Matthew Kaminski Swings At Churchill Grounds

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LIVE AT CHURCHILL GROUNDS / WILSON/KENNEDY/ALMER: Sail On, Sailor. DONALDSON: Hot Dog. SMITH: Midnight Special. SHAPIRO/CAMPBELL/CONNELLY: If I Had You*. JOBIM/DE MORAES: So Danco Samba*. ELLINGTON/GAINES: Just Squeeze Me*. ELLINGTON/HODGES: It Shouldn’t Happen to a Dream*. DUKE/HARBURG: April in Paris*. LEE/SCHLUGER: I Love Being Here With You*. McDUFF: A Real Goodun’ / The Matthew Kaminski Quartet: Kaminski, Hammond SK2 org; Will Scruggs, t-sax; Rod Harris Jr., gtr; Chris Burroughs, dm; *Kimberly Gordon, voc / Chicken Coop CCP-7026 (live: Atlanta, September 26-27, 2015)

As John Cleese used to say, “And now for something completely different.” Matthew Kaminski is both a jazz musician and—believe it or not—the ballpark organist for the Atlanta Braves. This is his third CD on the Chicken Coop label, recorded live at Atlanta’s premier jazz club, Churchill Grounds.

Possibly because of the live setting, Kaminski really flies here, playing with zest and fire on every single track. His style reminded me a great deal of Jack McDuff, who he pays tribute to on the last track, A Real Goodun’, with a dollop of Jimmy Smith, who he pays tribute to with Midnight Special. Interestingly, having listened to this disc shortly after reviewing Alyssa Allgood’s Blue Note-tribute album Out of the Blue, I felt this set was even closer to the spirit and drive of those old Blue Note albums. As BN founder Alfred Lion used to say, “it must schwing!” And “schwing” this most certainly does.

The Blue Note funk style is all over this album like a set of etched-in-glass fingerprints. Listen, for instance, not only to the opening track but also Lou Donaldson’s funky Hot Dog, which the band attacks with brio. Will Scruggs’ tenor solo could easily be confised for any number of similar solos on the old Blue Note recordings, almost dominating the quartet here. Ironically, on this track drummer Chris Burroughs sounds as if he is stuck in a foursquarfe slam-bam rhythm, which even remains steady-but-stiff when Kaminski enters. His solo is also rather unvaried. On the other hand, Smith’s Midnight Special really cooks.

The set takes a different turn when voalist Kimberly Gordon enters the scene. Gordon, who has a rather overript vibrato, is a pleasant enough jazz singer who swings a bit, but I personally found her a bit of a distraction from the excellent playing of Kaminski and his group. In a live setting she was possibly more interesting, but to my ears she was quite ordinary whereas Kaminski was consistently more interesting. I did, however, like the tenor sax solo on It Shouldn’t Happen to a Dream, a little-known Duke Ellington song, very much. On April in Paris, it is the leader whose playing is so rich and full of ideas that he dominates the proceedings (ending the tune with the old Count Basie band’s tease-and-repeat trick).

Gordon is at her best on I Love Being Here With You. Here, her voice is fully warmed up, the slow-beat vibrato is minimized, she scats brilliantly and with a lot of guts. This, in turn, seems to inspire Kaminski to even finer playing, as he follows her scat vocal with one of his most felicitous solos. Even drummer Burroughs loosens up on this one!

The album wraps up with A Real Goodun’. again taken at that slow-gloove Blue Note sort of tempo. There’s a lot of space in this performance, which considerably helps loosen up Burroughs’ beat, which in turn brings a looser feeling to the whole ensemble. Rod Harris Jr. plays some really fine guitar on this one, too; it’s the kind of track that, as we used to say in the old days, really “cooks.”

All in all, then, this is a fine lazy-summer-Sunday-afternoon kind of jazz record, the kind you play when you say to yourself, “You know, I think I’d like to hear something completely different”…which brings us full circle back to the beginning.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Alyssa’s Debut Album is All Good!

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OUT OF THE BLUE / MOBLEY/ALLGOOD: Watch Me Walk Away (Dig Dis). COLTRANE/ELDRIDGE/NAZARIAN: Noticing the Moment (Moment’s Notice). CAHN/STYNE: It’s You or No One. SHORTER/ALLGOOD: Speak No Evil. RIVERS: Beatrice. SILVER: Peace. HENDERSON: If. MORGAN/SUGGS: Only a Memory (Ceora). TIMMONS/HENDRICKS: Moanin’. CHAMBERS: Mirrors / Alyssa Allgood, vocal; Dan Chase, org; Tim Fitzgerald, gtr; Chris Madsen, t-sax; Matt Plaskota, dm / Jeru Jazz JJR-5-CD

Jazz singer Alyssa Allgood, who hails from Chicago, chose to pay tribute to the classic Blue Note style in this, her debut CD. This, of course, means a funky, bluesy sort of jazz, the type that generally featured tenor saxists with organists. We get that here, but also a very fine guitarist in Tim Fitzgerald, and Allgood herself is a really swinging, creative vocalist who wrote the lyrics to four of the pieces on this disc that were originally instrumentals.

Allgood’s voice is of the type I would call generic female jazz singer: pleasant tone, good diction, good beat. What makes her distinguished, however, is her sense of “time” and her ability in both scat and vocalese. In those moments Allgood really shines, and it helps greatly that her backup band seems to rise to a very fine level of inspiration. I give particular nods to organist Dan Chase and guitarist Tim Fitzgerald, whose solos were consistently interesting and inventive. On the opening track, Chase swings almost as hard as my favorite modern jazz organist, the great Barbara Dennerlein, and he consistently plays with interesting harmonic twists in the breaks and turnarounds.

I heard a bit of Sheila Jordan in Allgood’s style, albeit Jordan mixed with a few splashes of Dena DeRose. I particularly liked her scat solo on It’s You or No One, wich was very nicely done. One feature of her singing, possibly influenced by Louis Armstrong, is the “terminal vibrato” she employs at the end of phrases on held notes, introducing a slow vibrato to make the voice waver slightly. I wonder if this is simply a natural quality of her voice or a conscious style; it’s difficult to tell. She is also very clever in being able to work around a relatively limited range (about a tenth) to sound effective in virtually every piece. Madsen is at his most effective playing tenor in Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil…but for the most part, this is Allgood’s and Chase’s show. Listen, for instance, to the nice groove the latter lays down in the intro to Sam Rivers’ Beatrice, and the interplay between them throughout the piece. This track also contains an excellent, laid-back solo by guitarist Fitzgerald.

On Horace Silver’s Peace, Allgood finds a way to spot her voice in the interstices of Chase’s organ solo. As she pointed out in the liner notes, “the fact that there aren’t a lot of singers in the Blue Note catalog also resonates with my identity of approaching the music like an instrumentalist.” This particularly comes to the fore in Joe Henderson’s If, which swings like mad in a hard-bop sort of way from start to finish. No two ways about it, this young lady can swing, and she even seems to provide inspiration here to Fitzgerald.

Sometimes, especially nowadays when rock and rap permeate our entire pop culture, how someone as young as Allgood came to embrace jazz as her medium of choice. Apparently, she fell in love with the music at age 12 when she attended the Janice Borla Vocal Jazz Camp (gee, and I only went to Girl Scouts at a child!). She continued to attend for the next eight years(!), working closely with such jazz singers as Peter Eldridge, Jay Clayton, Rosana Eckert and Madeline Eastman. Quickly establishing herself in Chicago, she recently led a group at the 2016 Chicago Jazz Festival where she drew SRO crowds.

One of the more salient features of this album is her clever reworking of each piece in new arrangements, with different intros and sometimes different rhythm from the originals. This is probably most apparent to the average jazz fan in Bobby Timmons’ well-worn Moanin’, which was a showpiece in days of yore for Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Allgood has so reworked the piece that it alternates between a straightahead 4 and a pseudo-calypso beat, the highlight of the arrangement being her scat vocal with the tenor sax—obviously worked out in advance but still highly effective.

Alyssa Allgood is, at this writing, most assuredly the real thing as a jazz artist. This is a fine debut disc, and I hope her style continues to grow and expand in the future.

—© Lynn René Bayley

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Grétry’s Little-Heard Comic Masterpiece Comes to Life

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GRÉTRY: L’Épreuve Villageoise / Sophie Junker, soprano (Denise); Talise Trevigne, soprano (Madame Hubert); Thomas Dolié, baritone (Monsieur de la France); Francisco Fernández-Rueda, tenor (André); Opera Lafayette; Ryan Brown, conductor / Naxos 8.660377

Here is a surprise and a delight: the world premiere recording of André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry’s 1784 comic opera, L’Épreuve Villageoise or The Village Trial. Grétry has long been one of those composers more talked about than heard, more admired by his contemporaries than by latter-day audiences, thus I found it interesting to actually hear one of his operas complete. Prior to this, the only piece by Grétry I had in my entire collection was the aria “Rose chérie” from Zemire et Azore, sung by Dame Maggie Teyte.

The plot is your typical love triangle of comic opera. Denise, a farm girl in love with André, is afraid that her fiancée would be too jealous of her when they were married. When her mother, Madame Hubert, questions her, she learns that the source of this jealousy is the wealthy landowner Monsieur de la France, who has also been flirting with her. Madame Hubert is a bit upset because de La France was wooing her just a short time ago. Denise likes the fact that de la France is handsome and a good dancer, but when he offers her everything the big city has to offer she realizes that she is in love with André and prefers the country life.

Speaking in general terms, Grétry was a later, French, more sophisticated composer in the Pergolesi mold. Although he mainly wrote brief comic operas like this one, he was widely liked and praised by his contemporaries for his sophisticated scores, particularly his famous opera Richard Coeur-de-Lion. One of the things I most appreciated when listening to this work was its deceptive simplicity in form, wedded to quite witty orchestral accompaniment. Grétry’s genius was in not trying to do too much with his music or his characters, but rather invest his score with wonderful little touches lilke the flute (or recorder) duet that introduces the first André-Denise duet. One thing I found interesting was that our lead soprano, Belgian Sophie Junker, has that old-fashioned sort of “French soprano” voice with a fast flicker-vibrato, a type of voice I thought had died out. I like it very, very much; it has character, and not just because of her timbre. Junker is a very lively singer and invests her role with a charming personality.

Our tenor, Fernández-Rueda, also has a light voice, almost of the type we now consider a “comprimario,” yet of good enough quality to manage Grétry’s light, pointed score, written as if by pin-pricks. Perhaps the best indication of just how effective his writing is can be heard in the Act 1 Finale, an ensemble that Mozart would have been proud to have composed, yet one imbued with Gallic sophistication. And the most amazing thing is that his music is not at all predictable in form: he almost always surprises the listener in the way the music moves forward and develops, including some quite surprising harmonic shifts into the minor with augmented chords behind it. Also note the sophisticated use of key changes and string tremolos behind the Act 2 Denise-André duo. This is quite clearly the work of a fine composer who spent some time thinking about what he was trying to do with both the music and the characters. Both our second soprano, Talise Trevigne (Madame Hubert) and baritone, Thomas Dolié (Monsieur de la France) have fine voices as well, which makes the whole production sparkle under the baton of Ryan Brown. Yes, the orchestra plays with “straight tone,” but they also play with an utterly charming style, pointing the music and infusing it with subtle dynamics changes.

One of the things that greatly aids the propulsion of the music here is the elimination of the spoken dialogue. Yes, I know it’s supposed to be performed with the dialogue, but as someone who doesn’t speak French or Italian (or German), I prefer hearing works like this without it. Overall, this is an utterly charming and quite original work, one worth hearing more than once, and I wholeheartedly recommend this sparkling recording.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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No Joke! “The Polish Wedding” Will Knock Your Socks Off!

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BEER: Polnische Hochzeit / Martina Rüping, soprano (Jadja); Susanne Bernhard, soprano (Suza); Florence Losseau, mezzo-soprano (Stasi); Nikolai Schukoff, tenor (Count Boleslav Zagorsky); Michael Kupfer-Radecky, baritone (Count Staschek Zagorsky); Mathias Hausmann, baritone (Casimir von Kawietzky); Bernhard Spingler, bass-baritone (Sergius Korrosoff); Friedemann Röhlig, bass (Baron Mietek Oginsky); Alexander Kiechle, bass (Stani); Gärtnerplatz State Theater Chorus; Munich Radio Orchestra; Ulf Schirmer, conductor / CPO 444 059-2 (live: Munich, November 21-22, 2015)

Here’s a surprise for lovers of Viennese operetta: a stunning and surprisingly original work by a then-24-year-old composer, Joseph Beer, who was the sensation of Austria for a short time but whose career mysteriously dwindled into nothingness. A musical prodigy, Beer was so admired when at the Vienna State Academy of Music that he was allowed to skip the first four years of study, and director Joseph Marx took him personally under his wing. The liner notes suggest that Beer’s turn to operetta music disappointed Marx, but the latter supported him nonetheless. The change of career came from a tour of Palestine in 1930, where Beer met a musician who asked him to play the music of fellow-composers to Fritz Löhner-Beda, an enthusiastic Zionist and the most successful operetta librettist in Vienna (he wrote the libretto for Lehár’s Giuditta), when he returned to Austria. Löhner-Beda was bored by the music Beer played him, until he asked him if he had anything of his own. This music so excited the librettist that he offered to take Beer under his wing and offered to collaborate with him. This eventually led to Polská Svatba or Polnische Hochzeit as it was titled in German. It was a sensation at its premiere.

Some of the music in the early going of this operetta is a bit on the stodgy side, but Beer’s keen ear for orchestral color keeps things moving and interesting. Eventually we get a fun mixture of Polish and Austrian dance rhythms, and the whole thing picks up. From a musical standpoint, I would put The Polish Wedding on as high a pedestal as Millöcker’s classic Der Bettelstudent, and that is the highest praise I can give it. The most surprising number in the whole piece, however, has to be the Act 2 duet and chorus, “Katzenaugen,” which has a definite Charleston beat and sounds like something from the Ziegfeld Follies or George White’s Scandals of 1927. You talk about frou-frou music! Even as a listener, you feel like kicking up your heels and dancing. And you should hear the audience (this is a live performance at the Prince Regent Theatre in Munich) go nuts at the end of it! In fact, a couple of other numbers later in the operetta also bear the mark of Jazz-Age musical style, and it is to the credit of all concerned that they do not sing or play this music stiffly at all.

So what happened to Joseph Beer? He was planning to mount a production of Polnische Hochzeit in Vienna in 1939 with the “dream team” of tenor Jan Kiepura and his wife, Martha Eggerth, when the Nazis started World War II. Fortunately Beer, who was Jewish, was spared when the director of the Théâtre du Châtelet helped him escape to Paris, where he plied his trade writing orchestral arrangements and the score for the film Festival du Monde. He wanted to come to the U.S. to teach music but never got any further than Nice, where he hid until the end of the war. While in hiding he wrote a verismo-styled opera, Stradella in Venice, which finally premiered in Zurich in 1949. After this, however, Beer withdrew from public life, crushed by the news that his parents had died in Auschwitz—as had his mentor, Löhner-Beda. He did, however, continue to compose, mostly instrumental and sacred works for his own edification, with no thought of public performance. According to the notes, he married another Holocaust survivor, Hanna Königsberg, in the early 1950s and lived a secluded life with her and their two daughters in Nice. He resumed his musicological studies, and in 1966 wrote a doctoral dissertation on the evolution of Scriabin’s harmonic style—that was never published. He died in 1987, often refusing to allow The Polish Wedding to be performed except in Scandinavia where it became an almost annual tradition. It was just too painful for him to revisit.

The plot is your typically convoluted operetta, revolving around love triangles, titled landowners, and a Polish freedom fighter masquerading as a poor laborer. Let me try to summarize it:

Act 1. Poland at the time of the Russian occupation, pre-1830. Harvest festivities are going on at the estate of Baron Oginsky. Casimir wonders if the tough hellcat Suza, who runs the estate, would approve of this. To get money, Oginsky suggests that his daughter Jadja marry Count Boleslav Zaogrsky’s uncle, but Jadja is really in love with Boleslav—the freedom fighter, who sneaks back to the estate with his companion Stasi under the assumed name of Jan Barutzki. He and Jadja get together and swear eternal love while Suza has arrived, is not amused, but cuddles up to her boyfriend Casimir.

The drunken, misogynist Count Staschek arrives and asks Oginsky if Jadja has consented to marry him. Everybody dances (hey,. it’s a harvest festival, remember?). Staschek and Oginsky, coming back from a big dinner, surprise Jadja and Boleslav, who reveals his real identity and demands to marry her. When a Russian captain arrives in search of Boleslav, however, Staschek refuses to betray him as long as Jadja agrees to marry him instead of Boleslav. The plot thickens!

Act 2. The Oginsky estate is preparing for Jadja’s wedding while Suza tells Boleslav that she can provide him and Jadja with a stagecoach to help them elope across the border. Suza then orders Casimir to get Staschek drunk before the ceremony so he will notice nothing. When Staschek finally wonders where his fiancee is, with the wedding about to begin, Suza tells him Jadja has eloped, but the crafty Count has sent a coach of his own to go and chase the happy couple and bring them back.

Jadja sings a sad lament before going off to be married to Staschek, but Suza has one more surprise in store: she is the one wearing the wedding dress and veil, thus she is the one who marries Staschek!

Act 3. Suza has both verbally abused and physically thrashed Staschek. Groaning in pain, he curses women. Casimir comes to say goodbye to Suza, who explains that she will make Staschek’s life a living hell until he agrees to a divorce…on her terms. Eventually under pressure, Staschek tells Oginsky to pay Boleslav his inheritance and lets Suza go. The happy couple are now free to marry while Staschek gives up women altogether in favor of booze.

Conductor Ulf Schirmer has the full measure of this delightful piece under the tip of his baton, the orchestra plays its heart out, and all of our singers have good voices, particularly tenor Nikolai Schukoff as Boleslav (Nicolai Gedda or Fritz Wunderlich would have had a ball with this part!) and both sopranos, Martina Rüping and Susanne Bernhard. But not only good, firm, attractive voices, but wonder of wonders, perfect diction! You can make out every syllable as if it were etched in glass with acid. And what brio they all have!

This is an absolutely thrilling and ear-opening release, the kind of operetta that makes you scratch your head and wonder why people still listen to the highly overrated Die Fledermaus when something like this is available. Well, because it hasn’t been available…but maybe now that will change. If you have any room in your heart for lighthearted music with a kick, Polnische Hochzeit has to be in your music collection.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Fascinating CPE Bach Pieces on New CD

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C.P.E. BACH: Der Frühling. Sinfonia in A min. for 2 Violins & Basso Continuo. 3 Arias for Tenor, WQ 211. Trio Sonata in B-flat for 2 Violins & Basso Continuo. Fürsten Sind am Lebensziele, WQ 214. Selma, WQ 236. Sonatina in D min., WQ 104 / Café Zimmermann; Rupert Charlesworth, tenor / Alpha 257

The astonishing rise of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in my own lifetime from “one of Bach’s sons” to his present status as one of the most creative and influential of 18th-century composers has been, for me at least, extremely gratifying. I can still remember when his own Magnificat in D was first issued on a recording in the early 1970s; critics were astonished to discover a voice that was equally as masterful as his father but one that struck out on an entirely new path of melodic and harmonic invention. Mind you, C.P.E. Bach was always respectful of his father. When he was one of the court composers for Frederick the Great in Prussia, he had his father come and visit the court, following which—as a gift for the King—J.S. Bach wrote his Musical Offering. Shortly after his father’s death, both he and his older brother Wilhelm Friedemann poured their own money into the publication of their father’s Art of Fugue, which did so poorly that it barely sold 30 copies in three years. And much later, when he was settled in Hamburg, he mounted a performance of part of his father’s Mass in B Minor. Yet there was no question, once he left Friedrich’s service, that his individuality as a composer really blossomed.

The performances on this disc suffer to some degree from the cramped, whining sound of straight tone violins, but for the most part Café Zimmermann plays with great brio and, thank goodness, dynamics and lyricism. And even from the very first piece, Der Fühling, one is immediately aware of C.P.E. Bach’s genius. What starts out like a conventional Classical-era aria eventually morphs into a highly diverse and wholly unpredictable work in which the harmonies slip-slide up, down and sideways, the melodic line breaks up into little cells, and keeps going in directions entirely different from what the listener expects. This was the kind of genius that one also hears in his symphonies, which have to be among the most precious and unusual works of the entire Classical era. Even Mozart admired “the great Bach’s” genius, though he was personal friends with his younger brother Johann Christian Bach. Ironically, no biographical information is provided in the booklet on the very fine tenor Rupert Charlesworth. I had to go online to discover that he is a British tenor who graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, was a 2011 Academy Laureate of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, and won both First Prize and Audience Prize at the 2013 Handel Singing Competition.

It is in the instrumental Sinfonia and the trio sonata that the inherent weakness and false musicality of the edgy-straight-tone style manifests itself most. Here, the ugly sounds of bows scraping strings without any mercy for the poor listener recall what some 18th-century music critics complained of, that some of the poorer orchestras could not be listened to up close because the scrape of bows on strings was too abrasive for the listener to tolerate, but that they sounded a little better when one heard them from a distance. So you see, dear reader, this is what these “straight-tone” people are trying to accomplish: they want to make their listeners feel uncomfortable and hate the sound of their instruments because that’s what is “authentic” to them. Real, authentic repulsion towards classical music.

That being said, the music itself is interesting and would certainly have benefited from a less strictly dogmatic application of these aesthetics. Even in the most formally conventional movements, Bach had his own peculiar musical vocabulary, and in such moments as the last movement one hears his effective use of dramatic contrast between a hard, strict sort of march beat and more lyrical episodes in between. A sudden decelerando in the middle is yet another unexpected moment, which repeats itself near the end.

In the Three Arias, there are more delightful surprises from Bach, although in these pieces I came to realize that Charlesworth, for all his vocal prowess, is an essentially one-dimensional and uninteresting interpreter. Ironically, the Trio Sonata in B-flat only has a few features of interest or individuality about it, particularly in the second movement.

Of the remaining pieces on this disc, pride of place goes to the brief cantata Selma, set to a poem by Johann Heinrich Voss. This, according to the notes, started out as a song with piano. Perhaps the strangest thing about Selma is that the music stops right in the middle of nowhere. Strange indeed. The final Keyboard Sonatina in D minor is one of Bach’s real gems, a delightful piece with unusual touches but not too outré for the average listener. Here, at least, Café Zimmermann modifies its bow pressure on the strings to produce an almost lovely sound, and the interplay of the winds (two flutes and two horns) is carefully crafted. An excellent piece, indeed…almost as great as some of his symphonies!

Although this disc is a bit of a mixed bag, I give it an eventual one thumb up, primarily for the high quality of most of the works presented here but also for the excellent performance style in the two cantatas and the Sonatina.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Milhaud’s Early and Late String Sonatas Surprise

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MILHAUD: Viollin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Printemps. Capriccio No. 13 de Paganini. 4 Visages for Viola & Piano. Viola Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 / Gran Duo Italiano: Mauro Tortorelli, violinist/violist; Angela Meluso, pianist / Brilliant Classics 95232

The liner notes of this release begin with a startling claim by annotator Francesco Maschio:

Darius Milhaud is not exactly in the limelight right now. If Web visibility is what establishes the degree of popularity of an artist, just as it is of a brand, then there is no avoiding the fact that the French composer is gradually slipping towards oblivion.

As things stand right now, there are entries in the illustrious IRCAM catalogue for practically all contemporary composers and those of the twentieth century except Darius Milhaud, who is not honoured with even the briefest biographical note.

His presence in the digital universe is limited to various versions of Wikipadia, and a blog established by the association “Le amis de Darius Milhaud,” whose concept of friendship has not urged them to update the information provided relating to “the French musician of Jewish religion from Provence,” as Milhaud liked to describe himself…

If this is true it is certainly criminal. Milhaud, originally part of the group of French composers referred to as “Les Six” but then branching out beyond them, was surely one of the most prolific and creative minds in music during the 20th century. Granted, except for his jazz-inspired orchestral piece Le Creation du Monde and the South American-inspired Le Boeuf sur la Toit he was not terribly well known to American or British concertgoers even during his lifetime, but just the sheer presence of those two works were enough to keep his name alive and in fact led to his teaching music in California during the 1940s, where he had the unique distinction of fostering a whole group of young jazz musicians who wanted to learn the underlying principles of modern classical form to apply to their jazz. Pianist Dave Brubeck was his most famous pupil, but there were also Dave van Kreidt, Bob and Dick Collins, Paul Desmond and Cal Tjader. And in recent years his immense operatic masterpiece L’Orestie d’Eschyle has been revived with great interest.

This collection is essentially split 50/50 between his works for violin and those for viola, but stylistically between his earliest days as a composer (Opp. 3 through 40) and his later self (Opp. 238-244), and it is interesting to note that the violin works occupy the early material while the viola takes center stage in the later. Indeed, the Op. 3 Violin Sonata sounds so much like something that Gabriel Fauré or Camille Saint-Saens might have done that in a blindfold test the name of Milhaud would probably be one of the last one would guess. It is played beautifully, but to be honest, as the sonata progresses it becomes less interesting musically, with the last movement sounding particularly derivative and even leaden in rhythm. There are flashes here and there (particularly in the first movement) of the Milhaud to come, but not enough to recommend this music as interesting or inspiring. The same may also be said for Printemps and the Capriccio No. 13 de Paganini, but in the Violin Sonata No. 2 we already hear the mature Milhaud coming through, with his unique harmonic sense and form overcoming the occasional lapses into late Romanticism. One aspect of this music I found particularly interesting in the first movement were sequences of almost bitonal violin chords, sounding for all the world like something Joe Venuti would do in the late 1920s and early ‘30s.

Interestingly, despite its early opus number and its obvious homage to Paganini, the Capriccio is surprisingly original and contains several ideas—particularly in the rhythm—that were to surface in his mature music. This is immediately signaled by the 4 Visages for Viola and Piano, Op. 238. Probably because he was writing for a string instrument, the music here is still strongly lyrical, using long lines and recognizably tonal melodic structure, but there are constant indications and signposts of the mature Milhaud in the constant harmonic shifts within each piece. Mauro Tortorelli, whose violin playing was very bright, almost a bit metallic in tone quality, displays a surprisingly dark viola tone. This works particularly well in the Viola Sonata No. 1, harmonically more conventional for later Milhaud but very mature in the way he kept his musical ideas shifting and evolving. It’s the kind of work that grabs your attention and holds it in spite of its bias towards conventional tonality.

The first movement of the Viola Sonata No. 2 begins with a rhythm that almost sounds like an Irish jig, but as soon as the viola enters the harmonies become ambiguous and the entire mood shifts. It’s not a great work, but it is an interesting one, though I felt that the first movement went on about a half-minute too long. The second movement, however, is one of his greatest creations, a deeply-felt piece—titled “Dramatique”—played with great feeling by both Tortorelli and Meluso. This is quite a departure for the normally “cool” Milhaud, who disliked music that wore its heart on its sleeve. At the 3:20 mark, the viola plays an unusual passage on the edge of the strings, creating a slightly edgy mood. And the third movement dispenses with strict tonality, plunging the listener into a bitonal, rather edgy mood as if racing towards a sort of emotional precipice.

All in all, then, this is an interesting if artistically uneven view of Milhaud’s work for solo strings. It is, however, recommended for the specific works I praised above as well as for the excellent playing of Gran Duo Italiano.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Kitayenko’s Superb New “Nutcracker” Great for Dancing

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TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker. STRAVINSKY: Le Baiser de la Fée: Divertimento / Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra; Dmitrij Kitayenko, conductor / Oehms Classics OC448

Finding new recordings of the Nutcracker, like Messiah, is never very difficult, but finding recordings that 1) do justice to the score without being too fast for dancing and 2) have life and lift to them is not as easy. I’ve sampled so many versions over the decades, but have never previously found a single version to compete with Artur Rodzinski (Westminster) or, best of all, Richard Bonynge (Decca).

Well, now I’ve found one. Dmitrij Kitayenko, who is certainly no spring chicken (he’s 11 years older than I am, which makes him 76), quite obviously has this music in his blood and, better yet, is able to convey exactly want he wants to the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra. On top of this, the recorded sound is absolutely, positively fantastic. Inner voices come leaping out of your speakers as clearly as they did with Rodzinski, but the more modern microphone placement and a little more space around the instruments provides a welcome twinkle, so to speak, to the proceedings.

Many Nutcracker aficionados base their reaction to a recording by the “characteristic dances,” but when listening to the complete ballet I always prefer those moments in the first half in which Tchaikovsky created tone portraits of the characters—Drosselmeyer, Clara, the Nutcracker and the Mouse King—and, best of all, the “growing of the tree” scene which has to be one of the composer’s most inspired moments. A good example of what I mean by “danceable” tempos comes early on, in the “March,” too often taken at a blistering pace that seems more like a polka tempo than a march. Kitayenko may be a shade slow here, but it’s better than being too fast, and as throughout this performance the inner voices just swirl around you and make you think, “I’ve never heard it quite like that before!”

In addition to providing us with a Nutcracker that is both a fine dancing version and a delightful listening experience, Kitayenko also manages something few other conductors are able to do, and that is to inject some personality into the musical portrayals of the characters. My sole complaint of this performance is that Kitayenko sometimes loses forward momentum, but not often enough to be problematic. In the most complex scene—the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” and the ensuing battle of the mice—he has as firm a grasp on the music as anyone.

Kitayenko fills out the second disc with the Divertimento from Stravinsky’s Tchaikovsky-inspired ballet La Baiser de la Fée, which some critics feel is his best work. Here the conductor is a bit on the slow side but once again provides an almost X-ray hearing of the score.

Overall, I still think the Bonynge recording is the finest ever made—and I’m not a really big Bonynge fan—but this one is a close second of those recorded after 1970. And as I said earlier, the sonics are simply unreal. Just a for-instance: have you ever heard the solo violin behind the solo flute in the “Waltz of the Flowers”? I never have. But it’s there!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Ginastera’s Mindblowing Early Ballet Impresses

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GINASTERA: Panambi (Choreographic Legend in One Act)*. Piano Concerto No. 2# / #Xiayin Yang, pianist; *Ladies of Manchester Chamber Choir; BBC Philharmonic Orch.; Juanjo Mena, conductor / Chandos 10923

This is Vol. 2 of a projected series of Ginastera’s orchestral works on Chandos. Vol. 1 (Chandos 10884) included Estancia, Ollantay and Pampeana No. 3. This one goes backward in time to begin with Panambi, the ballet score from 1934-37 which was his Op. 1, then fast-forwards to the 1972 Piano Concerto No. 2 when he had incorporated serialism in his music.

For Ginastera, color was as much an important part of his music as form, thus even from the first soft bars of Panambi one is immersed in soft pastels. Although this music is not nearly as harmonically complex as his later work, it is by no means mooshy-gooshy Romanticism, either; even at this early date, Ginastera was using some quite complex chord positions in his music, even overlaying one chord on another at times to enhance the texture. I am happy to say that conductor Mena has absorbed all of this and brings it out of the BBC Philharmonic with great skill and, best of all, clarity.

The composer quite clearly preferred the French school to the German; there is much of Dukas and Ravel in this score as well as a touch of Stravinsky. Speaking of the latter composer, he once asked Claude Debussy what he really thought of The Firebird, to which—after a pause—Debussy shrugged and said, “Everyone has to start somewhere.” Well, of course The Firebird is far from an immature composition, it just isn’t the fully formed Stravinsky of Sacre du Printemps or Les Noces; but it wasn’t his first published composition, either. For a debut work, Panambi is absolutely masterful, and not just in harmony and texture. The organic unity of the music is truly astounding, and if some of the motor rhythms (as in the “Danza de los guerre”) do hark back to Sacre, there is so much originality in the score that one is taken aback by Ginastera’s compositional audacity. Note, for instance, how the very next scene pulls back on both tempo and volume, receding into a world of remarkable orchestral color which defines the music as much as the brief melodic figures. His models are clear, but the way he re-uses their influence is startling and entirely his own.

Indeed, as the work progresses one is reminded as much if not more of the lyrical scores of Debussy (e.g., Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune) and Ravel than of anything Argentinian. Indeed, only the latter part of the score, such as the “Invocaciòn a los espiritus” and “Danza del Hechicero,” really has a strong Latin flavor about it. The liner notes also praise his grasp of color, even in the quietest passages; it is music that literally splashes across the mind like a spray fountain at night before a row of colored lights. And the music never becomes stagnant or overstays its welcome. I was rather startled to discover that this is one of only two recordings of this work available, the other one being on Naxos by the excellent conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor, but the spectacular sonics of this release and Mena’s more idiomatic reading give it a slight edge over hers. The women’s chorus that emerges in “El Amancer [Dawn]” has a feeling similar to “Neptune, the Mystic” from Holst’s The Planets.

The Piano Concerto is an entirely different animal, even as concerti go, since its first movement is set up as a theme and 32 variations, “accordo di Beethoven.” Interestingly, the infusion of serialism in Ginastera’s music, though it certainly changed the harmonic progression, didn’t really alter his sense of color or his penchant for atmosphere. Nor does it inhibit his penchant for strong rhythms, as one will note when listening to the first movement. Nonetheless, I felt that some of this later work was a bit more intellectual in concept and not really spontaneous in its outpouring. This doesn’t mean that the music is poor or uninteresting, only that there is a certain feeling of contrivance here that doesn’t seem to be present in Panambi. The composer quite evidently tried to take an entirely new approach to the piano concerto, creating music in which the solo instrument is front stage center while the orchestra acts more as “color commentary” around it. I found this extraordinarily interesting while still admitting that the score’s creation was obviously less spontaneous.

Listening to the concerto, particularly the first movement, one is so immersed in the sound and color of the music that the “theme and 32 variations” don’t even register as such unless you are following it with a score in hand. Similarly, the remaining movements, though centered around less variations, have the same basic impact. This is the kind of music in which a super-virtuoso is more impressive than a sensitive pianist; Ginastera’s world of color and rhythm never had much room in it for water-eyed ascetics. I’d love to hear Marc-André Hamelin or even Martha Argerich, whose playing I generally dislike, take a shot at this score…with the right conductor, of course. At certain moments, such as the middle of the second movement when the tympani whacks emerge, one is reminded of parts of Panambi in its use of color. In that respect, Ginastera varied his approach but never really left it behind. At first, the opening notes of the third movement suggest a more conventional “Adagio,” but it isn’t long before Ginastera tosses in a few odd, eerie string chords to disorient the listener. A series of rising right-hand trills on the piano lead one into a sequence that includes staccato bitonal chords and even a few pounded low bass notes. “Quasi una fantasia,” my eye! though that is what this movement is marked. As the music becomes more agitated, the piano trills become more insistent and the string chords louder before the volume recedes, leading to an almost pensive series of single notes in the right hand and occasional chords in the left.

In the last movement, which strangely enough begins with edgy brass chords and a cadenza before romping into a prestissimo finale, brings this very strange piano concerto to its close. In the latter half, the piano plays repeated staccato notes followed by rapid eighth-note runs up and down the keyboard while the brass plays crescendi using cup mutes to bring their sound up from soft to loud. The strings swirl around when called for, and the later section of this movement combines the brass and strings in edgy, high-range sound mixtures. It’s quite the wild ride, ending quite suddenly with a mixed brass chord.

What a fabulous recording! Give this one a ride.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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George Antheil, the Madman of Music, Comes to Life

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GEORGE ANTHEIL: BAD BOY OF MUSIC / ANTHEIL: Fireworks and the Profane Waltzes. Jazz Sonata. Sonatina, “Death of the Machines.” Second Sonata, “The Airplane.” Sonatina for Radio. Little Shimmy “Für mein nur einziger Böski.” The Golden Bird, after Brancusi. Piano Sonata No. 4: III. Finale: Presto / Gottlieb Wallisch, pianist; Christopher Roth, English narrator; Karl Markovics, German narrator / Paladino Music 0075

This is one of the very few recitals devoted entirely to the music of the American “bad boy of music,” George Antheil, and according to Arkivmusic the only recordings of Fireworks and the Profane Waltzes, only the second recording of The Golden Bird and only the third of the Sonatina for Radio. Since there are spoken narrations from the writing of Anthiel between each number, there are two CDs, one with narration in English and the second with narration in German but with the same music programmed in the exact same order.

But this scarcely tells the whole story. Those unfamiliar with Antheil, or those who only know him from his most famous composition, the Ballet Mécanique, will have no idea what they are listening to. Antheil, who studied piano with a pupil of Franz Liszt (Constantin von Sternberg), was so obsessed with music that he played it “16 hours a day” according to his friend Ben Hecht, “until he had to cure his swollen fingers in an ice bucket.” He apparently hammered the keyboard as if his hands were sledge hammers; thus one would think that the best possible pianist for his music would be a super-virtuoso like Marc-André Hamelin, who has indeed recorded his Jazz Sonata.

Gottlieb Wallisch is far from being that kind of pianist. Despite having a wonderful technique, he employs some rubato and plays more sensitively than Antheil apparently did. But before you write him off as inappropriate for this music, hold your horses and look at some of the titles: many of these pieces, in fact most of them, were influenced by the music of The Jazz Age. Antheil, although an American, received most of his “jazz” influence secondhand because he spent most of his career in France and Germany. As I explained in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, most Europeans—and Americans living in Europe—had no clue what real jazz was. To them, it was just loud, syncopated dance music, much closer related to a sort of noisy ragtime than anything that Bix Beiderbecke, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton were playing. Indeed, I seriously doubt that Antheil ever heard any of these musicians until the 1930s when their names became better known.

But the jazz element, though crude and basic, was still there in between the notes on the printed page, and if a sensitive pianist with an ear for jazz comes to these works, he or she can bring them out, just as one could do for the jazz-influenced music of Erwin Schulhoff or Maurice Ravel. And this is exactly what Wallisch does. He has the kind of technique I describe as “sparkling”: the music literally ripples out from under his fingers, at full volume similarly to the way Hamelin plays, as is evident in the opening work. “Fireworks,” indeed! The Profane Waltzes that follow have all the sparkle one could possibly want, but note how Wallisch can bring the music down to a whisper and stretch out the tempo ever so slightly to provide a few moments of “breathing room” in the music. The effect is almost uncanny, taking these scores out of the realm of dated novelties and making them living, breathing music.

It is evident that Antheil was influenced harmonically by Scriabin and rhythmically by both “hot jazz” and Stravinsky. As the liner notes confirm, “Antheil’s compositions are…more like collages, with intentional inconsistencies, gaps and fades. They question categories like ‘form and ‘taste’ in a way that seem oddly modern.” I happen to have Hamelin’s recording of the Jazz Sonata, and although it is powerful it doesn’t swing. Wallisch makes it swing. Right or wrong? If you compare it to such ragtime novelties of the time as Zez Confrey’s famous Kitten on the Keys, it’s wrong, but if you compare it to Jelly Roll Morton’s Shreveport Stomp, contemporary with Confrey, it’s right.

Since I don’t speak German, I skipped the German-language disc entirely, but I can tell you that English narrator Christopher Roth sounds far too polished, polite and professional to even come close to capturing the nervous energy that was Antheil, so you have to stretch your imagination and listen to the words rather than the delivery. It’s wonderfully colorful and even a bit surreal at times, as when Antheil describes living across from the Trenton State Prison listening to inmates digging tunnels under the ground at night! The narration also fills in a lot of info on the progress of Antheil’s career, how he managed to find a good agent, how he assembled his programs (combining Chopin with Schoenberg) to the confounding of old ladies with ear trumpets. He described his manager as looking like Sydney Greenstreet and himself as looking like Peter Lorre. Obviously, Antheil was as colorful in his language as he was in his music. I mean, what other pianist do you know who concealed a .38 automatic under his dress jacket every time he played a concert?

Despite his greater affinity for jazz swing, Wallisch also gets the more mechanical rhythms of Antheil right when they are called for, as in the “Death of the Machines” sonatina which sounds for all the world like a piece from Ballet Mécanique, or the “Airplane” Sonata. Antheil always ended his recitals with “ultra-modern works,” Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Auric, Milhaud, Ornstein or one of his own pieces, particularly Fireworks and the Profane Waltzes or the Jazz Sonata. This flavor is fully captured in the performances on this disc, moments of sensitivity or not. Audience unease and even occasional riots greeted these pieces when Antheil played them, according to the narration, so if you feel a bit uneasy listening to Antheil, that was his purpose! Erik Satie was a huge fan, and when present would applaud wildly at these cacophonous musical outbursts, shouting, “What precision! What precision!” You get the same feeling listening to this disc. Listen, for instance, to the “Airplane” Sonata, where Wallisch stomps like mad through the first movement, but then pulls back on the gas and provides some surprisingly tender moments at the beginning of the second.

Sometimes I felt that the narration, though colorful and informative (in Paris of the 1920s, “pay-to-play” music critics were just as ubiquitous and corrupt as they are now), went on a bit too long. It’s the sort of thing that is intriguing and informative on first listening, but I can see where it might wear thin by the third or fifth. One for-instance is his long narration on the Ballet Mécanique; an interesting story, and colorful as usual, but so what? The music itself isn’t even on this CD. It’s the kind of story that could have been put in the liner notes while an extra piano piece was included on the disc. Of course, this is just my own feeling; it may not be yours.

Still, as your ears wander through this recording, you can’t help but be so totally immersed in Antheil’s world—the world of his music and the world of his colorful anecdotes—that you come out the other end with, at the very least, an appreciation for what he was trying to do, even if what you hear isn’t entirely to your taste. As in the case of Schulhoff’s jazz-influenced piano works, Antheil’s music can be heard as a precursor of more modern jazz piano works, whether or not those future jazz composers actually heard Antheil and Schulhoff or not. The point is that the music that influenced them, Stravinsky, Milhaud and Schoenberg, also came to influence Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck and others. The stream of musical influence is, and has never been, a straight line; it swirls and eddies around the rocks and broken branches that are in the river. And sooner or later, some jazz pianists must have run across Antheil; up until his untimely death in 1959, you could hardly have ignored him.

This, then, is a very fine album, a bit pricey considering that you’re only buying the second CD to get the same music with German narration, yet valuable nonetheless.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Victor’s Biggest Bonehead Errors

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“The World’s Greatest Artists Are on Victor Records,” saith the advertisements. Well, a great many certainly were, but there were some originally signed to the label that the company execs let walk, and several of these went on to become the biggest record sellers of all time. And then there were the ones who Victor did sign to long-term contracts who turned out to be duds. Let’s take a look at both types, shall we?

The Big Ones That Got Away

Although he is rather obscure nowadays, black comedian Bert Williams—he wasn’t African-American because he was born in the Bahamas and his family never saw Africa in their entire history—was one of the biggest box-office draws of all time, the only solo black star of Ziegfeld’s Follies and the first black member of Actors’ Equity (thanks to the pressure of his friend, W.C. Fields). Victor had him in 1900-01 when he was teamed up with George Walker, who had to leave the act due to illness a few years later, but by 1904 he was signed to rival Columbia where he sold records like hotcakes. Why Victor let him walk is a mystery, as they always seemed to be looking for “Negro entertainment” to sell to audiences.

jolson-labelIt may be hard to believe, but Al Jolson started his recording career with Victor in 1913 but didn’t even last six months. The company thought he would never be as big a name as Irving S. Kaufman, so they kept Irving and ditched Al. By 1927 Kaufman was reduced to singing one-chorus vocals on “hot” dance records for Victor while Jolson was packing them in at the Palladium and the Winter Garden. As all Jolson historians know, he too switched to rival Columbia which did very well by him, then in the late 1920s switched over to Brunswick and ended his career as a major “Personality Series” star for Decca. Likewise, Victor lost Jolson’s close friend Eddie Cantor, who also jumped to Brunswick and then to Decca.

Another major error was in letting crooner Bing Crosby go, but this had more to do with negative critical reaction than short-sightedness. During his years with bandleader Paul Whiteman, as both a solo singer and a member of the Rhythm Boys, Crosby had a light, dry, husky-sounding voice that didn’t go over well with record buyers or critics, who kept telling Victor and Whiteman to leave him off the records. Ironically, one of his last Victor recordings was a 1930 date as part of the Rhythm Boys singing with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, Three Little Words. He too went to Brunswick and then Decca, where he stayed into the 1950s. But in this one instance, perhaps we should cut Victor a little slack, because they did sign Crosby’s biggest rival, Russ Columbo, and it wasn’t their fault that he died of an accidental gunshot wound to the temple in 1934 at the age of 26. At the time of his death, Columbo was beginning to overtake Crosby as a major star.

Enrico Caruso may have been “The World’s Greatest Tenor,” but Moravian Leo Slezak wasn’t far behind. In fact, Caruso was a little jealous of Slezak’s ability to alternate full-throated high notes with soft, high singing of the most delicate kind. He made a few records for Victor while he was at the Metropolitan Opera, and some of his G&T records also came out on Victor, but they just wouldn’t offer him a five-year contract. As a result, Leo was all over the place, recording for Columbia, Pathé and Edison during his Metropolitan Opera years, then for a series of European labels (including Electrola, the German wing of HMV) during the electrical era.

In 1925 The Boswell Sisters made their first records for Victor, and they sold very well, prompting A&R man Eddie King to offer them a contract, but at that time the girls were still teenagers (Vet was only 14) so their parents wouldn’t let them travel to Camden, NJ from New Orleans to cut records. OK, I understand that; but five years later, when they were already in California and creating a sensation, they made two sides for Victor in which they sang one chorus on otherwise instrumental records (We’re on the Highway to Heaven and That’s What I Like About You)! Failing to capitalize on their burgeoning fame, Victor let them get away to—you guessed it—Brunswick, and later to Decca.

Louis Armstrong, having already made some sensational recordings for Gennett, OKeh and Brunswick, was signed by RCA during 1931-33, but once again they let a goldmine walk. Louis jumped to Decca where he stayed until 1946 when RCA suddenly took an interest in him again and signed him to make a few recordings—but only a few. He quickly went back to Decca where he stayed until the label’s director, Jack Kapp, started his own Kapp Records in the early 1960s.

The Budapest String Quartet made their earlier records (1927-1936) for EMI, which of course came out on Victor in the U.S., and once they came here to escape Nazi persecution they recorded for the American label as well. But once again Victor failed to capitalize on their name and success; they recorded performances by them that they refused to release, then just stopped recording them altogether in 1939. So in 1940, the quartet was one of a number of Victor properties, among them soprano Bidù Sayão, tenor Lauritz Melchior, and the New York Philharmonic, who jumped ship to the new CBS-owned Columbia Records. nypo-toscaniniMelchior returned to RCA in 1944 but the New York Philharmonic stayed, thus depriving RCA of all those great recordings made by the orchestra under Artur Rodzinski, Dmitri Mitropoulos and Leonard Bernstein. A goldmine, indeed! Columbia made so much money off of just those two properties, the Budapest Quartet and the New York Philharmonic, to fill their coffers for generations. Footnote: because of their bitterness in the way they were treated by RCA, the Budapest Quartet members refused to allow RCA Victor to reissue their early recordings for EMI, which were really among their very best, but instead gave permission to Columbia to work out a short-term deal with EMI to put them out on Odyssey LPs in the 1970s.

Another one of those 1940 defectors to Columbia was soprano Lily Pons. In her case it was probably predestined because she was married in 1938 to conductor André Kostelanetz, who was signed to Columbia the year before.

And as for “lost crooners,” RCA Victor didn’t just lose Bing Crosby but also his younger rival and successor, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra, who made his very first records for Columbia sinatra-bluebird-78in 1939 when he was singing with the big band of Harry James, was on RCA during his stint with bandleader Tommy Dorsey, 1940-42, but never thereafter. But there’s a back story to this. In 1942 Sinatra made two recordings for RCA’s inexpensive Bluebird label without the Dorsey band, obviously already thinking of a solo career (The Night We Called it a Day b/w Night and Day and The Lamplighter’s Serenade b/w The Song is You), but Victor declined to offer him any further solo sessions, so once he left Dorsey he also left Victor and went back to Columbia (and later, Capitol). Yet it’s difficult to think of two more lucrative talents to let get away than Crosby and Sinatra.

Likewise, RCA signed bebop trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie to a three-year contract in 1946, and they did promote his records fairly well, but once his contract expired Dizzy started his own label, Dee Gee, and after that signed with Norman Granz’s Verve label. Those Gillespie RCA discs are among the most exciting and important of his entire career, yet the trumpeter never returned to the label, not even as a guest artist!

Soprano Eileen Farrell, who had the most unusual and independent career of any classical singer in history, was an RCA artist in the late 1940s and early ‘50s when she made two of her greatest recordings: the complete final duet from Wagner’s Siegfried with tenor Set Svanholm, and the Beethoven 9th Symphony under Arturo Toscanini. Yet Victor thought so little of her that they let her go shortly after that, whence she, to, jumped ship to Columbia.

And speaking of Columbia, they raided RCA once again in 1943, taking with them the Philadelphia Orchestra and soprano Helen Traubel, considered to be the second-greatest Wagnerian soprano in the world after Kirsten Flagstad. Traubel did come back to RCA in 1950, by which time she had stopped singing opera, to record a couple of hysterically funny duets with comedian Jimmy Durante, but the Philadelphia Orchestra was lost to them. This had one bad effect almost immediately, in that Toscanini could not re-record the orchestral works he had made with the orchestra while they were with RCA due to a technical failure in the electroplating process that marred the records with loud ticks, pops and other surface noise. RCA probably figured that the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy wasn’t going to sell as well as they had done under Leopold Stokowski, but by golly, they were wrong. Next to the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra was one of Columbia’s geese that laid golden eggs all through the 1940s, ‘50s and ’60s. But RCA’s bungle with Philadelphia wasn’t over yet. When their Columbia contract finally expired, around 1969 or 1970, RCA re-signed them to the label, but except for a pretty good-selling recording of Holst’s The Planets, these later Philadelphia recordings bombed in sales. So they let them go again, upon which they signed with EMI and voila! started selling well again. Don’t ask.

Another jazz great who RCA let get away was Charles Mingus, who made exactly one album for them, the classic Tijuana Moods. that was in 1957, but they let the record sit in the can for FIVE YEARS before finally issuing it in 1962, by which time Mingus had switched to Atlantic Records.

The Mediocre Ones They Kept

In addition to Irving S. Kaufman, Victor also invested a great deal of money in tenor Richard Crooks and soprano Rose Bampton, two decent singers but not ones who inspired listeners or record sales. At the time they also let the New York and Philadelphia Orchestras walk, they retained hold of the Cincinnati and Indianapolis Symphony Orchestras in order to make relatively inexpensive classical records for their Red Seal catalog. Neither one sold very much for them, and by the early 1950s both were gone.

One big band Victor seemed infatuated with was that of Sammy Kaye, a schmaltzy outfit that played with swooping saxes and staccato trumpets. They did cash in on at least two really big hit records with Kaye, Daddy and It Isn’t Fair, but most of his other records were forgettable at best.

And while they were letting Charles Mingus and Shorty Rogers walk, they chose to sign Al Hirt to a long-term contract. Hirt was a fair Dixieland trumpeter who had two big hits for the label, Java and Sugar Lips, but that was about all. They also signed the mediocre crossover tenor Sergio Franchi to the label, probably as a substitute for the deceased Mario Lanza, but Franchi had neither the pipes nor the charisma of the Philadelphia-born tenor.

The Great Ones They Never Bothered to Sign

Long before Elvis Presley came around, there was a white male singer whose style could have been taken for an African-American artist, and that was the “red hot papa” of the 1920s, Cliff Edwards, who Victor never bothered to pursue. In the long run this may not have been such a bad choice, however, since Edwards’ career crashed and burned due to a drug habit and he had to be rescued from oblivion by Walt Disney who used him for the voice of Jiminy Cricket in his animated film, Pinocchio.

RCA also never seemed to care much about the Cleveland Orchestra, which (again) had Artur Rodzinski as its principal conductor for several years. Instead, RCA had the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which for many years was led by the competent but uninspiring Frederick Stock, then by the distinguished but poor-selling Désiré Defauw before Rodzinski had one season there, followed by Rafael Kubelik. In this case, however, RCA lucked out because Fritz Reiner followed Kubelik just in time for the early stereo era and his records sold very well indeed. Yet RCA missed out on the George Szell era, another goldmine for rival Columbia.

And while they were recording and promoting Dizzy Gillespie, I wonder why they never even thought of signing his counterpart, Charlie Parker, who after making a name for himself on the small Savoy and Dial labels jumped over to Norman Granz.

Thus you can see that Victor and its successor, RCA, made some pretty bad decisions regarding certain artists. You can probably say the same for almost any label, but by and large, once Goddard Lieberson took over, Columbia Records seemed to have the magic touch and almost every name artist they had, particularly in the classical field, sold well. Yet neither RCA nor Columbia bothered to do very much in the rock music field until the mid-1960s; RCA had Elvis and Columbia had…nobody, because Mitch Miller detested rock music.

And that’s all I have!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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