Schulhoff’s Strange, Moody Violin Music

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SCHULHOFF: Suite for Violin & Piano. Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 for Violin & Piano. Sonata for Solo Violin / Bruno Monteiro, violinist; João Paulo Santos, pianist / Brilliant Classics BRI95324

My initial interest in the music of Erwin Schulhoff—and still my strongest connection to him—was through his jazz-influenced piano works of the 1920s and early ‘30s. Those are wildly innovative and interesting works which, though not really based on real jazz but on peppy dance music of the era, have a tremendous vitality and fascination. I’ve reviewed several of his more conventional classical works and have found some to be quite interesting and creative, others not so much.

Here we have the Czech composer’s complete works for violin: a Suite and two Sonatas for violin and piano, and one solo violin Sonata. Listening to the opening movement of the first of these produced some strange emotions in me.The music, though tonal, is very fluid harmonically, consitantly slithering (mostly downward) chromatically. This kind of odd harmonic movement made me feel uneasy and uncertain; somehow, it put me in mind of that scene from the 1950s sci-fi film Invaders from Mars where the young boy suddenly feels the ground beneath his feet giving way and is sucked into the Martians’ underground settlement. The second movement, a Gavotte, is a little more cheerful at first but eventually reaches a passage where the violin sustains a low-range D for what seems like a full chorus while the tempo slows down and the piano then plays its own descending-chromatic passage. The liner notes tell us that after 20 aborted attempts at composition, this is the work that Schulhoff finally chose as his Op. 1. The notes also tell us that it “exhibits eigtheeenth century influence…reminiscent of the classical structure of its genre.” Well, that may be so in terms of form, but I think annotator Ana Carvalho is missing the forest for the trees. The odd harmonic movement is by far the overriding quality of this suite, regardless of how much 18th-century form it emulates, and that is what strikes the listener and stays with him or her.

Of course, the emotional impact of any piece of music is often contingent upon the interpretation of the performers, and to a certain extent it is pianist Santos who projects the stronger emotion in this suite. Violinist Monteiro, though possessing a fine tone and technique, seems to be content with riding the top line without much in terms of personal involvement, at least not until he reaches the fourth-movement Walzer where he injects some rhythmic buoyancy in the way he bounces the music along. And yes, once again it is the downward chromatic movement of the harmony that arrests our attention.

Interestingly, the first movement of the Violin-Piano Sonata No. 1 sounds like a continuation of the Suite, but only because of the similarity of key. In terms of harmony this sonata, written two years later, already shows (if you will pardon my speaking generally about it) a shift from ambiguous harmony to, well, harmony concrète. No longer is Schulhoff slithering around the tonality, a man in search of grounding; he has settled on writing in a bitonal form, borrowed in part from Claude Debussy (with whom he was briefly in contact while composing it) but also looking forward to the bolder harmonic experiments to come in the next decade and a half. Where this music resembles the Suite is in its melodic and rhythmic treatment; these are still rooted in, so to speak, a Ravel-like format, exhibiting a lyrical flow of the top line even as the harmonies become increasingly bolder. There are also, particularly in the second movement (marked Tranquillo) a large number of portamento slides, harking back to a style of violin playing exemplified by Fritz Kreisler and Bronislaw Huberman, neither of which would have played a sonata this modern-sounding. Even the last movement, a peppy Rondo, has the kind of rhythmic feel (and more portamento slides) that would have attracted such violinists but the constantly shifting modern harmonies might have thrown them off the scent.

I found it very interesting to compare these performances to the ones by violinist David Delgado and pianist Stefan Schmidt on a 2013 release by Gramola of this exact same material. The opening movement of the Suite, for instance, is taken at exactly the same tempo as Monteiro and Santos, but the articulation, accents and phrasing are entirely different. Delgado plays his violin in a musically angular manner, perhaps even a bit more cleanly than Monteiro, but cleanliness of bow attack does not translate into any particular depth of feeling. I did sense a greater feeling from Schmidt in the first movement of the Violin-Piano Sonata No. 1, but once again the phrasing is angular and not flowing. This is the kind of playing that, had I never heard the Monteiro recording, I would probably have given a thumbs-up to, but as soon as you switch from the Gramola release to this new one you immediately feel the difference. Schmidt and Delgado may have more intensity at times, but it doesn’t penetrate much beyond surface excitement. It’s a bit like comparing Isaac Stern to Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: a bit more fullness of sound, but little of the from-the-heart feeling of the latter.

The Sonata for solo violin, finished in 1927 and published in 1928, replaces the jazz influence of his piano works of the period with the influence of Czech folk music. Here Schulhoff calls for an entirely different technique, rougher around the edges like the folk-influenced violin music of Bartók and Kodály. I noticed that, in terms of both musical layout and technical requirements, this sonata had very little in common with J.S. Bach’s famous solo sonatas and partitas. There is some counterpoint, but not to the extent that there is in Bach, only enough to urge the music along here and there, particularly in the first movement, very little in the second. That being said, Monteiro has a little bit of difficulty fully getting into the rough-and-ready requirements of the music (listen to Joseph Szigeti play Bartók for an example of how it’s done), but he is, again, far better at it than Schmidt, who apparently didn’t even try to sound much like a folk violinist. My lone complaint is that the third and fourth movements sounded a bit too much alike to me.

With the second Violin-Piano Sonata, we find ourselves immersed in fully mature Scholhoff. Here is music that not only speaks his own language, the advanced harmonies now subjugated to the melodic line, meaning that as the melody moves along the harmonic base changes to fit each note and phrase, but also sounds much more assertive. In this work I found less difference in the performance of Delgado and Schmidt on the one hand and Santos-Monteiro on the other as the angular melody and assertive rhythmic attacks sounded good played by both—and just maybe, in this work, the fuller tone of Schmidt worked to his advantage. Nonetheless, Monteiro does not hold back; he attacks this music with relish, fully understanding its idiom and purpose.

All in all, a fascinating glimpse of a different side of Schulhoff. In the end, I wasn’t so sure how I really felt about this music in toto; yes, it was interesting, but was it substantive enough to warrant repeated listening? That’s a question each listener has to answer for him or herself. I can only tell you my reaction; I can’t predict yours; but it’s certainly music worth hearing at least once.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Martucci’s Chamber Music Given Elegant Treatment

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MARTUCCI: Piano Trios Nos. 1 & 2. Piano Quintet in C, Op. 45. Momento Musicale for String Quartet. Minuetto for String Quartet. 3 Pieces of G.F. Handel transcribed for String Quartet / Maria Semeraro, pianist; Quartetto Noferini / Brilliant Classics BRI-94968

Several years ago, I discovered the music of Giuseppe Martucci through some rare broadcasts by Arturo Toscanini: the Canzone dei Ricordi with mezzo-soprano Bruna Castagna, the Piano Concerto No. 2 with Mieczyslaw Horszowski, the First Symphony, the Tarantella and the Noveletta. I thought it surprisingly good and interesting, but when I tried to share my enthusiasm with others in the music critic biz I was rebuffed with deprecating comments. The Canzone dei Ricordi was “drippy and depressing” (oh, like Bruckner isn’t?), the Symphony and the Concerto just ripped off Brahms. To them, Martucci wasn’t an original composer, just an Italian wanna-be hack.

But wait a minute. I’ve yet to hear any serious composer in the years between 1803 and 1850 who wasn’t influenced to some extent—and sometimes to a great extent—by Beethoven, and this includes Schubert, Schumann and young Brahms. And I’ve heard very few composers during the period of Brahms’ height who weren’t influenced by him, or by Wagner (who actually heard Martucci play piano once), and this included a fair amount of French composers. What I hear in Martucci is an Italianate expression of the Brahmsian approach to writing, but also a style informed to a large extent by Wagner (harmonically) and Schubert (melodically). Yet in the end, what I really hear is Martucci, a fine, serious yet lyrical composer who really did try to recover the lost art—in his time—of Italian instrumental writing. Yes, he was eventually superseded by such composers as Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ghedini, Rieti and Petrassi, but it was a start.

Pianist Semeraro and members of the Quartetto Noferini—specifically violinist Roberto Noferini and cellist Andrea Noferini, when they’re not playing together in the string quartets or piano quintet—do their level best to bring this music to life. They do not have what I would describe as a “dynamic” sound profile, but rather a lyrical and reflective one, thus the music presented here is not attacked with razor-sharp downbows or crashing piano chords. In lieu of that we hear sweet and gentle phrases coaxes out of the strings and a bubbling rhythmic undercurrent from the piano. Once in a great while, when the strings play rapid passages together, I hear very slight intonation differences. But taken in whole, these are performances of great love and respect for the music, and that overcomes any small defects one hears along the way. Yes, I would have preferred a bit more energy here and there, but these musicians make the music swell and pulsate; they give it life; they sing it from their hearts. And that is enough to make one realize that Martucco may not have been a great master, but he was indeed great enough to express something deep within him

Like so many Romantic-era composers, Martucci put melodic content above harmonic or rhythmic innovation. Having just reviewed C.P.E. Bach’s organ sonatas before listening to this set, I was a bit taken back by the more conventional harmony one hears in the later Italian composer, but this was to be expected. Even Brahms liked good melodies, only occasionally (as in his Fourth Symphony) moving past the creation of recognizable tunes to produce complex music that was tonal and melodic but relied more strongly on the interworkings of the score than the projection of songfulness. If I had to pick one movement here that I felt was a bit too songful and not strong enough structurally, it would be the Andante con moto of the Piano Quintet. Despite a wonderful moment around 6:50 where the music swells into a climax of remarkable proportions, most of it just sort of toodles along, and I’m not so sure these musicians know what “con moto” means because there is very little “moto” in their mojo. But there is a tradeoff. Pianist Aldo Orvieto and members of the Ex Novo Ensemble di Venezia play this movement a bit quicker on a Dynamic CD, but in turn they lose the feeling that Semerano and the Noferinis put into it. And certainly, the Noferinis rip into the Scherzo with tremendous brio and vigor.

I was particularly taken by the Second Piano Trio, a work of great vigor, invention and emotion. In her liner notes, Andrea Noferini correctly points out that Martucci’s style never evolved, even in the early years of the 20th century (he died in 1909), to the heights achieved by French (Debussy, Dukas and Ravel), Russian (Scriabin and Stravinsky) or German composers (Mahler, young Schoenberg). He was a bit too set in his ways; yet he, like York Bowen after him, found new expression in conventional tonality. Somehow when critics want to tar Martucci for not “growing” harmonically they exempt his model, Brahms, because somehow Brahms was superior to all living beings. Indeed, the huge (almost 11 minute) Scherzo is one of Martucci’s finest creations, and in this movement pianist Semeraro really opens up her sound and plays with both passion and vigor. It’s quite a performance!

The short pieces for string quartet are charming but lightweight, yet the main point of this set is not that Martucci was a transcendent genius whose music was far ahead of its time, but that he was a serious and uncompromising composer who did not crank out insignificant or inferior music to order but who spent a great deal of time and thought putting his scores together. And Maria Semeraro and the Noferini Quartet bring it to you at a bargain price. How can you go wrong?

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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C.P.E. Bach’s Organ Music Wild, Scintillating

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C.P.E. BACH: Organ Sonatas: Wq 65 No. 32; Wq 70 Nos. 2-6 / Iain Quinn, organist / Naxos 8.573424

According to the liner notes for this record—and before I quote them, I am going to make a personal caveat that the author does not present any proof and therefore her words may not have any validity regarding this topic—Caroline Wright speculates the following:

While his father’s prowess as an organist was legendary—in 1751, a year after J.S. Bach’s death, Georg Philipp Telemann lamented, “Departed Bach! Long since your splendid organ-playing / Alone brought you the noble cognomen ‘The Great’”—C.P.E. Bach may not have been quite so skilled. Confessing to Charles Burney in 1772 that he was so out of practice he had “lost the use of the pedals,” he seems not to have been a virtuoso in the manner of Johann Sebastian. Instead, he was better known for his performances on the other (stringed) keyboard instruments, and especially the clavichord. Perhaps this is why he wrote relatively little music for the organ: the Wq 70 set (comprising five sonatas and a D major prelude) as well as a handful of fugues and chorales are his only words explicitly for the instrument. That said, much of his keyboard music works equally well on the organ as on stringed alternatives such as the harpsichord or clavichord.

Let us analyze the above paragraph in the face of what we know about C.P.E. Bach as well as his older brother, Wilhelm Friedemann, who was by all accounts an organist on the same level of his father. The bald fact is that long-term organist posts at German churches, like the one J.S. Bach had at Leipzig, didn’t exactly grow on trees, particularly in the late 18th century. W.F. Bach had a terrible time finding a position, despite his pedigree plus the fact that his godfather had written him a glowing letter of recommendation. And who was his godfather? Why, G.P. Telemann, of course, so with that in mind some of his effusive praise might be taken with a grain of salt. Remember, “J.D. Power & Associates” highly ranks Quicken Loans here in the U.S., because both are part of the same banking corporation.

But look at the other facts. C.P.E. Bach neither tried to find a gig as an organist nor had one. He worked for nearly 30 years in the court of the flute-playing King Frederick the Great, where his job (along with that of his co-employee, Quantz) was primarily to write flute pieces for his employer and clavichord pieces for himself to play for Frederick. The only reason the Wq 70 sonatas were composed at all was because in that year, 1755, the princess had a new organ built for her with a very wide range of stops. Since Frederick knew very well that Bach’s father was a fine organist—old J.S. made the trek to visit his son at Frederick’s court, which visit eventually resulted in the Musical Offering composed for Frederick—C.P.E, not Quantz, was assigned the task of writing these sonatas for her.

And what music it is! Here is the wildly inventive, musically daring Bach of the Hamburg years in full bloom at an earlier period of time. These sonatas are simply astonishing: flamboyant and flashy, harmonically advanced, using a wide variety of stops for color and his now-familiar style of disguising the melodic line in ornamentation and unusual shifts of rhythm. In the third movement of the Wq 70/6 sonata, for instance, Bach changes the stops twice in the course of a few seconds’ worth of staccato chords at around the 2:35 mark, and this movement is also full of strange little luftpausen to catch the listener’s attention to the musical surroundings. Another good example is the first movement of the Wq 70/4 sonata, in which Bach uses unusual scalar passages which alternate between the major and the minor, quite daring for its time. They are about as far in style from the organ music of his father as Beethoven’s piano sonatas were from Mozart’s.

The Princess Royal must have been quite a spectacular organist in her own right, because these are NOT easy pieces to play, and it is to Iain Quinn’s credit that he plays them with relish and enthusiasm. He obviously loves these sonatas as much as I did hearing them. Quinn reminds me of the greatest church organist I ever heard play live, David Drinkwater at Kirkpatrick Chapel on the campus of Rutgers University back in the 1970s. (I sometimes just hung around when Drinkwater was practicing because he was so much fun to hear.) Incidentally, the instrument Drinkwater played was a classic Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, just like the one they had at Wanamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia back in the 1920s and ‘30s (Rutgers replaced it in 2013 with an electronic instrument). On this recording, Quinn uses a much smaller organ from the same state, New Jersey, the one at the Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. (Yes, I used to go to Princeton, too, but only to the book and record stores there, never to the Theological Seminary, so I cannot claim any first-hand knowledge of this instrument.) Small as it is (note the photo on the front cover), almost like a pocket-sized organ compared to the massive Rutgers instrument with pipes installed in the walls that went up damn near thirty feet, this organ has a wonderful range of colors which Quinn exploits with skill and imagination.

I can’t say enough about this album. It is absolutely one of the most fun discs of organ music you are likely to hear, particularly from this period of music history. If you enjoy organ music and/or C.P.E. Bach, you’ll love this disc!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Andrea Claburn Highly Individual in Debut Recording

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NIGHTSHADE / CLABURN: Lionheart. My Favorite Flavor. The Fall of Man. Colors of Light. Steal Away. METHENY-CLABURN: Bird on a Wire. ELLINGTON-CLABURN: Echoes of Harlem. EVANS-LEES: Turn Out the Stars. CREAMER-LAYTON: After You’ve Gone. CARMICHAEL-MERCER: Skylark. B. CARTER: I Can’t Help It. SHELBY-CLABURN: Daybreak / Andrea Claburn, vocalist; Matt Clark, pno/Fender Rhodes; Sam Bevan, bs/el-bs; Alan Hall, dm; John Santos, perc; Terrence Brewer, gtr/el-gtr; Erik Jekabson, tpt/fl-hn; Kasey Knudsen, a-sax; Teddy Raven, t-sax; Rob Ewing, tbn; Mads Tolling, vln/vla; Joseph Hébert, cello / Lot 49 Labs (no number; available January 13, 2017 on Amazon, iTunes & CD Baby)

Andrea Claburn, a California-based jazz singer who studied first with Raz Kennedy and then at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, here makes her recording debut in an album that will apparently not be available until January 2017. Claburn is quoted as saying that she previously resisted the pressure to record because she didn’t feel ready to transform the ideas in her mind into music: she “didn’t want to just do songs and arrangements written by other people. I had my own concepts.” Perhaps this is because Claburn came from a musical family and a classical background, beginning the piano at age six and violin at age eight.

The immediate impression one gets from the opening track of this album is that Claburn has a generic female jazz singer tone but a better-than-average grasp of style. She doesn’t just swing with the voice, she employs stress beats in unexpected places, increases and decreases volume, and even changes color in the voice. This last-named is probably the most difficult skill to acquire; it’s the sort of thing that only classical singers, and normally only the very best classical singers, can do, but Claburn uses these shades and colors to drive home the music time and again. For the most part she leans “back” on the beat when she sings, only alternating to pushing it when she opens up the volume and changes color.

For this reason I consider her more of a musician than a “singer.” To my ears, Claburn’s highly instrumental use of her voice is far more interesting than her interpretation of lyrics. Indeed, she could have sung these pieces as vocalese and still be riveting to hear. The accompanying musicians are all very fine and very professional, but not quite as emotionally involved with the material as Claburn. That being said, pianist Matt Clark was excellent throughout and I loved some of these arrangements, all of which were written by Claburn—particularly her calypso-styled version of My Favorite Flavor, where the use of the horns is highly skilled and interesting to hear, and her ska-colored version of After You’ve Gone. In the latter, she adds beats between the words to make it fit the new rhythm…very clever indeed! Despite his coolness of tone, trumpeter Erik Jekabsen plays a wonderful Bobby Hackett-type solo on this track.

Of the 12 songs on this album, five were written by Claburn herself and three others are instrumentals to which she added lyrics. Of these, I was most curious to hear what she could do with the relatively early Ellington piece, Echoes of Harlem. This has been modified from the original by relaxing the beat, adding a Latin flavor and extending the length of certain notes within each phrase by means of Claburn’s vocal dexterity. She also introduces some beat-shifts in the last two choruses that were quite surprising to hear.

Claburn does her best interpreting, and ballad singing, on the Bill Evans-Gene Lees song Turn Out the Stars (one of those tunes on which Clark excels in his solo, albeit channeling early Evans when he was storngly influenced by Tristano). Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark, which the late bop clarinetist Buddy de Franco often said was the most harmonically sophisticated song of its time, is ripe for Claburn’s particular brand of musical transformation. She adds even a few little harmonic twists of her own to the ends of phrases that aren’t in Carmichael’s original—and as usual, she changes the rhythm, making it more complex while still retaining a relaxed, fluid movement.

Betty Carter’s I Can’t Help It is her most straightforward tune on the album in terms of a standard 4/4 swing beat, and there’s a nice duet between Jekabsen on muted trumpet and Sam Bevan on bass before another fine Clark piano solo. As a follow-up, her own tune The Fall of Man is taken at a nice medium tempo but also swings in a nice, relaxed way. Teddy Raven plays a nice tenor sax solo on this one, too. Daybreak is a jazz waltz in which Bevan gives us a modern-day take on Slam Stewart’s proclivity to sing along with his bass solos. Colors of Light is a bossa nova dedicated to Claburn’s daughter, charmingly sung, while the finale to the album, Steal Away, is described as a “meditation on life, loss, and the ephemeral nature of existence.” On this track she is accompanied by Mads Tolling on viola and violin and Joseph Hébert on cello in addition to Jekabson on flugelhorn and her regular rhythm section, which gives this song an entirely different flavor. The melody is a bit ambiguous yet fairly simple; it’s the harmony and instrumental texture that is unconventional, as well as the slow waltz beat. Despite its surface simplicity, the song is haunting; snippets of it will be floating around in your head long after the album is finished.

This is one of the most auspicious recording debuts for a jazz singer I’ve heard since Sophie Dunér’s The City of My Soul. Highly recommended.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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A New and Fascinating Berberian Recital

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CATHY BERBERIAN: IN THE VOICE LABYRINTH / PURCELL: Nymphs and Shepherds. ARMENIAN SONGS: Siroohis (Mio amore). Loosin Yelav (La luna sorse). Xundai Dzar (Il Melo). Im Yerke (La mia canzone). Aravad (Il mattino). VILLA-LOBOS: Desejo1. Xango1. WEILL: Song of Sexual Slavery. Le Grand Lustucru. Surabaya Johnny. BERIO: Sequenza III. Avendo gran disio. LENNON-McCARTNEY: Yesterday. Michelle. Ticket to Ride. BERBERIAN: Stripsody. OFFENBACH: La Périchole: Ah, quel diner, da2. SATIE: La Diva de l’Empire3. Chanson3. Air du Poète3. Adieu3. Daphénéo3. STRAVINSKY: Tilim-bom (2 vers)4. Les Canards, Les Cygnes, Les Oies4. Chanson de l’Ours4. WALTON: Façade: Tango-Pasodoble; Tarantella; Something Lies Beyond the Scene; Fox-Trot, “Old Sir Faulk.” 5 ANONYMOUS: Canto dell’Azerbaijan2 / Cathy Berberian, mezzo-soprano; 1Luciano Sgrizzi, harpsichordist/ pianist; 2Bruno Canino, pianist; 3Dario Müller, pianist; 4RTSI Orchestra, Francis Travis, conductor; 5Gruppo Musica Insieme Cremona, Giorgio Bernasconi, conductor / Ermitage ERM1036

Now that Cathy Berberian has been dead and gone since 1983, it has been open season on reissues of her recordings (though, surprisingly, not her “camp” vocal recital at Edinburgh, issued on an RCA LP, titled There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden). I reviewed two of the better ones on this blog back on April 11 (Two Superb Reissues by Crazy Cathy), and now here’s a new reissue.

Or is it? The very first number on this disc is Henry Purcell’s Nymphs and Shepherds, a song she skewered at that Edinburgh recital by singing it a quarter-tone flat throughout. But this isn’t that performance; this one is sung perfectly straight, and she is accompanied by an anonymous harpsichordist, not by pianist Bruno Canino. Moreover, as one will discover, the performances here of the Kurt Weill songs, the Lennon-McCartney tunes and Stripsody are not the ones she recorded commercially, but rather live versions (there’s even applause after Surabaya Johnny). And we now have performances, previously unknown to me, of Berberian singing two songs by Villa-Lobos, five by Erik Satie, a different aria from Offenbach’s La Périchole than the one she sang in Edinburgh, Stravinsky songs recorded in the Columbia studio by Evelyn Lear, not Berberian, and four excerpts from William Walton’s Façade. These recordings may indeed have been available in Europe on various labels over the years; I wouldn’t really know; but to me all of this material is fresh and new, and so I must review it as such.

To begin with, Berberian seldom changed her approach to certain material once she found her way, the one example that disproves that rule being Nymphs and Shepherds. As a result, you won’t find too much difference here from the commercially recorded versions, except that the Beatles songs sound just a bit less tongue-in-cheek than the recording and the other material (particularly Stripsody and the Périchole aria) more outgoing. She is obviously having fun with the Façade excerpts, but in “Tango-Pasodoble” she is off-mike for much of it and the Italian orchestra and conductor has a hard time playing Walton’s music with the right jazz-age swagger. Yet she has a ball with “Tarantella” and she is surprisingly light and childlike in Satie’s delightful Daphénéo. Everything here is sung well, and all in all it’s a wonderful introduction to new listeners as to what Cathy Berberian was all about. Most of the performances are simply brilliant, and some of them quite surprising even to some fans. For instance, she had her own “take” on Satie’s La Diva de l’Empire: instead of singing it with a swinging beat, as is normally done, she slows it down, adds moments of rubato, and drags out certain phrases in a prima-donna style. She was definitely her own person.

Annotator Piero Rattalino makes two observations in the liner notes, one of which I agree with and the other of which I don’t. I disagree with his judgment that she was basically a comic artist with a light voice, and thus “born to sing operetta.” It’s true that Berberian had a wicked sense of humor and wasn’t shy about showing it off, but she got into singing in the first place because she really loved music, not because she wanted to lampoon it. The observation I do agree with is that “For those who saw her, Berberian’s recordings are like family photos that are there to bring back emotions that have been lived, not to produce those emotions.” Everyone I met who saw her in person said it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The problem with this CD is that very few of the accompanists are credited (in the case of Stripsody, Canino is credited but there’s no piano on this track!), no recording dates or venues are provided, and we don’t even know for sure which of these are studio recordings. Yes, most of them definitely sound like live performances or radio studio recordings, but the Armenian songs—which she does flawlessly—sound very much as if they came from a recording studio. No accompanist is credited. And ironically, considering Rattalino’s comments, the majority of this album presents Berberian the serious artist, not counting the tongue-in-cheek performances of Beatles songs or Stripsody, the Périchole aria or the Walton Façade excerpts.

berberianI regret to say I never saw Berberian in concert. Her live appearances, particularly in the U.S., were actually pretty limited. Most of the time she sang strictly avant-garde music, which at that time didn’t appeal to me, and tickets were both fairly expensive and hard to come by…her fan club usually snapped them all up within a couple of hours of their going on sale at the box office. Yet although she had a wacky sense of humor that she exercised fully and often, and in addition had a voice too small to sing any but Baroque operas in tiny theaters, I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was primarily an operetta and comic singer. She just never let boundaries be set up around her; she refused to be pigeonholed. That’s why she made the album of Beatles songs and did the Edinburgh recital dressed like an overstuffed sofa from 1904. Her performances were, in the parlance of the day, “Happenings” (the same way Salvador Dali was a “Happening”), and it’s kind of sad that we don’t have such things nowadays to break up the monotony and the dark, daily drudge of life. Cathy Berberian enjoyed life, enjoyed singing, and enjoyed both being serious and putting people on. She had a complex personality, see? She was a person! And everyone I knew absolutely adored her—avant-garde repertoire or not.

And you’ll love her, too.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Ratatet’s “Arctic” Unusual, Thought-Provoking Jazz

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ARCTIC / HALL: Electrick. Father’s and Sons. The Marriage of Arnolfini. Arctic. Red State, Blue State. In a Sense, Innocence. Word By Word. Basquiat. What Cy’s Eyes See. Gataxi. Returning (for Lesly)* / Ratatet: Paul Hanson, bsn/t-sax; John Grove, tbn; Dillon Vado, vibes; Greg Sankovich, org/pno/el-pno; Jeff Denson, bs/el-bs/voc; Alan Hall, dm/ldr/arr. *Special guests Paul McCandless, e-hn/oboe; Joseph Hebert, cello; Jonathan Alford, keyboard / Ridgeway Records (no number)

Ratatet sprang out of a collective trio, formed in 2014, named Electreo, which consists of of Alan Hall, Jeff Denson and Paul Hanson. In the process of writing music for Electreo, Alan’s desire to write for a larger ensemble grew, as did the band,, and thus created Ratatet. The band is unusual in that it includes a bassoon (played by Hanson) and, on this new recording, additional musicians play English horn and oboe (Paul McCandless) and cello (Joseph Hebert) on the last track (Returning [for Lesly]).

The bassoon makes an immediate impact in the opening of Electrick, which sounds to be in either 3/4 or a slow 6/8 time, at least at first. The tune hovers around F major without ever really setting up shop there, and the ambiguous melody flows seamlessly into a series of short statements by trombone, bassoon, vibes, trombone again and then back to bassoon. Drummer Hall, who wrote all of the compositions, has full command of the odd meter, playing against rather than with the beat, while Jeff Denson’s bass is felt more than heard until the last two bars.

Hall uses a slow 4 for Father’s and Sons, with 6/8 breaks. This time it is Denson up first for a solo, showing off a beautiful tone and febrile imagination. Pianist Sankovich plays with a fine sense of structure in his solo, egged on by the leader on snare and cymbals, each beat struck clearly and with great decision. One of my few disappointments of this album was that I felt the tunes were too short, although on re-examining the timings I found to my surprise that not one piece was under three and a half minutes and, in fact, most were four or longer! This just goes to show you how well Ratatet is able to fill space without bogging down the listener. The Marriage of Arnolfini starts with a drum solo; when the initial melody is played, bassist Denson sings wordlessly along with the ensemble. But this piece belongs to vibist Dillon Vado and Hanson on bassoon, whose extended solos fit hand in glove with the surrounding material and with each other. Interestingly, although the tune constructions are very modern they are primarily tonal, and thus the solos almost never stray towards outside jazz, which is appropriate.

The title tune, Arctic, creates an unusually relaxed mood using a bowed bass olo to lead into the melody played by vibes and bassoon (sequentially, not together). The trombone is used mostly for color and the piano merely sprinkles sixteenths around the proceedings. Denson is first up with a solo, again playing arco bass; his bowed tone is a little edgy in quality. Surprisingly, when Sankovich enters for his piano solo, the meter shifts (again towards triple time) and the performance begins to gain in volume as the band rides towards the finish line—but then they pull back just in time to go out as they came in, with bassoon and trombone playing with piano sprinkles around them.

Red State, Blue State has an edgy, quasi-Thelonious Monk-type beat about it, with a similarly angular melody. Here Hanson switches to tenor sax as the voicing of the opening melody provides a somewhat more conventional-sounding jazz sextet sound. They then switch to a comically stiff march beat before relaxing the rhythm and swinging more behind the soloists. In a Sense, Innocence toodles along lightly in its own unusual meter, using bassoon and vibes over the rhythm section, adding muted trombone on the break for color, but the centerpiece of this track is Sankovich’s piano solo, atmospheric and effervescent.

In Word By Word, the tremendous musical invention one heard since the start of this album suddenly becomes a bit ordinary. This is a tune without much going for it other than a quirky beat, and in fact it resembles some of the preceding material without coming up to its high level. Perhaps one thing that annoyed me about it was the funkier, more rock-like beat; when I hear rock beats, I’m heading out the door, and it doesn’t matter who is playing them. Happily, the band gets back on track with the excellent tune Basquiat, yet another tune that leans towards triple time. Here, Hanson’s bassoon solo does lean a bit towards “outside” jazz, exploring the chords with more than the usual expected route, while John Grove’s trombone is laid-back and relaxed.

What Cy’s Eyes See is another laid-back track, this one introduced by solo vibes before getting into a loosely-structured ensemble followed by solos. Gataxi is, texturally, the most unusual piece on this album, starting with what sounds like a slightly distorted electric piano sound before moving into…more rock-beat jazz. We shall mercifully draw a curtain over this track. I sure did.

The closer, Returning (for Lesly), is by far the most creative piece on the album, particularly in its rich scoring. Bowed cello is complemented by pizzicato bass, and the bassoon is complemented here by an oboe and English horn. McCandless’ solo, however, sounds written out rather than improvised; it certainly does not swing, but it doesn’t have to. The emphasis here is on impressionism rather than a full-out jazz piece. What I liked about this piece was its strong sense of construction despite another ambiguous melody; it held together very well. I was a bit disappointed, however, by the fade-out ending.

All in all, then, Arctic is a fascinating album, consistently strong in its solos and generally quite interesting (despite the few exceptions noted above) in compositional terms. Well worth a listen.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Charles Daniels Explores British Impressionists

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HERACLEITUS / GURNEY: Ludlow and Teme*+#. String Quartet in D min: Adagio#. The Cloths of Heaven*+. Severn Meadows*+. By a Bierside*+. BUTTERWORTH: Bredon Hill and Other Songs*+. Suite for String Quartet#. Love Blows as the Wind Blows (excerpts)*+. WARLOCK: Saudades: Heracleitus*+. Sweet Content*+ / *Charles Daniels, tenor; +Michael Dussek, pianist; #Bridge String Quartet / EM Records EMRCD036

Here is a recital of early Vaughan Williams-like pieces for tenor, piano and string quartet by a trio of British composers, namely Ivor Gurney, George Butterworth and Peter Warlock (aka Philip Heseltine). Warlock I knew, but this was my first exposure to the music of Gurney and only my second to Butterworth.

As I say, however, the pieces chosen for this recital are all in that British-influenced-by-French-impressionism style that many listeners are familiar with from Vaughan Williams’ great early song cycle, On Wenlock Edge. Gurney’s style is a bit more adventurous harmonically than Vaughan Williams, and at least in the first, third and fourth songs of Ludlow and Teme a bit more rhythmic. But there were weak moments, too, such as the second song in this cycle, “Far in a Western brookland,” which suffered from a poor melody and unimaginative string writing. But the Bridge String Quartet is a very fine aggregation, as one can clearly hear in their performances of the “Adagio” from Gurney’s String Quartet in D minor and the complete Butterworth Suite for Quartet. That being said, I found the Butterworth Suite rather innocuous and only mildly interesting.

On the other hand, Warlock’s music—particularly Heracleitus—was just as riveting as I recalled from his many other pieces, and here both Daniels and the quartet rise to the occasion with a deeply heartfelt performance. Sweet Content is in Warlock’s “other” style, e.g. his Renaissance-song imitation style, and this is meat and potatoes to Daniels. The two excerpts from Butterworth’s Love Blows as the Wind Blows are also excellent music.

I was delighted to hear that our tenor, Charles Daniels, has a firm, clear voice and equally clear diction, although in the end I realized that his voice was a bit thin in tone, its sound enhanced by what can only be described as “empty locker room” reverb around both him and the instruments, but mostly around him. This is not, however, to denigrate his accomplishments here. Vocal size has never been, for me, a determining factor in whether or not a singer is great; musicality, phrasing and interpretation often override the sheer size of a voice. Bethany Beardslee, Tito Schipa and Paul Sperry were never going to overwhelm one’s eardrums, yet they are all among my favorite singers. As it turns out, Daniels is the lead tenor (and ofttimes soloist) with The King’s Singers, which I’ve heard several times. Daniels’ voice is more exposed in the sparsely written Butterworth grouping with piano, and here he shows just what a fine artist he is, wrapping his voice around each word and projecting both mood and high musicianship.

The recital closes with three Gurney songs in which Daniels is accompanied solely by piano, poetic and quite beautiful. Gurney, considered a poet as well as a musician, suffered a severe mental breakdown in 1918 and although he recovered sufficiently to continue composing he was never the same afterwards. In 1925 he was committed to the Barnwood House in Gloucester, then to the London Mental Hospital. He never recovered and died in 1937, aged 47. Poor Butterworth’s career was also quite brief, as he was shot by a sniper in France at age 31 while fighting in World War I. His body was never recovered. And of course we all know about poor Warlock-Heseltine’s mental disorder. So this CD may be said to be a tribute to three tragic British composers.

All in all, an interesting album presenting works of some imagination if not quite genius. Well worth seeking out.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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