Nørgård’s “Siddharta” a Pretty Heady Opera

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NØRGÅRD: Siddharta; For a Change: Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra / Stig Fogh Andersen, tenor (Siddharta); Aage Haugland, bass (Suddhodana); Anne Frellesvig, soprano (Kamala); Birgitte Frieboe, alto (Tara); Edith Guillaume, mezzo-soprano (Prajapati); Erik Harbo, tenor (Asita); Kim Janken, tenor (1st Counselor); Christian Christansen, bass (2nd Counselor); Poul Elming, tenor (Messenger); Tina Kiberg, soprano (Yasodhara); Minna Nyhus, alto (Gandarva); Gert Mortensen, percussion (in Concerto); Danish National Radio Choir & Symphony Orchestra; Jan Latham-Koenig, conductor / Dacapo 8.224031-32

Sometimes you just never know what kind of treasures you’ll discover if you poke around long enough. Having been deeply impressed by Neeme Järvi’s recording of Carl Nielsen’s Saul and David (see my assessment in The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide), I was seeking other recordings by the wonderful soprano on that recording, Tina Kiberg, when I ran across this opera. I was startled to discover that the work dated from the late 1970s and the recording from the 1980s, since I had never heard of either before, but after just 10 minutes of listening I knew I had struck gold. Siddharta was, and is, a masterpiece.

But just who was this wonderful composer I had never runacross before? As it turns out, Per Nørgård is a Danish composer who enjoyed some notable exposure from the late 1960s through the early ‘80s, particularly for his operas Gilgamesh, Siddharta and Det Guddommelige Tivoli, but somehow or other his fame became elusive in the West. This was probably due to the dual factors of his own music’s difficulty and the rise, and popularity, of the much easier-to-assimilate style of minimalism. You can go to the Met and hear minimalist operas there to this very day, particularly that miserable specimen Nixon in China, but Siddharta remains to be staged there, and you know how it is with operagoers. If it hasn’t been seen or heard, it doesn’t exist.

All of which is a shame because, as I say, this is one of the most fascinating and well-conceived modern operas in my experience. It turns out that Nørgård bases much of his music on number sequences, particularly the infinity series for serializing melody, harmony, and rhythm in musical composition. The method takes its name from the endlessly self-similar nature of the resulting musical material, comparable to fractal geometry. Sounds pretty intimidating, doesn’t it? Well, when one listens to the actual music thus produced it turns out to be relatively tonal and melodic, albeit using complex rhythms and melodic “cells” that are repeated later in the work with a different rhythm and/or different orchestration, thus producing an entirely different effect. Broken down to layman’s terns, what I heard was music that was exotic in nature and style in which Nørgård combines vocal and instrumental timbres—particularly the choral voices—in such a way as to produce a “shimmering” sound over which he lays the solo vocal lines.

The effect, then, is not forbidding or off-putting, like Peter Maxwell Davies’ early vocal works, but rather quite attractive if not necessarily easy to digest. WIthin his sound-world, Nørgård creates a complex and sometimes polyphonic web using a sparse and very colorful orchestration leaning heavily on percussion and high strings. Despite the fact that Siddharta has no arias, the vocal line is not really too difficult for the ear to follow so long as one is not trying to follow or sing along with it. La Bohème it certainly is not, but it’s not nearly as dense or complex as Berg’s Lulu, which has certainly become a repertoire staple.

And perhaps another reason for its neglect is it subject. An opera on the early life and raising of Prince Siddharta, who later became the Buddha, isn’t exactly what Americans consider entertainment. They would much rather be titillated by Richard Nixon singing in a high tenor voice or homosexual cowboys on Brokeback Mountain; that, to them, is real entertainment. The story of a young man’s awakening and spiritual journey? Wow, that’s too exsitential, man. It wouldn’t even make an epic movie.

But if you are open to new experiences, Siddharta wuill seduce you and hold your interest throughout its 90-minute length. Maybe the unusual length is another reason many opera houses won’t perform it…that, plus the fact that it’s sung in Danish, although there are also versions available now in German and English. As for me, I could’t stop listening once I started; I just had to hear the entire opera, and I was as spellbound as if I were in a trance-state. As Nørgård himself put it in the liner notes:

What I express as desirable is a combination of the “familiar and safe” — and the “unfamiliar and titillating”. The sparse use in the first act of a technique involving a change of accentuation almost becomes an orgy of transformation music in the second act, where theme after theme, orchestral passage after orchestral passage, is revealed on closer hearing (or reading)being identical with earlier passages or themes. A “new metric structure” is solely responsible for this illusion of musical change! For example, the ambiguity of the “Ball-music” in opening of the second act is immediate manifested in the two main themes underlying the dance in youth’s ‘eternal’ noon. One of them is merry — festive — square cut, while the other is restless – elegant – scudding. But the notes of the two passages are identical; the change is hidden in a ´new metric structure´.

The solo vocal lines, once started, continue with the pace of a natural conversation, interspersed with instrumental and choral passages. One must follow the libretto (included with the recording) fairly closely in order to get the maximum interest out of the music, although Nørgård does a good job of setting the mood and character of each scene. It also doesn’t hurt that every single solo singer has a fine voice and fits their characters perfectly.

Because of the opera’s relative brevity, the second CD is filled in with Nørgård’s percussion concerto, For a Change. This, too, follows his mathematical principles of composition and is also a fascinating piece, in an entirely different style. Although the percussion dominates and its sometimes quite loud, it is never entirely so. There are surprisingly long moments of quietude and, in one section, the music almost swings with a jazz rhythm.

The opera’s libretto starts with Siddharta’s father Suddhodana planning to raise his son in an artificial atmosphere of only love and joy, not allowing him to see or comprehend sickness, disability or death, and ends with his “awakening,” the realization that what he has been experiencing is a lie. To a certain extent, this can also be seen as a metaphor for the young and spoiled college students of modern America, raised in a cocoon where they are so protected from not sickness and death but the least little insult, taught that murdering terrorists are just nice people who haven’t had enough hugs or balloons and that having millions of people overrun our country bringing drugs and disease is a good thing. Sooner or later their moment of awakening will come, too, but when it occurs will they become enlightened, rip the veil from their eyes and see the world as it really is? Siddharta’s companions knew that there was really disability, illness and death; they were just trained to hide them from him. Today’s lied-to children remain children forever, playing Pokemon Go as grown adults, because they’ve been raised in a co-dependent atmosphere where they reinforce each others’ insular and distorted view of the world.

And maybe, just maybe, this is another reason why Siddharta wouldn’t sell in America. Too many of those who went to see it would probably sympathize with Suddhodana and feel badly that Siddharta learned the truth. Who knows? As the late Jon Vickers used to say, “Great art asks questions, but it doesn’t provide answers.” Siddharta is indeed a great work of art, and I strongly urge you to hear it for yourself.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Aksel Rykkvin an Excellent Boy Treble

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AKSEL! / BACH: Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen (opening aria only). Mein gläubiges Herz. St. John Passion: Ich folge dir glechfalls. Bist du bei mir. Magnificat: Quia respexit. Zerreißet: Angenehmer Zephyrus. HANDEL: Joshua: Happy, o thrice happy we. Alcina: Chi m’insegna il caro padre?; Barbara! lo ben lo so. Rinaldo: Lascia ch’io pianga. Eternal source of light divine. Messiah: How beautiful are the feet; Thou art gone up on high. Samson: Let the bright Seraphim. Joshua: O had I Jubal’s lyre. MOZART: Le Nozze di Figaro: Voi che sapete; Non so più, cosa son, cosa faccio. Exsultate Jubilate: Alleluia / Aksel Rykkvin, treble; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Nigel Short, conductor / Signum SIGCD435

The history of recording is not really as full of boy trebles, altos etc. as one might think, although they have proliferated much more in the digital era than previously. The granddaddy of them all was young William Pickels of Trinity Church in Pittsburgh, PA, who made a batch of stunning recordings in 1915 for Victor Records. The only problem was that this was an era when the kind of music a boy treble should have been singing—Bach, Handel, perhaps a little Mozart, as on this CD—was not at all popular, thus young Pickels

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William Pickels

was relegated to what was considered standard soprano fare: Musetta’s waltz from La Bohème, Just A-Wearyin’ for You, Mattinata, and Luigi Arditi’s Se saran rose (Love in Springtime), also called “the Melba waltz” because it was a showstopper of the great Australian soprano. This was undoubtedly young Pickels’ greatest achievement on record (you can hear it here), and for whatever reason his voice did not survive puberty. Many years later, in the early 1950s, he narrated on a recording of Peter and the Wolf.

Since the 1980s, however, we have had two very fine boy trebles or sopranos, Bejun Mehta and Max Emanuel Cenčič, both of whom became countertenors when they grew up. Mehta had the richer voice and an almost adult feeling for line and interpretation, but as a boy his pitch was occasionally suspect. Cenčič’s voice, though not as lush in quality, had an unusual bronze timbre and he was an exceptional interpreter: I still have, and treasure, his phenomenal recording of the Mahler Fourth Symphony conducted by Anton Nanut (Stradivarius). As an adult countertenor, Cenčič’s voice is the more spectacular since he has somehow managed to maintain that same bronze color he had as a boy while extending his range downward. I would place him, along with Philippe Jaourssky and Robin Blaze, as the best countertenor currently singing.

What future may hold in store for 12-yer-old Aksel Rykkvin has yet to be determined, but it is probably certain that this disc, like Bejun Mehta’s, will be his one and only as a treble. Unlike Mehta, who chose a few Baroque arias but (surprisingly) filled his disc with art songs, Rykkvin sticks closely to that type of repertoire I mentioned in the first paragraph, singing music composed for boy soprano (the Bach Cantata No. 51 and Handel’s arias from Alcina), Cherubino’s arias from Le Nozze di Figaro, and several other Bach and Handel pieces that are at least technically and emotionally accessible to him. He does not have the sensuous tone of young Mehta or the bronze quality of Cenčič; in fact, just by looking at his photo on the album cover and listening to his voice, I judged him to be no older than 9 or 10, and was thus surprised to learn that he is already 12.

Despite, or perhaps because, of his still-youthful sound, Rykkvin’s voice has the kind of penetrating tone that one associates with most boy trebles, allied to a superb technique and flawless sense of pitch that many such singers do not enjoy. His trill is not quite perfect but at least it’s there, and the rest of his technical arsenal (turns, grace notes or gruppetti, etc.) is perfectly in place. His wonderful legato and sense of style makes it all sound perfectly natural and not forced, always a trap for such singers. Pickels also escaped this, but in listening to some of Cenčič’s early performances (i.e., Johann Strauss’ Voices of Spring) one heard some of the technique being so “locked in” that it tended to sound mechanical. Rykkvin almost sounds like the classical equivalent of a natural-born yodeler, joyfully singing his way through music that would daunt a soprano twice his age.

I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t record the full Bach Cantata No. 51, but the opening aria is superbly executed and a good starter for this album. The liner notes don’t indicate who wrote the variations that he sings in “Lascia ch’io pianga,” and towards the end I felt that they were a bit too much of a good thing, but by golly he manages them cleanly. Just about the only drawback I heard on this record was his English diction, which is not terribly close to the way it should sound.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the accompaniment by the Age of Enlightenment Orchestra, but to my ears they have deteriorated in both sound quality and musical style from the years when Gustav Leonhardt was conducting them. The reason, of course, is the more stringent adherence to this modern-day style that is supposed to emulate historical performance practice but does not. As a result, the strings are much drier and even a bit whiny in tone compared to the Leonhardt recordings and the brass thinner; only the winds still emerge somewhat sweetly. Even by comparison with, say, John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of the Bach Cantata from the early 1980s with soprano Emma Kirkby—whose voice Rykkvin’s resembles somewhat—the pallid tone and choppy style of the orchestra almost resembles a parody of correct musical style. Sorry, but that’s how I feel and I have the recordings to prove it.

Nonetheless, this certainly isn’t Rykkvin’s fault; he chose a well-established orchestra that all the critics besides me simply adore. Even more interestingly, he funded his own record through Kickstarter! His goal was 250,000 Norwegian krona ($30,400) but he actually raised kr264,967 ($32,220). Good for you, Aksel! Now do us all a favor when you hit puberty, stop singing for a few years, and re-emerge as a tenor or baritone. I’m rooting for you!

— © Lynn René Bayley

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Quartetto Energie Nove’s Splendid Prokofiev

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PROKOFIEV: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2; Visions Fugitives, Op. 22 (arr. Samsonov) / Quartetto Energie Nove / Dynamic CDS726

Having been blown away by Quartetto Energie Nove’s performances of the Janáček String Quartets (see my review here), I decided to review this earlier disc of Prokofiev quartets. Now, one must take into account the fact that Prokofiev’s music, particularly his later music, tends to be not only more astringent in harmony than Janáček but also more cerebral and emotionally detached, rare exceptions being his Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3, Peter and the Wolf, Lt. Kije Suite, Romeo and Juliet and the Seventh Symphony. In much of the music of his maturity, Prokofiev wrote what I feel are intellectually challenging (and sometimes playful) scores, where the challenge to the performer(s) is to make it sound interesting.

Andrew Litton achieved this in his recent release of the Prokofiev Symphonies Nos. 4 (revised 1947 version) and 7, and Quartetto Energie Nove achieves it in this recording of the two string quartets and an arrangement for quartet of Visions Fugitives. Their approach to the music is, stylistically, somewhat different from their performances of Janáček. Here, they approach the music in a taut, linear fashion, eschewing any lingering moments of rubato. Indeed, the tempos, once begun, are so strict that one could set a metronome to them and let them go. Yet this is not a negative thing, for within that strict tempo the quartet manages to expand on Prokofiev’s basic instructions by imparting a great deal of electricity to each note and phrase. It would be easy to say that many young string quartets do the same thing, but I would counter that this is not necessarily the case, also that in many cases other quartets fail to grasp the differences between romantic quartets and modern ones. By approaching Prokofiev this way, Quartetto Energie Nove feels that these works fall somewhere between, say, Janáček and Kodály on one hand and post-1940 string quartets on the other. They want us to establish both an intellectual and emotional connection with this music, and to that end they do some amazing work.

To a certain extent one can hear the difference most clearly in the arrangement of Visions Fugitives, a series of short piano pieces originally composed in 1915-17. Here the quartet sounds more genial and playful, as is befitting these works. In some of the faster, edgier pieces in this group, i.e. No. XV Inquieto, they play with the same kind of drive and emotional ferocity heard in the later quartets, but by and large they approach the music more lyrically (listen particularly to No. XVII, Poetico). It is a fine line they walk between pressing hard and easing up, and they have very fine instincts in their choices.

If I seem to have placed more attention on the lesser work here it is not because I was less impressed with the larger quartets, but because it provides a contrast in style and shows how well they judge their effects. On the contrary, their taut, lean yet highly charged readings of the two big quartets are outstanding—listen, for instance, to the way they balance the lyrical and explosive elements in the second movements of both quartets, bringing out Prokofiev’s sometimes-obscured dark side. Many other young chamber groups can play the larger works in a similar style, albeit not always with this kind of emotional commitment, whereas almost none can pull off what they do in the miniatures. This is a thoughtful as well as an exciting disc, highly recommended.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Litton’s Prokofiev Structured Yet Exciting

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PROKOFIEV: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 7 / Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Andrew Litton, conductor / Bis 2134 (SACD)

This is the fifth installment in Andrew Litton’s survey of the complete orchestral works of Prokofiev. The first four included the Romeo and Juliet suites (Bis 1301), Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3 (1820), Symphony No. 6 and the suites from Lt. Kije and Love for Three Oranges (1994) and Symphony No. 5 with the Scythian Suite (2124), none of which I have heard.

I chose to review this disc because, except for the First Symphony (“Classical”), I’ve tried several times over the past half-century to get into Prokofiev’s Symphonies without much luck. There was just something about the music that I found not necessarily unlikable so much as rambling and poorly structured. No matter who was conducting them, they just didn’t seem to make any sense to me.

But Andrew Litton has been a conductor I’ve respected for a long time, so I figured what the heck, I’ll take a shot at it. And I’m glad I did, because these performances have a taut structure about them that makes the juxtaposed sections, some of which don’t seem to jell in others’ performances, make sense. A perfect example is the first movement of the Fourth (this is the revised 1947 version, not the 1929-30 original, which I assume Litton will be recording in due course. Here is a work that at times resembles the love scene from Romeo and Juliet, in other places the Scythian Suite, constantly shifting back and forth in an almost schizophrenic manner between these two moods. No other conductor I’ve ever heard playing this music does as much with it as Litton, and that’s more than a compliment; it’s an enthusiastic endorsement. Without sacrificing one whit of energy or passion, Litton pulls the threads of this work together in such a manner that the listener suddenly understands what the composer was trying to accomplish—well, at least that’s how I interpreted it. And let me tell you, folks, the Bergen Philharmonic plays as if they were possessed, the sound forward, crisp and clear which is usually the norm for Bis recordings and the sound of the various sections beautifully “manicured” in a way that resembles the New York Philharmonic or BBC Symphony of the 1930s under Toscanini. Even the very softest wind or string passages are clear as a bell; inner voices are continually heard without dominating the ensemble; and the brasses cleave through the massed sound without snarling or sounding rough—except for those occasional passages where Litton wants to bring out a bit of roughness, such as the very ending of the fourth’s first movement. If anything, he has grown as a conductor since the last time I sampled him. Small wonder that his reputation and career path have expanded to include the Colorado Symphony, which post he accepted after formally leaving the Bergen Philharmonic last year, as well as the New York City Ballet.

Litton’s instinctive sense of the organic allows one to follow Prokofiev’s mind as it flits from section to section and movement to movement; particularly in the dance-like third that, to my ears, closely resembles some passages from Romeo and Juliet. That being said, I’m not quite ready to endorse either symphony as a major work of art. Well crafted they may be, but craft is not inspiration. What Litton does with the music is, in a sense, greater than what Prokofiev did with it, much like hearing Respighi’s Pines of Rome or Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite performed by a master conductor. You may certainly disagree with my findings, and if you do these are most assuredly the performances you should get, but I have to be honest with myself and my own internal instincts, and I am probably more convinced than ever—now that I can properly hear the music well performed—that there are just too many spots in these symphonies where the music strives more for effect than an internal need to express one’s self through tones. In other words, Prokofiev was trying to impress the audience with his cleverness and acute mind but not saying anything personal, and because of that these symphonies are, to my ears, merely clever exercises.

Perhaps this is even more clearly evident in the Seventh Symphony, purposely written to conform to the Soviet demand for “people’s music” that was not too dissonant or difficult. The composer, quite ill at the time of its first run-through of the symphony, was assured that it would be a success, but Prokofiev kept asking, “Isn’t the music too simple?” He evidently suspected that he hadn’t given his best, yet in some ways this Seventh Symphony is not merely easier on the ears than the dissonant Fifth and Sixth Symphonies but, for me, more cohesive in form and also more personally expressive. Perhaps because he wasn’t trying to “dazzle with bullshit,” he simply leaned back, relaxed, and produced a surprisingly sunny, attractive, and—dare I say it?—more touching work. Even the soft, lightly scored flute and string passage around 6:15 in the first movement has more to say than many of the in-your-face dissonances of the Fourth. And without those abrasive episodes, the music has a much greater flow and continuity about it…or, at least, it does the way Litton conducts it. Listen, for instance, to the soaring melody at 8:10 in that same first movement, and you’ll hear what I mean. The strings play with a special sort of energy, imbuing the music with not just a lyric feeling but also one of ecstasy.

Indeed, even the second-movement “Allegretto” is more interesting, and has more charm, than the fourth’s corresponding “Moderato, quasi allegretto” (the movement that sounded so much like Romeo and Juliet). When the music shifts and changes it does so much more organically, and although Andrew Huth’s liner notes make a big fuss over the use of a glockenspiel near the end of the finale and the manner in which the music hangs in the air, “in the tonic key but emotionally unresolved,” lacking “the necessary Soviet optimism,” I hear it simply as an expression of calm. Don’t make such a big fuss out of nothing, folks. Remember Mr. Natural.

The slow movement of the Seventh is surely one of Prokofiev’s finest melodic creations, and Litton and the orchestra play it for all it’s worth. On this recording, an alternate version of the last movement is also given after the published one, in which Prokofiev added a 22-bar coda to the symphony’s end but either way this movement is among the composer’s most lighthearted works. The whole tone of the movement is one of lighthearted, almost galumphing wit, and here is where he uses the most contrasting sections in different tempi. The tacked-on extra ending, I felt, was not merely superfluous but didn’t fit the preceding material. It sounds a bit like Peter chasing the wolf after Juliet has gone to sleep dreaming of Romeo.

All in all, however, this is a splendid recording of two of Prokofiev’s later symphonies and well recommended to those listeners who appreciate this music.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Quartetto Energie Nove Nails Janáček

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JANÁČEK: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2; On an Overgrown Path (arr. Burghauser) / Quartetto Energie Nove / Dynamic CDS7708

Sometimes, as a reviewer, you never know where lightning will strike. Just before listening to this recording, I sampled the new release of Bartók’s String Quartets played by the New York-based Chiara String Quartet, who apparently brand themselves as playing “from the heart.” By comparison with the Alexander String Quartet’s stupendous readings, however, they were correct, virtuosic, but not at all from the heart. From the first note of this new recording of Leoš Janáček’s string quartets, however, I was absolutely pinned to the wall. And I stayed there for the whole of this record.

The album cover makes a great to-do about these being the first recordings of the original manuscript edition of Janáček’s quartets. That may be so, but as I’ve said numerous times in various circumstances, it’s not just the message but the messenger that matters. For decades, the old (1955) mono recordings of these two quartets by the Smetana Quartet (Pristine PACM046) were considered the benchmark in this music. No longer. I was startled, upon relistening to the Smetana Quartet’s recordings, at just how stodgy and prosaic they were. And this was considered cutting edge once. Oh, well. “Energie Nove,” or New Energy, certainly does describe this phenomenal Swiss quartet, founded in Lugano in 2008. Every note crackles with energy, and this even goes for the more sedate On an Overgrown Path, here transcribed from the piano score for quartet by Jarmil Burghauser. Violinists Barbara Ciannamea and Hans Liviabella, violist Ivan Vukčevič and cellist Feliz Vogelsang play at the very edge of passion; they remind me of the late, lamented Colorado String Quartet in their commitment and sense of drama.

In addition to their passion, Quartetto Energie Nove utilizes a very bright sonority of a type that has all but disappeared from modern string quartet playing. This is the kind of sound that hearkens back to the Amar, Pro Arte and early Budapest String Quartets of the 1920s, bright and lean with an almost edgy quality tempered by their superb intonation and remarkable blend. This is a group that can play as a section or pit one voice against another at a moment’s notice. I’m sure that some listeners may find their performances a bit too intense for them. That’s their problem. I love this group because they’re intense, and the way they play has an edge to it that greatly satisfies me.

I can’t say enough good things about this release, best of all being the sonics that place the quartet in a good ambience without overdoing the reverb. This disc is a killer!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Franz Schmidt’s Surprising Music

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SCHMIDT: Variations on a Hussar’s Song; Phantasiestück für Klavier und Orchester ; Chaconne für Orchester in d / Jasminca Stančul, pianist; German State Philharmonic of the Rheinland-Pfalz; Alexander Rumpf, conductor / Capriccio C5274

Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) studied piano with the great Theodore Leschetitzky, cello with Ferdinand Hellmesberger, composition with Robert Fuchs and harmony and counterpoint with Anton Bruckner. He played cello in the Vienna Philharmonic and in the Vienna Court Orchestrs, but quit the latter in 1914 to could concentrate on composition and teaching piano. He was awarded a piano professorship at the Vienna Academy of Music, where he later became vice-chancellor, and also privately taught cello (among his pupils were Josef Dichler, Alfred Rosé, Theodor Berger and Marcel Rubin. In 1937 he resigned due to health problems and died two years later.

Ironically, despite his renown as a pianist and cellist, Schmidt is most widely known for his organ works as well as his oratorio, The Book With Seven Seals, yet he also wrote symphonies, the operas Notre Dame and Fredigundis (the latter of which is often cited as the greatest opera no one has ever heard of), and much chamber music—all of it rather obscure to today’s audiences. This CD focuses on his even less-well-known orchestral works, including a Fantasy for piano and orchestra.

Since this was my first exposure to Schmidt, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was quickly taken by his unusual way with music. Particularly in the Variations on a Hussar’s Song (written 1930-31), one hears a very personal means of expression: decidedly German in structure, yet using several “crushed” or extended chords in the manner of French composers (one thinks not only of Ravel but also of Kochelin). Unlike his teacher Bruckner who, as an acquaintance of mine put it, only wrote “a series of endings,” Schmidt’s score shows real development, albeit in a very personal and somewhat strange vein. In some places the shifting orchestral chords put me in mind of Scriabin a little bit…one wonders if he heard any of the Russian’s music. The bottom line is a sort of “German impressionism”; one might say the stepchild of Wagner and Debussy, but it is very attractive; note, for instance, how in the “Theme and Variations” Schmidt makes the melodic line move the harmony rather than the other way round. This is the kind of harmonic-melodic interaction once often hears from very advanced jazz musicians but almost never from classical composers of Schmidt’s generation. Alexander Rumpf has a tremendous feel for this music, conducting with both great sensitivity and a fine sense of musical line…listen to his superbly controlled legato in the “Lento” section with its constantly shifting chords (particularly within the horn section). It is so rare, in fact, to hear conducting on this high a level from the younger generation of maestros that I can only hope that we hear much more from this highly gifted musician.

The Phantasiestücke is a very early work, composed in 1899 when Schmidt was only 22 years old, and thus somewhat more conventional in structure, yet there are touches (such as at the 1:40 mark) of the kind of fluid harmonic movement that would become his hallmark. The piano writing, though brilliant, is rather conventional, verging on a tune that one can hum but never quite getting there. Pianist Stančul plays the ebullient score with good tone and style, but all in all this wasn’t my cup of tea, although in this work Schmidt surprisingly captures a sort of Spanish sound, a bit like Granados.

Happily, in the Chaconne (also from 1930-31) we end the recording on the same type of music one heard in the Hussar song variations. In tempo and feeling, this score bears a certain resemblance to Richard Strauss’ Metmorphosen for 21 Strings, except that the music is far more substantial and actually goes somewhere. Strauss’ score does not. Here, too, one gets the sense that Schmidt was essentially writing an organ piece for orchestra. At least, in my mind’s ear I kept hearing this played on the organ, with all the various stops one could use to simulate the wind and string textures. Interestingly, this piece also has a very strong Russian flavor, rather like really first-rate Rimsky-Korsakov or Rachmaninov. And once again, one really does marvel at Rumpf’s ability to shape and mold the line with both forward momentum and superb legato.

All in all, this is a recording worth exploring, even if late-period German Romantic music is not your thing. Schmidt’s superb ear for color and especially harmonic movement was so highly evolved that it is almost impossible not to like this music—and Alexander Rumpf is a big reason why it works so well.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Quinsin Nachoff in a State of “Flux”

Nachoff_Flux_COVER

FLUX / NACHOFF: Tightrope; Complimentary Opposites; Mind’s Ear I; Mind’s Ear II; Astral Echo Poem; Tilted / Quinsin Nachoff, t-sax; David Binney, a-sax; Matt Mitchell, pn/Fender Rhodes/Wurlitzer org/Moog Rogue/org; Kenny Wollesen, dm/timp/tubular bells/perc / Mythology Records MR0012

Canadian tenor saxist and composer Quinsin Nachoff describes his music as fusing together eclectic influences from both jazz and classical music, yet resists the label of “Third Stream.” Nachoff says that he likes “mixing and matching things. I try to find commonalities between them to put people in different landscapes to improvise in.” He describes Flux, his latest album, as the combination of two pairings, his tenor saxophone with David Binney’s alto and the opposites-attract meething of keybord player Matt Mitchell and percusisonist Kenny Wollensen. “The concept was to put more heady material that Matt can deal with,” Nachoff puts it, “on top of this really organic feel that Kenny does and have it work as a band sound.”

The aural result is something akin to Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” only with a jazz rhythm aligned with logical struetures. What’s interesting about Nachoff’s music is that the structures don’t sound classically-influenced, though they are, and the reason they don’t is that, even moreso than Charles Mingus or George Russell, Nachoff uses the musical syntax of jazz. Thus in the opening piece, Tightrope, one hears far more of Monk and Coleman than of any specific classical composer, yet upon careful listening the structure is there. In fact, his structures are even tighter and more logical than those of, say, Henry Threadgill, to name another jazz composer (see my profile of Threadgill here) whose work has great intricacy. The difference is that Threadgill relies on a layering of notes at random intervals determined by the performers, whereas Nachoff’s music actually develops along classical lines. I’m sure that the solo spots he leaves open are improvised, but even then the solos are intended to complement the written sections. Rhythmically, I would say that Nachoff varies his beat by juxtaposing cells of music in slightly different tempos and beat-structures, but once again, it is logically worked out in advance and not left to chance.

He also likes to use different sections with contrasting tempos, though not to the extent that Mingus did, constantly jumping back and forth between them. At around the seven-minute mark in Tightrope, for instance, he suddenly has a section (featuring David Binney on alto sax) in a very slow tempo, and it stays there for about a minute before regaining its earlier momentum. Both Nachoff and his sidemen can play outside jazz, and do so from time to time, but never consistently so in order to preserve musical order. This kind of music was first tested out, in a simpler form, by such groups as the John Kirby Sextet, later expanded upon by Miles Davis’ Nonet. I found it amusing that Nachoff called his second tune Complimentary Opposites rather than Complementary, apparently alluding to the fact that the “opposites” within this piece play nice with each other but are a bit more opposed than dovetailed. The extended tenor sax solo in double time acts as a way of spanning the broken rhythms of the piece, whereas Matt Mitchell’s piano solo—delicate and thoughtful, using single-note lines—provides greater contrast, forcing the bass and drums to calm down for a while at least, with only sporadic double-time outbursts. Coming as it does almost immediately after Nachoff’s tenor solo, it puts us in another musical world.

Mind’s Ear I begins with an asymmetric piano intro, following which we hear what sounds like early-1980s modern jazz in a lyrical vein. The interesting thing about this track is that it seems to meander a lot more than the preceding ones, but this is an aural illusion created in part by the more relaxed beat and ambiguous tempo. Indeed, towards the middle of the piece, the tempo relaxes to the point of stasis, the drums reduced to occasional taps and cymbal dings as pianist Mitchell plays an out-of-tempo solo, almost meandering with a great deal of space in the music. At 6:50 we get an honest-to-goodness Ornette Coleman lick before Nahoff takes off on an uptempo tenor excursion, finally relaxing the beat at 8:32 before the piano’s quirky rideout to a dead stop in the middle of nowhere.

Mind’s Ear II is more rock-influenced, thus I will draw the curtain on it. Rock beats and I simply do not get along and never will, but if you like them you’ll enjoy this.

Quinsin Nachoff 2Astral Echo Poem is much more my cup of tea, a strange little work very close in feel to some of Mingus’ late works but using one of those quirky march-lke beats that Carla Bley loves so much. This was good enough to get the album back on track (pun intended), and here Nachoff’s tenor solo is warmer and more ingratiating than anywhere else on the album. I really liked his playing here, and Mitchell’s playing on electric piano, though again at double time, also has a laid-back feel about it. A few more Coleman-isms are tossed into this musical stew as the two saxes play together. We wrap up things with Tilted, a really wonderful piece whose opening—busy and complex using double-time repeated runs—put me in mind a little bit of Monk’s Four in One. The difference is that Nachoff uses this strange double-time lick as a backdrop to the “main melody” (obscure thought it may be) rather than as the melody itself, and occasionally drops the lick in behind his and others’ solos. A brief but complex canon evolves around the 3:20 mark before the tempo stops and Wilson returns on Fender Rhodes. There is, alas, a touch of rock beat here as well, but fortunately it’s not quite as dominant and doesn’t last nearly as long.

I was really impressed by Flux as a whole (track 4 aside) and highly recommend it as an example of new ways to combine the classical and jazz idioms.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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