Raymond Lewenthal: The Full Monty

Lewenthal cover

RAYMOND LEWENTHAL: THE COMPLETE RCA & COLUMBIA ALBUM COLLECTION / Sony Classical 19075853642

CD 1: ALKAN: 12 Études in the Minor Keys: Nos. 4-7, Symphonie pour piano; No. 12, Le festin d’Ésope. Troisieme de recueil de chants: Barcarolle. Grande sonate, “Les quatre ages”: Quasi-Faust / Raymond Lewenthal, pno / originally RCA Victor LSC-2815 (1965)

CD 2: LISZT-THALBERG-PIXIS-HERZ-CZERNY-CHOPIN: Hexameron. LISZT-BELLINI: Reminiscences de Norma / Lewenthal, pno / originally RCA Victor LSC-2895 (1966)

CD 3: HENSELT: Piano Concerto in F min., Op. 16. LISZT-LEWENTHAL: Totentanz / Lewenthal, pno; London Symphony Orchestra; Charles Mackerras, cond. / originally Columbia MS 7252 (1972)

CD 4: RUBINSTEIN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in D min., Op. 70. SCHARWENKA: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C min: Finale / Lewenthal, pno; London Symphony Orch.; Eleazar de Cavalho, cond. / originally Columbia MS 7394 (1974)

CD 5: ALKAN: Sonatine. Le tambour bat aux champs. Esquisses: Nos. 1, 7, 11, 12, 39, 45, 47. Funeral March for a Dead Parrott.* 12 Études in the Major Keys: No. 8 in Ab. Petit conte. Le mois / Lewenthal, pno/*cond; *Alfred Genovese, Henry Schuman, Leonard Arner, ob; Loren Glickman, bsn; Metropolitan Opera Chorus / originally Columbia M 30234 (1971)

CD 6: LISZT: Années de Pèlerinage 1re Année: Suisse S 160 / Lewenthal, pno (first release)

CD 7: LISZT: Années de Pèlerinage 2e Année: Italie S 161 / Lewenthal, pno (first release)

CD 8: RAYMOND LEWENTHAL DISCUSSES AND ILLUSTRATES AT THE KEYBOARD: Henselt’s Piano Concerto; Liszt’s Totentanz; Rubinstein’s Piano Concerto No. 4; Scharwenka’s Finale from Piano Concerto No. 2; The Wildly Original Highly Audacious Grotesquely Humorous Daringly Adventurous Touchingly Lyrical And Strangely Beautiful Music Of Charles-Valentin Alkan / originally issued on individual 7” discs as bonuses when you bought the Columbia LPs of these works

Short, stocky, and muscular with a face like Edward G. Robinson, Raymond Lewenthal looked more like a bantam-weight prizefighter, which he never was, than the concert pianist he became. Born in San Antonio, Texas to Russian-Jewish parents in August 1923, Raymond later upped his birth date by three years to make himself appear younger than he was, as did Russian pianist Shura Cherkassky, who was also short and young-looking for his age. After spending several years as a child actor in Hollywood, he studied the piano there with Cherkassky’s mother, Lydia, later moving on to studies with Olga Samaroff-Stokowski, who was also born in San Antonio as Lucy Mary Olga Hickenlooper. Samaroff-Hickenlooper had been a pupil of Élie-Miriam Delaborde, the illegitimate son of composer and piano virtuoso Charles-Valentin Alkan, whose music Lewenthal would eventually champion, but at the time he was very young and the music of Alkan was foreign to him.

Lewenthal made his debut in 1948, playing the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 with Dmitri Mitropoulos and the Philadelphia Orchestra. This was a unique gesture on Mitropoulos’ part since he was noted for playing that concerto when he conducted it himself. The success of that concert led to Lewenthal’s New York recital debut two weeks later. His career seemed to be well and truly launched; like his slightly older colleague and friend William Kapell, he was hailed as one of the top young American pianists. They shared a similar style built around the flashy, virtuosic playing of such Russian pianists as Benno Moiseivich and Vladimir Horowitz, whom they both admired, but Kapell was the first on the scene, the media darling, and the one with the lucrative RCA Victor contract. In 1953 tragedy struck both of them. Lewenthal was mugged in Central Park in August by a gang of hoodlums who broke both his hands and arms while Kapell, returning from a successful concert tour of Australia, was killed in a plane crash.

Both incidents shook Lewenthal to his core. In a later reminiscence, he wrote of the experience:

On the afternoon of 29 October 1953, I was slowly making my way up Madison Avenue in New York City, returning to my apartment after a brief, labored walk. I was weak as a kitten, recovering from a horrible incident. Three months earlier, on a bright summer evening, 3 August, strolling across Central Park to the West Side to visit friends who lived directly across town from me, I was suddenly set upon and beaten by a gang of some twenty thugs armed with clubs and sticks. The doctor who read the x-rays at the receiving hospital to which I was taken declared there were no broken bones. I was moved to another hospital where it was discovered that, among other injuries, seven bones had been broken in my hands and arms…a terrifying experience for anyone, but particularly for a pianist with a budding career. No one can imagine the fears of that night when my whole life, all I had worked for so many years, was annihilated in a few brief seconds.

As I came up Madison Avenue on 29 October on one of my first solo convalescent walks, I suddenly thought of Willy. “I must call him, he should be back from Australia by now.” The thought brightened my spirits; Kapell had been unfailingly kind to me and encouraging and helpful, and now I was sorely in need of some encouragement. When I entered my apartment, the voice of a news commentator on the radio came out at me: “There has been a crash outside of San Francisco of a plane coming from Australia. All passengers killed. Among those on board was the pianist, William Kapell.” I probably aged ten years that day. All I could say over and over was, “All that work, all that work…” For above all, Willy was an incredible worker, unendingly developing and honing that great, wonderful talent of his.

There was nothing of the glib wunderkind syndrome about Willy. He worked prodigiously, and said so, unlike some artists who prefer to give the impression that their talent is so God-given that they seldom have to practice, and equally unlike some others who, indeed, do have to practice an hour or two a day to keep the standard repertoire in their fingers. It has always seemed to me that a violinist who can keep the Tchaikovsky Concerto going with little or no practice could challenge himself with the Ysaÿe Six Unaccompanied Sonatas, and that the pianist who finds the Beethoven “Waldstein” Sonata a bed of roses might discover a few thorns in Godowsky’s Studies on the Chopin Etudes. It is, I think, precisely at this point where the challenge occurs, the point of friction where the real sparks begin to fly. That Willy was enormously gifted for music and for the piano goes without saying, and yet he had obstacles to overcome. Anna Lou, his widow, once pointed out to me that Willy’s hand was unusual. It was square, very muscular and strong, somewhat typical of the kind of hand which Josef Hofmann had (though not as small), and which is thought by many to be the best kind of piano hand—in spite of the fact that Chopin, Liszt, Busoni, and Rachmaninoff had long, slender fingers. The four fingers of Willy’s hands were of almost equal length, which helped him to achieve great evenness and speed. However, his thumb was short, which caused him anxiety and problems. Passing under with evenness in scales and passages demanded hours of work. Also, there was a web of flesh between his fourth and fifth fingers which reached almost to the length of the lower finger joint. At one time he even consulted a surgeon about an operation to cut the web (wisely, the doctor refused). These were great physical handicaps which Willy worked prodigiously and constantly to overcome—day after day he spent eight to twelve hours slaving away, with the cigarette stubs mounting higher and higher in the ashtray. It is probably not coincidental that light workers often have a cold aloofness and limited commitment to their work, a glib facility about their playing. The greater the temperament, the harder it may be to control it—and the control must be dearly bought. The artist with lesser temperament or “nerves” usually doesn’t have to work as hard. The Maria Callases and the Vladimir Horowitzes, on the other hand, have all worked demonically and there is an intensity in their music which is seldom found in the two-hour-a-day brand of virtuoso. Even if Willy had had no difficulties whatsoever to overcome, he would never have spent a mere hour or two at his work—it was too much a part of him.

Although not as badly crippled or for so long a time as Carol Rosenberger would be from being stricken with polio, the attack on Lewenthal was a blow not only to his abilities to continue his playing career but to his very livelihood. Unlike Rosenberger, who was lucky enough to be surrounded in France by friends and have the support of Nadia Boulanger so that she could teach, Lewenthal was pretty much on his own. Playing the piano was all he really knew. It took him two years to recover his skills enough to make a few recordings for Westminster, and even then he had to rest between takes and was clearly not up to performing or touring on a regular basis. Despondent, he went to France, where he took a few lessons with Alfred Cortot, but either Cortot wasn’t a terribly good teacher or Lewenthal wasn’t receptive to his methods, for although he had a good grasp of keyboard skills he seldom played with that easy legato flow and deep-in-the-keys touch that Cortot had in abundance. Lewenthal unashamedly described himself as an “octave thrower, long-distance arpeggioer and general producer of volcanic rumbles.”

And indeed, every recording I’ve heard of Lewenthal, including his October 1951 Carnegie Hall recital, shows him to be the American equivalent of Hungarian pianist György Cziffra, a dynamic super-virtuoso who played in a clean, straightforward style that flew across the keyboard like a rocket. Indeed, his technique was so good that he was sometimes tempted to take music at a speed faster than it could really bear. If you slowed down the recording, you would hear that he hit every single note without missing or smudging any of them, but occasionally he could be a little too fast. On the plus side, this put him in the super-virtuoso class which at the time was occupied only by Cziffra, Horowitz and a very young Martha Argerich, but in my view both Cziffra and Lewenthal “bound” their phrases better and more musically than the other two, who I never felt had a very good grasp of legato no matter how dazzling their keyboard pyrotechnics. Lewenthal had a finer sense of musical architecture.

Lewenthal continued to make recordings for Westminster: an album of Scriabin pieces, another of various composers’ Toccatas, a third called “Moonlight and Keyboard,” Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (conducted by Maurice Abravanel) and yet another, around 1960, of Beethoven’s three most popular sonatas, the “Pathétique,” “Moonlight” and “Appassionata.” The first two of these sonatas were reissued on CD by a small label called Tidal, but unfortunately the “Appassionata” is only available if you can find a copy of the original LP and spend a pretty penny for it. I’d love to hear it someday, however, because the way he rips through the highly dramatic first movement of the “Pathétique” is not only dazzling but emotionally powerful.

In 1960 he began concertizing again, performing Liszt’s treacherous Sonata in B minor in Rio de Janeiro in August of that year. He was restless, and looking for a new project that would well and truly re-launch his career. During one of his visits to France, he found what he was looking for in the quirky, technically difficult and virtually unknown music of Alkan. He threw himself into learning and playing it, somehow thinking in the back of his mind that it just might help both him and the composer to bring it to light.

GershwinYet it was to be three more years until he was given an opportunity to do just that. During his long period of recovery, yet another American pianist had replaced Kapell as the media darling, and that was Van Cliburn, who surprisingly won the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow—and he, too, was awarded an RCA Victor recording contract. In the meantime, Lewenthal continued to play standard concert repertoire and, in 1962, got stuck recording George Gershwin’s Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue in London with Yugoslav conductor Oskar Danon and the Metropolitan (London) Symphony Orchestra. Judging from his uncharacteristically lackluster playing in these works, Lewenthal must have hated the assignment, thinking it might accidentally brand him as a purveyor of pop classical works. This lackluster approach particularly hurt the Piano Concerto, but in the Rhapsody, prodded by Danon’s surprisingly jazzy, idiomatic style, his laid-back approach actually helped him sound a bit relaxed and swinging. Fortunately, the album, titled A Gershwin Concert, was only issued by Reader’s Digest for purchase by their readers and not circulated by RCA Victor through their normal distribution channels.

His big break came on November 30, 1963 when WBAI, a relatively small New York FM station at the top end of the dial (99.5 FM), invited him on to talk about and play examples of Alkan’s music for two hours. Somehow or other, he was able to get the word out to some powerful people in the classical business, possibly through the station’s music director who happened to be none other than John Corigliano. The response to the program was overwhelming and brought a request to Lewenthal from G. Schirmer to prepare an edition of Alkan’s piano music for publication. In addition, the ensuing exposure led to his being invited to give a recital at Town Hall in September 1964, his first public appearance in New York in 12 years. As stated by Wikipedia:

This led to an RCA recording of Alkan’s music which was met with critical raves, and then a three-concert Liszt Cycle in New York and London, among many other performances. Lewenthal came to be considered the leader of the “Romantic Revival”, reintroducing solo and chamber works by many important but neglected 19th-century composers such as Moscheles, Goetz, Herz, Hummel, Henselt, Scharwenka, Rubinstein, Reubke, Field, Dussek and others, as well as reviving overlooked works by famous composers. He also took an active role in such events as the Romantic Festival at Butler University (Indianapolis) and the Newport Music Festival. In 1971 he accepted an invitation to a well received tour of Southern Africa. Lewenthal taught at the Mannes College of Music and The Tanglewood Music Festival, and was a faculty member of the Manhattan School of Music for a number of years beginning in the mid-1970s. Among his doctoral students was Israeli pianist Astrith Baltsan.

Ironically, Lewenthal wasn’t the first pianist to record any works by Alkan, That honor goes to Dutch-German virtuoso Egon Petri, one of Ferruccio Busoni’s pupils, who recorded the Symphonie pour Piano in the early 1950s (reissued on Pearl GEMM CD 9966), but since it was just one work on a potpourri album and didn’t get much media push, it went by unnoticed. A few years after Lewenthal’s first Alkan LP, the French Government made him a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for promoting his music. Lewenthal also received Grammy nominations for the Alkan LP and its follow-up, The Operatic Liszt.

LewenthalAt long last, Lewenthal was back in the top tier of classical pianists—in fact, in a niche by himself. But deep down, he became unhappy about his public image. Taking their cue from the then-popular Gothic TV soap opera Dark Shadows, his agents made him dress up for his concerts in a Dracula-styled cape and top hat, come on stage carrying a candelabra to the sound of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor played on an organ (he also had his programs printed in mauve on a lighter mauve background). What probably started out as a bit of a joke and a promotional gimmick soon became his entire public persona. Lewenthal enjoyed it at first, but eventually felt he was being reduced to a kind of traveling freak show. Unlike organist Virgil Fox, who reveled in public attention and spectacle, wearing a beret and Hippie clothing while he played Bach at the Fillmore Auditorium, Lewenthal started to feel like a performing monkey.

Those close to him, who shall remain unnamed, say he began drinking rather heavily and became sullen and dour even when sober at his classes. He enjoyed being back on top but was embarrassed by the packaging. By the time he returned to the RCA studios in 1968, his hands were shaking so badly that none of the takes could be used. RCA had to scrap them and his contract was terminated. He was picked up by Victor’s rival, Columbia records, in 1971, and they managed to get three albums out of him, but they too let him go. He then signed with EMI in 1975 and made his last two LPs.

I was busy trying to get through college during those years and didn’t have much time or disposable income to indulge myself; in fact, I had to work two part-time jobs, one in the evenings, to help pay for my education. Because of this, I missed seeing Lewenthal in person, but a friend of mine went to every recital and raved to me—about his playing, yes, but also about the image of the caped, top-hatted artist emerging from the wings amid a cloud of smoke, carrying his candelabra to the piano and “putting on a show.”

Eventually, matters took themselves into their own hands. Lewenthal’s surly attitude at classes led to his being let go by some colleges as a teacher. Either his drinking or some other ailment began to impair his playing again. By 1977 he started to fade from view. He left his small apartment at 51 E. 78th Street and moved upstate to Hudson, New York, where he lived in semi-seclusion. His concertizing was reduced to almost nothing owing to a bad heart condition, and he died on November 21, 1988, aged 65.

A personal footnote: in 1986, two years before Lewenthal’s death, I attended a concert of Alkan’s music at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. When it was over, I approached one of the artists and told him that I felt compelled to come and hear this music live because I had lived in northern New Jersey during the period when Lewenthal was giving his concerts. His eyes popped open. “Raymond Lewenthal!” he said. “Did you get to see him?” I admitted that I hadn’t. “Those concerts were legendary,” he said. “As good as he played on the records, in person he was simply fantastic!”

And now, boys and girls, we finally get around to reviewing the actual records themselves. As usual, the Big Labels like Sony Classical take a rotten attitude towards any reviewers not connected to major publications when it comes to providing review copies, thus I was forced to review this set via streaming audio except for the first album, which I already had on CD (no thanks to Sony). BUT! Since I promised in the title of this review to give you “Raymond Lewenthal: The Full Monty,” I’m going to surprise you by reviewing nearly all of his recordings—at least, as many as I could find online, which was a surprisingly large amount.

Young LewenthalCARNEGIE HALL RECITAL / D. SCARLATTI: 3 Sonatas: in C, K. 132 (L. 457); in E min., K. 198 (L. 22); in C, K. 159 (L. 104). BEETHOVEN: Piano sonata No. 30 in E, Op. 109. Für Elise. HUMMEL: Variations on “Armide.” LISZT: Piano Sonata in B min. RAVEL: Sonatine. CHOPIN: Polonaise-Fantasie in Ab, Op. 61. Nocturne in F#, Op. 15 No. 2. PROKOFIEV: Toccata, Op. 11. MOSZKOWSKI: Etude in F, Op. 72 No. 6. DOHNÁNYI: Capriccio in F min., Op. 28 No. 6 / Raymond Lewenthal, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube

We are all indebted to the anonymous poster “op106” who put this entire concert up on YouTube for us to hear and enjoy. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only surviving recording of Lewenthal’s playing before his hands and arms were broken. There are moments when he does indeed rush headlong through some of the music in order to impress the audience, such as the first movement of the Beethoven Sonata and the Chopin Polonaise-Fantasie, yet there are also some wonderfully light and airy moments as well. I particularly liked the way he played the Scarlatti, most of the Beethoven (including a refreshingly non-sentimental Für Elise), the Liszt Sonata (one of his pet pieces) and the Ravel Sonatine. The recording sounds as if it was taken from an LP pressing—lots of “surface swish” as well as ticks and crackle—yet I could not find any reference to an LP of this online. The sound quality, LP noise aside, is first-rate; this was obviously a tape made in-house by Carnegie Hall and not by an audience member on a portable tape recorder.  Beethoven’s Für Elise, the Chopin Nocturne and the small pieces by Moszkowski and Dohnányi were his encores.

Tocatas for PianoTOCCATAS / DELLA CIAIA: Toccata in G min. J.S. BACH: Toccata in C min. CZERNY: Toccata in C. ALKAN: Toccatina in C min. SCHUMANN: Toccata in C. PROKOFIEV: Toccata from “Pour le Piano.” RAVEL: Le Tombeau de Couperin: Toccata. JELOBINSKY: 6 Short Études: Toccata. LEWENTHAL: Toccata alla Scarlatti. MENOTTI: Ricerare & Toccata on a Theme from the Opera “The Old Maid and the Thief” / Raymond Lewenthal, pno / part of Deutsche Grammophon 00028947795278, originally issued on Westminster XWN 18362

This album was, miraculously, made in July 1955, less than two full years after Lewenthal had his hands and arms broken in Central Park. He had clearly recovered all of his pianistic skills, but a careful comparison with the 1951 Carnegie Hall recital shows a difference. Whereas before everything came smoothly to him, he now has to work doubly hard in order to produce the same dazzling effects—but dazzling they are. He also plays a surprisingly sensitive versions of the Bach and Ravel Toccatas, gives us his very first recoding of anything by Alkan, and surprises us at the end by throwing in a Ricerare and Toccata by none other than Gian-Carlo Menotti, which I didn’t even know existed. His own Toccata alla Scarlatti has since been played and recorded by a few other pianists, including Viktoria Lakissova.

Liszt LegacyThis album, the Scriabin LP and excerpts from the one titled “Moonlight and Keyboard” have been issued on a 10-CD set by Deutsche Grammophon which they have optimistically titled The Liszt Legacy (shamelessly copying the cover art from this LP for their own use). The other pianists represented here are Claudio Arrau, Alicia de Larrocha, Benno Moiseiwitsch and Egon Petri, the irony being that most of them did not study with any Liszt pupils and some of them, particularly de Larrocha, never played a note of Liszt in their lives.

Scriabin coverVERS LA FLAMME / SCRIABIN: Fantasie, Op. 28. Vers la Flamme. 5 Last Preludes, Op. 74. 24 Preludes, Op. 11 / Raymond Lewenthal, pno / part of Deutsche Grammophon 00028947795278, originally issued on Westminster XWN 18399

This, Lewenthal’s second LP, was recorded in June 1956. It is outstanding in every way; he was clearly one of the greatest Scriabin interpreters of all time, and it’s really a shame that he became detoured by all those Romantic concerti and was never able to record the Sonatas or any other Études or Preludes by Scriabin. I would pit these recordings, sound limitations aside, against anyone’s.

Interestingly, however, he does not play the Op. 11 Preludes in numerical order, but rearranges them in his own order as follows:

[01] No.1 in C Major : Vivace —– 0:48
[02] No.5 in D Major : Andante cantabile —– 1:34
[03] No.7 in A: Allegro assai —– 0:54
[04] No.9 in E : Andantino —– 1:43
[05] No.20 in C min: Appassionato —– 1:02
[06] No.12 in G# min: Andante —– 1:38
[07] No.11 in B: Allegro assai —– 1:41
[08] No.18 in F min: Allegro agitato —– 0:47
[09] No.10 in C# min: Andante —– 1:16
[10] No.13 in GH: Lento —– 1:36
[11] No.19 in EH: Lento —– 1:13
[12] No.4 in E min: Lento —– 1:47
[13] No.3 in G: Vivo —– 0:42
[14] No.16 in BH min: Misterioso —– 1:47
[15] No.17 in AH: Allegretto —– 0:40
[16] No.14 in EH min: Presto —– 0:49
[17] No.15 in DH: Lento —– 2:08
[18] No.8 in F# min: Allegro agitato —– 1:12
[19] No.2 in A min: Allegretto —– 2:02
[20] No.21 in BH: Andante —– 1:32
[21] No.6 in B min: Allegro —– 0:44
[22] No.22 in G min: Lento —– 1:06
[23] No.23 in F: Vivo —– 0:31
[24] No.24 in D min: Presto —– 0:44

Moonlight and KeyboardMOONLIGHT AND KEYBOARD / DEBUSSY: Clair de lune. LISZT: Liebestraum, No. 3: Nocturne. TRAD.: Greensleeves. SAINT-SAËNS, arr. GODOWSKY: The Swan. MENDELSSOHN, arr. LISZT: Auf flügeln des Gesänges. RACHMANINOV, arr. LEWENTHAL: How Fair This Spot. RUBINSTEIN: Romance in Eb. MASSENET: Élegie. SCHUBERT, arr. LISZT: Serenade. CHOPIN: Nocturnes: in Eb, Op. 9 No. 2; in F#, Op. 15 No. 2. Waltz in C# min., Op. 64 No. 2. Fanraisie-Impromptu, Op. 66. BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 14, “Moonlight,” 1st mvmt. SCHUMANN: Träumerai / Lewenthal, pno / originally issued on Westminster XWN 18403; first nine tracks reissued on Deutsche Grammophon 00028947795278

I’m sure Lewenthal made this album, recorded in July 1957, only because he really needed the money, because it’s typical of the kind of LP that a serious classical listener would never buy. The cover tells you as much. This is your typical bachelor-pad-chick-seducing LP, full of “dreamy” classical music that’s just so pretty that it makes your date of the evening start oozing. I doubt that he ever played most of this music in concert except, perhaps, one or two as encores because they’re not that challenging on his mind or technique, but he does a very nice job on the Debussy, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Rachmaninov pieces.

RachmaninovRACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 2. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini / Lewenthal, pno; Vienna State Opera Orch.; Maurice Abravanel, cond / Westminster LP XWN 18884, available for free streaming or download at Internet Archive

Although not released until 1960, this is clearly a mono-only album, thus I would place the year of recording as being 1958 since Lewenthal was still recovering and could really only make one album per year at this stage. This is the only recording of the Rachmaninov Second Concerto I can stomach to listen to other than the one made by William Kapell with William Steinberg and the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra, which was basically the reduced Philadelphia Orchestra. The big reason why I like both recordings so much is the conducting. I always felt that Maurice Abravanel got the short end of the stick from American critics, who took him for granted because he “only” conducted the “inferior” Utah Symphony Orchestra for many years, but he was a really excellent conductor. Despite his very French-sounding name, Abravanel was born of Sephardic Jewish parents in Salonika, then part of the Ottoman Empire but today part of Thessoloniki, Greece. For several years the Abravanels lived in the same house as Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, for whom young Maurice would play piano. Originally a rehearsal conductor at the Neustrelitz Opera, north of Berlin, in the 1920s, in the 1930s he became the principal conductor of George Balanchine’s Paris Ballet and then, in 1936, the youngest conductor to work at the Metropolitan Opera. He arrived at the Utah Symphony in 1947 due to that company’s desperation: the orchestra was a wreck and Abravanel, who to that point had never been a music director of an established orchestra, basically asked them, “What have you got to lose?” He built them up into one of the finest non-East Coast orchestras in America and stayed there for 30 years, so this LP was clearly a rare example of his moonlighting, possibly out of respect for Lewenthal, with another orchestra.

Both the Kapell and Lewenthal performances have snap and drive to them but do not linger or droop, thus this recording must have disappointed a great many people who consider the Rachmaninov Second Concerto the epitome of Romantic ooze and thought this LP would be a nice sequel to “Moonlight and Keyboard.”

Tidal CD coverBEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 8, “Pathétique,” 14, “Moonlight” & 23, Appasionata” / Lewenthal, pno / originally Westminster Gold WGS-8119, first two sonatas issued digitally by Tidal

Recorded in 1960, by which time Lewenthal was finally beginning to be able to perform and record more regularly, this is his first recording that I can trace in stereo. Deutsche Grammophon, which now owns the complete Westminster catalog, has shown no interest in reissuing this, but who can blame them when Wilhelm Kempff’s inferior Beethoven Sonatas still sells so well on that label? For whatever reason Tidal, an online company that issues streaming-only digital albums, chose not to include the “Appassionata” Sonata in their release, and I cannot find a copy of that sonata anywhere online, but I’d certainly be interested in hearing it if it shows up. Lewenthal plays the other two sonatas pretty much “come scritto” or “as written,” with all the extremes in dynamics and headlong rush of notes that Beethoven put into the “Pathétique,” and his “Moonlight” Sonata is also played as written. Although my piano skills were far more limited than his, this is how I played them when I still had the ability to do so. I love these performances.

LISZT: Piano Sonata in B min. Années de Pèlerinage, 2nd year, Italy  / Lewenthal, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking titles above (live: 1960)

I won’t be discussing all of Lewenthal’s live performances from this point on, but these are of particular interest because they are so intense. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this 1960 Brazilian performance of the Liszt Piano Sonata is far better than his 1951 Carnegie Hall version, not because of the intensity but because there is a greater feel of unity in construction. Lewenthal had grown as a musician in the past five years, and these performances show it.

Since I already discussed the Gershwin LP earlier, I shall refrain from doing so here.

Alkan

Charles-Valentin Alkan

THE BERLIOZ OF THE PIANO / ALKAN: Le Festin d’Ésope. Symphonie pour Piano. La Vision. Barcarolle. Le tambour bat un Champs. Etude in Ab min. Piano Sonata: II. Quasi-Faust / available for free streaming on YouTube in 19 separate parts (live broadcast: WBAI, New York, November 30, 1963)

To the best of my knowledge, this historic broadcast has never been issued on LP, tape or CD, yet here it is, complete and in surprisingly good sound for its age. Most people don’t know that the program was advertised in the radio guide as The Berlioz of the Piano with the following description:

Nov. 30, 1963 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of the strangest figures in music — the French composer, Charles-Valentin Alkan, who has been called ‘The Berlioz of the Piano.’ Busoni ranked Alkan with Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms, as ‘the greatest of post-Beethoven piano composers,’ and yet his name and music are unknown to all but a few musicians and music lovers. Raymond Lewenthal, brilliant young concert pianist, authority on Alkan, and author of a book on him, will play and discuss Alkan’s music in what is probably the first broadcast in America ever to be devoted to this composer. Lewenthal will give reasons for Alkan’s unjust neglect, and explain why he feels that an Alkan revival is at hand.

Please note that every piece included in his groundbreaking RCA Alkan album was performed on this broadcast, which began at the unusual time of 5:15 p.m. and went on until 7:00, with no breaks between except for the mandatory “station identification.”

What strikes the listener about Lewenthal’s speaking voice is that it not only has no trace of a Texas accent but, rather, sounds vaguely European in a put-on “cultured” way. This may have grown out of his youthful experience as a child actor or, I think more likely, the influence of Olga Samaroff/Lucy Hickenlooper when she was his teacher. Remember that “Samaroff” also turned her British husband (Leopold Stokowski) into a man with a vaguely Eastern European-kind-of-sounding accent for the rest of his life. But the one thing Lewenthal sounds like here is joyful. He was clearly enthusiastic about this well-prepared program and couldn’t wait to give Alkan to the world. Interestingly, although this program was given “live” in the radio studio, Lewenthal doesn’t play “Quasi-Faust, “Festin d’Ésope” or the piano Symphonie any more excitingly than he did on the studio recording. On the contrary, all of these performances are more relaxed and a few seconds longer than their LP counterparts, but the program remains, to me, an object-lesson in how to present well-grounded musicology in a way that is both informative for professional musicians and accessible to casual listeners. I still think that some of the comparisons he made here in certain of Alkan’s themes to other composers (all of whom came after him, but didn’t know his music) are a bit of a stretch, but they’re still interesting and the whole lecture-demonstration is superb.

In this program he also mentioned his biography of Alkan. I believe that this book was actually finished, but alas, has never been published. Yet another mystery.

Romantic MelodiesROMANTIC MELODIES FOR PIANO & ORCHESTRA / GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A min.: 1st mvmt. RACHMANINOV: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini: Variation 18. Prelude in C# min. Piano Concerto No. 2 in C min.: 3rd mvmt exc. TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1 in Bb min.: 1st mvmt exc. CHOPIN: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F: 2nd mvmt / Lewenthal, pno; Royal Philharmonic Orch.; George Weldon, cond / RCA Victor Record Club CSC-314

Although released in 1965, I have a feeling this turkey was recorded in 1962 when Lewenthal made his Gershwin recording since this is also with a British orchestra and conductor. As you can see, only one work is played complete, and that is the Rachmaninov Prelude in C# minor, although the first movement of the Grieg concerto and the second movement of the Chopin Second Concerto are also intact. The only track I was able to locate from this LP was the 3:51 first-movement excerpt of the Tchaikovsky First and, as in the case of the Gershwin Concerto, Lewenthal sounds utterly bored. They break off the movement right after the long horn notes interspersed with soft violin pizzicato; Lewenthal plays a couple of rolling arpeggios and it ends abruptly.

And now, FINALLY, we get to the material in the Sony set.

CD 1: The RCA Alkan AlbumAkan cover

This one is so legendary that it’s been reissued a few times previously, including by Élan Recordings in 1996, a company that also issued the Henselt, Rubinstein, Scharwenka concerti and the Liszt Totentanz as a 2-CD set. Part of the reason it sold so well, in addition to being a musical introduction to Alkan for most people, was Lewenthal’s extended, pithy liner notes. Some of these liner notes were reprinted in the Élan release, but not the line I remembered best:

Some of you may be familiar with the English writer Stephen Potter—one-upmanship, and all that. Potter invented the term “to rilk.” Rilking is the sport of dropping a name of snob value that your proponent is quite unlikely to know, thereby stopping his flow. Now, stopping the flow is a very, very important part of one-upmanship. You who have bought this album are in possession of a wonderful weapon for stopping the flow. I should advise you to try “rilking,” or, rather, “Alking” your friends with the name of someone they are very unlikely to know, but should know: Alkan.

Alas, what happened was that so many millions of people bought this album that it was hard to “Alkan-ize” the snobs at parties, because suddenly Alkan was THE de rigeur composer among the Smart Set. Word has it that RCA, which expected good sales but not a miracle, could scarcely keep up with demands from the big record outlets for more boxes of albums to sell. And small wonder, for these are possibly the most authoritarian performances of Alkan’s music ever recorded, even better than Marc-André Hamelin, Bernard Ringeissen, Laurent Martin, Alessandro Deljavan, Alan Weiss or anyone else you can name. Only Egon Petri comes close. Lewenthal’s tight, concise yet emotional and powerful playing cuts to the heart of Alkan in a way that the others can only approximate.

The Operatic LisztCD 2: The Operatic Liszt

Although this album, too, sold in mass quantities and was also nominated for a Grammy (Lewenthal never won one), the music here is clearly inferior to the Alkan disc. This is Liszt at his most bullshitty, writing bravura, epic piano works based on some aria or duet from a popular opera. Both of these happen to be by Bellini, I Puritani’s “Suoni la tromba” and Norma, but the first piece, the Hexameron, is legendary for two reasons. No. 1, it’s damnably difficult to play (as is Alkan) and No. 2, although Liszt wrote the introduction, finale and one of the variations, the others were composed by colleagues of his whom he admired: Sigismond Thalberg, Johann Peter Pixis, Henri Herz, Carl Czerny and Frydryk Chopin. Both Élan and Sony Classical, in a single-disc reissue, included this as a bonus track on the rather short RCA Alkan disc, but here all of the albums are presented separately and complete as they were originally issued. Once again, the playing is fiery and musical, but I still think it was a mistake not to have recorded another Alkan album first and then move on to The Operatic Liszt.

As mentioned earlier, Lewenthal’s 1966 RCA recording sessions of the complete Liszt Années de Pèlerinage were shelved for more than a half-century for reasons unknown. I still think it was because most of the music here is quiet and gentle, not what audiences wanted to hear from Lewenthal at this stage of his career, though he was performing these and other Liszt pieces in his live concerts. Although the Columbia Alkan album actually came next, this isn’t the order that Sony used in this reissue, therefore the next album up is:

HenseltCD 3: Henselt Piano Concerto & Liszt Totentanz

One of Lewenthal’s greatest albums. In it, he galvanizes the Romantic concerto of Adolf von Henselt (1814-1889) as if it were a masterpiece by Beethoven, Schumann (to whom he compares it) or Brahms. In addition, it turns out that Liszt’s Totentanz, here in Lewenthal’s own arrangement, is a really excellent piece of music, one of his best in fact, and he plays the snot out of it. This was the second of his three Columbia LPs, and each of them, when originally issued, contained a bonus 7” disc on which Lewenthal analyzed the music, but Sony, greedy as ever for a few more dollars from you, chose to remove them from the albums they were originally part of and put them all together on a separate CD (No. 8 in the package).

As usual, Lewenthal’s chatty but erudite analysis of the Henselt Concerto is fascinating. Also as usual, Lewenthal and his conductor (the great Charles Mackerras in this case) make the music sound better than it really is. And Lewenthal was right: this very German composer practically invented the “Russian sound” with this concerto way back in 1846.He was also right in saying that this concerto is far better than one would expect before hearing it.

Although Totentanz is listed on both the front and back cover of the original LP as being by Liszt-Lewenthal, Raymond makes it clear in his introduction that he didn’t write a single note of it. What he did do was to incorporate some of what he felt were better and more original ideas from the first (unpublished) version into the final one, thus a more appropriate approbation would have been Liszt, arr. Lewenthal. Yet once again, the performance is a real barn-burner, even with its gentle moments of repose in the middle of the musical storm.

ScharwenkaCD 4: Rubinstein Concerto No. 4; Scharwenka: Finale to Piano Concerto No. 2

Lewenthal almost convinced me, not just through his words but also through his playing, that the Henselt concerto was a great one, but not even his enthusiasm and all the tea in China could get me to like Anton Rubinstein’s Romantic dreck. Why a man of Lewenthal’s obviously high intellect was drawn to so much Romantic music when he virtually ignored so many 20th-century composers—not just the spiky ones like Stravinsky and Schoenberg, but also the melodic ones like Nikolai Medtner and Shostakovich—still baffles me. Medtner, in particular, could have used a champion like him. Just listen to the piano’s entrance in the first movement of the Rubinstein Concerto No. 4 with all its superfluous arpeggios and ponderous crashing chords that fill the air but say nothing. But of course I’m keeping this album because it is Lewenthal, and despite the empty rhetoric and paucity of musical invention, he does play it with energy and verve (and it is conducted with equal verve by the little-known Eleazar de Cavalho). Still, this album was, for me, the low point of the entire series.

Alkan ColumbiaCD 5: Alkan, “Funeral March for a Papagallo” and Other Discoveries

Here is the 1971 Columbia Alkan album, issued out of sequence. It starts out like a house on fire with the superb Sonatine before moving into two pieces he had played in his 1963 WBAI broadcast, Le tambour bat aux champs and Le Vision. There is also the Étude No. 8 in Ab and the very strange title piece, which is played by three oboes, a bassoon and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, conducted by Lewenthal. This is the real gem of the album, and I couldn’t find another recording of it anywhere online. Very, very funny in a tongue-in-cheek way because it is so obviously over-the-top for a dead parrot, and the music itself is almost surreal.

More than half the album is concerned with the Esquisses, the softest, most intimate and least quirky of Alkan’s compositions. Although of course I like them, most are not tops on my list of Alkan favorites. Lewenthal plays them exquisitely, even better than Steven Osborne on Hyperion or Laurent Martin on Naxos and Brilliant Classics, but after the Sonatine and the Dead Parrot Funeral they seem more like an aperitif than a juicy, filling dessert, excepting Les diablotins which Lewenthal plays better than anyone else. Had Lewenthal recorded the whole series of Esquisses as a separate LP, they might have enjoyed a better reception. I understand his enthusiasm for them, but this album, as I say, is programmed somewhat strangely. As usual, his spoken introduction to this Alkan music is pithy and largely entertaining.

Liszt Annees year 1Liszt Annees year 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CDs 6 & 7: Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, sets 1 & 2.

The two Liszt LPs were apparently recorded in 1966 for RCA Victor at Webster Hall in New York, but for some reason never issued. Although they are beautifully played, in fact quite sensitively and delicately for Lewenthal, they do lack the excitement and drama of his previous Alkan and Liszt LPs for the label, which may account for their being shelved for so long. It’s a good thing that Sony owns both RCA and Columbia masters or we probably wouldn’t ever have seen these albums.

My readers know that I’m scarcely a big fan of Abbé Liszt, the anti-Semite who sired a daughter even more hateful than he (Cosima von Bülow-Wagner). Although he championed Beethoven’s music at a time when it was scarcely known outside Austria and promoted the music of Chopin, Bellini, Meyerbeer (just before he became ‘a stinking Jew” to Wagner and Liszt), Berlioz, Schumann, Wagner and Brahms, he promoted himself above all. Unlike Alkan, whose music I find original, creative and fascinating, Liszt tended towards bombast and more formulaic writing, but sometimes he broke that pattern and wrote some really fine pieces. He was also one of those musicians who had the gift of synethesia, meaning that he could “hear” music as colors (as did Scriabin and Kandinsky). In my view, Cziffra and Lewenthal were the two very greatest Liszt pianists, and on these two CDs the music, though somewhat predictable in construction and direction, is charming, and Lewenthal brings his great sense of a score’s structure to bear to their performance. I especially liked “Orage” (Storm) from the first book, which Lewenthal plays with a wonderful “binding” of phrases that Horowitz couldn’t have duplicated in a million years. For those readers who, like myself, knew nothing about this music because we paid no attention to Liszt, here is a summary from Wikipedia:

Années de pèlerinage (French for Years of Pilgrimage) is a set of three suites for solo piano by Franz Liszt. Much of it derives from his earlier work, Album d’un voyageur, his first major published piano cycle, which was composed between 1835 and 1838 and published in 1842. Années de pèlerinage is widely considered as the masterwork and summation of Liszt’s musical style. The third volume is notable as an example of his later style. Composed well after the first two volumes, it displays less virtuosity and more harmonic experimentation.

The title Années de pèlerinage refers to Goethe’s famous novel of self-realization, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and especially its sequel Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years (whose original title Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre meant Years of Wandering or Years of Pilgrimage, the latter being used for its first French translation). Liszt clearly places these compositions in line with the Romantic literature of his time, prefacing most pieces with a literary passage from writers such as Schiller, Byron or Senancour, and, in an introduction to the entire work, writing:

Having recently travelled to many new countries, through different settings and places consecrated by history and poetry; having felt that the phenomena of nature and their attendant sights did not pass before my eyes as pointless images but stirred deep emotions in my soul, and that between us a vague but immediate relationship had established itself, an undefined but real rapport, an inexplicable but undeniable communication, I have tried to portray in music a few of my strongest sensations and most lively impressions.

It’s a shame that these albums are just a bit too long to fit onto one CD (42:43 & 45:31), but as in the case of all of these the timings were meant for an LP, which could only hold a maximum time of about 56 minutes on one disc—and most were engineered to contain 50 minutes or less.

Lewenthal discussesCD 8: Raymond Lewenthal Discusses and Illustrates at the Keyboard

This CD is a compilation of the three 7” discs that were originally packaged with the Henselt, Rubinstein and Alkan LPs when they were first issued. I suppose that Sony felt they were being really clever to isolate them from the albums they were meant to accompany and put them onto a separate CD, which of course was never actually an album on Columbia, but to be honest I found them much more integral with the musical material to use them, as Lewenthal intended, as an introduction to the performances of the music they describe, so I burned them onto the proper music CDs.

This ends our survey of the Sony Classical set, but as mentioned earlier, Lewenthal then signed a deal with EMI which produced two more albums.

Liszt-Thalberg DuelTHE DUEL BETWEEN LISZT AND THALBERG / LISZT: Ballade No. 2 in B min. Funeral March from Donizetti’s “Dom Sébastien,” G. 402. THALBERG: Fantasy on Rossini’s “Moses,” Op. 33. Fantasy on Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” Op. 63 / Lewenthal, pno / Angel S-36079, 1975

Once again, Lewenthal returned not to more Alkan (though he should have) but to the superfluous fluff of “operatic fantasies” written by Liszt and his onetime rival, Sigismond Thalberg, and if you think the Liszt fantasies are rubbish, wait ‘til you hear Thalberg’s. Oh yes, they’re technically flashy, but so what? Liberace could also play a lot of flash on the piano—he was, after all, a very good technician of the keyboard. Ironically, all four of these tracks are available online for free streaming, so at least you can hear them if you wish. Perhaps it is an historically valuable document, however, as being one of the few times an intellectual virtuoso like Lewenthal actually recreated the playing style of Thalberg, who has pretty much ignored.

Toy SymphonyTOY SYMPHONIES & OTHER FUN / REINECKE: Toy Symphony in C. F. TAYLOR: Toy Symphony: Adagio & Finale. KLING: Kitchen Symphony. STEIBELT: 3 Bacchanales. GURLITT: Toy Symphony in C. MÉHUL: Ouverture Burlesque / Lewenthal, pno/cond; Ensemble of Toy Instruments & Strings / Angel SQ-1-36080, 1975

This album actually looks more interesting to me that its predecessor, but alas, not a a note of it is available for free streaming online. In fact, unless you’d like to buy a used copy of the original LP on Amazon for about $30, you probably won’t find it anywhere. A shame, too, because an alternate performance of the Reinecke Toy Symphony is available one YouTube, and although it sounds like a really cute piece of music, the pianist can’t touch Lewenthal’s skills.

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What, then, can we learn from this survey of Raymond Lewenthal’s recordings (in addition to some of the live material)? That he was a technically proficient pianist, yes, but nowadays his kind of virtuosity is commonplace, not unusual as it was back then. That he was almost irrevocably tied to the past and particularly the Romantic era, of course. But the real lesson one can learn from Lewenthal was that if one has a vision, sticks to it, and pours all of one’s heart and soul into it, you just may change the world a little. In his time it was not only Alkan who was ignored, although that composer suffered the most. The intimate, non-bombastic Liszt was also a stranger to most concert halls except when Lewenthal and a few others would play the Années de Pèlerinage or Nuages gris, and so too was Scriabin. In fact, I believe that Scriabin is still a stranger to most concert halls, as is Alkan; their work is much more prominent and available on CDs than it is in live concerts. And who today has embraced and revived Nikolai Medtner? No one, to my knowledge.

In his 1981 interview with David Dubal, Lewenthal told an interesting story regarding the music of Czerny, which he liked. He said that Czerny wrote so much and not all of it was of the highest order, but if you combed through his works you’d find some real gems. He then mentioned that Horowitz had recently programmed some really fine Czerny pieces, but that young pianists, wanting the same sort of success, were playing the exact same pieces. He asked one such pupil, Why bother? Horowitz played them superbly, go and find some unusual Czerny pieces of your own to play. The students just stared at him, uncomprehending. No initiative, no imagination.

And that, I feel, is what Lewenthal’s greatest legacy was, the push to refurbish one’s musical imagination.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Garner’s “One World Concert” Reissued

One World Concert cover

ONE WORLD CONCERT / KERN: The Way You Look Tonight. ARLEN: Happiness is a Thing Called Joe. ARNHEIM-LEMARE: Sweet and Lovely. WEILL: Mack the Knife. GARNER: Other Voices. Misty. Movin’ Blues. ROMBERG: Lover, Come Back to Me. PONCE: Dancing Tambourine. RAINGER-ROBIN: Thanks for the Memory / Erroll Garner, pno; Eddie Calhoun, bs; Kelly Martin, dm / Mack Avenue Records MAC1159 (live: Seattle World’s Fair, 1963)

This was Garner’s first live album after his chart-topping Concert By the Sea. The digital reissue includes one track not on the original LP, a trio arrangement of Other Voices. The original LP was issued in America by Reprise Records, in Europe by Philips and Fontana.

There was never any real guarantee that a “live” set by Garner would be any better than his recordings; in fact, in my experience, Concert By the Sea was the exception rather than the rule, but although Garner always gave of himself even in the studio, there’s a bit of an extra kick to this album that is palpable. He attacked the keyboard with just a bit more joy. His grunts and groans are also clearer and more forward as he played.

Where this concert differs from the earlier one is in the quality of the improvisations. Although quite good, nothing on this disc is as surprising and inventive as the Concert By the Sea, but that doesn’t mean it’s inferior Garner. It’s just average. In the opener, for instance, I heard nothing quite as inventive as the superior tracks on Dreamstreet that I described in my review. In Happiness is a Thing Called Joe (one of the dumbest songs of the Swing Era; I absolutely hate it), he transforms it into a blues, which certainly improves it, without really moving into his more surrealist style.

But the audience eats it all up, and why not? Garner, even in “ordinary” mode, could make people smile and feel good when he played, which was his only goal. He does revert to his stabbing left hand against the melodic line of Sweet and Lovely, and on this one can actually hear Kelly Martin’s crisp cymbal work clearly accenting behind him. Garner occasionally transforms the bass line into a quasi-boogie beat, which also adds to the performance. This is clearly one of the real highlights of this set. He opens Mack the Knife with an interesting single-note, moving bass line that bears a slight resemblance to Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, thus temporarily fooling the listeners as to what his next number was going to be. I’ll say this much for Garner: by and large, he adhered to Jelly Roll Morton’s admonition to “always keep the melody going,” especially on his own tunes like Other Voices and Misty.

Garner uses another quasi-classical opening for Lover, Come Back to Me, and I appreciate the way he could turn even such a sappy ballad into a lively swinger. Yet another quasi-classical opening prefaces his own Misty, and of course the audience applauds as soon as they recognize the familiar melody. Garner throws one odd chord into it near the end of the first theme, a piquant choice. Immediately following this, he jumps into his uptempo romp, Movin’ Blues, with all the energy of a steamroller. The rhythm section sounds awfully good on this one, too. In one chorus, Garner alters the beat in his right hand to play triplet quarter notes against the solid 4 in the left.

Ponce’s Dancing Tambourine, though harmonically pretty straightforward, takes off like a rocket the way Garner plays it. By now thoroughly warmed up, Garner finishes the piece with a cute-corny ending, then launches into a somewhat Baroque rendition of Thanks for the Memory, only a little over a minute long, as his closer.

And just when he was getting warmed up, too!

The first half of this recital, though full of energy, won’t probably thrill you, but the second half surely will. Erroll Garner didn’t sound like any other pianist in jazz history, and no one has been able to duplicate his style since he died. He was one of a kind.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Revisiting Erroll Garner’s “Dreamstreet”

cover

DREAMSTREET / PORTER: Just One of Those Things. BASSMAN: I’m Getting Sentimental Over You. SAMPSON-MILLS: Blue Lou. ARLEN: Come Rain or Come Shine. RODGERS-HART: The Lady is a Tramp. FISHER-SHAY: When You’re Smiling. BURWELL: Sweet Lorraine. GARNER: Dreamstreet. Mambo Gotham. By Chance. RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: Oklahoma Medley: Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’; People Will Say We’re in Love; Surrey With the Fringe on Top / Erroll Garner, pno; Eddie Calhoun, bs; Kelly Martin, dm / Mack Avenue Records MAC1157

This 1961 album originally came out on the ABC-Paramount, Philips and French RCA labels. It is one of four early-1960s Garner albums being reissued by Mack Avenue Records.

Garner was always a difficult pianist to “place” stylistically. Like all modern jazz pianists, he came out of Earl Hines, but even more so than Hines, he played with a very percussive attack. His sense of rhythm lay halfway between swing and bop and his improvisations were more harmonically advanced than the Earl Hines of the late 1930s-early ‘40s but not nearly as much as those of Bud Powell, John Lewis or other bop pianists. He simply occupied a niche of his own, sometimes predictable, sometimes surrealistically inventive, and generally humming along with his own playing, as he does here. He was also one of the most popular jazz pianists in history because very little of what he played was above the heads of the average listener. The only thing that could stop Garner’s immense popularity was, unfortunately, his early death from lung cancer on January 2, 1977 at the age of 53.

A perfect example of how he operated within a tune’s framework is this performance of I’m Getting Sentimental Over You. After playing George Bassman’s well-known melody straight, Garner breaks up the rhythm into little chopping blocks of sound, moving the harmony in clever chromatic shifts. As usual for him, it was just daring enough to catch one’s attention without becoming too sophisticated. Another archetypal Garner performance is Blue Lou, where he sets up that regular-but-bouncing rhythm in the left hand, created by quickly strumming arpeggiated chords rather than playing the chords as a block of sound, while the right hand goes on a swinging spree, in the second and third choruses really breaking up the tune with inventions that, as I mentioned earlier, border somewhat on the surreal. Garner was hardly an intellectual; in conversation with jazz critics who wanted to hear from him how he came up with his ideas, he’d usually just smile and say, “Coochy, coochy, coochy!” But in his case, the actions spoke much louder than words. Perhaps he takes the strumming effect a bit too far in Come Rain or Come Shine, where he strums chords under the melody in the right hand while playing only a few stabbing chords or bass notes with his left, but that was Garner. One moment stunningly brilliant, the next playing it safer. The improv on this one consists mostly of bluesy-sounding single-note phrases in the right hand while the left goes back to strumming chords.

And then, one suddenly realizes the other magical quality that Garner had: his sense of humor. It wasn’t the openly guffawing kind of humor, as one heard when jazz musicians played parodies, but the kind of humor that had a twinkle in its eye. A perfect example is the angular, almost fugal introduction to The Lady is a Tramp. Who else, in the entire course of jazz history, could have thought that up? And then, after playing the first chorus, he suddenly throws in Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Following the next half-chorus, and he suddenly switches to 3/4 time for a few bars before returning to 4. Bill Evans, Jaki Byard, McCoy Tyner, Dave Brubeck and Powell (even into the early ‘60s) were all harmonically more advanced than this, but you listen to Garner play and you suddenly realize that he alone could make you smile. The man and his playing simply exuded good vibes.

In When You’re Smiling, Garner’s punching up of the rhythm almost sounds like a bulldozer doing a shuffle beat. And oh, by the way, did you notice that he actually has a rhythm section behind him? He practically ignored it, yet because of his marquee name and huge stature in the jazz community, he could always find top-notch bassists and drummers to play with him. His take on Cliff Burwell’s 1931 classic Sweet Lorraine illustrates perfectly how he differed from another pianist who came out of Earl Hines, Nat “King” Cole. Cole, who could also play with a bit of a bounce as well as sing with warmth and good vibes, was still a more “serious” player than Garner, but this Garner rendition takes the music into new realms that Cole never thought of.

The recital ends with three Garner originals, Dreamstreet, Mambo Gotham and By Chance, with the medley from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma played just before the last of these. Garner was forever writing new tunes, and unlike the jazz compositions of today, they always had strong and recognizable melodic lines. Misty, the most famous example, shocked the composer when it became a national hit. He didn’t think any more (or less) of it than his two or three dozen other originals. Oh sure, he was happy, especially when those residual checks came rolling in from other artists’ recordings, but he remained surprised by its overwhelming popularity. Mambo Gotham is so catchy you can almost hear the mambo line humming it as they danced to it.

By Chance, the slowest selection on this CD, was chosen as the closer. I’m not sure this was a wise idea—I don’t much care for ballad-type tunes anyway, and particularly don’t like them as closing numbers—but what the heck. This is still, overall, a superb Garner recital, delightful to hear and with several surprises in it.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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New Beethoven Lieder Project

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LIEDER I / BEETHOVEN: Klage.2 Neue Liebe, neues Leben.2 Erlkönig.3 In questa tomba oscura.4 Sehnsucht (3 settings).1 Gesang aus der Ferne.2 An die Geliebte (3 versions).3 Egmont: Freudvoll und liedvoll (3 vers.) 1 Das liebe Kätzchen.1 Der Knabe auf dem Berge.1 Schwinge dich in meinem Dom (reconstructed by Holsbergen).1 Dimmi, ben mio, che m’ami (2 vers).2 Buβlied (2 vers.)3 Wonne der Wehmut.2 Feuerfarb.3 Opferlied.3 An Henrietten.2 Gretels Warnung.1 Languisco e moro1 / 1Elisabeth Breuer, sop; 2Rainer Trost, ten; 3Paul Armin Edelmann, bar; 4Ricardo Bojórquez, bs; Bernadette Bartos, pno / Naxos 8.574071

In preparation for the 250th anniversary of the death of Beethoven, several labels have been scrambling to release boxed sets, some complete and some merely a “best of,” to celebrate. Here is one of what appear to be several new issues by Naxos, another of which (to be reviewed soon) is Adám Fischer’s traversal of the Nine Symphonies.

This first volume of what will no doubt be a complete series of his songs focuses on his early output without opus numbers, the exception being the well-known “Freudvoll uns liedvoll” from Egmont. The album is split up among four different singers, but the lion’s share goes to tenor Rainer Trost and soprano Elisabeth Breuer, with baritone Paul Armin Edelmann in third place. Basso Ricardo Bojórquez gets but one song, probably the best-known of all of these early pieces, “In questa tomba oscura.”

What I found interesting about these songs is that, although Beethoven’s early piano music, chamber music and concerti sound much like Mozart, these songs clearly do not. He is already introducing major-minor changes into the harmony that Mozart would have avoided (I won’t say “didn’t think of,” because he was a musical genius, but probably avoided because they might have upset his not-too-sophisticated audiences). And then there is a song like Neue Liebe, neues Leben that sounds for all the world like Schubert (I dare you to play this as a blindfold test for your musical friends and ask them to name the composer…it sounds like a song left out of Die Schöne Müllerin). Perhaps not surprisingly, even the young Beethoven rose to the occasion for Erkönig, which sounds like an earlier version—again by Schubert, only less “regularly” melodic and more dramatic. It’s far more sophisticated than the much later version by Carl Loewe, as much as I admire many of Loewe’s ballads, and Edelmann sings the hell out of it. Bojórquez sings an incredibly subtle In questa tomba oscura, almost the equal of the kind of work that Alexander Kipnis could do in lieder, despite lisping in the letter “s.”

Elisabeth Breuer has one of those “pure”-toned voices of the old German school (think of Elfride Trötschel or Gundula Janowitz) that scarcely exist any more, but here she is. The three different settings of Sehnsucht are entirely different from each other, not just slightly different variants on the same melody. I’d like to put in a plug here, before I forget, for the fairly lively and sensitive playing of pianist Bernadette Bartos, who is excellent throughout this recital. Unlike Edelmann, who is the most famous singer here and is dependably excellent, Trost was unknown to me, yet I was really knocked out by his beautiful tone, vocal and breath control and interpretive skills. Please, let him not die young or ruin his voice! We need someone like this to take over from Peter Schreier as a great singer of lieder and light German roles! By contrast with Sehnsucht, the three versions of An die Geliebte sound like the same melody, reworked differently in rhythm and tempo, and with different piano accompaniments.

Freudvoll und liedvoll again changes the melody completely in the three different versions. Breuer does her level best here to interpret the lyrics but, although she is good, she’s not on the same high level as Trost or Edelmann. The second of these is the most famous setting, the one that even Lilli Lehmann recorded back in 1906, but the third version is also quite good—in fact, I think it’s more creative and dramatic than the famous second version. Breuer is also pretty lively in Das liebe Kätzchen.

Dimmi, ben mio, che m’ami, one of his rare songs in Italian, is sung beautifully by Trost. The two versions of Buβlied are packed into one performance, which includes the different version of bars 101-103; this is sung with excellent voice and interpretation by Edelmann. Oddly, the last piece on this disc, Languisco e moro, sounds like an unfinished song—it ends abruptly, in the middle of nowhere.

An outstanding disc of early Beethoven lieder, then, highly recommended!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Discovering Eugène Samuel-Holeman

Samuel-Holeman

SAMUEL-HOLEMAN: La jeune fille àla fenêtre / Pauline Claes, mezzo; Sturm und Krang; Thomas van Haeperen, cond / Album de croquis / Mathias Lecomte, pno / Et s’il revenait un jour. Les cloches en la nuit. Adieu / Claes, mezzo; Lecomte, pno / Musique en Wallonie MEW 1892

We all know of Debussy, d’Indy, Chausson, Ravel and nowadays even Koechlin, those early-20th-century French impressionist composers who took the musical aesthetics of Wagner’s Parsifal and turned them on their ear, but who was Eugène Samuel-Holeman? Most classical music lovers, myself included, have never even heard of him, let alone heard his music. But of course, until Raymond Lewenthal came along in the early 1960s, the same was true of Charles-Valentin Alkan.

As it turns out, Samuel-Holeman was born just three years after Debussy, in 1863, yet lived to be almost eighty, dying in 1942. Perhaps one strike against him is that he was Belgian, not French, and the French “circle” has always been a rather clandestine and incestuous secret clubhouse that outsiders are not invited into. Yet while at the Ghent Conservatoire he studied philosophy and literature in addition to music and became quite friendly with Maurice Maeterlinck, the author of Pelléas et Mélisande among many other works. Samuel-Holeman also came to know poet Émile Verhaeren and painter William Degouve de Nuncques and Marguerite Holeman, whom be married in 1892. And here’s a really strange fact: after her untimely death in 1905 at the tender age of 42, he decided to add her surname to his own—a rare gesture then or now.

In addition to composing, Samuel-Holeman also wrote detailed and fascinating articles on the new musical aesthetics of his time, notably his two articles for L’Art Moderne in 1892 in which he question the validity of conservatories and criticized their teaching of harmony and counterpoint, insisting that they give free rein to the “inventiveness of the individual.” Around this same time he wrote a piece based on a scale of six whole tones. Six years later, he described this piece in print: “this scale seems to have no starting-point, no destination, no root; doesn’t it then correspond to the very modern idea of constant evolution and an eternal state of becoming? It has thus become indispensable.” Members of Samuel-Holeman’s inner circle boasted that Debussy and d’Indy in particular were beneficiaries of Samuel-Holeman’s aesthetic ideas on composition, yet the author of the CD’s liner notes, Valérie Dufour, insists that “This view is surely fairly hard to uphold; nevertheless the fact remains that his close proximity to the Belgian symbolist movement guaranteed him a place as a musician at the heart of that aesthetic adventure.”

Samuel-Holeman picIn 1902 Samuel (not yet Samuel-Holeman) worked with Belgian writer Camille Lemonnier to produce La jeune fille à la fenêtre which was finished the year of his wife’s death. Eugène Baie, who for some reason later turned his back on the composer, wrote in 1903 to Lemonnier: “Be assured, dear Master, that Samuel-Holeman is the pre-eminent composer, or, to be more precise, the most original one to have appeared since César Franck. These last few days he has interpreted your Jeune fille à la fenêtre to me. The emotion that has you in thrall is grave, profound and irresistible and crushes you with the most unspeakable anguish. Its framework seems as light and delicate as lace, but beneath it, terrifyingly condensed, lay all the suffering grief of humanity.”

Listening to this music today, it clearly occupies a space between Franck and Debussy—bear in mind that 1902 saw the world premiere of the latter’s opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. Samuel-Holeman’s music is considerably more lyrical in the conventional sense than Debussy’s opera; it has a definite melodic shape, showing the influence of Franck, and is to a certain extent memorable whereas Debussy’s opera is comprised largely of vocal gestures that sound like expanded recitatives. The opening orchestral prelude (originally for piano, but later scored by the composer) goes on for 11 ½ minutes before the mezzo soloist enters. The musical group that performs it here, Sturm und Klang, sounds thin, edgy and slightly flat in the upper strings (the solo French horn also sounds slightly off-key), which soured the impact of the score for me. Obviously, they aren’t among the premier musical organizations of our time, but beggars can’t be choosers. Pauline Claes has a fairly nice voice (although with a bit of an uneven flutter which dissipates as she warms up) and sings in the “old” French school, meaning without any dramatic inflection whatsoever. This was the preferred style of the time, not to interpret anything but allow the words and music to speak for themselves, an aesthetic that was broken only in the 1950s with the arrival of such singers as Gérard Souzay, Régine Crespin, Pierette Alarie, Rita Gorr and Gabriel Bacquier. What disappointed me, however, was Claes’ insistence on sticking to one volume level throughout. Whether the text reflects inner feelings or outward emotion, she sang here at a consistent mezzo-forte without inflection or deviation. Even some of the best older singers of the French repertoire, such as Edmond Clément, Ninon Vallin, Lucien Fugère and Georges Thill, sang with more interesting shading of dynamics than this.

In a certain sense, the music sounded to me like an earlier-style version of Erik Satie’s Socrate: a monodrama that covers a fairly wide spectrum of feelings and thoughts without ever really boiling above the surface. Were the orchestra less whiny and off-key and the singer a bit more expressive, this could have been a really moving performance, but even as it is it at least gives us an inkling of what Samuel-Holeman was after. It struck me that he was the “missing link” between the lusher, more Romantic style of Chausson-Franck-Duparc and the more modern style of Debussy-d’Indy-Ravel-Koechlin. Samuel-Holeman was, in 1902-05, still on the brink of the Impressionist revolution while Debussy already had both feet immersed in it. Yet I also think his writings on musical art helped inspire that final break with tradition that he himself could not quite let go of.

Still, this is clearly worthwhile music, not as innovative as that of his contemporaries but innovative enough to break with the past. I also think the comparison to Satie is apt in that he followed his own muse regardless of what the others were doing. I’m sure he appreciated and applauded their efforts while still wanting to keep his own identity.

The piano suite Album de croquis also opens with a long introduction, technically quite simple for the pianist but setting the mood effectively (if rather too long and repetitive). The rest of it sounded to me as if it should have been written for voice and piano but wasn’t. Much of the harmony here is unadventurous and could easily be played on your local FM classical music station, but it does sound very Satie-like. By contrast, the 1909 songs Et s’il revenait un jour, Les cloches en la nuit and Adieu sound for all the world like Debussy. By this time, Samuel-Holeman was a firm believer in the new Impressionist style. These songs were premiered in 1913 by the innovative French mezzo Jane Bathori, to whom they were dedicated.

After World War I, Samuel-Holeman abandoned composition to write musical criticism for L’Horizon; he also worked as a proofreader for the press and as a musician in local Brussels theaters and cinemas. As Dufour puts it, “His independence in relation to Belgian musical circles ended by isolating him completely; his music had meandered fruitlessly away from the mainstream of modernity.”

Samuel-Holeman was probably more important as a thinker and writer on the new musical aesthetics than as a composer, but as I say, this is definitely music worth hearing.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Barry Mills’ Mosaics Series Continues

Mills covers

MOSAICS Vol. 3 / MILLS: Wind Quintet / Charlotte Munro, fl; Philip Edwards, cl; Catherine Pluygers, ob; Huw Jones, bsn; Henryk Sienkiewicz, horn / String Quartet. Clarinet Quintet / Stuart Deeks, Ellie Blackshaw, vln; Robert Winquist, vla; Sarah Stuart-Pennink, cel; Edwards, cl / Flute Sketches. Mosaic for Flute & Piano / Christopher Hyde-Smith, fl; Jane Dodds, pno / Duet for Flute & Violin / Caroline Collingridge, fl; Blackshaw, vln / 3 Movements for Viola / Winquist, vla / Violin Duo / Deeks, Blackshaw / Ocean for Double Bass / Stephen Philips, bs / Duo for Mandolin & Guitar / Nigel Woodhouse, mand; Martin Vishnick, gtr / Where the Sea Meets the Shore / Richard Hand, Tom Dupré, gtr / Claudio Contemporary CC4325-2

This has to be the oddest physical CD I’ve ever reviewed, because as soon as I opened the jewel case, the front cover of the album popped loose from the booklet and landed in my lap! Astonished, I looked at the CD box and there, believe it or not, the booklet was still in place—but with an entirely different cover on it. This is, then, the only album I’ve ever seen that has two different covers at the same time. Both are reproduced above for your viewing pleasure.

Barry Mills, it turns out, is also somewhat odd for a composer. Born in Plymouth, MA in 1949, he got a degree in Biochemistry from Sussex University in 1971 but, having learned to be a composer on his own, returned there in 1976-77 to study musical analysis with David Osmond-Smith and David Roberts as well as composition with Colin Matthews and Ann Boyd. He then became a mailman for 30 years, a job which he says gave him the leisure time to compose in the afternoons! The Society for the Promotion of New Music has programmed three of his pieces: the Clarinet Quintet and Septet and Harp Sketches. Although this is the third CD of his music to be issued under the title Mosaics, it is the first I have been able to review.

Much of the music on this CD sounds, at first blush, like soft “ambient” classical, but it is not. After the opening theme statements of the Wind Quintet, for instance, the harmony suddenly shifts to bitonality, and this vein continues into the development section. Moreover, Mills understands that rarest of all qualities in a modern composer, how to appeal to the heart as well as the mind. Despite its occasionally abrasive moments, this music is appealing, in much the same way that Hindemith and Françaix could be appealing. As the quintet goes on, he uses counterpoint to build his structure but always falls back on lyricism as the uniting force. The music thus has a fascinating dual personality that sometimes contrasts, sometimes blends. Some of it reminds me of the music of my online friend, Augusta Cecconi-Bates, who writes in a similar style reflecting her own personality. And oddly, this quintet ends in the middle of a phrase.

The String Quartet begins with soft murmurs from the cello, above which the violin and viola are heard. Interestingly, Mills seems to use his strings as if they were winds, thus the overall mood, if not the structure, is similar to the wind quintet. Little swells (what singers would call messa di voce, a crescendo-decrescendo on a held note) come and go, as do fluttering tremolos and long, downward glissandi that move through the entire scale chromatically as if he were writing completely non-tonal music as in the case of Julián Carrillo. One thing I’ll say for Mills: his style, though drawn from several sources, is entirely his own. Indeed, the Clarinet Quintet begins with the four strings all playing sliding atonal figures in the Carrillo style, against which we then hear one of the violins playing pizzicato against that backdrop. When the clarinet does enter, it is playing at first in its lower or chalumeau register, blending into the strings as if it were a second viola. Eventually, around 6:25, the clarinet gets its own solo, playing odd themes and variants that slink chromatically through the scale although leaping around the notes in that scale with rapid eighth-note figures. In all of these works, too, the tempo is elusive; one can really only feel a pulse when there is some rhythmic impetus to what they are playing, which is intermittent. Light pizzicato string figures eventually emerge, but here again there is no feeling of a forward-moving rhythm. Then the pace picks up with a clarinet motif, around which the strings play odd figures, sometimes swirling, sometimes sliding chromatically, sometimes in soft tremolos or even touches of spiccato in the bowing. And again, the piece ends in the middle of nowhere.

The Sketches for solo flute follow a similar pattern except,. of course, there is no harmonic texture here to work with in terms of voicing, just one instrument that cannot play chords. Yet even here, his use of “slithering” harmonies is injected into the flute’s lines, creating a forlorn rather than a serene mood. He also has the flautist blow air sideways into the mouthpiece, creating a somewhat edgy quality. This, then, almost blends into Mosaic for flute and piano, which uses similar themes at the outset but changes subtly with the entrance of the piano, playing what appear to be random notes in the upper treble end of the keyboard. The pianist acts here, to my ears, less like an accompanist and more like a solo-note percussion instrument that is trying to find its way through the odd labyrinth of Mills’ musical construction. This is also the first composition to be broken into individual sections, four movements in fact, but even in the faster second movement the piano sticks to single-note runs and gestures, sounding to some extent as if it were chasing the flute but never quite being able to catch up no matter how “busy” the music gets. And in the pattern of the preceding works, the fourth and last movement presents no real resolution, just another musical maze through which flute and piano meander trying to find each other but not quite meeting up.

The Duo for Flute and Violin opens with the latter instrument playing very high, whining notes while the former is again spitting across the mouthpiece of his instrument. Then the flute settles down, if such is the proper term for it, to play what sound like random atonal notes while the violin plucks its way through equally atonal pizzicati. This random-sounding duet goes on for a little more than five minutes, with the pieces slowly but surely falling into place. Another strange piece, excellently played. The 3 Movements for Viola are in much the same vein while the two-movement Violin Duo has one playing high, held notes while the other plays lyrical lines around the first. The second piece opens with one of the violins playing those atonal slides once again.

Oceans for Double Bass is another atonal piece, opening with the bass playing very low As before moving into its strange journey. Up and down the neck of the bass the player goes, contrasting a few semi-lyrical motifs against low grumbles and edgy, serrated figures. Following this is the Duo for Mandolin and Guitar, which follows a similar pattern to the preceding works. Here, however, Mills seems to revel in the plectrum effects he can elicit from the two instruments, which in themselves create interesting patterns.

W end our journey with Where the Sea Meets the Shore for two guitars, and here Mills explores not merely the plectrum effects of the instruments but also their ability to create lyrical and edgy figures, some at the same time.

This was quite an ear-opening disc for me. You can be sure that I’ll be looking for more of Barry Mills’ music to review in the future.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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The Orchestral Music of Winterberg

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WINTERBERG: Symphonies Nos. 12,5 & 21,3. Ballade um Pandora, Ballet for Orchestra.1,4 Symphonic Epilogue.1,6 Symphonic Travel Ballad.2.7 Stationen 1974-75 2,8 / 1Munich Philharmonic Orch.; 2Bamberg Symphony Orch.; 3Jan Koetsier, 4Rudolf Alberth, 5Karl List, 6Fritz Rieger, 7Joseph Strobl, 8Rainer Miedel, cond / Pieran 0054-55 (live: 1952-1975)

In my reviews of Hans Winterberg’s chamber music recorded for Toccata Classics, I noted that the booklets mentioned that his music was performed almost continuously during his lifetime in Germany after World War II, but that since his death almost nothing is played. This is because Winterberg’s adopted son Christoph sold all of his father’s music to the Sudeten-German Music Institute, which has placed a ban on all public performances until January 1, 2031. Leave it to Pieran Records, a small boutique label that is now apparently being distributed by BR Klassik, to come up with some of those actual broadcasts so we can at least hear what this orchestral music sounded like.

Naturally, since these are historic broadcasts and most are in mono sound, we are at the mercy of the sonic artifacts at hand. As usual, however, Pieran did an excellent job in getting the best possible sound out of its archive material, thus what we have is listenable at worst and sonically excellent at best. Indeed, I have to admit being somewhat shocked by how good the December 1952 broadcast of the Second Symphony, which opens this set, was: the orchestral textures are crystal-clear, and the playing of the Munich Philharmonic is above reproach considering the era of this performance.

As for the music, it is as I described in my reviews of his chamber works: modern-sounding but not always atonal, his ability to fuse lyrical lines with modern harmonies that not only move the top line forward but the development sections as well, and the impact of his music which is emotional but never sentimental. Having just finished reviewing the orchestral music of Ernst Krenek, who I felt to be uneven and overrated, listening to Winterberg was like a breath of fresh air. Everything in his music makes sense, it goes somewhere, his sense of structure is solid and most of the time his music sounded quite inspired and not just “written to formula.”

Add it all up and you’ll discover a composer who lay halfway between Mahler and Hindemith: tighter forms than the latter with some of the harmonic daring of the latter. Considering his infatuation with modern German and French music, this is possibly where Charles Tomlinson Griffes might have ended up had he lived longer. There is a touch of Stravinsky’s influence but not too much, and whereas Stravinsky’s music, even at its most powerful, always seems to fuse the intellectual with the emotional, Winterberg’s music, though clearly mapped out thoughtfully, always sounds emotional and powerful. It’s an enticing combination which makes him, for me, one of my most treasured discoveries in the last few years along with the music of Mieczysław Weinberg, Robert Groslot, and a few others. I can only hope that modern-day conductors eventually take up Winterberg once the knots and tangles of his family’s control of his music are ironed out.

My comparing this music to Mahler is not whimsy. Listen to the second movement of the Symphony No. 2 and you’ll hear the same kind of spacious, almost 3D sound that Mahler achieved in his symphonies. This is yet another reason why it’s good to have these orchestral works: they tell us what kind of orchestral colors Winterberg liked to use and how he used them.

Much of the music is amorphous, thus it’s difficult to describe without having an actual score to examine, but most of it moves at a moderate pace even in the fast movements, allowing the listener to follow his train of musical thought perfectly. And there are so many moments where one hears a tonal, almost lovely melody (as in this same second movement of the Second Symphony) that quickly and unexpectedly transforms itself via a rapid shift of the underlying chord position, yet for the most part he is more conservative than, say, Szymanowski. The third movement of this symphony is a bit bitonal but, again, scarcely out of the reach of an open-minded listener. In addition, all of his music has a nice, easy flow about it. Nothing in it sounds jarring as if often the case with Stravinsky or Schoenberg, yet the music is ever-complex beneath its veneer of simplicity.

Interestingly, this symphony was written in 1943, when Winterberg was still in a state of personal and emotional disorder due to the War and the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. As described in the liner notes, “Winterberg found himself in a community of exiled Czech-Germans,” yet, confusingly, “Czech-Germans were also called Sudeten-Germans, though they did not necessarily come from the province of Sudetenland,” and “Many of these Sudeten-Germans, including German-speaking Jews from Prague, obviously did not welcome Hitler.” Yet following the “liberation” of Czechoslovakia, many of them were forcibly deported to Germany. Many of them fled to the U.S.A., Israel (Palestine back then) or Great Britain rather than live there, but Winterberg was one of the exceptions. Fortunately, he somehow escaped persecution and being sent to one of the concentration camps.

The “ballet music for orchestra” Ballade um Pandora is actually more complex and less tonal than the symphony. The notes explain the scenario: Zeus, Prometheus, the First Human, Hephaistos, Hope Aphrodite, Pandora, Epimetheus and a child sit alongside each other along with Nymphs, good and bad people, and messengers of the gods: Sickness, Hate, Unrtuth, Egoism, Envy, Arrogance, Greed, Vanity, Bitterness and Heartlessness (hmm…this sounds like the modern-day Democratic Party and the media!). Prometheus creates the first man out of lime and water, then asks Athena to breathe life into it via a butterfly. Zeus, angry at them for this act of unauthorized creation and leaves his throne. The First Human shows Prometheus and Athena the error of this act as he and the other humans show anger and destruction towards each other. There’s a lot more to it, but you get the general idea. Winterberg adds a piano to the orchestra in this one, and the music constantly shifts the tonally so that, after a minute or so, the casual listener is lost. Much of the music is also very strong rhythmically, perhaps in emulation of Stravinsky; gone is the lyrical effusion of the Second Symphony. And once again, the sound quality is astounding for its age. You’d never guess, just from listening, that this was taken from a 1959 broadcast.

With the Sinfonia Dramatica of 1934, we step backwards to Winterberg’s earlier style, except that here the music is a bit more episodic—on purpose, of course. Elongated themes seemingly arise out of nowhere and, after being played out, melt into other themes. Rhythms and tempi also change with some frequency, yet somehow Winterberg managed to knit it all together. Even early on, then, he wrote excellent music. The Symphonic Epilog of 1951 features swirling wind figures around a body of strings and brass. The music progresses stepwise up and down, again with lyrical interludes, some of them—like the one at the 9:20 mark—quite touching and moving.

The Symphonic Travel Ballad is possibly autobiographical, but no matter; it’s the music, not the memories, that counts, and here Winterberg is predominantly gentle in manner and gesture. By contrast with the preceding two pieces, this is almost light music, using witty motifs and orchestration, at least until the four-minute mark, when the tempo suddenly increases and the brass give out with an explosion. But this small passing storm doesn’t last long. At 5:45the tempo again increases, but this time the music is relatively upbeat in mood. The 7:30 mark brings in a somewhat jazzy theme that comes and goes. The feeling of whimsy, however, lasts until the very end.

We close out our tour of Winterberg’s orchestral music with the three Stations 1974/75. These have individual titles: “Ante vindobonam,” “Aria infinita” and “Toccata fantastica.” Once again, there’s a bit of a jazz feel into the opening of the first piece. We also hear whimsical, slurring trombones, soft string tremolos and small trumpet fanfares here and there as the piece progresses. By contrast, the “Aria infinita” is light and airy, the music floating through one’s mind like gently zephyrs in the air. The “Toccata fantastica” is also light in character but livelier rhythmically, with the meter and tempo shifting constantly as it goes along. The music remains somewhat upbeat even as it becomes louder and again strong in rhythm, with little spot solos by brass and wind instruments.

The booklet explains the behind-the-scenes cause of the ban on Winterberg’s music, and that was his one real enemy, Heinrich Simbriger (1903-1976), one of the leading forces in the founding of the Sudeten-German Institute. Simbriger’s correspondence cast doubts on Winterberg’s origin, thus it’s quite likely that, before his death, Simbriger tried to encourage the post-mortem acquisition of Winterberg’s works for the sole purpose of suppressing their performance. It’s a shame, really. I likely won’t live to hear or experience any new performances of it, thus I, like many music aficionados, want to personally thank Pieran Records for this rare opportunity to hear it at last.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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