God’s Tenor

Jon Vickers

Jonathan Stewart Vickers, born in 1926, was in my estimation not only one of the greatest tenors of the 20th century but one of the six most important operatic artists of that century, along with Feodor Chaliapin, Mary Garden, Tito Gobbi, Maria Callas and Gabriel Bacquier. They brought a more realistic as well as a more poetic portrayal of operatic characters to the stage and forced audiences to think of them in a different way than just as a Presence with a Voice. Of course, there were other singers who did the same thing, among them Olive Fremstad, Michael Bohnen, Magda Olivero and Jerome Hines, but their influence was primarily local and, in the case of Fremstad, not captured properly on recordings and not at all on film.

Ironically, I didn’t like the sound of Vickers’ voice at all when I first heard him on a recording, specifically the 1961 Aida with Leontyne Price and Georg Solti. I thought the voice was basemetal and had no ring to it, and when he did try to project brightness it just sounded harsh. I was too young to know at the time that this was the result of John Culshaw’s fiddling around with dials in the control room while the recording was being made. All Culshaw really cared about was projecting the orchestra front and center; for him, voices were just “other instruments” to be subjugated behind the wall of brass, winds and strings. He pulled an even worse stunt on Vickers (and Birgit Nilsson and Gré Brouwenstijn) on their recording of Die Walküre.

My idea of Vickers changed forever in December of 1974. I had made an appointment with Francis Robinson to discuss Jussi Björling, a tenor whose voice I admired very much, for a possible biography. When an attendant arrived to take me through the labyrinth of the Met’s backstage to his office, I heard this huge, warm, absolutely luxurious voice singing music from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Flabbergasted, I asked the attendant who the tenor was. I was even more flabbergasted when he told me it was Jon Vickers.

That was the beginning of my Vickers obsession. I went to see him as Don Alvaro in the February 8, 1975 performance with a stellar cast: Martina Arroyo as Leonora, Matteo Managuerra as Don Carlo, Bonaldo Giaiotti as Padre Guardiano, the afore-mentioned Bacquier as Fra Melitone and James Levine conducting. I was utterly mesmerized, not only by Vickers’ voice but by the way he breathed life into the character. One of the most impressive moments was the duet “Solenne in quest’ora,” normally belted out by Italian tenors worldwide. Vickers wanted to convey Alvaro’s feeling that he was near death, so he sang it softly, almost in a hoarse whisper, halting for breath like someone who actually had been mortally wounded. I was stunned. But after the act, standing in the lobby, I had to listen to some idiot lecturing his circle of friends that Vickers had the “wrong voice” for Alvaro, that he preferred hearing it sung by Barry Morell. Since I couldn’t stomach Morell’s voice and had heard he was a terrible stage actor, I had a hard time believing that this guy couldn’t see and hear what I was seeing and hearing—a masterful performance.

As I was to learn, Vickers was used to this sort of thing. He knew that although his voice was massive in size, almost too massive, in fact, for most of his studio recordings, that it was not conventionally beautiful. It had warmth and was incredibly large—when he sang on stage, the voice completely filled the theater (some called it a “Cinerama” voice)—but that it didn’t have either an Italianate ring nor inherent beauty. He also used to say that 90% of all his audiences didn’t get what he was doing, but that he was singing for the 10% who did. “If I am nothing else, I consider myself an artist,” he would say, “and as an artist I try things that are different and out of the ordinary.” Yet he eventually came to realize, watching his performances on video, that in some ways it wasn’t enough. When Chicago-based critic Bruce Duffie interviewed him and asked what he thought future generations would think of his work, he said, “I think they will laugh. I think they will consider it inadequate.”

I don’t really know anyone who laughs at Jon Vickers’ performances, but I had a friend once who nitpicked him to death. “He squints too much in his Carmen film,” she said, and when she backed him up as a member of the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus, she laughed at the fact that when he opened his mouth to sing, “it makes a rectangular slot, like a mailbox.” That’s about as close to laughing at him I’ve ever heard.

After the Forza performance, I waited for him backstage to get his autograph, something I rarely did with opera singers, even well-known ones (as much as I liked Arroyo, I didn’t wait to get her autograph). He was one of the last to emerge from backstage. He arrived trailing James Levine and asked him, “Was I really horrible tonight? Really? I couldn’t get the voice free all night long!” To which Levine replied, “You were fine. We could all hear you very well, and most of it was excellent.” Then the tenor started talking in the third person. “When other tenors get a cold they cancel, but Vickers is an idiot. Vickers goes on anyway.” But I, and a young woman who apparently followed him around from city to city to see his performances, were enraptured by his performance and we told him so. He beamed from ear to ear. We were part of that 10% who “got it.”

The next time I heard him in person was a Carnegie Hall recital the following year. When he walked out on stage, the house erupted with applause. He beamed from ear to ear; he knew he had “a Vickers audience.” “Just for that,” he said, wagging a finger, “I’m going to start with something extra-special.” He then proceeded to sing one of his favorite arias, “Where’er you walk” from Handel’s Semele, before launching into the scheduled program, which began with Beethoven’s song cycle An die Ferne Geliebte. From that day to this, there are few if any other performances of the Beethoven cycle I can listen to other than Vickers’. He was utterly spellbinding.

In the fall of 1977 I moved from New Jersey to Cincinnati, and thus left the New York opera scene behind, but I still followed Vickers as faithfully as I could. I heard him on a Met broadcast as Otello. I saw his astonishing performance as the clumsy, stuttering Vašek opposite Nicolai Gedda’s Jenik in The Bartered Bride. He sang and acted Gedda off the stage, probably one reason why the latter tenor never even mentioned this performance in his autobiography. I also bought his Peter Grimes recording when it came out and, a few years later, the Peter Grimes videotape. I managed to find a copy of his first (1954) recording of Handel’s Messiah with Sir Ernest Macmillan on the RCA Bluebird label. I recorded his 1984 broadcast of Fidelio with soprano Eva Marton and conductor Klaus Tennstedt. I saw him concertize on TV now and then, most notably in a stunning performance of the Act I, Scene 3 duet from Die Walküre with soprano Jessye Norman. And then, by the late 1980s, he was gone from the scene.

For a tenor who had such a long and relatively stellar career, Vickers was an odd duck, and not just because of his vocal timbre. Unlike other big-name tenors, he kept major artistic promoters at arms’ length, preferring more low-key management. He knew that the same people who loved Franco Corelli’s voice, for instance, weren’t going to like his voice no matter what he did, particularly in any sort of conventional Italian or French opera role, thus he relied as much on his reputation, which by the mid-1960s was enormous, to promote himself within the opera community. He probably did the wise thing, but this is one reason why Vickers wasn’t nearly as well known as Placido Domingo or Luciano Pavarotti. When outsiders saw him sitting in the Met cafeteria having his lunch, dressed like a Canadian lumberjack, they had no clue who he was, and he actually liked being able to have a private life without being mobbed by autograph-seekers.

And, for a tenor of such worldwide repute and fame, he really didn’t make many studio recordings. Two versions each of the Messiah, Otello, Fidelio, Die Walküre and the Beethoven Ninth Symphony and one each of Aida, Samson et Dalila, Les Troyens, Tristan und Isolde, Carmen, Peter Grimes, the Verdi Requiem and Das Lied von der Erde. In addition, there were three professionally produced film performances, two of them by Unitel under the guidance of Herbert von Karajan (Pagliacci and an alternate Carmen) and the filmed Peter Grimes. All of his other performances, including operas close to his heart such as Handel’s Samson and those less close such as Verdi’s Don Carlo, Un Ballo in Maschera and La Forza del Destino, Strauss’ Salome, Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini, Smetana’s Barbered Bride, Cherubini’s Medea, Bellini’s Norma, Janáček’s Jenufa, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, Wagner’s Parsifal, Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame and Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, exist only in live performances, as do alternate performances of Fidelio, Otello, Grimes et al. In his entire career he made only ONE vocal recital disc, for RCA Victor in 1962 (around the time of his first Otello). There also exists a strange performance of the “Gloria” from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis conducted by Leonard Bernstein to celebrate the opening of Lincoln Center in which TWO of each voice category were used. In this performance, Vickers sang for the first and last time with American tenor Richard Tucker, and it was issued on a limited edition LP set. I haven’t been able to track it down since.

Vickers’ odd combination of confidence and modesty was drilled into him by his father, who was an itinerant preacher. A lifelong Christian who wore his morality on his sleeve, he was thus dubbed “God’s tenor.” During the 1970s he agreed to learn and sing the role of Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera, but backed out because he claimed that the character was blasphemous, yet he sang such equally questionable roles as Siegmund in Die Walküre, who had sexual relations with his own sister; the title role of Parsifal, a fool who becomes a sort of pseudo-Christ figure; and the bigamist emperor Nero in L’Incoronatione di Poppea. The real reason is probably that he found the tessitura of the music too high for his voice at that time.

In fact, if you examine the roles Vickers sang in the light of their psychological makeup, he was drawn to characters who had serious character flaws and heroes who were brought down by relationships they shouldn’t have had, such as Radames, Samson, Tristan, Giasone in Medea, Enée in Les Troyens, Riccardo, Herod and Cellini. In this respect he had a certain kinship with the great American actor Lon Chaney, whose goal was to humanize characters who lived on the fringes of society. For Chaney, the ultimate role was Erik in The Phantom of the Opera. For Vickers, the ultimate role was the mentally unstable, apprentice-beating fisherman Peter Grimes.

Like many singers from the early 20th century who put the dramatic or poetic presentation of the character above what was in the written score, Vickers sometimes (but not often) distorted the score in order to give one the poetic meaning of the words. To a certain extent he did this in Peter Grimes, but moreso in his broadly-phrased performance of Andrea Chenier. Perhaps the most extreme example of his was his live performance, issued on CD by VAI Audio, of Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise. Almost none of the songs are sung in anything like strict fidelity to the score, which is one reason no one wanted to issue it, but it certainly underlines the poetic soul of the character as well or better than anyone else’s version. At other times, such as in the Karajan film of Pagliacci, his presentation of the character seems diametrically opposed to the usual “angry clown” who explodes in angst and tears during “Vesti la giubba” and then tears passion to tatters in “No, Pagliacco non son.” Vickers internalizes the character’s angst so well that, in some respects, it seems tame to the average Italian opera fan, yet as a psychological portrayal of Canio it is extremely well-thought-out and makes sense.

When Vickers met Callas at their first rehearsal together for Medea, he was convinced that she was a shallow narcissist who didn’t care much for art because she arrived late and with an entourage, but by the end of the rehearsal period he was convinced that she was a genius. “Callas was almost masochistic in the way she approached the role,” he later said. “I found her once, late at night, kneeling onstage, psyching herself into the character, almost browbeating herself into feeling what Medea felt.” Vickers never went quite that far, but like Lon Chaney and Chaliapin, once he crossed the line onto the stage he was the character he was performing. Many were the sopranos who actually feared for their lives when he went to strangle them in the last act of Otello or who worried for his sanity in the last act of Grimes. After one Grimes rehearsal in which he sang the mad scene, “Steady! There you are! Nearly home,” he froze in position. Then, suddenly, he started laughing, softly at first and then exploding in loud guffaws. That was how quickly he could switch from the character he was playing back to Jon Vickers.

In later years he gave many lecture-concerts, explaining his aesthetic and singing examples for his audiences, and nearly all of them began with the same statement: “Art asks questions, but does not provide answers. Art challenges us to answer those questions, each in his or her own way.” That may be as good an epitaph as any for Vickers. Sadly, his last eight years were clouded by senile dementia, from which he died in July 2015.

Jon Vickers’ performances, both live and in the studio, not only deserve to be perpetuated but to be listened to carefully and studied. Like Chaliapin’s records, they present a great interpreter who made us reassess the operatic repertoire we all think we know so well.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Justin Morell’s Fascinating Guitar Concerto

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MORELL: Concerto for Guitar and Jazz Orchestra: I. Lost, Found and Lost; II. Life and Times; III. Terraforming / Frost Concert Jazz Band: Adam Rogers, gtr; Russ Macklem, Michael Dudley, Aaron Mutchler, Greg Chalmson, tpt/fl-hn; Derek Pyle, Will Wulfeck, Eli Feingold, tb; Wesley Thompson, bs-tb; Tom Kelley, a-sax/s-sax; Brian Bibb, a-sax/fl; Chris Thomson-Taylor, t-sax/fl; Seth Crail, t-sax/fl; Clint Bleil, bar-sax/bs-cl; Bryan Kennard, fl; Jake Shapiro, pno; Josh Bermudez, rhythm gtr; Mackenzie Karbon, vib/glock; Lowell Ringel, bs; Garrett Fracol, dm; John Daversa, dir/cond / ArtistShare AS0169

Justin Morell, a guitarist who has a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon in composition and jazz performance and is presently an Assistant Professor of Music in composition and theory at Lebanon Valley College, had previously recorded six CDs as a leader. Preceding this release was Subjects and Complements, a collection of new pieces for a 10-piece jazz ensemble, which came out in 2013 (and which I have not heard). In order to record this work, Morell contacted John Daversa, a noted trumpeter, bandleader, composer and producer who is Chair of Studio Music and Jazz at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. Daversa assembled, rehearsed and conducted the band you hear on this album.

This particular work has only one drawback, and that is its brevity, lasting only 36 ½ minutes. Otherwise, it is an excellent piece in the genre of jazz-classical hybrids. It opens with a gentle, rocking figure played by the rhythm guitar with soft brass interjections which eventually coalesce into brief melodic fragments and then moves into a modal melodic line. The music is strongly reminiscent of some of the more advanced “third stream” experiments of the 1950s, and in fact Morell’s orchestral palette has a soft focus about it, emphasizing trombones, flugelhorns and reeds (particularly the clarinet and alto sax). Indeed, the solo guitarist’s line develops much like a theme in a standard classical concerto, but you don’t notice it so much due to all the activity of the surrounding orchestral figures. The use of 3/4 time also gives Morell a chance to work in a tempo only occasionally associated with jazz. As the movement progresses, the solo guitar, playing with a soft focus, stands out more and more as a solo voice while the orchestra again plays brief interjections around it as the tempo moves back to a standard 4. One of this piece’s few weaknesses is that the guitar “development” seemed to me to become repetitive, retreading much the same ground. Perhaps a more inventive soloist who can think outside the box could do more with it.

The second movement is a true Adagio with a broad yet elusive theme played almost in slow motion by the band. When the soloist enters, the theme becomes a bit more graspable to the ear, and here his development seemed to me more original and varied. I only wish the soloist were playing with more of an edge to his sound and more use of dynamics: I have little patience for these soft, lounge-styled jazz guitarists who flood the scene nowadays, and to be honest, the monotony of Adam Rogers’ bland sound, which has no emotional inflection whatsoever, is quite dull both in context and on its own terms. There is, however, a fine tenor sax solo in this movement that adds interest to the proceedings.

The third movement opens with the soloist playing double-time licks as a sort of “ground bass” before the trombones and reeds enter with a complex and interesting theme. Here the music takes on a very slightly funky sound, as both guitar soloist and ensemble play around with it, using some rising chromatics to heighten tension. Morell does a nice job, once again, of playing the reeds and brass off each other with unusual rhythmic figures, and soloist Rogers contributes to the structure with rapid eight-note figures of his own. This eventually becomes part of the development, and once again I felt that this section of the music was a bit too staid and not inventive enough. Perhaps that is something Morell can work on for future performances of this concerto. Interestingly, this circular rhythmic figure then gets worked out as a fugue for the band. The work then comes to an abrupt close.

All in all, then, an interesting experiment and one that I hope Morell can develop into even more interesting works in the future.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Jansons Conducts Beethoven

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BEETHOVEN: Mass in C.* Leonore Overture No. 3+ / Genia Kühmeier, sop; Gerhild Romberger, alto; Maximilian Schmitt, ten; Luca Pisaroni, bs-bar; Bavarian Radio Chorus & Symphony Orch.; Mariss Jansons, cond / BR Klassik 900170 (live: *Gasteig, January 11-12, 2018; +Munich, January 29-30, 2004)

Here is a performance of Beethoven’s “other” mass, the one less often chosen for presentation. The Mass in C was written in 1806 and published in 1807, and Beethoven considered it a great advance on the writing of masses in his time. Now, 1806 was still what you would call “early middle period Beethoven,” after the Fifth Symphony but before the Sixth Symphony or the first of his “middle quartets,” so we have a good idea of the melodic-harmonic language he was using at that time.

At first blush, this would seem to be just yet another Romantic-era Mass, but the more you listen to it the more little details jump out at you. For instance, even in the “Kyrie,” Beethoven uses the chorus and solo voices performing individual, interweaving lines, almost like a string quartet, and although the harmony is clearly not as advanced as the late quartets or piano sonatas, it is still Beethoven-like in its restlessness. Both the harmony and rhythm keep shifting and changing as the music progresses, creating a fairly complex interplay that is quite different indeed from the later Missa Solemnis.

Jansons conducts this work with real energy and commitment, which keeps the pulse and the complex interplay of voices moving forward. Sadly, soprano Genia Kühmeier is clearly the only outstanding voice in the vocal quartet. Although Luca Pisaroni has a pleasant voice, he is really a baritone and thus cannot give as much weight to the lower end of the four-voice passages as he should. Both Gerhild Romberger and Maximilian Schmitt have pronounced flutters in their voices, although Schmit is sometimes locked into focus while Romberger is not.

The choral fugue that emerges at about the seven-minute mark in the “Gloria” is very good indeed, using rising cadences in the “Amen” section. The “Credo” opens with serrated triplet figures played by the celli but quickly moves into a somewhat martial tempo with strong tympani underscoring. There is quite bit of variety in this movement, in fact, with “driving” figures much as you heard in Fidelio and would later hear in the first movement of the Eighth Symphony.

Perhaps one of the reasons why this Mass is more dramatic and less “reverent” than usual stems from the fact that he, like Thomas Paine, was a Deist and not a Christian. Beethoven believed in the God of nature, the force that created the universe and everything on our planet, and this was the God he paid homage to. As a result, his music has the sweep of waves and the rumble of thunder in it, but does not evoke some old guy in the sky who, like Santa Claus, knows when you’ve been naughty or nice. It’s a different way of looking at God that I wish most people in the world would get back to. When the “Credo” suddenly increases in tempo at around 6:40, you get the feeling that Beethoven is driving the music towards some unattainable goal, in a sense “storming the heavens” as he did in the recently-completed Fifth Symphony. I was particularly pleased by the singing of the Bavarian Radio Chorus, which gives us an exceptional ensemble blend, along with incisive rhythmic accents, yet still sounds like a group of human beings and not like a MIDI, as most “historically-informed” choirs do.

As the Mass progresses, one notes that although the music is clearly tonal, Beethoven used a wide variety of tempi and occasionally (as at the one-minute mark in the “Sanctus”) unusual key changes. This movement, in particular, is not the least bit predictable or formulaic, but jumps around much like certain modern composers like to do (in a non-tonal way, of course), and its brevity (only 2:51) is as much a surprise as anything else. In the “Benedictus” Beethoven writes one of his most beautiful and appealing melodies, much like the second movement of the “Pathétique” piano sonata. By this time, too, contralto Romberger’s voice has finally warmed up and her pronounced flutter is gone (not so, sadly, in the case of Schmitt).

Perhaps the one disappointment, for me, was the rather chipper “Agnus Dei,” with which Beethoven concluders this Mass. Although the music is still quite good, it sounds a little too much to me like scraps from the previous movements stitched together. Well, hey, not even a Beethoven could be wholly original in every bar of every piece!

Since the Mass is rather short, the CD concludes with a performance of the Leonore Overture No. 3, recorded 14 years earlier. Here, Jansons gives us a very Toscanini-like performance, with a dramatic, forward thrust and emphasizing the astringent texture of the wind passages.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Discovering Onslow’s String Quintets

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ONSLOW: String Quintets Nos. 28 & 29 / Elan Quintet / Naxos 8.573887

George Onslow (1784-1853) was described as a “gentleman” musician who was independently wealthy and thus not dependent on making an income from his products. He wrote 34 string quartets, 36 quintets, 10 piano trios, four symphonies and various other works. This is Vol. 3 in an ongoing series of Onslow’s quintets for Naxos.

The music presented herein is actually quite good for its time and place, solidly written and engaging without being saccharine or maudlin. Although tonal, he introduced several little key changes within each movement of his works that add piquancy and interest, and it is to the Elan Quintet’s credit that they play with energy and commitment.

Onslow used the string quartet like a small orchestra rather than having individual lines for each instrument work with or against one another, even in the slow movements. The “Menuet” of the Quintet No. 28 is sprightly and very cleverly written.

Quintet No. 29 is an even sprightlier affair from the very first note, and wends its way along through its four movements. One of the more interesting things about these works is that they use a double bass and not a second cello, although the description “version for double bass” suggests to me that there are alternate scores requesting two celli. The second movement of this quintet is also very well-written music, with very dramatic interludes that wake the listener up and, in the Scherzo, a slow middle section with some interesting harmonic changes. The finale is also quite good.

These, then, are fairly interesting and solidly-written Romantic-era, fare, played well by the Elan Quintet and recorded with a good, clear, forward sound.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Wallen’s Fascinating Orchestral Music

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WALLEN: Cello Concerto.* Photography (A Jelly Bean Extravaganza) / *Matthew Sharp, cel; Ensemble X; Nicholas Kok, cond / Hunger / The Continuum Ensemble; Philip Headlam, cond / In Earth / Errollyn Wallen, voc; Tim Harries, bs-gtr; Quartet X / NMC 221

Errollyn Wallen was born in Belize but has spent most of her life in England. Like Leonard Salzedo, whose marvelous string quartets I recently reviewed, she has written for movies and TV, but in her case this is the lion’s share of her output. Perhaps this is one reason why she is not so well known “across the pond,” yet as I noted in my review of her first classical CD (for a nationally distributed classical music magazine), she is a highly original and fascinating composer. This CD, which came out a couple of years ago, somehow flew under my radar, thus I am taking this opportunity to review it now. Unfortunately, I had no booklet to download along with the sound files, so I cannot tell you the origin or particular meaning of the titles.

The Cello Concerto has echoes of Romanticism about it, beginning with a soaring melodic line played by the soloist a cappella, but like most of her music it quickly morphs into a somewhat more modern vein after the first 16 bars or so. The solo work continues for some time, four minutes and 48 seconds to be exact, before somewhat edgy string tremolos are introduced from the orchestra. Later on, the strings echo and answer the cello before moving on to different music on their own. It is a one-movement work lasting 22 ½ minutes, very tightly structured with no superfluous music in it—one of Wallen’s hallmarks as a composer. By and large, the melodic and harmonic language are reminiscent of late 1940s-early ‘50s classical works, yet her originality shines through the somewhat recognizable structure and format. She uses portamento for both the soloist and the background strings in a striking and interesting manner, and it is truly a one-movement piece; it is not divided, as is often the case in works such as this, into sections in contrasting tempi. An excellent, somewhat dramatic work.

Hunger is a more ominous-sounding piece for orchestra, beginning with soft, grumbling basses, over which edgy viola figures are heard. This goes on for some time, building up tension in a quiet manner before the tympani come pounding into view, upping both the volume and the tempo. The music becomes quite hectic and ever more intense as it develops, then returns to its initial slower tempo for further development. At 17:23: she introduces a sort of ominous march tempo, played by the basses, while the other strings develop the music further above them. An excellent piece!

Photography, subtitled A Jelly Bean Extravaganza, is somewhat explained via a video upload on YouTube of this piece. Visuals of flying jelly beans cover the screen, creating abstract images as they move around, much like one of Oskar Fischinger’s abstract shape films for M-G-M in the 1930s. The music, then, is highly rhythmic while staying in one basic chord for much of its length, which makes it resemble minimalism. Oddly, however, the slow second and third movements, lyrical and effusive, seems oddly out of place with this concept.

Yet it is the last piece on this disc, In Earth, that is the strangest and most atmospheric, using what sounds like electronic drums (as well as electronic tape sounds) in a highly creative manner. In time, I heard small extracts from Purcell’s “When I am laid in earth” from Dido and Aeneas as part of the musical fabric, played by a cello with the bow on the very edge of the strings. This suggestion of the Purcell tune gradually fleshes itself out a bit more, until finally Wallen herself sings the famous aria in a shallow, breathy voice. I can only presume that this was her intention, to remove the aria from an operatic concept.

No two ways about it: Errollyn Wallen is her own person, following her own musical muse. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Nobuko Imai Plays Hindemith

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HINDEMITH: Viola Sonatas: Op. 11, No. 5; Op. 25, No. 1; Op. 31, No. 4; 1937 / Nobuko Imai, violist / Bis CD-571

Paul Hindemith, in addition to being a very interesting composer, was also a multi-talented instrumentalist whose primary instrument was the viola. Now, I admit not being enough of an expert to tell you why the viola is considered harder to play than the violin, but apparently it is because there have always been far more violin virtuosi in any given era than violists, and I keep hearing viola players praised to the skies as if they were playing classical music on a Didgeridoo or a Jew’s Harp. In my estimation—and I’m probably wrong—I would think that almost any world-class violinist could pick up a viola and get the feel of it within a month. Certainly, I have seen many recordings of viola music played by famous violinists over the years (Josef Suk is just one such), yet the few star violists that have emerged always seem to be given superstar status.

Personally, I think the only reason there aren’t more solo violists is that the instrument isn’t really a glamorous one. It has a range similar to a tenor or baritone violin, lying lower than the violin and pretty much above a cello, but whereas the cello has a gorgeous, sumptuous, almost “vocal” tone,  the viola just sounds, most of the time, like a low violin—an unglamorous brother, you might say.

In Hindemith’s time, aside from himself, the two most famous violists were Lionel Tertis and William Primrose, although the NBC Symphony’s Carlton Cooley also made a good showing in concerts as a solo violist (he was lucky enough to sit beside Primrose in the NBC Symphony for a few years). I have recordings of Hindemith playing viola with his own Amar Trio and Quartet, and from what I can hear (the recordings were made in the early electrical period, but on muddy-sounding Polydor records), he was very fine indeed.

But perhaps because he felt he was writing them only for himself and a handful of others, Hindemith didn’t produce a truly sequential group of solo viola sonatas. They are not numbered in order; they just sort of popped up in his output at odd times between 1919 and 1937; yet in the end he wound up with four of them.

Originally, I wanted to review the new recording of these works by Luca Raineri on Brilliant Classics, but the recorded sound was completely unnerving. Raineri’s instrument is absolutely booming off the walls with a harsh, artificial-sounding reverb, as if it were recorded in an empty locker room with metal walls. He played the music very well, but I couldn’t listen to more than one movement of one sonata, so instead I hunted around online and came up with this splendid 1992 recording by Nobuko Imai.

Imai’s style is a little less “musical” and a bit more mechanical-sounding than Raineri’s. Like so many Oriental string players nowadays, she has a fabulous technique but tends to emphasize speed of execution over phrasing. She does, however, accent the music rhythmically in a strong, almost masculine manner, which is very similar to the way Hindemith himself played the viola, and in doing so she proves that the viola can be just as attractive and interesting as the violin in the hands of the right performer.

Even in the first movement of the Op. 11 sonata, Hindemith asks for a great many strong downbow attacks. The music has sharp corners; it is not soft and comforting, but dynamic and forceful, and Imai handles this perfectly. In the slow second movement she does indeed show that she can phrase lyrically, yet once again one hears sharp corners in this music. It is not a soporific. It is bracing.

Indeed, I hear in these sonatas more of a kinship to Paganini’s 24 Caprices for violin than to Ysaÿe’s solo violin sonatas. There seemed to me much more of a relationship in style, particularly in the fast movements, to the Paganini works. This is not a bad thing, and I would go further and say that they are related to Paganini in another way: Hindemith exploits the high range of the viola far more than most composers for this instrument normally do. I would daresay that, playing the fast movements especially for a listener unfamiliar with these works (as I was prior to hearing these recordings), he or she would almost immediately think that they were solo violin works. By emphasizing the upper register, Hindemith brought out more brightness in playing the viola than many other composers did, or still do.

One thing I found interesting was the leap in style between the first sonata, written in 1919, and the second, written in 1922. The first, though quite dramatic in places, is closer (particularly in the slow movements) to late Romanticism in harmony, whereas the second is already starker, using more modal harmony and form. Hindemith was already beginning to reject Romantic expression, which he felt was “sterile and hedonistic,” yet even here the third movement (“Sehr langsam”) retains a nice legato sound and is less modal than the surrounding movements. Moreover, the fourth movement, “Rasendes Zeitmass. Wild. Tonschoenheit ist Nebensache,” is particularly edgy in a way that surpasses the edgy moments in the first sonata. And this is the style of the next sonata (Op. 31, No. 4), written the following year (1923).

In the second movement of the last sonata, from 1937, Hindemith uses pizzicato across all of the instrument’s strings, creating an effect almost like a guitar (or perhaps a banjo). In this sonata, all of the ideas that had come to him in the earlier sonatas are more fully integrated into the structure, creating a more complete progression and interaction of ideas.

These are wonderful, bracing works, played with a wonderfully bracing style by Imai. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Chris Jentsch “Reviews” Topics in American History

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TOPICS IN AMERICAN HISTORY / JENTSCH: 1491. Manifest Destiny. Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Tempest-Tost. Suburban Disapora. Dominos. Meeting at Surratt’s / Jentsch Group No Net: Michel Gentile, fl; Michael McGinnis, cl/bs-cl; Jason Rigby, s-sax/t-sax/bar-sax; David Smith, tpt/fl-hn; Brian Drye, tb; Jacob Sacks, pno; Chris Jentsch, el-gtr; Jim Whitney, bs; Eric Halvorson, dm/perc; JC Sanford, cond / Blue Schist CD004

Jazz guitarist and composer Chris Jentsch, who also earned a B.A. in History from Gettysburg College, presents here his musical impressions of seven events or moods from the American past. While I thoroughly enjoyed his musical adaptations and compositions, I—who also studied History in college—was brought up short by a couple of his observations. Whether he learned these at Gettysburg College or picked them up from somewhere else, I must make a few comments.

In his liner notes, Jentsch ends his brief summary of the original Lincoln-Douglas debates by noting that Stephen A, Douglas was “not the noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass.” Was this really necessary? Do students nowadays not know this? Yet this is mild in comparison to a couple of his other observations, to wit:

Suburban Diaspora. The idea that people who grew up in an American middle class suburb during the Baby Boom (and then spread to cities or rural areas) share some sort of cultural heritage.

Say WHAT?!? As someone who grew up in a suburb during the Baby Boom, I can assure you that no two families on my horseshoe-shaped, three-street enclave thought that they shared any sort of cultural heritage. We had a very wide variety of families there, and in fact the majority were working class people. Three homeowners—my father and two others—were mailmen. Three others were laborers. One was a fireman. My next-door neighbor worked in a factory in Passaic. Two were indeed pretty well off compared to the rest of us: one owned his own construction company and another sold his home to start, slightly outside our neighborhood, a homemade chocolate candy business. One was an office worker on Madison Avenue in New York—he dropped dead of a heart attack while not yet 40. Our cultures were radically different and no one “shared them,” but for the most part (our neighbor across the street, a laborer, had a pretty testy personality, and another, who lived next door to him, was pretty much a recluse who didn’t talk to anybody) we got along and had fun. We swam occasionally in each others’ swimming pools and the kids played together. That was the extent of our “shared cultural heritage.” We were friendly and, in a pinch, we helped each other. The End. Oh yeah: there was a Jehovah’s Witness family on the short middle street of the U who none of the kids went to for Halloween because they only passed out Bible tracts, not candy. The family that started their own chocolate business was THE BEST!!!!

Dominos: Invokes some of the existential dread of the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the Red Scare of the 1950s.

This one is a slippery slope, combining real fears with imagined ones. Yes, anyone with half a brain was a little scared of Nikita Khruschev because he was hot-headed, fairly crude, and threatened to “bury” us. The Red Scare was unfortunately very real, and it included forces from within our own government. Read Whittaker Chambers’ book Witness and learn for yourself how deeply imbedded Communists were—even at the highest levels—from the early 1930s onward. Joseph McCarthy, who was supported by politicians on both sides of the political aisle (the Kennedys were staunchly loyal), actually did a pretty good job until he began drinking too heavily and let power go to his head. Nearly all those he prosecuted were indeed Communists. The Rosenbergs were guilty. Alger Hiss was really a Communist at the highest level of our foreign affairs (he engineered the Yalta Conference and convinced FDR to give half of Europe away to Joe Stalin). What led to McCarthy’s downfall was that combination of alcohol and ego.

With our history lesson over for now, on to the music, which is uniformly interesting.

1491 begins with flute over cymbals, leading into a strange, amorphous series of background sounds that resemble exotic birds and animals. This continues for about a minute and a half before the piano enters, playing a repeated riff in irregular meter, over which the various instruments come in. This has a definite Mingus kind of sound about it—think of Pithecanthropus Erectus. Trombonist Brian Drye plays a surreal, somewhat loping solo in the manner of Jimmy Knepper while the rhythm section works out behind him. A wonderful flute solo by Michel Gentile follows. I especially liked the licks that bassist Jim Whitney plays in the background.

Manifest Destiny also starts out of tempo, with flute and bass clarinet figures over irregular drum and cymbal beats. This one moves into a strange melodic line at a slow tempo, with the horns and winds playing together as a unit. I very much liked Jentsch’s orchestrations and good ear for tone color. This one somewhat resembles those “spacey” jazz compositions of the 1950s. Whitney takes a plucked bass solo, followed by a passage in which pianist Jacob Sacks adds his own commentary around Whitney, then an ensemble horn passage follows, with McGinnis following on clarinet (playing quite a bit in the high range a la Benny Goodman) as the tempo slows to a crawl. Things pick up again with Rigby’s soprano sax solo in double time, which leads to an explosive climax.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates starts out sounding almost like a Dixieland number except for its odd structure and irregular meter. This one is a string of solos and ensemble bits, with Rigby now on tenor sax, although there is another fine trombone solo and David Smith gets a look-in on trumpet, playing some wonderfully irregular figures over the rhythm section before Drye returns. The leader adds his own commentary on electric guitar, then Smith returns, muted, for a few bars. The tension builds when the trumpet returns, now unmuted, and the tempo picks up before a slower, out-of-tempo section that leads to some free-form jamming.

Tempest-Tost opens slowly and out of tempo before leading into a similarly slow melodic line played by the clarinet with interesting textures created in the orchestration. This is absolutely wonderful music of a kind I rarely hear nowadays. Rigby lumbers around in an amusing fashion on what sounds like a baritone sax, Jentsch wails for a while on guitar (but in a jazz-blues style, not necessarily a rock style); afterwards, the band sort of moshes around, but in an interesting way, over Eric Halvorsen’s busy drums and cymbals. A figure played by bass clarinet, flugelhorn, trombone and sax is heard next, followed by a bass clarinet solo with ensemble and percussion punctuation.

Suburban Diaspora has a funky sort of modern rock beat mixed with a little Latin feel, the ensemble playing another strange melody line as an ensemble, although there are brief clarinet and flute solos mixed in. Jentsch returns on guitar, this time picking his way cleanly but slowly in the upper range for the first half-chorus. Sacks almost sounds as if he is playing an old upright or a tack piano on this one, perhaps recalling those beat-up old keyboards that proliferated in school auditoria, church basements and even occasionally in firehouses in those old days. Gentile plays an excellent flute solo on this one, too.

Dominos builds from a slow, moody piano opening into a bitonal figure played by the trumpet and high winds, followed by equally strange piano figures that underscore the development. This leads into a sort of bluesy-funky-slightly rock styled solo by Jentsch, followed by yet another highly creative ensemble passage which does indeed invoke a creepy undercurrent of fear. Rigby’s tenor sax is busy and edgy.

The finale, Meeting at Surratt’s, recalls the arrest of Mary Surratt, at whose home the conspirators who plotted to kill Abraham Lincoln met. It begins, appropriately, with an almost military march-style drum solo before leading into its dolorous, minor-key tune, which is then worked out by the soloists and ensemble. Rigby is especially creative on tenor. Here, however, I felt that Jentsch’s use of a rock sound on his guitar was inappropriate.

Yet this is clearly one of the most creative and original jazz albums I’ve heard in this or any other year. I give it six fish!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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