Moons over Myriad3: Their Third Album

Myriad3_Moons_COVER

MYRIAD3 MOONS / DONNELLY: Skeleton Key; Unnamed Cells; Sketch 8. CERVINI: Noyammas; Ameliasburg; Moons; Brother Dom. FORTIN: Stoner; Peak Fall; Exhausted Clock. DISASTERPEACE: Counter of the Cumulus / Myriad3: Chris Donnelly, pn/synth; Don Fortin, bass/fretless bs/synth; Ernesto Cervini, dm/glockenspiel / Alma ACD52062

On the surface Myriad3 is another jazz piano trio, but one doesn’t have to listen very long to realize that there is much under the surface and it’s pretty eclectic and interesting. This despite the fact that there are elements of minimalism (Skeleton Key) and ambient jazz (Stoner) mixed in with their strong jazz roots. I was not particularly pleased by their use of a rock beat on the opening track, but as the late tenor Peter Pears said in 1975 about radio, rock music seems to be “the coming thing.” The nice aspect of Myriad3’s performance, however, is that it has a nice, gentle swing to it, one might almost say an updated version of Vince Guaraldi’s sound from the ‘60s.

I also found it refreshing that all three of the trio’s members, including drummer Ernesto Cervini, contribute charts to this collection, and each of them have a different perspective. This is evident in the second track, Ernesto Cervini’s Noyammas, with its slyly morphing beat and semi-fluid chord structure. As I’ve mentioned about some other modern bands, Myriad3 also seems to take a cue from the compositional style of Charles Mingus, for whom such fluid structures were normal. Unnamed Cells, like Skeleton Key, has elements of minimalism, for instance, but the beat is not only not in a rock mode but also asymmetrical in feeling, at leas until the fretless electric bass comes in and we return to a steadier pulse. I noticed as I was listening that Myriad3’s improvisations are all based on the underlying pulse more so than even the chord structure, certainly an unusual approach to music. In this respect, their scores have a certain kinship with Beethoven, for whom rhythm was the root of everything. This emphasis on the rhythmic angle allows the group to cohere more frequently than many other bands, large and small, that use irregular or asymmetric rhythms, because those bands keep shifting the beat as the soloists improvise. Myriad3’s players, on the other hand, only shift the beat when the next section of the tune arrives or when the improvisation demands an altered tempo.

Stoner by bassist Don Fortin sounds the most conventionally relaxed, like nice, polite ambient jazz, but this perception changes subtly at the halfway mark as the music becomes more strong in its pulse and the piano’s bass line “moves” the music into somewhat different realms—all without bringing up the tempo to heighten tension—before completely relaxing at the 4:18 mark and ending in a series of long single notes. Peak Fall has a quietly meditative sound to it, as if one were sitting in a park near sunset admiring the setting sunlight reflect off gently swirling leaves of gold and brown. The allusion to “swirling” is doubly apropos here, as the beat itself begins to swirl and turn in on itself as the piece progresses. I have to compliment the sound engineer, John “Beetle” Bailey, for capturing the sound of the trio in the warmest space possible without using overdone ambience to ruin the immediacy of their sound.

Counter of the Cumulus, the only piece on here not written by a group member, was composed by electronic artist Disasterpeace. I found it too rock-like and intrusive for my taste. Happily, the group returns to its normal mein in Cervini’s jazz waltz Ameliasburg, and Donnelly’s Sketch 8 revisits the minimalist feel. Surprisingly Moons, the title track of this CD, almost has the feel of a classical prelude, being quite slow and deliberate, relying for once on the piano chords to move the music forward with no improvisation—a cloud floating across the horizon with just a bit of electronic reverb (and a bass line) towards the end. Brother Dom, with its quirky yet steady beat and simplistic melodic cells, bears a certain resemblance to the work of Carla Bley (particularly those quirky meter shifts around the two-minute mark), although here Donnelly’s piano solo put me in mind of Bill Evans from his modal period. The music becomes increasingly busier and louder as the piece progresses, and ironically the beat is shortened by fractions as the piano playing turns almost frenetic.

The album ends with Fortin’s Exhausted Clock, which starts out with a ticking sound that relaxes, then becomes irregular, and then just poops out. Donnelly contributes light right-hand sprinkles on the keyboard before the bass comes in at the one-minute mark, almost as elongated and fatigued as those clock ticks. For those of you who remember the old New York-area Late Show with its use of Leroy Anderson’s The Syncopated Clock as a theme song, this one is kind of like The Late Show on Valium. It’s also one of the few pieces on this album in which the drums become extremely busy, albeit at a soft volume (mostly snares with brushes, I think) as te piano and bass meander along.

All in all, Moons is a different kind of jazz album, showing creativity in ways that are unusual and reaching for mood and feeling as much as substance. I think you’ll like it.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Gluzman Makes Love to Prokofiev

Prokofiev Concertos

PROKOFIEV: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Sonata in D for Solo Violin / Vadim Gluzman, violinist; Estonian National Symphony Orch., Neeme Järvi, cond. / Bis 2142 (SACD)

What a wonderfully rarefied disc this is! And I mean that in both the literal and the figurative sense. Vadim Guzman, a Ukranian-Israeli violinist whom I previously had not heard, gives here performances to be proud of. The Prokofiev Concerti are remarkably tricky—so much so, in fact, that sometimes even the most famous of names miss the mark with them. Jascha Heifetz did not in his landmark recording of the Second Concerto under Serge Koussevitzky, but alas, the conductor wasn’t really very comfortable with Prokofiev’s orchestral idiom and so the accompaniment is a bit klunky compared to the solo playing. Prior to hearing this disc, my favorite versions of these two concertos were Sitkovetsky with Colin Davis and Cho-Liang Lin with Esa-Pekka Salonen (the second being, to my mind. the better pairing of talents whereas Sitkovetsky gave more of himself with Davis), but Gluzman simply wipes their memories away from my mind.

Why? Certainly not in technical finish or polish, although he has that and to spare. No, Gluzman simply sounds as if he OWNS these concertos, so much so that I couldn’t wait to hear the next phrase, and the next, and the one after that. The sheer joie-de-vivre he brings to the music is so infectious that it even inspires the Estonian National Symphony to give a really splendid reading of the orchestral score. Of course, with Neeme Järvi—whom I will henceforth refer to as “Pop Järvi” to distinguish him from his conductor-sons, the rather prosaic Paavo and the dynamic Kristjan—at the helm, it’s difficult to repress the rhythmic spring of the music or its sense of structure, both of which he has been achieving for decades, but we must give credit where credit is due and the Estonians simply play their hearts out.

The sound is clean, clear, and just a tad glassy, but no glassiness of sound can mask the warmth of Gluzman’s tone. He uses a fast, light vibrato, which he ever-so-slightly widens here and there to add expression to the music, and his technique is so good that one scarcely hears it as “technique” at all. Compared to a violinist like, say, Erick Friedman, a marvelous player but one with whom you were ever aware of the mechanics of his sound, Gluzman simply glides through this music. This is not, however, to suggest that Gluzman is superficial; far from it. He sings and soars through every note and phrase, but does so in a way that sounds completely organic and lacking in artifice, as if he were singing these concertos through his instrument.

I was particularly struck by the sweetness and exquisitely perfect pitch of his upper range, which is of course put to the test ever and anon in these works…listen to the last movement of the first or the second movement of the second, which I’ve always considered to be one of the most haunting melodies ever written. Moreover, in those passages where Gluzman is called upon to play with vigor, his tone never tightens up or coarsens, a testament to his perfect bow control. He reminds me a bit of Gil Shaham, whose work I also admire for many of the same reasons, but with a dash of Yehudi Menuhin for that affecting sweet tone that never cloys or sounds precious.

For a small snippet of why I loved these performances, listen to the passage between 3:00 and 3:10 in the first movement of the second concerto, where Gluzman and Järvi are in perfect synchronization in terms of rhythm and articulation. It almost sounds as if the orchestra has been trained to “move with” the violin soloist the way a great jazz orchestra moves with a soloist. I love that kind of tight sound, when you can achieve it, and these artists certainly do so here.

Happily, Gluzman’s perfect identification with his material extends to the Solo Violin Sonata, a Prokofiev work I was not previously familiar with (I know the sonatas with piano accompaniment very well, however). Someone once told me that all solo violin and cello sonatas owe something to the pioneering works of J.S. Bach, and that may be true, but here I was almost entirely focused on the direction of the musical line and its development more than the use of the instrument to “accompany” itself as the Bach works do. Perhaps this is because Gluzman is such a lyrical player that he makes the music continually “sing,” but in any case I found myself so caught up in the listening experience that my critical faculties were sent out of the room to go and get me a pizza. I wanted to be left alone to simply soak this music and its performance up!

The reader must sense by now that I had a very hard time trying to write about these performances. This generally happens when they are either simply awful or excellent beyond words, and in this case the latter certainly applies. You simply must hear this recording for yourself. I believe it will blow you away as it did me.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Bartók Plays Bartók: Listen, and Learn

Bartok plays Bartok

BARTÓK: Allegro Barbaro; 10 Easy Pieces, Nos. 6 & 10; Rumanian Folk Dances; 2 Rumanian Dances; 14 Bagatelles: No. 10, Allegro giocoso; 3 Burlesques: No. 2, A Bit Drunk; Suite, Op. 14; 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs; Sonatina; Petite Suite; 3 Hungarian Folk Tunes; For Children, Vol. 1 (excerpts); Mikrokosmos (excerpts)+; Improvisations on Peasant Songs; 8 Hungarian Folk Songs (7)*; Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin & Piano#; 6 Rumanian Folk Dances#; Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet & Piano#^ / Béla Bartók, pianist; *Mária Basilides, contralto; Ferenc Székelyhidy, tenor; +Ditta Bartók Pásztory, pianist; #Jósef Szigeti, violinist; ^Benny Goodman, clarinetist / SCARLATTI: Sonatas in G, K. 427; A, K. 212; A, K. 537; B-flat, K. 70. BRAHMS: Capriccio in B minor, Op. 76, No. 2. KODÁLY: Hungarian Folk Music* / Béla Bartók, pianist; *Mária Basilides, contralto; *Vilma Medgyaszay, soprano; *Ferenc Székelyhidy, tenor / Hungaroton HCD-32790/91

It may be hard to believe today, but during their active careers both Serge Prokofiev and Béla Bartók were more famous as pianists than as composers. This was even truer of the latter than the former; by 1940 Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, Romeo and Juliet ballet, Piano Concerto No. 3 and Peter and the Wolf were well known to and loved by American classical audiences (Love for Three Oranges had premiered in Chicago but bombed), whereas Bartók was mostly known to listeners for his Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, commissioned by Benny Goodman. His Piano Concerto No. 2 premiered in Chicago in 1939 to hostile reviews and public reception and his great symbolist opera Bluebeard’s Castle didn’t premiere in the U.S. until 1949, five years after his death. Yet in the decades since his music has become well known and even rather well-liked, reissues of his own recordings on piano have been somewhat sporadic.

This is a shame, because Bartók’s performances of his own music reveals a musical style and aesthetic often at odds with the way his music is played today, even by Hungarian pianists. Some critics disagree with me on this, but I don’t see how they can unless their ears are screwed on backwards. Granted, the recorded sound isn’t very clear or particularly good. Most of his recordings (with the famous exception of Contrasts, made for Columbia Masterworks in 1940) were produced by small labels with poor microphone placement and covered sound, but audio editing brings out the sound of his piano with somewhat better fidelity than most record-buyers had throughout the 20th century. This 2-CD set, which may seem on the surface to simply be a reduction of the 4-CD set HCD-12334/37, turns out to actually only duplicate a clutch of performances found on CD 1 on that earlier, fuller release. This one includes all of his recordings from both the solo and duo-piano books of Mikrokosmos, which also proved (posthumously) to be among his most popular works, and to my knowledge haven’t been available since the old Odyssey LP of the early 1970s. This release also includes both Bartók’s and his good friend Kodály’s Hungarian Folk Song recordings, featuring the interesting voice of contralto Mária Basilides and the truly great voice of lyric-spinto tenor Ferenc Székelyhidy who premiered Kodály’s masterpiece, the Psalmus Hungaricus, but did not record it.

What one hears consistently throughout this set is a pianistic style in which rhythmic impetus is consistently wedded to a perfect legato. Even when Bartók does not use pedal, he manages to give the illusion of each struck note, however percussive or forceful, blending its overtones with the notes preceding and following it. It is a style of playing curiously close to that of Alfred Cortot and Arthur Rubinstein, even to the playing one hears on Ferruccio Busoni’s few recordings. [It is also the style one hears in Peter Donohoe’s superb recording of the three Bartók Concertos on EMI…see my description of this recording in The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide.] This is in stark contrast to the playing of even so gifted and exuberant a pianist as Zoltán Kocsis, whose recordings of the complete Bartók piano concertos I liked very much when I first heard them. Excellent they may be, and you may prefer his playing to what Bartók himself gave in the rare recording of excerpts from the Second Concerto, but they are not at all like the composer in terms of phrasing, attack or articulation.

In short—and again, I am not trying to introduce a harsh criticism here so much as simply defining terms—Bartok’s own playing was replete with elegant phrasing and flow whereas that of most modern pianists is replete with a percussive attack and wide extremes in dynamics. With rare exceptions, Bartók himself made a more gradual change when moving from a piano to a forte or vice-versa, and used legato phrasing much more frequently. I don’t think this is because he was so much a “shrinking violet” as a performer so much as that he simply thought of his music as music and not as daring or violent in conception or execution. It’s like the difference between baritone Gerhard Hüsch singing Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin with a creamy legato and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it with an almost staccato delivery on every syllable of every word in such a way that the emphasis on text almost becomes disruptive. Some of Fischer-Dieskau’s performances are, of course, excellent despite his “3-D” style of interpretation, but one must simply be aware of the differences in order to make a qualitative judgment.

Perhaps the most instructive as well as unusual recordings here are the four Scarlatti sonatas. These were recordings I had never heard before, but they illustrate clearly Bartók’s aesthetic and how it was applied to different types of music. As in many modern-day HIP performances, he plays them very quickly, almost zipping through the fast passages with carefree insouciance, yet in places he slows down the tempo and relaxes the beat to play in an almost romantic fashion. Even as someone long familiar with his playing, I was startled by the feathery lightness of his touch in these works. By and large, however, I don’t care for this approach in Scarlatti nearly as much as the more personal and sometimes rhetorical style of Wanda Landowska on the harpsichord. I did, however, enjoy his lighthearted playing of Brahms’ Capriccio in B minor, despite the fact that this was one of his worst-sounding recordings from a technical standpoint—not only gritty and noisy, with a “scraping” sound that grows throughout the performance, but also with the piano recorded somewhat too distantly which results in our hearing the overtones of the instrument more clearly than the way Bartók strikes the keys. I was stunned to discover that this recording was made as late as 1939, in Budapest; I would have sworn it was made for Sears Roebuck on one of those cheap, flexible cellulite discs from circa 1929-30. Compare this to the 1940-42 American recordings (also for Columbia) of the Mikrokosmos excerpts, where Bartók’s piano tone is clear and singing—yet still “bound” more in a warm legato than we hear from most performers of his music today.

Why am I harping on this dichotomy of style so much? Because, dear readers, this is EXACTLY WHAT THE HISTORICALLY INFORMED CROWD CAN’T GET THROUGH THEIR CONCRETE SKULLS! Here they are, with their inconclusive written descriptions of 18th-century performances—many of which, by the way, completely contradict other descriptions from the same era—and they arrive at a “consensus” that we should play this music with consistent straight tone in the strings, winds, solo vocalists and choirs, and they don’t even have ONE recording to prove their case, yet not one modern performer of Bartók plays his music in any way like Bartók! So how can you claim even the slightest semblance of stylistic honesty when you mess up the music of composers whose style YOU CAN ACTUALLY HEAR? Ah, but don’t let hard physical evidence get in the way of your Fascist musical mindset. You go right ahead and live in your fantasy world of straight tone and whiny choruses and keep ruining music to the point where you make it nauseating, and I’ll keep on playing Bartók doing his own music and hear the way the composer intended it to sound like. In the meantime, I highly recommend this album despite its few stylistic anomalies in others’ music because of the light it sheds on Béla Bartók as a pianist.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Virgil

Virgil Fox 1956

Virgil Fox circa 1956

“One thing I know for sure…Sebastian Bach is glad – you – are – here!”

With those words, Virgil Fox opened many a “heavy organ” concert in the 1970s, playing to packed houses at the Fillmore East and Carnegie Hall, and not once being respected or even acknowledged as a “serious artist” by the critical fraternity. Fox (1912-1980) had once been the darling of the organ world back in the days when even a really “distinguished” organist like Charles M. Courboin played the huge instrument at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia, but once the vogue for “authentic organs” was ushered in during the late 1950s by Helmut Walcha and, a few years later, by E. Power Biggs, Fox with his riot of colors and flamboyant fingering was considered a pariah in the music world. Forget the fact that J.S. Bach himself loved traveling to other German cities and playing organs that could produce richer tones and the sounds of bells; that didn’t matter. The lousy little organ he played in Leipzig is the one everybody had to emulate because…he was stuck with it.

As you can tell, I’m not a fan of wheezy little organs any more than I am a fan of whiny, snively “straight tone” strings and winds (see my article, The HIP Movement in Classical Music: Reality and Myth) because they rob the music of its emotional power. And this, even more than the lack of color, is what Virgil Fox fought against all his life, but never more so than during the last two decades of his life when the full weight of the Critical Community worked against him.

While I admit that the music of Purcell and even Bach didn’t sound like this on the instruments of their day in terms of color, I find absolutely nothing wrong with Fox’s Bach performances from a musical level. He didn’t rearrange or distort the music itself, but played it straight in a manner than would have been the envy of any other organist. A child prodigy, he was giving concerts and studying with serious teachers by age 13, and by 1936, after finishing his studies in France with Louis Vierne, he was playing at the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore while teaching at the Peabody Institute. When asked how a farm boy from Illinois came to play classical music on the organ, Fox once laughed and said he was convinced that he was an organist in a former life, because the first time he sat down at an organ he played himself into a trance and didn’t come up for two hours. And that is the kind of out-of-body experience he was always trying to recreate, not only for himself but for his audiences.

After making his first recordings for RCA Victor in 1941, Fox volunteered for the U.S.Army Air Force and took a leave of absence from his posts. He achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant, giving more than 600 concerts until his discharge in 1946. Returning stateside, he was hired as resident organist at the Riverside Church in New York, where he greatly expanded the organ there. According to legend, there was a rectory next door to the back of the organ pipes and the priests there ended up banging on the walls trying to get Fox to stop practicing, which he did well into the middle of the night.

Through most of his later career, starting with his concerts at the Fillmore East in 1970-71, Fox was completely dismissed by serious music critics as a bad joke—except that his performances were as serious and fastidious as ever. Moreover, in his interviews and TV appearances, Fox made it clear that he was thrilled that young people were flocking to hear not just him but Johann Sebastian Bach. He felt that he was simply the messenger for the composer, his advocate, but was at the same time very proud of his spectacular technique and flawless memory. Fox could play up to 250 works, including the complete organ symphonies of composers like Widor and Vierne, from memory. In fact, we should step back a bit and realize that the majority of 20th-century organists, including Courboin and France’s beloved Marie-Claire Alain, based a great deal of their style and ear for color on the French organs and organ composers, whose work exploited color and volume. In other words, there was nothing wrong with Fox’s approach UNTIL Walcha and the “authentic organ” crowd came along. I personally have nothing against hearing what those instruments sounded like—as a matter of fact, I doubt that many people know that Fox actually played Bach’s organ back in September 1938—and Walcha’s recordings are certainly stylish, probably the best ever made on that instrument, but to say that it is the preferred or only way of listening to Bach is absurd, and this is what Fox fought to his dying day.

Fox plays Wanamaker organ 1976

Fox playing the huge Wanamaker’s organ in 1976

I saw Fox in person only once, and it wasn’t in New York. It was in Cincinnati’s Music Hall in December 1977, shortly after I moved from New Jersey to the Queen City. It was snowing lightly when I embarked for the concert although heavier snow was predicted to come around 9:30, while Fox was still playing. As it turned out, that was the night of a blizzard; by the time I got home it was 12:45 a.m. and my car was sliding all over the street. A great many prospective concertgoers, in fact, decided to skip the concert entirely. I don’t think there were 100 people in the auditorium when Virgil came on stage…but it didn’t faze him one bit. He poured his heart and soul into his performance, verbally introducing each piece in his inimitable way, playing his custom-built touring instrument—a new one, built by Allen Organ Company in 1976 with a then-revolutionary digital computer drive, which he was very proud of. With its four manuals, it produced a tremendous sound. Had it not been death-by-snow when he finished, I would certainly have gone backstage to shake his hand and talk to him. Virgil Fax was the kind of artist who you never felt was classist or snobbish. His mission was to bring music to the people, the music he loved and lived for and went into a trance when he played, and nothing was going to stop him.

Virgil Fox-fillmore-eastAlways a pioneer in recording technology, Fox was tremendously proud of his Heavy Organ at Carnegie Hall album because he felt it captured the tone colors and registrations of his organ with perfect fidelity. He also made the first digital recordings in the United States, issued on two LPs (and later one CD) by Bainbridge Records as The Digital Fox.

When he was finally diagnosed with prostate cancer two years later, he wasn’t depressed or sad. He was angry. He felt that he still had a lot of playing left in him and didn’t want cancer to stop him. It also didn’t help his mood that he didn’t even know he was ill until it was too late. He would undoubtedly have continued playing up until he drew his last breath Fox Soli Deo Gloriahad the cancer not affected his fingernails, which became cracked and brittle, making performing painful and difficult. One of his last concerts was the one he gave at Riverside Church on May 6, 1979, which was fortunately recorded and issued on CDs as Soli Deo Gloria. You can hear the entire concert/recording here.

You can hate Virgil Fox all you want. You can push your Helmut Walcha and Biggs recordings as much as you like. But you will never, ever erase the memory or legacy of Virgil Fox. He was THE titan of the organ, the greatest and most emotive Bach player who ever trod this earth, and if you can’t hear that you have no soul.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Morlot Completes His “Doodly-oo” Orchestral Cycle

SSM1012

DUTILLEUX: Sur le Même Accord*; Les Citations; Mystère de L’Instant; Timbres, Espace, Mouvement / *Augustin Hadelich, violinist; Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Ludovic Morlot, conductor / Seattle Symphony SSM1012

This disc, the third devoted to the music of Henri Dutilleux, completes the brief series that began with SSM1001 a couple of years ago. These recordings have received rave reviews and, in fact, Vol. 2 won a Grammy…but not for Best Classical Recording. It won the Grammy for Best Classical Instrumental Solo by violinist Augustin Hadelich, who makes a reappearance here on Vol. 3.

Now, as it turns out, this is not going to be a positive review, at least not of the music. Of the performance and sound quality I can only marvel, but as it turns out Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) was a composer of abstract enigmas, and I found the music on this Vol. 3 as well as on the first two volumes (all three of which have now been released as a set, front coverSSM1013) not so much boring or ugly (though you are welcome to find it that yourself) so much as simply pretentious drivel. Thus I have chosen to discuss him by the name “Doodly-oo,” because his music just doodles along. In fact, considering the length of some of these works, I would go so far as to call him “Doodly-oodly-oo.” (Yes, I know the correct pronunciation of his last name is “Doo-ti-low,” but “Doodly-oo” fits his music much better.)

At this point I am certain that some educated academic, reading this post, will assume that I know nothing about music if I cannot appreciate the clever construction and subtlety of Doodly-oo’s music. I assure you that I can and do appreciate its cleverness and subtlety, but as the late Rafael Kubelik once said, music that strives to be clever is just that and does not appeal to the emotions. And music that doesn’t appeal to the emotions simply doesn’t appeal to me.

Nor do its proponents claim that it does. From the booklet notes by Paul Schiavo:

Dutilleux was…a fastidiously independent artist, informed about current musical developments but abstaining from the various compositional trends – serialism, chance procedures, electronic sounds, minimalism – enjoyed vogue at different times since the end of World War II…the spirit of his work seems related not so much to that of his most prominent contemporaries (Boulez, Carter, Stockhausen and others) as it is to Debussy and Ravel. Like those earlier French composers, Dutilleux developed a refined style of writing that owes more to an imaginative handling of sonority than to any systematic approach to composition.

Now, let’s analyze these words and see if they apply to the music as actually heard, shall we?

As I listened to movement after movement and work after work by Doodly-oo, what I heard was a succession of cold, icy, abstract sounds scored for an orchestra of biting winds and brass with somewhat opaque strings. This orchestral texture represents the typical French orchestra from the days of César Franck, but the cold and ice of his compositions do not. On the contrary, what I heard over and over and over again were the kind of abstractions one hears in electronic music except played by real instruments, uncomfortably overlaid on strict classical form (passacaglia, theme and development, etc.). One could postulate that Debussy did the same thing with La Mer, that exquisite symphony that doesn’t sound like a symphony, its music unfolding like a series of seemingly unrelated sound washes while actually adhering to strict form, but Debussy’s music nearly always alternated coolness with warmth. Moreover, Debussy’s sound progressions—though elusive to general audiences whose ears were not attuned to their sophistication (particularly in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande)—always had an underlying pulse, not always perceived but always felt.

None of this is true, to my ears at least, in the music of Doodly-oo. Even my closest and most attentive listening produced little more than irritation because the music was so consistently cold and so consistently abstract. It put me in mind of two ping-pong balls bouncing around in a canister of dry ice until they cracked and broke up into shards. In short, it is intellectually interesting the same way the limitless expansion of pi is interesting to a mathematician but having about as much practical value, which is nothing more than showing off. I was sometimes caught up short when a movement or a work was finally over because there seemed to be no preparation for a finish, just a finish. In fact—and this is going to sound like a contradiction—the harder I listened to the music the colder, more irritating and less interesting it became. After a while, all I really wanted to do was to open a black hole and drop Doodly-oo and all his music into it.

Another quote from Schiavo: “Dutilleux was a supremely subtle artist who…alludes to time in different ways.” He sure does. And in the process, he loses contact with the most basic element of any music, even Debussy’s and Schoenberg’s, which is some sort of discernible rhythm. What Schiavo and Morlot evidently see and hear as an asset I see and hear as a liability.

In short, Doodly-oo’s music is difficult to access and, worse yet, not worth the effort to meet it halfway. Now, I’m sure many readers of this article feel the same way about the music of Olivier Messiaen, but I personally don’t. Not all of Messiaen’s music is as abstract as Doodly-oo’s; on the contrary, some of his works, such as the opera Saint Françoise d’Assise, I find overly sentimental, even mawkish, and much of his organ music I find emotional in a bad way: dark, even sinister in quality. But at his best, Messiaen communicated to his listeners. Even the occasionally enigmatic Turangalîla Symphony or the somewhat abstract Éclairs sur l’au delà, his final orchestral work, have a wonderful mystical quality about them that transcends the complexity and somewhat off-putting form. And is there any modern work written to capture the angst of World War II as frightening as parts of Quartet for the End of Time? You are certainly free to dislike Messiaen’s music—during the 1960s, several of Stereo Review’s critics wrote at length excoriating it—but you can’t deny that he is at least trying to communicate emotionally. Doodly-oo doesn’t give a crap whether you find his music appealing or not. And I don’t really give a crap about him, or it, in return.

If, however, you are one of those who think Doodly-oo was a genius, this is a recording that will satisfy your needs. In all three CDs Morlot invests a great deal of both painstaking detail and an attempt to make the music interesting. He almost succeeds, but his subject matter defeats him, much like the skilled poetry reader who tries desperately to make John Lennon’s Revolution No. 9 make sense. As for me, I even find the abstract music of George Crumb more appealing, and that’s not saying much.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music OR

Read From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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Frank Martin’s “Dance of Death” a Strange, Moving Work

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MARTIN: Ein Totentanz zu Basel im Jahre 1943 / ARMAB Orchestra; Sacramentskoor; Hineni String Orchesta; Basel Drum (Edith Habraken, Christine von Arx, Eduard Grass-Haas, snare drums); Geoffrey Madge, piano; Bastiaan Blomhert, conductor / CPO 777 997-2

Frank Martin, the wonderful but still not-well-known Swiss composer with the American-sounding name, was without question one of the most independent and individual of writers and this disc proves it. The work was inspired by a series of 37 pictures painted on the cemetery walls of a monastery in the 15th century. The paintings were meant to commemorate the plague that swept through Europe in 1439, made famous by the copperplates of Matthäus Merian from 1616 (published by his nephew in 1621). There are three very interesting points about this work and its meaning, however. Looking at the year—1943, one of the darkest in World War II—one might automatically assume that Martin composed this to commemorate the mass chaos and bloodshed occurring around him, but in fact it is a stage work in which death is presented as an empathetic and understanding spirit. It’s an entirely different way of looking at death, and chaos, than Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time or other similar works, and as a result the music walks a fine line between tragedy and a soothing, calming effect.

Herald by Buchel

Klein-Basel Abbess

Merian copper plate

Merian copperplate

Perhaps the one feature of the work that translates least well from the stage to a sound recording are the snare drum passages. There are two “marches of drums” at the beginning of the work and a drum march towards the end. Musically, there is nothing particularly striking about these passages though I suspect they are dramatically effective.

But the rest of the music is utterly fascinating. After the two opening drum pieces we hear a chorale, “Der Grimmig Todt,” sung with the small string orchestra which is only used henceforth when the choir returns. The next two pieces, “Death and the Old Man” and “Death and the Mother with her Child,” are very clever variants on that same chorale tune. Martin does introduce some moments of sadness as well as choral passages meant to calm the soul, but for the most part the score is wryly light and a bit upbeat. There are unusual passages of slurred saxes with muted and even wah-wah trumpet, something no strictly classical composer of that time would have done, but certainly something Duke Ellington or Eddie Sauter would have done. The “Foxtrot” and, to a certain extent, “Other Dance” are almost charming pieces with a distinctly jazz feel. “Death Alone” is a plaintive trombone solo with piano while the next piece, “Death and the Young Girl,” combines elements of the preceding with snatches of “Der Grimmig Todt.” Certain passages in other pieces reminded me of the Dada-based music that the Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo played in the late 1970s. Martin uses the chorus in a conventionally-scored manner, producing normal choral sounds, but his chamber orchestra(s) produce a variety of textures: wind band, chamber symphony and jazz combo, all of them expertly reproduced here by the two orchestras. Conductor Blomhert takes an almost objective view to the score, standing back from a specific emotional response but not ignoring Martin’s implied feelings of calm or cheerfulness as they appear in turn.

In the end, however, I found myself somewhat ambivalent towards the work as a whole despite its high level of craft and ingenuity of construction. This was not because I was unmoved or bored by the score, but because I found it, without the visual element of the stage work, a bit episodic; but this might simply be my own personal reaction. Yours may differ. Certainly, one cannot fault the integrity or the quality of the performance, and to the best of my knowledge this is its first recording. It is undoubtedly worth exploring, particularly if you are a fan of this distinctive and unusual composer.

— © Lynn René Bayley

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music (a work in progress) OR

From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of jazz and classical music

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Leon Russell, the Neglected Genius

1971

When I read online the other day (July 19, 2016) that Leon Russell, now 74, had a heart attack and will postpone his tour dates, I felt that a great career which has emerged in stages might finally have come to an end. [Update: Russell has indeed passed away on November 13, 2016.] I’m not sure how many Americans were really familiar with Russell’s best work at the time he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, but as Elton John made clear in his introductory speech, few if any musicians working within that genre have contributed as much to it as a vital and exciting art-form.

Art-form, you say? Rock music? Yes, I say, and in this case “art-form” doesn’t mean mooshy-gooshy backdrops of strings as in the case of the Moody Blues or dropping in quotes from Bach or Mussorgsky as did The Doors’ Ray Manzarek or Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. They were fine musicians, no question about it, but they weren’t original and they weren’t transformative. Russell was.

One of the great ironies of Russell’s life and career is that he has spent so much of it in the shadows, partly by accident and partly by design. Let me explain. Born Claude Russell Bridges in April 1942, but known as Russell during his school years, he was a precocious child talent who began playing the piano at age four. Ten years later, thanks to the fact that Oklahoma was a “dry” state in the 1950s, he began his professional career at the tender age of 14. Rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis heard him play and hired him as opening act and intermission pianist for his tour until he discovered how young he was. Not all the states Lewis played in were dry!

In 1959, at age 17, Russell moved to California, changed his name and somehow got involved with the group of highly skilled professionals known as “The Wrecking Crew.” The Wrecking Crew were the first-call musicians in the union for all recording dates, regardless of musical genre; Glen Campbell and J.J. Cale were also part of this elite group. Thanks to his contacts, Russell played piano and guitar—which he learned from James Burton—on a bewildering array of recordings by Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, The Everly Brothers, Del Shannon, Duane Eddy, Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin, Jan & Dean, Sandy Nelson (Let There Be Drums), Bobby “Boris” Pickett (Monster Mash) , Gary Lewis, George Harrison, Dean Martin, The Fleetwoods (Come Softly to Me), Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Gram 1965Parsons, The Crystals, The Ronettes, every Phil Spector and Beach Boys record, Delaney Bramlett, Ringo Starr, Doris Day, Elton John, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, the Byrds (Mr. Tambourine Man), Barbra Streisand, the Ventures (Walk Don’t Run), Willie Nelson, Badfinger, Harry Nilsson, Frank Sinatra (Strangers in the Night), the Band, Bob Dylan, J.J. Cale, B.B. King, Dave Mason, Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, Freddie King and the Rolling Stones. He can still be seen on YouTube in early clips from the T.A.M.I Show, playing and singing Roll Over Beethoven, and 1965’s Shindig performing Jambalaya with a young Glen Campbell on banjo.

But happily for us, Russell had bigger ambitions that included breaking out of his studio life. In 1968 he and guitarist-singer Marc Benno produced a studio album for Smash records titled Look Inside the Asylum Choir. This was no ordinary concept album. Russell, in an almost manic fit of creativity, wrote and arranged every track using a sped-up trumpet section overlaying the multi-tracked rhythm section of himself on piano, guitar and drums and Benno on vocals, guitar and bass guitar. The album went nowhere, none of the songs became a hit, yet it had a rabid following among young listeners who were paying attention to unusual trends in music.

Russell’s real breakthrough year, however, was in 1969 when he first worked with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, the highly gifted but personally divisive husband-and-wife team of “Gospel rockers.” Here is where Russell’s unusual style of piano playing first emerged in its mature state, a way of playing the instrument as if it were a set of tuned drums. His technique, though very solid, was not particularly flashy but it didn’t have to be. Russell combined the New Orleans-style beat of musicians like Fats Domino and Professor Longhair with a gospel sound. Listening to him play, one scarcely thought of him as a rock pianist because he played so differently from anyone else. That same year, Russell wrote the song Delta Lady, which reached #11 on the Billboard 200, for a Joe Cocker album. A year later, he accepted Cocker’s invitation to form a band and write arrangements for his Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.

I never liked Cocker’s singing, which struck me as a cross between hoarse screaming and regurgitation, but I went to see the Mad Dogs and Englishmen film twice because of Russell. He was all over the place, not only playing guitar and piano but also leading the outstanding band for which he wrote arrangements. Once again, Russell’s arrangements stood out as unusual and different from the usual norm of rock bands. He used a lean sound rather than a thick one and gave the trumpets swiftly flying figures to play, often in conjunction with an electric guitar. The saxes, not the brass, acted as rhythmic punctuation to each song, with Russell’s piano or guitar adding little flourishes at the ends of phrases. And in the midst of this tour, he recorded his first solo album, titled simply Leon Russell, for Shelter Records, the company he and Denny Cordell had founded in 1969. Originally the label was distributed by Blue Thumb, but by the time his 1970 album was recorded it was being Shelterlogodistributed by Capitol-EMI. There are two ironies about that first album. One was the adoption of an inverted “Superman” S on an eggshell as their logo, which they were eventually sued for by DC Comics, and the other was his setting of Bob Dylan’s song Masters of War to the melody of The Star-Spangled Banner. The latter became so offensive to many people that after the first pressing, Shelter was persuaded to simply omit the track from all subsequent pressings on LP.

The Leon Russell album hit the musical world like a bombshell. Although none of the tracks became “singles” hits, both Delta Lady and A Song for You were established as classics, being covered by many other artists. I remember first hearing it while in college and being dumbfounded by the raw energy and vitality of the music. These were white musicians? They had the same kind of unlimited emotional power as listening to Ike and Tina Turner or Ray Charles at his best.

The energy that Russell expended in those years was indeed prodigious. In December 1970 he and his “Shelter People” did a TV recording session at Homewood, California that was broadcast live. In 1971 he began touring on his own, in 1972 recording a follow-up album, “Leon Russell and the Shelter People” that included further classics such as Crystal Closet Queen and Alcatraz in addition to his gospel-rock renditions of two Bob Dylan songs, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall and It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry. The following year saw a three-LP live set that was dynamite in cardboard sleeves, and then his next studio recording, Carney. In 1973 he played two tunes for George Harrison’s concert for Bangladesh. But with Carney came the first change: a quieter, more introspective Leon Russell. And then he recorded a country album—and a very good one—under the title Hank Wilson’s Back. Russell was returning to his country music roots. This was fine for him: it made him happy and he was able to start performing with such country giants as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Sheryl Crowe. But a country Leon Russell was an excellent but not exceptional singer-pianist. The edge had gone from his music. I learned many years later than part of the transformation was also due to his suddenly becoming nervous about playing for large audiences. I still admired Russell but could not get into his new incarnation.

Then along came Elton John, who had appeared in an article written in 1970 called “Don’t Shoot the Piano Player” along with Russell and Randy Newman as rising stars in rock music. In 2009 he recontacted Russell and did a tour with him, then an album. Russell was very ill even then, having had a five-hour brain operation. Some of their performances together recaptured some of the old energy, and some didn’t. And a lot of the music they played was country rock, which is not the same as gospel rock, although Hearts Should Have Turned to Stone tried to recapture some of the old magic.

My readers know that I normally detest rock music. I find it mostly contrived and shallow, lacking both creativity and real emotional connection. But Leon Russell, particularly the Russell of 1968-73, was a different animal. He was, indeed, “The master of space and time,” as he called himself, and for those few brief years he was one of the most vital and innovative American musicians who ever lived—an Oklahoma boy transplanted to the big city and plugged into DC current. There was no one like him then, and no one like him now. Look up those old records and check him out. Call me crazy, but there’s something magical about him singing such lyrics as “I’m gonna sing a song of love for you one more time” to his explosive Gospel beat, only to have a hyped-up female background chorus respond with “Tutti frutti, the cutie’s on duty!”

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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