Sirius Quartet’s Thought-Provoking New CD

Sirius Quartet Paths Become Lines

PATHS BECOME LINES / HARMAN: Paths Become Lines; Heal. FUNG: Ceili; Spidey Falls!; Get in Line. HUEBNER: Racing Mind; String Quartet No. 4, Op. 44, “The Wollheim Quartet.” / Sirius Quartet / Autentico Music AMCDA00004

The Sirius Quartet, consisting of violinists Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Huebner, violist Ron Lawrence and cellist Jeremy Harman, is probably the most unique group of its kind in the West. I emphasize “the West” because, in certain Asian and Middle Eastern countries, the spirit of group improvisation allied with individual improvisation is not as uncommon, but it is quite rare in the West because, as we all know, improvisation is not a skill taught in most classical conservatories. What is taught in most conservatories are sight-reading and killer chops. The majority of “musicians” graduating from these halls of “learning” actually don’t know anything about music, as can be heard from any number of fast-playing, non-phrasing, flippity-doo-dah style, trying to break the speed limit for number of notes per minute without a clue to such niceties as phrasing, and thus without a clue as to what music and musicality really are.

But these four musicians are very different. Possibly taking their cue from the groundbreaking Turtle Island String Quartet, the first such group in music history, the Sirius musicians combine the full gamut of musical experience in their pieces. Most of these works have a composed framework the same way the jazz pieces of, say, George Russell and Charles Mingus had frameworks, but so much of the interior of each piece is improvised that unless one is aware where the score stops there is no way to tell just from listening where the lines are drawn.

Moreover, they are democratic in their distribution of compositions as well, as the composer credits above show, as well as diverse in their compositional style. Jeremy Harman’s Paths Become Lines, built on minimalist ideas and a rock beat, is as different from his other composition, Heal, as Mahler is from Debussy. Paths Become Lines is a very dramatic piece, one which could have become stagnant were it not for the imaginative solos, the one played beginning 3:50 being perhaps the closest to rock music while the one following at 4:20 seems to combine a bluegrass feel as David Balakrishnan does so fluently within the TISQ. The only real issue I had with this opening number was that it seemed to me built around a single musical cell except for the introduction and coda; to my ears, it stops in the middle of a thought.

But then comes Fung’s Ceili, a slow-moving piece that combines the feel of Eastern music with the blues. This is much more interesting in its development section, with apparently improvised passages playing around the cello’s steady, almost metronomic repeated E’s. The feeling of the piece is, by and large, E minor although it really seems to be a modal piece. Once again, harmonic movement is at a minimum, but when it does occur it lifts the mood temporarily, moving into what feels like G major at 3:43 with only a minimal transition. At this point, the viola and one of the violins take over the steady clip-clip while Harman plays a very jazzy and bluesy improvisation on the cello. (Those who read my review of Sophie Dunér’s new release, Dizzy, will recognize Harman’s name as he is the only instrumentalist on that album.) This bluesy feel is picked up by the next solo, which becomes quite dramatic.

Interestingly, I felt that the beat of Racing Mind strongly resembled some of the “world music” jazz the late Yusef Lateef played back in the 1950s, transferred to strings. This, too, has a certain resemblance to minimalism, here tending towards E minor with a quite startling transposition at 1:33. At this point, the listener will have realized that on this CD at least, Sirius Quartet is intent on creating mind states rather than pieces whose structure overwhelms the listener…in other words, intuitive rather than intellectual music. The sudden appearance of long, soaring lines by the upper strings also changes the temper of the music, transmuted into TISQ-style bluegrass at 2:55. A series of bow-on-instrument rhythmic taps come to the fore around 4:02 and stick around for about a minute, playing not on the beat but against it. Would that the average classical string quartet had this grasp of rhythm even when playing conventional works!

Spidey Falls! is probably the oddest piece on the album, an uptempo romp beginning with a series of fast tremolos in the right channel against rhythmic “clicks” in the left, the tonality starting out bitonal and never really becoming settled. Eventually all three upper strings are playing tremolos until the tempo slows down and the whole piece appears to come to an end…except it doesn’t. The pulse changes to a “slow drag” and the blues feeling once again comes to the fore. At 4:05 we suddenly arrive at a tempo double that of the opening, with three of the four musicians playing rhythm against the bodies of their instruments, then the viola in the right channel (again playing tremolos) while the cello provides a wild pizzicato accompaniment.

Huebner’s String Quartet is by far the most classically-structured piece on this record, albeit a modern classical piece that does not provide restful tonalities. Indeed, after a slow introduction, the first movement indulges in a number of rhythmic effects every bit as startling as in Spidey Falls! but, if one listens closely, somewhat more structured. The quartet members then bounce eights off each other in counterpoint starting at the two-minute mark, and here a sort of blues-funk rhythm is created, the improvised passages that follow apparently acting as the development section of this movement. Towards the end, the tempo doubles as the tonality becomes even more unsettled with a sudden break in the action before the eerie second movement, titled “Shir La Shalom,” emerges in all its glory. This movement is extremely difficult to put into words because, on the surface, nothing much seems to happen, although the surface and underlying textures are constantly in a state of flux. The third movement starts off equally dark and moody, maintaining a feeling of unease, built in the beginning around Harman’s cello playing very far down in its range, a cappella, before the other instruments suddenly enter at the two-minute mark and the pace picks up. Here we can appreciate the quartet’s members’ abilities to improvise around each other using a basic rhythmic cell as a basis, branching out into a more melodic vein around the three-minute mark. Melodic playing then turns rhythmic, simulating a pulsating feeling before a slow decelerando to the end.

The last movement, titled simply “Presto,” almost seems to be part of another world, so rhythmic and lively is it. Here, too, a rock beat re-enters the picture; this is the part I felt least comfortable with (I don’t like most rock music). Nonetheless, within its parameters it is interesting and astonishingly inventive as all members of the quartet jump in with both feet and work around it, even to the point of creating spontaneous counterpoint around the 2:48 mark, my favorite portion of this movement. The Richard Greene-invented rhythmic “chop” is then heard in the background as one of the violinists takes off on a wild improvisation, followed by a pizzicato passage that leads into more bluegrass-informed improvisation. The rush towards the sudden coda seemed a bit truncated to me, but it works and fits in.

Get in Line begins with a repeated motif that changes pitch but not rhythm as we move into a more heavily rhythmic (albeit asymmetrical rhythm) passage with one of the solo violins playing wild lines above the cello’s syncopated ground bass and rhythmic “chops” from the others. By contrast, Heal starts out a bit like gamelan music without the gamelans, played against a jazz beat with considerable variance and improvisation from the members of the quartet, but ends up as very strong soul-jazz with an infectious beat to it.

I found it interesting to note that, aside from their rock and jazz elements, Sirius Quartet seems to naturally lean in these pieces towards a bluegrass or “country” expression. I say this because, after hearing them accompany saxist Ivo Perelman on his CD The Passion According to G.H. (see my review here), I expected something closer to free jazz, possibly more structured classically with a jazz feel and beat. But this CD shows how diverse and versatile Sirius can be, and is thus highly recommended to all lovers of modern, non-traditional string quartet music with strong roots in American popular culture with splashes of world music.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Bill Evans’ “Loose Blues” Out Again on CD

Evans 01

BILL EVANS: LOOSE BLUES / EVANS: Loose Bloose (2 tks); Time Remembered; Funkallero; My Bells; There Came You; Fudgesickle Built for Four; Fun Ride / Bill Evans, pn; Zoot Sims, t-sax; Jim Hall, gt; Ron Carter, bs; Philly Joe Jones, dm. / MILESTONE MCD-9200-2

Here is one of the late Bill Evans’ true masterpieces, made available again on CD (or, most probably, download…check your local sources and see if you can get it as a physical disc). The set consists of seven original pieces by the pianist, of which only two—Time Remembered and My Bells—became standard repertoire items, and the latter only when it was greatly simplified when he re-recorded it for Verve. The music, for the most part, is modal jazz harking back to the days when Evans played with George Russell, Miles Davis and Tony Scott, with only Time Remembered being the kind of “soft,” Debussy-like jazz with which Evans’ name is connected.

Before getting into the marvelous music contained herein, a history of the session is in order. Following the death of bassist Scott LaFaro in an auto crash, Evans completely withdrew from performing or recording for a year, eventually hiring bassist Chuck Israels to take LaFaro’s place, but he was still shy about recording since he felt he had nothing new to say. Then, all of a sudden in the spring of 1962, he approached Fantasy Records owner and producer Orrin Keepnews with the idea of not only making two complete trio albums but also two unusual group sessions, each with a horn and guitarist Jim Hall. Moreover, these sessions would not have his regular working partners, Israels and drummer Paul Motian, but rather the more dynamic backing of hard bop drummer Philly Joe Jones. The two horn players Evans chose for these two different dates (one with Percy Heath on bass, the other with Ron Carter) were also surprising: progressive swing tenor saxist Zoot Sims and young hard-bop trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.

Even more surprisingly, Evans chose to give Hubbard a set full of old standards (You and the Night and the Music, When You Wish Upon a Star, Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams etc.) with only one original (a modal blues later titled Interplay), whereas the much more traditional Sims was asked to perform in an entire set of new and, for him, complex and somewhat puzzling pieces. In the liner notes, Keepnews recalled feeling, in the studio, that both Sims and Hall often appeared to be lost in the complex harmonic webs that Evans had fashioned, particularly in My Bells which, in this original form, was a multi-tempo piece that kept throwing them off, but that he (Keepnews) realized upon re-hearing the tapes 20 years later that both Sims and Hall actually performed much better than he had recalled.

But it wasn’t just Keepnews’ incorrect judgment that held up the release of this astounding album for so long; it was his irrational filing system that relegated the takes of each tune to a different tape box, all of them looking unrelated to each other on the outside, poorly marked and just thrown into the vaults helter-skelter. It boggles the mind to think that a record company owner-executive who obviously loved Evans’ work could even do such a sloppy job of this accidentally, let alone purposely, but such was the case.

Listening to the music now, it still sounds fresh and inviting for the most part, largely because of the later transmutation of My Bells from a challenging piece to a slow ballad but partly because of the utter vitality of the entire session. Spurred onto a different track by the rhythm section of Carter and Jones, Evans’ playing here rarely relies on his by-then-patented style of trickling right-hand runs over lush but “rootless” chords which he could thus transpose at any given moment. On the contrary, we hear in this set the early Evans of 1956 in full flower, playing crisp, single-note improvisations in the right hand with occasional left-hand chords dropped in, in imitation of one of his early idols, Lennie Tristano. In fact, for a listener who has never heard this recording, I would challenge anyone in a blindfold test to identify Bill Evans in the opening take of Loose Bloose. Tristano’s name is the one that kept popping into my mind as I listened to it.

Another challenging score for Sims and Hall was probably Fudgesickle Built For Four, a four-voiced canon reminiscent of some of the best early pieces by Dave Brubeck or Gerry Mulligan. Granted, this canon is only followed strictly in the first chorus and the last; in between, it is pretty much an open blowing tune; but the intricacy of it required split-second timing, as does the quirky theme of Loose Bloose, which sounds about as “loose” as a Thelonious Monk piece, which is to say, tightly written and quirky in its melodic contour.

By and large Sims rises to the occasion, putting aside his normally full-blooded tenor tone and playing in a light, almost breathy manner reminiscent of Stan Getz. This, it turns out, was wholly appropriate to the occasion. Perhaps Evans had Getz in mind but got turned down by that talented but personally churlish saxist. Still, there were other saxists whose style would have fit much easier into this kind of music active at that time, among them Booker Ervin, Benny Golson, Hal McKusick or Frankie Socolow. Ervin had already played some very complex scores with Charles Mingus, Golson was an outstanding saxist whose style bridged swing, hard bop and modern jazz, McKusick had worked with both the very advanced Boyd Raeburn band and George Russell, and the vastly underrated Socolow—who also played jazz oboe—was also an alumnus of the Raeburn orchestra. Any one of them, in my view, would have been a better fit, but no…for whatever reason, Evans had his heart set on Sims. Maybe what he loved about Zoot was his sheerly swinging style, but to think it would fit into some of these pieces was a bit of a stretch. Still, as I say, he did it.

Even so, Keepnews explains in the liner notes how nearly all these takes were spliced together from many varied and sundry attempts at these tunes. This was the nature of modern jazz, and jazz in general, during the early ‘60s. The scene was exploding in so many different directions that for an ad hoc group to come together and play seven offbeat new pieces well just wasn’t going to happen without extensive rehearsals, and recording studio time was too expensive (as it is now) to allow too many hours of woodshedding, so compromises had to be made.

Underlying everything in this set is the light but propulsive “bomb-dropping” of Philly Joe Jones, so named to distinguish him from the older and more famous former Count Basie drummer Jo Jones. His work here cannot be underestimated; he seems to know exactly how to play behind everyone on this session, making it all jell beautifully. Perhaps the biggest surprise to me, aside from Zoot sounding like Getz, is Ron Carter’s bass playing. He is the one soloist here besides Evans who really seems to relish the quirkiness of the tunes and their changes. It’s not that I didn’t expect him to play well, but I didn’t expect him to play with such alacrity. He almost sounds as if he had written these tunes himself.

The recorded sound is vintage early ‘60s: tightly miked but warm, with no reverberation around the intruments. I loved this kind of sound because it helped you focus on the music; you didn’t even “think” about the acoustic at all. It was just there, and it sounded right no matter what sound system it was played on.

Shortly after all of these sessions, Keepnews let Evans go and sign with Verve Records, who took over the pianist’s career and locked him into the soft, almost floated style of jazz with which his name is now inextricably identified, but on this set it is only Time Remembered that fits this profile. And some of the song titles are a bit tongue-in-cheek, which is why I think Loose Bloose doesn’t fit its name. There is also Funkallero, which has a kick but is tempered with cool, modal jazz, sort of a cross between something Art Blakey would have done and something Brubeck might have done; and once again, one is awed by the tasteful drumming of Philly Joe in the background—and his one extended solo. What an underrated drummer he was! On this piece, Zoot sounds more like the Zoot we know. And how Evans swings!

Perhaps the surprise of the set, to me, was this version of My Bells, which starts out not only uptempo but almost like a calypso piece. Would that Evans had kept these faster sections in the work instead of editing them out. I should also extend my praise to guitarist Hall, whose work often sounds (to me) too gentle and laid-back to be interesting. Here, he too varies his attack to match the mood of each piece, and literally plays his heart out. There Came You starts out like a “typical” Bill Evans piece, but as soon as Sims enters both he and the pianist sound more bluesy.

I could go into more detail on each piece and each solo, but why spoil the fun? If you haven’t heard this set, you need to. For the most part it’s a different sort of Bill Evans, showing us a side of the famous pianist that many of his fans might not even know about.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Del Pino and Angelov Have a Ball With Kapustin

Kapustin CD cover

2 + 2 4 KAPUSTIN / KAPUSTIN: Concerto for 2 Pianos & Percussion, Op. 104; Sonata No. 14 for 2 Pianos, Op. 120; Paraphrase on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca,” Op. 129 / Daniel Del Pino, Ludmil Angelov, pianists; add Neopercussión on Op. 104. 8 Concert Etudes / Daniel del Pino, pianist. Piano Sonata No. 14, Op. 120 / Ludmil Angelov, pianist / Non-Profit Music 1011

This is a CD from 2011 that is apparently being reissued, at least according to Naxos of America who put it in their “New Releases” list. So that’s why I’m reviewing it now…that, plus the fact that I just absolutely love Kapustin’s music to death! (Note: You can find a full chapter on the music of this great composer in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, here on this site.)

Probably the best known pieces on this CD are the Eight Concert Etudes, which have been recorded by Sun Hee You (Piano Classics 98), Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion 67433) and Catherine Gordeladze (Naxos 8.572272), all of which I’ve heard except for You’s version. Here they are pounced upon (the best word I can think of for his approach!) by Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino with gusto and relish. Some listeners prefer Hamelin, who they think brings out a melody line in his performances whereas del Pino does not, but I did A-B comparisons and surprise, surprise…they’re about the same. On the contrary, it’s Gordeladze whose slightly slower and relaxed performances have greater jazz “swing,” whereas del Pino’s and Hamelin’s have more of a gutsy drive. Both approaches are valid and interesting to hear.

Angelov’s recording of the Piano Sonata No. 14 is a world premiere…this work is so difficult that even the composer admits that he can’t play it! Angelov gobbles it up like Oscar Peterson on steroids. Attempting a technical description of Kapustin’s music is difficult, however, because no matter how much you say about the tonality, rhythmic shifts, inner voices etc., what you are left with is the shell of the music. The really important thing to remember with Kapustin is that, although every note of his music is thorough composed and not improvised (or open to improvisation), every note and phrase has to swing, and this is where many pianists who attempt to play him come to grief. No, not the ones I’ve mentioned, but others you can hear online at YouTube. Unless the performance is by someone who understands the rhythm properly, his music falls flat. And I can’t think of any other contemporary composer whose music I can say that of…not even Sorabji. Why? Because, no matter how non-improvisational his music is, Kapustin is A JAZZ-BASED COMPOSER, and that automatically means jazz feeling if not jazz improvisation.

This is a very important key to keep in mind when listening to anything that Kapustin has written, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Concerto for 2 Pianos & Percussion. Even the liner notes for the CD take extreme pains to point that this isn’t jazz even though it certainly sounds like it! Can you imagine a pianist playing Bali or Indonesian-influenced classical music pointing out to the listener that it’s not Balinese or Indonesian even though it sounds like it? That would be insanity. Yet over and over again (witness Trio Arbós in their most recent album of Kapustin’s music), performers almost feel it imperative to explain or apologize for Kapustin sounding like jazz but not being jazz.

But ah, that concerto. What a brilliant and fantastic work this is, from the opening percussion flourish through to the very last note! Perhaps it seems a bit unkind to say that, harmonically, Kapustin works within a relatively narrow spectrum, and when he does transpose or modulate it is via the use of—here we go again—jazz chord positions rather than classical pivot-points. And again, the distinction is important to make. In the course of this concerto, Kapustin tosses musical ideas back and forth between the two pianists, sometimes combining them in a pseudo-orchestral manner, demanding cross-hands positions and chord extensions to make it almost sound like three pianists instead of two.

Rhythmically, Kapustin is more complex than he seems at first listening. True to his jazz roots, he urges the tempo forward, eating up ever-so-slight microbeats in the process, only to suddenly urge the player to hold back on the beat here and there. This is the heart of jazz tempo and the principal reason why so many classical pianists can’t play this music (or classical listeners assimilate it). Listen to the passage beginning at about 6:09 in the first movement of the concerto and you’ll hear what I mean. Here, del Pino and Angelov are required by the score to pull back on the beat for several measures, push forward for a bit, and then when the tempo relaxes slightly pull back on it again. You absolutely need to play the music this way in order for it to make its proper effect, but who knows how many pianists out there “get it”? I think what surprises me the most is that there seems to be less American pianists playing Kapustin than Europeans and Asians. Possibly because we have so many great jazz pianists here that finding someone to play jazz-informed classical compositions seems less daring? Take that as a hypothesis, anyway. My take on it is that we probably have just as many American classical pianists who are intimidated by the sheer difficulty of this music not to pursue it because it seems to have limited appeal. Why knock yourself out trying to play Kapustin if you can gather a fairly large mob to hear you play Chopin or Brahms?

We have a chance to compare the two pianists’ approach side by side here, del Pino in the Etudes and Angelov in the Sonata No. 14. I would say that, of the two, it is del Pino that grasps the jazz-beat feeling with slightly better intuition. Angelov plays more with what I can best describe as a “George Gershwin ragtime” feel, which is certainly OK in its own way but not quite as loose. This is not to detract from his achievement in playing this fiendishly difficult sonata, and doing it well, but it sounds more like Earl Wild playing Gershwin than George Shearing playing Bach, if you know what I mean. It’s the degree to which the rhythm is loosened up, not just within each bar but in moving from beat to beat. (This may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s really not.)

All in all, however, this is a spectacular CD, ending with a bravura performance of Kapustin’s duo-piano workout on Dizzy Gillespie’s Manteca. Kapustin managed to write into his “paraphrase” the same kind of swirling, complex and vigorous lines that Gillespie, Chano Pozo and Gil Fuller wrote into the original piece back in 1947. Indeed, if anything Kapustin enhances the original by introducing complex, swirling counter-lines that back up and push, move up and pull the music through even more dissonant harmonies (dig the opening chorus!) and complex figurations than the original. Think of it as an Afro-Cuban-Slavic war dance of sorts, and you’ll have some idea what it’s like!

Adding to the spectacular quality of the performances are equally spectacular sonics. The instruments are recorded closely enough that we can hear everything without sounding harsh—not an easy feat. There is just a hint of natural room reverb here, and that’s all you need to make the listening experience a pleasurable one.

Whether or not you’ve read other reviews of this disc, or have other versions of the 8 Concert Etudes, you really need to have this CD if you’re a Kapustin fan. And if you’re not a Kapustin fan, this disc just might make you one.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Romano and Venuti in a Love Session From 1954

Venuti-Romano cover 2

“NEVER BEFORE…NEVER AGAIN” JOE VENUTI AND HIS VIOLIN; TONY ROMANO PLAYS EDDIE LANG’S GUITAR / MONACO-SIRAS-WEST: You Know You Belong to Somebody Else. LERNER-LOEWE: Almost Like Being in Love. PRÉVERT-KOSMA-MERCER: Autumn Leaves. YOUMANS-CAESAR: I Want to Be Happy. GERSHWIN-HEYWARD: Summertime. ROMANO-VENUTI: Feeling Free and Easy; I Remember Joe; Angelina / Joe Venuti, violin; Tony Romano, guitar/vocal. An Interview with Tony Romano. ROMANO: New England in the Fall. RODGERS-HART: It’s Easy to Remember. JONES: Tattle Tale Eyes. STRAYHORN: Johnny Come Lately / Tony Romano, guitar/vocal; Frank Rosolino, trombone; Claude Williamson, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Nick Fatool, drums / Warner Jazz 68944912759 or Justin Time Records 1080893 (available at Amazon as streaming audio, mp3 downloads and hard copy CD)

This is an extremely interesting reissue of a once-“lost” recording session from 1954 with legendary jazz violinist Joe Venuti and pop-jazz singer/guitarist Tony Romano. It was first issued on LP by a tiny label, Dobre Records, in 1979, the year after Venuti died…just the eight tracks with Venuti and Romano, which made it a very short LP (less than a half hour). Venuti-Romano LP coverIt was then reissued on CD by “Justin Time” records, with the color cover photo of Eddie Lang’s guitar. This is when they added the 10-minute interview with Romano and four tracks by the singer/guitarist with a small band including Frank Rosolino on trombone and Ray Brown on bass. This is the format that Warner Jazz is following in this new reissue to be available, so they say, in July of 2016.

Aside from the many funny stories of Venuti’s acerbic wit and crazy practical jokes, the interview with Romano is a very important key to understanding this recording why it is so good. From the first time they played together, an impromptu session in 1941 on the Warner Brothers lot where Romano was playing on the soundtrack of Blues in the Night (misremembered by Romano as being 1938), the two musicians hit it off in such a way that, as Romano put it, they could finish each others’ musical thoughts and begin new ones. Venuti, who was emotionally devastated by the sudden death of his former guitar partner and childhood friend Eddie Lang (Sal Massaro) in March 1933, probably never thought he’d ever find another guitarist he’d “click” with as well as he did with Romano, but the guitarist was a busy man and not really available to barnstorm the country with Joe’s high-wired jazz orchestra. Nevertheless, as Romano puts it, they played together every chance they got, nearly always for free, at least until they came together in a recording studio in 1954 for this rare and long-lost session.

As soon as Venuti walked into the studio he shocked Romano by handing him Lang’s Gibson L-5. “Here, kid,” said Joe in his usual raucous voice. “This is Eddie’s guitar. You play like him, so you should have it.” Romano, understanding how much this meant to Venuti, was emotionally overwhelmed by the gesture, and the session went forward. According to Romano’s reminiscence, the session lasted well over an hour, yet somehow only 27 minutes’ worth of music survived. Perhaps the rest of the time consisted of talking and woodshedding, throwing ideas back and forth that never jelled into full performances.

Despite Venuti’s assertion, Romano doesn’t play exactly like Lang. His single-note playing is more fluid (Lang’s single-note solos were always slow and deliberate, never fast) and his chording, although excellent, doesn’t have the same swing-chop-swing sound that so deeply impressed Django Reinhardt. He also sounds, pardon the expression for all you PC readers out there, more “Italian” than Lang/Massaro. In the last tune of the session, a made-up song about “Angelina,” the duo completely eschew jazz as such and engage in a musical love fest. This sounds like the kind of music I used to hear played on the stoops of Italian homes in Paterson, New Jersey when I was growing up—except, of course, that no one in those neighborhoods played violin and if they did play it they certainly wouldn’t sound as good as Venuti.

Yet there remains in these eight selections a hint, an indication, of just how great a duo Venuti-Romano could have been had they become a steady performing duo. From the very start of You Know You Belong to Somebody Else (accidentally named on the record with an You Know You Belongextra “You Know” at the beginning), where Romano hits an E7 chord and Venuti comes flying in with an upward series of trills, culminating in a downward passage in double stops, you get that shiver up your spine that tells you this is going to be great music-making. Thought follows thought as the two musicians wend their way through this tune and the others that follow, with surprises galore. In Autumn Leaves, for instance, following a wordless Romano vocal that sounds suspiciously French, Venuti suddenly ups the tempo at the two-minute mark, playing almost a hora (again, with some double stops thrown in) for most of one chorus; and another Romano vocal sparks yet another tempo shift at 3:12 which leaves Prévert’s melody in the dust, playing something that sounds close to a gypsy tune. Maybe Venuti wished he could have recorded with Django?

The surprise in I Want to Be Happy is not the uptempo treatment of the principal melody but, rather, the reflective, relaxed reading these two musicians give to the almost-never-heard verse. Seldom in Venuti’s long recorded history—to my mind, not since his early-‘30s recording of Ragging the Scale—was his playing as structurally sound and “composed” in the sense that the choruses on these recordings are. For whatever reason, Romano elicited not just Venuti’s usual sparkling jazz rhythm but also a sense of each song as a true composition, with logical beginnings, middles and endings.

But this hasn’t stopped some jazz critics from giving the album only three stars. Perhaps they were put off by the 1953 session that closes this album where, despite the presence of jazz greats Rosolino and Brown, the mood and temper of the performances are much more pop-music-flavored. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, except that following the pure genius of the Venuti-Romano tracks it sounds like a different world, which it is.

Venuti book cover.jpegIn addition to the above-listed issues, both the “old” Justin Time CD and the “new” Warner Jazz incarnation, there is also a short (58-page) book of transcriptions of Venuti’s solos by British jazz violinist Aidan Massey with an introduction by Romano’s son, Richard Niles Romano, available from Mel-Bay as an eBook with online audio of the entire session (Mel-Bay 20854BCDEB) for only $14.99. If you are a musician, particularly a jazz violinist, you won’t want to miss this. However you wish to procure this historic session, I can assure you that it belongs in the library of any really serious student of jazz history. It is one for the ages.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Rilling’s Last Bach “Mass in B Minor” The Best

Mass in B Minor

J.S. BACH: Mass in B Minor / Marlis Petersen, soprano (Soprano I); Stella Doufexis, mezzo-soprano (Soprano II); Anke Vondung, alto; Lothar Odinius, tenor; Franz-Josef Selig, bass; Stuttgart Gachinger Kantorei; Stuttgart Bach Collegium; Helmuth Rilling, conductor / Hänssler Classic 98274 (2 CDs)

A couple of days ago, I listened to multiple recordings of the Bach Mass in B Mnor because I was somewhat disappointed with the one I had (Augér, Murray, Lipovšek, Schreier, Scharinger on Philips). And boy oh boy, what a weird trip that was! I heard both Historically Infected Performances, with their whiny straight-tone violins and choruses with no vibrato that sounded like a MIDI (sometimes I wonder if these performers realize just how utterly DISGUSTING they make music sound?), and Bad Old Days performances with their “rounded” rhythms, sensuous phrasing, and pompous, overly-religious approach. And several, like the Karl Munchinger, Robert Shaw and Georg Solti versions, in between. Oh, yes, I tried and tried to like the Gramophone’s whoop-de-doo favorite Mass, John Eliot Gardiner, but I’m afraid that he has become something of a leathery old coot in his performances since the mid-1990s. No longer are his performances flowing as well as energetic; they are simply cold, glassy and choppy. You may like that, but I don’t. Among the other conductors’ versions I heard were Scherchen (both his mono and stereo recordings), Brembeck, Müller-Bruhl, Celibidache, Giulini, Richter, early and late Karajan, Ohrwall, Ericson, Daus, later Gardiner (on SDG), Max, Ozawa, Seymour, Budday, Rifkin (one to a part? no thanks), Christophers, Biller, Junghanel, Marriner, Herreweghe, Beringer, Bruggen, Suzuki, Butt, Hickox, Kuijken, Rademann, Bernius, Funfgeld, Fasolis, Allwood, Radu, three by Rilling, Straube, Minkowski, Jacobs, Parrott, Corboz, another one by Schreier, Mauersberger, Kuijken, Mortensen, Jochum, Klemperer and Herreweghe. Is that enough Masses in B Minor for you? It was for me.

Now, mind you, two of these came close for me: the Beringer and the Funfgeld. But the Beringer uses the Windsbach Boys’ Choir which, though very, very good, didn’t quite satisfy me, and the recorded sound is a little too ambient, with goopy echo around the soloists, chorus and orchestra. As for Funfgeld, his performance is mostly spectacular in both musical feeling and clarity of lines; he uses a HIP orchestra that doesn’t sound revolting, and terrific soloists. But I don’t really like hearing the opening “Kyrie” taken at a little over nine minutes—that’s just too fast for me, considering the feeling of the piece—and although his chorus starts off “Cum sancto spiritu” like gangbusters, they slow it down a bit in order to get all of that breathtaking counterpoint in cleanly. That didn’t cut it for me.

But then I listened to the most recent (2005) Helmuth Rilling performance, and was hooked. This was not as romantic as his first recording from way back when nor as cool as his mid-1990s version, also for Hänssler Classic. Interestingly, he uses a HIP orchestra here but manages to get them to phrase like musicians, not like automatons, and as a chorusmaster Rilling is perhaps unmatched in this repertoire. His chorus is stupendous from start to finish in both technical execution and feeling. As for the soloists, they take a middle approach to the music, not quite as overly-reverential as in earlier recordings of the Mass and not quite as “peppy” as, for instance, Beringer’s and Funfgeld’s soloists (both of which are wonderful, although Beringer’s singers are gold-plated stars while Funfgeld’s are not that well known).

So I looked online to see what others thought of this performance, and was absolutely stunned. The well-informed critics hated it, starting with Jonathan Freeman-Atwood in the Gramophone who wrote the following in 2007—and please note the passages I’ve put in bold for emphasis:

This is his fourth B minor Mass and it’s something of a homecoming, judging by the familiar pacing and dynamic arches of the opening Kyrie and a general consolidation of the exacting corporate values which Rilling has promoted so vigorously over the years.

The issue, as ever with Rilling’s Bach, is whether his terse and regulated phraseology is to your liking. The matter-of-fact articulation of the “Christe eleison” is musically grounding for some and distressingly unyielding for others. However, the consistency of the vision and standards he imposes are still deeply impressive [here he damns with faint praise]. Without the searing incision and intensity of Richter’s 1969 performance (DG DVD, 8/06), he scuttles through the Gloria and Credo with all the energy and bravura of his earliest performance and arguably with rather greater control.

Whatever the rationale of reconciling “modern” and “period” approaches to performance, Rilling’s own template sets the agenda: a deliberately reined-in tonal spectrum, with a litheness and clarity which ensure that everyone can hear each other. Chamber music bursting at the seams brings its own tantalising thrill to the “Et resurrexit”, “Et exspecto” and “Osanna”, and yet the bass-line always seems so regulated in the solo movements.

Now, it’s true that no two people hear a performance exactly alike, but really…what the hell does this mean, other than the fact that Freeman-Atwood came to this recording with a prejudice against Rilling’s “terse and regulated phraseology,” “exacting corporate values” and “deliberately reined-in tonal spectrum”? I dare anyone else, listening in a blindfold test, to hear such inane values in this performance. While it is true that Rilling uses a HIP orchestra here, which has never been much to his liking in the past, his ability to make them sing and play with joy and energy is enthralling. Where are the “corporate values” or “deliberately reined-in tonal spectrum” in his scintillating performance of “Cum sancto spiritu”?

It would be OK if this review were an anomaly, and others heard this recording for the splendid achievement it is, but guess what? Anything Gramophone says about a performance, particularly of anything Baroque, spreads like wildfire and infects the judgments of others. Note this review, written five years later(!), by an anonymous reviewer on (again, note the comments in bold print):

Conductor Helmuth Rilling, as is his wont, takes a safe course with a moderate-sized choir, which actually sounds a little smaller than it is; and a small orchestra, which is sometimes drowned by the vocal forces.

In matters of tempo it is largely traditional, faster than one would have expected 40 years ago, but unsurprising for today. Phrasing is sometimes quite smooth, occasionally disconcertingly choppy.

This is a performance which few lovers of the work would be made indignant by, but I’m not sure that many listeners will find it as exalting as the greatest accounts that they have previously experienced.

The soloists, a fine team, sing without particular expression: when you think of what the greatest soloists have made of the Agnus Dei, you might wonder whether Anke Vondung, who has a beautiful voice, needs to use it so purely instrumentally.

One can’t help feeling that this should have the quality of a heartfelt prayer rather than just a lovely slow movement. And shouldn’t the sublime ‘Dona nobis pacem’ which concludes the work end more massively?

Now, let’s go to a customer review on from 2015:

Definitely not as interesting as Rilling’s CBS Masterwork version. Here I think he felt compelled to speed up some of the tempos and thin out some of the textures, a la the HIP versions, and that just isn’t his thing. It’s well-sung and well-played, but it’s just too inconsistent in manner to make it really work.

Are you seeing what I’m seeing? One caustic (and, in my view, prejudicial) review in Gramophone, and everyone is falling over each other to bash Rilling for his mechanical, overly fast, thinned out, inconsistent and “corporate” reading—none of which it is!

But Gardiner with his harsh sonorities and coarse phrasing? Bracing! Effervescent! Brilliant! Well, you be the judge. Listen to both and see which one satisfies you better.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to start my own rating system for the best classical recordings. Since I’m not part of the ever-popular Penguin Guide, I’m going to call myself the Penguin’s Girlfriend. And this late Rilling Mass in B Minor gets five fish from me, a great rating. So there!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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The Other Side of Charles Munch

Once one is finished admiring Munch’s performances and recordings of the standard orchestral repertoire—Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Berlioz, Brahms, Franck and Ravel—it is time to branch out into the more esoteric corners of his output, and when one does he or she will be surprised to find some wonderful performances of remarkable works not on the beaten path.

Of course, to a certain extent Berlioz was off the beaten path when he began performing and recording it in abundance during the 1950s. Prior to that, only the Symphonie Fantastique and Roman Carnival Overture were fairly well known, particularly through the recordings of Felix Weingartner and Pierre Monteux. When Arturo Toscanini conducted Roméo et Juliette with the New York Philharmonic in 1942, the symphony was virtually unknown outside of France (this was its American premiere) and not much known or liked within it. But Toscanini, though giving superb performances of Roméo and Harold en Italie, pretty much specialized in those works. For whatever reason, the Italian conductor disliked the Symphonie Fantastique and had little or no interest in most of Berlioz’ other output (although he always wanted to conduct a full performance of La Damnation de Faust but could not find the tenor who satisfied his requirements in the music). But most of Munch’s Berlioz recordings with the Boston Symphony, considered landmarks in their day, have been surpassed over the years: Roméo et Juliette by Carlos Païta, Damnation de Faust by Seiji Ozawa, and the Requiem by not only Leonard Bernstein but by his own later self (the Bavarian Radio Orchestra & Chorus recording of July 1967 is far superior to his Boston Symphony version of April 1959). In my view, the best Munch recordings of Berlioz are the concert overtures, his studio recording of L’Enfance du Christ and the 1962 stereo version of the Symphonie Fantastique (although Ozawa, again, came close to this in his first recording).

Munch V4828Happily, there are some superb reissues of out-of-center material by Munch that exemplify his keen musical mind and his willingness to take risks. Some of these later recordings also supersede (like the 1967 Berlioz Requiem) his performances at Boston. Chief among these is his May 1962 performance with the Orchestre de l’ORTF of Debussy’s La Mer, vastly superior to his splotchy and highly-spliced December 1956 studio recording. Here, all those passages that sounded nervous and jittery or just plain wrong in the Boston recording come across as natural and flowing. This is available on Auvidis’ Valois series V-4828 in the “Charles Munch Edition” along with an excellent performance of the lesser-known Fantaisie pour Piano et Orchestre with the excellent Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer, Munch’s niece, on piano. The fly in the ointment here is this performance of Ibéria, played with surprising detachment and an almost chamber orchestra-like sound, completely wrong for this music.

Munch V4831Munch V4830The Valois series also includes some wonderful later performances of Honegger and Dutilleux, whose excellent but tonally ambiguous music is still not well known in the West. Valois V-4831, for instance, presents us with later recordings (in my view, more idiomatic than the ones he made in Boston) of Honegger’s Second and Fifth Symphonies as well as the same composer’s Le Chant de Nigamon and Pastorale d’été, each of them skillfully paced and energized, while V-4830 combines Honegger’s first symphony with Dutilleux’s second. Some of these Valois releases, alas, are in monophonic sound—apparently, someone in France forgot to set up stereo recording equipment—and thus the resultant recordings, though excellent in terms of performance, lack the proper impact due to the restricted sound. Among these is a disc of Henri Roussel’s Third and Fourth Symphonies on V-4832: good performances but mediocre sound quality, and for what? Ernest Ansermet made superb stereo recordings of these same two works for Decca-London in 1956, and they are still benchmarks in these works.

Moving away from the Valois series, we find two other discs of exceptional interest, unfortunately split with other conductors. First of these is Musidisc 461745, on which you can hear his scintillating performance of Henri Munch Universal 28946174524Barraud’s Third Symphony, another work in the Honegger style with its biting rhythms and piquant harmony, as well as an excellent performance of Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane Suite No. 2. Both are with the Orchestre de l’ORTF from a December 1961 recording session in stereo. Alas, the third work on this disc, the Roussel Piano Concerto, is conducted with stultufying dullness by Munch’s nephew, Serge Baudo (the only man in Metropolitan Opera history to send a 7:00 p.m. start for Gounod’s Faust well past midnight, incurring overtime for all the singers and musicians in the orchestra). The other disc well worth seeking out is, perhaps, even more unusual, a November 1958 recording of American composer Easley Blackwood’s Symphony No. 1 (composed in 1955 when Blackwood was a mere 23 years old). This is currently available on Çedille

The Blackwood Symphony is easily as complex as the music of Honegger, who Munch had to cut back on severely during his tenure in Boston (the only ones I’ve been able to track down were one performance of La Danse de Morts in December 1952, the studio recordings of the Second and Fifth Symphonies, and a live performance of the Third Symphony when the BSO was on tour in Prague in September 1956). Blackwood describes the symphony as 2456814Munch Cedille 90000 016

one “in which material heard early on often recurs in various transformations in later movements,” using such devices as “a seven-note motive contained within a minor third” at the end of the first movement…all of which is certainly true from a technical standpoint but does not begin to describe the emotional impact of this music, particularly as Munch performs it. In essence, Blackwood has here combined the type of formal structure found in, for instance, the Franck Symphony with the harmonic language and melodic construction of two of his teachers, Olivier Messiaen and Paul Hindemith. Indeed, if I were forced to choose one of these composers as his model, I would say that the symphony more closely resembles Hindemith in that the harmonies iron themselves out and do not stay “tangled up” as was so often the case with Messiaen, although the rapid bitonal melody that arises at 2:17 in the first movement combines features of both: German sonorities with Gallic rhythm and momentum. The last movement has a bleak atmosphere about it that could easily have been lost in the hands of a less sensitive conductor.

In short, Munch’s performance is indeed classic, so much so that when Çedille Records issued Blackwood’s First and Fifth Symphonies on CD they chose the Munch performance of the First. (The Fifth, which resembles the First musically in many ways, is conducted by James DePriest, a good, solid musician but one lacking the kind of musical imagination that Munch had in abundance.) On LP, Blackwood’s symphony was paired with the Second Symphony of Alexei Haieff, a work—and a performance—that disappeared over the decades, only to resurface in recent years on Pristine Classics PASC-417. But this Munch performance of Blackwood’s music is a must-have for any of his admirers with a taste for modern scores.

And now that you have been good and swallowed your musical equivalent of fish tonic, you are entitled to a bonbon for dessert. And what better bonbon than Moritz Rosenthal’s arrangement of Offenbach’s music known popularly as Gaîte Parisienne? Yes, I know there Gaite Parisienneis the Arthur Fiedler stereo recording from 1954, a classic of the phonograph from the time of its first appearance (Fiedler’s mono recording of the same score, it seems, became RCA Victor’s very first Red Seal LP release in 1950). Munch conducts the work similarly but, being Munch, not exactly the same. He introduces elements of rubato into the music, so necessary to preserving its French spirit (despite the composer’s German birth and heritage), that Fiedler performs in strict tempo. Both are good, but the Munch version, recorded with the New Philharmonia Orchestra in December 1965 for Decca-London’s “Phase 4 Stereo” series (high-definition audio quality of its time), has extra zing to it. OK, so it’s just frou-frou music. So what? The way Munch tears into it, it may as well be the Beethoven “Eroica.” So just relax, put your musical acumen on hold for a while, and enjoy. This is available as a CD from Universal Music on Decca 478 6769.

Charles Munch “died with his boots on,” so to speak, suffering a fatal heart attack in his hotel suite on November 8, 1968 while on tour in America. Unlike Toscanini, the Kleibers, Böhm or other conductors who adapted their musical style to the sound of the orchestra they were working with, Munch was one of those—like Stokowski and Karajan—who imposed his very specific sound on each orchestra he conducted. In his case, it was a very French sound: lean, bright string tone, slightly “blowsy” brass, and sweet winds. By this method he converted the Boston Symphony from the plush, rich sound that Serge Koussevitzky created to a French orchestra, and he did the same when conducting the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, USSR State Symphony, Royal Philharmonic or the New Philharmonia. Yet in his case musical excellence, not show-offiness of sound, was always his first priority, and the recordings testify to that. Just think of him as a jolly Toscanini or a cheerful Rodzinski. He was truly one of the greats.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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New Munch Reissue Flawed But Interesting

Munch Honegger Barber front cover

DEBUSSY: La Damoiselle Élue / Victoria de los Angeles, sop; Carol Smith, mezzo; Radcliffe Choral Society. Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien / Phyllis Curtin, Catherine Akos, sop; Florence Kopleff, mezzo; New England Conservatory Chorus. POULENC: Gloria / Adele Addison, sop; Chorus Pro Musica. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 8. BARBER: Adagio for Strings / Boston Symphony Orch., Charles Munch, conductor. HONEGGER: Symphony No. 2, “Symphonie pour cordes” / Orch. de la Societe de Concerts Conservatoire, Charles Munch, conductor / Urania WS 121.262-2 (2 CDs)

Here’s a strange reissue from one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century—though he was not completely appreciated as such in Boston. The release is strange primarily due to its claims: “The two discs in this new release contain authentic rare recordings, including two world premiere performances. Featuring works by Debussy, Poulenc, Vaughan Williams, Honegger, and Barber, this is truly a diverse programme of live performances. All of the recordings were recorded live between the years 1942 and 1961. These recordings of the Poulenc works were made under the guidance of the composer.”

Now to apply the Truth in Advertising law to these claims. First of all, though the program is a bit diverse for Munch, containing a work by Samuel Barber and a major but little-known symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams, most of these recordings are by no means rare. In fact, most of them are not live performances, and the Honegger Symphony is not a “world premiere performance,” just the first recording. On top of that, the only two live performances in the entire set are the Poulenc Gloria and the Vaughan Williams symphony. All the others are commercial RCA Victor recordings, and in fact the two Debussy works have been reissued ad infinitum over the past 40 years.

So why should you wish to own this set? Well, mostly for the 1942-44 recording of the Honegger Symphony and the two live Boston Symphony performances of the Poulenc Gloria and the Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 8. The latter is an extremely obscure work here in America, mostly because it calls for extra percussion which only plays in one movement and therefore costs orchestras extra money to perform it…plus, it’s not well known or popular in the U.S. Indeed, there is only one other performance or recording in existence by an American orchestra, a 1956 account by the New York Philharmonic under Sir John Barbirolli who was, of course, British. This is its only performance by a non-British orchestra AND conductor, and for many people this is the greatest performance of it. As for the Gloria, Poulenc wrote to friends that Munch was much better in the second performance than the first—in this world premiere account, the first movement is somewhat stodgy and the last somewhat glib—but he was absolutely bowled over by the singing of soprano Adele Addison. To the best of my knowledge, this seems to be the only commercial CD release of the Gloria and the 1942-44 “Disque Gramophone” recording of the Honegger Symphony No. 2 (not to be confused with his French National Orchestra performance of the 1960s).

W1600 label ABut—and in all objectivity and fairness, I must point this out—you can obtain all three of these rare recordings elsewhere. The Honegger Symphony can be streamed (or recorded) from YouTube here, and the exact same recording can be downloaded either as high-quality mp3s or as FLAC files here or here. The Poulenc Gloria (dating from January 20, 1961) can be streamed or downloaded from YouTube here, or from an alternate source here. As for the Vaughan Williams, this has been issued on CD by Pristine Classical (PASC 368), and although it is only a single disc and not a two-fer, you can order it here…or, once again, you can stream or download it for free on YouTube.

Thus you are left with some choices and perhaps a bit of confusion. But this is the new world order of recordings, and if the record companies don’t like it they can just back off and let the collectors who like to share old stuff pass it along like this. After all, how many people in the entire world do you think are going to want these performances? Even if you add perhaps 2,000 names to the number of Charles Munch lovers in the world, you probably won’t even top 20,000 people.

Which is a shame, because all of these are outstanding performances. Considering the place and time of recording—France during the period of the Vichy Government—Munch’s account of the Honegger Second is a superbly moody and passionate performance of a very sad symphony. Except for the first movement of the Poulenc Gloria, everything on this set moves at a good pace and benefits from Munch’s unusual combination of discipline and laxity, fire and elegance. He was not a conductor who much believed in rehearsals; in fact, several times he called the rehearsals off and went out to have lunch at a fine restaurant or play golf instead. This eventually ticked off the BSO board so much that they refused to renew his contract at the end of the 1961-62 season, replacing him with the steady, workaday but utterly pedestrian Erich Leinsdorf. I can tell you from personal experience that Leinsdorf’s BSO recordings sat, vegetated and collected dust on record store shelves throughout the 1960s (they couldn’t even give away his recording of the Mendelssohn Midsummer Night’s Dream Music for $1.99 when it was cut out, in part because the performance was so lackluster and in part because it came in a huge “art book” presentation package that measured a foot across and two feet high). On the other hand, once the Munch-BSO recordings began to be reissued around 1967 or so, collectors snapped them up like hotcakes. The BSO board may have had fits over him, but the musical public always loved Munch.

Of course, the orchestra did occasionally tend toward slovenliness during his tenure. Possibly the worst Munch-BSO recording was that of Debussy’s La Mer, an extraordinarily difficult symphony that required the utmost in orchestral execution. The Munch tape was so bad that producer Richard Mohr had to have the orchestra return to the studio and record nearly a dozen passages over again, which were spliced in. If you listen to the recording through headphones, you can spot nearly all of these original analog splices. But at his best Munch was much like his idol Toscanini, and in fact I think he came closer to the legendary Italian maestro than did Fritz Reiner, despite the Hungarian’s habit of rehearsing his orchestra until their fingers were numb.

But I digress. Perhaps the most surprising success here is the Vaughan Williams symphony, and that on two counts: it’s a superbly crisp, lively account, and the score is far better than many American audiences, who don’t know much Vaughan Williams, would predict. Yet as I’ve said, as a total set this one has problems, and I’m positive that any dedicated Munch collector already has the Debussy and Barber pieces on their shelves. But if you’re the type of person who doesn’t want to bother downloading and burning the other pieces, you won’t regret buying it, because the rarities are really very good.

— © Lynn René Bayley 2016

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Henry Threadgill, Master of Musical Mosaics


I’ve been wanting to write in some detail about Henry Threadgill and his complex, difficult yet fascinating music for a while now, but every time I’ve tried to get started something else has interfered. And one of the things that has interfered the most is the fact that Threadgill’s music is so extraordinarily complex and so unique that it takes extreme concentration just to listen to it, let alone write about it, and to do so—particularly without access to the scores—is frustrating and somewhat intimidating.

I brought up some of Threadgill’s music with the trio Air in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, in which I surveyed the entire history of the interaction between classical music and jazz (click here to read it), but certainly not enough to do him justice. The reason was that, although Threadgill did indeed study composition at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, the music he produces is put together from jazz elements in a way that “speaks” jazz. The vernacular of his music is jazz; the way the elements are put together follow jazz principles; and although the finished products are extraordinary complex, and despite the fact that he has also written for large orchestras (particularly Run Silent, Run Deep, Run Loud, Run High), the finished results only bear a superficial resemblance to classical music in the way they are constructed. If Thelonious Monk, as Ralph Berton claimed, was the Stravinsky of jazz, Henry Threadgill uses principles found in Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Ligeti (perhaps particularly Ligeti) in a way that more closely resembles the more avant-garde work of Ornette Coleman, Michael Mantler and David Murray, while sounding like none of them.

It’s difficult, then, to describe the music of a particularly brilliant lone wolf who operates within his own specific musical universe. This doesn’t mean that it’s not necessary to write about him or impossible, just very difficult. The respected down beat critic John Litweiler summed it up best when he wrote, “He seems to be deliberately challenging the audience: ‘My lyricism and mastery come complete with thorns and spikes, and I promise to yank the props out from under you’.” Essentially, and I am in no way trying to pigeonhole his music by trying to describe it in its basics, Threadgill upsets the balance that exists not only in jazz but in all music in regards to the three principal elements, rhtyhm, melody and harmony. Whereas George Russell pulled the rug out from under the tonal system by declaring that all music form Bach to Schoenberg, including jazz, was part of a continuum that could be defined by his Lydian Chromatic Concept, and whereas Ornette Coleman took one aspect of Russell’s concept—horizontal movement—to a new level by eliminating root chords and other signposts of tonality (which upset and alienated a great many traditional jazz musicians, though oddly enough, not John Lewis or Pee Wee Russell), Henry Threadgill works in small blocks of sound, sometimes thematic fragments, which he will then ask his musicians to play in the fashion of a round, with different players coming in at different places within the phrase or the beat. This in turn creates new melodic, harmonic and rhythmic forms. In a sense, it’s like taking three different takes of an Ornette Coleman composition and overlaying them, not in synchronization but delayed by a beat or a beat and a half one on top of the other.

Once you understand the principals, Threadgill’s music becomes easier to comprehend, but when I say “easier” I don’t mean that in the sense that modern-day retro bop is easy to comprehend. It’s more like saying that after a period of listening and study, Stravinsky’s late, thorny 12-tone compositions like Agon and the Requiem Canticles become easier to understand. No one is going to walk out of a Threadgill concert whistling tunes; they may not even be able to retain scraps of them to replay in the first place; but the totality of what Threadgill does will stay with you, however disturbing it may be to your expectations or musical sensibilities, for a long time.

Born in 1944, Threadgill studied not only composition but also piano and flute. An early member of the influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Threadgill also studied the music of Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, Luciano Berio and Mario Bauzá as well as the music of Bali, India, the West Indies and Japan. This is yet another reason, I think, why his finished music strikes me as not so much within a classical tradition as within a “world music” tradition. In addition to these sources, he filters his music through jazz, R&B and the blues to come up with compositions that are distinctly his own.

Since I have been unable to hear his Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, In for a Penny, In for a Pound, and cannot get a copy of his latest album for review, I cannot speak of these works, but I’m sure that they follow the principles of all his music I have heard. Threadgill never stands still, mind you—he refuses to rest on his laurels and doesn’t repeat, if he can help it, concepts or patterns he has already traversed—but there is a consistency in his inventiveness that makes every excursion into his music remarkable. Earlier I said that there are very few signposts of classical form (as such) in his music, but one of those is the insistence that most of the ideas presented be cogent, i.e., they must make sense somehow. There is very little in his music of the far-out explorations of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, though they must have been yet another group he heard while in that city, which prided itself on an amorphous journey through each piece. Threadgill’s music sounds so rigorously constructed that the listener almost feels surprised to discover the improvised solos within it.

A superb example of Threadgill at his best is All the Way Light Touch, an hour-long piece premiered on October 25, 2009 and aired on Roulette TV on April 14, 2010. You can watch and hear the performance here. I think one of the most attractive qualities of Threadgill’s music—and this piece is no exception—is that, despite its complexity, he often maintains a low volume level which draws the listener in. To some extent I think this is because he not only wants the audience to hear each thread of the music individually, but the participating musicians as well. More interesting, to me, is his consistently “quiet” orchestration. Threadgill rarely if ever uses upper-register instruments screaming away at any point in his music. Mostly he prefers to use, for instance, a real jazz guitarist rather than a distorted-sound blues guitarist (again, to promote clarity of execution and line), a cello (to enhance the texture, often playing high in its range, simulating a viola), and a tuba in place of a string bass (again, texture…ever since Gil Evans introduced the tuba to modern jazz back in the 1940s it has been a favorite instrument because of its inherently richer sound), although he does use a bass guitar. Threadgill himself on alto sax and flute provides in this work and others the most overtly “bluesy” sound, yet his innate sense of construction keeps him from squealing out-of-tonality licks for the sake of shock. He always stays within the parameters of the piece he has constructed, whether brief or, as in this case, lengthy, knowing how it is “supposed” to go even if the listener has no clue where it is headed.

Every so often in his extended works, as for instance around the 20-minute mark in All the Way Light Touch, Threadgill will relax the complex, multi-layered rhythm and come to what sounds to the listener like a standard 4/4, but this is an illusion. Threadgill’s meter is always an illusion. He never stays within one pulse for long, and within a minute or two of the listener feeling comfortable he or she will start feeling disoriented again…perhaps even more so than before, because they thought the rhythm was suddenly “normal” and now it’s not again, and you can’t even really tell at which point it changed. Threadgill morphs his beat-shifting gradually; indeed, there will probably be some listeners who won’t even notice, at first, that the band is no longer playing a straight 4 until it becomes so obvious that you can’t escape the change, by which time it is too late for you to realize that Threadgill has expanded his spider’s web of sound and that both you and his musicians are forced to run around the intersecting lines of the music in order to reach the center rather than cutting straight through to it. I can describe this music more technically though I wouldn’t dare attempt to without seeing a score, but this method of defining Threadgill’s operating methods is, I think, clearer for lay listeners to understand. One of Threadgill’s online comments explains the contradiction: “It’s funny when people say things like, ‘The section in 5/4,’ and I say, ‘I’d like to know where that was…I don’t know where you heard that,’ because basically I think in 1/4. Beat to beat, penny to penny, dollar to dollar…I don’t want any sense of meter because when you sense meter, you see and feel division.”[1]

This last statement by Threadgill is, of course, both true and a bit deceptive. He may indeed always think in terms of a single beat, but in performance the beats combine themselves in ways that, as I say, add up to more complex rhythms and layered meter. As another online commentator put it, “There is rarely a ‘1’ to be found anywhere.” In this specific piece Threadgill’s second alto solo, which begins at about 31:20 following a complex drum break, is one of the few times one hears him playing “outside” jazz in the sense I described it earlier; but again, Threadgill’s penchant for musical coherency keeps him from going too far off the deep end. He plays specific notes, no matter how distorted, and not just “sounds” or “emotions.” In other words, solo and composition remain all of a piece.

Tomorrow SunnyWhat I find even more fascinating about Threadgill’s music, and his basic aesthetic, is that he applies the same principles to his shorter pieces as to his longer ones. A good for-instance is his 2012 album, Tomorrow Sunny. Here, he presents us with individual pieces with separate titles, and they are fine and interesting pieces in themselves. Yet in a 73-minute live performance given at the Library of Congress on October 25, 2013 (click here to listen), Threadgill folded three of those pieces—A Day Off, Tomorrow Sunny and Ambient Pressure Thereby—into three others not of the same vintage but of the same general style (Chairmaster, To Undertake My Corners Open and Not White Flag) into a huge, continuous, single “performance piece.” And there is no cultural clash, so to speak, when this is done because of his consistency of approach. Threadgill’s music is essentially a huge chest full of Tinkertoys or Legos which he can mix or match at his whim and still come up with something valid and organic. And that is another reason (sorry, Henry!) why I can’t define his music as “classically oriented,” because no classical composer of any era has ever been able to do this.

Indeed, Threadgill has actually shifted and changed his composition style over the years. His earlier style, from the era of Too Much Sugar for a Dime, was much more funk-oriented and less complex, but he continued to morph and grow. He later took eight years off to create a new method of improvising in a group setting, which led to his most recent band, Zooid, named after a cell that is able to move independently of the larger organism to which it belongs. Interestingly, this change of aesthetic has led to a simplification of his composition methods. He now uses mostly “interval blocks” of three notes, each assigned to a different musician who is free to move around within them, improvising melodies and creating counterpoint against one another. This method may indeed sound classical to jazz critics who aren’t musically literate, but it is in effect an advanced version of the time-honored “chase chorus,” which has existed in jazz since the 1920s, brought into the digital era.

A final question, however, thus presents itself: Is Threadgill’s music all more or less similar? Does this ability to be interchangeable make it less individualistic? That’s a question every listener has to decide for him or herself, since everybody hears music differently. What I hear is a series of complex works that, because they lack definable melodic structure and because each of them is harmonically and rhythmically vague, can be tossed together like exotic salad ingredients into a bowl of iceberg lettuce. Threadgill’s music is a smorgasbord of different flavors and tastes that, like cilantro or pickled beets, completely change the flavor and texture of each musical salad. And you, as the auditor, may feel free to pour any flavor of mental salad dressing on to make it tasty for you.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Scott Wheeler’s Kaleidoscopic Piano Vignettes


WHEELER: Alphabet Dance; Birthday Card for Tony; Pseudo-Rag: GS; Bleecker Study; Cowley Meditation; Cliff Walk; Life Study; Epithalamion; Morningside; By the Sea; Calamity Rag; Midnight Bells; Firefly Lullaby; Study in Concord; Stone South; The Fifth of July; Flow Chart; Arietta; Shimmer; To His Music; Portrait of Steve; Pastorale; Cookie Waltz and Gallop; Sketching; Island Lullaby; Green Geese; Free Ranging / Donald Berman, pianist / Bridge 9463

Sometimes, but not often, great delights come in small containers. Here we have 27 short piano works by American composer Scott Wheeler (b. 1952), a faculty member of Emerson College in Boston and co-founder of the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble. This was the first time I had ever heard any of his music, but pianist Donald Berman, known for his playing of modernistic American composers (his previous CDs include The Unknown Ives and The Uncovered Ruggles), has chosen well in presenting several sides of this interesting and at times delightful composer.

By and large, Wheeler appears to work within the parameters of modern music without embracing serialism. But that is almost too broad a definition of this music, which really runs the gamut of styles including neo-classicism, a bit of minimalism, and more than a bit of jazz-classical hybrids. These latter pieces also include ragtime, such as Pseudo-Rag: GS, described as a “grid piece, 60 measures for the 60th birthday of Gunther Schuller,” using the composer’s initials as G and E-flat and alluding to Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer as “a nod to Gunther’s advocacy of Joplin and ragtime,” but ending with a major third as an allusion to “the Beatles song ‘When I’m 64,’ which is also perhaps something of a ragtime piece.” This tells you how Wheeler’s discursive mind works, thus when he tells you that Midnight Bells was suggested by Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight you don’t need him to say that in order to hear the Monk influence, yet he morphs it in such a way to simply suggest Monk without really evoking that specific tune.

Other rag or jazz-influenced pieces on the album are Calamity Rag, which sounds so much like Scott Joplin that you’d swear you’ve heard it before, and particularly Cliff Walk, which sounds like something James P. Johnson would have written. But please don’t think that, although I loved these pieces, that they are entirely typical of Wheeler’s output or the only pieces of interest on this fascinating CD. On the contrary, nearly every piece grabs the listener’s attention one way or another, all of them fascinating and none of them banal. Wheeler is a composer who knows how to use his musical materials in such a way that he grabs and holds your attention, whether the piece in question is barely a minute and a half long or close to four minutes. The only really lengthy piece on this album is Flow Chart, clocking in at 11:12. This one pays homage to minimalism while breaking its principal rule, which is the endless repetition of a single idea or rhythmic motif. Wheeler varies both the rhythm and the phrase-lengths in this piece while maintaining fairly simple melodic cells of just a few notes, yet somehow keeps his idea going. It’s a little like watching those little wooden balls on strings clacking back and forth, moving other little wooden balls with them in ever-changing patterns. Really fascinating stuff!

As the gently lyrical Arietta began, I mused on Wheeler’s own liner notes in which he says that “The piano is the instrument I play, sometimes in public, though hardly at all as a virtuoso.” Arietta is not a virtuoso piece, but it is memorable and attractive, and so too, in its own quirky way, is Shimmer, described by the composer as “a portrait of physician and visual artist Peter Stringham.” Somehow I feel that Stringham’s visual art was more of an inspiration than his doctoring abilities. Other portraits then follow in order: To His Music, a bitonal piece composed for Wheeler’s teacher Malcolm Peyton, Portrait of Steve a memorial for his friend Dr Stephen Malawista, Pastorale a portrait of Evansville arts patron Sara Davies, Cookie Waltz and Gallop a portrait of Elizabeth Cranstoun as a child and Sketching a portrait of artist Shane Crabtree “who was herself at work through the sitting.” Every so often, American popular tunes and ragtime references continue to sneak into Wheeler’s work, such as the allusion to Me and My Shadow in Portrait of Steve. These portraits are quintessential Americana, musical descendants of Barber, Copland and Rorem in general form and style.

No question about it, this is a surprising and delightful album, one that you will particularly enjoy on a Sunday morning. Berman’s playing is warm and inviting, which enhances the appeal of these fine short works.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Mayr’s “Medea” Resuscitated by Rodriguez, Luisi


MAYR: Medea in Corinto / Roberto Lorenzi, baritone (Creonte); Enea Scala, tenor (Egeo); Davinia Rodriguez, soprano (Medea); Michael Spyres, tenor (Giasone); Mihaela Marcu, soprano (Creusa); Paolo Cauteruccio, countertenor (Evandro); Nozomi Kato, mezzo-soprano (Ismene); Marco Stefani, tenor (Tideo); Transylvania State Philharmonic Chorus; Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia; Fabio Luisi, conductor / Dynamic CDS 7735/1-2 (live, Martina Franca, July-August 2015)

My first—and, for 40 years, only—contact with Johann Mayr’s Medea in Corinto was the 1969 recording issued on Vanguard Classics with Marisa Galvany as Medea, Joan Patenaude-Yarnell as Creusa, Allen Cathcart as Jason, Robert White as Aegeus and Thomas Palmer as Creon with the “Carion Concerts Orchestra and Chorus” (whoever they were!) conducted with pep, but no insight, by Newell Jenkins. What I remember most about it were two things: one, the studio engineers recessed Galvany’s voice to make her sound smaller than she did in the house, which was rather detrimental to the recording because she was the only singer with the juice to make the score come to life. Of course, being Marisa, she did so with several interpolated high notes, including a ringing high E, but you needed to crank up the volume to hear them (which you certainly didn’t have to do when you heard Galvany live); and two, everyone else except Galvany sang in an accepted bel canto style, which robbed the music of real drama. You can hear the entire recording for free (and record the streaming audio if you want) here.

For the most part Mayr’s Medea is a bel canto work, certainly not in the same league with Luigi Cherubini’s equally classic-style but tauter and more dramatic version of the Greek drama, which is why the Mayr is much less often staged and recorded. But of course, getting the right soprano for Medea is always a challenge regardless of which composer you hear, and it might be argued that neither Cherubini nor Mayr dug into the heart of the characters as well as a “real” German composer like Gluck, Beethoven or Strauss might have done. Both versions of Medea start off with lightweight, pretty music, only getting more dramatic (and interesting) once Medea enters. To a certain extent this makes sense, but to my mind Cherubini worked the antagonism between Medea and Jason better than Mayr did.

Comparing this new performance by Luisi to the Jenkins recording, one senses differences in both pacing and mood. Luisi takes the opening scene faster than Jenkins, but with a less bright sound and less jaunty rhythms. Being a live performance, we have some problems: our Creusa, Mihaela Marcu, is wobbly and infirm in her opening arioso with chorus, so much so that she goes flat much of the time (happily, she warms up by track 5). On the other hand our Creonte, Roberto Lorenzi, has a fine, somewhat dark baritone voice, and is warmed up from his first entrance. So too are the two principals, Rodriguez and Spyres, and by and large these are the three most important roles in this drama. Moreover, this live performance has a better theatrical “feel” to it than the Galvany recording. The characters all come to life here rather than just singing well. And happily, Rodriguez has an excellent Medea voice: rich and dark, with a certain amount of heft, yet also with the flexibility and technique to negotiate those tricky coloratura passages that Mayr wrote into the score. (As I said, this is more of a bel canto Medea than Chereubini’s.) in Spyres’ hands, Jason comes across as a hero who can swash a few buckles as well as toss off high-lying florid phrases with the best of them—and again, it is Luisi’s steady hand in the podium that contributes to this greater sense of drama in the music.

According to what I’ve read, Mayr already found the opera uncomfortably long and cumbersome in its initial French edition, paring down some of the lengthy orchestrally-accompanied recitatives. When he later brought the opera to La Scala a decade later (1823), further scenes were cut, specifically Scenes 4, 6, 9 and 11 in Act 1 and Scenes 3, 5, 7, 8 and 13-14 in Act 2 (these cuts were documented and kept in the Milan Conservatory). This has the effect of making Mayr’s somewhat lopsided and long-winded opera tauter and more cogently dramatic. They are smart cuts, omitting roughly a half hour’s worth of music in an opera that, at 160 minutes, is already a bit too long.

As a sidelight, I’ve also heard extended excerpts from an Opera Rara recording with soprano Jane Eaglen and tenor Bruce Ford, conducted by David Parry. This is pretty much a limp noodle, not only compared to this new Luisi reading but even to the Newell Jenkins recording, and is therefore not recommended despite the often fine singing. It is, however, a bit late for Ford, whose high notes sound a mite pinched, and Eaglen sings this bel canto-dramatic role with surprising fluency but problematic vocal control and pitch, i.e. her first high A in the aria “Sommi dei, che i giuramenti.” In short, Eaglen just makes it through the music, giving some drama to the role, whereas Rodriguez inhabits it. Alastair Miles’ Creonte is well characterized, but he’s in somewhat steel-wool voice. Parry conducts as if it were an early Mozart symphony, which isn’t good enough for any opera with the name of Medea in the title. Just listen to the slack pacing of the long Medea-Jason duet in Act 1 to see what I mean. But the Opera Rara is complete, the missing scenes given as appendices.

From what I can tell from the new recording—and the orchestra is not quite clear enough for me to be certain of this—it sounds as if Luisi is using appropriately reduced forces but allows the strings to use a light, fast vibrato rather than straight tone (certainly, I hear a fast, tight vibrato in the solo violin accompanying Medea’s first aria). Interestingly, Luisi is able to focus the orchestral sound to a pointed “bite” when playing sharply attacked notes behind the singers, which also helps move the drama forward. If Rodriguez is less technically spectacular than Galvany, she is more poignant and a finer actress, much more into the character. I wonder if she has sung the Cherubini Medea as well. As a matter of fact, Rodriguez actually makes you feel sorry for Medea, despite what she does to her children later in the opera. Nonetheless, Rodriguez’ odd, almost alien-sounding voice marks her as someone apart from the other characters in the opera, certainly apart from the other women. She has a certain nasal quality that extends down into the middle of the voice, but interestingly enough it is not detrimental to the attractiveness of her sound. One might almost call it her “Callas quality” (yes, Virginia, Maria Callas often sang in a nasal manner, too).

Compared with many other Mayr operas, Medea is actually more dramatically scored despite the inevitable comparisons with Rossini. For one thing, he tends to avoid coloratura for its own sake: when used, it always has a dramatic purpose and is not really overdone (which is why I’m not particularly fond of Galvany’s extra interpolated high notes, which tend to detract from the drama). For another, the orchestrally accompanied recitatives, particularly when sung by Rodriguez with or without Spyres or others, are given a wide variety of tone color and dramatic emphasis by the soprano. Indeed, the more often you listen to her performance the more impressed you become. She is a vocal actress with a superb voice, not a superb voice with nothing behind it. She and Luisi combine to produce a varied and fascinating performance, lifting the notes off the page and making them mean something dramatically. I became so completely wrapped up in her performance, in fact, that I almost forgot she was impersonating Medea. She almost sounded like the character herself: imperious, emotionally hurt, pleading and defiant in turn. She was so good, in fact, that I almost forgot the music itself.

Ah, but the music is there, and in Luisi’s skilled hands it has a wonderful sense of ebb and flow that de-emphasizes its Italianate bounciness. Not erase it, just de-emphasize it, and ofttimes that is enough. I know dozens of opera listeners who just adore this bel canto stuff and think it’s the bee’s knees, but I was never that big on it except when composers used coloratura runs and such in a dramatic way—and this normally applies more to Handel, Gluck and Mozart than to Mayr, Rossini and Donizetti. Mayr apparently never met a dissonance he liked, even in passing, which undermines somewhat the cogent drama of the piece, but this cast and conductor manage to overcome this. FYI, soprano Nadja Michael on an Arthaus Musik DVD of the opera is absolutely dreadful with a wobble you could drive a truck through, but Ivor Bolton’s conducting is absolutely terrific, almost as good as Luisi’s. So too is the surprisingly excellent 1977 live performance featuring the legendary Leyla Gencer as Medea, William Johns as Jason, Gianfranco Casarini as Creon, and conductor Maruizio Arena. Arena conducts the opera at a slower pace than Luisi and the others, but gives excellent dramatic weight to the music. The problem? Terrible “live” sound, recorded in mono and with the singers often off-mike.

In brief, then, this is not a perfectly-sung performance—in that respect, the Jenkins recording is finer—but as an overall presentation of a Medea opera it is the best on the market.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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