Venzago Presents Surprising, Brilliant Honegger

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HONEGGER: “Rugby,” Mouvement Symphonique. Symphonies Nos. 3 & 5 / Berner Symphonieorchester; Mario Venzago, conductor / Musiques Suisses MGBCD 6287

Arthur Honegger, the French-Swiss composer whose work was generally contemporary with Stravinsky’s neo-Classical period, is not nearly as well known or performed nowadays as he should be. His short orchestral tone poem Pacific 231 was a favorite for decades, but this has somewhat fallen into no-man’s land; today, his best-known work is probably the dramatic cantata Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, which has received multiple recordings, although Le Roi David is also performed occasionally.

Here we have three first-class orchestral works by Honegger, the not-entirely-forgotten Fifth Symphony (subtitled “Di tre re”) along with the Third Symphony and a symphonic movement dedicated to the Rugby matches he saw and loved so much in the 1920s. Honegger was a man of action; he loved sport and anything that was loud and fast, thus his dual fascination with locomotives and Rugby. As conductor Mario Venzago puts it, Honegger does not write a dynamics marking at all throughout Rugby, thus it is to be played loud from start to finish! Lovers of contemporary music will enjoy the continually clashing harmonies of which Honegger was so fond, whereas those who prefer more sedate classical music will run for cover. I found it enthralling and exciting.

So, too, is the first movement of the Symphony No. 3 from 1945, subtitled “Symphonie Liturgique.” This first movement is dubbed a “Dies irae,” a reference to the thousands of soldiers and innocent victims who lost their lives in World War II. Interestingly, even as committed a Romantic composer as Ralph Vaughan Williams penned a similarly angst-filled work post-War in his own Sixth Symphony. This was a trend that many classical composers worked out in their minds and hearts, some—like Mieczysław Weinberg—even doing so decades later. “I wanted to depict human existence confronted by the wrath of God” is the way Honegger himself put it. The second movement, “De profundis clamavi,” shows Honegger in a more relaxed vein, at least in the beginning. Though he is no less astringent in his harmonic choices, he does produce a surprisingly lovely, tonal melody upon which the movement is centered, played by the strings. This in itself is unusual since so much of Honegger’s orchestration is geared towards the winds and brass, with the strings often having the function of counterpoint or harmony rather that melody-leading—note, for instance, how this balance returns when the movement turns tense. I should also mention at this point that conductor Mario Venzago and the Bern Symphony play with incredible zest, great transparency of sound and an unflappable rhythmic drive, all important elements in the performance of Honegger’s music.

The last movement, “Dona nobis pacem,” splits the mood between the harsh fatality of the “Dies irae” and the somewhat hopeful, occasionally sunnier second movement, but by and large this is dark music. Perhaps this is one reason why Honegger is not too often played nowadays; most classical music stations want to calm out and cheer up their listeners, as do too many symphony concerts. Honegger’s music is not something you will, or should, fall asleep to. Its edginess is possibly a bit too uncomfortable for modern audiences, who want soporifics, not art that challenges the mind and soul. That being said, the surprisingly soul-calming melody that emerges at the seven-minute mark, initially played by a solo cello, is one of the most beautiful things Honegger ever created, and the ensuing wind passage, though using spike harmonies, is by no means dour and fatalistic.

The Fifth Symphony’s odd subtitle refers to “the three Ds,” the note the tympani plays at the end of each movement. Like Beethoven’s Fifth, it is a symphony depicting implacable fate, but unlike Beethoven, Honegger does not bring us out of the darkness and into the light in the last movement. On the contrary, it is his most consistently dark and fatalistic work, reflecting the illness he had contracted and which was to kill him just a few years later (1955). It was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation in 1950, the year after Koussevitzky himself retired, and thus premiered by Charles Munch, whose own excellent recording of it can be found in my article on Munch. Venzago lacks just a bit of the Gallic elegance Munch could bring to even the most fatalistic music, but is otherwise superb in capturing the score’s feeling. Both conductors, however, capture the fatalistic feeling of the music.

Despite the fatalistic nature of the music, the Fifth Symphony is extraordinarily well crafted, not only displaying the quintessential Honeggerian scoring described above but also a remarkable use of counterpoint and shifting inner voices. The quirky second movement, which is really a scherzo without being called one, has a certain odd humor about it, including an unusual use of muter trumpets. I should point out that although this score is, as advertised, mostly dark in nature, Honegger was never a composer who put much sunlight or smiles in his music. He would never be played on classical music stations that desperately want you to “relax with Ravel,” “cuddle with Copland” or “zone out with Zemlinsky.” Venzago brings out the syncopated figures of the third movement with élan and drives the music forward with terrific propulsion. And of course, the digital sonics are a knockout, even when compared to Munch’s excellent stereo recording.

In short, a great new release of intrinsic worth that will provoke and stimulate the listener.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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duoJalal Takes a Musical Journey to the East

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SHADOW & LIGHT: THE RUMI EXPERIENCE / SOLLIMA: Lamentatio. ZIPORYN: Honey From Alast. KORDE: Joy. SATOH: Birds in Warped Time II. JIPING: Summer in the High Grassland. LJOVA: Shadow and Light / duoJalal / Bridge 9469

The concept of this album is simple, to perform compositions inspired by the poet and mystic Jalal al-din Rumi by duoJalal, which consists of violist Kathryn Lockwood and percussionist Yousif Sheronick. The danger with this type of music, for me at least, is generally towards the lightweight and the goopy…music that either avoids rhythm or overrides the rhythmic element in favor of the airy. Happily this is not the case with the opening track, Giovanni Sollima’s Lamenttio, which despite its title is surprisingly upbeat and happy, sounding much like a piece by Rabih Abou-Khalil played by only viola and percussion. Violist Lockwood, who hails from Australia, has a good tone which she adapts and modifies to simulate Middle Eastern instruments while per partner-husband, Sheronick, is of Lebanese descent (like Abou-Khalil) and is quite evidently a master of Eastern percussion.

Although all of the compositions on this CD are instrumentals, the booklet includes the Rumi poems which inspired them. It also lists, track by track, the type of percussion that Sheronick plays, ranging from the Bodhran, Caxixi, Udu and Kanjira to the good old American vibraphone. Evan Ziporyn’s two-part suite, Honey from Alast, begins with just that sort of music I alluded to in the first paragraph, “floating” music, here with Sheronick playing vibes, but Lockwood’s edgy rhythmic push on her viola keeps things interesting, adding quick scale passages and unusual chromatic slides (think of that passage near the beginning of Stravinsky’s Firebird where the violins slide eerily up and down for two bars), while the second part picks up the rhythm in a highly unusual and asymmetric beat before settling into the kind of music one associates, for better or worse, with caravans in movies—that slow, measured but stead pulse simulating the trod of the camels. The allusion is reinforced by Sheronick’s percussion. Unusual modes are used by Lockwood, including some which roam far afield of the home key of G. The liner notes indicate that some of the rhythms are Indian, others Balkan or African, while the timbres used are based on those of Indonesia. Both the harmonic and rhythmic elements combine as the tempo increases gradually towards a breathless and breathtaking finish!

Composer Shirish Korde contributed Joy, dedicated to guitarist John McLaughlin and tabla master Zakir Hussein; it was originally the last movement of Korde’s violin concerto Svara-Yantra. As the composer explains in the notes, however, this version of the music was tailored specifically for duoJalal in the form of “an extended ‘duet cadenza’ marked by intricate rhythmic interplay between viola and percussion.” The middle section was inspired by McLaughlin’s jazz solos thus, although notated, it tries to merge the feeling of real improvisation in a chamber music setting. Happily, Lockwood has enough of a feel for rhythm and moxie in her playing to bring this off. I wonder if she has ever thought of actually trying to improvise herself? Sheronick has a ball on this one, banging happily on uduan instrument called the Udu which sounds amazingly like the woodblocks and cowbell of a standard drum kit. Looking it up online, I found out that I was right to a point. The Udu is essentially a “percussion pot” with a hole in the side that comes from the Igbo people of Nigeria (see photo). It is played by quickly tapping or hitting the hole in the side while the player’s other hand manipulates the hole in the top. Crazy, man!

Somei Satoh’s Birds in Warped Time II is created of limited elements of sound with “many calm repetitions” and frequent prolonging “of a single sound.” The composer believes that “silence and the prolongation of sound is the same thing in terms of space.” Here Sheronick again plays a vibraphone, but in a manner entirely different from any jazz vibes player. Rather than strike the keys with mallets, he creates an amorphous sound that resembles bells or a kalimba shimmering in the background. It’s very hypnotic and calming without sounding dull or uninteresting. The viola part consists primarily of long-held notes, some bent chromatically through quarter-tones, and small motifs played in a semi-melodic style. The Rumi poem used here begins: “I am the particles of dust in sunlight; I am the round sun. To the dust I say, Stay. To the sun, Keep moving.”

Zhao Jiping’s Summer in the High Grassland was inspired by the music of Mngolia; once again, we hear what I would characterize as “caravan music.” This piece was initially composed as part of the Silk Road Suite for Yo-Yo Ma and his ensemble in 2004, a group, be it noted, that has also played Rabih Abou-Khalil’s Arabian Waltz (see my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, elsewhere on this site).

We end with a 16-minute suite by Ljova (Lev Zhurbin), who is himself a violist in addition to being a film composer. He describes this piece, Shadow and Light, as being “in four movements, each one shining a different thickness of light into space.” That’s a fancy way of saying that the music varies in timbre, tempo and use of percussion. duoJalal is up to the challenge, creating an almost hypnotic environment as the music progresses. There is less substance to Lockwood’s viola part here than in the other pieces, as Ljova seems to be thinking of the music in terms of minimalist gestures or, at least, small melodic-rhythmic cells repeated or varied in turn. Perhaps due to the length of this suite, plus the use of such small cells, I felt that it was effective in places to create a mood but not musically connected as were most of the previous works.

Overall, however, Shadow and Light is a really wonderful experience, not least because of the deep artistic commitment of duoJalal. This one is in a class by itself!

—© Lynn René Bayley

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Gutiérrez’ Strong, Understated Chopin and Schumann

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CHOPIN: 24 Preludes. SCHUMANN: Fantasie / Horacio Gutiérrez, pianist / Bridge 9479

I can’t recall ever having heard Horacio Gutiérrez before, although I heard one of his teachers, William Masselos, and know of one of his other teachers, Serge Tarnowsky, who taught Vladimir Horowitz in Kiev. Judging by his playing, Gutiérrez is much closer to the style of Masselos than Horowitz. He has a full, rich tone and what I call a “big-boned playing style,” which is how I remember Masselos (I heard Masselos in person in 1969 as well as on records). But I never heard Masselos play Chopin, and certainly not the Preludes which always seem to bring out the wispiest, drippiest tendencies in pianists. My own personal favorite performance of them is that by Shura Cherkassky (read my tribute to him here), but Cherkassky had the gift of being able to play poetically without sacrificing tensile strength, as did Alfred Cortot, Nadia Reisenberg, Dinu Lipatti, Artur Rubinstein and Barbara Nissman. Except for the much richer piano tone, possibly the result of modern digital recording techniques, I’d say that Gutiérrez’ Chopin compares very favorably indeed to that of Lipatti in particular.

None of the Preludes are played with sentimentality, but they are played with feeling. Not white-hot passion, mind you, but the kind of feeling that smolders under the surface,. In several of the minor-key Preludes, I almost felt as if I were listening to really good Rachmaninov: he brings out a strong Slavic feeling in Chopin, reminding us that Poland—although a Western European country—is the gateway to Russia. Speaking of Chopin pianists, I should also mention the now-forgotten Raoul Koczalski, whose Chopin playing has been discredited because of the excessive amount of rubato and rallentando he injected into the music, which he always insisted that his teacher had learned from Chopin himself. Koczalski’s playing, too, was big-boned and full-blooded, not the wispy, floating sound we get from too many pianists. For that matter so was Josef Lhevinne’s, and one of Gutiérrez’ teachers, Adele Marcus, was a pupil of Lhevinne. (I had the privilege of taking lessons from Frederick Chang, a pupil of Rosina Lhevinne.)

Perhaps the best one-word description of Gutiérrez’ playing, particularly in the Chopin, is “smoldering.” He never quite bursts out with excitement, but there is a distinct pleasure in hearing a pianist “capping the geyser,” so to speak. The pressure builds up from underneath, as it were, and almost explodes into the open, but only in rare moments do we feel the emotions spewing to the surface. Most of the time they are the subtext of his interpretations.

Gutiérrez is a bit more emotionally effusive in the Schumann Fantasie, as well he should be. Schumann was a composer who wore his emotions on his sleeve, but once again structure is paramount in the presentation of his music. I have to admit, however, that for my taste this performance of the Fantasie just missed the exaltation of Leonard Shure (Bridge 9374), Daniel Gortler (Roméo 7281/82) and especially Sophia Agranovich (Centaur 3504), which I recently reviewed. Capping the geyser doesn’t quite work with Schumann; you have to uncap it and let the emotions out, and this Gutiérrez was not quite able to do. Perhaps he plays it differently in concert; I do not know; but on this recording, at least, it is a good performance but not quite a great one. It has structure, a sense of majesty and a gorgeous tone, however, and so is not entirely without interest.

A mixed review, then. The bottom line is that Gutiérrez is certainly a pianist worth hearing, particularly in the Chopin, and I look forward to hearing him play other repertoire in the future.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Agranovich Dominates Schumann’s “Carnaval”

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SCHUMANN: Carnaval. Fantasie in C, Op. 17 / Sophia Agranovich, pianist / Centaur CRC-3504

Sometimes, a review need not be long and detailed in order to convey what a performance says about the music. Such is the case with this new release from pianist Sophia Agranovich, whom I have interviewed in the past. I know just enough about her to realize that she generally detests studio recording—it makes her nervous and edgy, not an uncommon thing for artists—but also that she is often a bit nervous at the beginning of her live concerts. Nevertheless, these performances of two of Schumann’s most famous piano works (due out next month) are just so good, and so unusual, that it almost boggles the mind.

Those who are familiar with Agranovich’s playing need not be told that she only knows one way to play music, and that’s full-bore emotionally. She hasn’t earned the nickname “the tigress of the keyboard” without reason, and for those who wonder why I like her playing and not Martha Argerich’s, this CD is Exhibit A. Argerich has a spectacular technique and plays with tremendous energy, but energy does not (in her case) generally translate into an interpretation. In Agranovich’s case, it does, very much indeed. Even if you have a dozen other recordings of Carnaval or the Fantasie, you need to have this one as well, because it will overshadow most of them. Agranovich plays it as if her life depends on it. Every note, every phrase is alive with feeling and meaning; you cannot listen to this CD impassively. I was so swept up by her performance that I listened to it all the way through without comparing it to anyone else’s, but afterwards I put on Alexander Kobrin’s very fine performance of Carnaval (Centaur CRC-3365) and was absolutely astonished by the differences. Aside from the fact that Agranovich omits the very brief “Sphinxes,” which was not intended for performance and is generally left out, I just couldn’t get over the differences between the two performances. Kobrin sounded good but colorless; he phrased very well but missed things that she captured, Schumann’s unexpected changes of mood and color. There are moments where she played with what I would call a “skipping” motion, i.e., the rhythm is a bit punchy and jumpy, but in place of the type of phrasing one normally hears (and which Kobrin gives) I felt as if Schumann was communicating with me. It almost sounded as if she were the composer inventing the music at the keyboard.

You keep listening for what happens next.

Part of the reason for the disc’s success is its almost astounding presence and clarity. The sound is so immediate that from the first note you feel as if Sophia is in your living room playing for you. Engineer Joseph DeVico has managed to capture every nuance and every touch with perfect clarity. When she depresses a key, you can almost feel it in your bones. You can hear her pedaling, even to the extent of that “woody” sound a pianist gets (and feels) when the damper or sustain pedal is depressed while in the midst of a busy passage. No, none of this is distracting; on the contrary, it pulls you the listener further into the heart of what she is doing musically. Just think it it as a sort of hyper-realistic Welte Piano Roll if you will. Having seen Agranovich play Chopin on TV, I can also imagine her powerful hands and arms swooping over the keyboard like two mother hawks harvesting food for their hatchlings. This is not an unfair analogy. I’ve long felt that, to Agranovich, music is food for her soul, and that she would perish without it.

As the last phrases and notes of the “Langsam getrangen. Durchweg leise zu halten” of the Fantasie faded out of earshot, I almost expected to hear an audience burst into applause. Except there was none. But it’s that kind of recording…you almost feel like jumping up and applauding your heart out at the end. Enough said.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Baker’s Final Testament: The Art of Jazz Solos

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BASICALLY BAKER, Vol. 2 / BAKER: The Harlem Pipes. The Georgia Peach. Walt’s Barbershop. Soft Summer Rain. Black Thursday. Shima 13. Honesty. 25th & Martindale. Kirsten’s First Song. Terrible T. GILLESIE-PAPPILARDI: Bebop / Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra: Tony Kadleck, Randy Brecker, Scott Belck, Graham Breedlove, Jeff Conrad, Mark Buselli, Pat Harbison, tpt; Tim Coffman, Freddie Mendoza, Brennan Johns, tbn; Rich Dole, bs-tbn; Celeste Holler-Seraphinoff, horn; Luke Gillespie, pno; Mitch Shiner, vib; Monika Herzig, celeste; David Stryker, gtr; Dan Perantoni, tuba; Jeremy Allen, bs; Steve Houghton, dm / Patois Records (no number provided)

David Baker, who died in March of this year at age 84, was one of the real good guys in the jazz world: not just a performer (early on) and composer, but also an educator and enthusiast. He didn’t just teach others how to play jazz, but also how to love it. This 2-CD set, Basically Baker Vol. 2, is the follow-up to his 2007 album Basically Baker Vol. 1¸which Patois Records plans to reissue as a bookend to this new release.

Baker, a professor at Indiana University and founder of its Jazz Studies program, was a native Hoosier, born in Indianapolis and going to Crispus Attucks High School. He initially soaked up the swing culture of his youth—Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, etc.—but once bebop came around in the late 1940s he was hooked. Baker often sneaked into clubs along Indiana Avenue because he was underage to soak up the music and the atmosphere. After coming to IU in 1966, Baker founded the University’s jazz program, where he mentored such musicians as Luke Gillespie, Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, Peter Erskine, Jim Beard, Chris Botti, Jeff Hamilton, and jazz education mogul Jamey Aebersold.

Although Baker played trombone on George Russell’s Ezz-thetics album—the last time he would do so due to a facial injury that impaired his ability to play (he later switched to the cello!)—he was never really into the modern jazz or free-form revolutions of the 1960s and ‘70s. Trumpet student Luke Gillespie, visiting Baker’s office in 1978, saw a copy of the Miles Davis LP Kind of Blue on the turntable, a copy so worn and scratched that the grooves were almost worn white. Gillespie commented to Baker that he had “gotten a lot of mileage out of this record,” to which Baker replied, “Yeah, that’s my seventh copy.” And that’s where Baker’s musical adventurism ended, with the late-‘50s modal jazz of Miles Davis.

Thus listeners coming to this album, and this music, should not look for anything post-Ornette Coleman or Charles Mingus in his style. Indeed, even the voicings of the orchestra are in the mold of 1950s and early-’60 bands like the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. There are some features of interest in some of these compositions, such as the introductions to The Harlem Pipes and Walt’s Barbershop, the jazz fugue in the middle of the latter and the final chorus of The Georgia Peach. Baker was by no means a stodgy writer-arranger; he knew too much about music to be dull or routine; he just avoided the modern trends of his time.

But the real glory of this album is in the solos; they are the story, they tell the story, and they are meaty and consistently interesting. The promo material accompanying this release makes a fuss of the two big-name guest artists on this album, trumpeter Randy Brecker and guitarist David Stryker, but honestly all of the soloists are very, very good.

And this, perhaps, was Baker’s greatest achievement, in training soloists who listened hard to the music and could consistently play interesting and well-structured solos. Although I love a lot of the new jazz that’s out there (my reviews are proof enough of that, I think), my readers will have noticed that I occasionally chastise the soloists within these modern concepts of not really listening to each other or the surrounding framework, playing solos that are coherent. The constant push for novelty sometimes comes with its own price.

Moreover, the bigger name soloists do not overshadow the others, and that in itself is interesting. I was absolutely thrilled, in fact, by the playing of trumpeters Pat Harbison and Graham Breedlove, trombonist Freddie Mendoza and saxists Ned Boyd, Rob Dixon and Bill Sears, and I do not wish to slight the others. Mark Buselli’s plunger-muted trumpet solo on Black Thursday is one of the highlights of the album. I just wish, for my own personal pleasure, that the scores had been more modern and explorative, at least on the high level set by the late Clare Fischer, for instance, or Rod Levitt and, yes, George Russell.

Nevertheless, if you want a good, straightahead jazz album that is sure to give you pleasure from what the soloists are saying, Basically Baker Vol. 2 is for you. They are an object lesson on how to think within your framework and give your very best.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Biller’s B-Minor Mass Unusual, Impassioned

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TRADITIONAL: Introitus: Hymnus auf das Pfingsfest – Spiritum sancti gratia. Intonation zum Gloria-Gloria in excelsis Deo (2 versions). Praefatio. J.S. BACH: Mass in B Minor / Ruth Holton, soprano; Matthias Rexroth, countertenor; Christoph Genz, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass; Leipzig St. Thomas Choir; Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; Georg Christoph Biller, conductor / Philips 28946594926 (live: Leipzig, July 28, 2000)

This performance, issued on a EuroArts DVD in 2006, is unusual in three ways. First, and perhaps most interestingly, conductor Biller chose to present this in a “liturgical style,” possibly following a tradition that Bach himself had to follow in Leipzig. I’ve read enough complaints written by Bach that his stingy employers didn’t like him writing so many long, original works for the services, but wanted more traditional hymns, so maybe there’s a precedent—maybe. Anyway, Biller prefaces the entire work with an Introitus, then inserts two versions of an Intonation–Gloria, one before Bach’s own Gloria and the other between Cum sancto spiritu and the Credo, and a Praefatio before the Sanctus. I found it a bit of a distraction, though it does point up just how great this Mass really is, how superior the music is.

The second unusual aspect—at least to me—is the use of a countertenor, a species of whiny falsetto singing that never existed in Leipzig or, for that matter, in Bach’s lifetime, in place of a conventional mezzo-soprano. And the third, of course, is the fact that the Leipzig St. Thomas Choir consists solely of boys, which of course is historically accurate.

I had no qualms whatever about the boys’ choir. This is, in fact, Biller’s second recording of the Mass with this choir, the first issued several years ago by Rondeau Productions. My impression of that performance, which used a second soprano (Susanne Krumbiegel) as well as a female contralto (Elisabeth Wilke), was that it was good but just a bit too lightweight for the music, an impression exacerbated by the overly-resonant sonics. On this Decca release, there is natural reverberance from the church in which it was performed, but the ambience sounds natural and the boys’ voices are miked much more closely. Moreover, I find that in this performance the orchestra is also miked better and plays with more energy. I still find the tempo of the opening Kyrie Eleison a shade too fast for my taste—I prefer Helmuth Rilling’s somewhat statelier pace—but there is no questioning the heartfelt performance given by the choir and orchestra. My real issue is with the unpleasantly queer-sounding, hooty voice and imprecise trills of countertenor Matthias Rexroth. I guess he’s OK but he’s no Russell Oberlin, Randall K. Wong or Philippe Jaroussky, the three greatest countertenors in the history of that unusual vocal category. Long before Laudamus te was finished, I wished he would have stuck his head in a large meat grinder and turned it up on high. Yeah, he irritated me that much.

By and large, however, I really liked this performance, particularly the choruses which are literally bursting at the seams with energy and love. I also very much liked the perky reading of “Domine Deus” as sung by Holton and Genz with a particularly wonderful-sounding flautist and basso Mertens’ “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” here sung with an actual French horn and not a substitute instrument like a trombone or something, as Rilling, Schreier and other conductors sometimes use.

If you choose to get this recording as a download, however, I urge you to download all of the music with contralto from Biller’s earlier Rondeau recording and substitute it for Rexroth. He’s that bad. Otherwise, this is certainly one of the best performances of the B Minor Mass you are ever likely to hear.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Sanders and Strosdahl Explore “Jazzical Moods”

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JANUS / SANDERS: Sigma. R.P.D. STROSDAHL: Allemande. Mazurka. Janus. SANDERS-STROSDAHL: Be-Bop Tune. MONK: Thelonious. ROBISON: Old Folks. MACHAUT: Rose, Liz, Printemps, Verdure. MESSIAEN: Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant-Jesus (selections). CARMICHAEL: Stardust. COUPERIN: Les Amusemens / Nick Sanders, pianist; Logan Strosdahl, a-sax/t-sax / Sunnyside Records SSC1469

This duo recording by saxist Logan Strosdahl and pianist Nick Sanders explores a number of jazz and classical-jazz avenues, from the bop-tinged Sigma to such old standards as Stardust and Old Folks, including their takes on Guillaume Machaut, Olivier Messiaen and François Couperin along the way (and Sanders’ Allemande sounds like an old classical piece. We even get Thelonious Monk’s self-titled theme song as an added bonus.

The interest in this album is not so much the interaction of the two musicians, although that is certainly interesting in and of itself, so much as their approach to music, combining the old and the new. And by this I don’t just mean Couperin wedded to Monk, but their styles of improvisation. In Thelonious, for instance, pianist Sanders almost gives this tune an early rock-n-roll kick, eschewing the composer’s own flat-fingered approach to the keyboard, and by and large saxist Strosdahl is very much a traditionalist, stylistically speaking (despite a few moments of outside excursion). Sanders’ R.P.D., for instance, almost sounds more like a Monk piece than their version of Thelonious, but there’s also a sad lament quality about it that reminds me of classical strains as well.

One of the more interesting qualities of this recording is the unusually warm acoustic. In an era where it seems that both jazz and classical record producers are hell-bent on swathing the music with ambience—often, too much ambience—this recording is engineered like a jazz record from the 1960s, with both piano and saxophone close-miked and put in a very warm space. The illusion it creates when played on really good speakers is that of being in the room with them, which I liked very much. I was also struck by the strong classical bias of Strosdahl’s writing, not just in Allemande but also in Mazurka. In Old Folks, a song that Charlie Parker recorded with a vocal group (very weird for its time!), the saxist seems to be paying homage to Bird, yet even within that context some of his playing leans towards the classical. And pianist Sanders, despite his generally steady rhythms, always seems to come up with strange passages that don’t quite sound part of the surrounding material and yet still manage to make sense. In the latter part of Old Folks, in addition to playing some Bird-like licks, Strosdahl also satirizes the tune (and the lyrics, if you know them) by playing quirky “infirm” passages.

I felt that, in its own way, Be-Bop Tune was one of the most humorous performances on this set, played in a way that added divergent quirks to its otherwise straightforward melody. Here I felt that the duo was at their most interactive, with both pianist and saxist spurring each other on via licks and turns of phrase that they picked up from each other as it went along. Generally speaking, it sounded to me as if the duo utilized classical techniques in virtually everything they played, whether it was their interpretation of Guillaume Machaut or Olivier Messiaen or their own compositions. I don’t just refer to the classicalized structure of Strosdahl’s music, but their general approach per se. I would daresay that the majority of jazz critics have no frame of reference for classical music or what it means and how it is constructed; they simply tend to think of jazz as “freedom,” “instant improvisation” from the top of one’s head and classical as “tightly structured” and allowing no improvisation. Yet throughout its history, classical music has to some extent relied on the way different performers “feel” rhythm, which in itself is a tightening or loosening of that form. It is only in the 20th century that any deviation from the printed score was considered bad or incorrect; in our time, classical musicians are once again learning to improvise, in part because the fusion of jazz and classical music—as I pointed out in my book—is really the only bright future that either form of music has. Everything else has been played out, but the “jazzical moods” that Charles Mingus created and fought for are an arrow to the future. Sanders and Strosdahl seem to have grasped that.

Thus in a piece like Strosdahl’s Janus which, by virtue of its jazz rhythm, one would argue IS jazz, there is as much structure and form involved as in his more “classical sounding” Allemande and Mazurka. I bring this out in order to point the listener towards signposts in the music. Even if it was improvised into being, for instance, the sax solo in the midst of Janus follows certain laws of classical construction, a series of variations on the initial theme, while Sanders’ piano solo combines a “ground bass” in the left hand with improvisation in the right.

I believe I read once that Stardust is the most-recorded song in history. If it isn’t, it’s a close second to whatever is in the #1 slot. The duo takes it at a very relaxed ballad tempo, with Strosdahl channeling his inner Ben Webster, trying his best to simulate the warm, breathy quality that Webster brought to most of his later work on records. Towards the end of the first chorus he also employs a little Johnny Hodges-like upward portamento. Sanders stays fairly close within the harmonic base of the tune, which suits it. The finale of this recital is François Couperin’s Les Amusemens, and once again they give it a “jazzical” treatment, staying within the parameters of the score while adding more syncopated rhythmic inflections. (It reminded me a bit of the time I saw George Shearing play the Bach Keyboard Concerto No. 1 with the Cincinnati Symphony.) It’s an excellent wrap-up to this fine recital.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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