the International Harpsichord Competition in Paris. She has participated in numerous master classes in Baroque music interpretation (Innsbruck, Villecrose, Cracow, Accademia Musicale in Siena).

Since 1991 Lilianna Stawarz has been associated with the Warsaw Chamber Opera, where she performs as a chamber musician, as well as conducting from her harpsichord larger instrumental and vocal-instrumental works, such as Bach´s St Mark Passion, Purcell´s Dido and Aeneas, Scarlatti´s Thetis on Scyros, works of Polish 18th century composers – Songs and Arias, or a cycle of six concertos – Marcin Mielczewski znany i nieznany. She also participated in the recording of six compact discs of 17th century music (Mielczewski´s Opera Omnia) and of an album of Polish Baroque music by Damian Stachowicz. Together with Jean-Claude Malgoire she collaborated in the preparation of and performed in the operas: Alceste by Lully (1997), Catone in Utica by Vivaldi (1998), The Return of Ulysses by Monteverdi, Tancrede by Campra.

But since she only plays Baroque music, and absolutely nothing modern, she is, by Nadia Boulanger’s definition, an incomplete artist.

My decision to review this CD was based on three things: 1) I didn’t have a recording of the French Suites in my collection, 2) when I sampled her playing on YouTube she seemed to be a pretty lively interpreter, and 3) although I like and appreciate certain pianists playing Bach, I really do love the sound of a harpsichord and so wanted good performances on that instrument.

Within the boundaries of those criteria, this is an excellent album. Stawarz is clearly better than the dull and boring Alessandra Artifoni on Dynamic CDS757, but by the same token she is pretty much equal to Richard Egarr on Harmonia Mundi HMU90758384DI and Christopher Hogwood on Decca 00028946673621, a shade less exciting than Glenn Gould on piano (Sony Classical). Thus your choice to obtain this recording will probably be based on sound quality.

Dux has recorded Stawarz pretty well, but chose to engulf her instrument in a fair amount of reverb. For the harpsichord, which has a very pretty sound but a somewhat dry one, this is not as bad as it sounds; the instrument sparkles in this sonic environment. Like most good harpsichordists, Stawarz has little control over dynamics, yet her instrument seems to be capable of some dynamic contrasts. I also liked her lively sense of rhythm; like her legendary fellow-countrywoman Wanda Landowska, Stawarz has fun with the irregular rhythms, such as in the concluding “Gigue” of the Suite No. 1, and this helps a lot in our appreciation of this music. I’ve long felt that the less stodgy you make Bach sound, the better it is, and Stawarz keeps your interest up by playing fairly briskly at all times, even in the slow movements. At times, such as in the slow movement (“Sarabande”) of the Suite No. 3, she shows a good grasp of runato as well.

If you like this recording, I also recommend that you seek out her 2010 album of C.P.E. Bach’s Keyboard Sonatas along with a Rondo and a Fantasia (CD Accord ACD 134, available to purchase as downloads at Amazon, Presto Music and Down in the Valley, or streaming at YouTube and Spotify (free) or Idagio and Apple iTunes (paid membership). Her performances are almost as lively as those of pianist/harpsichordist Preethi de Silva on Centaur or Bob van Asperen on Warner Classics.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Renata Dubinskaitė Sings Barbara Strozzi

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STROZZI: Cantate, arietta e duetti, Op. 2: No. 14. L’Amante segreto; No. 18. La Riamata da chi amava. Cantate e Ariette, Op. 3: Moralità amorosa. Sacri musicali affetti, Op. 5: O Maria. Ariette a voce sola, Op. 6: No. 4. Parla alli suoi pensieri; No. 8. Non vuole amar più. Diporti di Euterpe, Op. 7: Lagrime mie; Sino alla morte. Arie a voce sola di diversi auttori: Havete torto. Che si può fare, Op. 8 / Renata Dubinskaitė, mezzo; Canto Fiorito / Brilliant Classics BRI96436

Most lovers of early music know who Barbara Strozzi was, but I think that for the majority of those who admire Monteverdi, her name does not resound nearly as much. And yet she was the most prolific composer of the 17th century, writing—and publishing—eight volumes of her own music, the greatest amount by any 17th-century composer, and doing so without any help or patronage from the Church or the nobility. In part this was due to her birth father, Giulio Strozzi, a member of the Accademia degli Incogniti, one of the largest and most prestigious intellectual academies in Europe and a major political and social force in the Republic of Venice and beyond. Her mother was one of Strozzi’s servants, but when he recognized genius in Barbara at an early age he adopted her as his legitimate daughter and worked hard to promote her career.

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Renata Dubinskaitė

Lithuanian mezzo-soprano Renata Dubinskaitė, happily, has a rich, firm, glowing voice and excellent diction. She also possesses interpretive qualities when the music calls for it. For the uninitiated, Strozzi’s music was marked by mood, tempo and harmonic shifts within her songs, which makes them still interesting to the modern listener. Very little in her music is routine or predictable; she followed her own muse and wrote what she liked in the style she liked. Her father arranged for her to take lessons with Francesco Cavalli, who at that time was probably second only to Monteverdi as one of the greatest Italian composers of the era, thus young Barbara had first-class grounding in the basics of music.

Listening to the full cantata L’Amante segreto, it’s obvious that Strozzi had an enormous influence on Italian opera of a century later. Everything is there: the alternation of lyrical and dramatic moments, sudden outburst of passion, then the equally sudden retreat to quieter, more lyrical passages. But Strozzi was not only first, she was often more original than her later Italian (and German) imitators. There are no pauses between recitative, aria and dramatic passages, but a continuous flow from start to finish. I would even go so far as to say that, with modifications based on later changes in music, she also had an impact, albeit indirectly, on such later Italian composers as Giovanni Pacini and Giuseppe Verdi. That’s how good her music was, and how striking original.

As the recital progresses, in fact, one becomes not only more aware of the extraordinarily wide range of Strozzi’s musical and dramatic gifts but of the extraordinary qualities of Dubinskaitė’s voice. In addition to her excellent range, vocal placement, and ability to sing fioratura as well as those peculiar one-note Baroque trills (what was called, at the time, “spotted flute technique”), she can also color her tones to some extent, an art that I thought was lost in our modern era. She is clearly a master singer and one who I will be on the lookout for in the future. And happily her backup group, Canto Fiorito, is not as annoyingly whiny as so many modern-day HIP groups are, although only the harpsichordist really seems to play with emotional passion when called for.

This is a superb album of Strozzi’s music. If you’re already familiar with her, you need to get it, and if you aren’t, you really need to hear it.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Rautavaara’s “Aleksis Kivi”

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RAUTAVAARA: Aleksis Kivi / Jorma Hynninen, bar (Aleksis Kivi); Lasse Pöysti, spkr (August Ahlqvist); Eeva-Liisa Saarinen. mezzo (Charlotta); Helena Juntunen, sop (Hilda); Gabriel Suovanen, bar (Young Alexis); Marcus Groth, bs (J.L. Runeberg); Lassi Virtanen, ten (Mikko Vilkastus); Jaakko Hietikko (Uncle Sakeri); Jyväskylä Sinfonia Markus Lehtinen, cond / Ondine ODE 1000-2D

This is the story of an artistic idea, given to the composer by the principal singer in the cast, which was then developed and expanded on for two years until it became a finished masterpiece, yet this masterpiece has no home today except sporadically in his home country of Finland.

It is a three-act opera based on the life of that country’s greatest author, poet and playwright, Aleksis Kivi (1834-1872), who was the Finnish equivalent of Johann Goethe, Alexander Pushkin and Anton Chekhov rolled into one. The problem is that, unlike those other three writers, Kivi is barely known outside his native country, and since the opera is not an action plot but a psychological drama depicting his struggles for acceptance and eventual success followed by his rapid decline (Kivi went mad and died in an asylum at the age of 38), it doesn’t so much lack for drama as it lacks for action. His role must be played by a baritone with an outstanding voice and far-above-average acting skills, and its success or failure onstage cannot be covered over with moronic and irrelevant “Regietheater” staging filled with naked nuns and insane people. And yet it deserves survival if for no other reason than that it contains some of Rautavaara’s most hauntingly beautiful and inspired music.

To summarize the plot as best I can, there is a prologue showing Kivi at the end of his life, visited by a Professor of literature, August Ahlqvist, who berates him for his “disgraceful” literature. The first act then opens in a brighter mood and happier times in the author’s early years when his creativity was at full flower. Kivi, whose real last name was Sternvall, is visited by his patroness, Charlotta Lönnqvist, and her pupil-assistant Hilda, to whom Aleksis reads one of his recent poems. They are joined by a group of well-wishers—members of the artistically progressive Young Finns—who congratulate him on winning a prize for his play, but Aleksis criticizes one of them for his “cheap aesthetics.” Kivi’s view was that the common people should not be described in prosaic terms but given ideals that they should strive for.

In Act II the mature Kivi, embattled by the literary establishment and embittered by fate, begs Professor Ahlqvist to support the publication of his books, but after poring over them for a while Ahlqvist just silently walks out. Kivi then hides from the band of Young Finns, ashamed of his failures. After Kivi is given some money by a supporter and goes out for some liquid fortification, Ahlqvist monologizes that such “defilers” of the national language must simply not be supported but crushed.

Act III opens with Kivi going into am empty theater to drink and meditate until the mythical beings in his subconscious appear to him in frightening hallucinations. (He’s got the DT’s.) He then falls asleep, with half of the last act taking place in real life and the other half in his visions. Ahlqvist reappears, pushing a decrepit old poet who he idolizes but who opposes Kivi along in a wheelchair. Characters from Kivi’s play, The Cobblers on the Heath, appear, possibly from the stage and possibly from the author’s imagination. Charlotta tries once again to recue Kivi, but it’s too late. Ahlqvist now appears as a devil with horns. In the epilogue, set in the mental hospital, Kivi encounters his younger self and sings of an “Isle of Bliss.” The doctor, another manifestation of the evil Ahlqvist, ushers Charlotta in. The final song presents a vision of the Isle of Death which awaits him.

The problems with the opera, cited above, probably make it doomed to failure as a stage play, and certainly not a work that will travel the globe; and speaking personally, I disagree with Kivi’s idea that the common people must be idealized and given goals to strive for. (Some of ‘em strive and some of ‘em don’t, and that’s just how life goes.) Yet in a sense, Aleksis Kivi is a universal topic, the struggle of the individual artist against society and the artistic establishment. One thinks of such tragic figures as Robert Burns or Franz Kafka, those tilters at literary windmills who were crushed in their lifetimes but glorified after their tragic early deaths. But oh my God, that music! It’s absolutely transcendent; it shimmers and glows in one’s ears and mind like the remnants of a beautiful dream, even in the dour, fatalistic moments. It’s so good, in fact, that it grips you from the first notes and never lets go. It’s not so much that you can’t escape it so much as that you don’t want it to end. And oddly enough for a modern composer, Rautavaara wrote in a largely tonal style with occasional real arias, albeit modern ones, in which the soloists’ voices resound—particularly Hynninen, who is in fabulous voice from start to finish. Kivi and his buddies even get a pretty good drinking song in Act II. Atonality only comes into the opera during the Act III mad/hallucination scene. Thus, for me at least, it is the extraordinarily high quality of the score that places it on an exalted level, even above such other near-misses among modern operas as Lennox Berkeley’s Nelson or Poul Ruders’ The Thirteenth Child.

The only times when one’s attention wanders during this opera is when Ahlqvist is onstage, because his is a speaking part and not a singing role. Apparently, Rautavaara wanted a first-class speaker in this role, and according to Wikipedia Lasse Pöysti was one of Finland’s greatest dramatic actors, but of course in these moments all Rautavaara could do was to create a sort of “holding pattern” in the music behind Pöysti while he pontificated to the struggling author. Yes, Rautavaara made up for this with absolutely sparkling music for Charlotta and Helen, and except for the Ahlqvist moments the music never lacks for imagination or color, but this, too was a flaw that made for some dull moments within an otherwise lively and organic musical creation.

As for the performance itself, it is excellent. Every single one of the singers in the cast has a fine and individual-sounding voice, each one of them acts with the voice and they present an excellent ensemble cast in general. This is exactly how modern opera should ideally sound, but as we all know, we’re lucky nowadays if we can even get our standard warhorse operas to sound this good. Operatic voices, as a whole, have deteriorated quite bit since 1997 when this was recorded.

Whether you live to see a stage production of this work or not, this recording is a must for lovers of modern opera in general and Rautavaara admirers in particular.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Neeme Järvi’s (First) Sibelius Set

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SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 1-7 / Gothenburg Symphony Orch.; Neeme Järvi, cond / Bis CD-622-24

This set of the complete Sibelius Symphonies by the conductor I’ve come to refer to as “Pop Järvi” (since two of his sons, Bravo Paavo and Kristjan, are also conductors) is his first, his second cycle being recorded for Deutsche Grammophon. In my view, it is the most exciting set of these works in modern sound, rivaling the recordings of Symphonies 1-3 & 5 by the legendary Robert Kajanus, who was Sibelius’ favorite interpreter of his works. (By the way, ignore the designation on the album cover that Kullervo is included. It isn’t. It’s a three-CD set, and each CD is packed from start to finish with the symphonies. Järvi’s recording of Kullervo is available separately, on Bis CD-313.)

The difference seems to be the tendency towards presenting what is in these scores as opposed to certain critics trying to “read” something into the music that simply isn’t there. The most positive review I’ve read online admits that Järvi has studied and absorbed these scores, that he pays attention to the minutest detail, but that he somehow doesn’t “get” Sibelius, but the recordings everyone else likes are those with a lot of Romanticisms in them, a lot of “warmth” and tempo fluctuations, none of which is indicated in the scores. The Kajanus recordings prove as much and, yes, Sibelius was thrilled by them.

With that being said, I do feel that Järvi is a little cooler in the slow movements of the first and fourth symphonies than Kajanus was, and if that’s a failing then so be it, but I’d rather have a little less moosh in these works than muscle. Sibelius’ model for his symphonies was NOT Bruckner or Brahms; he was his own man, and what he wrote he expected to be played with feeling.

And make no mistake, you hear details in these recordings that elude a great many of Neeme’s rivals, including not only Leif Segerstam (who gave us some very exciting moments but many more that were too slow and Romantic) but also his son Paavo. Neeme Järvi later re-recorded these symphonies with the same orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon, but to be honest only the Fifth is an improvement over this Bis version. (For the record, Paavo Järvi’s Sibelius set on RCA-BMG has gotten uniformly worse reviews than that of his father.)

One of the things I really like about this set is the 3-D orchestral sound. Kajanus tried, bless his Finnish heart, but the dull, dated 1930-32 sonics worked against him. Sir Thomas Beecham, whose Sibelius recordings also get short shrift even though he was the composer’s favorite conductor of his music in the post-Kajanus world (and whose tempi were often even faster), achieved only slightly better clarity than Kajanus.

As usual in most Neeme Järvi performances, forward propulsion of the music takes precedence, yet his phrasing is never so clipped that the legato is impaired. In the slow movement of the Fourth, for instance, he draws out particularly mysterious sounds which contrast nicely with the relatively jolly final movement, and the various moods in the slow movement of the Second are perfectly judged and executed. The Gothenburg Orchestra had a generally bright profile anyway, particularly in its strings and brass; during his tenure with the orchestra, Järvi often referred to it as his “Vienna Philharmonic.” (He called the other orchestra of which he was music director, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, his “Berlin Philharmonic” because of their more burnished sound.)

Personally, I prefer this set not only to Segerstam’s but also to either of Finnish conductor Osmo Vänska’s sets, which I find to be more superficial in feeling. Yes, there are moments when I felt that Segerstam’s Helsinki Philharmonic had a more substantial sound and thus a more visceral impact on certain sections, but I just couldn’t take his ultra-slow readings of various movements.

As is so often the case in sets of this sort (Vänska’s first set with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra was an exception), the symphonies are programmed out of order: Nos. 1 & 4 on CD 1, 2 and 5 on CD 2, and Symphonies 3, 6 & 7 on CD 3. Not ideal programming, but if you purchase this as a download you can easily arrange them in the proper order (CD 1 will run 80 minutes exactly), but having them on 3 CDs makes the set more affordable than many others which are spread out onto four CDs (including Järvi’s later remake on DG). The brass crescendos in the first movement of the Fourth Symphony are hair-raising, as they should be, and Järvi gives this slow music more muscle than we hear in many a rival recording. (I tend to think of Järvi as a sort of “junior Artur Rodziński,” the latter being one of my all-time favorite conductors and a man who, in turn, I sometimes refer to as “the junior Toscanini.”)

Personally, looking at the scores as you listen to these recordings, I don’t really understand why these recordings are in such disrepute. I found nothing objectionable about any of them except one thing: Järvi never, ever gives you a “soft” orchestral profile, and ever since John Barbirolli recorded these symphonies that seems to be what everyone wants in this music. Except me…and hopefully, except you.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Dmitry Smirnov Plays Solo Violin Sonatas

FHR117 cover

BARTÓK: Solo Violin Sonata. J.S. BACH: Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin. SCHNEEBERGER: Solo Violin Sonata / Dmitry Smirnov, vln / First Hand Records FHR117

I’ve never heard of violinist Dmitry Smirnov, who judging by his photos seems to be quite advanced in years. Apparently he has been a soloist in Russian with the Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg and Moscow orchestras as well as making guest appearances in Lucerne, Basel, Argovia (Aargau, in Switzerland) and Gstaad, mostly out-of-the-way places as far as most international careers go.

On this disc he tackles two familiar pieces by Bartók and J.S. Bach and one rather unusual piece by composer Hansheinz Schneeberger (1926-2019), who Smirnov knew personally in his last years. According to the booklet, Schneeberger instructed him on the proper style for the music of Bartók and Veress as well as his own, emphasizing “the inherent flow of the music.” This is evident in his approach to the Bartók sonata, a fine performance that compares well with the recordings by Barnabás Kelemen (Hungaroton) and Tamsin Waley-Cohen (Signum), both of which are in my collection. Smirnov’s performance of the Bach Partita is also very good without breaking any new ground of surpassing the best recordings of the past such as the great set by Joseph Szigeti. I will say, however, that his technique in the last fast movement is outstanding.

But the prize of this collection is the Schneeberger sonata, a wonderful modern piece that combines bitonal harmonies with a lyric top line, almost like a combination of Enescu, Bartók and Shostakovich. The fast second movement, “Allegro comodo e grazioso,” is in fact about as lyrical a piece as you are likely to hear in a modern violin sonata, grateful to the ear while still playing around with the harmonic base. One might almost characterize it as a tonal movement with bitonal touches rather than the other way around; and in all of this music, Smirnov plays with passion and commitment.

A very nice CD, then, with the emphasis on the last work.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Suré Eloff Sings Berg

Berg Jugendlieder cover

BERG: Jugendlieder: Vol. 1: No. 1, Herbstgefühl; No. 2, Spielleute; No. 4, Lied des Schiffermädels; No. 5, Sehnsucht I; No. 8, Vielgeliebte schöne Frau; No. 9, Sehnsucht II; No. 10, Sternefall; No. 14, Ich will die Fluren meiden; No. 15, Geliebte Schöne; No. 16, Schattenleben; No. 17, Am Abend; No. 21, Liebe; No. 23, Grabschrift. Vol. II: No. 1, Traum; No. 5, Süß sind mir die Schollen des Tales; No. 10, Winter; No. 11, Fraue, du Süße; No. 12, Verlassen; No. 13, Regen; No. 15, Hoffnung; No. 18, Eure Weisheit; No. 20, Mignon; No. 22, Das stille Königreich / Suré Eloff, soprano; Nathaniel Schmidt, pianist / Centaur CRC3438

South African-born soprano Suré Eloff, who studied both in Cape Town and at the University of Texas, Arlington, has a crystal-clear, pure voice with just a bit of a flutter in it. She is also a fine interpreter, which helps in the presentation of these early Berg songs.

It’s interesting to me that although your standard classical vocal fan can’t stomach any of Berg’s later music, they love his early songs. The reason I find this interesting is that, even in this music, there is something unusual going on in the harmony that leads one to believe that as he matured his music was going to change and change drastically; none of his early music is as “comfortable” to listen to as the contemporary songs of Wolf or young Zemlinsky. Even his mentor in 12-tone music, Arnold Schoenberg, wrote music that was more harmonically conventional than early Berg, and this comes out in song after song on this album (although “Regen,” from Vol. 2, is the most conventional of the lot). I should point out that the songs are not sung in the order presented in the header to this review but, rather, intermixed between Vols. 1 & 2, and even when two or three songs in a row are presented from the same volume, they are generally not in numerical order, but the sequencing used on this disc presents a nice contrast in both tempo and key as she moves from song to song.

Sure Eloff

Suré Eloff

The musical and emotional impact of each song is greatly helped by her accompanist, pianist Nathaniel Schmidt, on whom very little information is available online. All I could find on him was that he recorded an album of contemporary music titled Satellites on the Dancing Monkey label, and that he “returned” to downtown Calgary for a recital, which indicates to me that he is Canadian, yet he and Eloff make a wonderful duo here. Every little nuance in Eloff’s singing is mirrored and emphasized by his strong, emotional playing.

Overall, then, a very fine album. Although mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley, who also has a fine voice, recorded all of the Jugendlieder for Centaur in 2015, her pianist, Kuang-Hao Huang, isn’t half as expressive as Schmidt, but if you want all of Berg’s Jugendlieder I would recommend getting the Bentley set as well to fill out the set even though the Eloff-Schmidt duo is better in terms of emotional commitment.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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