Joey Alexander’s “Countdown”


COUNTDOWN / ALEXANDER SILA: City Lights*. Sunday Waltz*. Soul Dreamer#. COLTRANE: Countdown#. CHAPLIN/PARSONS: Smile. HANCOCK: Maiden Voyage+#. MONK: Criss Cross#. STRAYHORN: Chelsea Bridge*. MARSALIS: For Wee Folks# / Joey Alexander, pn; +Chris Potter, sop-sax; *Dan Chmielinski, #Larry Grenadier, bs; Ulysses Owens, Jr., dm / Motéma Music MTA-CD-202 available as hard copy CD or online downloads

The ongoing creative growth of young jazz phenom Joey Alexander, who is no longer a precocious 11-year-old but has now reached age 13, is captured in this second CD. Having read of his influences and preferences, I was not surprised to see the music of John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis in this recital, but I was more than a little surprised to find him tackling Thelonious Monk and doing so with wonderful alacrity and equally surprised to see him trying his hand at writing his own tunes.

As I mentioned in my earlier article on Alexander, “Each chorus is not only well constructed in and of itself, but builds on the chorus(es) preceding it,” and this is even true in his own compositions. City Lights is an uptempo bop-style piece, built around adjacent chord positions, primarily modal and more interesting for its rhythmic and harmonic divisions than for its melodic material. But it’s a good enough beginning for this recital. Sunday Waltz, which follows immediately, has a strong Gospel feel to the introduction before moving into an almost Bill Evans-ish mood (the changes reminded me of one of Evans’ favorite tunes, Little Lulu) yet with a return to that Gospel feel near the end of each half-chorus. It’s amazing to hear how he improvises, moving both the rhythm and the melodic fragments around the keyboard, using very little pedal, keeping a crisp sound as he moves through the music. Alexander has told Reuters, “I don’t think I’m a genius, I’m just thankful for the gift that jazz has given me,”[1] but what 13-year-old pianist do you know who can play jazz this well? And not just the digital dexterity, but the musical ideas—and more importantly from my perspective, the enthusiasm? As Alexander stated further, “In this music, it’s not just technique, it’s the feeling of how you play and the freedom you can give…and I do a lot of listening, actually.”

Coltrane’s Countdown begins with a drum outburst by Owens, followed by a bass solo from Grenadier before Alexander comes into the picture, almost immediately reducing the tune to two-finger right-hand tremolos, followed by asymmetric chords in both hands, then more tune fracturing a capella before settling into the tune proper. This is pretty amazing splaying for a pianist of any age, but especially considering Alexander’s age it is simply phenomenal. He makes a real Bud Powell-style bop piece out of it, and although he doesn’t quite have Powell’s blazing speed he challenges the legendary pianist in terms of sheer musical invention. I’ve heard many an adult, seasoned pianist who couldn’t make as much of the music as Alexander does here. Indeed, as the music is dying away, one of the musicians is heard to say, “Joey, you really played your butt off on that!” Quite a compliment from a seasoned professional!

Perhaps the most surprising track on this album is Charlie Chaplin’s evergreen, Smile. Alexander consistently brings out the melody, but as chorus follows chorus he deconstructs it a little more each time, in the process tossing in a snippet from Over the Rainbow which he even uses at one point as a countermelody in the left hand. This points up another of his more phenomenal talents, the ability to use his left and right hands independently at times, as if two different pianists were playing. Interestingly, this tune is played solo, with no bass or drums.

Chris Potter, on soprano sax, joins the trio for Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, which Alexander takes in a very relaxed fashion. Here he is content to sit back for extended stretches and act as an accompanist, a role I’m not sure he has had a lot of experience in doing, yet he succeeds beautifully. Interestingly, at about 3:40 he plays a little figure on the piano that Potter picks up on as the beginning of his own solo, and as he goes on Alexander becomes busier and more overt in style behind him, pushing Potter on to some extraordinary playing. Interestingly, when Alexander goes into his own solo (around 5:57), he is relaxed and spacious, playing single notes in the right hand with occasional chords interjected here and there, more for light emphasis than anything else. Yet as his solo moves into its second and third chorus, he becomes busier and more energetic, picking up the pace and really generating some tremendous momentum. And as usual for him, he completely rewrites the piece, making a new composition or contrafact of it. You simply can’t play this well at this age unless you really know your music, and although Alexander is self-taught he certainly picked up on harmonic cycles extremely well.

alexanderI personally loved the way Alexander played Monk’s Criss Cross. Too many pianists nowadays who play Monk “smooth out” his offbeat rhythms, making it smoother than the original. Alexander does not; he evidently loves the screwy backbeats and motifs repeated in the “wrong” sequence within Monk tunes and relishes the chance to play it. The rhythm section almost makes a rumba out of it in places, which adds to the fun, and the whole trio just kicks back and enjoys themselves. I think Monk would have approved of this rendition, something he rarely did when others played his music.

Another surprise is Billy Strayhorn’s 1941 classic, Chelsea Bridge (though the issued recording was made in 1942, there’s a September 1941 alternate take with Jimmy Blanton on bass). Part of the surprise, again, is Alexander’s rhythmic treatment, starting with a surprisingly good Duke Ellington imitation on the intro before turning it into a Latin dance number (except for the B theme in the middle). I really liked this because it did not follow the pattern that most pianists do when playing this, which is to make it a sort of mushy ballad. KIn his solo, he deconstructs the piece to its basic building blocks before embarking on a solo in straight 4 that harks back to the swing era. This young man has so many surprises up his sleeve, it’s hard to predict where he’ll go with almost any tune in his repertoire.

Wynton Marsalis’ For Wee Folks is a modest tune in a relaxed tempo, yet once again Alexander has a way of playing it differently from how you might expect, here fractioning the beat in a slyly syncopated manner, adding a few crushed chords, and just plain enjoying himself as he wends his way through the music. He brings the tempo way down as the bassist plays arco behind him, them switches to plucked notes as they switch to a nice walking tempo. Eventually Alexander and Grenadier engage in a nice loping duet conversation, the bassist taking over the comping duties so that the pianist can concentrate on just his right hand. Interestingly, Alexander evokes Ellington once again in some of the flourishes he plays in the beautiful, extended coda.

Another Alexander original, Soul Dreamer, closes out the album. Like his other pieces, the melody is casually constructed, the meat of the music being the way he is able to link harmonies together. This is another relaxed piece but a very inventive one, with Alexander evidently enjoying his exploration of his own harmonic sequence. Eventually, I’m sure he will mature as a composer, just as this CD shows him maturing as an improviser, but in the meantime what we take away from his playing is enthusiasm, a sheer love of playing that you don’t always hear in more seasoned professionals.

Countdown would be an excellent album for almost any jazz pianist nowadays. For a young man of Alexander’s age, it is simply amazing.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] Video interview on Reuters,


Serkin’s Beethoven Concertos Top a Crowded Field


It isn’t often that I completely reverse my position on any specific performance of the standard repertoire, particularly in the case of Beethoven who has been a specific fascination of mine since the age of 14. At 17 I bought the Schirmer scores of the complete piano sonatas (the sheet music store had had a fire, most of their stock had gotten waterlogged or smoke-tinged, so I got both books very cheaply—and I still own them), tried to play parts of them myself, and have pretty much lived with those scores ever since. My love for the piano concertos came later, but not too much later, after I had discovered and learned to love the symphonies.

But the other day I was surfing through available performances of the piano concertos and ran across these performances by Rudolf Serkin and Eugene Ormandy. Of course I had read about them when I was growing up, but informed critical opinion told me that they weren’t top-notch, that Serkin’s approach to Beethoven was clean but uninteresting and Ormandy was more of a “perfunctory” accompanist than an imaginative one. They said that I should be listening to Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Kempff or Leon Fleisher. I liked Schnabel’s playing but was not very happy with the stiff, almost clumsy playing of the orchestra (I later learned that they had inadequate rehearsal for the recording sessions). I didn’t like Wilhelm Kempff at all: he was too fussy and mannered, and his accompanist (Ferdinand Leitner) was really stiff and uninteresting. So I settled on Fleisher-Szell and was relatively happy with that..

Anyway, in my excursion into other Beethoven concertos I listened to and liked—to a point—the Wilhlem Backhaus/Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt performances, but eventually gave up on them because of the pianist’s fussy mannerisms such as beginning passages slowly and gradually working them “up to speed,” or slowing down arbitrarily in the midst of a passage, and the Emil Gilels-Kurt Masur live performances of the 1970s, but the more I listened to them the more I felt that, as bracing and well-driven as they are, Gilels never really got “inside” the music. Then, just for the heck of it, I sampled Serkin—and was completely blown away.

What in the name of God almighty were the critics complaining about? I don’t hear a small-scale Mozart pianist out of his depth, which is what many of them said, not even a little bit. I hear a pianist fully in command of not just the music but the mood of the music at every turn.. He is as exciting as Gilels but more more nuanced in his playing. More importantly, every note in every phrase sounds as if his life depended on getting that music out. He just absolutely slays these concertos with an emotional blowtorch, yet never steps outside the bounds of good taste. His slow movements are exquisite, yet also never forego deep emotional connection. In short, he is perfect for these concertos. Better than Schnabel of sainted memory, better than Fleisher (sorry, Leon), better than Backhaus, Perahia, Kissin, Brendel, Gulda, Katchen, Vladar or Zacharias, who I’ve also heard. And that’s some field to beat.

eugene-ormandyBut then there is Ormandy, and for the life of me I’ve never understood why the music critics of my youth went out of their way to dump on him as much as they did. I always loved him as a Tchaikovsky conductor, particularly the ballets, and I also still admire his recordings of Holst’s Planets and Mahler’s Second Symphony as among the best. But I never quite thought to sample his Beethoven because that was the mountain that Toscanini, Szell and Steinberg sat atop, particularly in the symphonies. Well, imagine my shock to discover that in these concertos, Ormandy was channeling his inner Toscanini. His performances here have not only a drive but lift and an exalted enthusiasm that no one else matches—not even Toscanini in his recordings of the First and Third Concertos, and that’s going some. The Philadelphia Orchestra plays as if possessed under his direction. Just to point out one example, I’ve never heard any other conductor, not even Haitink, Szell, Schmidt-Isserstedt or Levine, give a performance of the Second Concerto with as much drive and excitement as this.

The fly in the ointment, so so speak, with Serkin’s studio-recorded Beethoven concertos is that the third and fifth are conducted by Bernstein, who is good but not quite on the same exalted level as Ormandy. He is a bit too fussy, italicizing certain phrases to the expense of forward momentum. Ah, but we have the Internet to the rescue, because as it turns out there are live performances of Serkin playing the Third and Fifth Concertos with Ormandy, and these are even a shade more exciting than the studio recordings of the other three. Thus we can get all five concertos with the same conductor and orchestra.

By way of an addendum, I did like the Serkin-Bernstein recording of the oft-snubbed “Choral Fantasy.” After listening to at least a dozen other performances, the only ones I liked were the Ania Dorfmann-Toscanini version (but much more for Toscanini than the pianist) and the Friedrich Wührer-Clemens Krauss recording, both mono. None of the stereo or digital recordings I listened to had any oomph to them…except Serkin-Bernstein. This, too, takes off like a rocket, in large measure because most of the piece is solo piano or piano with orchestra (the chorus doesn’t enter until the last four minutes), and by the time the chorus does come in Serkin has already worked up a good head of steam.

So I’m going to revise my recommendations for these works in the Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide, and I strong recommend that you at least check out Serkin-Ormandy and judge for yourself.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Schulhoff’s Chamber Music Inventive, Exciting


SCHULHOFF: String Sextet, Op. 45 / Spectrum Concerts Berlin / Sonata No. 2 for Violin & Piano / Boris Bovtsyn, violinist; Eldar Nebolsin, pianist / Duo for Violin & Cello / Valeriy Sokolov, violinist; Jens Peter Maintz, cellist / Cinq Études de Jazz / Eldar Nebolsin, pianist / Naxos 8.573525

Erwin Schulhoff, the immensely talented but politically deviant Czech composer-pianist, has had a Renaissance of his music in the last 25 years, particularly his jazz-influenced piano works of the 1920s (see my assessment of those works in From Baroque to Bop and Beyond). Yet it was not just those works that he is now remembered for, but also his remarkably inventive chamber works. This CD combines one of his best-known jazz compositions, the Cinq Études, with his lesser-known String Sextet, Violin Sonata No. 2 and the Violin-Cello Duo.

Schulhoff’s music is often atonal but not tied to the 12-tone row; despite the astringent harmonies, he always has a melody of one sort or another going, in the manner of Bartók or Kodály, his Hungarian counterparts. Like them, he also put a great deal of feeling into his music; he was not a cold composer like Webern. Thus the String Sextet of 1924 includes a great deal of angst-ridden passages, which the musicians of Spectrum Concerts Berlin play with both infallible technical skill and tremendous energy. Perhaps even more so than the wild first movement, one can gain the measure of Schulhoff’s musical thinking from the moody yet strangely lovely second movement, “Tranquillo(Andante),” where he employs a rocking motion in the violas to settle down the conflicting feelings near the middle, continuing with the cellos playing an alternate theme while the upper strings softly flutter about, almost as ambient sounds. This is clearly the work of a great musical imagination, and I can’t imagine it being played any better than it is here.

Although Schulhoff follows the normal sequence of four movements for his sextet, he defies convention by following the very energetic Slavic “Burlesca” with another slow movement to conclude the work. What is interesting about these last two movements is that the “Burlesca” ends in such a way that it almost signals to the listener an end to the whole work, whereas the final “Molto adagio,” deeply introspective, almost sounds like a separate piece. It doesn’t just end quietly; it almost sounds like a resignation of life, a leave-taking of the temporal world.

By contrast, the Violin Sonata looks backwards to the formal structure of such sonatas, and although the themes used have a strongly Eastern European feel to them they are also based on dance rhythms. By the time one reaches the “Finale: Allegro risoluto,” in fact, it has lamost become dance-like in rhythm, charming as well as melodic.The Violin-Cello Duo, dedicated to Janáček, uses a pentatonic scale in the opening that was used for several folk songs and nursery rhymes, gradually evolving the music into further developments and themes. Yet there is no escaping the sonata’s Eastern European harmonic roots; harmonically, at least, it takes a page from Magyar culture and expands on it in his own quirky Schulhoffian way. He exploits the high ranges of both instruments in an unusual manner, sending them both into the upper stratosphere at times for an interesting effect—and, like nearly all of Schulhoff’s music, it is highly rhythmic, particularly in the fast movements. I was particularly struck by the tender lyricism of the “Andantino,” however, in which the cello takes the lead while the violin sprinkles pizzicatos.In the last movement the pattern is reversed for a bit, the violin playing the lead while the cello stoms rhythmically under it.

The Cinq Études de Jazz, like all of Schulhoff’s “jazz” pieces, are more of an intellectual reaction to popular dance music of the day than based on real jazz, which he probably never even heard. I judge this from his own proclamation that he loved to dance, thus it was peppy dance rhythm that inspired him, not the creative improvisations of any real, specific jazz master; that he never came to the U.S., as Ravel did, to hear real jazz at its source; and that the dedicatees of these five pieces were not jazz musicians. Alfred Baresel, a name little known today, was a composer of jazz-based classical works much like himself (Der Rhythmus in der Jazz, Thema mit Jazz-Variationen für Klavier and Tanzmusik) while Zez Confrey was a composer of “novelty” piano pieces, Paul Whtieman a pop bandleader who only occasionally sprinkled his bombastic arrangements with real jazz musicians, and both Robert Stolz and Eduard Künneke were operetta composers! Undoubtedly the most complex and interesting of the five pieces is the “Toccata dur le Shimmy, Kitten on the Keys de Zez Confrey.” One must get to hear the original piece before listening to this startling transformation, because you would almost not recognize the original in Schulhoff’s masterful transformation. The piano writing is all over the keyboard, far more so than in any of Confrey’s cute but rather simple-minded ragtime pieces; at times it almost sounds as if three hands are playing together. Yet even in the opening “Charleston,” we hear music that, if not fully influenced by jazz and it improvisatory spirit, was advanced and rhythmic enough to influence the course of jazz piano for those who were familiar with this music (probabkly not many, but you never know). I’m pleased to say that pianist Eldar Nebolsin fully enters the spirit of this music, playing with a wonderful elasticity and swagger.

All in all, then, an excellent recording, depite the fact that I already have two other performances of the Cinq Études in my collection!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Wadada Leo Smith’s Triumphant New Suite


AMERICA’S NATIONAL PARKS / SMITH: New Orleans: The National Culture Parks USA 1718. Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park. Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America – The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and It Ecosystem, 1872. The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River – a National Memorial Park c. 5000 B.C. Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks: The Giant Forest, Great Canyon, Cliffs, Peaks, Waterfalls and Cave Systems 1890. Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill, 1890 / Golden Quintet: Wadada Leo Smith, tpt/dir; Anthony Davis, pn; Ashley Walters, cello; John Lindberg, bs; Pheeroan akLaff, dm. / Cuneiform Records 430/431

Trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith, who turns 75 on December 18 of this year, has been in the forefront of avant-garde jazz for decades, though he began his career—as did the brilliant Clifford Brown—by playing R&B. His real breakthrough came in 1971 when he formed the New Dalta Ahkri band with Anthony Davis, Oliver Lake and the equally brilliant Henry Threadgill, and founded his own record label, Kabell. It was also during the 1970s that Smith studied ethnomusicology at Weslyan University, but only after he became a Rastafarian that he began using the first name of Wadada. He also began using graphic notation system, which he dubbed Ankhrasmation, in 1970.

Thus we obviously have here a musician-composer who operates outside the mainstream of American culture, even outside the jazz mainstream. This project is a follow-up and expansion on his 2014 Great Lakes Suites (Tum Records CD 041-2), in which he reunited with Threadgill in a quartet including John Lindberg on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Here he introduces his “Golden Quartet,” a group which, interestingly, includes a cellist, Ashley Watkins, along with piano, bass, drums and Smith on trumpet. This, I’ve learned, is an expansion of his previous Golden Quartet with pianist Vijay Iyer, who has since gone on to greater fame on his own, bassist Lindberg and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. What really fascinates me is that he was able to score these 93 minutes of music in just 28 pages. The liner notes tell us that this music “is an elegant and interrogatory blend of thorough-composed, fully improvised, and Ankhrasmation-guided approaches that allow for expressive freedom while maintaining a cohesive intellectual viewpoint.” The musicians thus “construct a dazzling, ever-evolving monument of invention from blocks of melodic, sonic and rhythmic ideas.”

Interestingly, Smith hasn’t visited many of the parks he creates images of in this score, but rather used historical research to inspire his musical portraits. He also took inventive liberties with the definition of a national park. For instance, New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA argues that this city should be considered such a landmark due to its cultural and historical contributions to America, focusing on the birth of jazz and specifically Buddy Bolden, whose music we know almost nothing about. It’s a bold risk but one that Smith was willing to take. Similarly, Smith invents another “national park” from the writings of musicologist and author Eileen Jackson Southern, with whose work I was totally unfamiliar. He also creates another “national park” out of the Mississippi River, which he calls “a memorial site which was used as a dumping place for black bodies by hostile forces in Mississippi.” I’m not sure I fully agree with this expansion and redefintion of what a national park is. And as long as Smith is politicizing the term national park, why not one on Wounded Knee? When one politicizes an art form, whatever it is, the music thus becomes a symbol for your viewpoint, and you cannot just decide arbitrarily what is or isn’t a”national park” just because it’s your record.

Yet taking the music on its own merits, without the politics, it is a fascinating suite. The music is sparse, as is typical for Smith, but the addition of a cello with its ability to spin long, unbroken lines adds a richness and extra dimension to the music’s effect. What I found interesting was that the music was, for all its avant-garde properties, essentially tonal in character, and at least in the opening piece (New Orleans) owed as much to Miles Davis as anyone else. Unlike his colleague Threadgill’s music, which emerges in small and medium-sized blocks of notes (I’ve described it in this article as a musical mosaic), Smith’s scores very definitely have a melodic flow, and it is within this flow that all the little pieces fall info place. Think of it as watching a river flow lazily by as you notice certain objects bobbing up to and down from the surface. It has that kind of effect on the listener.

Despite the essentially tonal nature of the music and the legato quality of the cello, I found it interesting that pianist Davis took a more angular approach, playing against the flow in spiky double-time flurries of notes rather than laying out rich, full chords. And then there is the sheer length of these pieces, the first lasting over 20 minutes and The Mississippi River over a half hour. Smith evidently enjoys taking his time—and the musicians’-time—to explore each topic in musical depth. There’s a lot of “space” in these pieces, moments of repose and silence that manage to bind the sections together. Another way of looking at them is like a series of conversations where, whenever there is a lull, someone in the room manages to come up with another topic or another viewpoint of a previous topic to keep the chat flowing. Another thing that struck me as I listened is how the music only occasionally sounded like jazz in any traditional sense, even less so than the avant-garde jazz of the Art Ensemble of Chicago or the World Saxophone Quartet. Improvisatory, yes, most definitely; most of this is improvised into being. Yet if he omitted the drums (which he does in the second piece, Eileen Jackson Southern), I’d have a hard time defining this music as jazz. It is spacey, moody, extremely creative and emotionally moving, but to my ears more closely related to modern classical music than modern jazz. And I say that with a tremendous degree of respect for these scores. They are not merely fascinating, but brilliant.

Due to the slow-moving nature of Smith’s music and its use of space, it is not an easy record to listen to, though I’m certain that a large number of people who have no real ear for what is going on will use it as background music for reading or a party. There is always the temptation to use soft, quiet music as a form of ambience, but this would be a gross insult to Smith. Even in so small a moment as the held trumpet note, under which the cello suddenly changes key and the bass and piano add a few sprinkles in Eileen Jackson Southern, is wont to pass by an inattentive listener without incident, though it is actually a pivotal moment in time and in this piece. Indeed, since I listened to the recording without being able to see where I was on the CD, it was difficult to tell where one piece ended and the next started. This is a tribute to Smith’s musical imagination and his ability to create musical forms that intertwine and are similar in motivic ideas without being identical.

As the album progressed, in fact, I found myself thinking much more of the music and its ebb and flow than of any association with a national park, real or imagined. In Yellowstone, for instance, I did not and could not really visualize anything about the park as I listened to Davis’ ongoing sprinkle of notes against the gentle rocking rhythm of cello and bass and the sprinkle of cymbals, eventually moving into an a cappella bass solo of extraordinary lyricism (and, again, an almost classical sense of structure). And yet, this music is evocative—of states of mind, not geysers or canyons.

In short, America’s National Parks is a stunning musical achievement. Smith’s music takes you on a tour, so to speak, of the canyons of your mind. Even when the mood itself changes, as it most certainly does on the dark-hued Mississippi River portion of the suite with its roiling, fast-paced section, Smith’s musical vision remains compelling in its minimal but striking use of the smallest gestures to take your mind on a trip you didn’t even know you wanted to take.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Schnabel Shakes Up Books, Bottles & Bamboo in New CD


BOOKS, BOTTLES AND BAMBOO / SCHNABEL: Burnout*. Toy. Drunken Books. Dying Swan Under the Bamboo Moon. Luggage. Loss Laments. Reef. Plop. SILVER: Peace / Anna-Lena Schnabel, a-sax; Florian Weber, pn/*melodica; Thomas Morgan, bs; Dan Weiss, dm. / Enja ENJ-9636

Here’s something wildly different: an atonal, no-holds-barred jam session featuring the quartet led by alto saxist Anna-Lena Schnabel, and in the first track a “melodica” (sounds like an accordion to me) in place of the usual piano. Judging from this album, Schnabel is a fired-up jazz composer who plays a mean yet cool-sounding alto sax, and the performances are as much about collective group improvisation. In other words, Schnabel’s music, though purely jazz and not really tied too closely to formal structure, has a structure within each piece that is closely adhered to by all concerned. Thus whenever one of the musicians plays a solo—the leader included—it must contribute to the melodic and harmonic progression of the music as a whole. This has always been a feature of the best German jazz, going back as far as Hans Koller, the Mangelsdorff brothers and Jutta Hipp in the 1950s, and it remains a feature today even of such avant-garde German jazz composers as Alexander von Schlippenbach,

Indeed, strictly as an improviser I found myself fascinated by Schnabel’s playing. Despite her complex lines, sometimes going outside the strange, linear chord changes she has written, she employ a tone and style reminiscent of Koller or Lee Konitz, whose work inspired Koller to begin with. She also has a good sense of humor in her compositions, as is witnessed by the playful, off-kilter introductions to Toy and Drunken Books, or the flutter-tongue antics in the latter to simulate (I think) uncontrolled page-turning by said books in the spirit of intoxication. Despite a number of influences that I hear in her work, in the end her music sounds like no one else’s, at least not on this album. It is strange, moving, and tongue-in-cheek humorous all at the same time. Perhaps a combination of Monk and Ornette Coleman might best describe what she does, but I’m not sure that even that does her justice.

Pianist and melodica player Florian Weber is also fully on her wavelength, embellishing and supporting everything she does with solos that combine swing with Harry Partch-like harmonics (note, especially, his tack piano or paper-in-the-strings piano solo—I’m not sure which it is—on Drunken Books). As in so much modern jazz nowadays, drummer Weiss plays around and in between the beats rather than on them, which further obscures the basic pulse. On Dying Swan Under the Bamboo Moon, Schnabel enters playing the alto so high up in its range that at first I thought sure she had switched to flute, but as her volume increased I realized it was indeed a saxophone. This is a piece so wildly impressionistic that someone like Arthur Honegger would have been proud to call it his own: sparse, slow, atmospheric and only occasionally touching the base tonality. It is also played only by Schnabel and Weber at first, with Weiss coming in only for atmospheric percussion effects after a passage in which Schnabel merely breathes through her horn.

One of the most interesting and impressive things about this album is that every track is different in style, mood and structure, yet you can’t imagine anyone else other than Schnabel having written and of these pieces. Following her dying swan, she gives us deep, almost guttural groans on the alto in Luggage, a piece that plods forward like the Frankenstein monster stomping down a hill. The intensity grown through wild, flying piano passages around the steady bass pulse (played by both the bass and the piano left hand) while the drums go absolutely crazy around them. One of the more interesting aspects of this album, at least through the first six tracks, is the way the album decelerates, starting from the whirling mélange of sound on Burnout and working its way to the almost still, stately progression of tones on Loss Laments. There’s no doubt about it: everywhere you go in this extraordinary album, you encounter something different but equally as effective as the music preceding what you are just (now) hearing. On Loss Laments it’s mostly the piano trio that speaks so eloquently as the leader sits out of much of it, and although Weber is not so much concerned with altered chord changes their loose interplay put me in mind, a little, of the old Bill Evans-Scott LaFaro-Paul Motian trio.

anna-lena-schnabelIn Reef, Schnabel present us with another musical enigma in music that is at once built on both tonality (mostly G major) and chromatic movement that tries to edge itself outside the chords, but inevitably it pulls itself back to G as the tempo doubles and the whole quartet swings. Plop, which tends towards F major, has a sort of strange mechanical feel to the pulse, as if the music were being played by robots—and Schnabel’s odd, quirky alto solo doesn’t dispel this notion. During the bass-drum exchange, it almost, but not quite, sounds as if the rhythm is coming apart, like a robot with loose bolts, and this is how we end the piece, with the quartet deconstructing the music.

Schnabel ends this slightly mad recital with the one piece she didn’t write herself, Horace Silver’s Peace, played in a lovely, relaxed manner with lots of space around the notes. This one starts out with just the alto and bass in an intimate duet; when the piano and drums enter, it is just for color around them, like nighttime blinks of fireflies in the deep indigo. What a remarkable album!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Gielen’s Brahms Insightful and Exciting


MICHAEL GIELEN EDITION, Vol. 3 / BRAHMS: Tragic Overture. Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Piano Concerto No. 1 in D min., Op. 15*. Schicksalslied+. Double Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra#. Piano Quartet No. 1 in G min., Op. 25 (orch. Schoenberg) / SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; *Gerhard Oppitz, pianist; +WDR Rundfunkchor Köln; #Mark Kaplan, violinist; #David Geringas, cellist; Michael Gielen, conductor / SWR Music 19022CD (5 CDs)

Having skipped Vol. 2 of the Michael Gielen Edition because of my antipathy towards the stultifying music of Anton Bruckner, I took the plunge on this Brahms set and am glad I did. These are, in my view, the best stereo or digital recordings of the four symphonies you will ever hear or hope to hear, and most of the other performances are equally fascinating and riveting. The recordings were made between 1989 (Fourth Symphony) and 2005 (the Second Symphony and Schicksalied), with most of them falling in the early-to-mid-1990s.

We start off with a rousing performance of the Tragic Overture before moving on to the symphonies and the variations on Haydn’s St. Antoni and the Fishes theme. In each of these performances I was reminded of various performances by Toscanini I have long admired, with slight differences in approach. Those differences generally came in the first movements of the symphonies, where Gielen begins conducting them in what one accepts as a moderate pace, not too dissimilar to many German conductors, but then in each one he picks up the pace and begins nudging the music forwars in such a way that one is caught up in the unfolding drama—and he doesn’t let go until the last notes of the final movements have died away. The First Symphony has a warmer, more rounded sound than the others, which have the kind of bright sound profile I prefer, but I suspect that this was due to the microphones and not Gielen.

The Haydn Variations are taken at a faster clip than I’ve evr heard anyone play them, either on the podium or at the keyboard. Gieles paces the opening theme, which is marked “Andante” in the score but without a metronome marking, at quarter = 66. This is certainly within the realm of an “Andante,” but bear in mind that the music is written in clipped time. 2/4 rather than 4/4, which makes it sound faster. Toscanini, in his three most famous recordings of it (New York Philharmonic, NBC Symphony and Philharmonia Orchestra), takes it at about quarter = 62. This doesn’t seem like much of a difference until you actually hear it. And, of course, by taking a quicker pace in the opening theme, Gielen then takes similarly quick tempos in the variations and finale. It’s an exhilarating performance, to say the least.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 also begins somewhat moderately paced and with the same warm sound one heard in the first symphony, but picks up once the soloist enters. Oppitz is a fine pianist but takes a very Romantic view of the work, which I personally find a trifle soggy for my taste. I noted online that he had studied with Wilhelm Kempff, one of my least favorite German pianists, which might explain his approach somewhat, but at least he meets the challenge of the powerful ending of the first movement and plays with some energy in the last. Overall, however, I like the Rubinstein-Reiner recording rather better.

As you continue to listen to the performances in this set, what strikes you as much if not more than the enlivened musical line and forward momentum is Gielen’s wholly unorthodox phrasing. To an even greater degree than Toscanini, Gielen frequently introduced luftpausen in the musical progression to bring out a certain detail or details. This is true of everything he conducted, regardless of style or era, and it is a feature of his art that baffled and sometimes frustrated average listeners. As stated in the liner notes, Gielen’s career “was considerably hampered by his reputation as a strident nonconformist” which made him commercially unsalable on a large scale. This is why he was “Avoided by the record industry” while his few early recordings and many broadcast performances “are exchanged internationally by connoisseurs in private collector forums.” I should also add that another reason he was disliked was that he purposely avoided a plush, “beautiful” orchestral sound, but rather preferred lean sonorities. This is also evident on most of these recordings.

The Schicksalslied or Song of Destiny was new to me, thus I won’t pretend to be able to compare it to other performances. The music is similar to the Alto Rhapsody, which I don’t like: rather on the slow side, pseudo-reverent, and somewhat drippy. Nonetheless, Gielen’s performance of it is professional and not without interest.

Conversely, his performance of the Double Concerto is lively and energetic, and again with a bright sonority which is how I remember hearing Gielen in person. It is not, however, anything like the phenomenal performance Toscanini gave on NBC television in 1948 with Mischa Mischakoff and Frank Miller, where he essentially turned the work into a symphony with violin and cello obbligato. Gielen does maintain a strong grip on the orchestral portion of the score, conducting it powerfully and with tremendous purpose, but he allows the soloists freedom to play as they wish. Happily, he has two outstanding players here in violinist Mark Kaplan, whose Bach Partitas and Sonatas I raved about several months ago (see review here), and cellist David Goringas. They complement each other perfectly, taking their music out of the orchestral context and making it rise into an atmosphere of elegance with feeling. Gielen appropriately relaxes his tempos when they take center stage, the orchestra reduced to a few winds and strings behind them. A good indication of what I mean is the opening of the third movement. Kaplan and Goringas take it at a good pace but with a leisurely lope to the rhythm; when the full orchestra finally comes in, they all play with greater intensity.

This outstanding Brahms set ends with an oddity, Arnold Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1. Nowadays a rarity in the concert hall, in the early 1960s it was in vogue for some time, even garnering the subtitle of “the Brahms Fifth Symphony.” As B.H. Haggin pointed out in one of his reviews, the scoring is nothing like anything Brahms ever wrote, focusing on bright sonorities and including a xylophone for effect. Haggin thought it somewhat gauche, but I personally liked Robert Craft’s recording of it (in his complete Schoenberg set for Columbia) and I like Gielen’s way with it here. Perhaps because of his richer-sounding orchestra and more modern, digital sonics, Gielen is able to make it sound a bit more “Brahmsian” than his predecessor, and one is so involved in the listening process that it’s hard to step back and say, “No, no, this is wrong.” How can it be so wrong when it sounds so good? Gielen’s musical integrity saves the day here.

All in all, then, an outstanding set, well worth getting. Granted, you may not find yourself playing the Schicksalslied more than once, but nearly everything else is on an extremely high level that will intrigue and thrill you.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Weinberg’s 17th Symphony in a Great New Recording


WEINBERG: Suite for Orchestra; Symphony No. 17, “Memory” / Siberian State Symphony Orch.; Vladimir Lande, conductor / Naxos 8.573565

For those who have already discovered Mieczysław Weinberg (pronounced “Vainberg”), this is an important release; for those who haven’t, I would say that it’s a good introduction to one of the most consistently excellent and intriguing Polish-Soviet composers of the Communist Era.

A brief background: Weinbereg was discovered to be immensely talented in music even as a child, received a good education, but fled to the Soviet Union at age 20 (1939) when the Nazis overran Poland. For whatever reason, he chose not to return there after the war but stayed on until his death in 1996, by which time, of course, Putin was in power and the old Soviet system was gone. He was friendly with Shostakovich, who always encouraged him, but Weinberg had a curiously retiring nature and lacked any sense of self-promotion. His music was played only sporadically during his lifetime—the Suite that opens this disc, written in 1950 and designed to please Stalin and the Politbureau was never performed—and received only a few bones in the way of commissions. He is probably best known to children who grew up in the early 1970s as the composer of the background music for a series of very cute Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons shows on Soviet television.

Tonal and relatively simple though the Suite is, it exemplifies the tremendous skill Weinberg possessed. There is scarcely an uninteresting page in this work, light though the score is, and one often hears the influence of Klezmer music (in both compositional style and orchestration) coloring what he wrote. And even in this deliciously buoyant performance by Lande, you can hear the undercurrent of “I’m trying to keep this interesting but, you know, I’ve got to make it happy and peppy because otherwise Iron Joe will send me to Siberia.” And oddly, it is this undercurrent of desperation that makes the music interesting. In the “Galop” that closes the suite out, Weinberg switches from Yiddish Klezmer to Russian circus music.

The Seventeenth Symphony, composed in the 1980s, Weinberg switches gears from good spirits to tragedy. This was written to commemorate all his friends, and untold millions unknown to him who died in World War II. It was premiered in 1984 at the Moscow Autumn Festival in a performance conducted by the fine Russian conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev; his recording on the Neos label is the one I was familiar with. Lande’s performance is a shade faster but also more intense; even in the soft passages, the strings almost cry with pain and suffering, but not—as was so often the case with Shostakovich—with heart-on-the-sleeve bathos. And this is what distinguishes Weinberg’s work and makes it emotionally affecting as well as tragic, not just heart-on-the-sleeve sobbing. Note in the first movement, however, how the emotion-laden strings suddenly break off, followed by a forlorn solo clarinet, under which cellos play, followed in turn by the upper strings while the clarinet continues its sad, meandering tune. Weinberg always had a long view of his music: he saw where he was going and thus wrote interesting and moving bridge passages to get it from point A to B to C, whereas I always felt with Shostakovich that he was more interested in composing juxtaposed themes and then later somehow tying them together. Which isn’t to say that I dislike all Shostakovich; I don’t; but I love Weinberg much, much more.

Lande’s performance of this symphony is so affecting that even as I listened, already knowing the Fedoseyev performance, I felt I was hearing it for the first time. This is really great art, the kind of music that summarizes tragedy and evokes these kind of feelings in the listener without shaming him or her into feeling that they are culpable for what happened. Remember that Weinberg was already a resident of the Soviet Union by the time Nazi forces, headquartered in his home country, invaded his adopted one in the Battle of Leningrad. Thus in a sense one can compare this symphony to Shostakovich’s Seventh and hear the difference in approach. Weinberg is concerned with the internal, the feelings of tragedy that an individual feels, where Shostakovich is concerned with big, outward clashes, symbolizing the physical struggle rather than the spiritual. It’s an entirely different “take” on the same basic feelings.

Which isn’t to say that Weinberg’s symphony remains quiet throughout. On the contrary, most of the second movement (“Allegro molto,” which runs 15 minutes) is basically very loud and in its own way summarize the clashes of war. But listen to the careful, meticulous way Weinberg uses his musical materials. Despite his emotional catharsis, he is first and foremost a composer, building the movement structurally in a way that makes sense and is inherently logical, whereas Shostakovich was first and foremost an emotionalist, pushing his feelings to the breaking point, considering structure to be secondary. Again, this is not altogether a criticism of the latter, but it illustrates the difference in their approaches. An objective performance of Weinberg’s 17th Symphony can still be effective, as Fedoseyev proved, whereas an objective one of Shostakovich’s 7th can feel as if it misses the mark, as Toscanini proved.

All in all, then, this is an indispensable recording for any Weinberg collector. You can safely dispense with the Fedoseyev version if you need to make room on your shelf, as it contains no other work on the disc, while this one has the interesting Suite as a filler. The Siberian State orchestra plays with vigor, precision and a beautiful tone, and Lande brings out the full measure of this score with tremendous passion. A splendid release.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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