The Music of Francisco Coll

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COLL: Violin Concerto.* Hidd’n Blue. Mural. 4 Ibérian Miniatures.* Aqua Cinerea, Op. 1 / *Patricia Kopatchinskaja, vln; Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg; Gustavo Gimeno, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC 5186951

Scheduled for release on May 21, this disc highlights the eclectic and at times outré music of young Valencian composer Francisco Coll (b. 1985). I might not have gone out of my way to hear and review it had it not included my new favorite living violinist, Patricia Kopatchinskaja.

Judging from the opening of the Violin Concerto, Coll’s music fits into the edgy-atonal style that is all the rage nowadays. The difference is that he, unlike many of his compatriots, writes music that actually develops and goes somewhere. In the liner notes, Coll credits Kopatchinskaja and conductor Gimeno as driving influences in his creative life over the past few years. In addition to this concerto, Coll’s Rizorna, Les Plaisirs Illuminés and Lalulalied all grew out of their friendship and collaboration, thus in a sense the violinist has been an important muse for the composer. I sense a touch of Britten in his music, primarily in his penchant for sparse orchestration and a dramatic sense of construction. And, interestingly, the slow second movement of this concerto has a lyric line which is pulled around by the unusual modern harmonies, yet which continually re-asserts itself as the movement progresses. Eventually, however, the lyrical theme wins out for a while, then the solo violin embarks on some edgy, atonal playing and the orchestra follows suit. The cadenza is a wild one; I wonder if the violinist had any input into its composition. In the last movement, titled “Phase,” the music does indeed phase in and out like rapidly-changing pictures or a kaleidoscope.

Next up is Hidd’n Blue for orchestra. This is another shape-shifting composition in which short, brusque figures are hurled against one another. Although they eventually make up a recognizable pattern, one can scarcely call them themes since Coll is constantly breaking the musical progression off and moving in other directions, sometimes two different directions at once. It ends abruptly in the middle of a phrase.

Mural is much in the same mold as Hidd’n Blue, so much in fact that it could easily be heard as a companion piece. And herein lies the danger of constantly writing in the edgy-atonal style: much of the pieces written in this vein tend to sound so much alike that, despite the subtle differences between them, one hears them as essentially the same piece. If you keep hammering your audience over the head with the same hammer, it’s going to keep making the same impression. (Remember the old song: “Never hit your grandma with a shovel / It makes a bad impression on her mind.”)

With the 4 Iberian Miniatures, composed in 2014, Coll puts the refracting lens of atonality on a jota, fandango and tango, but always in asymmetric rhythms and leaning towards bitonality. Kopatchinskaja is fabulous in this piece, however, making her violin talk as she negotiates her way through the minefield of Coll’s broken rhythms and strange harmonies. This is an excellent series of pieces. It’s sort of like watching a one-legged flamenco dancer on acid. (I know this is going to sound bizarre, but all that kept going through my mind when listening to it was, “I think a few months with a good psychiatrist would do Coll a lot of good.”) I especially liked the third piece, which kept trying to coalesce but ended up breaking apart more and more.

Aqua Cinerea was Coll’s Op. 1, written when he was only 19 years old. He was clearly already himself, experimenting with unusual forms, rhythms and harmonies, but had yet to harness them as well as in his later compositions. It is, however, a bit more mysterious and brooding in mood, less continuously edgy in texture and feeling.

I liked Coll’s music but didn’t really love it. It struck me as a bit too cool and cerebral, and as the late conductor Rafael Kubelik once put it, when you write music like that you’re bypassing the human element and it just becomes “a clever head game that you play with your listeners.” But this style seems to be all the rage today, so this CD should do well in that market. As for the performances, they are splendid in every respect, including the way they were engineered for this recording.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Wolf-Ferrari’s Violin Sonatas

WOLF-FERRARI: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-3 / Emmanuele Baldini, vln; Luca Della Donne, pno / Naxos 8.574297

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is best known for his operas, particularly Il Segreto di Susanna but also for I Gioelli della Madonna and Le donne curiose, but I first realized that he was a more vesatile composer after hearing the violin concerto that he wrote for the ill-fated Guila Bustabo in the 1940s. That was an outstanding work, and these violin sonatas, written between 1895 and 1943, are equally interesting.

One of the reasons why his music was richer harmonically and more interesting structurally than such contemporaries as Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Puccini and Giordano was that he went to Munich as a teenager, where he studied with Josef Rheinberger, whose own influences were Schumann and Brahms. Thus Wolf-Ferrari may be viewed as someone whose own musical style lay somewhere between the equally Brahms-influenced Giuseppe Martucci, who generally wrote instrumental works, and his opera-centric peers.

Thus although the first sonata presented here was written when he was only 19 years old, it is a surprisingly interesting and mature-sounding work. Wolf-Ferrari clearly absorbed music like a sponge and was able to construct music, even at an early age, that would be the envy of even many young composers today (taking stylistic changes over the past 125 years into account). There is absolutely nothing about this work that sound immature, precious or striving for something that he could not completely achieve. In fact, I’m rather stunned that this sonata, and the two that follow, have not become standard repertoire items.

As an Italian violinist, Emmanuele Baldini plays with a bright tone, but also with a certain amount of gravitas that brings out the full measure of the music. I would say that he understands what it is to play with half-light or chiaroscuro, bringing seriousness to each phrase without over-larding it with too much heaviness. And happily his musical partner here, pianist Luca Della Donne, is with him every step of the way. Listening to this early sonata, it’s easier to comprehend why Wolf-Ferrari’s operas have such a musically sophisticated sound.

Although written only six years later (1905), the second sonata is even more impressive and clearly an advance on the first. Here, Wolf-Ferrari uses fast, serrated motifs welded together to create a theme in the first movement, to which the piano complements them with his own similar figures. Moreover, Wolf-Ferrari continues this rhythmic play into the variations, creating a surprisingly complex polyphonic web of sound. Even more interestingly, he uses an upwards, stepwise figure in the slow movement which he sometimes reverses, which gives the music the odd sensation of occasionally “running backwards.”

The third sonata, written in 1943, thus does not surprise one with its sophistication. True, in this work Wolf-Ferrari was a more mature composer with decades of experience now behind him and had had success with his operas, but there is really no sign of growth because he was already a mature composer at age 19. The notes on the back cover refer to this sonata as “an enigmatic work, unlike any other in the repertoire,” but frankly I don’t hear it as enigmatic at all, just as a really good violin sonata slightly more advanced and complex than its forebear, but not so much so that the word “enigmatic” comes to mind. It’s just a very good piece, very much in line with what he was experimenting with in 1901. The fast third movement almost sounds as if it were based on one of Brahms’ Hungarian Rhapsodies.

All in all, then, a very satisfying disc. The pieces are really interesting and very well played. I strongly recommend that you investigate this CD.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Paweł Łukowiec

ŁUKOWIEC: Soldiers’ March. Cat’s Sleep Behind a Stove. Dance of Marionettes. Impressions I-III. Passimofon. Ave Maria.* So Little of You.* Breviary IV.* Pieta.* Anamorphosis I. Anamorphosis II+ / Marek Mizera, pno; *Urszula Kryger, mezzo; +Camerata Scholarum, cond Wojciech Zdyb / Dux 1661

 Paweł Łukowiec (b. 1973) is a composer and teacher, a graduate of the Karol Lipiński Music Academy in Wrocław, where he received his Doctorate in Composition, and currently an assistant Professor at the Institute of Musical Education at Jan Kochanowski University.

As one can see, all of these pieces are for piano, most solo but a few with the addition of a mezzo-soprano and one using an orchestra. The opening Soldiers’ March sounds pretty conventional at first, but slowly offbeat rhythmic elements enter into it, some using quite complex fractured rhythms. The same goes for Cat’s Sleep Behind a Stove which suddenly, at about the 50-second mark, moves from its slow, dreamy, tonal world into sudden quick, atonal figures using upward-rising steps, ostensibly to illustrate the cat’s waking up and skittering around.

By this point, one has become accustomed to Łukowiec’s manner of writing for piano, which is to vacillate between tonal and bitonal or atonal passages, starting out in a regular rhythm most of the time but moving into much more complex figures. His Dance of the Marionettes uses odd syncopations from the very beginning. None of these pieces are what you would call deep or emotionally engaging works; they sound like miniatures that one would play as encore pieces.

The tone becomes more serious in the Impressions. Here, there is no attempt to sugar-coat the music with cute tonal melodies, and the harmony is resolutely bitonal from the start.

I was less impressed by the four songs, which are really drippy Romantic music and sung by a really pathetic-sounding mezzo with both a wobble and an ugly timbre. I ended up skipping the last two songs because I just couldn’t take her caterwauling.

With Anamorphosis I we hear some of Łukowiec’s darkest and most penetrating music, an outstanding piece in which he conveys the mood shifts subtly and with excellent use of color in the piano tone. In Anamorphosis II, Łukowiec adds sustained cellos and basses behind the piano for color; a bit later in the piece, the violins also appear holding sustained high chords while the basses now play a slow-moving, dirge-like melody beneath them. A bit later, the tempo picks up as both piano and orchestra become more active, but the string textures remain light and transparent. This is very effective music, indeed the finest pieces on this CD.

Sort of a mixed bag, then. Some of these pieces are interesting, a few are really excellent, but the songs are in one ear and out the other.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Frank Huang Plays Medtner

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MEDTNER: 8 Mood Pictures, Op. 1. 6 Fairy Tales, Op. 51. Forgotten Melodies II, Op. 39 / Frank Huang, pno / Centaur CRC 3852

Having tried and failed to get a world-class pianist friend of mine to tackle the music of Nikolai Medtner, I was thrilled to discover this disc and even more thrilled to learn that the artist, Frank Huang, plans to record all of the solo piano music of this great and still-unjustly-recognized composer. After checking my catalog of CDs, I was further happy to discover that I don’t have a single piece ob this CD in my collection. I own excerpts from Fairy Tales, Opp. 20, 26, 34 and 36, played variously by Vladimir Nielsen and by Medtner himself as well as two Forgotten Melodies of different opus numbers, also played by Medtner.

Frank Huang

Frank Huang (photo from the artist’s website)

Huang has a generally soft touch at the keyboard, accentuated by a somewhat distant and, I’m sorry to say, slightly muddy sound quality. Engineer Shawn Fenton should think twice about the microphone placement on future releases in this series. A bit more crispness and presence would have been welcome, and I know for a fact that Steinway pianos, which Huang plays exclusively, have a crisper sound than one hears on these recordings.

Insofar as the performances themselves go, however, Huang does an excellent job with phrasing and articulation. The Op. 1 Mood Pictures are undoubtedly Medtner’s most Romantic-sounding pieces, and to my ears not terribly interesting, but Chopin lovers will undoubtedly like them. The fifth piece in this series is, to me, the most interesting and different of the lot, with its use of chromatics and the pentatonic scale.

With the 6 Fairy Tales, Op. 51, we reach Medtner in his prime, and here the music is much more varied, often shifting suddenly in tonality from bar to bar and sometimes from note to note. Although he never really modernized his style to come into like with the Stravinsky or Bartók schools, Medtner was a much more harmonically adventurous composer than his older colleague, Rachmaninov, who admired him greatly. No. 6 in G has a rhythm that lies halfway between Russian folk music and jazz, but this impression may come from Huang’s interpretation and not necessarily from Medtner himself.

Meditation, from the Forgotten Melodies Op. 39, also has an interesting structure and fascinating harmonic shifts. And this was exactly why Medtner’s music never appealed to the average listener: though tonal, it was too strange for people to follow and his melodies weren’t memorable. They didn’t have “hooks,” as Rachmaninov’s did.

Aside from the muddy sound, a superb release as well as a much-needed one. Hopefully, the following discs will be engineered a bit better.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Schreker’s “Die Ferne Klang”

SCHREKER: Die Ferne Klang / Jennifer Holloway, sop (Grete); Ian Koziara, ten (Fritz); Anthony Robin Schneider, bs (Wirt); Iurii Samoilov, bar (A bad actor); Magnús Baldvinsson, bar (Old Graumann); Barbara Zechmeister, mezzo (Graumann’s wife); Dietrich Volle, bs (Dr. Vigilius); Nadine Secunde, mezzo (An old woman); Julia Dawson, sop (Mizi, a dancer); Bianca Andrew, sop (Milli, a dancer/Waitress); Julia Moorman, sop (Mary, a dancer); Kelsey Lauritano, sop (Spanish dancer); Gordon Bintner, bar (The Count); Iain Macneil, bs (The Baron); Theo Lebow, ten (Chevalier); Sebastian Geyer, bar (Rudolf, a doctor); Hans-Jürgen Lazar, ten (A dubious person); Anatolii Suprun, bs (Police officer/Servant); Opera Frankfurt Chorus; Frankfurt Opera & Museum Orch.; Sebastian Weigle, cond / Oehms Classics OC 980 (live: March-April 2019, Frankfurt)

Having reviewed and been impressed by Franz Schreker’s other opera, Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized), I decided to take a chance on this one, which I hadn’t heard before. Die Ferne Klang or The Distant Sound, written over most of a decade and premiered in 1912, is an equally dismal plot that’s sort of like a dark version of Adolphe Adam’s Der Postillon von Lonjumeau.

This opera concerns Grete, the daughter of a retired minor civil servant who fritters away his pension at the local bar in booze and bets, and Fritz, an idealistic young composer who is searching for a new sound which he can partially hear in his mind but cannot quite grasp. After Fritz goes away in search of his Lost, Chord, Grete’s father gambles her away at the bar to his landlord who she now must marry. Bristling against this, Grete splits and ends up sleeping at the edge of a lake. When she wakes up, she thinks she is drowning. She is approached by an old woman who is actually a Madame and entices her into a life as a prostitute.

A decade later on, Grete is now queen of the demimondes who is approached by a Count to be his lover, but suddenly in the crowd—you guessed it—she spots Fritz, who goes to her and says that he wants to marry her but still hasn’t found his damn “distant sound.” Five years later, Fritz has finally found his sound and puts it in an opera called Die Harfe (The Harp). Act I goes well, but during Act II the audience walks out because no one likes the music. By this time, Grete and the Count have split up and she is just a common whore. Fritz sits at home depressed because he realizes that not only has he wasted his life chasing after his Lost Chord but also Grete’s life as well. His friend Dr. Vigilius brings Grete to him, she and Fritz embrace, and lo and behold he FINALLY hears his “distant sound.” He happily begins rewriting the end of his opera but dies in Grete’s arms.

So the plot is a bit heavy-handed and silly in addition to being rather dark, but the music is fascinating. As in Die Gezeichneten, Schreker writes in a late-Romantic style that sounds halfway between Mahler and Scriabin. The score is full of interesting coloristic effects, and in this case they are caught perfectly thanks to the modern digital sound. Some of the secondary characters (the old woman/Madame, for instance) are poorly sung by wobbly vocalists, but thankfully most of the roles are well served by good singers, particularly Jennifer Holloway as Grete and Ian Koziara as Fritz. Sebastian Weigle, always a good conductor (I raved about his Martha recording a while back), does an excellent job with this complex score in which Schreker uses a variety of interesting coloristic effects.

The real question is whether or not an opera like this, with a fanciful, somewhat silly yet dark plot, can appeal to audiences nowadays. Judging from the three photos we have in the booklet (one of them the cover photo), the director seems to have done a tolerable job of presenting this work set in the 1920s with just a bit of fanciful costuming and props. By today’s standards, it’s almost normal-looking. Of course, the real problem as far as conventional operagoers are concerned is that the music does not contain set-pieces (arias, duets, etc.), conventional melodic lines or high notes for the gallery to applaud, so I doubt that it will catch on anywhere. It’s just a bit too fanciful and esoteric a plot for anyone, even musicians and composers, to find valid or interesting despite the extremely creative musical setting. In short, it makes for an interesting listening experience without giving the audience much in the way of anything they can relate to, and this is its fatal flaw. At least Die Gezeichneten had a plot that could act as an allegory for any deformed or otherwise isolated member of society trying to be accepted, sort of a kind-hearted Rigoletto story. My readers may recall that I had similar misgivings about Poul Ruders’ opera The Thirteenth Child. His music was superb and very sophisticated, but the plot was a fairy tale geared primarily for children and not something an adult could relate to, which left it in a sort of no-man’s-land. An audience of children would be utterly bored and confused by Ruders’ music while an audience of adults would be put off by the silliness of the fairy tale plot. Thus is the fate of certain operas that, based solely on musical merit, should have found a place in the repertoire but cannot.

Still, as an auditory experience Die Ferne Klang is worth hearing at least once. Schreker’s musical invention was clearly operating at a high level throughout, even if its dramatic premise was silly and flawed.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Brilinsky Plays Ysaÿe’s Sonatas

YSAŸE: 6 Sonatas for Solo Violin / Maxim Brilinsky, vln / Hänssler Classic HC20087

Ukrainian-born violinist Maxim Brilinsky (b. 1985), who has played both second and first violin for the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and, since 2014, first violinist and then concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, here presents his take on the great solo sonatas of Eugène Ysaÿe. Up until I heard this recording, my gold standard has been the Naxos recording by Chinese violinist Tianwa Yang, and with good reason. She not only digs deep into these works emotionally but also plays then with subtle moments of rubato and an exceptionally strong, brilliant tone.

Now, there are two entirely different ways to look at the Ysaÿe sonatas. One is to consider the kind of violinist that Ysaÿe himself was. He was noted for his impeccable fast playing but also for his incredibly sweet tone. You can hear both in his recordings of the last movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (played as fast as Heifetz did with Toscanini) and the Schubert Ave Maria. But Ysaÿe wrote his violin sonatas not for himself, but for his colleagues: Joseph Szigeti (No. 1), Jacques Thibaud (No. 2), George Enescu (No. 3), Fritz Kreisler (No. 4), Mathieu Crickboom (No. 5) and Manuel Quiroga (No. 6). Although Crickboom wrote several pieces for violin, recordings of his playing do not appear to exist, but we can hear all the others, and of them Quiroga, with his sweet tone, sensuous portamento and brilliant technique, probably came closest to Ysaÿe himself. One should also remember that Ysaÿe never played his sonatas, at least not in public. Perhaps a third consideration is that they were based on the Bach solo violin sonatas and partitas, which were a specialty of Szigeti, but if you listen to Szigeti’s recordings of these works (they are my recommended recordings of them in my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music), you will hear several moments of rubato that are now frowned upon, but which to my mind are what makes these sonatas work.

Brilinsky, being very close in aesthetic viewpoint to the Russian school of violin playing, is thus closer to, say, Heifetz or Oistrakh than to Szigeti. Except for the one-movement third sonata, every movement of each sonata is played faster than Yang; yet, strangely, his performances don’t sound faster. And, I would add, his tone is sweeter than that of Yang, being closer to Oistrakh than to Heifetz (who was actually Lithuanian, but who grew up and studied in Russian with Leopold Auer). In fact, one of the fascinating things about his performances here are that they actually have more variety in their shades of dynamics than Yang, and thus come closer to not only Ysaÿe’s own manner of playing but also to Szigeti’s. I wonder if Brilinsky listened to recordings of both violinists before embarking on this project; the liner notes tell us nothing.

Thus I would say that what Brilinsky does here is to create a fusion of Ysaye’s and Szigeti’s playing styles, and this in itself is fascinating. Indeed, one of the reasons why I think Yang doesn’t sound slower than Brilinsky is because she doesn’t play with as much legato and doesn’t use quite as much contrasts in volume. Her playing is terrifically exciting, no doubt about it, but it is not as well nuanced as Brilinsky’s.

A perfect example—in fact, perhaps the best example—is the opening of Sonata No. 5, titled “L’aurore [The Dawn]…Lento assai.” It would be wrong to suggest that Yang plays this movement brusquely or without feeling; on the contrary, she tries to sound as sensuous as she can; but there is no real suggestion of dawn breaking in her reading. With Brilinsky, you can almost see dawn breaking on the horizon. His sound begins softly and steals up on you, coated in his rich, sensuous tone, and he uses much more varied shades of volume to color his tones. Yang’s performances, then, are those of a great virtuoso, while Brilinsky’s are those of an artist who understands light and shade.

Indeed, as I listened to these performances, I heard things in the music that had never struck me before. To make a terse comparison, Yang gives you a set of brilliant jewels that dazzle the ear but Brilinsky turns those jewels over in a half-light, bringing shade to counteract the brilliance. It may be a matter of taste, I know, but I found myself being caught up in Yang’s playing very intensely while listening to her recording but caught up in Ysaÿe’s music more completely while listening to Brilinsky.

Yet I still like the Yang performances and will probably keep them in my collection; they provide an interesting contrast with Brilinsky, a different “take” on these superb pieces. After all, they only take up one CD anyway, so it’s not as if I’m trying to make room for a two- or three-CD set on my shelf. Nonetheless, if someone were to ask me which recording best typifies the heart of this music, Maxim Brilinsky will be my answer from this point on. If nothing else, he gets closer to Fritz Kreisler’s style in the one sonata (No. 4) devoted to him than Yang does.

I now consider this to be the finest reading of these six sonatas on record, and urge you to acquire the recording for yourself.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Sunwook Kim’s Beethoven

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 30-32 / Sunwook Kim, pno / Accentus Music ACC30527

Korean-British pianist Sunwook Kim, only 32 years old at the time of this recording, presents here one of the summits of the piano literature, the last three piano sonatas of Beethoven. It would be easy to dismiss this as a media stunt, particularly since it is being released simultaneously on DVD and Blu-Ray discs in addition to CD, but even a cursory listen will tell you that Kim is a very serious artist indeed.

This release follows on the heels of his 2015 release of the Waldstein and Hammerklavier sonatas and his 2017 issue of the Pathétique, Moonlight and Appassionata sonatas for the same label. Those recordings received some very negative reviews regarding Kim’s “somewhat stark yet limited dynamic range and sort of plain playing,” and that may well be so, but the last sonatas can be played in this manner and not suffer as much. They are not heaven-storming works but, rather, intimate conversations that the composer had with himself.

In these works, Kim generally doesn’t play the sonatas at Beethoven’s written tempi, but the tempi he chose are close enough to convey the feeling in the music. His lean tone may sound a little strange to those accustomed to such big-boned pianists as Kovacevich, but not to those of us who were raised on Schnabel. The point is that, in these specific sonatas at least, his work is quite satisfactory. Many years ago, I heard Claude Frank play the Sonata No. 32 live in concert, and he just didn’t have the right feeling. Kim does.

But to circle back a bit, although these are very good readings of these sonatas they’re not definitive or different enough from others who came just a bit closer. In that category, I put Schnabel (though I prefer his 1942 RCA recordings of Sonatas 30 & 32 to the EMI versions from the 1930s), John O’Conor and Michael Korstick. Their performances move me just a bit more than Kim’s, good as his are.

This is another one of those cases where, if I heard him play these in a concert, I’d applaud him well for his efforts, but as a permanent record of the event I wouldn’t rate it as highly as those others.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Bastianini’s “Rigoletto” – One More Time

 

VERDI: Rigoletto / Alfredo Kraus, ten (Duke of Mantua); Ettore Bastianini, bar (Rigoletto); Enzi Guagni, ten (Borsa); Silvio Maionica, bs (Monterone); Renata Scotto, sop (Gilda); Ivo Vinco, bs (Sparafucile); Clara Foti, mezzo (Giovanna); Fiorenza Cossotto, mezzo (Maddalena); Virgilio Carbonari, bar (Marullo); Giuseppe Moreni, bar (Count Ceprano); Florence May Festival Chorus & Orch.; Gianandrea Gavazzeni, cond / Urania WS121.394

This famous 1960 studio recording of Rigoletto was the second I owned on LP, and I loved Bastianini’s performance so much that I reluctantly gave up my Leonard Warren recording, a badly cut performance that was my introduction to the complete opera. (Not to worry; I’ve since acquired an even better 1945 live performance with Warren, singing with Bidú Sayão and Jussi Björling.) Although it was first issued in the U.S. on the Mercury label (see cover, right) it apparently didn’t last too long in their catalog, as neither did the Callas Medea. I bought it when it was on Everest. I eventually gave it up because, despite the excellent singing, the sound was shrill and the pressing quickly acquired hiss and crackle. Needless to say, Everest was a budget label and didn’t use the highest quality vinyl for their pressings.

As I’ve since discovered, this recording was also issued on LP by HMV, using the same cover photo as the original Mercury, and also by Deutsche Grammophon, who apparently acquired the rights to it c. 1962 when Renata Scotto recorded her La Traviata for them. I never saw or heard either of those pressings, either.

This is at least the fifth go-round on CD for this recording. The first was issued in 1993 by Ricordi (RROC 9339 1993), the second on BMG Classics 74321 68779 2 in 2006, the third by Urania in 2010 (again using the same cover photo as on the original Mercury LP) on 22.406, and the fourth on Andromeda ANDRCD9095 in 2014. The BMG (now Sony) pressing received the most complaints. In an effort to cut back on the shrillness of the original recording, BMG rolled back the top end so much that the orchestra sounded like a muddy mess behind the singers. Both Urania pressings, old and new, and the Andromeda performed miracles in reproducing a full-bodied sound.

But on to the performance itself. Gavazzeni, himself a composer, was often considered one of the best Italian opera conductors of the post-Toscanini era, and although there are some surprisingly lackluster moments, he does impart a certain amount of theatricality to the performance. Alfredo Kraus often came under attack for his naggingly bright tone, and sometimes deservedly so, but on this recording he sounds less offensive and is in much better voice than on the 1965 RCA recording with Moffo and Robert Merrill. His Duke sounds less affectedly friendly and charming than those of di Stefano or Pavarotti, which the Duke really should sound like (after all he, like Don Juan, is a seducer), but he does sound suave in a coldly calculating way, as did Björling. Bastianini is absolutely splendid as Rigoletto. In the dramatic moments he could sound properly menacing, in the early scenes the affectedly jolly jester. His was a miraculous voice, full and rich from top to bottom, at full voice or in sotto voce. If he doesn’t quite erase memories of Warren or Sherrill Milnes for chameleon-like shifts of mood and intensity, this difference is only evident if you make a side-by-side comparison. Compared to the losers we hear singing this role nowadays, he is a God. And for a man who didn’t know how to read music he, like Warren, was almost always scrupulous in his musicality and note-values.

One of the things I liked about Scotto’s Gilda was the way she conveyed innocence and vulnerability with a voice that was then just on the cusp of opening up in size. By the time she made her 1962 DG Traviata, the voice was growing and, to my ears, at a perfect balance between her earlier soprano leggiero self and her later voice, which did indeed expand in size but to the detriment of vocal quality, becoming overly shrill and grating. Her performance here ranks with those of Gertrude Ribla (in the Act II she recorded with Toscanini), Maria Callas and Margherita Rinaldi (in her now rare 1976 recording of the opera for Acanta) as among the very few in which lyric soprano power is wedded with soubrette-like brightness and sheen. Curiously, the year before (1959) Scotto recorded a complete Lucia di Lammermoor with Bastianini and Giuseppe di Stefano, and on that recording her singing, though very pretty, is rather cold and unfeeling compared to this Gilda.

Indeed, as the performance rolls along one is continually caught up in little details as well as the big picture. Although there are indeed moments when the orchestra sounds curiously unengaged dramatically (which was not usual with Gavazzeni…perhaps there were too many retakes for him to achieve a more organic musical flow), overall this is a surprisingly satisfying Rigoletto. Were this recorded in today’s digital sound with the same singers, I guarantee you that it would be considered an instant classic. Even the smallest roles here, e.g. Borsa, Monterone, Count and Countess Ceprano and Marullo, are sung by experienced Italian singers with excellent voices. There’s nary a wobble in sight, and every singer has crisp, understandable diction.

This recording is also notable for finally opening up two cuts made in the opera for generations: the full “Addio, addio” scene in Act II and “Possente amor mi chiamo” in Act III. Also, wonder of wonders, Scotto, with all her big ego, sings the correct lower note at the end of the famous quartet, ending it softly as Verdi instructed instead of belting it out an octave higher.

All in all, then, a satisfying performance in which all the singers work together to produce a unified view of the score and within which you have excellent performances by all the soloists but particularly by Bastianini. Which label you buy it on is up to you, however, as I could find no difference in quality between Urania and Andromeda.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Nickel’s Second Symphony

NICKEL: Symphony No. 2 / Northwest Sinfonia; Clyde Mitchell, cond / Avie AV2456

If you’ve heard of composer Christopher Tyler Nickel before, you’re one up on me. Apparently he also writes film and TV music, which immediately put up warning bells in my mind since I generally detest such music, but remember that Aaron Copland and Benjamin Britten also wrote some film music and Marius Constant wrote one of the most iconic TV theme songs ever.

Still, I wasn’t surprised when the symphony started. Nickel writes in an accessible, tonal style that goes back to late-1930s non-serial and non-Stravinsky-influenced classical music, with just enough unusual harmonic touches here and there to make it interesting. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with tonal music if you have something interesting to say and you know how to create a good musical flow, and this Nickel does.

Yet, naturally, parts of it sound like “GUC-music,” the kind of thing I hear on my local classical FM radio station, WGUC, and of course what millions of others hear on their own classical FM stations. Set in B minor, it stays in that key for a long period of time; it is only with the first loud explosion of sound at 4:42 that one begins to sit up and take notice. The promo sheet accompanying this release describes it as “Vast, deep and emotional.” It has just enough of those traits to keep one listening, but there are moments where I felt that Nickel  was just marking time, i.e. at the 7:20 mark where the music becomes hushed and quiet bur doesn’t say very much before returning to its dreary B minor theme. Alas, this is what you sometimes get when you’re a composer writing for mass consumption and not for listeners who appreciate more complex scores.

Still, I have to admit that it’s better than just a “movie symphony.” Nickel clearly has some talent, as can be judged by the more energetic episode that begins around the 17-minute mark, but he seemed to me reticent to explore these moments more fully lest he lose some of his “GUC: listeners.

Bottom line: The symphony contains some interesting ideas, but they’re only half-developed and too repetitive to make this a lasting work that will attract many discerning listeners, but it’s great for Millennials because it isn’t too complex or deep. And for crying out loud, Christopher, get out of B minor!!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Yet Another Perelman-Shipp Album

PERELMAN-SHIPP: Procedural Language (12 untitled tracks) / Ivo Perelman, t-sax; Matthew Shipp, pno / SMP Records 2020, special edition box w/Blu-Ray disc, Live in Sao Paolo at SESC (July 11, 2019), limited edition of 360 copies, available HERE for €35 or US $41.61

Ivo Perelman and Matthew Shipp, two exploratory musicians apparently joined at the hip, here release yet another album of improvised music by the two of them. I’ll be honest, I’ve lost count of how many CDs this is, in part because some of their prior releases were multi-disc sets and in part because I don’t own all of them, but I can assure you that no other duo in the history of jazz has released as many albums as they have.

This one, recorded in January 2019, was apparently looking for a home but couldn’t find it in our new, overblown-pandemic world where the medical profession is malevolently intent on shutting down countries worldwide in the hopes of creating a complete collapse of world economies. Perhaps this is the reason for this rather expensive, limited-edition set which includes an item that most people can’t play, a Blu-Ray disc, for the rather exorbitant price listed above. Certainly, both Perelman and Shipp have more than 300 hardcore fans in the world (you have to subtract the numbered copies sent to reviewers like myself—mine is #56), thus between the restrictive release plus the cost, if you want it you’d better order it now.

And it is surely on of their finest recordings, make no mistake about that. As I’ve said in my earlier reviews of Perelman-Shipp recordings, the pianist has a tendency to help “ground” the saxist in terms of at least tending towards tonality if not quite arriving there all the time, in addition to bringing out Perelman’s more lyrical side. This is very much to the fore in the first track, where the saxist displays some of his loveliest playing, albeit interspersed with edgy moments just to let you know that he’s not Ben Webster. Shipp opens each phrase with a couple of chords but largely confines himself to melodic, albeit bitonal, single-note lines at a slow tempo, and the result is truly hypnotic.

In the second track, Shipp opens with a sort of atonal bop lick, using staccato descending chords. Perelman plays against these but yet again leans towards lyricism. What’s interesting about both of these first two tracks is that the saxist does very little “outside” playing, which had been his trademark for many years, but this actually makes this CD more appealing to those who don’t care for too much high-range squealing. The third track begins like bop turned on its head, melodically, rhythmically and harmonically, yet it, too, evolves towards lyricism. Shipp does a masterful job of relating the (a)tonality between the middle and high ranges of the piano, towards which Perelman responds with some excitable and occasionally outside figures.

Interestingly, the fourth track almost coalesces into a recognizable melody, unusual for free jazz. Once again Shipp is locked into a lyrical mode, this time with Perelman playing nice double-time figures above him. At about the 3:50 mark, they both use a slow, upward stepwise progression, which again fits into the concept beautifully. I tell you, you can’t beat the old tunes!

The duo continues to vary the pace from track to track, but the essential outlines of the first eight remain the same, music that vacillates between tonal, bitonal and atonal but still, in the listener’s mind, tends to “gel” into recognizable shapes. Yet if this set is primarily less experimental than some of their earlier excursions together, it is, to me, more musically satisfying. The lack of extreme risk-taking does not by any means preclude creativity, which is abundantly evident here. You might refer to this CD as Perelman and Shipp “in a mellow tone,” and that’s not bad at all, and this despite the few excitable moments as in the fifth track where Perelman suddenly takes off on a flight of his own, leaving Shipp to pilot the starship while he explores the tonal galaxy. The sixth track almost reverts to the “old” Perelman-Shipp recordings in that the playing of both pianist and saxist is entirely atonal, tossing shards of music out there and pushing each other to harmonic extremes, but this is an unusual moment in this otherwise relaxed set. The seventh tracks opens with Perelman descending from a high-range squeal, yet despite the edginess of his improvisation Shipp once again serves to calm the roiled waters and pull the saxist into more cogent and coherent improvisation.

The mood shifts in the ninth and tenth tracks, which could be called restrained maelstroms of sound. Here the duo again comes close to their earlier outings together, and this mood continues into the remaining tracks of the CD, with both artists becoming more abstract while still retaining some semblance of tonality. It’s a fascinating balancing act, and there are still some moments, as in the concluding section of track 12, where they again tend towards a lyrical approach.

Although I could not play the Blu-Ray disc, Perelman was kind enough to send me a link to a private video which duplicates the content of that disc. Although it is nice to see them play, I can’t really say that the video adds anything to our conception of them. Shipp is more effusive than Perelman, who basically stands in a static position while he plays, but in music of this complexity and cerebral appeal an audio record is good enough, at least for me. But I was still fascinated by it because the music here is different from that on the CD and thus adds to the quality of this release.

Perelman & Shipp, from the video

Here they play from the very beginning in a more excitable manner, in addition to being more outside jazz. This consists of one long piece lasting about an hour. There’s a marvelous moment at the 14:20 mark where Shipp plays an exciting double-time flurry of notes and Perelman follows him down that rabbit-hole with perfect aplomb. For the most part, Shipp’s playing on the video is more percussive and less lyrical than on the CD, which leads Perelman into some more rhythmic playing as well. At 22:28, Shipp embarks on a rare solo in this otherwise duo performance, and it is an excellent one. And somehow, some way, they manage to make this long piece sound coherent and not rambling. Like a modern classical piece, it has different sections that contrast each other yet somehow link together to form a unified whole—at least, until around the 50-minute mark when Shipp begins making some strange sounds with the inside strings of his piano while Perelman contributes some altissimo squeals. At that point, we know we’re not in Kansas any more.

Well, what more can I say? The music is well worth acquiring. Save up your pennies in a piggy bank…or maybe use a little of your Stimulus Check to buy it. It’s certainly Stimulating!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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