John Browning’s Superb Ravel Reissued

Browning Ravel

RAVEL: Sonatine. La tombeau de Couperin (piano version). Gaspard de la Nuit / John Browning, pianist / Sony/RCA 886446381886

A few days ago I heard a pretty good performance of Gaspard de la Nuit on the radio, played by then-18-year-old pianist Conrad Tao. Looking it up online the next day, I found it to be pretty good but just missing something, so I went “Gaspard-shopping” on the Naxos Music Library. And lo and behold, I ran across this recording, which I hadn’t even known existed.

The performance was breathtaking.

It’s not just that Browning had the technique for the score, which in itself is important—Gaspard is probably Ravel’s most difficult piano piece and one of the hardest in the standard repertoire. It’s that he had the ability to play with nuance while blissfully running through those impossible two-handed passages that sound more like piano four hands. Other pianists I’ve heard simply do not present as much light and shade, color and drive as Browning did, and that even includes a contemporary recording on Columbia by Charles Rosen. Browning just had something special in his playing, and he carries the day in this unbelievably great performance.

What a strange vindication for a man who, when he studied at Juilliard, was constantly overshadowed by his fellow-pupil, a tall, lanky Texan named Van Cliburn. Cliburn, of course, went on to with first prize in the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in the late 1950s, thus making him a symbol of American excellence during the cold war. This helped to propel his career as a pianist well beyond the parameters of most Americans of his time. A big seller on RCA Victor, he was considered to be “up there” with their two international stars, Horowitz and Rubinstein.

So Browning made his living playing mostly the music of Bach, Scarlatti, Haydn and Mozart. He was a miniaturist to Cliburn’s grand epic playing. Then, in 1962, he gave the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, which he later recorded with both George Szell and Leonard Slatkin (the latter won a Grammy). This led to his playing more of Barber’s piano works; other contemporary composers also came to him with their wares, but Browning found very few to his liking. Then he died unexpectedly of heart failure at age 69.

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The rather grim-looking Spanish RCA LP cover

Thus a recording of Ravel’s works was something of an anomaly for him. Judging from the cover and number sequence, this definitely came out during the Hippie era (1968), but honestly, I don’t even remember it. It probably didn’t sell well because 1) it was outside of his normal repertoire, 2) it wasn’t promoted heavily (he wasn’t Cliburn), and 3) there were many other Ravel “specialists” whose recordings sold better than his. All of which is a shame.

Browning is also superior to nearly every other pianist I’ve heard in the well-known Sonatine and the lesser-known piano version of Le tombeau de Couperin. Interestingly, his tempi are generally faster in these works than other pianists, which makes his attention to the most minute detail all the more impressive.

I simply cannot recommend this album highly enough. It shoots straight to the top of interpretations of these three works.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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TJP’s New “Peace and Love” Album

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PEACE AND LOVE / SIMON-GARFUNKEL: America. MEDLEY: ARGENT: Time of the Season/LENNON-McCARTNEY: Day Tripper. TRADITIONAL: Shenandoah. BROOKER-FISHER: Whiter Shade of Pale. SOUTH: Hush. HAYWARD: Tuesday Afternoon. DeSHANNON: Put a Little Love in Your Heart. STING: Message in a Bottle. MEDLEY: POWERS: Message in a Bottle/JOBIM: Waters of March. THIELE-WEISS: Wonderful World. WARD: America the Beautiful / TJP: Tony Miceli, vib; Paul Jost, voc/harmonica; Kevin MacConnell, bs; Doug Hirlinger, dm/electronics; Joel Frahm, t-sax/s-sax; Philadelphia Performing Arts Chorus / Miceli Music TJP-12345 (available at Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, Bandcamp)

Philadelphia-based TJP, formerly known as The Jost Project, has apparently made a specialty of playing jazz arrangements of rock tunes, and happily their versions really are jazz with little rock-beat reference in their playing.

And what a talented crew they are. In addition to leader-vibes player Tony Miceli, it was a pleasure for me to hear their bass player, Kevin MacConnell, whose playing is the best thing I’ve heard in a long time…shades of Mingus or Eddie Gomez. Playing here with guest saxist Joel Frahm, they transform these pieces in such a way that you become immediately wrapped up in their own personal feel for swing, driven by the backbeat 6/8 feel of drummer Doug Hirlinger.

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L to R: Paul Jost, Doug Hirlinger, Kevin MacConnell, Joel Frahm, Tony Miceli.

Paul Jost’s vocals, which dominate this set, are very jazzy in phrasing and rhythm despite his hoarse tone and occasional slurred diction (the latter, from what I can tell, by choice rather than accident). Despite this, there’s a surprisingly strong R&B accent to their performances rather than a rock one, which is why I enjoyed the album so much.

Miceli is clearly an outstanding vibes player, and if he doesn’t show off his chops the way Terry Gibbs did he is surely as fine an improviser. I was also quite impressed by Frahm’s sax playing, particularly on soprano where he cut loose with some wonderful long lines that had a great sense of construction (i.e., Hush). One of the most rock-oriented pieces on the album is Justin Hayward’s Tuesday Afternoon, but only in the opening chorus; after a drum break, we settle into a nice swinging groove which alternates with the former throughout the performance. Similarly, they transform the Youngbloods’ iconic peace-&-love anthem, Get Together, even including voices from the Philadelphia Performing Arts Chorus. Frahm, again on soprano, plays outstanding embellishments around the principal melody.

They also give an interesting twist to Ron Argent’s Time of the Season by incorporating the opening riff from the Beatles’ Day Tripper (and why, in an album of old Hippie songs, they didn’t include All You Need is Love baffles me), where the driving rhythm, Miceli’s vibes and Frahm on tenor. In the closing minute, they just move right into Day Tripper for the ride-out.

There are some interesting Bach references (“Sheep may safely graze”) in their arrangement of Whiter Shade of Pale, a song I only know by its title, having never heard it before this album. Miceli’s vibes, along with the rhythm section, completely transform Jackie DeShannon’s Put a Little Love in Your Heart into a nice, medium-tempo swinger, with Frahm playing some really nice Saturday-Night-Live-Band style tenor sax. This eventually morphs into the Louis Armstrong tune It’s a Wonderful World—a song, I rush to mention, that wasn’t a hit in America when it first came out, but only charted years after Armstrong’s death when it became the theme song of the movie Good Morning, Vietnam. Having never heard Sting’s Message in a Bottle before, I can’t say how much it’s been changed around by the band, but I’ll assume they improved it because it’s a pretty simple, repetitive lick, not even really a melody. Thank goodness that Frahm is back on soprano, where he sounds comfortable and creative, to liven up an otherwise nothing tune. Jost adds some nice scatting in the penultimate chorus.

I’ll give TJP great credit for ending their set with America the Beautiful, which I still think is the greatest song yet written by an American about America. They take it nice, slow and relaxed, with Jost’s vocal backed by just vibes and bass. A lovely close to the album.

A personal observation on the album’s concept: it’s nice but dated. When conceiving the CD, Miceli says, he “wondered where all the Hippies went. Was the ‘60s only about sex, drugs and rock and roll? Where did all these values about peace and love go?”

If he wouldn’t mind, I’d like to answer that from a personal standpoint. I grew up in the ‘60s but didn’t have the time or the luxury to be a Hippie, even though I was against the Vietnam War (who wasn’t, in those days?), marched in one or two protests, and wanted more peace in the world. I didn’t have that much time to smoke marijuana or get drunk or protest in the streets because I had to, like, work for a living. No one subsidized my highs or my tie-dyed jeans. I busted my rear end to get enough to live on because by the time I reached age 20, all this white privilege stuff ran out. And then the veil was torn from my eyes and I realized that all this peace-and-love stuff really was just bullshit designed to help guys have sex with us. That’s when I, and probably a few million other Hippie sympathizers, walked away from it all. We still had a strong desire for world peace in our hearts but worked it out on a more personal basis. And now we realize we’ve been completely screwed (in more ways than one) and lied to by the Democrats and the Republicans, so we’re trying, against the iron will of the Dems and the media, to take our country back. They’ve even created these “social tensions” you want to address out of thin air for no other reason than to divide and conquer our society. Since I sympathize with the working class, I don’t want “a little love” in my heart. I want a little more money in my bank account, money I desperately need to pay my mortgage and buy food, and that’s what I want for my working class friends, who I love and support with all my heart. The Peace & Love crowd needs to be constantly subsidized because most of them don’t work for a living. So, Tony, that’s where it went. Take it for what it’s worth.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Alberto Bologni Makes “Dedications” in New Pieces

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DEDICATIONS / SEABOURNE: Threads. FRIBBINS: Sonata. BRUNO: Preludio e Fuga. FAVALI: Astor and Me. REBORA: di – versi – in – versi. RIGACCI: Lucrezia. SENANES: Sinfonía for 4 Strong Strings / Alberto Bologni, vln / Sheva Contemporary SH-184

This strange yet wonderful disc, scheduled for release in February, introduces a new recorded work by the superb British composer Peter Seabourne as well as six other new pieces by lesser-known writers. Italian violinist Alberto Bologni, who studied at the Conservatorio Cherubini in Florence and subsequently earned an artist’s diploma at the Rotterdam Conservatoire, combines the styles of the Italian, German-Hungarian and Russian schools of violin playing, and of course the last-named is strongly influenced by the French.

Bologni shoots right out of the gate with the exciting and brilliant Threads, a five-movement composition that exploits the full range of the instrument. This was written for both Bologni and Litsa Tunnah, both of whom have played Seabourne’s works in the past. One of the most unusual pieces in this suite is the second, titled “Berceuse,” which alternates between very high, sustained “whistle tones” on the violin and pizzicato passages that somehow fit together and make sense. By contrast, the next piece, “Shimmering,” consists of fairly conventional arpeggios in eighths set in unconventional melodic patterns with shifting harmonies. The final two movements, particularly the concluding “Vivo,” are unexpected and imaginative, like so much of Seabourne’s music. Bologni’s tone, bright and brilliant, is coupled with an impulsive energy that infuses everything he plays. You can tell that he really likes this music!

Following this is the violin sonata of Peter Fribbins, composed for his wife Maria who is half Faroese. This explains the use of a folk song from the Faroe Islands, Sigmunds kvæði, in the first movement; it’s a strange tune, alternating between conventionally melodic and odd modal lines. The sonata was premiered last year (2016) by Bologni in a benefit concert for victims of the central Italian earthquake. The pizzicato second-movement “Scherzo,” ironically, reminded me of the Seabourne piece previously heard—not a criticism, because it’s interesting and well written, and I doubt that Fribbins had any idea what Seabourne was up to when he wrote it. The third-movement “Pavane” is wonderfully lyrical, using unusual chord positions to enhance rather than ruin its effectiveness, while the last movement is a brief, more modern-sounding “Toccata.”

Giuseppe Bruno’s Preludio e Fuga, like so many modern pieces that pay tribute to J.S. Bach, use the notes of his last name (the “h” being the German designation for B-flat) because, as Bruno puts it, “of the great expressive potential inherent in its lying within a minor third.” The “Fuga” was composed first, with the “Preludio” written second, which gave Bruno the opportunity to link certain motifs more easily. It’s a strange-sounding fugue, however, due to the unusual way in which the harmonies lie. An excellent piece.

This is followed by Astor and Me, an homage to Astor Piazzolla by Federico Favali. Like several modern composers who base their work on Piazzolla, Favali stretches the tango form to entirely new limits, using the older composer’s Inverno Porteño with entirely different rhythms and a redistribution of note-values so that at times it is unrecognizable. Once again, Bologni’s playing is beautifully controlled technically and imbued with emotional energy, making this piece sound even better by virtue of these attributes.

Possibly the most avant-garde piece on this disc, Carla Rebora’s three-movement di – versi – in – versi is described in the booklet as “part of a series of pieces born of research into the formal, aesthetic and evocative relationship between poetic genres and musical forms. In this piece, the focus is the stanza isolata, a form of poetry typical of the C14th dolce stil nuovo.” In less technical terms, the music is comprised of short fragments that almost sound isolated, except that Rebora finds ways to tie them togther. There are moments where this works coherently and others where the fragments sound more isolated. By contrast, Pietro Rigacci’s chaconne Lucrezia is somewhat more conventional in its form if quite surprising in its turns of phrase which are anything but.

We close out this package of “dedications” with Sinfonia for Four Strong Strings by Argentinian composer Gabriel Senanes. The composer claims that the title of this “piece has little connection with its music: it is obviously a play on words, or two: ‘for four,’ and then ‘strong strings.’ I also like the idea of a symphony for a single instrument. And this idea completes the title, which has sense only in English and looks funny to me.” The music is esentially laid out like a symphony structurally, and although it is more tonal in nature than many of its predecessors on this disc it is no less well written. Senanes has a strong sense of construction and thus keeps the violin within certain boundaries, using strong downbow attacks on the first beat of each bar as a simulation of a full orchestra in the first movement. In the second, the strong lyrical quality of the solo line makes the listener imagine an orchestra behind the violin. The third-movement “Tango” is not really “just a tango,” as the composer claims, but a re-imagining of that native Argentinian dance, while the concluding “Rock and Ball” is a furious piece set in rock rhythm…something I never thought I’d hear a classical violinist attempt to play.

This is surely a remarkable disc and one of the finest violin recitals of any music I’ve heard in the past two years.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Rebekah Heller’s Strange Bassoon Adventure

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METAFAGOTE / STEIGER: Concatenation. FUJIKURA: Following. ECKARDT: A Compendium of Catskill Native Botanicals, from Book 2: “Wild Ginger.” LARA: Metafagote / Rebekah Heller, bsn; electronics / New Focus/Tundra tun006

They say that if you live long enough, you’ll hear things you never imagined possible. This is one of them. Any preconceived notions you may have had about bassoon music are blown clear out the windows by this new release, for Rebekah Heller and her bad-ass bassoon (just look at her attitude on the cover!) are here to explode them.

The music is modern, challenging, and best of all, interesting. Four composers with a single directive, to write music for solo bassoon and electronics, all responded with different and very imaginative settings. I can’t say that any of this music is easy or accessible, for it is not. On the contrary, it’s rather forbidding; but it’s well constructed, interesting, and stretches the instrument to entirely new limits.

Rand Steiger’s Concatenation, which opens the recital, sets the bassoon in an echo chamber, occasionally using feedback, echo effects and distortion to propel his ideas. The composer has described this work as one where “a set of contrasting materials, any one of which could have been the subject of an etude, are laid out and interwoven into a continuous conversation. In this piece, there are seven different kinds of material,” and as each character is introduced the different kinds of material “begin an increasingly interwoven dialogue with each other.” My lone complaint was that, in the closing two minutes of the piece, it became so deconstructed that even I had some trouble following it.

Next up is Dai Fujikura’s Following. This is surprisingly lyrical, and in fact includes no electronics at all. It gives Heller a chance to show just how good she is on the bassoon; her tone is so pure here that most of the time it sounds like an alto saxophone, and a very fine one at that (think Johnny Hodges or Jimmy Dorsey). Although lyrical, the piece is also quite daring harmonically, but Fujikara never loses sight of the long line of the music and holds the listener’s interest from start to finish. There is also some real invention and development going on here, which makes the performance all the more interesting.

By contrast, Jason Eckardt’s A Compendium of Catskill Native Botanicals, Asarum canadense, “Wild Ginger” uses microtones and snippets of melody which simulate the feeling of ritual chanting. This, too, is played without any electronics or overdubs. In this piece, Heller’s tone surely does not resemble anything but a bassoon. The music also includes several surprising “dead stops” in which one assumes the music is over, yet it continues to go on and develop.

The last piece is perhaps the most complex. Felipe Lara layers seven bassoons in all, six of them pre-recorded, bookended by the sound of waves rushing up on the shore. Some of the pre-recorded bassoons are sped up in order to enhance the upper range of the instrument, and there are also some odd “knocking” sounds thrown in for good measure. Slithering, rising chromatics are heard just before the four-minute mark, enhancing an already strange musical experience. Later on, at about 6:30, a sort of reverb-echo effect is achieved by having the pre-recorded bassoons overlap sustained B-flats in almost a hocket style while the “live” bassoon plays stabbing figures in and around them. Later on the background bassoons play varying figures while the live one distorts tones and plays somewhat microtonally. Eventually the interaction becomes quite complex, the background bassoons almost sounding like a choir behind a vocal soloist. It’s a very odd piece, but also a very interesting one.

By and large, this is a fascinating release, and each piece is the world premiere recording. If nothing else, it should expand the minds of listeners and other composers as to the timbral and technical possibilities of the bassoon, and instrument that, too often, gets no respect.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Bolcom’s Interesting Piano Music in New Collection

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BOLCOM: New York Lights: Concert Paraphrase. 3 Dance Portraits. Night Pieces. Ballade / Ursula Oppens, pn / Fantasy-Sonata. 12 Études (1959-66). The Brooklyn Dodge. Dream Music #1 / Christopher Taylor, pn / Spring Dances. Conversation With Andre. Night Meditations. Romantic Pieces. Variations on a Theme by George Rochberg / Constantine Finehouse, pn / Estela: Rag Latino / Estela Olevsky, pn / Naxos 8.559832-34

William Bolcom, for me, has always been one of those composers whose work I find more interesting than moving or enlightening, but I’d never heard a wide range of his music from all periods before.

This three-CD set of his piano works contains both the entertaining and the meaty. They’re also well enough written to catch the imagination of a serious listener without insulting them. So much is apparent from the very first notes of his “concert paraphrase,” New York Lights, with its subtly shifting harmonies and colors. I think the best way to describe Bolcom is as a composer of pieces that have good classical construction but always seem to veer towards movie or popular tunes. In the 1961 Fantasy-Sonata we hear a more “serious,” atonal Bolcom, evidently trying to impress us with a more serious approach. It certainly works. This appears to be one of those pieces written at a time when he was influenced by Boulez and Messiaen, but listen carefully: as the music progresses, the buoyant rhythms of later Bolcom sneaks through, at least the way pianist Christopher Taylor plays it. One can already hear the influence of ragtime. Nonetheless, it’s a very fine piece, perhaps the most serious in the entire set. Curiously, Bolcom is at his most abstract in the slow movement, marked “Andante, cantabile,” which is about as “cantabile” as a bouncing ball of Silly Putty. In the last movement, “Finale: Burlesque,” Bolcom plays musical ping-pong with syncopated figures.

With the 3 Dance Portraits of 1983-86, we are in Bolcom’s fully mature style. Although there are some altered chords and passages that go outside the basic tonality, the music is far less abstract. There are discernible melodic lines in each of the three pieces, and the forward momentum of each piece is thus dictated by the melody as well as the rhythm. The best description I can make of this piece is that it is “pleasantly modern.” In the second piece, “Knock-Stück,” the pianist is asked to rap the piano with his knuckles, and by 1:35 we are firmly in Bolcom’s later ragtime style, and in “Abbacadabra” he is playing around with syncopated Latin rhythms. Personally, I made very little of the Spring Dances. They didn’t sound to me like dance music and their abstract construction was difficult to comprehend.

The 12 Études of 1959-66 also catch Bolcom in his more serious, and serial, early style. Some of them, i.e. the moto perpetuo No. 2, the abstract-crystalline No. 3, the slowly splashing raindrops of No. 5, the No. 6 “Scherzino – Variations” and No. 9 “Tremolando” are quite good and worthy of repeated listening. And even here, as in the No. 7 “Fast and declamatory,” Bolcom’s predilection towards ragtime sneaks through in the rhythm. Another early, work, the 1960 Night Pieces were influenced by Boulez and Messiaen, even Schoenberg in the fifth and last of them. Although quite abstract, they also have an airiness about them that I found attractive, particularly the last, Schoenbergian one.

Conversations with Andre is a tribute to Andre Hajdu, who studied under Darius Milhaud with Bolcom in 1960 and became his friend. Bolcom describes his music in the liner notes as “wide-ranging,” running the gamut from scores based on the cantorial tradition to music for children. Here Bolcom’s music is busier and, to my ears, happier. It bounces along despite the pauses written into the music, the second of them (“Moderato, comodo”) being particularly enjoyable and the fourth (“Andantino, più lento”) being somewhat mysterious. For one piece we enter an entirely new world, and that is Estela: Rag Latino, written for and performed here by Estela Olevsky. The music vacillates between a Latin and a ragtime feel, and is surely one of the most charming works in this set, including a paraphrase of the popular song Chicago.

Night Meditations was written in 2012 for another of Bolcom’s friends, pianist-composer Curtis Otto-Bismarck Curtis-Smith, at a time when he was suffering from Parkinson’s and had limited piano skills. Oddly, the first piece in the set is rather grim and edgy-sounding, scarcely fodder for meditation. The 1959 Romantic Pieces combine Schumannesque lyricism with modern harmony. According to the notes, Milhaud loved these pieces and had Bolcom play them “at his apartment in Pigalle more than once, for him and several composer friends.” I found them to be simply wonderful, exquisitely written and appealing to a wide range of classical listeners. I especially liked No. 4, “Presto ma non troppo,” for its continual invention and forward momentum, and No. 6, “Chorale,” for its duality of nature. The seventh and last piece is the most lyrical of the set.

The Brooklyn Dodge is a Bolcom ragtime piece meant as an homage to the old Dodgers, who fled Ebbets Field for greener pastures at Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles. Typically of Bolcom, the music is quirky and charming at the same time, played to perfection by Christopher Taylor. The Variations on a Theme by George Rochberg are a tribute to the teacher Bolcom had at Tanglewood who taught him that it was OK to write tonal music, or at the very least vacillate in and out of tonality as the whim moved him—which is exactly what he does here. It’s one of Bolcom’s finest pieces, played perfectly by Constantine Finehouse. I especially liked the variation near the end in which the music seems to be running forward in the left hand and backwards in the right, a sort of topsy-turvy canon.

The Dream Music of 1965 was based on music that Bolcom actually dreamed of himself, a rare occurrence for him. It’s still in his earlier atonal style, yet somehow he makes it sound coherent and all of a piece. We end our journey through Bolcom’s piano music with Ballade, a late work (2006) written for pianist Ursula Oppens, who performs it here. The music is stark and glum, not much in the way of traditional ballade material, but an interesting piece nonetheless, with starkly contrasting tempos and moods from start to finish.

All in all, an interesting and worthwhile collection of Bolcom’s piano music.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The Strange Cello Music of Giacinto Scelsi

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SCELSI: Trilogia – The Three Stages of Man (Triphon; Dithome; Ygghur). Voyages / Marco Simonacci, cel / Brilliant Classics 95355

I’ve already reviewed one CD of Scelsi’s music on this blog, but this one is quite different. It concentrates on a solo instrument, playing bare and naked with nowhere to hide, and illustrates quite clearly how far ahead of his time this Italian composer really was.

From the first bars of Trilogia – The Three Stages of Man, we’re imeediately aware of his unorthodox musical style. The cello is playing in quarter-tones, occasionally buzzing or otherwise distorting his tones. Even when the music becomes much busier, there are so many strange and difficult moments in the work that it sounds like György Ligeti on acid. The only question I have, which remains unanswered, is whether or not Scelsi was influenced in any way by Harry Partch, the maverick American composer who spent most of his life building and writing for quarter-tone and microtonal instruments. What is certain is that he studied in Vienna with Arnold Schoenberg, organized concerts of the music of Stravinsky, Hindemith and Shostakovich, and was later influenced by Eastern spirituality which radically changed his concepts of music.

The Three Stages of Man are youth-energy-drama (three movements), maturity-thought (one long movement) and a final catharsis (three movements). The last section of the first “stage” is quite busy and edgy-sounding, with jagged musical lines and, later, high-range sustained notes. In the middle section (titled “Dithome”), Scelsi works at first within a very small range of tones, focusing rather on a “wavering” and distorted sound. At about the five-minute mark, however, the music becomes increasingly busy and agitated, perhaps representing a flood of competing thoughts in the mind. Later on, after some repeated tenuto notes, we hear the cellist playing odd chorded figures, followed by more unusual pitch distortions within rapid passages. Muvh of the first piece in the third section, titled “Igghur: Alter,” consists for the most part of these wavering tones in a sequence where the underlying rhythm is constantly in flux. The strange “buzzing” sound in the second piece, “Igghur: Erinnerung,” is a constant feature, around which the cellist apparently taps the body of his or her instrument as it goes along.

The two-movement Voyages, dating from 1974, uses similar techniques such as disembodied harmonies and his patented slow, microtonal glissandi. This is especially apparent in the second movement, which almost sounds like someone playing Indian music on a sitar, with its quick wavers played like fluttering tones. Although it’s always difficult to say how much such feelings can be conveyed in music, if one knows these associations it is not difficult to hear them in the playing of Marco Simonacci. His astounding technique and full tone give these works, originally written for Scelsi’s good friend Frances-Marie Uitti, their full measure of both emotional and musical values.

Scelsi did not “develop” his music along conventional classical lines, but rather used a continually changing timbre and density of sound to make his points. Thus the average classical aficionado will undoubtedly feel lost listening to these works, but I urge you to give them a try. They may not be to your taste, but they will certainly open up your mind if you give them half a chance.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Narbutaitė’s Unusual Orchestral Music

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NARBUTAITĖ: La barca. kein gestern, kein morgen (no yesterday, no tomorrow).* krantas upė simfonija (riverbank – river – symphony) / *Jovita Vaškevičiūtė, mezzo; *Tomas Pavilionis, ten; Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra; Christopher Lyndon-Gee, cond / Naxos 8.573618

This disc was my introduction to the music of Onuté Narbutaitė, a Baltic composer from Lithuania. Though born in 1956, she apparently did not emerge as a composer until the 1980s, and finding herself behind the Iron Curtain—a constraint that many in this country would love to impose on us—she identified with “the silent resistance.” She and her fellow artists “adopted a subtle world view keeping their distance not only from the official social realist doctrine of the time [much like the Social Justice Warriors in the U.S.A.] but also from finding inspiration in the folklore of historicism.” Narbutaitė chose to be maverick, combining avant-garde techniques with an inherent lyricism.

The music on this CD has a continually tense, edgy, dark quality about it. Narbutaitė loves to use astringent orchestration as well as harmonies; her music, like that of many modern composers, is geared much more towards the almost metallic sound of high winds and brass mixed with percussion; when she does use strings, it is judiciously and in a way that never covers up the metallic sound. This gives her scores, such as the opening La barca, an edgy quality even when the volume is soft, and although there is a discernible development in her music it is more often marked by a juxtaposition of themes rather than a linear progression. Yet she manages to hold your attention because she is heavily invested emotionally in what she creates, and this pulls the listener along. In this respect she may be seen as a predecessor of such composers as John Pickard or Thomas Adès, whose music is much in the same vein.

There are, however, certain poetic or image references in her work. La barca represents a boat, according to the composer, “sometimes spreading its sails caught by gusts of wind, sometimes slowly sinking under the heaviness of bass tones, and almost stopping for a moment at a bay with clear calm water.” Once you know this you can hear it in the music, yet the eerie astringent harmonies more closely remind one of Pickard of Leif Segerstam.

kein gestern, kein morgen (no yesterday, no tomorrow) was adapted from Narbutaitė’s opera Comet. Written for mezzo, baritone and orchestra, it is based, like Frank Martin’s orchestral song cycle, on Rainer Maria Rilke’s prose poem The Lay of the Life and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke. Their musical style couldn’t be more different, yet both Martin and Narbutaitė use economical orchestral forces, at times sounding like a chamber group or a chamber orchestra, using a different orchestral palette from Martin. In addition, Narbutaitė uses the singers as narrators, telling a tale, whereas Martin has his singer (a solo mezzo-soprano) act out the lyrics as if she were the character. Yet both works are masterful in their own way, pushing the envelope and creating a unique sense of atmosphere. It also helps that our singers in this performance, mezzo Jovita Vaškevičiūtė and tenor Tomas Pavilionis, have decent voices, well-focused, clear, and with good diction (although Pavilionis sounds somewhat strained in his high register). One similarity I noticed in both composers’ approach to this poetry is that they create an atmosphere of mystery that surrounds the listener like a cloud nebula.

The last piece, riverbank – river – symphony, is as edgy and suspended in time as the first two. Like so many (but not all) modern composers, Narbutaitė’s musical style, though uniquely her own, is rather restricted in scope. She has nowhere the range of expression one heard in Stravinsky, Martin, Martinů or Peter Seabourne; all her pieces seem to follow a similar pattern, similar soundscape, similar tempos and ideas. This does not make it bad music, but it doesn’t have much variety. Still, this disc is a fascinating glimpse into the musical mind of someone who is not like everyone else. Recommended with the above caveat.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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