De Niese Astounds in Baroque & Renaissance Music

De Niese

BEAUTY OF THE BAROQUE / DOWLAND: Come Again, Sweet Love. What If I Never Speed? HANDEL: Serse: Ombra mai fu. Samson: Let the Bright Seraphim. Acis and Galatea: Heart, the Seat of Soft Delight. Rodelinda: Io t’abbraccio.* The Triumph of Time and Truth: Guardian Angels. PURCELL: Dido and Aeneas: Thy hand, Belinda…When I am Laid in Earth. MONTEVERDI: L’Incoronazione di Poppea: Pur ti miro.* Quel sguardo sdegnosetto. PERGOLESI: Stabat Mater: Stabat mater dolorosa.* BACH: Wedding Cantata: Sich üben im Leben. Hunt Cantata: Schafe konnen sicher weiden / Danielle de Niese, sop; *Andreas Scholl, English Concert; Harry Bicket, cond / Decca 28947822608

Perusing the new releases in the Naxos Music Library, I was directed towards a recital of coloratura bel canto arias by one Pretty Yende. So I listened to Juliet’s waltz song from Roméo et Juliette, and heard a small, fluttery voice slithering and sliding through the runs, smudging and faking as she went along. I shut it off.

But then, going back to New Releases, I saw a magical name that had deeply impressed me some six years ago: Danielle de Niese. So I clicked on it. WOW, what singing! And better yet, what artistry!

The web page on which the sound files were stored for listening said that this album was released in June of 2011, but this was the first I had seen or heard of it, and this is the first time Naxos has promoted it. This is vocal gold, folks. De Niese has a sweet, vibrant voice, with perfect placement, superb intonation, a flawless technique, excellent diction and, best of all, real interpretive sensibility. Just listen to the opening selection, John Dowland’s Come Again, Sweet Love, and you’ll be hooked. This is as great a performance as you will ever hear in your life. Engaging and perfectly sung from start to finish. My lone complaint is that the lutenist is unidentified on the album’s cover and inlay. I had to go to the English Concert’s website to discover that their principal lute player is American-born William Carter. Since only “English Concert” is credited, I have to assume that he is the player on this CD.

I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that de Niese’s voice reminds me strongly of Kathleen Battle’s. They don’t sound exactly alike, but close enough that they could be sisters; they’re certainly sisters-in-artistry. Like Battle, de Niese has that kind of crystalline quality that is exceedingly rare, and she is her equal as musician, interpterer and technician. Nor does it hurt that she is accompanied by Harry Bicket, one of the very few Baroque-era conductors who truly understands musical style and conducts with both brio and sensitivity. One of my few disappointments was that her rendition of “Ombra mai fu” from Serse does not include the opening recitative, which for some reason is generally omitted in modern recordings of the aria. But listen to the way de Niese sings the high note, entering with a pure “straight” tone and then slowly adding a touch of vibrato.

Another amazing quality of de Niese’s singing, like Battle’s, is that the vocal timbre is equal and consistent from the bottom to the top of her range. Every note is round and lovely; the oft-feared “break” in the voice does not exist for her because her placement is so well-grounded. Each note is struck like a bell, the pitch flawless. This gives her the luxury of flying through whatever music she sings as if she were sight-reading it, with not a care in the world as to vocal placement. In timbre, her voice sounds like a cross between Battle and Sylvia McNair, but I still insist she is closer to Battle because of the ravishing tonal quality, which has a sound like fresh merlot grapes. There is a slight purple tinge to her sound, but a purple that glistens in the sun.

And if you had any doubts about de Niese’s interpretive qualities, listen to her deeply-felt performance of “When I am laid in earth” from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Why hasn’t Decca recorded a complete performance of this opera with de Niese in the title role? Daniel Behle would make a great partner for her as Aeneas. Come on, Decca, get off your fat rears and do it for us…with Bicket conducting. And maybe Patricia Petibon as the Witch.

From a personal standpoint, I was very happy to see the arias from Acis and Galatea and Rodelinda, surely two of Handel’s best operas, included here. De Niese sings them to perfection; indeed, I can’t recall hearing anyone else sing the former aria as well as she, and Bicket’s conducting is the perfect complement to her finely-detailed performance. Pay close attention, please, to all those little grace notes that she tosses off so insouciantly, as if they were easy. They’re not. They require not only great placement but also flawless breath control. Likewise, her rendition of the final duet from L’Incoronazione di Poppea with Andreas Scholl, one of only two countertenors now singing whose voices I really like (the other is Philippe Jaroussky), is absolutely exquisite, reminding me of my two favorite Poppeas, Carole Bogard and Rachel Yakar.

But I could go on and on about every track on this album because each one is so good. De Niese is an artistic chameleon, shifting not just moods but characters as the text of each song and aria demands. The only piece on here with which I was unfamiliar was “Guardian Angels” from Handel’s The Triumph of Time and Truth, nice but a bit too much like many other Handel arias. Ah, but then we get the wonderful duet from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, again with Scholl, and this is so good as to almost make time stand still.

The recital ends with two superb arias from Bach’s secular cantatas, and the one from the Wedding Cantata immediately put me in mind of Battle as this was the first piece I ever heard by her on record (a 1977 performance on RCA Victor with James Levine conducting). Sprightly and engaging, they are among Bach’s most appealing compositions, and de Niese sings them with juicy enthusiasm in her voice.

Bottom line: Danielle de Neise can sing the phone book (if they still make them…I think they do, I just had one delivered to my house) and stir your heart and mind. She’s that good.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Advertisements
Standard

Liebman-Murley Quartet’s Live Set Released

Version 2

LIVE AT U OF T / VIVIAN: Split or Whole. MURLEY: YSBN. Open Spaces.2,3 LIEBMAN: Off a Bird. Small One.4 Nebula.2 Missing Persons.4 ELMAN-MERCER: And the Angels Sing.2 LOVANO: Blackwell’s Message / Dave Liebman, 1s-sax/2t-sax/3fl; Mike Murley, t-sax/4s-sax; Jim Vivian, bs; Terry Clarke, dm / No label name or number, available at iTunes (live: Toronto, January 6, 2017)

Veteran saxophonists Dave Liebman and Mike Murley have played together for more than a decade, and in fact Murley studied with Liebman at the Banff Jazz Workshop back in the 1980s, but this is only the second album by this specific quartet.

It is a stunner.

Drawing on a variety of big-name influences, both players have a powerhouse drive and attack and both have vivid musical imaginations. Imagine, if you will, a post-bop, more modern counterpart to Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and you have Liebman and Murley. The rhythm of their tunes is more conventional than their harmonic approach, sticking to a normal 4/4, but make no mistake, these are adventurous players. At times Murley will sound like Sonny Rollins, at other times a bit like Stan Getz (more so in his sparseness of note-choices than actual sound) while Liebman, particularly on soprano sax, channels Coltrane and a bit of Steve Lacy. What I found particularly interesting in this set was that neither of these exceptional reed players ever overblow or go so far out on a tangent that neither they nor their audience quite knows where they are, despite taking several risks. This is playing at its highest level.

Version 2

Liebman & Murley

The rhythm section is solid and dependable, with drummer Clarke taking a fine solo at the beginning of Off a Bird which, oddly enough, sounds more like a piece by Ornette Coleman than Parker, though it keeps to a recognizable harmonic base. Liebman is at his most abstract here, spitting out atonal lines with impunity while still leaving “space” in his solo. A nifty little quote from Bird’s Now’s the Time comes and goes so quickly that you might miss it. Bassist Jim Vivian is also quite busy here, contributing a splendid Charlie Haden-type solo in the middle, just before Murley comes roaring in on tenor sax.

On Small One, Murley joins Liebman on soprano sax, playing a lovely if rather abstract tune in harmony. In the improv section they take turns; the liner notes don’t say, but it sounds like Murley up first. I say this only because his playing tends to be somewhat more lyrical than his mentor-partner. Clarke tosses in a few really nice press rolls behind Liebman’s solo when he takes over the reins. Towards the end there is a nice passage where the rhythm changes and the duo plays some nifty interlocking phrases before reiterating the theme to the end.

Liebman plays both flute and tenor sax on Open Spaces. Oddly, his flute sounds more like an ocarina, but that’s fitting in the context of this quasi-Latin-sounding piece. His tenor playing has the same tone as his soprano, somewhat dry and “flat” like several of the hard-bop players of the 1950s and ‘60s. Vivian contributes a nice, dry bass solo, picking the strings cleanly as if it were a big guitar. Towards the end Liebman returns to his ocarina-like flute for the rideout. An out-of-tempo bowed bass solo opens Nebula, setting the tone for a particularly “spacey” performance. When the two saxists enter, they are playing sparsely in thirds, breaking up both line and rhythm as they proceed. Most of the composition and performance, in fact, consists of just these elements, with the music becoming even more spacey and the two reeds exchanging metaphoric takes on the sparse theme. Eventually they whimper like two wounded space birds from Alpha Centauri.

Next we get the one old-time standard on this set, Ziggy Elman’s And the Angels Sing which was the vocal version of his previously-recorded Frahlich in Swing. It gives the listener a chance to hear and understand what these two great artists can do with a song, in material that almost everyone knows. Both men are on tenor here, and it sounds to me as if that’s Liebman up first, playing a particularly adventurous solo before Murley comes in with his quasi-Getz sound and ideas. Missing Persons starts out with an out-of-tempo a cappella passage by the two saxists at a medium slow tempo, again channeling Ornette somewhat. Audience applause comes immediately after, followed by a rumbling drum solo which introduces Joe Lovano’s Blackwell’s Message. This, too, turns into a somewhat abstract performance, particularly in Liebman’s twisting, pretzel-shaped solo. Murley does his level best to catch up, though, and eventually they come together, again in thirds, to wrap the set up.

Really, really nice music from start to finish.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

Standard

Schoch Jumps & Jives With Jazzettes!

cover

JAZZETTES / TANSMAN: Sonatine transatlantique (arr. Pascal). RAVEL: Violin Sonata. GROSZ: Jazzband. GRUENBERG: Jazzettes. COPLAND: Ukelele Serenade. SCHULHOFF: Violin Sonata No. 2. GERSHWIN: 3 Preludes (arr. Heifetz). MILHAUD: Scaramouche: Brasileira (arr. Heifetz). DEBUSSY: Le petit Nègre (arr. Frenkel) / Ursula Schoch, vln; Marcel Worms, pn / Zefir 9652

As I explained in detail in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond (see link at the end of this review), “jazz” of the 1920s inspired a great many serious American and European composers, but not all their works were created equal. This was due in large part to the fact that most of the Europeans, and even some of the American composers, had only a superficial view of what jazz really was. Close to 90% of what was played and recorded in the ‘20s was syncopated dance music, not really jazz either in rhythm or improvisation, and most of the true jazz bands, like King Oliver’s, Jean Goldkette’s and Fletcher Henderson’s, were not seen by the public as different, or better, than Paul Whiteman’s or the George Olsen’s, while the pioneer small bands of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone, Red Nichols and Jelly Roll Morton were not that well known by the general public until many years later.

Thus a recording like this, though excitingly played and wonderfully programmed, must be taken with a grain of salt. The only three composers here who had first-hand exposure to Real Jazz in their time were Ravel (who even went to Chicago where he heard Armstrong and Earl Hines in person), Gershwin and Milhaud, and of those three only Ravel really “got it.” Not only the violin sonata presented here, but also his great Piano Concerto and even the insinuating syncopation of Bolero, all caught the flavor of real jazz better than most of his peers.

That being said, the Sonatine transatlantique of Alexandre Tansman, Polish-born and French by adoption, is one of the better works on this disc. Lively and energetic, Tansman at least caught the Charleston rhythm pretty well and his high level of craft as a composer led him to create an utterly fascinating work, and violinist Ursula Schoch “gets it” as few classically-trained musicians ever do. A former member of the Berlin Philharmonic and current member of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Schoch has exactly the right amount of jazz swagger to bring this music to vivid life, which makes this the clear choice among all recordings of this work (few as they are). Pianist Marcel Worms, on the other hand, is lively and energetic but just does not swing. This is not an indictment against him, however; 95% of classically-trained musicians have trouble with the feeling of jazz rhythm. Even Friedrich Gulda, who played jazz for more than 40 years in addition to his classical career, became an excellent improviser but had trouble loosening up his swing.

Almost predictably, then, Worms is at his best in the Ravel violin sonata, written between 1923 and 1927, and the even more complex Violin Sonata No. 2 by Erwin Schulhoff (more on that later). Here he maintains a nicely flowing accompaniment to Schoch’s outstanding violin playing, slyly teasing the syncopations without ever really loosening up the swing. This Ravel sonata is a hybrid that leans more towards classical than jazz, although Ravel was an avid fan of the new music and very much wanted performances of his late works to have a jazz swagger. Once again, though, when one considers how difficult it is to “swing” Ravel at any point if one comes from a classical background, he at least provides a nice ragtime feel in the second movement, which feeds into Schoch’s slyly insinuating, Joe Venuti-like playing of the top line. All in all, it’s difficult to imagine a finer performance of this score, particularly since it has been my experience that violinists have more trouble loosening up their beat than pianists. The last movement of this sonata, written as a moto perpetuo, finds the duo playing with perfect acuity and synchronization. Although it is the least “jazziest” of the three movements, Schoch once again finds a way to make her part swing, particularly the middle section with its continuous stream of sixteenths.

Ravel sonata

Wilhelm Grosz, an avant-garde composer who worked in Mannheim and Vienna, was one of those Europeans who got their “jazz” second hand. Not surprisingly, he wrote an essentially classical piece, another perpetuum mobile, in which he tried to convey the excitement of the new music without really crossing over to the “wrong” side of the tracks. It’s a very peppy piece in which the pianist actually gets the more interesting music, a more developed theme and variations which is played against the violin’s rapid sixteenths. Oddly, it bears a strong resemblance to Dvořák’s Indian Lament, particularly in its harmonic sequence but also in its rhythm. The closest it comes to jazz is the syncopated middle section beginning at 3:50, and both performers do a splendid job here within the piece’s circumscribed rhythmic constraints.

By contrast Louis Gruenberg, a composer best known in America for his Afro-bullshit 1930s opera The Emperor Jones, wrote his Jazzettes in 1924—still a period of jazz infancy—with a much better feel for America’s native music. Once again Schoch is simply splendid, skittering over the rhythm with joie-de-vivre, while Worms does a sort of tap dance rhythm behind her. In the second movement, however, Gruenberg chose to present us with a thorough-composed spiritual rather than a blues (apparently he wasn’t listening to Bessie Smith). Oddly enough, it’s the best piece in the suite in terms of both structural interest and emotional communication. Schoch ends by playing five notes very high up, softly, with the edge of her bow. The syncopated but more ragtime-influenced last movement sparkles, with hints of the cakewalk (another predecessor of jazz) and, yes, a bit of the blues.

The liner notes tell us that Aaron Copland, born in 1900, “had been raised from his boyhood onwards with jazz,” but considering that the only jazz he could have heard in New York City (his hometown) until he left for Paris in 1921 where he studied for three years with Nadia Boulanger was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, this is hyperbole. He grew up with ragtime, and that is what informs his Ukelele Serenade, a nicely syncopated piece (though he did eventually get the hang of jazz a bit in the 1950s).

Next we get the Violin Sonata No. 2 of Erwin Schulhoff, whose jazz-influenced music has been revived like wildfire since pianist Kathryn Stott’s groundbreaking Bis album of the early 2000s. Schulhoff was, quite simply, a superb and highly original composer, despite the fact that he tended towards bourgeois tastes and in fact set Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto to music. Like many of the Europeans, his exposure to jazz was second-hand and largely confined to the likes of novelty pianist Zez Confrey and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra (which also impressed Arnold Schoenberg). Thus performers must work a bit overtime to push his music into the true rhythms of jazz, but it is possible, as Schoch proves here. The score itself is highly complex and goes far beyond mere “novelty” music; indeed, Schulhoff’s contribution to the jazz-classical axis was to influence jazz by introducing those who studied his scores to remarkably advanced and sophisticated harmonic writing. Worms plays well here because the music is so much more classical than most of its predecessors on this disc, providing Schoch with a cantus firmus while she goes flying off into realms of her own. They work so well as a duo that one’s mind is continually engaged in the ongoing musical development, which is both appealing and complex. The moody, smoldering second movement is probably the closest thing Schulhoff wrote to a real blues (in terms of feeling, not blues form), and in this instance Worms’ playing catches exactly the right mood. The third-movement “Burlesca” is highly syncopated but not really jazzy, yet again the music is so cleverly written that one is swept up in its progression. Interestingly, the last movement uses the theme from the “Burlesca” but takes it in different directions.

Next up is the most famous and popular piece in this collection, the Gershwin piano preludes in the violin-piano arrangement by Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz’ own recording, with Emanuel Bay on piano, actually caught the swagger of the music pretty well. Schoch does an equally fine job here, articulating the music in a different way from Heifetz while still retaining a jazz feel. Worms is pretty good but not as loose as Bay. We hear another Heifetz transcription in the Brasiliera from Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche. Milhaud, of course, wrote the first truly successful jazz-classical hybrid in history, La Création du Monde, and although Brasiliera is more Latin and not quite as jazzy it is certainly effective. The finale here is Debussy’s La petit Négre, a cakewalk piece (Debussy didn’t live long enough to hear jazz) and quite charming. The transcription here was made for violin by Stefan Frenkel, and both Schoch and Worms play it with lightness and energy.

Taken in all, this is an extraordinarily delightful and ear-opening CD. I was glad to have a chance to hear some of the offbeat pieces in this collection, despite their peripheral connection to jazz.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

Standard

Martin Salemi Has Short Stories to Tell

cover

SHORT STORIES / SALEMI: Confidence. (Working) Summer. Si J’avais Su. Early Morning. Unsaid. Regina. C. FISCHER: Lennie’s Pennies. LENNON-McCARTNEY: Julia / Martin Salemi, pn; Mike Delaere, bs; Toine Cnockaert, dm / Igloo Records IGL285

This is one of those very rare recordings that fuse a warm, relaxed feeling with real invention and interest. Martin Salemi, a 29-year-old Belgian pianist, makes his CD debut here with an album that mixes in the styles of Bill Evans, Lennie Tristano, and a touch of Claude Bolling. The opening track is a perfect case in point. Starting out in a soft, slow mood, it suddenly explodes in the middle with an extended double-time improvisation featuring some nifty right-hand runs before moving back to the slower tempo and showing off some classically-influenced counterpoint.And his trio partners, bassist Delaere and drummer Cnockaert, are right there with him.

The second piece, (Working) Summer, is a calypso-sounding sort of piece in 5/4. Salemi clearly has fun with this, indulging in some remarkable phrases in which the rhythm is skewed by means of a slight holding back or tenuto on certain notes in his improvisation. He becomes quite busy, turning eights into triplets and then into sixteenths as he turns up the heat within the trio. Cnockaert takes an interesting, tasteful drum solo that definitely adds to the atmosphere.

Si J’avais Su is one of those ballads that, somehow or other, have “French” written all over them. Don’t ask me to define exactly what it is; it’s just something in the chording and the melodic progression that reminded me of some of Claude Bolling’s and Jacques Prévert’s work in the past. Salemi plays it, and everything on this album, with a light but very definite touch. Every note emerges crisply and clearly, as if it was etched in glass.

It has long amazed me that so many jazz musicians misattribute the songs they play to composers who never wrote them. Lennie’s Pennies is one such. The CD inlay attributes this tune to Lennie Tristano, but as luck would have it, I happen to know that this was a gentle parody of Tristano’s style composed and recorded by the tremendously talented West Coast pianist-composer-arranger Dr. Clare Fischer, who passed away several years ago. Fischer’s own recording present the music as very tongue-in-cheek, starting with an out-of-tempo introduction in which the original Pennies From Heaven tune was played with typically quirky Tristano changes before moving into more serious playing. Salemi is rather serious from start to finish, but he certainly captures Tristano’s style and energy quite well.

delaere_salemi_cnockaert

Left to right: Delaere, Salemi, Cnockaert

Early Morning, another Salemi original, is a waltz with yet another sort of Gallic accent about it, played with Evans-like sensitivity—again, ramping up the volume and the swing in the more excitable central section. Equally interesting is his reworking of the Beatles tune Julia, in which Salemi gives us just enough of the original melody to let us in on what he’s doing, This one is an a cappella solo. Unsaid, another Salemi original, is taken at either a brisk 3 or a medium-tempo 6/8, whichever you prefer to call it. This one definitely rides above some nifty chord changes, firmly tonal yet continually surprising. Cnockaert.again throw in some Caribbean-styled rhythm behind the pianist. This one almost sounds like a Dave Brubeck sort of piece…just wonderful! As per usual, Salemi gets quite worked up in the middle section. I love the fact that he doesn’t keep his moods static, and the rhythm section just flies behind him on this one.

The finale, Regina, is another piece in irregular rhythm, suggesting but not quite achieving a bossa nova. Salemi’s chord structure here is modal, using occasional movement down a half-tone to suggest variety while essentially staying in one place the whole time. Cnockaert’s drums are subtle and just right in terms of the “push” he gives the beat, creating a motor rhythm somewhat the opposite of Salemi’s. A bit of Blue Note-era bluesy funk is thrown in in the middle by the pianist, with both bass and drums getting busier behind him.

I really can’t praise this album highly enough. If the reader gets the feeling from the above review that I didn’t quite describe Salemi’s playing in enough detail, it is only because there is so much detail that it’s better to just listen and not analyze too much. Get it!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

Standard

Thomas’ “Of Being is a Bird” Fascinating

cover

OF BEING IS A BIRD / THOMAS: Helix Spirals / Parker Qrt / Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals) / Third Coast Percussion & Spektral Qrt / Capricious Toccata / Nathan Giem, vln / Of Being a Bird for Soprano & Ensemble* / Claire Booth, sop; Aurora Orch.; Nicholas Collon, cond / Caprice & Rush for Solo Violin / Nathan Cole, vln / Love Twitters / Nicola Melville, pn / Nimbus Alliance NI8323 (*live: London, July 7, 2015)

Having been very impressed by Augusta Read Thomas’ CD Ritual Incantations, I decided to peruse some of her other discs and ran across this one. It is much in the same vein: energetic, sparkling and often challenging music.

One of the delights of Helix Spirals is that the first movement is played pizzicato by the entire quartet, an interesting device that other composers have only used for intermittent passages. Here the opposite is true: at about 2:20 one hears a couple of sustained notes (I think by the viola), and only at 3:00 do the two violins switch from pizzicato to sustained bowing for a few passages. The music, largely tonal, is thus broken up in such a way that the listener feels disoriented, even more so when, at about 4:30, sustained notes play against pizzicato that seems to be running backwards rhythmically!

The second movement starts with pointed rhythmic figures being played by the viola, with the cello still in pizzicato mode while the two violins play sustained notes above it. This is then developed by Thomas in an interesting manner, with other instruments (including the cello) taking turns at playing the quirky bowed figures while the others indulge in pizzicato. Then suddenly, the third movement begins with the entire quartet playing sustained music in traditional quartet orchestration in C major. What should sound normal now sounds strange. Eventually the music becomes more animated with eights replacing the whole notes and leaping figures alternated by all four members of the quartet. The interaction becomes denser during the development section, eventually overlapping one another. It’s a strange ending to a strange piece.

The next selection, Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals), combines the marimba and percussion quartet Third Coast Percussion with the Spektral Quartet…you might call it her “strings and things” piece. This is highly syncopated in an almost jazzy way, and I found it a shade disappointing that the musicians involved here didn’t have much feeling for jazz swing, which would have made the performance ideal. It is an almost continuous swirl of syncopated figures, I would surmise dotted eighths and sixteenths, later shifting to mysterious sustained figures. This sort of tempo shifting continues throughout, the music really becoming quite rapid in pace and strongly syncopated at 7:30. At around 10:42, the music becomes slower yet again, but this time new variants are introduced and the mood, too, becomes quite different, as if one had suddenly opened the door to a performance of entirely different music.

Violinist Nathan Giem then attacks Thomas’ Capricious Toccata with vigor and brio. It’s typical Thomas, rhythmic and energetic with sustained notes as interludes. Of Being is a Bird is the most ambitious piece on this CD, an orchestral song cycle based on poems of Emily Dickinson (heck, don’t all women composers eventually set poetry of Emily Dickinson?). The music is bitonal and atmospheric. Soprano Claire Booth has a beautiful voice, but her diction is completely unintelligible. I couldn’t make a single syllable out without following the text. This is the world premiere performance, given at Wigmore Hall in London in July of 2015, yet the recorded sound is as crisp and clear as if it were made in a studio. Great engineering job! There are but two poems set to music, Of Being is a Bird and The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met, separated by an orchestral interlude in Thomas’ familiar hocket-style writing. The first song is set to slow, atmospheric music while the second is energetic and driving.

Caprice and Rush for solo violin is played by Nathan Rush, who is first associate concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (i.e., the third one over from the left). He has your generic fine, bright tone and impeccable bow control you would expect from a musician in that position. The music here alternates between lyrical and serrated figures in Thomas’ normal mode when writing for strings. This collection concludes with Love Twitters, which I personally felt was the least original and communicative piece on the disc. It’s just busy music, energetic but to my ears conveying nothing much.

Nonetheless, most of this album is fascinating music, well played and interpreted by the various performers. Well worth a listen!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Pickard’s Fascinating Songs Presented in New CD

cover

PICKARD: Binyon Songs. The Phoenix.* The Borders of Sleep / Roderick Williams, bar; *Eve Daniell, sop; Simon Lepper, pn / Toccata Classics 0413

John Pickard, whose powerful, edgy orchestral works are among the best being written nowadays, emerges here in an entirely different style. Granted, these are songs and singers have range and technical limitations that instruments do not, but Pickard has almost completely abandoned his modernistic, bitonal and occasionally atonal style to produce some very lovely music in a modern vein. Granted, occasional pieces like “The Burning of the Leaves” in the Binyon Songs move towards bitonal harmony in the piano accompaniment, but by and large Pickard has chosen to take an almost Ralph Vaughan Williams approach to song writing: good, well-constructed music but largely lyrical and tonal.

But I hope I have made clear that “largely lyrical and tonal” does not mean uninteresting. I think Pickard is constitutionally incapable of writing poorly constructed or formulaic music, and these songs—any one of which would serve a singer well in a vocal recital—are consistently fine as well as emotionally powerful statements. Of course, it helps that they are presented here not only by Roderick Williams, a British baritone with an incipient flutter in the voice but a really lovely tone, great interpretive skills and crystal-clear diction (thank God for once!), but also the really outstanding pianist Simon Lepper. This duo clearly worked hard and long on honing every phrase of each song to communicative perfection. They surely did not intend this to just be a “read-through” of these obviously superior examples of modern British song writing. Indeed, the aforementioned “Burning of the Leaves” is almost a vocal tone poem in and of itself, magnificent and compelling from start to finish.

Unfortunately, the longest song on this album, The Phoenix, is given not to Williams but to soprano Eve Daniell, and she has a horrid voice. Wobbly, pinched, nasal and nasty-sounding, I can’t imagine that someone with a voice like this would get professional engagements, but there you are. The music is superb, however, and with an artist of the quality of Tony Arnold to sing this it would be a moving and fascinating piece. Fortunately, Lepper is still the pianist here, and he carries off his part of the performance beautifully.

Having suffered through 16 minutes of Daniell’s caterwauling, Williams’ warm voice in the ten-piece cycle The Borders of Sleep was like a balm on the ears. Nor is this just a metaphor, for Pickard’s music here is among his loveliest and most accessible. In the first song, “Tall Nettles,” Williams ends on an perfectly-floated high G, and in the second, the somewhat edgier “The Trumpet,” he articulates the musical line with perfect rhythmic acuity and a fine declamatory style, never pressuring the voice too much. Bravo, Roderick! The third song, “The Mill-Water,” lay somewhere between the two stylistically. This cycle was based on the poetry of Edward Thomas who, like Wilfred Owen of War Requiem fame, was killed in the first World War, though his poetry is less directly connected to the international conflict. Interestingly, Pickard wrote the songs in a completely different order from how they appear on the CD. As he put it in the notes,

As I worked on the songs, a sort of imaginary narrative began to emerge: a soldier at the Western Front lies in his bunk, half-awake (at ‘the borders of sleep’, as the last poem says) the night before going over the top into no man’s land. Recollections of the natural world from back home (he is a country man) and of lost love merge with images of war. The memories darken, culminating in the macabre vision of the central song, ‘The Gallows.’

In “The Gallows,” Pickard alternates between strophic phrases, punctuated by somewhat detached chords from the piano, and lyrical ones in which the keyboard plays a more consistent and insistent rhythm. The vocal line often hovers between major and minor, sometimes encompassing notes that could fit either/or. This gave him a good amount of leeway in focusing on the connection between text and music. For the most part he did an admirable job, and the song’s atmosphere carries over to the rest of the cycle. Most certainly it carries over to the next song, “Rain,” in which the poet muses “nothing but the wild rain on this bleak hut, and solitude, and me remembering again that I shall die and neither hear the rain nor give it thanks for washing me cleaner than I have been.” Pickard captures perfectly the surreal mood of the words in his music, giving the pianist soft, blurred figures to play behind the singer. Contrast this with “No One Cares Less Than I,” with its driving energy and edgy, bitonal harmonies, and one can see that this poetry got a good grip on the composer as he wrote the music.

Needless to say, “Last Poem” and “Lights Out” take us to a quieter space, and there is a certain Britten-esque quality about these songs without copying the great composer that I liked very much. Williams remains consistently excellent to the very end, which ends on a soft, a cappella phrase. Overall, then, a decidedly worthwhile disc to acquire. Just set your CD player to skip over band six and you’ll thoroughly enjoy it.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Discovering Kalevi Aho’s Horn & Theremin Concerti

CD

AHO: Concerto for Horn & Chamber Orchestra. Acht Jahresietzen (Eight Seasons), Concerto for Theremin & Chamber Orchestra / Annu Salminen, Fr horn; Carolina Eyck, Theremin; Lapland Chamber Orchestra; John Storgårds, cond / Bis SACD-2036

I tell you, entering the sound world of Kalevi Aho is like entering a labyrinth in Alice’s Wonderland. It is strange but intriguing, wondrous and bizarre all at the same time. Nothing I’ve yet heard by him sounds the least bit “normal,” and certainly does not meet one’s expectations. His Chamber Symphonies, as I stated in my review of them, are almost free fantasias written for orchestra and, in the case of the third, practically a concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra.

The same is true of the works presented here. Aho’s Horn Concerto does indeed place the solo instrument front and center in the sound texture, yet the highly dramatic, almost sinister-sounding music that swirls around it resembles a sea tide running backwards more than a standard concerto. Aho always seems to be more concerned with texture and feeling than form, with the result that his music penetrates deeper into his psyche than almost any other modern composer (with the possible exceptions of Leif Segerstam, John Pickard and one or two others). The five linked sections of this “concerto” continue down a dark path; there is none of the jollity of Mozart’s or Strauss’ horn concerti here, but rather edgy string figures, swirling winds and a sense that you may not get out of this labyrinth and back into the light. As Aho puts it in the liner notes:

The Horn Concerto differs from my other concertos in that the soloist does not stand in front next to the conductor but moves around several times during the course of the work. The horns first entries are heard from backstage. After that the soloist becomes visible and plays from behind the orchestra, moving gradually from left to right while playing. In the end, the hornist leaves the stage again. This gives the work a ritualistic character as if the solo horn brings something from afar to the audience and orchestra and, when all is said and done, disappears from view.

Among the special features of the solo part in this single-movement concerto are micro-intervals. Of the highest overtones on the horn, the seventh, eleventh and thirteenth are approximately a quarter-tone too low. This makes it possible for the horn to play even quarter-tone scales in the highest register, as these impure overtones are combined with pure overtones of the horn in the same register.

Pretty wild, huh? But the music is even wilder in the hearing than in the description of it. Even the quiet, lyrical passages, more tonal in character than the louder ones, have a certain unease about them. Aho is clearly trying to draw the listener into a sound world where normal parameters of music are brushed aside.

And even in the case of so strange a work as the Theremin concerto, titled Eight Seasons, Aho was also writing for a specific virtuoso performer, in this case Carolina Eyck. While playing the Theremin part in Lena Auerbach’s First Symphony with the Washington National Orchestra, contrabassoonist Lewis Lipnick recommended that Eyck listen to Aho’s Contrabassoon and Tuba Concerti and ask the composer to write something for her. This is the result.

EyckA cello and a bass actually dominate the first section of the piece, titled Harvest, until Eyck enters on the Theremin. Her playing is simply extraordinary; Clara Rockmore would be very proud of her. She displays an extraordinary range on the instrument as well as complete command of such musical devices as portamento and glissando, which are very hard to control in pitch. She’s also good at changing dynamics, something that earlier Theremins were virtually incapable of producing. It is in the fourth section, Christmas Darkness, that Eyck performs wordless singing around her Theremin playing. Plain and simple, she is astonishing. In the fifth section, Winter Frost, she plays upward and downward-moving whoops on the instrument to simulate a winter storm. The next section, Crusted Snow, is as good an example as any of Aho’s composing genius. He starts with an idea for a mood, writes logically constructed themes and variants,and then works a specific instrumental texture to fill it in. In this way, he consistently appeals to both one’s emotion and intellect.

The music becomes more agitated as the “seasons” progress, and Crusted Snow moves into Melting of the Ice and then Midnight Sun. Quietude finally returns in the final segment, Midnight Sun, and only here does Aho achieve something like relaxation in his score. Eyck again sings wordlessly as she plays in this finale.

This is tremendously interesting music, brilliantly performed and exceptionally recorded. Go for it!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard