Berl Senofsky Astounds in Newly-Released Recital


BERL SENOFSKY IN CONCERT AT EXPO ’58 BRUSSELS / RAVEL: Pièce en Forme de Habanera. BARTÓK: Roumanian Dances (arr. Székely). RACHMANINOFF: Vocalise. YSAŸE: Sonata No. 6 in E, Op. 27, N0. 6. CRESTON: Suite for Violin and Piano, Op. 19. WIENIAWSKI: Grand Duo Polonaise. BACH: Partita No. 2 in D minor: Chaconne. BRAHMS: Violin Sonata No. 2 in A: III. Allegretto grazioso; Hungarian Dance No. 7 / Berl Senofsky, violin; Maria Louise Bastyns, piano / Bridge 9470 (mono, live: October 6, 1958)

The name of Berl Senofsky (1928-2002) was once a quite famous one among violin enthusiasts if not among the general public. The reason was that, despite a very busy career spanning the late 1940s through the early 1970s, Senofsky barely made any commercial records, and that was what most non-expert music lovers went by. Why? Well, because unlike pianists, who always seem to have a market in the recording industry, the major labels were very stingy in promoting violinists. Even Mischa Elman, once a top name in the 1910s and early 1920s, was left to flounder in the 1950s and ‘60s though he was still playing beautifully. But he was considered old-hat by then. The big names were Heifetz, Menuhin, Stern, Oistrakh and Francescatti—and ironically, Oistrakh, Menuhin and Francescatti were the very judges who awarded Senofsky the coveted Queen Elizabeth Prize in 1955. He was the only American to ever win that prestigious competition, yet he continued to concertize without much promotion from recordings. In this respect, he suffered almost as dreadful a fate as another great American violinist of the past, Albert Spalding.

Luckily, there exist a slew of live performances by Senofsky, including a stereo broadcast of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony conducted by Pierre Monteux (you can listen to it here), and this CD is yet another issue to bolster the slim Senofsky discography. I have to admit that, prior to getting this release, I had heard the name but not the musician, so this was my first exposure to him. He possessed a very sweet tone and played in a manner that is not at all acceptable nowadays: a continuous vibrato is used and, moreover, it is a relatively prominent and noticeable vibrato, not quite fast enough to pass by the ear scarcely noticed. Of course, in the 1950s and ‘60s this was not merely acceptable but highly sought among violinists, but nowadays we tend to prefer the much leaner, less noticeable vibrato of such older fiddlers as Joseph Szigeti and Heifetz than of Menuhin or Francescatti. A good example of what I mean is his performance here of Bartók’s Roumanian Dances in the transcription by Zoltan Székely. Listening to Szigeti play with Barók at the piano, one hears a lean, almost abrasive-sounding violin tone, much closer to folk music fiddlers than trained, sophisticated classical musicians (Szigeti played the same way in everything, however, not just Bartók), whereas with Senofsky you never escape the very regular but also quite noticeable vibrato. It was what made his tone “sweet.” Moreover, you also hear it in Ravel’s Piece en Forme de Habanera and Rachmaninov’s famed Vocalise. It is welcome in the latter piece but not necessarily the first; though elegantly phrased, one hears in one’s mind’s ear the leaner sound of such French violinists as, say, Jacques Thibaud or Henry Merckel.

Yet, oddly, in other works Senofsky either quickens his vibrato considerably or eliminates it entirely, as in the Ysaÿe Sonata No. 6 or the outer movements of Paul Creston’s excellent Suite for Violin and Piano. Possibly because these are more “modern” works in harmonic and melodic construction? Hard to tell from such a small sample size, but I very much enjoyed his playing in them. (I should also add that I liked his interpretation of the Bartók pieces despite his sweeter, less folk-like tone.) In the slow second movement of the Creston, in fact, with its more lyrical, quasi-romantic expression, the vibrato returns. For me this was not an issue; I grew up with violinists who played with vibrato, and in fact I often bristle at their modern counterparts; but I can understand where younger listeners, raised on straight tone or near-straight tone in their violin soloists, would question Senofsky’s aesthetics. There is never any question, however, that Senofsky is not “inside” the music at all times, and that, much more than mechanics, is what I listen for in any classical soloist.

His performance of the Wieniawski Grand Duo Polonaise gives us, perhaps, the best window into Senofsky’s musical mind. The music is played with his now-customary sweet tone and vibrato; he has all the refinements one looks for in this piece, including those little grupetti or grace notes that he tosses off so insouciantly; but what he does not do is to drown the music in pathos or bathos, as so many earlier Romantic violinists did. There is a particularly wide-awake quality to his interpretation here, one might say a bit of muscle in the candy bowl, that lifts the music above the level of a concert bon bon and gives it integrity. It is an astounding performance.

With Bach’s unaccompanied “Chaconne” from the Partita No. 2, we get—as in some of the modern works—a much faster, less noticeable vibrato in the tradition of, say, Heifetz or Menuhin playing Bach. What makes the performance sound old-school is not so much the vibrato as the phrasing: rounded and smooth, with a perfectly-controlled legato that just sings and sings some more, as opposed to today’s method of turning Bach into musical Chop Suey. Hmm…I think I prefer Senofsky’s way with it! (Violin lovers: also see my review of Mark Kaplan’s remarkable recent set of the Violin Sonatas and Partitas on Bridge.)

The recital ends with what seem to be encores, the third movement of the Brahms Sonata No. 2 and the Hungarian Dance No. 7, where Senofsky is very much in his element. I might add that there’s a certain Bronislaw Huberman-like quality to his playing of Brahms; it has unexpected introspection and an almost Gypsy swagger about it. As for his accompanist on this occasion, Bastyns is a fine pianist who obviously worked hard with Senofsky to mirror his expression in each piece. Being Belgian, she is not quite as well known to Americans as she should be, but in her long career (she is now 82) she has had much success, particularly in Europe, Latin America and Asia as well as a few stops in the U.S., often as part of a piano duo with her husband, Fausto Zadra. This is, quite, simply, a wonderful release and a revelation to those of us who are now just discovering this wonderful musician’s playing.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Trio Solisti Digs Into Russian Romantics

Trio Solisti0001

TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50. RACHMANINOV: Trio Élégiaque No. 2 in D minor; Trio Élégiaque No. 1 in G minor / Trio Solisti / Bridge 9465A/B (2 CDs)

Russian Romantic piano trios occupy a sound-world all their own; in fact, I would go so far as to say that it is a world dominated by heart-on-the-sleeve emotions, music of the sort that not as much in style now as it was in the 1950s and ‘60s. Moreover, these two composers represent the most extreme aesthetics of overt emotion combined with a sweetness of melody (even in minor keys) that lends itself more readily to movie music than modern-day classical style.

Nonetheless, these composers were very serious about what they did, thus the problem is not necessarily theirs. On the contrary, communicating this music’s deeper side lies mostly on the shoulders of the interpreters, many of whom, nowadays, would much rather take a post-modern view to such music, playing it in a swift, tight style with sharp rhythmic attacks and what I tend to call “artificial excitement.” Like it or not, this was a style ushered in several decades ago by the Alban Berg Quartet, and it has since spread like wildfire to other chamber groups of various combinations. But Trio Solisti, whose disc of Dvořák Piano Trios (Bridge 9393) I raved about a few years ago, is not one such group. They still pursue the old-fashioned ideals of musical performance. Violinist Maria Bachman, in particular, is a firebrand of exceptional musical depth who takes her role very seriously. She is incapable of giving a casual or emotionally disconnected performance of anything, thus in works like these she is at her very best. As good as cellist Alexia Pia Gerlach and pianist Adam Neiman are—and they are very fine indeed—it is Bachman’s energy that grabs the whole trio by the throat and keeps it on course.

To a certain extent, this is more evident in the Rachmaninov works than the Tchaikovsky if only because Rachmaninov was a superb and often hyper-emotiional pianist in his own right. In the Tchaikovsky trio—an unusual form for this composer as an extended theme-and-variations in a sort of Beethoven or Brahms style rather than the conventional three-movement format—Neiman’s crisp, airy, almost Menaham Pressler-style pianism works beautifully, acting as a crisp, rhythmically buoyant foil for Gerlach’s singing cello and Bachman’s emotional violin. In fact, I would go so far as to say that in this work Neiman is more or less a needed anchor to this work, as there are moments (not many, but a few) where Bachman’s natural effusion almost leads her to pull the music in the direction of a Romantic violin sonata in which she dominates. Neiman and Gerlach keep her grounded in the work’s form. But this is not an indictment against Bachman: how could one not want her to pour her heart and soul into every note she plays? That being said, the final section of this work, the “Finale e Coda,” just goes on and on and on too long for my taste. Eleven and a half minutes? Wowza!

Perhaps ironically, Rachmaninov’s Trio Élégiaque No. 2, presented first on the second disc, is a much tighter, more interesting piece than the Tchaikovsky—yes, there are places, like the “Maestoso” section of the first movement, where you can tell it’s Rachmaninov, but more often than not I hear echoes of Brahms in the dark, taut sections of the music. And here, interestingly enough, Bachman’s playing, though still emotional, is tighter with less of an effusive sweep to it, which works splendidly. In addition Neiman plays with a more forceful and commanding style, thus it is he who “leads” the trio and sets the tone for this work. I found this shift in leadership fascinating.

This is particularly evident in the second movement, which leads off with an extended piano solo. Note, however, that although Neiman’s playing has more command to it, it does not have a rich, deep-in-the-keys sound. But this, too, is appropriate, since Rachmaninov himself played with that kind of touch. (Many people who have never heard any of Rachmaninov’s recordings automatically assume that he had a warm tone with a “spread” to it, but in fact he had a very lean touch and didn’t use much pedal.) Neiman also leads in the middle section (“Allegro vivace”) of this movement’s sparking, major-key melody, with Bachman entering second but just briefly as the piano continues to play sparkling 16ths for some time before the whole trio jumps in. Similarly, Neiman leads the trio in the opening of the third movement.

The first Trio Élégiaque, dating from 1892 when Rachmaninov was only 19 years old, is a good work but not as strong in its themes or construction as the second. Still, Trio Solisti makes the most of this music, playing it with warmth and expression.

All in all, then, an outstanding album and as fine an example as any as to why and how this trio maintains its superiority over most of its competition.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Chabrier’s “L’Etoile” An Unlucky Star


Regular readers of my reviews and articles, particularly on this site, are well aware of my hatred of the major record companies. But why, you may cry, when they have given us so much good? Because they really don’t give a shit about the recordings they issue, or reissue, or fail to reissue. If they can’t make a quick buck from something, or any buck at all, it’s going to languish in the vaults until some enterprising spirit takes the plunge and issues it him or herself, at which point some monstrous corporate lawyer will descend on that person, force them to retract the recording that they themselves don’t give a crap about, and sue that person into the poorhouse. All in the name of commerce, not art.

And sometimes, they even screw up at the point of inception. Such is the case with Emmanuel Chabrier’s sophisticated yet wacky comic opera, L’Etoile. This was a work ostensibly written in the Offenbach style, so sophisticated in musicality and orchestration that it not only baffled audiences at the Bouffes-Parisiens (Offenbach’s regular theater) when it was premiered, but also the members of the orchestra who found its rhythms too tricky and its musical expression too subtle for a comic opera. But this was exactly what drew the attention of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, each of whom considered it a little gem.

As for the plot, which was inspired by poet Paul Verlaine, it was also ahead of its time, far wackier and more surreal than anything Offenbach had ever used…but also more literate and erudite. Yet another contradiction. L’Etoile became the favorite opera of a far-out French literary club called the Hydropathes, founded in 1877 (the year of L’Etoile’s premiere), who met at a bistro in the Latin Quarter every night to get loaded, read poetry and listen to music that was considered too strange and obscure for anyone who wasn’t loaded and reading poetry. Two years after the Hydropathes disbanded in 1880 (they had a brief reunion in 1884), an even wackier group called The Incoherents came about. Founded by writer-publisher Jules Lévy, the Incoherents were, like the Dada Movement of the early 20th century, deliberately anti-art and anti-reason. They delighted in “found” art objects and “the drawings of children, and drawings ‘made by people who don’t know how to draw.’ (pace Wikipedia).” It was all part of the same crazy French Bohemian culture that eventually spawned Alfred Jarry and his surrealist play, Ubu Roi, which ironically premiered the same year the Incoherents disbanded (1896). Interestingly enough, their October 1882 “show” was attended by such diverse figures as famed painters Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Édouard Manet and, believe it or not, German composer Richard Wagner! But the influence of the Incoherents didn’t stop with their dissolution, since artist Émile Cohl, who had also belonged to the Hydropathes, made a large series of surrealistic cartoons and film shorts for Gaumont between 1907 and 1910. These had an enormous influence on both the surrealist and the Dada movements (not to mention mainstream animated cartoons—think of Koko the Clown) as well as such abstract animation pioneers as Oskar Fischinger.

So we can see that poor little L’Etoile was enormously popular in its time with a large segment of poets, artists and writers (possibly even Wagner?). But what happened to it was that it fell out of favor and out of the repertoire, being too sophisticated to spur big belly laughs like the comic farces of Rossini or Offenbach (whose comic operettas, I must confess, I’ve always loathed and probably always will, particularly Orpheus in the Underworld, despite their frothy music). There was a brief revival in 1941, the centenary of Chabrier’s birth, in truncated radio performances (a recording survives of one such with Ninon Vallin as Lazuli ans Hughes Cuenod as Ouf, conducted by Ernest Ansermet). Then, in 1985, EMI surprised everyone by financing a recording of the opera under famed conductor John Eliot Gardiner. And here it comes: the recording industry interfered with art to produce a piece of crap. Despite fine conducting and singing, either Gardiner or EMI decided to rewrite and rearrange the opera. The list of sins was given by Lionel Salter in his Gramophone review: “The business of the king and his astrologer putting the clock back has been cut, which weakens the final denouement; far worse, Lazuli is made to sing his star romance before his entry couplets, which not only makes nonsense of the situation and (his meeting with the astrologer being omitted) removes the whole raison d’etre for that romance, but renders meaningless his mention of the veil (on the face of the princess with whom he has become enamoured). What’s more, confusion is caused because the writer of the synopsis was unaware of these senseless changes.”

Worse yet, the erratic sales of this recording soon removed it from circulation, and when it was reissued in the late 1990s the physical libretto was omitted and an online libretto (a link to which was purportedly provided in the booklet) disappeared within a year or two, making it virtually impossible for anyone to follow the complex and sophisticated lyrics with any sense.

Several of the opera’s characters have names that are puns or just silly words: King Ouf (Oof or Whew!), Prince Hérisson le Porc-Epic (Prince Hedgehog the Porcupine), the peddler Lazuli (half of Lapus Lazuli, or aquamarine blue) and Hérisson’s secretary Tapioca (as in the beads we use in pudding). Even the Princess Laoula’s name has a meaning: in numerology it has the birth path of 8, meaning that she balances the spiritual and material planes, power, fame and money. The plot, as can be found online in various places (including Wikipedia), is as follows:

Act 1

L'Etoile 01King Ouf the First roams his city, in disguise, searching for a suitable subject to execute as a birthday treat. Hérisson de Porc-Epic, an ambassador, and his wife, Aloès, arrive, accompanied by his secretary, Tapioca, and Laoula, the daughter of a neighboring monarch. They are traveling incognito, and the princess is being passed off as Hérisson’s wife. Their mission, of which Laoula is unaware, is to marry her to Ouf. Complications arise when Laoula and a poor peddler, Lazuli, fall in love at first sight. Scolded for flirting, Lazuli insults the disguised king and thus becomes a desired candidate for death by impalement. But Siroco, the king’s astrologer, reveals that the fates of the king and the peddler are inextricably linked; the stars predict that they will die within 24 hours of each other. Fortunes change again, and Lazuli is escorted with honors into the palace.

Act 2

L'Etoile 03Lazuli, fêted and well fed, grows bored with luxury and longs for Laoula. Ouf, still unaware of the disguises, furthers the lovers’ hopes of marriage by imprisoning the supposed husband, Hérisson. The lovers depart but Hérisson escapes and orders the peddler to be shot. Gunfire is heard, but although Laoula is brought in there is no sign of Lazuli. Ouf bemoans his impending death.

Act 3

Lazuli, having escaped harm, overhears Ouf, Siroco and Hérisson discussing the situation, and eventually reveals himself to Laoula. They plan a second elopement. The king and Siroco try to raise their spirits with a large glass of green chartreuse. Ouf, desperate to marry Laoula and secure an heir to the throne, tries to thwart the lovers again. However, when the clocks strike five and nothing happens, Ouf realizes that the astrologer’s predictions were wrong. In a general final chorus Lazuli and Laoula address the audience to a reprise of Act 1 finale.

I was able to find a French-only libretto online—not ideal for English-speaking listeners (I am in the process of transcribing and translating it, but am only about 29 pages into it) but certainly better than nothing. You can access it here; I will provide the English translation when it is finished (it might take me another month).

So if the only commercial recording of this opera is so flawed, why am I writing about it? Because believe it or not, L’Etoile has been revived in the 21st century and, when done well, is packing audiences in (a rare exception was at Covent Garden, where the conducting was leaden and the supertitles inadequate to present the translation fast enough). And I have found a superb performance on YouTube that I highly recommend; despite truncating the spoken dialogue somewhat, enough is left in to make sense and all of the musical numbers are in the right order. The cast includes

Le Roi Ouf 1st, King of 36 Realms – Christophe Mortagne, tenor
La Princesse Laoula – Hélène Guilmette, soprano

L'Etoile 02

Prince Hérisson, Princess Laoula, Tapioca and Aloès in Act I

Siroco, Astrologer – Jérôme Varnier, bass
Lazuli, a peddler – Stéphanie d’Oustrac, mezzo-soprano
Prince Hérisson de Porc-Épic, Ambassador of the Court of Mataquin – Elliot Madore, baritone
Aloès, Hérisson’s wife – Julie Boulianne, mezzo-soprano
Tapioca, Hérisson’s secretary – François Piolino, tenor
Patacha – François Soons, tenor
Zalzal – Harry Teeuwen, baritone
Le Chef de la Police – Richard Prada, speaker
Residentie Orkest, conducted by Patrick Fournillier

Dutch National Opera, October 2014

You can access this wonderful performance (for now, at least) here. Email me know if you can’t make the link work.

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And now you know all about L’Etoile…except for the listening. Enjoy!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Ivanov’s “Dream Images” a State of Subconscious

Dream Images

DREAM IMAGES / CRUMB: Rain-Death Variations; Dream Images. SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 2 (Sonata-Fantasy); 24 Preludes, Op. 11 (6). BERIO: Wasserklavier; Erdenklavier; Brin; Luftklavier. USTVOLSKAYA: 12 Preludes for Piano (3); Piano Sonata No. 6 / Svetozar Ivanov, pianist / Gega New GD393

Pianist Svetozar Ivanov is a man with a program here, and that program is simulating a “dream images” in music. To that end he has included a great deal of impressionistic, floating music from such composers as Alexander Scriabin, George Crumb and Luciano Berio, and some wildly nightmarish music from one Galina Ustvolskaya. The program is not quite as straightforward as it appears in the above header: Ivanov alternates the various composers and pieces, starting with Crumb’s Rain-Death Variations and ending with his Dream Images (Love-Death Music), which contains a snippet of Chopin’s Fantasy-Impromptu theme that was later converted into the pop song I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.

As the notes indicate, “This release take the listener on a journey through the fantasy world of Scriabin, the enigmatic quiet of Berio, the hyper-expressiveness of Ustvolskaya, and of course the minimalistic wonder of Crumb. A quote by Borges serves as a program note and suggests that, ‘we are wakened not out of sleep, but into a prior dream, and that dream lies within another, and so on, to infinity….’” What makes the program work, however, is the pianist’s unshakable commitment to his theme and his remarkable sense of style and proportion, perhaps even more so than the actual selection of pieces. Ivanov, for instance, takes Scriabin’s second sonata at a slower pace than I’m used to hearing it, though he does not ignore the many dynamics shadings and pedal effects, and by placing it between the opening Rain-Death Variations of Crumb and Berio’s strange, quiet Wasserklavier and Erdenklavier he makes connections to music one would not immediately think of in conjunction with it.

As the recital went on, in fact, I: became less focused on his playing per se and more focused on the music and what it was saying, and that is always a good thing. Too often when listening to classical recordings, I, like many listeners, are listening to the keyboardist’s technique and style rather than what he is saying. It’s a trap that many professional listeners fall into when hearing a recording for the first time, even when they’re not actively reviewing it…you might call it a reflex reaction. In Ivanov’s case, I’m happy to say that the music is as much if not a greater star of this recording than the performer.

Between you and me and the lamppost, I still wonder about the placement of Ustvolskaya’s machine-shop sonata near the end of the program…or, for that matter, in this program at all. Having fallen into the spell of Ivanov’s exceptionally sensitive playing of all this music, it had the effect on me of suddenly being tossed, off a cliff into a rock quarry.Just what part of the dream experience this was supposed to be, I don’t know. Perhaps a terrorist attack in slumberland?

Nonetheless, this is most definitely a recording worth hearing. It may give you a whole new perspective on the familiar music while gaining your respect for the unfamiliar.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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The Legendary Wanda Landowska

Landowska color photo

It’s actually quite difficult, if not impossible, for us today to put our minds into the 1940s and ‘50s when Wanda Landowska ruled the roost of harpsichordists the world over. The reason I say that is, simply, that we are so used to harpsichords today—inundated with them, overstuffed with them, so full of harpsichords that we simply take them for granted—that unless one lived through the era of her fame and popularity, as I did for eight years, it’s simply impossible to think of a time when there were only a handful of other harpsichordists in the world, none of whom quite achieved her mythic status. Landowska was considered the giant of her instrument, the pioneer, the Pure Artist, and that was all there was to it.

I only saw her once on TV, a brief portion of the performance video now available from VAI, and was mesmerized by her spider-like fingers as they crawled over the two keyboards as she had that almost-Mona Lisa smile on her face. Dressed in a plain black dress with a shawl, her hair pulled back in a bun, her beaklike nose pointed towards the keyboard, she was almost like a “character” created for the occasion, a real-life 18th-century woman somehow transported to the 20th. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that her severe dress and hair style were all part of her presentation. In concert she would have the house lights dimmed slowly until all was in darkness, somehow find her way from the wings to her harpsichord, then have the house lights suddenly turned up to reveal her already seated and starting to play. She usually had a candelabrum on her instrument as well. To a certain extent, then, her act was as much a theatrical presentation as was pianist Raymond Lewenthal’s in the 1960s, appearing in Dracula cape and top hat, similar candelabra on his piano, to play the music of Charles-Valentin Alkan.

Yet her musical background had been legitimate and rigorous. She learned piano from Jan Kleczyński and, later, from Moritz Moszkowski and composition from Heinrich Urban. She was so good by age 21 that she taught piano at the Schola Cantorum in Paris for a dozen years (1900-1912). By the end of that period, however, she became fascinated by harpsichords and learned to play them while doing research into the proper Baroque style of playing Bach, Handel, Couperin and Rameau, the four cornerstones of her repertoire. She toured European museums inspecting period harpsichords and trying them out, then bought old instruments and had Pleyel make her large touring harpsichord. The most controversial aspect of this instrument was its 16-foot stop, an octave below normal pitch, which gave her instrument a deeper, richer sound than any other.

When she died in 1959, RCA Victor put out a memorial album of which I bought a copy. How could I not? She was the Goddess of the Harpsichord, the woman who single-handedly revived interest in the harpsichord and made it a mainstream instrument. By the time she died there were also Ralph Kirkpatrick, Sylvia Marlowe and a few others, all inspired by Landowska and following in her footsteps, but it was pretty much accepted that Landowska was Mount Everest and the others were the Blue Ridge Mountains, at best.

What changed over the years wasn’t Landowska’s playing or her marvelous records (oddly enough, none of which were in stereo!) but the classical music industry’s attitudes towards the harpsichord. In an era where critics (and some fellow organists) fell over themselves praising Helmut Walcha playing Bach’s music on his own wheezy little organ in Leipzig, we were taught that Landowska used a corrupted instrument, a heavy-frame harpsichord built like a grand piano so that she could tour with it without worrying about its getting too badly damaged in transit. Even such critics as B.H. Haggin, who raved about her pre-World War II recordings of Bach and Scarlatti, complained bitterly of her “gargantuan pounding” on her post-War Pleyel. It wasn’t more than a decade and a half after her death that she was almost completely discredited by the historically-informed movement, pushed to the side as a relic of the bad old days along with Yehudi Menuhin’s and Karl Richter’s Bach performances—to say nothing of organist Virgil Fox!

But as usual, the critics were throwing out the baby with the bath water, because so far as her musical treatment of scores went there was little if any difference between pre-War and post-War Landowska. The principal difference was High Fidelity recording, that scourge of “bachelor pads” and collectors of sound effects records who enjoyed scaring the bat shit out of their neighbors by playing realistic-sounding car crashes or onrushing freight trains at full volume in their living rooms. That same mindset somehow included Landowska’s postwar recordings and live performances, which were recorded so closely by the microphone that her instrument, which formerly had sounded relatively normal, now sounded like an attack of Killer Plectrums, half-ripping the strings out of their sockets in an effort (and it was an effort) to get through the Well-Tempered Clavier, both books.

Small wonder that Landowska was demeaned by the critics. Too many of her late recordings were so loud and resonant that they could shake the windows in your living room on a cold winter’s day. But, as I say, it was more the fault of the technology than of the performer or her instrument, despite the fact that her eight-foot Pleyel had a greater resonance than most early instruments.

Most, but not all. It has since come to light, in the early 21st century, that Landowska had been right all along when she said to Pablo Casals, “You play Bach your way and I’ll play him his way.” For there were, indeed, huge eight-foot and twelve-foot French harpsichords in Couperin’s and Bach’s time, and Bach himself had played (with great delight) on some of these instruments during his infrequent excursions outside of Leipzig. Moreover, they were the instruments that Couperin composed on, and for. Note, here, the recreation by harpsichord maker Reinhard von Nagel of an eight-foot harpsichord of circa 1720:

Jochewed Schwarz harpsichord by Reinhard von Nagel

And now, look at Landowska at her Pleyel in the early 1950s. I have been told by reputable sources that she was only about 4 foot 11 inches tall, thus I have used a measuring bracket, turned it around 90 degrees, and placed it over her instrument to show that her harpsichord was, indeed, no more than eight feet long:

Landowska harpsichord

You see? They are virtually the same size, although I admit that the Pleyel’s frame is sturdier and made of thicker wood than the von Nagel recreation (and has that 16-foot stop). But that’s the only difference. Otherwise, they are very much alike.

Now, to the performance quality of Landowska’s surviving recordings. As with Virgil Fox’s Bach, there is nothing at all wrong with her musical treatment of these scores. Skide-by-side comparisons of her Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavier with modern recordings show only a difference in the quality and heaviness of sonics, not musical style. In fact, on some of her recordings where the microphone was placed a bit further back, there is nothing at all wrong with either sound or style, as in her posthumously released album of Haydn Keyboard Sonatas (played alternately on harpsichord and piano, her original instrument). These are my favorite of her recordings:

BACH: Goldberg Variations; Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue; Italian Concerto / Wanda Landowska, harpsichord / EMI CDH-7610082

This is my all-time favorite of her Bach recordings, as well as of several other critics. Part of it is due to the greater distance of the microphone from the harpsichord, which presents us with a more natural and less “gargantuan” sound, but it also has to do with a lighter touch and more playful approach to these works than she exhibited after the War. This performance of the Goldberg Variations does not include all the repeats, but it is absolutely irresistible, as are her performances of the Italian Concerto and the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue.

SCARLATTI: Various Sonatas / EMI 64934

Here’s yet another example of why record companies are scum and we should steal as many old recordings without paying for them as we can. The album is incomplete, omitting several Scarlatti sonatas included in the original 78-rpm set as well as the original two-LP Angel/EMI set. Granted, those extra sonatas total only about 22 minutes, which is fairly short for a second CD, but so what? Many, many other record companies have done the exact sme thing when a performance of “whatever” runs a little over 100 minutes. Still, what we have here are some of the most magical of all Landowska recordings as well as the most magical Scarlatti performances ever recorded by anyone. Hard to believe that she recorded them during the Nazi blitz of Paris, but in some of the sonatas you can still hear the dull thud of buzz-bombs outside the Salle Pleyel where the records were made.

Bach SonatasBACH: Sonatas for Violin & Keyboard, BWV 1014-1016, 1018 / Yehudi Menuhin, violin; Wanda Landowska, harpsichord / A Classical Record 45

These are lacquer recordings made in Town Hall during the live concert of December 20, 1944 when Menuhin and Landowska performed four of Bach’s five violin and keyboard sonatas. The critics were ecstatic over them, so much so that RCA Victor signed the duo to record them in the studio, but alas, they only made Sonata No. 3 before their very different but very busy concert schedules tore them apart, never to reunite. It’s a shame that they omitted Sonata No. 4 from the concert and didn’t record Sonata No. 4 first, because it is the only sonata they never made together (although Menuhin did record it with pianist Louis Kentner for RCA). The recordings languished in the collection of Landowska’s secretary and partner, Denise Restout, for decades because Landowska had listened to them once and said they were so poorly recorded that they were worthless, but audio restoration wizard Seth Winner took them, worked on them, and came up with listenable if not crystal-clear transfers. The performances are indeed magical, with Menuhin playing in a fine Bach style that would satisfy anyone but those who insist on whiny straight-tone violins. Landowska creates absolute magic in her weaving of the harpsichord parts.

Landowska Couperin0001BACH: Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue; Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I: BWV 846-47, 853, 856, 861. COUPERIN: Les Folies Françaises, ou des Dominos, “Troisième Livre” XII Ordre in B minor, No. 4; Les Fastes de la Grande et Ancient Ménestrandise, “Deuxième :ivre” XI Order in C minor Nos. 2 & 3; La Favorite: “Première Livre” III Ordre in C minor; Le Dodo, ou l’Amour au Berceau “Troisieme Livre” XV Order in A minor / Wanda Landowska, harpsichord / Documents LV-953

This elusive CD contains all live performances from the early 1950s. As in her contemporary RCA recordings, the harpsichord is very close-miked, but there is an extra kick to Landowska “live” that just makes these performances sound special. If you can’t find it, you might want to obtain, as an alternative, the studio recordings of Couperin on Pearl 9096, but I still maintain that these are a bit wilder and less inhibited than the studio recordings. You can also sample some of her Couperin recordings on YouTube. This performance of the Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue sounds a bit heavier-handed than the earlier EMI recording, but no less sweeping in its style.

LM6073 coverHAYDN: Sonata No. 37 in D; Sonata No. 35 in C; Sonata No. 40 in G / Wanda Landowska, harpsichord / Sonata No. 34 in E minor; Sonata No. 49 in E-flat; Andante and Variations in F minor / Wanda Landowska, piano / RCA Victor LM-6073 (LPs, out of print, but available for free download at

This is one of Landowska’s greatest late recordings—even the harpsichord performances are recorded at a bit of a distance and thus are not so heavy-handed—yet her most elusive album, as it was never reissued complete on LP or CD. The piano performance of the Sonata No. 34 in E minor was reissued as side 1 of an RCA Victrola album titled Landowska Plays Piano, but that is all. Happily, a generous gentleman who runs “The Shellackophile” website has provided free digital downloads (your choice of FLAC or mp3) complete with the 20-page full-sized booklet, the original cover art and all four record labels, at the URL listed above. Landowska’s piano playing had much in common with Maria Yudina and Glenn Gould: a light, brisk touch, clean articulation and no use of the sustain pedal, but in style she was here own woman, retaining the same buoyant rhythm and playful phrasing one heard in her Scarlatti and Bach performances.

So there you go…Landowska reassessed and exonerated of most of her musical sins. Happy listening!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Nørgård’s “Siddharta” a Pretty Heady Opera

Siddharta 59 front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Aksel Rykkvin an Excellent Boy Treble

Aksel cover

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

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


William Pickels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— © Lynn René Bayley

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Quartetto Energie Nove’s Splendid Prokofiev

Prokofiev quartets

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

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

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

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

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

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Litton’s Prokofiev Structured Yet Exciting

Prokofiev front cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Quartetto Energie Nove Nails Janáček

Janacek Quartets front cover

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

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

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

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

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

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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