Another Wunderlich Reissue Cements His Legend

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MILLÖCKER: Gräfin Dubarry: Wie schön ist alles; Mein Weg führt immer mich. LORTZING: Zar und Zimmermann: Leb’ wohl, mein flandrische Mädchen+. Undine: Vater, Mutter, Schwestern, Bruder#. Die Waffenschmied: Man wird ja einmal nur geboren. NICOLAI: Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor: Horch, die Lerche singt im Hein. LEHÁR: Schön ist die Welt: Schön ist die Welt. J. STRAUSS: Ein Nacht in Venedig: Treu sein, das liegt mir nicht; Sei mir gegrüßt, du holdes Venezia. FALL: Die Rose von Stambul: Zwei Augen, die wollen mir nicht; O rose von Stambul. KUNNEKE: Die Lockende Flamme: Ich traüme mit offenen Augen. Die Größe Sünderlin: Das Lied vom Leben des Schrenk. STOLZ: Ich Liebe alle Frauen: Ob blond, ob braun, ich liebe alle Frau’n*. SPOLIANSKY: Heute Nacht oder Nie*. MATTES: Melodia con passione% / Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Munich Radio Orchestra; Hans Moltkau, +Kurt Eichhorn, #Meinhard von Zellinger, *Siegfried Kohler, %Willy Mattes, conductors / BR Klassik 900314

This must be the 16th time these recordings have been reissued, though not specifically in this order. All are radio recordings of comic opera and operetta arias by Wunderlich with the Munich Radio Orchestra, most of them conducted by the virtually unknown Hans Moltkau. For those of you who are part of the Wunderlich cult—and, sadly, it has become a cult—you probably already have them elsewhere in your collection. After all, he made a finite number of recordings, and only a handful of live opera performances have come to light since his death in 1966, so there are very few surprises to unearth.

Perhaps this might be as good a time and place as any to explain to people too young to remember exactly how the Wunderlich legend got started in the first place. Through most of his short life, he was largely known to American and British opera-lovers as a very fine, sweet-toned young tenor on Karl Böhm’s recordings of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Die Entführung, Karl Richter’s version of the Bach Christmas Oratorio, Otto Klemperer’s recording of Das Lied von der Erde and a handful of “Große Querschnitt” or “Greater Highlights” of light German operas and operettas featuring the young tenor. He was scheduled to make his Metropolitan Opera debut in the fall of 1966 as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, but he had the misfortune to get drunk at a stag party, accidentally tie his shoelaces together at the top of a staircase, and died a week shy of his 36th birthday.

If you scan the list of recordings mentioned above, you will notice that there were little or no Italian operas or arias in his repertoire, and the few that were he sang in German rather than Italian. This marginalized him to some extent from the Italian opera lovers who had already gravitated to another sweet-voiced light tenor, Nicolai Gedda, in his performances of more standard repertoire at the Met. Thus when EMI’s budget label, Seraphim, began issuing recital LPs about a year after his death, there were a lot of “mainstream”opera lovers who liked his voice but didn’t particularly enojy hearing arias from La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Rigoletto, La Traviata and Don Giovanni sung in German, and a lot of the other material—Lortzing, Cornelius, Nicolai, and all the old-time operetta composers—only held a small interest for them.

Yet the sweet timbre, effortless high range and—most importntly for non-Teutons—the lack of guttural qualities in Wunderlich’s German diction all eventually grew on people, and by the mid-1970s this now-long-dead tenor was one of the most beloved singers in the world. This, of course, led to virtually everything he ever made being reissued, including some lieder recordings, like Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin, for which he had the proper voice but absolutely no interpretive skills. But none of this mattered. To many opera lovers, the sound of a beloved voice is enough to make them want to hear more of that voice regardlesss of artistic quality.

This smorgasbord of Munich radio performances include many of those operetta and comic opera numbers that most listeners have come to realize was, aside from Mozart, Wunderlich’s best material. These recordings of Wie schön ist alles, Leb’ wohl, mein flandrische Mädchen, Schön ist die Welt, O rose von Stambul and Ob blond, ob braun, ich liebe alle Frau’n are among his most beloved recordings and strong evidence of the qualities that made him so beloved in the late 1960s. Wunderlich may have lacked subtlety of expression much of the time (but not always: recently discovered recordings of him singing Strauss’ Ständchen and Ich trage meine Minne, Wolf’s Storchenbotschaft and other lieder with Hubert Giesen have proved to be surprisingly good), but except for the very end when heavy drinking seemed to impair his breath control in live performances, he maintained a clean line and had wonderful rhythmic acuity.

I should also mention Wunderlich’s rare excursions into Baroque repertoire, such as Buxtehude’s Wachet auf, ruft und die Stimme and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, the latter with Karl Richter conducting, which also indicate a different dimension to his singing provided that it was in German. What we have here, then, is an artist frozen in time and place. He did not grow very much as an artist during his lifetime, he might or might not have developed had he lived, but the aural snapshots of Fritz Wunderlich continue to fascinate listeners because the voice was so beautiful and he fortunately lived during the stereo era.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Cruz-Romo, The Great Verdian, On CD at Last

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VERDI: Il Trovatore: Tacea la notte placida; D’amor sull’ali rosée. La Traviata: E strano…Sempre libera; Addio del passato. Luisa Miller: Tu puniscimi, O signore. La Forza del Destino: Me pellegrina ed orfana; Son giunta!…Madre, pietosa vergine; Pace, pace mio Dio. Aida: Ritorna vincitor!; Qui Radames verrà…O patria mia. Otello: Ave Maria. Macbeth: La luce langue / Gilda Cruz-Romo, soprano; unidentified orchestras, conductors & dates / Urtext JBCC265-1

I think it was only New York and Italy that got to know the greatness of Gilda Cruz-Romo up close and personal, as the say. As a young woman going to the Met in my teenage years and early 20s, I couldn’t afford to go as often as I would have liked, and so only got to know her voice via the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, but they were enough. Her combination of a beautiful timbre, superb phrasing, musicality and interpretation made her one of my favorite sopranos at the Met in those years (the 1970s), even more so than the iconic Leontyne Price. Dr. Louis Leslie, co-founder of the Gregg Shorthand Method, was one of my closest friends at the time. His operatic experience went back to 1917 and performances with Enrico Caruso, and he always raved about her every single time he heard her sing. He thought she was a Golden Age singer reincarnated.

As this album so clearly illustrates, she could sing the phone book and make it sound interesting. What it does not illustrate is the phenomenal range of roles she could sing, which included not just the “heavy” Verdi roles but also, believe it or not, Gilda in Rigoletto, which I heard her sing (much to my astonishment) with a perfection that was beyond imagining. Her repertoire included more than 40 roles, and in addition to all the above-mentioned virtues she also possessed a splendid trill, the bane of nearly all her Italian-born rivals.

So why isn’t she better known? Well, because she apparently didn’t have the most powerful management in the world despite having one of the greatest voices, thus she never made a commercial recording. Not one. All that exists of her artistry are sound clips from live performances, of which a fair number are collected on this CD…without attribution as to date, location, orchestra, conductor or subsidiary singers. The two Trovatore arias are conducted with much greater rhythmic freedom (call it laxity) than was the case when she sang Leonora under James Levine at the Met or Riccardo Muti at La Scala. My guess is that the tempos were the unnamed conductor’s choice, not the soprano’s, but she does sing them gorgeously. She always sang gorgeously. Although there are “pirate” CD issues of complete operas with her on them (particularly Forza with Bonisolli and Muti and Il Trovatore with Cossuta and Muti), this is, so far as I know, the first CD recital by her.

Although her Gilda is not represented here, her Violetta in La Traviata is, and with the exceptions of Magda Olivero and Ileana Cotrubas I have never heard “Ah, fors’ e lui…Sempre libera” sung so affectingly, with so much drama and color in the voice. Cruz-Romo never just sang a role; she inhabited it; and this, in itself, made her a very special and unique artist. That being said, her attention to score detail is phenomenal. How many sopranos have you heard sing those descending staccato notes in “Ah, fors’ e lui” as detached eighth notes, as Verdi wrote them, and not as quarter notes? Not many, I’ll wager. An interesting moment comes at the end of the aria, however, where Cruz-Romo immediately launches into “Follia! Follia!” with almost no pause. Her intent is evident: she didn’t want the audience to break the mood with applause. She wanted them to feel the sudden shift of emotion in Violetta as she switched gears from the first aria to the second. Sadly, the Alfredo sounds like a third-rate Italian sad sack. This, however, is what she often got stuck with unless she was performing at the Met under Levine or at Milan with Muti. She doesn’t take the high E-flat at the end of the aria, but this is musically correct. I heard her go as high up as a D above high C, but am not sure if she had the E-flat. Her reading of the letter at the start of “Addio del passato” will break your heart. Maria Callas, move over. And just listen to that sustained phrasing…phenomenal!

cruz-romo-in-forzaCruz-Romo brings the same intelligence, sensibility and depth of feeling to the much lesser-known aria “Tu puiniscumi, O signore” from Luisa Miller. I’ve heard numerous Met broadcasts of this opera without Cruz-Romo, and it never sounds this good. Never. In the Forza excerpts, one can hear the almost wild, Gypsy-like quality she could bring to certain roles, particularly in “Madre, pietosa vergine,” the most intense performance I’ve heard this side of Maria Caniglia. This could be from the complete performance conducted by Muti with Franco Bonisolli and Cesare Siepi, as the musical style is taut and no-nonsense. “Pace, mio Dio” is sung with that unique combination of musicality, perfect voice placement and passion that was her trademark.

The stiff-sounding orchestral accompaniment to “Ritorna vincitor!” gives you yet another indication of the kind of conductors she had to put up with…they weren’t all gems. In the aria, Cruz-Romo is singing the music in proper rhythm (albeit at the conductor’s draggy tempo) whereas the orchestra is lagging behind her. Good God! Where did they find this guy, under a rock somewhere? He’s not that much better in “Qui Radames verrà…O patria mia,” but she’s phenomenal as usual. The music literally stops in the middle of nowhere to allow the obviously Italian audience to go ballistic with applause. To hell with musical continuity.

Both the soprano and Verdi fare better in her deeply moving performance of the “Ave Maria” from Otello, the best I’ve ever heard. A shame they didn’t include the “Salce! Salce!” preceding it. This recital ends with Lady Macbeth’s “La luce langue.” Although she could gilda-cruzromotechnically sing the role, and sing it well, I find it hard to hear a real Lady Macbeth with her “hard, dark, stifled voice” as Verdi specified, in Cruz-Romo’s singing. Her timbre was just too pretty for the music, despite a very fine and rather dramatic reading.

These live recordings were evidently cleaned up to remove tape hiss, hum and other distractions. The voice comes through clearly and beautifully; many times, the orchestra—particularly the strings—sound a bit muddy as a result of the noise reduction. Personally, I’ll take it that way. I’m not a noise collector. In addition to the recordings on this album, I also recommend that you go to YouTube and listen to her sing “Teco io sto” from Un Ballo in Maschera from a Met broadcast with the late Richard Tucker. It’ll make your hair stand on end.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Dyad Takes Opera to the Jazz Clubs

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DYAD PLAYS JAZZ ARIAS / MOZART: Le Nozze di Figaro: Finch’ han dal vino*. BIZET: Carmen: Habanera; Seguidilla. MASSENET: Thaïs: Mediation. BARBER: Vanessa: Do not utter a word+. DELIBES: Lakmé: Flower Duet#. VERDI: Otello: Dio, mi potevi scagliar# / Dyad (Lou Caimano, a-sax; Eric Olsen, pno); Randy Brecker, *tpt/+fl-hn; #Ted Nash, t-sax / Ringwood Records RR3 (available at CD Baby)

Alto saxist Lou Caimano and pianist Eric Olsen, who call themselves Dyad, have apparently made a specialty of transforming operatic arias into jazz numbers. Their first CD was Dyad Plays Puccini, and now they have followed it up with a second disc incorporating Mozart, Bizet, Massenet, Barber, Delibes and Verdi. It requires a particular musical sensibility to make these kind of transformations work: the easy path would be to simply have some background group, preferably of strings, play the arias straight while some jazz musician improvises over the tunes in the foreground. Saxist Joe Lovano managed to skirt this sort of low-taste enterprise in his remarkable and somewhat overlooked album, Viva Caruso, by employing the excellent arranger Byron Olson to do much of the work for him. Olson, for those who don’t recall, was the maestro behind the surprise CDs of the early 1990s, Sketches of Miles and Sketches of Coltrane (see my description of all three albums in From Baroque to Bop and Beyond).

Caimano and Eric Olsen (no relation to Byron), however, have done all the work themselves, and it does them great credit to note how successful these transformations are. I say that because it is always more difficult to pull this kind of enterprise off when you only have two or three “voices” to work with. For better or worse, operatic arias are fairly complex beasts; in addition to the lead line, which is what the singer performs, there is generally something of interest going on in the orchestral accompaniment. Of the arias transformed on this disc, this particularly applies to the music of Mozart, Massenet and Verdi (“Dio mi potevi scagliar” from Otello). The Carmen arias of Bizet have rum-tum-tum accompaniments, fairly simple, and Barber’s Vanessa aria is accompanied in a pleasant but somewhat formulaic manner. Dyad has circumvented the texture of the original accompaniments by introducing counterpoint and moving figures in both the bass and top line, then putting them together to make an entirely new construct based on the originals but not sounding too close for comfort.

Those listeners familiar with the original music (probably not many among jazz audiences) will be able to spot the various shifts of rhythm and harmony that Dyad put into this project. “Finch’ han dal vino” from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, for instance, is given a Latin beat which means that note placement in the original aria is shifted around as well as underlying chords. One of two guest musicians on this record, trumpeter Randy Brecker, is at his very best here, playing a most inspired and inspiring improvisation that ends in a glorious shake in the high range. Pianist Olsen follows with a single-note solo that takes the music even further afield. By this time it has become obvious that Dyad, although having a great love for the music they are improvising on, nevertheless recognizes that they have to take it a bit outside in order to avoid staleness or predictability of musical thought. As Olsen shifts into accompanying mode and Caimano wails on alto sax, you also realize that despite the well-planned arrangements they don’t mind flying by the seat of their pants.

Olsen’s piano introduction to the “Habanera” from Carmen is so original that unless you were looking at the CD cover you wouldn’t know what aria they were going into, and here they shift the beat with double-time interjections while the altered chord positions allow for some nifty chromatic movement within the piece. While listening to Olsen’s playing I thought variously of Vince Guaraldi (his double-time accompaniment to Caimano’s solo), Dave Brubeck (those chunky chords) and McCoy Tyner, very different stylists whose work seemed to somehow underlie some of the things he played. By and large, it seemed to me that Caimano was the more spontaneous player while Olsen was the more thoughtful and controlled. This doesn’t mean that Olsen is predictable, only that an internal sense of order permeates everything he does whereas Caimano steps off the edge of the cliff and hang-glides a lot more often. The sweet thing about this is that they balance each other perfectly.

As the CD progresses, in fact, the creativity of their re-imagining becomes ever more apparent. When the “Meditation” from Thaïs started up, with its bouncy tempo and Bill Evans-inspired chord changes, I scarcely recognized it. In Dyad’s hands it becomes an almost purely jazz piece, as if the duo had created an entirely new tune while inadvertently quoting bits of Massenet’s music. I should point out that Caimano’s alto playing is some of the most unusual you will ever hear in that he not only maintains a pure, almost tubular sound with no vibrato, but emphasizes the upper range of the instrument, at times sounding so much like a soprano sax that it took me aback. He sounds a bit like Johnny Hodges on steroids: the same sort of pure tone with far more “edge” and risk-taking.

I was a little surprised to hear their version of the “Seguidilla” from Carmen, only because the opening sticks closer to the original in rhythm and harmony than any of the others thus far on the CD. But fear not, once they get into the improvised part of the music they shift components of the music and take risks. Olsen injects some chromatic ladder-climbing in his solo in addition to swirling figures, setting up Caimano beautifully for his re-entrance. The recorded sound is perfect for them, too, generally crisp and clear yet with enough natural room ambience as to not make them sound too “edgy.” “Do not utter a word” from Barber’s Vanessa, an amorphous aria and not one that lends itself well to transformation, is actually improved by Dyad’s rewriting and greatly enhanced by the imaginative contributions of Olsen on piano and Brecker, this time on flugelhorn. I found it interesting that they would select an aria largely unknown or, at best, disliked by most opera buffs, but I assume the more “open” melodic structure allowed them to take greater liberties with it than they would with, say, Jocasta’s aria from Oedipus Rex. In the last section of the piece, the trio completely changes both tempo and rhythm to interesting effect.

On the last two selections, the “Flower duet” from Delibes’ Lakmé and “Dio, mi potevi scagliar” from Verdi’s Otello, Dyad is joined by tenor saxist Ted Nash, which allowed them to work out some tasteful saxophone duets. Following a fairly straight statement of the melody, Nash takes off on his own solo flight while Olsen underpins him. Nash is somewhat more conservative than Caimano, his playing informed largely by interesting rhythmic shifts rather than daring harmonic flights, but he balances the players of Dyad quite well. Olsen is particularly creative in his solo here, spinning out some truly interesting figures with aplomb, following which Caimano employs some swirling figures of his own. There’s one particularly nice passage in which Olsen’s solo bass note “walking” perfectly complements the figures Caimano is playing above him. In the ride-out, the rhythm shifts once again into a sort of funky “Blue Note soul” groove!

I was perhaps most wary of what they would do to the Otello aria, since this is not so much a piece to be sung for applause as a tense dramatic moment in Verdi’s masterpiece. Dyad was careful not to make the allusion to the original too close, which was wise, but rather—as in the case of the “Meditation”—to invent a jazz piece that somewhat resembles Verdi’s scene rather that just “do an improv” on the aria proper. It made a terrific closing number to the album, however, because the dark, minor-key chords of the piece lent themselves well to some of the most soulful playing of both Nash and Caimano. Olsen ramped up the tempo ever so slightly in the middle and hammered out double-time bass notes and chords to spur the saxists on. Thus the music as played took on a life, and an identity, of its own, inspired by but not directly related to Verdi’s music. Note, for instance, the shifting chords and rhythms towards the end, which lift it out of the “jazz-classical” mold and move it more towards Gospel music!

In toto, then, a terrifically creative album, one that simply cannot be fully appreciated or savored in just one listening. There is, literally, so much going on here that you need to listen two or three times at least. What a great album!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Kentner Creates Magic at the Keyboard

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BALAKIREV: Piano Sonata in B-flat min. Rêverie. Mazurka No. 6 in A-flat. Islamey (Fantasie Orientale). LISZT: Piano Sonata in B min. LYAPUNOV: 12 Études d’Exécution Transcendante: Complete performance; I. Etude / Louis Kentner, pianist / APR 6020

The liner notes for this remarkable CD, following hard on the heels of the revelatory José Iturbi solo recordings issued by the same label, say that “To most people born after 1970, the name of Louis Kentner will mean nothing. To those born before, he was very much at the centre of British musical life – and had been since before the Second World War – a circle that included other such luminaries as his friends William Walton, Constant Lambert, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Myra Hess and his brother-in-law Yehudi Menuhin.” But Kentner centered his career so much in England that he was less well known here in America than Hess, Moiseiwitsch, or even Shura Cherkassky, another émigré who spent the bulk of his adult life in Great Britain. Kentner didn’t make his American debut until 1956, and played all 32 Beethoven Sonatas in New York in 1960, but that was about it. If Kentner’s name meant anything at all to Americans, it was mostly from his recordings that were issued here.

Ironically, the one Kentner recording that sold a million billion copies (OK, I’m warsaw-concertoexaggerating a little…it “only” sold THREE MILLION copies) was the one he begged the record company (English Columbia) to leave his name off of: Richard Addinsell’s schlocky Warsaw Concerto from the blockbuster film Dangerous Moonlight. Was he wise to do so? Perhaps we should look at the fate of poor Iturbi, who lent his name and face to a dozen or more Hollywood films and thus saw his reputation as a serious artist go down the toilet.

Kentner was defined as an Austrian Jew, but only because at the time he was born the town of Karvin was part of the Austrian Empire. After World War I it was handed off to Czechoslovakia, who then passed it off to Poland, who then kicked it over to Germany. (Status update: now renamed Karviná, the village is part of the Czech Republic. So he came from a town nobody wanted and still doesn’t really want!)

Yet Kentner’s passport said “Hungarian.” That’s because his family had moved there, and he made his debut at age 13 in Budapest. He later toured Europe and, at 17, settled in Berlin, but his father’s death brought him back to Budapest to support his mother and sister. He was so well liked that in 1933 Béla Bartók asked him to give the world premiere of his Second Piano Concerto with Otto Klemperer conducting. Kentner also premiered Bartók’s Two-Piano Concerto in 1942 with his wife, Ilona Kabós, and Sir Adrian Bolt conducting. By then he was a fixture in England, having moved there in 1935, where he spent the rest of his life.

So much for the history of this fascinating pianist…on to a review of his playing. Kentner was, to put it mildly, one of the most lyrical yet exciting pianists I’ve ever heard—similar, in fact, to Bartók himself or even Alfred Cortot, only with a much more secure technique than Cortot. His performances of Balakirev’s music is nothing short of miraculous. The music does not seem to be so much played by a person as simply spun out of thin air by the piano itself. The notes just unravel themselves with near-perfect “time,” and this is, in my view, one of the most difficult aspects of pianism that can possibly be acquired. It’s not just a matter of “tempo”; it’s a matter of being able to play with such a varied touch that no matter what the score the result absolutely captivates the listener. Granted, Balakirev’s music has a touch of the mystical about it anyway, but those touches are wrapped in a cocoon of Russian romanticism, e.g. the Rêverie in F which has a Tchaikovsky-like sound to it, except that Balakirev’s sense of construction is more rigorous and less amorphous than Tchaikovsky’s. Note, for instance, the passage in which the composer sets up two contrasting melodic and rhythmic figures against each other, one in the left hand and one in the right. Your average pianist, even your average good pianist, is going to play these in such a way that they “balance” each other. Kentner plays them in such a way that they sound completely discrete, as if two different pianists were playing in perfect synch against each other. And yet Kentner creates such a mood to go along with the mind-boggling technique that the non-pianist will only hear the music and its emotional impact on him or her and not this slight-of-hand in the technique.

Oddly, Kentner’s performance of Islamey has less of an “oriental aura” about it than some of the other works, particularly in the exciting introductory passages. These are played with tremendous vigor and energy, almost as if the pianist was so excited about the music that he wanted to tell you about it right now and in very vigorous terms. Yet even in the more “mysterious” middle section, he seemed to me a bit les exotic in his touch than in the Piano Sonata. Even so, I found it an extraordinary performance, certainly one of the best I’ve ever encountered.

I was rather startled to hear Kentner’s rendition of the Liszt Sonata, as it is so incredibly different from the way I am used to hearing it. Normally, the music is taken at a somewhat measured pace, especially the opening where the isolated notes try to make an impression on the listener before the remainder of the sonata unravels itself. That’s how Annie Fischer and Sviatoslav Richter played it, but not Kentner. He takes us on an excited and excitable journey, compacting its usual 30-minute length into a little under 28 minutes, yet when he comes to the more lyrical episode, around the four-minute mark, there is no lack of sensitivity. He simply views the fast passages as more enervating and dynamic than one is used to. It’s a unique take on the music, yet in some ways authentically Hungarian. As a rule, Hungarian musicians—not only pianists but violinists, cellists and conductors—view music much the way Arturo Toscanini did, as an organic whole in which all elements must fit and be part of the ongoing structure, not some amorphous, sprawling beast to be allowed to spread out and roam unchecked over the score. I find Kentner’s Liszt to be very much in line with the way György Cziffra played this composer, or even William Kapell (listen to the latter’s Mephisto Waltz), but for those who prefer more “space” in the sonata it will take some getting used to. Kentner makes it sound more akin to the earlier, flashier Liszt than to the composer of Un Sospiro or Nuages. But just to show how differently other people hear things, when this recording was issued in 1951 Edward Sackville-West, in The Gramophone, carped that “the bravura passages [were] technically insecure, with too liberal assistance from the sustaining pedal [leading him] into exaggerated rubato and an uncontrolled romantic excess.” I don’t hear anything of the sort…not even close.

The second CD is taken up with Sergei Lyapunov’s Transcendental Etudes, first with a 1939 recording of the opening “Berceuse” and then with his justly-famous 1949 recording of the complete series. Interestingly, although the single recording of the “Berceuse” is taken at a slower pace, it is the one from the complete set that sounds more relaxed and “floated” in conception and execution. Kentner’s incredible technique is evident in the “Ronde des fantômes,” a performance so delicate yet so clearly etched that it sounds like notes dancing on the head of a pin. The Lyapunov Etudes were not only dedicated to Liszt but use the sharp keys that the earlier composer avoided in his own set, yet Kentner manages to draw out their unique Russian qualities while maintaining a very Liszt-like sense of surface excitement. Note, for instance, how he is able to draw out the almost Persian-like colors of the “Chant épique” as well as emphasize the bouncing rhythm in the second half of the piece. It was a unique achievement in its day, and the overall performances still hold up well today. The work is so rare that it is seldom performed and, thus far, this is one of only four complete recordings: Kentner remade them in stereo for a Turnabout LP back in the 1960s, and there are also versions available by Malcolm Binns (Pearl) and Konstantin Scherbakov (Marco Polo). I note, however, that pianist Florian Noack is in the process of recording Lyapunov’s complete piano works for Ars Production, and thus should eventually get around to this set of Etudes.

All in all, a supremely valuable set. All of these recordings were newly transferred from the original 78s (they were recorded between 1939 and 1949). The transfers are fairly crisp and clear but, to my ears, have far too much surface noise. If you have an audio editor on your computer, however, you can do as I did and remove most of it from the download tracks before burning it to CD.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Scartazzini’s “Der Sandmann” An Intense Musical Experience

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SCARTAZZINI: Der Sandmann / Ryan McKinney, baritone (Nathanael); Agneta Eichenholz, soprano (Clara/Clarissa); Marko Spehar, bass (Lothar); Thomas Piffka, tenor (Father); Hans Schöpflin, tenor (Coppelius); Basel Theater Chorus & Symphony Orchestra; Tomáš Hanus, conductor / Musiques Suisses MGB CD6288

Here’s something different under the sun: an ultra-modern Swiss-Italian composer reworking one of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s best-known tales of insanity and terror in a one-act, 10-scene opera. It’s exactly the sort of thing that would send a conventional opera-lover, wrapped up in his/her cushy little world of Donizetti-Verdi-Wagner-Strauss, heading for the exits, but I found it utterly fascinating.

Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini (b. 1971) employs a style based on the kind of music Penderecki and Reimann wrote, but he avoids the “ugliness for ugliness’ sake” that they reveled in. His music is atonal but not serial; it always seems to be hovering around a certain key but never quite establishes that key due to the constantly sliding chromatics. His orchestration is mostly high-pitched, focused around the violins, high winds and trumpets; lower instruments such as cellos, basses, trombones and tympani are used to create an ominous mood. Even the chorus is generally pitched high. The purpose seems to be to create a high tension that keeps the listener on edge.

This is, as I say, wholly appropriate to the story, much more so than Offenbach’s gaily bouncing polkas and waltzes in the “Olympia act” of his Les Contes d’Hoffmann. That is also because Scartazzini uses the whole story for his opera, whereas Offenbach chopped it down to the presentation of Olympia and a fairly brief flirtation/romance between the life-sized automaton and the poet representing the author himself.

For those unfamiliar with the twisted psychological world of E.T.A. Hoffmann, let me summarize the original tale for you. Nathanael (or Nathaniel) writes a letter to Lothar, the brother of his beloved fiancée Clara, recalling his childhood fear of the legendary Sandman who was said to steal the eyes of children who would not go to bed and feed them to his own children who lived on the moon. This legend was connected, in his mind, with a strange character named Coppelius who visited his father every night. One night, hiding in his father’s room to “see the Sandman,” he saw Coppelius carrying out an alchemical experiment, taking “shining masses” out of the fireplace and hammering them into face-like shapes without eyes. When Nathanael screams he is found out, whereupon Coppelius throws him into the hearth and is about to throw burning coals into the boy’s eyes when his father pleads with him to stop. Coppelius instead twists Nathanael’s hands and feet, torturing him until he passes out. The following year another experiment causes his father’s death, whereupon Coppelius disappears without a trace. (What a great little story to read your kid for bedtime, huh gang?) Nathanael’s father dies as the result of a flaming explosion.

Now, in the present, Nathanael believes that a barometer-seller who arrived recently at his rooms under the name Giuseppe Coppola is none other than the hated Coppelius, and is determined to seek vengeance, but he is persuaded that Coppola, who is Italian, is not the German Coppelius. Coppola is also vouched for by his new physics professor, Spalanzani, who is also Italian and has known Coppola for years. Now we reach the part of the story that is used in Contes d’Hoffmann: Spalanzani’s daughter, Olympia, is kept in her room where Nathanael can only get brief glimpses of her, but he becomes smitten with her.

Shortly after another letter, Nathanael returns to his hometown from his studies to see Clara and Lothar, and in the joy of their reunion Coppelius/Coppola is at first forgotten. Nevertheless, the encounter with Coppola has had a profound effect on Nathanael, driving him toward a gloomy mysticism which bores Clara and leads to their gradual estrangement. He writes a poem about Coppelius destroying his happiness in love, in which Coppelius appears at his wedding to touch Clara’s eyes and then throws Nathanael into a circle of fire. [What a fun guy!] After he emotionally reads this poem to her, she tells him to throw the insane poem into the fire. Nathanael’s frustration with this leads him to call her an “inanimate, accursed automaton,” which so enrages Lothar that he in turn insults Nathanael, and a duel is only narrowly averted by Clara’s intervention. Nathanael pleads for Clara’s forgiveness, and declares his true love for her, and the three then reconcile.

From here on out, any good opera-lover knows the rest of the story: of Spalanzani’s grand party which is the “coming out” debut of his “daughter” Olympia, her playing the harpsichord (changed to harp in Offenbach’s opera), and Nathanael’s complete infatuation with her, reading to her, telling her how much he loves her, to which she can only reply “Ah! Ah!” Coppola, who turns out to indeed be Coppelius, comes to Spalanzani to argue over money due him. Coppelius tears the mechanical doll apart and takes it with him. Spalanzani urges Nathanael to go after Coppelius and recover the doll, but the sight of Olympia’s eyes lying on the ground drives him into madness and he attacks Spalanzani and tries to strangle him. Others pull him off the professor and he is put into an insane asylum.

Nathanael appears to recover from his madness and is reunited with Clara and Lothar. He resolves to marry Clara and move to a pleasant estate near his home town. On the way to visit the place, they pass through the town and climb the high steeple to look out at the view. Clara points out a bush that seems to be striding towards them. Nathanael automatically withdraws Coppola’s spyglass and, looking through it sideways, sees Clara through the lens. With Clara in place of Olympia as the subject of the spyglass’ gaze, madness strikes Nathanael again, and he tries to hurl her from the steeple. She is saved by Lothar, but in the crowd that gathers below Coppelius appears, and upon seeing him Nathanael cries “pretty eyes, pretty eyes!” and leaps over the railing to his death. Coppelius disappears into the crowd.

Thus you can see that this jolly little tale is not, and should not, be set to “normal” music, It is almost exactly the same kind of Teutonic psychological drama presented in the 1919 German film classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and those who have seen this film with a modern soundtrack know that said music is tense and edgy, not romantic and relaxing.

Scartazzini is quoted in the booklet as saying: “With music, you can file away at a text until it becomes raw and fragile; you can make it shine, you can expand verses through the music or you can prune them; you can hide them in whispers or have them shouted out; in this manner, you can convey your own reading of it.” But annotator Michael Topel also warns us that “What we hear is not always what it means! This becomes particularly clear in the 5th scene…[where] Nathanael allows himself to be celebrated by his delighted fan club when he reads from his first novel, Der Sandmann. But everything becomes too big, too lush, both in the text and in the music. The distortion of reality becomes ever more grotesque…ultimately, Nathanael is imagining everything; it is all wish-fulfillment, all surreal.”

With that being said, I felt cheated to some extent by not being able to see the drama unfold onstage. Scartazzini’s music is indeed interesting and original, at times combining Nathanael’s music with that of other characters in a sort of antiphonal style. Sprechstimme is also used a great deal while the instrumental accompaniment swirls madly (perfect description) in the background. Since the libretto provided in the booklet is in German only, I don’t know exactly how Scartazzini has adapted the story for his opera, but it is surely condensed in its telling. The accompanying photos of the production show the characters in modern dress. In short, it’s the sort of thing that I’m sure would be more effective and impressive to see at least once. I didn’t care much for either Wozzeck or Lulu prior to seeing them performed, but once I did I could appreciate the listening experience much more.

Taken on its own merits, the score is continuous and develops in an interesting manner. It also helps that the singing is consistently good: not a bad voice in the cast, and wonder of wonders, every singer has crystal-clear diction, even soprano Eichenholz which nowadays is a bit of a miracle. With its attendant stage noises—minimal but still audible—this is evidently a stage production, but since I reviewed it via downloads I didn’t have the back cover and thus was not provided a performance date (although the booklet does say that this is a co-production of SRF 2 Kultur and the Basel Theater).

Nevertheless, this is an ambitious and largely successful attempt to capture Hoffmann’s edgy psychological drama in music, and if it seems to borrow a bit from Berg and Reimann in its writing for voices the overall impression is that of a very original work. If only we had the visuals to go along with the music, and at least a proper English translation of Scartazzini’s adaptation of the original story!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Pianist Sasaki Tackles Clara Schumann

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OBSIDIAN / C. SCHUMANN: Scherzo in C min. 3 Preludes & Fugues, Op. 16. Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 20. 3 Romances for Violin & Piano. Soirées Musicales: Notturno / BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann / GRAFE: Obsidian Liturgy / Mika Sasaki, pianist; Petteri Iivonen, violinist / Yarlung YAR52635

This fairly extensive tribute to Clara Schumann includes several pieces by her with which I was unfamiliar, such as the 3 Preludes and Fugues and the Romances for Violin and Piano, although in terms of style and musical syntax they are not terribly surprising to anyone who is familiar with her particular style. Despite her marriage to Robert Schumann, Clara always seemed to be much more strongly influenced by their mutual friend Frydryk Chopin, and this is as evident in the opening Scherzo as in the other pieces. Just think of her as the Chopin equivalent of W.F. Bach to his father J.S. as one who based much, but not all, of their aesthetic on their models. Oddly, however, the Preludes and Fugues are a mixed musical metaphor, the Preludes sounding like Chopin and the Fugues like Bach.

Now, this is not to say that her music is poorly constructed or uninteresting. On the contrary, Clara’s musical acumen was so finely developed that she literally absorbed music like a sponge; even as a teenager, before she married Robert Schumann, her recitals were highly praised by critics, particularly for her performances of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata. Thus Clara Wieck (her maiden name) had quite a reputation as an interpreter before she composed a single phrase.

Because if this, I have always felt that the majority of modern pianists who play her work approach it too daintily. Surely, the bold artist noted for the Appassionata Sonata would not have garnered the praise of such pianistic lions as Franz Liszt. Happily, Mika Sasaki strikes a happy medium between sensitivity of phrasing and boldness of attack. Her ton is rich and full with a wide range of dynamics and a judicious use of pedal.

In the Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Clara uses a brief F-sharp minor piece from Robert’s Bunte Blätter, which pianist Sasaki claims was based on the “Clara motif, the notes C-sharp/B/A/G-sharp/A,” but how these people imagined a B as an L and G-sharp as an R, I have no idea. Nonetheless, it gave her a chance to move away a bit from the aesthetic of Chopin, although the work of the Polish composer can still be heard as an influence on her variants, particularly in the rich chording with a moving bass line as in the fifth variant, which bears a resemblance to Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude.

The first interlude we have on this disc is Johannes Brahms’ own Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, written on the same theme in 1854, the year in which Robert attempted suicide. This is a longer and more substantial piece, running 16 variations instead of only seven. I found it interesting to hear Sasaki’s syncopated and somewhat percussive approach to the second variation, which enlivened the music considerably, but many of these variations are in slow or moderate tempos, quite different from Clara’s own. The fifth and sixth variations are almost violent outbursts, the Allegro capriccioso marking of the former misleading as there is no capriciousness in it!

The Three Romances for Violin and Piano are sort of a cross between Chopin and Mendelssohn, another composer whose work Clara was familiar with. This is decidedly lightweight music, not in the same league with her other pieces on this CD, but the music is charming if charm is what you like.

Interest attaches itself to the title work on this CD, Obsedian, written for Sasaki by her friend Max Grafe to honor the 120th anniversary of Clara’s death and the 160th of Robert. As Sasaki describes it in the booklet,

The piece unfolds through a sequence of emotionally dramatic musical events: an “Invocation” is followed by a ritualistic “Canticle” that builds into a fervent and obsessive “Incantation,” culminating in a cataclysmic explosion. After some seconds of silence, a vertiginous “Trance” of left-hand ostinatos sound from the distance, followed by a climactic “Peal” of strong, harsh bells. The “Benedictus” finally creates a sense of resolution, despite its haunting overtones, and finally a desolate “Ite, missa est” concludes the liturgy.

It’s a very interesting piece, to my ears the highlight of this album. The adventurous quality of the composition has some affinity to Robert Schumann, who has always been noted for his unexpected turns of phrase and emotional outbursts, although Grafe definitely has his own style. One might best describe it as “modernistic Romanticism,” as it is filled with an almost explosive outpouring of emotion yet is contained in a vessel of bitonality. What impressed me most, however, was Grafe’s sense of structure: he never loses sight of where his music is going, mood shifts or no mood shifts, and his grasp of mood is equally outstanding. To a certain extent, this piece doesn’t really “fit” into this disc, tribute or no tribute, but I loved it.

We end with Clara’s Notturno from the Soirées Musicales, once again in the musical world of Chopin with a twist. The melodic line sounds very much like Chopin’s famous Nocturne in D-flat, only with variants and twists of phrase that keep moving it away from the familiar melody. The middle section, in a brisker tempo, almost sounds like a barcarolle.

Producer Bob Attiyeh spends a great deal of time in the booklet describing the microphone setup, SonoruS Holographic Imaging and “5 Channel Surround Sound,” but since I reviewed this album from mp3 downloads on my computer I heard none of it. Such is the fate of a poor reviewer who cannot afford to buy the records she reviews, but I will take them at their word. One thing I did find interesting is that al of these were one-take performances with no editing.

Overall, a good album for fans of Clara Wieck Schumann with an interesting twist from Max Grafe!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Libretto for Chabrier’s “L’Etoile” Now Available!

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For those of you who love, as I do, Emmanuel Chabrier’s wacky but sophisticated comic opera L’Etoile (see my previous article about it here), but have been stymied in trying to find a free online libretto–or any libretto at all, since the only studio recording (on EMI) hasn’t had a libretto link available for years–your patience has been rewarded. Working for more than a month using Google translate, and then smoothing out the badly-translated lines and passages by tweaking the verbiage with a French-English dictionary, I’ve finally been able to cobble together a workable, mostly readable English translation. Yes, a few lines or words here and there may look odd, but they were translated directly from the original libretto as published in 1877 (see the cover image above).

In my original article I gave a link to an Adobe PDF file at the Internet Archive of this original French libretto. One of the problems with this libretto, however, is that it included ALL of the spoken dialogue originally written…but close to a third of it was crossed out in pencil, ostensibly by someone who attended a performance and realized that a lot of it was no longer being spoken in actual performance. I would go even further: modern performances of the opera cut even more dialogue, for the simple reason that it’s too long and drags out the performance time. (I honestly believe that this was one of the reasons that contributed to its only running for 58 performances.) I make no excuse for the fact that I’ve left all the dialogue in the English translation. Even if you probably won’t hear most of it in performance, it gives you a good idea of the original libretto by Eugene Leterrier and Albert Vanloo. Granted, some of the French puns used in the original text don’t translate properly into English, but I still think the libretto is pretty funny as is.

As a bonus, I’ve also typed out the complete French libretto so that it can be read more clearly and converted that into an Adobe file, too. In both the French and English versions, I’ve put the sung text in black print and the spoken text in dark red (it may look “rust” on your computer, but you get the idea.)

So here they are, Chabrier fans: the libretto in two versions, French and English.

Read or download French libretto letoile-french-libretto.

Read or download English libretto letoile-english-trans.

And thanks for your continued enthusiasm for my website!

–Lynn Bayley

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