Dizzy’s Swinging Bands

Dizzy big band

John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was one of the few jazz giants of my time I unfortunately never got to see live, but of course I saw him on TV fairly often. A truly great and original trumpeter and an equally great entertainer, Dizzy was often called “the clown prince of bebop” and compared to Louis Armstrong. And Dizzy admired Armstrong tremendously, so much so that he was elated when he heard, c. 1946 or ’47, that the great man had come to see him perform. During the 1950s he tried, twice, to convince Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, to let him record a couple of albums playing duets with Satchmo, but Glaser would have none of it. Although he knew full well that Gillespie really liked and admired Armstrong, and would not have tried to show him up, he also knew that the jazz critics would not let the opportunity pass to use Gillespie to beat Armstrong like a stick. They did play together just once, on the Jackie Gleason TV show, a performance of the old early-‘40s tune The Umbrella Man, and it was marvelous. The two of them listened to each other, and in my opinion Armstrong never played better during that period in his career. It was as if his creativity got a jump start.

But Dizzy wasn’t really dizzy when it came to music, even though I’ve met people who took his onstage clowning very badly. One woman I met, listening to his 1946 recording of A Night in Tunisia in 1986, told me that he had forgotten how good he was because of all the decades of clowning. Once, at a club in the 1950s, Dizzy started one of his silly gibberish songs and a slightly inebriated patron (possibly a music critic) yelled out for him to cut the crap. Dizzy laughed and went on with his nonsense song, then launched into a brilliant full-chorus solo, after which he walked up to the man, grinned in his face and said, “Seeeeee?” He had cut his musical eye-teeth in the very fine but now forgotten NBC jazz band led by Teddy Hill, who later managed the famous nightclub Minton’s Playhouse which was the nursery of bop, and always credited the little-known Bill Dillard, first trumpet in the Hill band, for teaching him how to lead a section.

After he left the Hill hand, Gillespie played brief stints in the big bands of Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine. He also wrote arrangements for the famous white bands led by Jimmy Dorsey and Woody Herman, and in 1945 he sat in with the well respected Boyd Raeburn band, where he soloed on two tracks, March of the Boyds and his own tune (and arrangement) of A Night in Tunisia. His reputation among musicians, particularly in the early years, was that of a kook who didn’t know how to “play in tune.” The problem was not that Gillespie was out of tune but that he was exploring the upper harmonics or the “overtone series” of chord positions. Alto saxist Charlie Parker was doing the same thing at about the same time, but Parker’s high-range playing was softer-grained in sound and his basic aesthetic more blues-based. Gillespie’s style was more angular. Whereas other modern trumpeters hinted at higher intervals, occasionally playing one or two notes as a 13th or a 14th, Gillespie tended to live up there, playing the overtone sequence as a strong melodic structure—all at breakneck speed, mostly in 16ths and 32nds. This kind of playing is what unsettled many listeners, particularly in the early 1940s when the whole concept of blowing open the overtone series—at least in jazz—was not merely new but unheard-of. It is what led Cab Calloway, Woody Herman and Mary Lou Williams to call his playing “Chinese music,” since the intervals he played didn’t seem to fit into Western tonality…except that they did, as overtones. By the late 1940s, virtually everyone, including Williams, came to realize that what Gillespie was doing was indeed musical, and brilliant, but in 1941, when he wrote the scores of Down Under and Woody’n You for the Woody Herman band, Herman had the audacity to tell him to stick to writing and give up the trumpet!

Building on his growing reputation as the most outstanding modern trumpet soloist of his day, Gillespie formed his first big band in 1946. At that time there were no other full-time bebop bands, though the avant-garde jazz bands of Raeburn and Stan Kenton ruled the roost. Stocked with young, unknown musicians (among them tenor saxist James Moody, vibes player Milt Jackson, pianist John Lewis and bassist Ray Brown), the Gillespie band was essentially based on the standard brass-vs-reeds orchestration that had been considered formulaic since the beginning of the swing era. The difference was, as in the case of Gillespie’s own solo style, in the treatment of rhythm. It has often been said that Gillespie was the first soloist in jazz to come along with an entirely different sense of rhythm than Louis Armstrong. This is essentially true, although the little-remembered Cladys “Jabbo” Smith actually started to break that mold in the late 1920s (but that is another story for another time, as Smith was that most tragic of figures, a musician who sabotaged his own career). To break it down to basics, Armstrong was—like his slightly older colleague Sidney Bechet—an opera diva singing on the trumpet in a Romantic fashion, whereas Gillespie was a Stravinskyite. It was like the difference between Monet and Picasso. And in his big band, Gillespie found four other trumpeters—originally Dave Burns, Elmon Wright, Matthew McKay and John Lynch, with the latter two later replaced by Lamar Wright and Benny Bailey, then later still with Benny Harris replacing BurnsOol-Ya-Koo and Willie Cook replacing Bailey—who were able to play like him, at least when he wrote out the improvisations, scored them for five trumpets, and led the section himself. The effect was stunning if a little messy: the 1940s Gillespie band always seemed to have slight intonation problems, particularly in the reed section. But in the end it didn’t matter because their playing was just so exciting. I can still recall, as an 18-year-old, buying the RCA Victor Vintage LPs The Be-Bop Era and Dizzy Gillespie, and thrilling to such mind-boggling pieces as Ow!, Stay on It, Oop-Pop-A-Da and Cool Breeze (on the former) and many more on the latter (Lover Come Back to Me, Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid, Hey Pete! Let’s Eat Mo’ Meat, Woody’n You, Ool-Ya-Koo, Duff Capers, Guarachi Guaro and that well-known bebop fairy tale, In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee). For one raised on the more traditional swing bands of Ellington, Miller, Basie and Tommy Dorsey, the Gillespie band hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t get enough of them; they were febrile in a way that was almost beyond words, even on studio recordings, the band fairly exploding from the grooves of the records and Dizzy riding above the fray like some high, wailing banshee Lord of the Rings. It fairly blew my 18-year-old mind.

BeBop Era

Gillespie Victor Vintage

Imagine my surprise, when I mentioned this great band to my father, to learn that he had heard them live—at least, from down the block. He was working as a bartender at the Hotel Metropole at 147 West 43rd Street in New York, just off Times Square, while the Gillespie band was playing at a club roughly half a block away. He told me that the club often opened the doors wide while the band was blasting away in order to lure paying customers inside. My teenage imagination was running wild. WOW! Imagine being able to hear that great band live, and for free, night after night! But guess what? My father hated them! With a passion! His favorite bands were Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Sammy Kaye and Blue Barron. In fact, one of his proudest possessions was a genuine Sammy Kaye baton from his experience as a volunteer in Sammy’s “So you want to lead a band” shtick (where Kaye would invite audience members to come up and try to conduct the orchestra, which of course played badly on purpose…but the suckers got to keep the cheap cedar batons they were given to use). Unbelievable. He thought the Gillespie band played noisy, incomprehensible music. But alas, he wasn’t alone. Despite a three-year contract with RCA Victor, who did their best to promote his recordings, by the time 1950 rolled around Dizzy’s band was on its last legs financially.

But in a sense, Gillespie’s sharp mind and irreverent sense of humor was an obstacle as much as a benefit. He was such a wise-ass in interviews and photo shoots that he even sometimes offended his own fellow musicians, when all he meant to do was rib them a little. One of the more famous (or infamous) was a picture taken in the late 1940s, when several of his friends were converting to Islam in order to be taken seriously as human beings, kneeling on a prayer rug and bowing towards Mecca. He only did it as a “goof,” not realizing he was hurting their feelings, and later apologized for it. My late friend, the jazz critic Ralph Berton, also recalled an uncomfortable moment. Gillespie, like Berton, was a fanatic chess player, so Ralph and Dizzy met every night for a week in the early morning hours at a truck stop on the outskirts of New York City where they could quietly play chess unmolested. Or so Berton thought, until the time a group of big, hulking truck drivers dropped in for an early breakfast. Dizzy turn around in his chair, with his arms folded across the back and his chin on his arms, staring intently at the truck drivers. “Jesus Christ, Dizzy!” Berton hissed. “What the hell are you doing?” “Studying them,” said Dizzy. “I’m a student of humanity. I like to study people.” “Well, don’t study them so intently. For crying out loud! They might come over here and pound you into the ground!” And indeed, after a couple of minutes of Gillespie boring holes in their heads with his eyes, one or two of them glowered in his direction. But the angel of mercy must have been with him that morning because none of them came over and asked him to step outside.

The two most famous recordings of that first Gillespie band featured the wild bongo playing and chanting of Luciano “Chano” Pozo, who was shot to death in December 1948 by a dope dealer he offended by saying he sold him inferior marijuana. The first of these was Manteca, a wild Afro-Cuban piece written by Pozo and Gillespie and arranged by Walter “Gil” Fuller, one of the most underrated big band writers who ever lived. Pozo’s wild cries of “Manteca! Manteca!” (which, ironically, translates as “butter”!) over his bongo playing and the screaming trumpets of the band created an undercurrent of rhythmic convulsion, and the bongo player is in equally good form on the other famed recording, George Russell’s early two-part composition Cubano Be, Cubano Bop. This was not the first example of modal jazz on records—that honor goes to Jelly Roll Morton’s Dead Man Blues—but it was certainly the most sophisticated composition based on modes recorded by that time (1947). These two discs, along with several of the titles mentioned above, are a pretty fair representation of the first Gillespie band’s excitement and drive.

Following the collapse of this first, and greatest, of his bands, Gillespie led a number of small combos and played on the soundtrack of a French film titled Les Tricheurs (The Tricksters or Young Sinners) with an all-star band including Roy Eldridge, Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins and the Oscar Peterson Trio. Then in 1956, while playing with a sextet at Birdland, Dizzy played a guest gig at the Showboat in Washington. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. recommended him to President Eisenhower, who asked him to form a band to make a state department tour of the Middle East. Since he was already signed to play in a “Jazz at the Philharmonic” tour of Europe, he gave the young composer-arranger Quincy Jones the task of assembling and rehearsing the band. Jones signed up some promising young talent, including trumpeter Lee Morgan and tenor saxist-arranger Benny Golson when they were still tyros with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, female trombonist-arranger Melba Liston, former Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey arranger Ernie Wilkins, and two of the best white jazz musicians of the day, alto saxist Phil Woods and trombonist Rod Levitt (who, being Jewish, had some uncomfortable moments when the band played in Muslim countries).

1956-57 big bandThis band, then, was a bit less Gillespie’s “own” as was the early bop band, despite the fact that they revived some of his early arrangements (A Night in Tunisia, Cool Breeze, Tin Tin Deo and Hey Pete, Let’s Eat Mo’ Meat) as well as some newer ones like The Champ and Birk’s Works. These were quintessential Gillespie: bright as a penny and wildly swinging, with Dizzy’s brilliant solos riding above the fray (this period marked one of the last times we would hear Gillespie’s trumpet soaring in the stratosphere much as it had in the 1946-50 period). Wilkins’ arrangements and compositions, like Dizzy Business, were also in the same mold, and two novelty tunes by Babs Gonzales (Mayflower Rock and Joogie Boogie) added yet another, and whimsical, dimension. Yet the compositions and arrangements by Golson, Jones and Liston were more texturally sophisticated, more modern in their time and less beholden to 1940s big band fashions. Among these pieces were Jones’ Jessica’s Day, Golson’s Whisper Not and I Remember Clifford, as well as very nice arrangements of Horace Silver’s Doodlin’, Jerome Kern’s Yesterdays, The Debussy-Mack Gordon My Reverie, Jacques Prevert’s Autumn Leaves, Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow and a wonderful transcription of Grieg’s Anitra’s Dance retitled Annie’s Dance.

Dizzy snake charming

Dizzy doing some snake charming in Pakistan, 1956

Perhaps not surprisingly, this second Gillespie orchestra made as much if not more of an impact making real friends overseas than breaking new musical ground. Allyn Shipton, author of Groovin’ High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie, points out that he “accomplished, perhaps better than all the ambassadors and envoys and ministers combined, the almost impossible feat of making genuine friends on an intimate personal basis” in such places as Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Pakistan. He rode a motorcycle through the streets of Zagreb with Yugoslav composer Nikica Kaogjera riding behind him and charmed snakes in Pakistan. The band also toured South America and made friends there as well.

The disbanding of this second Gillespie band in 1957 marked the end of Dizzy’s career as a big bandleader. Happily for posterity, both incarnations of the Gillespie orchestra remain preserved both in studio and live recordings, and give us a different dimension of this multi-talented musician. Despite the high spirits, the scatting, the clowning and the occasional yells of delight, these are serious and well-crafted scores, not always on the highest order in terms of exploring substitute chording or unusual voicing, but never less than interesting, never dull, and quintessentially Dizzy Gillespie. In terms of sheer musical culture, of course the early band was the more important and groundbreaking, but the later one was an experience all its own. You really haven’t lived until you’ve heard both.

— © Lynn René Bayley 2016

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Sophia Agranovich plays Schubert and Chopin

Wanderer cover

Schubert: “Wanderer” Fantasie in C. Chopin: Ballades (4) / Sophia Agranovich, pianist / Centaur CRC-3427

A disclaimer before I begin this review: I have been in touch with Sophia Agranovich via e-mail, in fact I previously interviewed her for a classical journal, and she knows how much I love and respect her. Despite her enormous talent she hasn’t really had it easy in life, and in fact after her studies at Juilliard with Sasha Gorodnitzki and Nadia Reisenberg (who she has described to me as “a warm presence”), she had to give up her burgeoning career for several years in order to go to work in the private sector and make money to raise her family. This tells you everything you need to know about her: she is a woman of firm resolve and determination, self-sufficient and strong. How could you not admire her?

And happily, her artistry at the keyboard is equally admirable. I often tend to flinch from Romantic works, particularly those of Chopin whose music seems to bring out the softest, goopiest, most touchy-feely aspects in many performers. But not Agranovich. Like such Eastern European pianists as Lipatti, Fischer, Cziffra and, yes, Reisenberg, her Chopin is more muscular and less soft-grained than we are normally used to. (The only Western European pianist whose Chopin is equally wide-awake was Alfred Cortot, whose 1929 recordings of the Ballades compare favorably to Agranovich’s.) This is particularly evident in the transition passages, i.e., those bars of music that take you from one part of the theme to another. These are exactly the moments where too many other pianists relax the tension a bit, making the music flow like a ripple on a stream. In Agranovich’s skilled hands, these passages emerge as sturdy pieces of the overall structure, necessary transitions that bind the music together rather than simply rolling along. Such an approach makes all the difference in the world between glorified mood music and music that engages the mind as well as the emotions.

But by and large, Chopin—and Schubert—tend to be misrepresented, and I think it comes from our modern re-defining of the word “Romantic.” The real Romantic movement was based on the emotional outpourings of Goethe and Beethoven. Neither artist’s works are much given to touchy-feely interpretation with the possible exception of the first movement of the latter’s “Moonlight” Sonata. Deep feelings were part of the original Romantic movement, but also love that could cross the boundary to obsession (think of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther or Schubert’s Die Winterreise), or—better yet—a love so deep and so strong that one could kill to protect one’s beloved (Beethoven’s Fidelio). These works still resonate with us because of the touch of tragedy that permeate them.

Such a work is Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasie, in my view his single greatest piano work.

Perhaps I should point out that Schubert, like many composers who were not virtuosi themselves (Sorabji is another example), often wrote piano music that was more difficult than they themselves could play, and the “Wanderer” Fantasie was one such. Schubert said of it, “The devil may play it, for I cannot!” but that didn’t stop him from putting it down on paper. Its structure is in four movements, but the movements are played in an unbroken sequence and, to the untrained ear, it sounds like a big 20-minute movement with differing episodes. You really need to be mindful of those episodes because of the complete shift in mood, and Arganovich keeps her mental eye on the ball here. My other favorite performance of this work is the old Vox recording by young Alfred Brendel, whose performance was, if anything, even less Romantic in feeling and more structural than hers, but this version holds your interest because of the greater detail brought out in the music. It makes perfect sense to me that it was written in November 1822 while Schubert took a break from writing his “Unfinished” Symphony—the music is of the same style, tragic in mood while employing strong counterpoint and inner voices to bring the feeling out. The pianist who approaches this work needs be mindful of this underlying structure, as it is imperative that everything be clear and all strands held together. Agranovich does this magnificently in addition to imparting more warmth to the work than young Brendel did.

This, then, is a disc of high intrinsic worth as well as another feather in the cap of this superb pianist. I highly recommend it.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley
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Reassessing Feodor Chaliapin

Chaliapin 2

Let’s face it: most of the superstars of the opera world who came to prominence in the first decade of the 20th century are forgotten now—even such once-huge names as Pol Plançon, Luisa Tetrazzini, Johanna Gadski, Louise Homer, Alessandro Bonci, Leo Slezak, Giovanni Zenatello, Titta Ruffo, Giuseppe de Luca, Adamo Didur and Marcel Journet—except by old fogey collectors (hey, I was one of them once, so don’t complain!). The only four names from that era who still have some currency among modern listeners are John McCormack, Enrico Caruso, Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Feodor Chaliapin, all because they were not only superior voices but also superior communicators. Their recordings are not just good, they are “alive” in a way that other singers’ recordings simply are not.

Yet of those four, a strong argument could be made that Chaliapin was the greatest of them all, and not just the greatest as an opera singer. He revolutionized stage acting, not just in the opera world but in general: Stanislavsky based his method of acting on Chaliapin, not the other way round, and both Lon Chaney and the rest of the acting world can thank Chaliapin for developing his own methods of stage makeup, which led to far more graphic and realistic presentations of characters onstage. His goal was not, as in the case of Italian baritone Mattia Battistini, to be a “barrister” for his characters, representing their feelings and motivations but not being the character himself. His goal was, as he put it, “dramatic truth,” and in that pursuit he was willing to bend and stretch the notes of the music he sang in order to emphasize the meaning and feeling of the words.

This last part of Chaliapin’s art is the most controversial. With the exception of certain Russian operas, Chaliapin’s approach tended to distort the musical line, particularly in Italian opera, yet when he appeared as a guest artist at La Scala in 1901 in Boito’s Mefistofele, Chaliapin Mephistothe musically meticulous Arturo Toscanini allowed him to do some things he would never have accepted a decade or so later. His only complaint was that Chaliapin was “marking” his part—singing sotto voce—in rehearsal. “Signor Chaliapin!” cried the Maestro. “Unfortunately, we have not had the pleasure of hearing you sing at the Imperial Russian Opera. Could you please sing in full voice so that we may judge how you will do this role?” Chaliapin sang out. Toscanini was bowled over. Years later, when the bass returned to the Metropolitan Opera after a 13-year hiatus, one of the tenors he sang with was Beniamino Gigli, noted for having the most beautiful and perfectly-placed voice of any Italian singer. Gigli later said that “Chaliapin’s singing was as great as his acting. His voice was beautiful in texture, perfectly produced, thrilling in range and power; his vocalism was an outstanding exhibition of breath control, tonal production and phrasing.” This can be easily borne out by his recording of Anton Rubinstein’s Persian Love Song No. 9, subtitled The Turbulent Waters of Kur. Made in 1931 when he was 58 years old and had been using his voice in a very hard way for at least 33 years, it features a final chorus sung entirely in a high, soft head voice, what voice teachers refer to as a fil di voce, and both his pitch and his breath control are perfect. It could easily ne held up as a model of bel canto singing from an artist who was, if anything, anti-bel canto in his general approach.

Indeed, Chaliapin’s approach to the bel canto roles he did choose to sing—Leporello in Don Giovanni, Don Basilio in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Oroveso in Norma and Count Rodolfo in La Sonnambula—was to give specific emphasis to the dramatic situation to the expense of the lyric line. He did the same thing in certain French works as well, most notably Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust in the French songs of Massenet. This sounds unsettling to modern ears more used to musically strict, consonant readings of the score. Chaliapin could have cared less. He was, as I say, interested in dramatic truth, not a continuous lyric line. Toscanini allowed him to do certain things in Mefistofele because he realized that Chaliapin as BorisChaliapin was not being willful, but had clearly and meticulously thought all of his effects out beforehand and was, as he was wont to say, a “serious artist.” When rehearsing the opera at La Scala, Toscanini tried to show Chaliapin how to stand on stage as the devil. “You fold your arms in front of you, you know, and look evil and menacing.” “Thank you for your suggestion, maestro,” Chaliapin replied, “but may I try it my way and see if you like it?” Toscanini agreed. Chaliapin transformed his body into a twisting, demonic thing, menacing even in the confines of the rehearsal area. Toscanini was convinced. Years later, when he went to see Chaliapin sing Boris Godunov, he told critic B.H. Haggin that he was perfection. “If I had been a woman, I would have kissed him!” said Toscanini. Rare praise indeed from a man thought of as an inflexible martinet, but chaliapin returned the compliment. In his memoir Man and Mask (1932), he claimed that there were only two truly great conductors in his opinion, Toscanini and Sergei Rachmaninov.

Chaliapin’s first appearances at the Metropolitan, 1907-08, came in the season just before Toscanini was hired as general music director. The conductor of his debut in Mefistofele (November 20, 1907) was the little-known Rodolfo Ferrari, but the conductor of his Don Giovanni (Leporello) was none other than Gustav Mahler. It was said for many years that Chaliapin, singing the devil in a flesh-colored body suit, so shocked and offended the Met audience that he was not asked back the next year, but the reviews of his debut by Richard Aldrich in the New York Times and an anonymous reviewer in the New York Press say otherwise. Aldrich was impressed by the dramatic effects he made but complained that he was not in good voice: “There were evidences of his hoarseness, and, indeed, it was at one time doubtful whether he would be able to make his appearance at all last night. He made a deep impression, nevertheless…Mr. Chaliapin was a striking and singular Mefistofele, seeking apparently to emphasize all the disagreeable traits that could be attributed to the Prince of the Powers of Darkness. He is of herculean size and an actor of resource and skill.” The New York Press reviewer went even further: “Indeed, the greeting given to the Russian basso not only by the musical masses, but by critically experienced listeners, surpassed anything New Yorkers had experienced since they were introduced to the art of Caruso. Of course a tenor is a tenor, and no bass can expect to cope with the high tonal throbs of the favored one of the gods. But, allowing for the natural disadvantages in the popular ear of a low voice, the Russian singer accomplished wonders. One was reminded of Caruso nights, so boisterous were the demonstrations of approval in the standing room down stairs and the spaces near the dome.” I have to believe, then, that the negative impressions he purportedly made of a “heathen” who performed “near naked” came from the Met board of directors, not the paying customers.

Still, it was obvious to all that this was an extraordinary talent, one quite different from the norm, and one wonders how the two of them vied for applause the night Caruso sang Faust (in the Gounod opera) opposite Chaliapin’s Mephisto (January 6, 1908). His Met Don Giovanni, Mahler aside, was an all-star event featuring Antonio Scotti (Giovanni), Emma Eames (Donna Anna), Johanna Gadski (Donna Elvira), Alessandro Bonci (Don Ottavio) and Marcella Sembrich (Zerlina). The real reason why Chaliapin did not return the next year was that he wanted more money than he had received for the 1907-08 season and the board wouldn’t approve it.

As it turned out, of course, the Met needed Chaliapin far more than Chaliapin needed the Met. His way of creating a living character moved into a deeper exploration of the state of the soul. Four first-hand summations of his talents by those who heard or worked with him sum it up perfectly. Richard Capell wrote in 1914 that “For Chaliapin the singer, the tone-color is all that counts and for the sake of heightening the dramatic color on a word he willingly sacrifices beautiful tone—which to an Italian singer would seem madness. And the truth and directness of his singing are such that one forgets it is singing; singing usually implies some strain or effort, but Chaliapin’s seems the most inevitably natural utterance.” From Ezio Pinza, who sang opposite his Boris Godunov in 1927: “I was Chaliapin as Mephistopheleshappy to sing Pimen and watch Chaliapin as Boris. He was a superlative actor, so compelling that only my professional experience and perfect knowledge of my role saved me time and again from missing cues, so absorbed was I in watching him act.” Lotte Lehmann, who sang Margherita opposite his Faust in Gounod’s opera, recalled that “The impression he made on me was indescribable. After the scene when Mephistopheles challenges nature to help him in the corruption of the innocent Marguerite, he stood like a tree, perfectly still against the background. He gave the impression of being a tree, and then quite suddenly, he had disappeared, as if blown away. I did not see him sneak off, and I have no idea how he managed it, but it was like black magic. At the end of the act, in the embrace, a tall figure appeared above me that twisted its way along the window like some frightful spider, seeming to encircle Faust and me. An indefinable terror made me go cold. This was no longer opera, this was turned into some terrible reality. And when the curtain came down, and Mephostipheles changed back into Chaliapin, I breathed a sigh of relief.”

Chaliapin recordBut the best summary of this great and gifted artist came from the eminent Russian critic Alexander Amphiteatrov. “Chaliapin is the only one who, when I listen to him, never makes me feel that the impression I have of art suffers a painful comparison between past and present; on the contrary, the more I listen, the more convinced I become that this is new, fresh and infinitely more vigorous than anything that has gone before on the lyric stage. This is an artist such as has never been before, the begetter of a new force in art, a reformer creating a new school…when you go to hear Chaliapin, you don’t even remember that you have gone to hear ‘a bass.’ What you want is Chaliapin, not his ability to sing loud or soft notes in the order required by the part, but his extraordinary talent for thinking in sounds—a wonderful new revelation which the arrival of this strange man has brought to singers.”

Over the course of 38 years, from 1898 (his first cylinders) to 1936, Chaliapin made a surprisingly small number of recordings, a bit over 200. (Click here to pull up his full discography.) Compare this to, say, the 240 sides that Caruso made between 1902 and 1920, a mere 18 years. Added to those we have some extremely precious live performances from Covent Garden in 1926-28, Chaliapin book of songsexcerpts from Gounod’s Faust, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri, and his signature role, Boris Godunov. In 1931 he made two versions of the same film, Don Quixote, in French and English. The supporting casts were not the same. Although the print of the English version is in better condition and the supporting cast superior, I prefer hearing Chaliapin speak and sing in French which he is more comfortable with, but both versions show what a great actor he was. But why Don Quixote? Or, more to the point, why nothing from Boris Godunov? Yes, it’s nice to hear him do the role live—there’s an extra dimension to both the Clock Scene and the farewell, prayer and death of Boris that are missing from his commercial recordings—but do you mean to tell me that no one had the money or the willingness to film even a couple of scenes from Boris with him? I find that hard to believe. In the meantime he became one of the most famous and sought-after vocal recitalists in the world, promoted in the U.S. by Sol Hurok. Sometime in the early 1930s he developed kidney problems, for which he went annually to health spas to try to cure, but it eventually caught up with him. He died on April 12, 1938 at the age of 65.

If you want to get an idea of how Chaliapin played Boris, I recommend that you see the 1953 film Tonight We Sing. Based on the life of Sol Hurok, it features Pinza as Chaliapin, and for once the Italian bass turns in a superb acting performance. He gets the Russian bass down pat, even in the “offstage” scenes, but especially in the Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov. No, it’s not the real Chaliapin but—as promoters are wont to say nowadays—an incredible simulation.

Still, you need to go out of your way to hear and see the real Chaliapin. The Don Quixote film is here; you can look up the recordings as you have time for. He was, indeed, the greatest artist of his time, perhaps of all time.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Irish Girl Got the Blues

Ottilie Patterson

I’ve heard at least a half-dozen white female jazz singers who I would pit against anyone in the field (Connee Boswell, Anita O’Day, Alice Babs, Annie Ross, Sheila Jordan and Cleo Laine), but only one white female blues singer, Anna Ottilie Patterson. If you happen not to be British and/or a fan of 1950s revivalist trad bands, you’re probably scratching your head and asking, “Ottilie who?” But I assure you that she is worth exploring and, once you hear her, I think you’ll be as bowled over as I was a couple of years ago when I accidentally tripped across her on YouTube.

She was certainly the least likely woman on earth to become a blues singer. Short of stature Patterson birth housewith dirty blond hair and a wide-eyed look, Patterson was the daughter of an Irish father and a Latvian mother. She studied classical piano when she was nine but apparently had little enthusiasm to become a professional in that field. While studying to be a teacher at the Belfast School of Technology, she met a fellow student named Derek Martin who played boogie piano and introduced her to the recordings of Jelly Roll Morton and Bessie Smith. Patterson was absolutely bowled over and began singing blues numbers with a local band that included both Martin and trombonist “Wild” Al Martin (later named The Muskrat Ramblers) and, later, with Jimmy Compton’s Jazz Band. “I’m still trying to work out whether I got the blues or they got hold of me,” she mused later.

She graduated and became a teacher at Ballymena Technical College, but found her job drab and dull. During her 1954 summer vacation she went to London where she met singer Beryl Bryden, who took her to hear cornetist Ken Colyer’s band in Soho. Patterson asked the band if she could sing with them but was brushed off. After the gig was over, she asked pianist Johnny Parker to accompany her in a few numbers while the rest of the band was packing up. Suddenly, the whole club took notice, the musicians unpacked their instruments, and the party was on. Word got around and, a few days later, she was asked by trad jazz trombonist Chris Barber to sing with his band for the remainder of her vacation.

ottilie-and-chris-barber

Ottilie with the Chris Barber band

Out of such chance meetings are careers often born, and Patterson was no exception. While back in Ireland teaching at Ballymena, she received a telegram from Barber making her a firm offer to work full time with his band. She quit in an instant and flew to London where she debuted with his band in January 9, 1955. The audience went absolutely wild over her. For more than a year she shared the stage in the Barber band with young Lonnie Donegan, dubbed “The King of Skiffle,” who then went out on his own and had a storied career for a few years until such rock bands as Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and The Beatles took over the British pop market.

Patterson was caught up in a truly whirlwind career, singing up to 200 nights a year. In 1958 she married Barber and not only starred on his recordings but also made discs on her own, occasionally playing piano and contributing songs. Her biggest thrills were when she was allowed to perform with visiting American black blues artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy, who toured England with the Barber band. “If they thought her dedication to the blues was incongruous,” wrote Peter Vacher in her obituary in The Guardian, “they never let on, offering her nothing but encouragement and approval.”

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Ottilie Patterson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Patterson herself felt that the highlight of her career came during Barber’s tour of the U.S. in the early ‘60s when she visited Smitty’s Corner blues club on the South Side of Chicago to hear Muddy Waters. Waters recognized her in the audience and asked her to come up and sing with him. You don’t get more black than that, yet the crowd went wild and, when she was finished, one woman called out, “Hey lady, you sing real pretty. How come you sing like one of us?” But there were other great moments as well. After singing in San Francisco, a music critic in The Examiner raved about her. At the Washington Jazz Festival of 1962 the reaction of the largely black audience to her singing was so enthusiastic that Duke Ellington’s band wasn’t able to take the stage for ten minutes.

Her obit in The Guardian simply states that “her health began to fail and she stopped singing in the mid-1960s.” I’ve been unable to discover what health issues she had, particularly since she emerged to record an album of folk music in 1969 (3,000 Years with Ottilie), briefly returned to tour with the Barber band in 1983, and lived to age 79. My best guess is that it was work stress: as a natural, untrained singer, her voice simply didn’t have the stamina to stand up to the constant touring and performing, but whatever the case she was devastated when Chris Barber divorced her. She permanently retired to an old castle in Ayr, Scotland in 1988 where she spent most of the rest of her life in virtual isolation and oblivion. John Service, one of the few people to visit her there, recalls that she had returned to playing classical music on the piano for her own enjoyment but also listened to blues records and continued to sing for friends. She also began to paint and sketch—Service owns two Patterson originals, “one being The Dream of being a professional musician, and the second The Reality which she captures to perfection.” She was also one of the first people to own a computer and had amazing command and dexterity with it. Her biggest love during her years of retirement was, of all things, American “Western” movies, of which she had a huge collection on videotapes and DVDs.

Then real health problems overtook Patterson, In 2008 she moved to the Rozelle Holm Farm Care Home in Ayr, where she spent the remaining years of her life. She died in anonymity on June 20, 2011.

Listening to Ottilie Patterson is an amazing experience, for here was a clear, pure Irish soprano bending notes and growling like an African-American blues diva. One difference is that her diction is crystal-clear, not always the case with blues singers in general. Another is her astonishing sense of rhythm. The Barber band tended to be stiff and metronomic in their playing, but Patterson’s singing transcends these limitations. Listen, particularly, to Bad Spell Blues, Stumblin’ Block, Georgia Grind (one of the few double entendre songs she performed) or Weepin’ Willow Blues and you’ll hear what I mean. The voice and the diction is Ottilie’s, but the phrasing is Bessie Smith’s. It’s absolutely uncanny. Note that she also recorded one of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s big hit songs, Strange Things Happening Everyday, and two songs she wrote herself based on texts of Shakespeare, Oh Me, What Eyes Hath Love Put in My Head? and Tell Me Where is Fancy Bred (from The Merchant of Venice). This is a way of combining the Bard with the Blues, years before Cleo Laine did something similar with her “Wordsongs.” In her live 1983 performances her voice has clearly lost some firmness of tone but nothing in terms of guts or expressiveness. This is blues singing of a very high order.

One of the few touring blues performers who recorded with Patterson was harmonica player Patterson 45Sonny Boy Williamson, who blows up a storm behind her version of I Feel So Good, but if I had to select one recording to illustrate just how good she was I’d have to pick Jealous Heart. It’s not that the song is so good—it’s really just a mediocre pop tune—but that she proves how good she is by completely transcending this trite material to create a work of art. The song is pure junk, and the introduction, played by an ersatz rock band with a whitebread chorus humming in the foreground, does not bode well; but as soon as Patterson enters, pushing the beat and slurring notes, the entire mood changes. By the end of the record, you are left stunned by what she could make of this tripe.

If you already know of Ottilie Patterson but haven’t heard her in a while, you need to reacquaint yourself with her; and if you don’t know her, you really need to go to the Internet Archive and listen to her now.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Biggs Gets the Ragtime Bug

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In the mid-to-late 20th century there were four organists of worldwide repute who so dominated their field that they impressed both serious critics and the general public: Helmut Walcha, Marie-Claire Alain, Virgil Fox and E. Power Biggs. The latter two, by virtue of living and working in America, came in for the lion’s share of publicity, but in international circles it’s quite possible that Walcha and Alain overshadowed the flamboyant Fox, who never subscribed to the belief that Baroque music should be played on Baroque organs. For that matter, neither did Alain until late in her life, whereas Walcha always did so and Biggs began the practice after a 1954 European tour on which he played Bach on the small period organs of the composer’s time. We shall get into a discussion of the rightness or wrongness of this practice in a later blog post, but for the nonce let us ascribe to Biggs his belief in musical purity.

Which brings us to two of his strangest albums: Columbia LPs made in 1973 and 1974 of the music of Scott Joplin, played on the pedal harpsichord. Just think about that for a moment and let it sink in. Here is prim, proper, British-born E. Power Biggs, a dominant figure in the organ world, suddenly letting his hair down to play ragtime—and doing so on an instrument he wasn’t known for. From a marketing perspective, the project made sense at the time. After Joshua Rifkin’s surprisingly successful LPs of Joplin rags on Nonesuch came out, America went ragtime crazy. Other musicians jumped on the Joplin bandwagon, among them pianist William Bolcom, conductor Gunther Schuller who recorded orchestral arrangements of his rags (The Red Back Book, Angel Records) and led live performances (and a DG recording) of Joplin’s ragtime opera Treemonisha, and last but not least, film musician Marvin Hamlisch, who adapted a clutch of Joplin rags for the soundtrack to the wildly popular film, The Sting (possibly the only time in Hollywood history that an Oscar was given for “Best Original Film Score” to a man who simply arranged someone else’s music).

Biggs plays JoplinBut insofar as an artist like Biggs was concerned, popularity wasn’t necessarily a motivating factor. At the time he recorded the first of these two albums, Biggs was 67 years old and had never been involved in anything resembling popular music before. He wasn’t an entertainer, he was an artist. There was no real reason for him to accept the proposal. In addition, I don’t think he ever made another record on the pedal harpsichord, the instrument of choice for this project because of its “banjo-like” qualities (according to the liner notes). He certainly had every right to tell Columbia Records to go stuff it, or at least find another musician to do it—yet he accepted. Why? I think the answer lies in the extraordinarily high quality of the performances. He really liked this music. He played it as if he loved every strain, every phrase, every bar of it. He not only revels in the bounce of the syncopation—something I wouldn’t have believed him capable of—but also lavishes extraordinary care on each and every piece. As an organist he was intimately familiar with the way music for his instrument was “layered,” how the bass line played against the treble and how the inner voices were colored to provide an aural contrast to each other. Biggs plays one of Joplin’s weakest pieces, the innocuous Binks’ Waltz, as if it were a nocturne by Chopin, with a surprising amount of rubato and delicate shading, and in the more extroverted pieces he constantly reminds the listener that this is really music, that the A-B-A-C formula used by Joplin is not trite so long as the musical inspiration is high.

As a result, the 20 performances Biggs recorded over a two-year period remain fascinating and valuable. Yes, I would have liked to have heard what Fox could do with this music—his natural effusion as an artist seems perfect for ragtime—but the more musically sensitive Biggs is more than simply adequate. He is stunning. I don’t think I’ve ever heard more attractive performances of Joplin anywhere, not even in the later (and fine in its own way) harpsichord album of Joplin recorded by Elisabeth Chojnacka for the Valois label, and I highly recommend that you explore them for yourself.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Listen to Biggs play Joplin:
Vol. 1
Vol. 2

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The Boogie Woogie Harpsichord of Company B

Marlowe

Sylvia Marlowe, born Sylvia Sapira in New York in 1908, was a one-woman whirlwind. From her earliest days she was noted for her excess energy as well as for her deep, passionate love of music. She began her career as a pianist, going to Paris to study piano and organ at the Ecole Normale and composition with Nadia Boulanger (as, it seems, did roughly 3/4 of American musicians and composers over the years). While studying with Boulanger, she heard Wanda Landowska for the first time and was completely bowled over, switching to the harpsichord (and later, studying with Landowska herself). But upon returning to America and starting to get involved in the musical scene, she also became smitten with boogie-woogie piano—so much so that she made it her mission to include it in her concerts and recordings. Indeed, she even played boogie at the then-well-known Coffee and Cake Concerts for blue-haired little old ladies in New York City. There’s a good chance she gave some of them cardiac arrest.

Let’s take a moment to consider why a rising, gifted harpsichordist, whose métier was the music of the 17th and 18th centuries, threw her lot in with a popular music form—and why boogie instead of, say, stride piano, which might have made more sense? I think one can find a clue to her choice in the fact that Marlowe loved modern music as much as she did early music, and in fact later commissioned works for the harpsichord by Elliott Carter, Vittorio Rieti, Henri Saguet and Alan Hovhaness, but the other reason may simply be that she personally dug that eight-to-the-bar beat. And there is no question that she played it Marlowe Honky Tonk Trainvery well. I’ve only been able to locate four recordings of her playing boogie woogie: two selections by Meade Lux Lewis, Honky Tonk Train Blues and Yancey Special, which she recorded for the General label in her 4-78-rpm disc set, From Bach to Boogie Woogie; her performance of Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie on the kooky NBC radio show The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street; and a live performance from a 1943 Armed Forces Radio transcription disc when she appeared on the Harry James radio program. There’s also a November 1944 Decca-Brunswick recording available of a piece by Lou Singer based on Rameau’s Tambourin, titled 18th Century Barrelhouse (click HERE to go to the page it’s on and listen; more on this interesting record later). Yet her passionate proselytizing of boogie harpsichord helped inspire Francis Steegmuller’s 1949 novel, Blue Harpsichord.

Blue HarpsichordMarlowe was certainly not the only keyboardist to play jazz on the harpsichord. Contemporary with her, Meade Lux Lewis made a few harpsichord sides for Blue Note (also some recordings on the celeste with guitarist Charlie Christian and clarinetist Edmond Hall), and pianist Johnny Guarneri—scion of the famed violin makers of Cremona who went rogue and joined Artie Shaw’s big band, where he switched to harpsichord for Shaw’s Gramercy Five recordings—were also involved in this endeavor, but let’s face it, none of them had Marlowe’s academic credentials. Not even Carmen Cavallaro, a trained concert pianist who made his living playing schlock in the movies (and recorded Runnin’ Wild Boogie for Decca on the “harpsipiano”), was on her level of legitimacy. In addition to her recordings and appearances already mentioned, Marlowe also appeared at the Blue Angel cabaret (3143 Broadway) in New York, pitching boogie to undoubtedly well-lubricated listeners. There is some question, in fact, as to whether or not Marlowe’s boogie woogie period hurt her reputation in the long run. Her obituary in the New York Times is headed, succinctly, Sylvia Marlowe, A Harpsichordist, as if she were just some wandering nomad who trucked around with a Pleyel in her Pontiac pounding out jazz, not a serious artist who also played Bach, Rameau, Couperin and Handel in addition to the modern composers she commissioned.

barrelhouse18th Century Barrelhouse is a fast swing treatment of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Tambourin written by Lou Singer, an elusive figure in jazz history who worked as an arranger, and sometimes drummer or vibes/marimba player, for the John Kirby Sextet, jazz singer Frankie Laine, and the big bands of Artie Shaw and Woody Herman. On this track, Singer uses an anonymous band that sounds like a dead ringer for the Kirby Sextet. I may be wrong, but without knowing the names of the musicians used, there’s a good chance it could be the Kirby Sextet itself. At the time, they were signed to the Asch and Circle labels, and so probably couldn’t use their names without incurring legal difficulties (think of how Decca sued RCA Victor when Benny Goodman issued a few sides in 1936 with young Ella Fitzgerald singing, even though both Fitzgerald and her boss-manager, Chick Webb, were perfectly OK with the arrangement). Since Marlowe plays Rameau’s theme fairly straight despite the jazz beat, there’s not quite as much going on here, but the two half-choruses played by the Kirby-inspired sextet are excellent. This was also part of a 4-78 set that she recorded at that time, but only this piece and Cuckoo Cuckoo have surfaced over the years.

In 1948 Marlowe married neo-Romantic painter Leonid Berman. and her “legitimate” career got a huge boost when she became Professor of Harpsichord at the Mannes College of Music in New York. One of her best and most famous pupils was Kenneth Cooper, who remained a close friend until the day she died. Cooper was bowled over by the fact that Marlowe continued to keep in touch with him—and many of her other pupils—for years after they studied with her, calling them up to ask their opinions on her choice of new Blue Angelrepertoire and how best to approach it. She treated her pupils as valued colleagues, not as peons. She also gave great parties at her New York apartment, the walls of which were covered with Berman’s paintings, and came to know virtually every living composer in the Big Apple. Among those who gathered there regularly were W.H. Auden, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Trilling, and composers Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Hovhaness and Rieti. She undertook a tour of the Far East and Southeast Asia in 1955, accompanied by her traveling harpsichord and gowns of “miracle fabrics” she could wash in her hotel room, dry out and wear. Her life was a whirlwind of activity that only ended with her death from emphysema on December 11, 1981.

Marlowe took not only her live performances but her recordings very seriously indeed, and left a valuable legacy behind, but in the long run she will undoubtedly be best remembered for those modern works she commissioned—and her boogie woogie playing. Despite the fact that Marlowe did not and probably could not improvise (she played these set pieces exactly the way they appeared on the original recordings), she got the swing and rhythm right, not an easy task for a well-bred woman from the halls of academe. Yet nowadays her boogie is far less known or admired than her classical performances, and this really isn’t fair. Sylvia Marlowe was a pioneer of her instrument in ways different from Landowska, and this chapter of her life deserves to be better known and appreciated.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Listen to Sylvia Marlowe play:
Honky Tonk Train Blues

Yancey Special
untitled boogie piece

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Nadia Reisenberg’s Mozart Concertos

 

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One of the greatest sets of the Mozart Piano Concertos is also one of the most elusive. Nadia Reisenberg (1904-1983), the immensely gifted Lithuanian pianist who emigrated to America but always seemed to fly under most critics’ radar, has (perhaps surprisingly) established herself as a major pianist of the 20th century only in the years since 2008, more than a century after her birth. Her son, well-known New York radio show host Robert Sherman, thinks this is because there were “so many other great and unique pianists around when Mother was active,” and yes, this is part of the answer. The rest of it is two-pronged. One, she was so good that she quickly went into teaching, first at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and then later at Juilliard, and by the early 1950s these teaching duties came to overshadow her recordings and personal appearances (though she occasionally concertized until the end of her life), and two, her kid sister happened to be one of the most famous and unique musicians in the Western world: theremin player Clara Rockmore. Originally a violinist, Clara had to give that instrument up after she permanently injured her bowing thereminarm in the late 1920s, but Russian electronics whiz Leon Theremin came to her rescue with his odd, whining wooden box that only Clara seemed able to coax real music out of. (RCA Victor, trying to capitalize on Rockmore’s fame, actually marketed theremins in the early years of the Depression, 1929-30. They lost a fortune on the venture because 1) the theremins were very expensive—$232 with the vacuum tubes—and 2) no one else could get much out of them other than whines and whoops.)

But I digress. Reisenberg, originally a pupil of Leonid Nikoleyev at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, later restudied with Josef Hoffmann in New York in 1930. By the end of that decade she was, at the very least, one of the most sought-after pianists in the New York-Philadelphia axis (in the mid-1940s she was chosen to accompany Benny Goodman in a recording of the Brahms Clarinet Sonata for Columbia), and thus came to the attention of Alfred Wallenstein. Like Clara Rockmore, Wallenstein had himself switched careers by then. Initially one of the top orchestral players in the world, he had served as first cellist under the great but now-forgotten conductor Alfred Hertz at the San Francisco Symphony, then with the Los Angeles and Chicago orchestras before working under Arturo Toscanini in the New York Philharmonic-Symphony. Toscanini was so impressed with his musical acumen and ability to lead his section that he encouraged Wallenstein to become a conductor, which he did in the early 1930s. By 1939 he was music director of the WOR Radio Symphony Orchestra, and in that capacity he invited Reisenberg to prepare and perform the entire canon of Mozart piano concertos for the next season.

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It was a project of wild ambition. One must recall that, at that time (and really, even into the 1950s), the only Mozart concertos that were probably well known by serious music lovers were Nos. 20, 21, 24 and 27. I seriously doubt that even Reisenberg knew many more than those four; certainly, the WOR Symphony barely knew any of them. Moreover, this was not a project that had a lot of preparation time. Both Wallenstein and Reisenberg probably had little more than four months to learn all of this music, and then they had to perform it live—not in a recording studio where they could splice out errors—week after week after week between September 12, 1939 and March 26, 1940. The orchestral musicians’ lack of familiarity with the material is more evident than Reisenberg’s; there are several dropped notes and wrong notes, particularly in the first movements, throughout the performances of the less-well-known concertos. In addition, despite Wallenstein’s excellent musical skills, this was an orchestra that, although obviously professional, wasn’t on a par with Toscanini’s NBC Symphony. The fact that they did as well as they did, playing unfamiliar material live, is a tribute to the conductor’s great skills, but it is for Reisenberg’s playing that the series remains stunning.

Her playing is simply extraordinary, and in fact within these precious performances one can hear in microcosm why Reisenberg is now considered one of the greatest musicians of her time. She plays these concertos with infinite care, constantly coloring and shading the musical line in such a way that she manages to give some emphasis to the occasionally strange, out-of-tonality excursions that Mozart put into the concertos (he wrote to his father that his music sounded simple enough to the amateur listener that it was tuneful and attractive, but contained some twists and turns that made it interesting) without exaggerating anything; and does this without the precious, overly-delicate Mozart playing one later heard from such pianists as Clifford Curzon, Alicia de Larrocha or Murray Perahia.

The question then presents itself: how do these performances sound in light of the historically-informed bias of today? To my ears, pretty good, but if you read my article on HIP practices you’ll know that I’m not a fan of most of the bizarre, white-sounding, wimpish orchestras and period pianos now used in many Mozart recordings. Yes, Reisenberg uses a 20th-century concert grand, not a pianoforte of Mozart’s time. Get over it. The orchestra, however, is probably a lot closer to what Mozart himself had to work with than we realize. Again, reading letters from Mozart to his father, one is bombarded with his constant carping about the flubs and dropped notes in the orchestras he himself rehearsed and conducted. But I rush to point out that the WOR orchestral playing isn’t consistently poor. More often than not, it’s just somewhat colorless…but since HIP practices encourage drab, colorless playing (albeit with Straight Tone), these performances fit right in.

Since each weekly program was a half-hour and some of the concertos didn’t run that long, Reisenberg filled in the remaining time with contrasting music of other composers and centuries. These, too, are valuable performances, particularly since Reisenberg never recorded most of them elsewhere. Among the gems are the Four Polish Dances of Alexandre Tansman, excerpts from Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, Poulenc’s Suite in C and Trois Mouvements Perpetuels, Scriabin Etudes, Medtner’s Fairy Tales, Shostakovich’s Five Preludes, plus music by Godowsky, Mendelssohn, Palmgren and Liszt. And what makes these performances so fascinating—to me, at least—is the way Reisenberg is able to turn her mental image of the music on a dime from the 18th-century style of Mozart to this far more modern aesthetic. Indeed, so many listeners (and critics) tend to connect Reisenberg so much to traditional repertoire (particularly that of Chopin and Brahms) that I’m sure several of these performances of modern music—and their idiomatic “rightness”—will come as a bit of a surprise.

Presto recorderThe recordings were made off the air by an anonymous recordist, probably using a Presto recorder (the preferred method by which private citizens recorded radio programs at that time). But not everything has survived. The beginning of the last movement of the Concerto in F, K. 459 is missing, as is most of the last movement of Concerto No. 11, K. 413, and our unknown recordist was apparently ill on October 31, 1939, the week Reisenberg and Milton Kaye played a two-piano arrangement of the Concerto for Three Pianos, K. 242, so that entire work is lost. Nonetheless, with most of the series intact, it is a valuable and important group of very unique performances that deserve to be heard.

So why haven’t other critics written about them? Because they’re not available for sale in the conventional way. In 1987, the airchecks of these precious broadcasts—the only surviving copies—were donated to the International Piano Archives at Maryland State University (IPAM) as part of a large Nadia Reisenberg Collection. The recordings can only be obtained in return for a monetary donation to IPAM, $15 for each disc you want or $200 for the full set of 14 CDs. Checks or money orders should be made payable to “University of Maryland College Park Foundation” and sent to:

IPAM
Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library
University of Maryland
2511 Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center
College Park, MD 20742

The contents of each CD (with audio cleaned up and restored by Seth Winner) are as follows:

CD 1: Concerto No. 1 in F, K.37 (with encores: TANSMAN: Four Polish Dances) (September 12, 1939)
Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat, K.39 (with encores: GODOWSKY: Three Dances; POULENC: Suite in C) (September 19, 1939)

CD 2: Concerto No. 3 in D, K.40 (with encores: RAVEL: Minuet from Tombeau de Couperin; FRANCAIX: Scherzo) (September 26, 1939)
Concerto No. 4 in G, K.41; Concerto in D (after J.C. Bach), K.107/1 (with encore: TOCH: The Juggler) (October 3, 1939)

CD 3: Concerto in G (after J.C. Bach), K.107/2; Concerto in E-Flat (after J.C. Bach), K.107/3 (with encores: SHOSTAKOVICH: Five Preludes: CHOPIN: Mazurka, Op.68/4; RAVEL: Rigaudon from Tombeau de Couperin) (October 10, 1939)
Concerto No. 5 in D, K.175 (with encores: POULENC: Trois Mouvements Perpetuels) (October 17, 1939)

CD 4: Concerto No. 6 in B-Flat, K.238 (with encores: MENDELSSOHN: Three Songs Without Words) (October 24, 1939)
(Concerto No. 7, K. 242 is for three pianos was performed in an arrangement for two pianos in the broadcast of October 31, which is missing)
Concerto No. 8 in C, K. 246 (November 7, 1939)

CD 5: Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat, K.271 (November 14, 1939)
Double Concerto (No. 10) in E-Flat, K.365 (Milton Kaye, second piano) (with encore: ROGER-DUCASSE: Clarionerie) (November 21, 1939)

CD 6: Concerto No. 12 in A, K.414 (with encores: MOMPOU: Cancion y Danza No. 2; PROKOFIEV: Prelude, Op.12/7) (December 12, 1939)
Concerto No. 13 in C, K.415 (with encore: PALMGREN: Refrain de berceau) (December 19, 1939)

CD 7: Concerto No. 14 in E-Flat, K.449 (with encores: LISZT: Transcendental Etude No.10; PALMGREN: Two Finnish Dances) (December 26, 1939)
Concerto No. 15 in B-Flat, K.450 (with encores: SCRIABIN: Etudes, Op.8/2 and 12) (January 2, 1939)

CD 8: Concerto No. 16 in D, K.451 (with encore: CHOPIN: Nocturne, Op.55/2) (January 9, 1940)
Concerto No. 17 in G, K.453 (January 16, 1940)

CD 9: Concerto No. 18 in B-Flat, K.456 (January 23, 1940)
Concerto No. 19 in F, K.459 (beginning of third movement missing) (January 30, 1940)

CD 10: Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K.466 (February 6, 1940)
Concerto No. 21 in C, K.467 (February 13, 1940)

CD 11: Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat, K.482 (February 20, 1940)
Concerto No. 23 in A, K.488 (with encore: DEBUSSY: Arabesque No.2) (February 27, 1940)

CD 12: Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K.491 (March 5, 1940)
Concerto No. 25 in C, K.503 (March 12, 1940)

CD 13: Concerto No. 26 in D, K.537 (March 19, 1940)
Concerto No. 27 in B-Flat, K.595 (March 26, 1940)

CD 14: Concert Rondo in D, K.382; Concert Rondo in A, K.386 (with encores: MEDTNER: Fairy Tales, Op.26/3 & 34/2; GLAZUNOV: Gavotte, Op.49/3) (November 28, 1939)
Concerto No. 11 in F, K.413 (most of last movement missing) (with encore: RACHMANINOFF: Etude-Tableau Op.33/2) (December 5, 1939)

Being broke, I was only able to afford half of the series. Since I had good recordings of some of the later concertos (by such pianists as Clara Haskil and Rudolf Serkin), I chose CDs #1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 12, but believe me, if I could afford them I’d have gotten the entire series.

They’re that good.

— © Lynn René Bayley 2016

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