Mangelsdorff Times Two Play Swinging Jazz

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MANGELSDORFF & MANGELSDORFF: EARLY DISCOVERIES / PARKER: Now’s the Time; Air Conditioning. A. MANGELSDORFF: Dada Marsch; Set ‘em Up; He Went This Way; Ba-Hu-Cha. COSMA: Autumn Leaves. GETZ: Hershey Bar. PETTIFORD: Laverne Walk. GERSHWIN: Embraceable You. DAMERON: Philly J.J. / Günter Kronberg, a-sax; Bent Jeadig, t-sax; Albert Mangelsdorff, tb; Peter Trunk, bs; Hartwig Bartz, dm. FREUND: Anything Else; Gertie; Madame B / Gerry Weinkopf, fl; Rolf Kühn, cl; Albert Mangelsdorff, Conny Jackel, tb; Emil Mangelsdorff, a-sax; Hans Koller, Joki Freund, t-sax; Helmut Brandt, bar-sax; Horst Jankowski, pn; Wolfgang Schlüter, vib; Trunk, bs; Joe Ney, dm. / A. MANGELSDORFF: Studie für Posaune / A. Mangelsdorff, tb; Trunk, bs. / FREUND: Mademoiselle Butterfly; Vielaf; Nico. GILLESPIE-PAPARELLI: A Night in Tunisia / E. Mangelsdorff, a-sax; Freund, Koller, t-sax; Heinz Sauer, bar-sax; E. Mangelsdorff, tb; Trunk, bs; Lex Humphries, dm. / A. MANGELSDORFF: Blues for Joe / Egon Denu, tp; A. Mangelsdorff, tb; E. Mangelsdorff, a-sax; Koller, Helmut Brandt, t-sax; Jankowski, pn; Bill Grah, vib; Attila Zoller, gt; Johnny Fischer, bs; Karl Sanner, dm. / DUKE: I Can’t Get Started / A. Mangelsdorff & Zoller only / A. MANGELSDORFF: Mademoiselle Butterfly; Vielaf. GILLESPIE-PAPARELLI: A Night in Tunisia / Bud Shank, a-sax; Bob Cooper, t-sax; A. Mangelsdorff, tb; Joe Zawinul, pn; Fischer, bs; Victor Plasil, dm. / SWR Jazzhaus JAH-459 (2 CDs)

The Mangelsdorff brothers, Emil (b. 1925) and Albert (1928-2005), were two of the most famous and celebrated of German jazz musicians. Although Emil, the reed-playing brother, studied clarinet at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, he was quickly bitten by the jazz bug and began woodshedding at the illegal Hot Club in that city. This led to his being arrested by the Gestapo, forced into the German army, and sent to fight on the Russian front. Unfortunately Emil was one of the unlucky ones who was taken prisoner and held for four years. Happily he survived, returned to Frankfurt in 1949 and became a jazz legend in his home country. Younger brother Albert took violin lessons as a child and then studied guitar, but was introduced to jazz by Emil. For whatever reason, Albert didn’t get arrested or sent to war. In 1946 he began working as a professional guitarist, taking up the trombone in 1948. Albert became famous for being able to play multiphonics on his instrument.

This two-CD set follows the Mangelsdorff brothers, particularly Albert, through a series of live and studio performances recorded between 1956 and 1963. As one can see from the assembled forces, the two brothers were extremely busy individually and thus rarely had the chance to play together, at least on occasions when a tape was rolling. My general impression of both of them is positive on many counts. They swung and swung hard, not always a feature of German jazz musicians during this period; they were inventive; and they always seemed to be enjoying themselves. That in itself would recommend this set to many a jazz collector. My sole caveat is that, in retrospect, they didn’t sound much different from their American models most of the time. This isn’t to say that they slavishly copied famous American musicians, but their solos had much the same contours and patterns of contemporary Americans. It’s the kind of jazz that would certainly perk up your day if you were having a bad one—as I say, their sheer enthusiasm is contagious—without imprinting itself on your mind as outstanding. But this is why people preferred Phil Woods and Benny Golson to Bud Shank (who plays on the last set here), Horace Silver and Duke Jordan to Pete Jolly, etc. It’s a matter of degree rather than lack of talent, and the Mangelsdorff brothers were nothing if not talented.

Indeed, I would defy anyone in a blindfold test listening to the first set, 12 live tracks by the Albert Mangelsdorff Quintet from 1961 with alto saxist Günter Kronberg and tenor saxist Bent Jeadig, to tell me who the musicians were. I seriously question whether they’d be able to guess the names, but at the same time they’d be suitable impressed by their jazz chops. It’s that kind of album. Nearly all the performances on this 2-disc set are bright and exhilarating, and nearly all are wide-open blowing dates with little or no arrangements.

Aside from the Americans Shank and Bob Cooper on the last set, a studio recording from March 1957, the names that will pique the most interest are the outstanding bassist Peter Trunk, who plays on all of CD 1 and part of CD 2; the excellent tenor saxists Hans Koller and Joki Freund; and pianists Horst Jankowski, who later became a big name in pop music, and Joe Zawinul. These musicians add an extra dimension to the tunes on which they play, which in turn sparks a bit more creativity among the surrounding musicians.

In short, if you want to explore German jazz at the nexus of its “cool bop” phase, you can do no better than to acquire this set. Every track is a delight on its own terms regardless of the caveats noted above.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Erkin’s Little-Known Music a Wow

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ERKİN: Köçekçe, Dance Rhapsody for Orchestra; Violin Concerto; Symphony No. 2 / James Buswell, violinist (in concerto); Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra; Theodore Kuchar, conductor / Naxos 8.572831

Despite the fact that Turkey was one of the very few Middle Eastern countries to embrace Western culture, particularly its musical culture, during the 1920s, we here in the West still have a fairly sketchy view of their composers’ output. We know of Fazil Say because he is young and contemporary, and we now know quite a bit of Ahmed Saygun because he has been a cause celebre among classical critics in recent years, yet I doubt that most lay listeners and even the majority of music critics have heard the music of the “Turkish Five.” This group includes Saygun and Ulvi Cemal Erkin but also Cemal Reşit Rey, Hasan Ferdi Alnar and Necil Kazim Akses—and if you say that you’re familiar with the works of these composers (other than Saygun) you’re either Turkish, a musicologist who specializes in Eastern composers, or a liar.

Thus this new release of Erkin’s music as conducted by the exciting and scintillating Theodor Kuchar is not only a valuable addition to a catalog sadly lacking his music: the only other release I could find was an alternate performance of Köçekçe, his most famous and popular piece, on an Onyx CD mixed in with the music of Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Ippolitov-Ivanov. In a sense, then, one might almost consider this the Western debut of this superb and interesting composer.

Although he had a long career after studying with Nadia Boulanger in the mid-to-late 1920s, all three of the works presented here date from the middle 1940s—apparently a fertile period for him. The informative but somewhat convoluted liner notes by Aydin Büke tell us that Erkin borrowed national folk tunes for his music (scarcely surprising—so did Saygun, and I’ll bet the other members of the Turkish Five did the same) and What I find particularly interesting is that the principal Turkish dance used by Erkin as a basis for his music, the köçek, is performed by a male dancer in women’s clothing, “an important component of Turkish national life.” So there you are. Transvestism dates further back than you thought. I wonder if köçek dancers were stoned or pushed off cliffs if they performed in less tolerant Middle Eastern countries?

The notes also delve into the components that made up Erkin’s music, as well as that of other members of the Turkish Five. Among these were advanced harmonies and an almost Stravinskian approach to melodic structure. The results are fascinating, combining these then-modern elements of neo-classicism with the retro sound of old Turkish folk music and a modal structure. In a way, then, Erkin’s music may be described as a combination of native folk tunes with not only Stravinsky but also Bartók with late Romantic tendencies (e.g., Strauss), but this simplistic description is not wholly adequate in defining this music’s originality and power. Köçekçe, his most famous and popular piece, is a real butt-kicker in D minor or D modal, beginning with startling brass chords playing against swirling strings before forlorn winds are heard playing an interlude. But the brash orchestration and spiraling rhythms are what dominate this work without ever being as crass in their use as, say, Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon Overture. Erkin worked within established forms but pushed the limits of rhythm, and displacement of beats, in a strikingly Turkish manner. A couple of flute (or piccolos—I haven’t seen the score) also come in for their own theme, which Erkin then builds up to an impressive climax with the winds and brass again at the fore. It’s one of those pieces that keep you on the edge of your seat because you never know what’s going to come next. Even the coda, such as it is, comes as a surprise with its somewhat Sephardic harmonic feel.

The Violin Concerto of 1946-47 is set in three movements as per Western tradition, but the music relies heavily on modality (the initial movement begins in A modal). And even here, Erkin displays his flair for the dramatic, starting the work with a rolling tympani crescendo and a crashing string/brass chord. The soloist immediately enters, playing the principal theme before moving on to virtuosic excursions. The orchestra, oddly, then takes up part of the development section, returning to the soloist for more placid commentary before ominous low brass growls and string tremolos create a feeling of unease beneath the soloist’s long-held high E. From this point on, for some time, both soloist and orchestra engage in alternating bits of the development section, the orchestra maintaining its dramatic feel while the violin comments more lyrically. I believe I heard bass clarinets around the 3:40 mark, certainly an unusual bit of orchestration for a classical work of this nature. At 4:50 dramatic, staccato orchestral chords come crashing into the picture, eventually returning us to the violin soloist, now in a more agitated state himself. I should point out that, although these works were new to me, I must compliment conductor Kuchar, whose set of the complete orchestral works of Smetana I praised highly several years ago, for maintaining such a high level of emotion even in the quietest passages. Staccato orchestral chords eventually return, this time with the violin playing agitated lines above them, including chords in triplets, before being let loose on a cadential phrase that acts more like a bridge to the rest of the movement. It’s difficult to put the impact of this music in words—that’s the reason it’s music and not a piece of prose—but one listen to it will convince you that Erkin had a wonderful sense of balance in his writing for both soloist and orchestra. Eventually the violin soloist embarks on a cadenza proper, but it sounds to me an integral part of the piece and important as a bridge to the dramatic closing music of this movement.

The second movement, more lyrical and placid, is also less complex in terms of contrasting sections and emotions but no less effective for that. The throbbing solo violin, here in a more reflective, almost melancholy mood, dominates the proceedings while the orchestra comes and goes in more muted colors. Drama is created at the midway point by stopped chords and a more forceful manner of playing before a return to hushed sadness. By contrast, the wild, almost savage last movement includes what is called a taksim section that simulates the feeling of improvisation often encountered in traditional Turkish violin music. Here, too, the constant and insistent motor rhythms utilized by Erkin set up an almost “whirling dervish” feel to the music, to which both the orchestra and soloist are up to the challenge.

The Second Symphony was started in 1948 and finished in 1951, but for whatever reason Erkin did not fully orchestrate it until 1958. Oddly, despite its brilliance in both compositional terms and color, it was the last symphony he wrote. Once again Erkin mixed a modal style (D-flat modal, in fact) with Western forms, his sense of the dramatic again coming to the fore. String tremolos and staccato horns are expertly used to build tension even in the quieter passages, and here Erkin did a splendid job of grading his dynamics from loud to soft and back again without relying solely on stark contrasts of volume. A stark flute melody acts as the B theme in the first movement, embellished by muted trumpets and what sounds to me like a horn-trombone mixture playing very low and soft chords as a sort of basso continuo for a period of time. Then, suddenly, at 3:35 the orchestra opens up into a snarling, growling, menacing force, coming at the listener with the power of a freight train (I was reminded a bit of “Mars” from Holst’s The Planets) before an oboe (or English horn) solo intervenes for a brief interlude amidst the clamor. This leads to other winds playing soft passages in an evident development section, yet with the full orchestra continually interrupting with its clamor until it again wrests control of the piece. The resemblance to Holst’s “Mars” continues apace with the staccato rhythms and forceful orchestration, at least until the 7:52 mark when the rolling tympani finally dies away and a more consistently lyrical interlude is established. The tympani returns, introducing the brief, dramatic finale.

The second movement is written as a theme with eight variations in the form of a passacaglia. I was fascinated to read Büke’s assertion, in the notes, that the opening theme played by the basses reminded him of “a prayer from a Mevlevi dervish ceremony,” so I’m not the only one who hears dervish allusions in these scores. Here, too, Erkin uses clarinets scored very low in their range but not (so far as I can tell) the bass clarinets he used earlier in the violin concerto. Despite this being a slow movement and in the form of a passacaglia, Erkin does not shy away from open and brash emotion, building the music up gradually from 2:15 through 6:14 (whence it abruptly stops) in a slow, inexorable crescendo to a stunning climax. Once again, one can scarcely give enough praise to Kuchar or the playing of the orchestra as they move together in unison to create a spellbinding effect. And once again, Erkin uses tympani to assist him in the creation and sustaining of that tension. The final section of the movement, dominated by the shrillness of a piccolo playing very high up in its range, takes us to a dark, quiet finish.

The last movement, another allegro in the manner of a Köçekçe, shows Erkin in yet another festive mood, here varying the beat within each bar even a bit more than in his “dance rhapsody.” And here another instrument is added to his arsenal for color, the xylophone, which plays a prominent part in sections. A sort of canon or fugue is set up after the initial theme, but it only lasts a short time before we return to rhythmic excitement. At the 2:50 mark, we suddenly begin a faster section played by the winds with brass interjections, again with a strong Sephardic feel to it.

It’s difficult to listen to this album without the sense that something momentous is going on and that we are privileged to discover it. Both Erkin as a composer and Kuchar as a conductor grab one’s attention from the very start and simply do not let go until the final notes have died away. This is a gem of an album, easily one of the best of 2016 so far. “Six fish,” says The Penguin’s Girlfriend!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Kris Allen’s “Beloved” Understated, Subtle Jazz

Allen_Beloved_COVER

BELOVED / ALLEN: Lowborn (Proverbs 62:9); Mandy Have Mercy; Lord Help My Unbelief; Flores; One for Rory; Bird Bailey; Beloved (for Jen); Hate the Game; More Yeah; Threequel / Kris Allen, a-sax/s-sax; Frank Kozyra, t-sax; Luques Curtis, bs; Jonathan Barber, dm. / Truth Revolution Records (no number, available as high-quality mp3 or FLAC downloads)

Saxophonist Kris Allen, a protégé of Jackie McLean, presents here his second album consisting entirely of originals. In the press release for this collection, Allen is quoted as saying that “art has a positive role in society, even if it’s a subtle influence, of the spirit. I think music can help you connect to the best aspect of yourself.” I suppose this works for him in a self-fulfilling manner, because the music presented herein certainly has a joyous feel to it.

Allen’s music is rooted in the bop style that McLean came out of, filtered through a use of polyrhythms and his own style of tune construction. Many of the pieces on this album have not merely elusive but also brief themes, one might almost say motifs, that are briefly stated as such before the band members launch into their improvisations. At least tonally, Allen sounds a great deal like his mentor, who died in 2006, but his improvs have their own stamp and style. Harmonically Allen is fairly conservative, staying within the tonal system albeit with interesting changes. Both Allen and tenor saxist Kozyra have full, beautiful tones, which helps a great deal in enhancing the attractiveness of both the music and its presentation; overall, this is a good blowing session with structured opening and closing choruses as well as good bridge passages.

In Mandy Have Mercy, for instance, it’s difficult to tell just from listening how much of the music is written. Particularly interesting to me is the section in which Curtis solos on bass with interjections by the two saxes. This sounds at least planned if not written, but without having seen the score you really can’t tell; this might have come about as the result of woodshedding on the piece prior to recording. Barber is a fine drummer who understand his role, keeps a steady pulse regardless of the tempo changes or rhythmic shifts, and balances his playing between understatement and adding to the ongoing process via well-placed offbeats that help kick the rhythm into new places as the horns are soloing in front of him.

Lord Help My Unbelief is one of the more interesting compositions on the album, being in ballad tempo yet sounding nothing like a ballad. The tune is slow and sinuous, hovering on the edge of the dominant 7th without ever really using that chord to morph into something different. Allen and the band uses the slow pace to allow more psace into the music, though ironically Barber’s solo here is among his busiest, doubling the tempo and thus shifting the pace. Interestingly, he uses this tempo shift to continue seamlessly into Flores, thus giving the illusion of a continuous piece in two tempos. Bassist Curtis enters, maintaining this faster tempo, which then continues in once the two saxes begin playing. (While reviewing this I didn’t have my eye on the tracks, thus initially I thought that Flores was the second half, in a new tempo, of Lord Help.)

One for Rory, written for Allen’s nine-year-old daughter, has really complex changes which in turn influence the slightly Ornette Coleman-sounding melody, but with Allen’s own feel for rhythm. Essentially it’s in 4 but with tricky and subtle rhythmic displacements to bring the listener into his “kitchen,” so to speak. By 2:55, even if you’re counting, you may find yourself rhythmically “displaced” by the complicated beat-shifting going on within this piece, although once the sax solos start we’re back in a steady and discernible 4. This is one of the real glories of Allen’ band, this feeling that you’re not standing on solid ground but on quicksand as the rhythms never quite go the way you expect them to. In the latter section of this tune, the rising sax cadences once again channel the ghost of Ornette, and continues in this vein during the ride-out figures.

Allen switches to soprano sax for Bird Bailey, a peroration on Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey? as played by Cannonball Adderly with Ernie Andrews in which he quoted a little of Charlie Parker’s Cheryl. The Bird reference is included in the tune presented here. Indeed, this sounds the most “Fifties-ish” of all the pieces on this album with its wry combination of bop and swing elements. (As I had just been listening to live airchecks of Bird with Lennie Tristano a few days earlier, which included their fantastic rendition of Tiger Rag, I was reminded of their tongue-in-cheek rendition while listening to this piece.) Bassist Curtis, to a certain extent, sounds a bit here like Oscar Pettiford to my ears.

Beloved, composed for Allen’s wife, is another slow tempo piece, but this one has a much more ballad-like feel. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but in its tune I heard an allusion to Til There Was You, although it is indeed a fleeting reference (you can hear it treutn again at 4:32). Allen’s alto solo dominates the proceedings here, with bass and drums underpinning him in their own ubiquitous way. Hate the Game returns us to the rhythmic-melodic world of Ornette…I have a sneaking feeling that Allen liked him almost as much as his mentor McLean. Allen’s twist here is his fascinating and complex use of counterpoint with tenor saxist Kozyra, a sort of extended chase chorus. Despite its title, More Yeah is more ballad-like material, this time simpler in construction albeit with his usual tempo shifting within measures.

Threequel is based on Mulgrew Miller’s The Sequel, and thus is one of the most boppish lines on the album. Allen and his band, however, keep the volume level at medium here, giving one the feeling of capping a geyser. It does, however, make an excellent finale to this interesting album, one well worth exploring.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Orledge’s Debussy Operas on CD at Last

Debussy Chute de la Maison Usher

In reviewing this excellent and (in my view) historically important recording, one thought kept going through my mind: could I possibly contact and convince Professor Robert Orledge to do a short interview with me? There were certain things that kept popping into my mind as I listened to these two fine (but radically different) Poe-based operas that I couldn’t answer for myself or from the scanty descriptions in other reviews I have read. Thus I was absolutely thrilled to learn that Mr. Orledge was not only willing to do so but that he was very happy with my review!

And thus, without further ado, let us get “into the kitchen,” so to speak, of Professor Orledge and his encyclopedic knowledge of Claude Debussy and his methods!

Art Music Lounge: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! Of course the first question has to be this: did you yourself study composition before going into musicology? There’s just something so “organic” in your reconstructions that my mind keeps telling me that you yourself took a try at composition. Am I right?

Robert Orledge: I started composing around the age of 10 but it was always ‘style’ composition – my equivalents of pieces that had particularly struck me at the time. So there were lots of Chopin Preludes and even my version of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with modern instruments like the vibraphone and tuba! While I was at Cambridge University I was advised that I had more talent with words than notes, and so, rather reluctantly, I went into musicology and teaching instead. In my thirty plus years at Liverpool University, I rarely had any time to compose properly, but when I was offered early retirement in 2002 I realized that I could start doing what I had always wanted to do – to complete the unfinished theatre works of Debussy that I had uncovered while I was writing “Debussy and the Theatre” for Cambridge UP in the early 1980s.

I started with Usher because I had been so disappointed with the truncated versions that were performed in America from 1977 (Yale) onwards. Amazingly, the Paris Opera still uses the Allende-Blin version (Berlin, 1979) even though it is full of errors and Scene 2 is assembled in the wrong order. But then the French have never really liked their own music, as Berlioz discovered to his cost.

On the side, I still write my own compositions. I am not sure I know of a completely “original” composition – with maybe the exception of Satie’s Vexations – but this does not worry me at all. If the music sounds beautiful and people want to hear it (which they do), why should I worry if it happens to sound French from time to time? And I have learned from Debussy how to make pieces grow organically, transforming or combining existing forms to make new unities (as Debussy does so wonderfully in L’isle joyeuse). This also seems to happen both quickly and naturally in my “creative musicology,” as does the dramatic pacing.

AML: Let’s start with Usher. Looking at what you had available from Debussy, but also knowing the Poe story, what specific “keys” did you use to unlock the problem of how to write or complete scenes left empty or unfinished by the composer?

RO: First of all, I studied the half of the opera that Debussy composed in great detail, noting how particular musical ideas were associated with dramatic moments or psychological states of mind – like the “Usher chord” (C major plus a high violin F sharp) that appears at strategic moments in Scene 2, often to arrest the dramatic movement suddenly and leave it suspended in space. I then started filling up the gaps from Debussy’s final libretto, using his own ideas wherever possible, sometimes changing their harmonies or transforming them melodically and rhythmically, as Debussy does with Mélisande’s theme in Pelléas. Joining Debussy to Debussy/Orledge required special care, but I have yet to find anyone who could identify the joins precisely without recourse to my markings in the vocal score of Usher. For I have nothing to hide and I explain the Debussian origins of each musical section as well. Occasionally in Roderick’s rather repetitive monologue in Scene 2, I cut a few short passages that might interfere with the musical flow, and I had to write a “nightmare scherzo” (for the passage where Roderick tells his friend about another sleepless and horror-filled night in his crumbling ancestral home), as Debussy left no fast music for Usher, apart from the final bars.

AML: One of the salient features of Debussy’s vocal writing, in my opinion, is that he never pushed the voice(s) beyond normal scope, as other opera composers did via vocal range and/or volume. His climaxes and dramatic effects always seem dependent on using the orchestra to create them. I can’t ever recall his asking a baritone to go higher up than an A or a soprano higher up than a B, maybe a C, and then only on rare occasions. Did you find yourself having to keep this in mind when writing missing passages? And how did you manage to fit your original music into the context of what Debussy left us harmonically without making it sound “foreign”?

RO: I studied Debussy’s vocal ranges carefully as many of his existing sections in Usher involved swift dramatic crescendos with rising lines, which I carefully did not take up above his limit of F sharp for the two baritones, or A flat for the evil doctor (tenor). So I basically had to know which note to start these rising passages on (depending on their length), so that they came out right. But then I love this sort of technical challenge. The only time I had to adjust anything was when Roderick recalls Lady Madeline’s opening song in Scene 2. When I asked colleagues to look through the score, Roger Nichols kindly pointed out that my low-pitched recall would be too low for a baritone, and so it had to be taken up an octave. But you are right that Debussy does not push his voices beyond their normal scope, and that the orchestra carries the main thematic argument (as in Wagner).

In all my Debussy reconstructions, spacing each chord and ensuring the logical voice-leading take me far longer than the composition itself. The same goes for the orchestration. The succession of the 7th and 9th based, or whole-tone harmonies is not the problem, it is rather which notes you leave out or double in these complex chords. An over-thick chord can destroy a passage in a second – making it sound “foreign.”

AML: I’m curious as to how much of the climactic scene of Usher is Debussy and how much is yours. I was very impressed by the slow, methodical build-up to the final climax, which mirrors exactly the pace of the story. Can you walk us through this reconstruction a bit?

RO: Broadly speaking, the long passage from the point in Scene 2 where Roderick calls for the candles to be lit to welcome L’Ami (“Des flambeaux…allumons les flambeaux”) to the start of the final melodrama (the reading of The Mad Trist by Roderick’s friend) is mine (mostly based on Debussy’s material from elsewhere in the opera). After the brass shield falls to the floor in the cellar below Roderick’s study until the last 8 bars – the build up to the final climax – is again my imaginative reconstruction. I felt Debussy would surely have returned to the “black wings of fate” motif (high string 16th-notes) here, but the pulsating sounds in the bass and Lady Madeline’s fast heart-beats, represented by the trumpets and bass drum, are all mine, as is the discordant harmonization (fff) of the opening cor anglais motif in augmentation as Lady Madeline makes her terrifying final entrance, intent on the death of her brother.

AML: Now, I’m asking this question only because it is clear that Debussy wanted these operas to premiere at the Metropolitan. Considering that, plus the fact that Poe was an American writer, wouldn’t he have possibly wanted them to be sung in English rather than French?

RO: Chiefly, Debussy went for the NY Met because he admired its then director, Gatti-Casazza, with whom he thought he could make a lucrative deal behind his publisher’s (Jacques Durand’s) back. Poe of course came into the equation but there is no evidence that Debussy considered Usher being sung in any language other than French. I have made a parallel singing version in English translation (which restores much of Poe’s original archaic story at the end), but no-one has ever expressed an interest in performing it!

AML: Let’s move on now to Le Diable. I said in my review, which I certainly meant as a compliment as well as a bit of reality, that the credits for this should read “by Robert Orledge and Stephen Wyatt, based on an idea and musical fragments by Claude Debussy.” I really believe that you are being too modest to call this a Debussy work, much as his few remaining sketches inspired you. How do you feel about that?

RO: All I was trying to do with Le Diable was to make Debussy’s concept of a Poe double bill into a reality and every single word, note or idea that he wrote about the opera was fully considered. It is true that I had to bring in another Debussy piece, the 1917 prelude Les soirs illuminés, but only because it seemed to have clear links in key and mood with the end of Debussy’s little 1903-4 prelude for the opera. The alternative authorship you suggest would, in reality, be more accurate, but I thought the opera would be more likely to be performed if Debussy was the prominent name on the poster. I am still awaiting its stage premiere, even so.

AML: I listened to the lecture-demonstration that you and Stephen Wyatt gave at Gresham College a few years ago, and was fascinated by some of the genuine Debussy music you mentioned being dovetailed into the score. Am I correct in thinking that this opera took more time for you to finish than Usher?

RO: I’m glad you managed to hear the Gresham College lecture from 2012 as this was the first time that Le Diable was heard in the UK. But in reality, the second Poe opera only took me six weeks to write and score in 2010 – the bulk of the actual composition taking about two weeks, whereas Usher took me almost two years from start to finish (2002-4). But in between I had made numerous other reconstructions and orchestrations (including No-ja-li, La Saulaie, and the Nocturne and Poème for violin and orchestra), so these helped a lot. I also felt I had a freer hand with Le Diable and I had worked with Stephen Wyatt on many past occasions. I also knew from Debussy’s sketches that he intended the harmonic style of Le diable to be simpler and more cadential, which helped a lot.

AML: Overall, Le Diable seemed a little odd to me, though as a complete one-act comic farce taken on its own merits and not thinking about it being by Debussy, it really was wonderful. I found myself laughing at some of the humorous music in it. Do you think that, had he lived to complete it, Debussy might have maintained the light, comic-opera tone of the work as it now exists?

RO: I have every reason to believe that he would have done so, as he wanted Le diable to contrast with Usher (and Pelléas) as much as possible. As you will know, Usher was not really as different from Pelléas as Debussy intended, and perhaps that was another reason why he never finished it. Rodrigue et Chimène had never been performed and he did not want to be seen as a one-great-opera composer by future generations. I see myself as doing my best to help this come true.

AML: Thank you so much for your time!

DEBUSSY-ORLEDGE: La Chute de la Maison Usher / William Dazeley, baritone (Roderick Usher); Eugene Villanueva, baritone (His Friend); Virgil Hartinger, tenor (Doctor); Lin Lin Fan, soprano (Lady Madeline) / Le Diable dans le Beffroi / Eugene Villanueva, baritone (Le Bourgmestre); Lin Lin Fan, soprano (Jeannette); Michael Drees, bass (The Bell-Ringer); Virgil Hartinger, tenor (Jean); Kammerchor St. Jacobi Göttingen. Both operas with Göttinger Symphony Orchestra, Christoph-Mathias Mueller, conductor / Pan Classics PC10342 (2 CDs, live performances of December 10-11, 2013)

Claude Debussy, contrary to popular opinion or knowledge, did not just write one opera although Pelléas et Mélisande is the only one he was able to see through to fruition and produce on the stage. Much earlier, from 1890 to 1893, he worked on a three-act work called Rodrigue et Chiméne which finally received its reconstructed premiere in 1993, and from 1902 almost until his death he worked feverishly, if intermittently, on two short operas based on stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Le Diable dans le Beffroi (The Devil in the Belfry) and, even more interestingly, La Chute de la Maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher). He had been in touch with the Metropolitan Opera throughout this period, a house that had received his Pelléas very well, and sincerely wanted these “American” operas to be premiered there back-to-back in a double bill.

But time, other projects, intermittent inspiration and eventually his fatal cancer all worked against him. At the time of his death Le Diable dans le Beffroi only existed in a few musical sketches (totaling about 70 bars of music) and a plot synopsis, not even a real libretto, and while La Chute de la Maison Usher was much further along (about half completed) it was never finished. Debussy was not happy about this, and it was not just the financial remuneration he expected from the Met. He really liked Poe’s tales, thought highly of the concentrated and detailed work he had done on these operas, and really felt that they would provide a greater operatic legacy in the long run that just Pelléas which, although he was proud of it, was really just a one-off, a dream-like, impressionist piece of music set to a dream-like, impressionist play. (FYI, the composer was also planning his own opera based on the legend of Tristan and Isolde.) While writing Roderick’s monologue, Debussy wrote to his publisher Durand that it was “sad enough to make a stone weep, for it is indeed a matter of the influence of stones on the morale of neurasthenics. The whole thing has an alluring musty scent which comes from mixing the heavy tones of the oboe with the harmonious sounds of the violins.” Just from this single letter, one can tell that this music meant a great deal to him personally.

After Debussy’s death, his widow Emma eventually took to sending out original manuscript pages of La Chute de la Maison Usher both as gifts to friends and to help defray legal costs, selling others to provide her some income. We can get angry or sad at this, but such was the reality of her life without Claude. Eventually, a truncated (36-minute) version of this opera was premiered in the late 1970s and recorded in the 1990s, but British musicologist Robert Orledge—one of the world’s most informed and accomplished Debussy scholars—has taken it much further. Part of this was due to his extreme good luck in finding more pages of the original manuscript, but one must not discount his deep knowledge of Debussy’s methods of composition and his specific predilections for orchestration and tone color. In short, his reconstruction doesn’t sound like one. It sounds like Debussy, pure and simple, from first note to last, even those passages that he clearly had to compose himself. Orledge’s reconstructed Usher made its debut at the Bregenz Festival on August 7, 2006, and received considerable acclaim in reviews and music journals.

Le Diable dans le Beffroi was obviously a much more difficult project, as both a libretto and a score had to be virtually created from next to nothing. In my view, this is Orledge’s greater achievement, making not just a castle out of adobe bricks, but a castle out of the sand the adobe bricks might have been made from. His opera, which in my view should read “by Robert Orledge after sketches and a plot synopsis by Debussy,” made its first appearance on February 28, 2012 in Montreal under the direction of Paolo Bellomio. Christoph-Matthias Mueller, the conductor of these fine live performances, decided to play and record them after hearing a radio broadcast of Orledge’s reconstructed version of Debussy pieces for violin and orchestra. He was deeply impressed by what he called “the ‘right’ sound world and the beautiful orchestration,” and thus made the decision to give the first stage performance of the two “Poe operas” back to back.

Mueller’s impression—one of a seasoned professional conductor, not an easily impressed amateur listener—was well founded. As David Grayson, a professor at Gresham University, pointed out, Orledge is one of those rare musicologist-composers “who can take a fragment of a dinosaur bone and reconstruct the dinosaur.” In the case of Diable, Orledge was aided considerably by the very fine libretto of Stephen Wyatt, a close friend and colleague. He was also guided by some comments by Debussy. “I’d like to destroy the idea of the devil as the spirit of evil,” he wrote. “He’s more simply the spirit of contradiction. It is perhaps he who whispers to those who don’t think like everyone else.”

The prelude is entirely by Debussy, but in other passages Orledge borrowed music from the composer’s oeuvre, including one of his songs and his last piano piece, Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (composed 1917 but itself only recently discovered). One can, of course, continue in detail as to the snippets of original Debussy that Orledge reworked or dovetailed into both scores, but there would be no purpose in doing so unless the music sounded like “real Debussy.” Please recall that attempts to finish the unfinished works of real musical masters are not always this happy. No one yet has come up with a satisfactory final movement, real or imagined, of Schubert’s “unfinished” symphony; Barry Cooper’s “reconstruction” of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony is generally considered a noble failure; and thankfully, no one has had the temerity to finish J. S. Bach last fugue in The Art of Fugue or Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. Yet there is also Larry Austin’s excellent completion of the extremely difficult Universe Symphony of Charles Ives, and not one but several plausible reconstructions of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (which was much further along the road to completion than Beethoven’s).

One of the most striking things—to me, at least—about La Chute de la Maison Usher is its more sharply focused rhythm. Unlike Pelléas, which pretty much floats along on a cloud (with the exception of the love duet, where greater passion is elicited), one can feel the pulse much stronger here. Possibly this was because, despit using a French translation, he “heard” in Poe’s words the need for a sharper focus in that department, but in any event it is so. This doesn’t mean that Usher is a bouncy piece like Golliwog’s Cakewalk, but it comes closer to that sort of rhythm than Pelléas. A feature that this score has in common with Pelléas, however, is Debussy’s penchant for only using one voice at a time. Even when there are two singers present in a scene, he respected the theatrical conventions of real dialogue and not passages where two voices were heard singing together. The opera begins, with soft viola tremolos on a pedal B introduce a forlorn cor anglais, then a trumpet, briefly resolving into C. After unusual tone clusters and passing tones which color the music and push it towards the diminished—a typical Debussy device—we suddenly arrive at the major towards the end, with C-sharp dominating the beginning of the first scene, the only one in which we hear Lady Madeline sing. Again, her music is more angular rhythmically than Mélisande’s Mes longs cheveux, and uses high-range vocalise (a new effect for Debussy) though clearly inhabiting the same sound-world, now in F sharp major. Muted horns and an eerie bass clarinet (along with bassoon) offset the regular beat laid down by the low strings. This is followed by a scene between The Friend and the doctor, discussing Roderick’s strange condition which does not allow him to be exposed to daylight.

At Roderick’s entrance, the higher instruments recede in volume (only a soft flute and violin are heard, followed by muted strings) as the protagonist greets his friend warmly but warns him that he and his sister are gravely ill. What I find particularly fascinating about the opera, as opposed to the story itself, is the way Debussy seemed able to combine in music the stated elements of physical illness and emotional anxiety with the implied elements of hypochondria and mental illness brought about in part by self-fulfillment. Roderick and Madeleine are deathly ill because they expect to be deathly ill. I ascribe this to the fact that, by Debussy’s time, Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis were well known throughout Europe. It was thus easier for Debussy to “see” the Ushers’ problems more clearly than Poe had, though the writer suggested that the house was “alive” and therefore able to respond to the illness and death of its inhabitants with its own collapse. I sensed that Debussy helped evoke the strange mental and emotional tensions in the story by this increased rhythmic element I alluded to earlier. Were this music to float along aimlessly like Pelléas, for instance, there would be no moments of high tension, like Roderick’s outburst in A major, “Des flambeaux” (track 12), followed by a sudden increase to double tempo for the exchange between Roderick and his friend…a moment that would have been unthinkable in the context of Pelléas. In fact, I found that Debussy’s tighter, more compact structure—a common feature of his late music—heightened the drama better than just a straight dramatic play based on the story could have done. Roderick’s “nightmare scherzo” in the middle of scene 2, however, with its rapid tempo and interesting use of tympani (Orledge, who composed it, wrote and told me it was “a sort of short tympani concerto”), is a bit anomalous, but it ties in neatly with the feel of the drama Orledge, composing the finale of this opera, is also able to evoke strongly the tension of the Ushers as they near death and the demise of their house with stunning effect—almost a savagery that reminds one of Debussy’s late piano and orchestral pieces.

As mentioned earlier, Le Diable dans le Beffroi is only about 5-7% Debussy, the rest being purely written by Orledge, but even by the light, witty, almost skittish prelude (composed by Debussy himself) we get the impression that this is a different world, a world of ironic fantasy, almost a sort of comic farce, to counterbalance the eerie tension of Usher. I suppose that one could speculate that Debussy himself would have continued the opera in much the same vein that Orledge does here, but for me, personally, the oddest quality of Diable is its very cheerfulness. Debussy and light-hearted moods are not two things that normally go together, but perhaps it was this very dichotomy that kept him from finishing the work, short though it is. We know from his letters that he actually interrupted the creation of La Mer for some time because he was working (and fretting) over this little opera, and he kept going back to it on and off over a decade (1902-1912) until he finally put it aside until Usher was finished. In its bouncy rhythms and surprisingly consistent use of major keys it may, then, seem less “Debussy-ish” than its companion, but remember that this was a composer who enjoyed pushing himself in new directions. And Diable is certainly a new direction for Debussy. Although the light character of the music almost suggests operetta, there is too much real craft in this score—both the 70 bars that Debussy himself wrote and the remaining, which is Orledge—to dismiss it as an operetta of sorts. Yet it is a comic opera, of that there is no question, and thus it maintains the light mood of the opening. Orledge’s librettist, Stephen Wyatt, did a fine job as well, with both of them adding a love interest between tenor and soprano that was suggested by Debussy himself to “pad” this all-too-brief satire. (When the devil plays the violin, we hear snippets from the last movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto and other popular classical “hits”—a nice tongue-in-cheek touch.)

Of course, the quality of the music itself would mean little if the performance quality was not on a high level. Happily, most of the forces here are on a high level indeed, particularly the orchestra, chorus, and both the tenor and soprano soloists. Of the two baritones, William Dazeley is a finer singer than Eugene Villanueva in two key components, steadiness of tonal emission (Villanueva has a slow vibrato that registers on the ear like an incipient wobble) and idiomatic French diction, but none of the singers are really detrimental to the performances. Soprano Fan is particularly good, having the kind of bright, light voice that Debussy himself favored (think of Mary Garden or Maggie Teyte, his two Scottish Mélisandes), and Hartinger has the kind of high tenor that suits French music well (despite somewhat infirm top notes). Thus we have a fine wedding of musical quality and performance quality.

This is a major release and a major contribution to the operatic repertoire, and I sincerely hope that it will spur a number of performances around the world.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Sassy’s Late Basie-Band Album a Knockout

Sarah Vaughan front cover

SEND IN THE CLOWNS / ARLEN-KOEHLER: I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues; Ill Wind. KLEMMER-LEWIS: Just Friends. DAMERON-SIGMAN: If You Could See Me Now. SWAN: When Your Lover Has Gone. SONDHEIM: Send in the Clowns. NOBLE: I Hadn’t Anyone Til You. KERN-HAMMERSTEIN: All the Things You Are. HERBERT-DUBIN: Indian Summer. PORTER: From This Moment On / Sarah Vaughan, vocal; George Gaffney, pianist; Andy Simpkins, bassist; Harold Jones, drums; Dale Carley, Sonny Cohn, Willie Cook, Bob Summers, Frank Szabo, trumpets; Bill Hughes, Grover Mitchell, Dennis Wilson, Booty Wood, trombones; Eric Dixon, Bobby Plater, Danny Turner, a-sax/t-sax; Kenny Hing, t-sax; John Williams, bar-sax; Freddie Green, guitarist; Sammy Nestico, Allyn Ferguson, arrangers / Pablo PACD-2312-130-2

Frank Sinatra, who wasn’t born with the world’s greatest singing voice and knew it, worked like a dog to train his pipes to do his bidding. Sarah Vaughan, by contrast, was probably the most naturally gifted of all pop or jazz singers. She was born with that voice and not only didn’t have to work to develop or maintain it, she smoked, she drank, she ate full four-course dinners and then went out to sing a two-hour concert. Beautifully. Hearing her in concert around 1966, Sinatra made the succinct comment: “Sassy is singing so well right now that she makes me want to go out and slash my wrists!”

But not having to work at her talent also led Vaughan to occasional excesses of style. When in the mood, she would swoop, scoop, slide on the pitch and divebomb from a top A to a low C, often to the detriment of the music. Thus, when approaching a new album or going to one of her concerts, you didn’t always know which Sarah Vaughan you were going to get. Happily, this late set—her third album with members of the Count Basie Orchestra without Basie (her first was No Count Sarah, recorded in August 1957)—is so good that, once again, rival singers coming to it may feel like going out and slashing their wrists. She’s that good.

Here, Vaughan displays all the resources at her command but never oversteps musical bounds. In terms of phrasing and style, Vaughan is every bit the jazz diva without overdoing the ham. Perhaps it was because she responded so well to the superb arrangements by Allyn Ferguson (If You Could See Me Now and All the Things You Are) and Sammy Nestico, who set off her voice beautifully as well as provide some good solo space to the various Basie musicians. (Scott Yanow, in his review of this album, only gave it three stars because he says the arrangements “do not leave much room for any of the Basie sidemen to solo.” Maybe he was reviewing a different recording.)

What surprised me most about this album was its recording date, February and May of 1981, fairly late in Sassy’s great career. Generally speaking, every song in this collection is an older one, even Stephen Sondheim’s sappy Send in the Clowns (although that is the newest tune of the lot). The rhythm section of pianist Gaffney, bassist Simpkins and drummer Jones is actually Vaughan’s working trio of this period, the rest of the musicians being the bulk of the Basie band, and they respond with playing that is both relaxed and energizing. They clearly enjoyed working with her, and she with them. One of the more interesting soloists here is trombonist Booty Wood, who split his time between Basie’s and Duke Ellington bands. He provides a touch of Ellingtonia in the form of a plunger-muted solo on the opening I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues.

Sarah always wanted to cross over into the pop market and made several attempts to do so; the only semi-hit record of hers I remember clearly was Broken-Hearted Melody, which I loved, but it didn’t become a major hit for her. None of them did. Reflecting on this, I think it was simply because her voice was too rich, too powerful, too quasi-operatic. Nowadays people whoop and holler about “opera singers” on America’s Got Talent or American Idol because some teenage girl can warble “Nessun dorma” as if she’s about to give birth to twins, but none of these singers have REAL voices like Sassy’s. Jazz fans, and some critics, used to joke about wanting to hear Vaughan sing Wagner. They were only half-kidding, because although it wasn’t her style they knew she could have done it if she tried. Singers with voices like Sarah Vaughan simply don’t appeal to the American public. Folk singer Holly Near, who also had a rich and powerful voice, once said it was because American men like their women to sound submissive and singers like her didn’t. Neither did Vaughan. And she wasn’t submissive in personality. She swore like a sailor, was loud and raucous, and didn’t give a crap what anyone thought of her. But with those pipes, who cared?

My sole complaint of this album is its brevity, but in 1981 the 40-minute-or-under LP was still a standard in jazz. No matter. If you’re a Vaughan fan, this album belongs on your shelf.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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A Sizzling “Penthesilea” from Martha Mödl & Co.

WLCD 0225 Penthesilea  FRONT

SCHOECK: Penthesilea / Martha Mödl, soprano (Penthesilea); Paula Brivkalne, soprano (Prothoe); Paula Lenchner-Schmidt, soprano (Meroe); Res Fischer, contralto (Oberpriesterin); Eberhard Wächter, baritone (Achilles); Stefan Schwer, tenor (Diomedes); Gustaf Grefe, baritone (Herald); Stuttgart State Opera Chorus & Orchestra; Ferdinand Leitner, conductor / Walhall Eternity Series WLCD-0225 (mono, live performance of December 15, 1957)

This is the kind of work and recording that the true music lover absolutely lives for: an obscure but brilliant work of almost savage power in both the text and music given a reading by an extremely gifted ensemble of singers, working together in conjunction with an equally committed conductor. The only drawbacks to this particular recorded artifact are the singing in the opening scene of the women’s chorus, not yet warmed up and sounding a bit unsteady, and the mono in-house tape sound which, as I will describe below, had some problems in the tracks I was able to download for review.

According to sources online, this recording was initially released by Walhall in 2008 but it received only scant notice from diehard fans of modern opera. Most people either dismissed it as an unlovable oddity or criticized the singing as “being very much of its time and place,” whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. I wonder if the same “critic” who made this enlightening comment would say the same thing about some of Maria Callas’ squally performances that her legion of true believers think are blue-ribbon gems. I can’t believe that the recording (or the work) has made much of an impact since I could not find a single professional review online and, on the Wikipedia page discussing this opera, this recording isn’t even mentioned as being in existence.

Apparently impressed by Strauss’ Elektra and wanting to write an opera in the same vein, Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck, then in his late 30s, set about composing this gory tale of Penthesilea, the Queen of the Amazons, and her love/hate relationship with Achilles. It was written in 1924/25 but not premiered until 1927. The coming of Hitler and the Nazis precluded its becoming a repertoire piece (I’m sure it was on their blacklist), thus this performance given roughly three decades later in Stuttgart must have come as a revelation, even to German audiences. Conductor Leitner clearly threw himself into the music, leading a taut, dark-hued performance literally dripping with violence and venom, and his gifted cast, which included at least three then-well-known names (Mödl, Wächter, and the superb German contralto Res Fischer, who was also noted for her Klytemnestra in Elektra), gives their all in a reading that verges on homicidal mania from start to finish.

At the opera’s opening Achilles has defeated Amazon Queen Penthesilea in battle, but falls in love with her. After she recovers from her wounds, Achilles lets her think she has defeated him because Amazon law stipulates that a warrior may only associate with a man she has beaten. Thus led on, Penthesilea returns his affections until she learns the truth, whereupon her love turns to bitter hatred. Achilles offers a second challenge to her but secretly plans to come unarmed and let her win. Oh, never taunt an Amazon warrior! Penthesilea takes it very seriously indeed. How seriously? She shows up with her pack of hounds who tear him apart limb from limb (to hell with his “Achilles heel”!) then drinks his blood before dying herself.

Into this brutal tale Schoeck packed some of his densest and most concise music, a score that is utterly brilliant and unhackneyed. Gone are any allusions to arias: the vocalists perform in a sequence of orchestral-accompanied recitative with occasional curses and screams, intermittently reverting to speech for certain passages. The only truly lyrical passage in the entire opera, and the most conventional music, is the Penthesilea-Achilles love duet, which has a certain Richard Strauss-like feel to it. After investigating on the internet, it seems that there are only three other recordings of this opera ever made, all of them later than this:

BASF/Harmonia Mundi: Carol Smith, Hana Janků, Barbara Scherler, Raili Kostia, Roland Hermann, William Blankenship, Kurt Widmer; Choruses of the North German Broadcasting, Hamburg & West German Broadcasting, Cologne; Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra; Zdeněk Mácal, conductor (broadcast concert performance of 8 September 1973 at Lucerne International Musikfest). (BASF LPs 49 22485-6)

Orfeo d’Or: Helga Dernesch, Jane Marsh, Mechthild Gessendorf, Marjana Lipovšek, Gabriele Sima, Theo Adam, Horst Hiestermann, Peter Weber, ORF-Chorus and ORF-Symphonieorchester conducted by Gerd Albrecht (12 August 1982 live performance)

Pan Classics 510 118: Yvonne Naef, James Johnson, Ute Trekel-Burckhardt; Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno; Basel Symphony Orchestra; Mario Venzago, conductor

I haven’t heard the first or third of these, although reviews of the latter all seem to indicate that Naef, a light-voiced mezzo, is at least vocally suited to the role of Penthesilea (though I seriously doubt her dramatic ability; I’ve heard several Naef recordings and she is no great dramatic actress) but that baritone James Johnson is a hopelessly inadequate Achilles. I have, however, heard the Orfeo d’Or recording, which is the one that all the critics rave about. Although I concede that the stereo sound is superior to the 1957 mono performance under review, and the women’s chorus is much better at the opera’s outset, I simply cannot tolerate Helga Dernesch’s deteriorated vocal state. She started out in pretty good voice, but halfway through this short opera she was wobbling and shouting her notes. And don’t even get me started on the pathetic-sounding Theo Adam as Achilles. A great stage actor he might have been, but deprived of seeing him he just sounds like a tire with a slow leak trying to make it down the interstate until he can pull off at the next exit to get a patch and some air.

In addition, though Gerd Albrecht conducts with decent tension, he almost sounds like a pale imitation of Leitner, who really has the full measure of this difficult score. A good indication of just how taut the Leitner performance is comes from the timing: 77:32 for the whole opera, whereas Albrecht takes 80:01. But although timing isn’t everything, both the singing and conducting are just so much more “on edge” in the 1957 performance that it clicks much better.

In my downloaded copy for review, I encountered a problem in tracks 18 and 19, near the end of the opera: a series of very loud and annoying clicks, ticks and pops, particularly (but not always) during soft passages. Why on earth there would be clicks and ticks in a tape recording is utterly beyond me, but even so Walhall should have professionally removed these. I had to waste a good 20 minutes of my time manually removing or diminishing these unwanted sound effects from my copy before it was listenable.

That being said, if you like really well-written but edgy modern operas you should hasten to acquire this set at your earliest convenience. This is yet another spectacular achievement during the 1950s for Mödl, who despite having a somewhat ugly lower register was certainly one of the greatest singing actresses in the Western world, and another interesting role for Wächter. The sound is, for the most part, clear and with just enough hall resonance to escape the feeling of aural claustrophobia.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Wolfgang Fuses Jazz, Classical and Contemplation

Passing Though0001

PASSING THROUGH: GROOVE-ORIENTED CHAMBER MUSIC, Vol. 3 / WOLFGANG: Flurry / Judith Farmer, bassoon; Nic Gerpe, piano. String Theory / New Hollywood String Quartet. Passing Through / Jennifer Johnson, oboe; Judith Farmer, bassoon. New England Travelogue / Eclipse Quartet; Joanne Pearce Martin, piano. Trilogy / Jennifer Johnson, oboe; Judith Farmer, bassoon; Robert Thies, piano / Albany TROY1624

Every so often, a recording comes along that is really off the beaten path…so far off, in fact, that it seems to create its own genre. Such is this recording of music by Gernot Wolfgang, a former jazz guitarist-turned-composer who is fascinated by the use of jazz and rock elements in classical compositions.

Oh, you’ve heard this all before? Well, not really, because Wolfgang’s music is not just jazz music with a little more form, or classical music that swings. He has found a way to completely blend the two types of music in such a way that there is no real delineation between them. In other words, his music conforms to the highest standards of classical composition—and I do mean the highest standards, not just the kind of generic “shock” or “ambient” music that passes for classical nowadays. His music not only has really interesting themes but also interesting development along traditional classical lines, yet none of it sounds traditional. While it is true that there are some very gifted contemporary composers who do similar things, among them Charles Ruggiero and Daniel Schnyder, Wolfgang is still unique in his own sound world. If I was forced to compare him to any older composer, it would be, believe it or not, Debussy, because his music often takes on forms that are elusive to the casual listener and subtle in expression yet always rigorously logical and well constructed.

In his liner notes Wolfgang explains that “The groove-oriented passages (and, in some of the pieces, entire movements) are counterbalanced by extended slow and contemplative music. Te grooves themselves are frequently spelled out directly. In other instances they are inferred, sometimes implying additional, non-audible rhythmic elements.”

Thus he has created a sound-world in which one enters and leaves jazz influence as other composers have used indigenous folk music (à la Bartók, Kodály or Prokofiev). In listening to the last movement of his string quartet, String Theory, one is put in mind of the Turtle Island String Quartet whose founder, violinist David Balakrishnan, was as much influenced by bluegrass music as jazz, and in the opening movement (“Bounce”) of his oboe-bassoon duet Passing Through, I was reminded of Daniel Schnyder’s wonderful piece for wind trio, Baroquelochness, but these were very rare instances of my detecting any outside influence. For the most past, Wolfgang is his own man. If his sense of humor is subtler that that of Schnyder, his sense of construction is sometimes more rigorous. He seems to think in terms of the musical construction first and the “groove” elements second, which is fine. That’s the way it should be. If your intent is to create a jazz-classical work and the development is hung up on the rhythm and not on variations of the principal theme or secondary themes, you’re not composing anything substantial, and this music is certainly substantial.

String TheoryIndeed, it is in the “contemplative music” on this CD that I hear something that makes this music, for me, stand out above the fray. These slow movements are not only well constructed but also have a sense of reflection or melancholy that penetrates deeper emotionally than most such music does. (One other jazz-classical composer who comes close to this sort of blending is Laurie Altman.) In fact, as you let the CD play and just listen, you will be struck by this contemplative quality despite his allusions to or outright use of jazz rhythm.

That being said, it must have been somewhat difficult for Wolfgang to find exactly the right musicians to play his music with the right feel—not because there aren’t enough well-trained classical players out there, but because most well-trained classical players couldn’t swing if you put a gun to their head. Remember how many years it took Yehudi Menuhin to finally be able to loosen up a little and fall in with what Stéphane Grappelli was playing? Same thing here. As much as I liked the playing style and blend of the New Hollywood String Quartet, for instance, I didn’t get the sense that they were as much in the music’s spirit as the Eclipse Quartet in New England Travelogue, and I don’t really feel that either quartet is quite as good at this sort of music as the Turtle Island or Sirius Quartets. It’s a matter of degree of groove, you see, not necessarily if the notes are played correctly. And, of course, there are things these two quartets do exceptionally well, i.e. the slow movement (“Vermont Magic”) of New England Travelogue which suspends time and just hangs in the air like a floating cloud of sound (also one of the few times Wolfgang employs very close, almost atonal harmonies), so I’m not trying to be hyper-critical, just explaining, you might say, the “degree of groove” they are able to generate. Listen, for instance, to “Inman Square” from the same quintet. The musicians capture well the feeling of a New England hoedown, but once the pure jazz element enters the picture they just aren’t as uninhibited as, say, Trio Arbós in their exceptional recording of Nikolai Kapustin’s music.

And yet the music is excellent, remains excellent despite these small nitpicks, and impresses constantly with its mastery of form. Moreover, when you have a performer who does get the rhythm exactly right, such as bassoonist Judith Farmer (who is co-producer of this album) and pianist Robert Thies (in Trilogy), the effect is magical. The notes lift themselves off the printed page and come to life, and when they do the listener is caught up in their spell. The sound quality is for the most part warm and rich, with none of the overdone ambience or reverb you hear on too many classical albums nowadays. I felt a little more space could have been placed between the different pieces on the CD (there seems to be almost no pause between the last movement of Passing Through and the first movement of New England Travelogue), but other than that this is a beautiful and deeply moving listening experience.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Villa-Lobos Quartet Reissue a Must-Have

Villa-Lobos Quartets

VILLA-LOBOS: Complete String Quartets (17) / Cuarteto Latinoamericano / Dorian Sono Luminus 90904 (6 CDs)

When this set was originally recorded and issued between 1998 and 2002, it received rave reviews from all critics worldwide, and when it was first packaged as a multi-disc set (including a bonus DVD with the musicians talking about their approach to the music and performing one of the quartets) it received even further raves. Since I reviewed this recording via downloads, I’m not certain if this current repackaging includes the bonus DVD—neither the booklet nor the CD box back cover indicate as much—but even without that it is an absolute gem.

One of the problems with Villa-Lobos’ music comes from his own admission that he was “a sentimentalist, and my music is downright sugary.” When you take “sugary” music and add sweetener or other goop to it in the performance, all you end up with is the sugar. But Villa-Lobos also added that he was not an intutive composer, that all of his music is strictly and rigorously composed, and that is the vantage point from which Cuarteto Latinoamericano takes as their aesthetic view of his complete string quartets.

And indeed, one can hear the “sugary” quality striving to break through here and there—note, for instance, the slow movement of the Quartet No. 6 which sounds very much like Irving Berlin’s famous tune Say It With Music—but they tighten the musical line, add a bit of drama, and thus manage to go through the entire series without an undue high-caloric intake. You feel the sweetness of Villa-Lobos’ nature as well as his “writing” the rainforests of Brazil into his scores, but thankfully not too much high-fructose corn syrup.

I say this because a friend of mine once sent me a CD of Villa-Lobos quartets played by a different chamber group, and the effect was sugary, too much so in fact. I would daresay that manty of the alternate recordings out there of different quartets also indulge a bit too much in this approach to the music (while reviewing this set, I listened to yet another quartet playing some of these works and the pace was just too slack and loose), which is why I personally responded so strongly to Cuarteto Latinoamericano’s wide-awake approach. It also helps greatly in those few movements (mostly slow ones, but occasionally scherzos or allegros) where Villa-Lobos seemed to over-write, to overstay his welcome. On three or four occasions I felt that the composer had said all that he had to say and in fact had wrapped up the movement, only to be surprised by his contuing to doodle along for another minute or so. This group of musicians take that in stride and try as much as possible to overcome these few indiscretions, and they do so, in my view, with admirable distinction.

One must also recall that Villa-Lobos was a lifelong fan of J.S. Bach, and thus in addition to his use of fugues and canons in these quartets there are also little quotes and paraphrases from Bach pieces—and not just the ones for violin. Sometimes these Bach allusions appear in completely unexpected places, even in some of his later, more harmonically adventurous quartets. Thus this “sugary” composer also had a backbone of counterpoint and tight structure to fall back on. In the first movement of Quartet No. 17, for instance, I heard a section with Bach-like counterpoint followed almost immediately by a theme clearly based on Eubie Blake’s I’m Just Wild About Harry!

Like many composers of his generation, Villa-Lobos’ style became somewhat modernized as time went on, but he never quite succumbed to a slavish imiation of Stravinsky or Bartók; he always remained true to himself. Interestingly, most of these quartets have very individual personalities, although the first three as a group seemed the closest in style to one another. I was particularly struck, and I think you will too, by the highly rhythmic and wildly imaginative Quartet No. 5, which has to be my personal favorite. Not a wasted note or gesture in this brilliant piece, and plenty of humor as well as a bit of playing cat-and-mouse with the listener’s attention! I found this specific quartet a true delight from beginning to end. And of course there are other quartets, as well as other movements within other quartets, where one gets the same feeling.

Part of the secret to Cuarteto Latinoamericano’s performance style is their use of a fast, tight vibrato, creating a bright shimmer and not a loose “throb.” This keeps the “sentimental” moments from becoming mawkish or having too much heart-on-the-sleeve emotion. Their consistency of style also leads into their consistency of expression; note, for instance, the way the cellist maintains a strict, almost bouncing rhythm even within the slow movements. This may not sound like much, but it works wonders in tightening the structure and keeping the music from slackening.

Another wonderful quality here is the sound: just a hint of natural room reverb, none of the gooped-up “swimming in echo” sound that destroys so many modern classical recordings. All in all, this is one of those sets that set a standard for performance in this music and I think will remain a standard as time goes on.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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