Freddy Cole’s Cool Christmas Album Reissued

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I WANT A SMILE FOR CHRISTMAS / COLE-FINCKLE: I Want a Smile for Christmas. PIERPONT: Jingle Bells. BERLIN: White Christmas. HAYES-JOHNSON: Blue Christmas. STOCK-BRYAN: A Cradle in Bethlehem. PARKER: Jack Frost Snow. Jingles, the Christmas Cat. Old Days, Old Times, Old Friends. REDNER-BROOKS: O Little Town of Bethlehem. TORMÉ-WELLS: The Christmas Song. GRUBER: Silent Night / Freddy Cole, pn/voc; Joe Ford, sop-sax; Joe Locke, vib; Larry Willis, pn; Jerry Byrd, gt; Tom Hubbard, bs; Steve Berries, dm/perc. / Fantasy FCD-9672-2

Nat “King” Cole was not quite 46 years old when he died of lung cancer in February 1965. I was so traumatized by his death, though only 14 at the time, that I could hardly accept it. I walked around in a daze for nearly two weeks, saddened beyond words by the loss of this beautiful man with the warm, burry voice and such exceptional piano skills that even masters like Bud Powell and Art Tatum learned a few things from him. And when I went to the movie theater that July to see Cat Ballou, I almost lost it when a bigger-than-life Nat Cole jumped up before me onscreen with Stubby Kaye to sing “The Ballad of Cat Ballou.” It was as if he had never died; there he was, smiling and singing, looking as well as ever.

Well, I experienced deja-vu as soon as I started listening to this album. I must have been living under a rock for the last half-century, because I swear to you, I never knew that Nat had a kid brother who sounded just like him. Did you? Lionel Frederick “Freddy” Cole, born in 1931, was 12 years younger than Nat and did not make his first recordings until 1954, but even so, where has he been all these years? Apparently on Fantasy Records, since this is one of six albums by him on that label, as well as Warner Jazz, which has at least three of them in their catalog.

Freddy’s voice has the same slightly burry, velvety warmth as his brother’s. He also plays piano, and very well, too, though his style is not as innovative as Nat’s. But the wonderful thing about Freddy, and this album, is its laid-back jazz feel that permeates throughout. Unlike his brother’s Christmas album, which was filled with manymore traditional songs (Deck the Halls, I Saw Three Ships, Adeste Fidelis, O Tannenbaum, The First Noel, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, O Hole Night, Joy to the World, etc.), Freddy gives us only five. The rest of the album is made up of more contemporary material, from Elvis Presley’s hit Blue Christmas to several songs probably new to most listeners. But his personal warmth and gently swinging piano permeate throughout.

Judging from this disc, made in 1994 when he was 63 years old, Freddy’s voice is slightly huskier than Nat’s, but so close in timbre that you’d be easily fooled—or easily fool someone else into thinking this record was by Nat. And maybe that was his problem in gaining traction as his own person all these years. Many female jazz singers, from Marilyn Moore to Madeleine Peyroux, have been knocked by critics for imitating Billie Holiday (although Moore always insisted that she wasn’t consciously trying to do so), so what room is there for Freddy in a world in which Nat’s recordings still sell almost as well as when he was alive? Mind you, I’m not trying to be mean-spirited or sarcastic, but you have to realize that this is how marketers will look at it. Freddy is quite talented but he’s not unique. He sounds a lot like Nat. And that is that.

Still, if you’re looking for something hip but a little different this Christmas season, I recommend that you give ole Freddy a spin. You can’t beat this style of jazz, particularly if you are a Nat Cole lover. It’s just so ingratiating that you feel as if you are transported to another world. By the way, he’s still with us at age 85, Lord bless him. So give Freddy a smile this Christmas; listening to him sing and swing, it’s not going to be hard to do.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Take This Music—For Free

The title of this article may sound pretty anarchist; in fact, it may even sound as if I were encouraging an illegal activity. But in point of fact, as I shall point out in short order, what I am saying is that modern American copyright laws regarding sound recordings, and particularly recordings older than 50 years, are virtually null and void, and that this nullification of existing copyright law has been effected mostly by the very companies that own the rights.

But first, some background. Up until about a decade ago, the statute of limitations on the callascopyright of ANY published work, whether in print media or recorded media, was 50 years. Period. End of sentence. No caveats, no further restrictions. But then poor little Naxos Records, which had been issuing historical classical recordings under its “Great Recordings of the Century” series for over a decade, started issuing the old mono opera recordings of Maria Callas.

EMI, which had made a bloody fortune off Callas’ recordings several times over (including a few times extra since her death), swung into action. You did NOT step on their biggest cash cow!!!

jiminySomehow or other, EMI was unable to sway British or other European countries into extending the length of copyright time to protect them, but in America they found three willing allies to come to their aid. These were the Walt Disney empire, which suddenly realized that all of those classic songs and animated movies they had made prior to Walt’s death were suddenly about to be pilfered by nefarious people for ill-gotten gain; Sony-RCA, which suddenly noticed that this would affect their stash of Elvis Presley recordings; and Capitol Records, a division of EMI, which also came to realize that the advent of The Beatles 50 years earlier was on the horizon. Thus they managed to get the U.S. Congress—weasels all, and beatlesforsale_1undoubtedly on the take from one or more of these organizations—to draw up one of the most binding, restrictive and far-reaching laws of all time, to wit, 95 years from the date of publication if copyright was renewed during the 28th year.

Incidentally—and I find this exceptionally interesting—sound recordings were originally NOT part of any copyright law in the United States. Did you know that? It’s true. Before 1972 recordings weren’t covered at all, which explains all those Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix bootleg albums that circulated in the late 1960s-early ‘70s. Yet although copyright was not extended to recordings, it was illegal to make copies of commercial recordings. Hmmm…what happened around 1972 that would have prompted such a move? Oh, yeah! It was the sudden proliferation of cassette tapes! Suddenly, people were taping their favorite LPs and even making free copies for their friends, thus eliminating said friends’ need to buy the LP.

elvis-presleyIn fact, that was the first really restrictive such law on records. The Sound Recording Amendment of 1971 extended federal copyright to recordings fixed on or after February 15, 1972, and declared that recordings fixed before that date would remain subject to state or common law copyright. Subsequent amendments have extended this latter provision until 2067, thus ensuring that some fat corporate pig who hasn’t even been born at this point will be ensured of sloughing off profits from records he doesn’t even yet know exist. Still, even now, all copyrightable works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain; works created before 1978 but not published until recently may be protected until 2047.

Fun, huh? So if you’re into historic jazz and classical recordings, the only ones that are fair game no matter what are the acoustic things made with those morning glory horns that sound like people singing and playing into a tin funnel.

But somewhere along the way, something happened to completely screw up this wonderful scheme that the Disney-Callas-Elvis-Beatles Law cooked up. That something was the collapse of the commercial CD market. Oh, sure, a good 20% of the population—like me—are still buying CDs or burning them from the downloads we get to review for our own personal use, no copies made for anyone else. But 80% of music lovers, and this includes classical and jazz lovers, no longer bother with CDs at all. They store their music on iPods, iPhones, tablets, droids or jump sticks, and then play them through crappy-sounding ear buds or almost-as-crappy speakers. This has put a considerable crimp in the major record labels’—and the indies’—ability to persuade what’s left of the market to buy physical CDs. In short, the entire industry has bottomed out.

What to do, what to do? Well, I’ll tell you what they’ve done. In a cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face move, the record labels—biggies and small ones, new releases and reissues—have put up audio files of complete works (symphonies, operas, concertos, chamber works etc.) on YouTube and Spotify for free streaming. But what this means is that anyone who has a computer with an audio editor downloaded to it, anything from Audacity (which is free and surprisingly powerful) to GoldWave or better systems, can record the streaming audio, make .wav files out of them, and burn them to a CD anytime they want.

Moreover, one of the industry giants, Sony Entertainment which owns the complete Sony Classical, former Columbia Masterworks and jazz series discs, and the entirety of the old RCA Victor catalog, has gone the others one step further. They have a service called Freegal, which stands for “free and legal,” which is leased through big city public libraries throughout the United States (and possibly in the UK and Australia for all I know). All you need to log in to Freegal is your library card number and a PIN. And once you’re logged in, nearly half of the world’s recordings are yours to take…for nothing. That’s right. Freegal allows users to download 7 tracks per week, to do whatever the hell you want to do with them, and unlimited free streaming. So if you’re a member of a household with two parents and two kids, and all of you have library cards, you could conceivably take turns logging in every week using your household’s card numbers and download 28 tracks. Every single week—no restrictions at all.

Moreover, as I indicated above, Freegal is not restricted to any genre or any particular era. I’ve seen a ton of modern, contemporary recordings offered there that I personally could care less about: Adele, Boyz 2 Men, The Piano Guys, and various rappers. I don’t even listen to them. But I’ve also found a treasure trove of things there, and as I say they’ve somehow gotten a ton of independent labels—the very people they passed their stupid law against—to allow their reissues of once-copyrighted material from RCA, Brunswick, OKeh, Pathé, Columbia, American Decca, Capitol and other labels to be downloaded and streamed free of charge. Lots of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Dorothy Donegan, Tiny Parham, Fats Waller, Horace Silver, Dave Brubeck, Clifford Brown, MJQ, you name it, they’re probably there. Freegal was where I went to find the out-of-print RCA recordings that the great cellist Emanuel Feuermann made with Jascha Heifetz, William Primrose and Arthur Rubinstein. They’re all there. So too are a bunch of Fritz Reiner, Charles Munch, George Szell and Herbert von Karajan recordings. I’ll bet you I’d find some of the modern-day people if I looked hard enough, too (I did find Wadada Leo Smith there). It’s like being a kid in a candy store on “Everything’s Free” day.

Ah, you say, but this would only benefit YOU personally, because we still have that 1972 law around that restricts copying and disseminating recorded material. Right?

Welllll…..as I’ve said, new innovations have led to new laws. In May of this year, 2016, Judge Percy Anderson ruled in a lawsuit between ABS Entertainment and CBS Radio that “remastered” versions of pre-1972 recordings can “receive a federal copyright as a distinct work [emphasis mine] due to the amount of creative effort expressed in the process.”

What does this mean? Why, that when a big label does a brand-new 24-bit high-definition mastering of, say, a 1962 stereo recording, and significantly changes the sound quality, it’s now suddenly a new recording. But with my audio editors, I can do the exact same thing myself with a 50-year-or-older recording, and guess what? I OWN THAT COPYRIGHT! And thus I can do anything with it that I damn well please, and the law can’t touch me! This, by the way, is also what protects such great independent classical labels as Pristine Classical, Guild, Immortal Performances, Nimbus, Marston and APR, which technically improve old studio and acetate recordings with new equalization, noise reduction and/or judicious amounts of reverb to enhance the original dead sound quality.

Thus the copyright law has finally come around full circle to bite the very corporations that enacted it in the first place in the behind. Not to mention that both the audio streaming websites (YouTube and Spotify) and Freegal, by their very nature, now VIOLATE one of the basic tenets of the law, which is “To digitally transmit sound recordings by means of digital audio transmission.”

The dog has not only chased its own tail; it has caught it, and is eating it.

And that is why I say unto thee, Go forth into the big, wide world, recognize the 50-year copyright if you want to be nice and fair, but do unto others as they are doing unto themselves and their artists. Namely, take what you can find for free and learn from it, study it, enjoy it, disseminate it.

And that wraps up my sermon for today: Take this music. Please.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Szymański’s Eccentric Harpsichord Pieces

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DISSOCIATIVE COUNTERPOINT DISORDER / SZYMAŃSKI: Dissociative Counterpoint Disorder. Through the Looking-Glass…III. Les Poiriers en Pologne ou une Suite de Pièces Sentimentales de Clavecin Faite Par Mr. Szymański. Partita III* / Małgorzata Sarbak, harpsichordist;*The Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra; *Zsolt Nagy, conductor / Dux 1332

Composer Paweł Szymańaski (b. 1954), of whom I had not previously heard, apparently enjoys starting his compositions in older classical music styles before tinkering with time, phrasing, and rhythm. In a conversation with musicologist Katarzyna Naliwajek-Mazurek, Szymański has said “I acquainted myself with the harpsichord very early, at 14 or 15, while attending music school. I was very close with Wladysław Klosiewicz, who had just started to learn harpsichord…I’ve been really interested to write for the harpsichord form time to time, first for the Limericks for violin and harpsichord.”

It should be noted for those who, like me, did not know about Szymański, that he has composed a great many pieces for chamber groups and full orchestras. Indeed, it seems that the last piece on this CD, Partita III, began its life as a concertante piece for a chamber group.

So what does this music sound like? Well, the best general description I can give is of a harpsichordist who begins playing a standard 18th-century piece but then begins to experience an ischemic attack and starts missing notes and beats. In the CD’s title piece, this extends to long pauses between notes or chords which disrupt the musical flow. This is what Dissociative Counterpoint refers to—a disruption of the coordination between the two hands so that the counterpoint one hears is not necessarily played in the exact same manner the ear expects. The music is a lot of fun and, I daresay, intriguing at the same time. Whether or not it is necessary music, music you will want to keep and re-hear several times, is entirely up to you.

Whatever your reaction to the music, however, there is no question but that harpsichordist Małgorzata Sarbak is fully into the spirit of this music and is having a ball playing it. Her spirited performances give the music life and lift, making the disc a joy to listen to even when one is having trouble trying to figure out just exactly what Szymański is trying to accomplish. In Through the Looking-Glass…III it seems to be cracked-mirror reflections of groups of notes, in which the right-hand figures sometimes complement and sometimes work against the left, which latches onto phrases and repeats them several times before letting them go. Moreover, my allusion above to Szymański’s music as zaniness with a purpose is not without its verification from others. According to the liner notes, Polish music critic Andrzej Chlopecki, who supported the composer via his longtime role with the Warsaw Autumn Festival, described his music as “a continual game,” comparing it to the music of Johannes Ockgehem and Anton Webern. Chlopecki said that Szymański’s “guiding principles would be speculation and constructivism.”

The suite Les Poiriers en Pologne etc. is the closest to 18th-century form and the least disruptive and wild. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Les Poiriers en Pologne is an indication of just how fine a composer Szymański really is; without actually copying anything genuinely Baroque, he manages to make the piece sound authentically Baroque—far better than Paderewski even did with his famed Minuet in G. And here, Sarbak’s playing is equally elegant, letting the music flow and sing beneath her fingers. (For the curious, the pieces in the suite follow the standard Baroque formula of Introduction, Allemande, Courante, Gavotte, Sarabande and Rondeau before the introduction of a movement titled “Jacques ou Canaries,” following which is a Menuet and a Chaconne.) I should also point out that Sarbak’s harpsichord is recorded very, very well.

The rather long Partita III (15:11) which closes out this CD was, as mentioned earlier, a chamber work which Szymański rescored here for full orchestra with harpsichord obbligato. It makes a fitting bookend with the opening work due to its equally playful deconstruction of melody and rhythm, similarly stopping several times and then squeaking out one painful-sounding note here and there. Apparently, this is one of his calling-cards as a composer. Again, the album as a whole may not be to everyone’s tastes, but it does provide a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a composer not well known or appreciated in the West.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Hating On Benny

goodmanNowadays, the late Benny Goodman is almost universally recognized as not only one of the greatest jazz clarinetists of the 20th century, but possibly the best—and certainly the most versatile—of all time. Nowadays, there are numerous tribute albums to the late Chicago-born musician, trying their best to ape his style in not only the jazz he played so well for decades but also in the classical pieces that he and only he made famous with the American public: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, Bartók’s Contrasts, the Brahms Clarinet Sonata and the Weber Clarinet Concerto No. 2. Clarinetists the world over have finally come to realize that his unusual combination of a deep, woody-sounding low range, a mellow mid-range and biting, metallic high notes was a mixture he could take apart and put together many different ways in many different pieces of music, and that in the end he was, as Buddy Rich described him, “the best clarinetist in the world.”

But that’s nowadays. Even as recently as the early 1990s, Goodman was a pariah to the majority of classically-trained clarinetists. When I was working as a telemarketer, selling ads on vinyl phone book covers (remember phone books?), one of my co-workers was a woman who had studied classical clarinet at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. I asked her if she liked Benny Goodman. I’ll never forget her reaction. You would think I had asked her to drink a frog I had liquefied in a blender. “You’ve GOT to be kidding!” she snapped at me. “Benny Goodman? With that disgusting low range and that whiny, squeaky top?” Well, yeah—except I’d call his low range “woody” and his high range exciting, not whiny or squeaky. I regaled her with my first-hand experience seeing Goodman play the Weber Concerto live and in person at Carnegie Hall in 1967, and how much I enjoyed it, then how he followed up the second half with jazz, playing with his original trio (Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums), later joined by George Duvivier on bass and a vibes player (it wasn’t Lionel Hampton; I think, but am not positive, it might have been Terry Gibbs) to form a quintet.

But no matter. She was adamant, and no amount of persuasion would convince her that Goodman was anything but an interloper in the classical world. And her opinion was not a deviation from the norm. Even back in 1938, when Bartók wrote Contrasts for him on commission, he purposely wrote the clarinet part so difficult that the interloper, the “jazznik,” wouldn’t be able to play it—but play it he did, and very well at that. The Budapest String Quartet, which recorded the Mozart Quintet with him, was on record as saying that Goodman had no business playing Mozart because he didn’t have the proper style. Classical record critics tore his discs of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto and the Weber Concerts to shreds. He was only good, they said, when playing jazz-influenced works like Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs. Otherwise, he had no right to play anything classical.

Funny, but Igor Stravinsky had no problem with conducting him in a recording of his own Ebony Concerto. And you can’t claim that he only did it because both were signed to Columbia records at the time: Stravinsky put his foot down on many a performer suggested to him that he did not approve of. Nor did Aaron Copland have a problem with him playing his Clarinet Concerto. But hey, what the hell did they know about clarinet playing? They probably weren’t familiar with the “great,” but utterly boring, Reginald Kell or Heinrich Geuser, right?

So what changed their perception? Or, perhaps more correctly, why was he hated so much? A lot of it had to do with his personality. Benny wasn’t really a bad person—certainly not as anti-social as his chief rival, Artie Shaw—but he tended to be aloof, self-centered to the point where he was often in a fog, and highly critical of any musician who didn’t meet his high standards. There are more stories among jazz musicians about Goodman than any other performer, living or dead. If a member of his band didn’t play up to snuff, he would often stare at them consistently until they noticed, at which point they would become even more nervous and play even worse. Musicians called this stare “The Ray.” Benny was also tight-fisted with salaries to musicians in his band, though not nearly as tight as Lionel Hampton. There’s a famous story about the time (later in his life) when he called up Xerox and had them bring their most expensive copier over to his apartment for a trial run. Goodman ran his complete hand charts off on the copier so he could give the parts to all of his members, but in the presence of the Xerox guy frowned at the quality of the copies. After the salesman left with the copier, Goodman gave a wink to one of the band members who was present. He had just gotten close to $30 worth of copies for free.

A lot of the time, however, “The Ray” was just Benny staring absent-mindedly into space. Some players couldn’t tell the difference. His absent-mindedness was legendary. One snowy January night, he left the theater after a concert and passed a convertible with the top left down. “Look at what this jerk did!” said Benny. “He forgot to put the top up, and now his car is filled with snow!” Ten seconds later, he realized it was HIS car. He was also stubborn about others recommending musicians to him, even if he trusted their judgment. The most famous story concerns Mary Lou Williams raving to him about Charlie Christian. “Yeah, but he plays an electric guitar,” said Benny. “I’ve heard those guys. They either play hillbilly music or Hawaiian crap.” Finally, his brother-in-law John Hammond just sat Christian in the Goodman rhythm section before a performance without Benny’s knowledge. Goodman hit the roof when he saw Christian, who looked like a rube in his bright green suit and Stetson had, but when he called off Rose Room and pointed to Christian to solo, the guitarist played six brilliant choruses. Benny was finally convinced. A year or two later, he was looking for a piano player. Someone recommended young Mel Powell. “But is he really the best available?” Benny kept asking. Once again, he had to hear for himself before he was convinced.

These personality traits were not entirely peripheral to his acceptance as a classical musician. Classical clarinetists were composed, self-assured and polite. In short, they weren’t Benny Goodman. Goodman didn’t really make so many enemies as he did people who were just turned off by his personality and, in classical music, by a sound they felt was inappropriate.

So why is it appropriate now? I’ll give it to you in two words: Richard Stoltzman. Stoltzman, whose technique is also unorthodox, is well-accepted as a classical clarinetist, and in the latter phase of his career he has given many concerts devoted to the music of Goodman, both jazz and classical. To a lesser extent, Don Byron has also opened doors for the Goodman sound, largely through his years playing with the Klezmer Conservatory Band. Thanks to them, the more acerbic clarinet style of jazz and klezmer—Goodman’s two great influences—have become more acceptable in the music world. Also, in the past decade or so, “world music” has finally become a big part of classical performance, and once again klezmer and jazz-type clarinet playing has been a part of that.

But here’s the rub. No one does Benny Goodman as well as Benny himself did. He still daunts everyone today, just as he did during his lifetime. Only now his sound is something that many clarinetists want to emulate, whereas before it was a sound they rejected and detested.

Reginald Kell, eat your heart out!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Ohlsson’s Mindblowing Scriabin

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SCRIABIN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-10. Fantasy in B min., Op. 28 / Garrick Ohlsson, pianist / Bridge 9468A/B

When I was growing up in the 1960s and early ‘70s, aside from the Established Big Name Pianists like Arrau, Rubinstein, Gould and Horowitz, the ones being promoted by RCA and Columbia were Van Cliburn (who I kind of liked but approached warily due to his rhetorical phrasing), Gary Graffman (whose playing I adored), John Ogdon (a little too eccentric for my taste, but I liked the way he played) and Garrick Ohlsson, a pupil of Arrau. I enjoyed some of what Ohlsson did, but sometimes found his phrasing (in those years) a bit dry and choppy. Thus I sort of lost touch with what he has been up to all these years.

Well, it turns out that he has developed into an outstanding pianist of great power, an exuberant sense of drama, and a way of playing the music of Scriabin—a fine composer, but one too often “psychoanalyzed” by pianists, his music taken to places he himself never went—almost as if he himself were the composer. No, I am NOT exaggerating. From the first notes of the Sonata No. 1, a work often played, like the following three sonatas, in a wispy, ethereal manner as if it were Chopin (the composer young Scriabin admired most…he used to go to sleep with Chopin scores under his pillow!), Ohlsson tears into it as if it were mature Scriabin, meaning with tensile strength, great drama and tremendous feeling. Moreover, this style proves particularly enlightening in the slow movements of these early sonatas. Here, Ohlsson gets so deeply into the music that I almost had the impression he was composing it, or at least was the composer himself playing it. And just listen to the way he digs into the third-movement “Presto,” already prefacing the almost sinister mood of Scriabin’s later work! This is music-making of an exceptionally high order, a way of approaching these sonatas from completely “inside” the music, as if both pianist and composer were seething with emotions that absolutely needed to get out.

Now, long-time readers of my reviews know that although I’ve come to appreciate other pianists’ performances of various sonatas, among them Horowitz, Vladimir Feltsman, Matthew Bengtson and Martin Tchiba, my favorite complete set of these works has always been the 1972 Ruth Laredo recordings for Nonesuch. But no more. Nearly everyone else now takes a back seat in my estimation to what Ohlsson has achieved here, and I assure you that this is not an exaggeration or the fading listening ability of an older woman. Ohlsson so often holds the music out to you, as if in the palm of his hand, cradling it like something very precious yet deeply meaningful to him, that you are astonished to realize that you have never heard some of these phrases in the same way before. Not only that, but all of these sonatas suddenly make sense. The complete set of them no longer sound like a pale Chopin imitation morphing into explosive, darkly dramatic works in the last five sonatas. Ohlsson even makes the occasional pauses in the music sound dramatic and meaningful. This is playing on a very high order. As a professional listener, my first inclination was to gauge how well Ohlsson played the music from a technical standpoint, which is very well indeed, but I quickly lost interest in analyzing his playing from that aspect and fell under the spell of what Scriabin was saying through Ohlsson’s fingers.

I should add, if you haven’t already picked up on it, that Ohlsson’s ability to work from inside the composer’s mind does not merely lead to dramatically explosive playing, but deeply sensitive playing as well. He weaves an almost magical spell in the first movement of the Sonata No. 2, the “Sonata Fantasy,” that I’ve never heard anyone else accomplish, and when he begins the “Presto” movement he almost sounds as if he is “creeping up” on the music, approaching it as a sort of moto perpetuo with dark and unusual turns of phrase and harmony. His technique as such never fails him, thus he is able to put it to use as a great painter, using his full palette of colors and subtle shades no matter how involved he is with the music emotionally.

The opening of the third sonata, marked “Drammatico,” is generally where most pianists (Laredo included) begin to play the music with more fire, but Ohlsson has been tapped into DC current from the beginning, thus this movement sounds just as dramatic as the opening of the first sonata (appropriately marked “Allegro con fuoco”). It’s little details like these that make for continuity in feeling as he moves from one sonata to the next. Now, I’m sure that make critics who want their early Scriabin to sound wispier and less dramatic will complain about this, assuring us that there was a stylistic evolution in Scriabin’s music. Well, of course there was; had he stayed in this early mode he’d probably be an interesting late-Romantic figure, not as highly prized as he is today. But just as I have never subscribed to the theory that early Scriabin needs to be gentler and more lyrical, I never felt that the early Beethoven sonatas needed to be played like Mozart, despite the fact that they were written in the 1780s and ‘90s and were thus conceived on smaller, less resonant keyboards. Some critics’ and musicologists’ fetishes with available instruments do not take what was in the composer’s mind and heart when he wrote the pieces. For this reason I have always preferred “meatier” interpretations of Beethoven’s first 10 sonatas like those of Artur Schnabel and Annie Fischer, rather than John O’Conor’s kinder, gentler approach (though O’Conor’s Beethoven sonata cycle is revelatory in many ways). Of course, in Scriabin’s lifetime there were very few improvements in keyboard instruments, thus the pianos he wrote the “White Mass” and “Black Mass” Sonatas on were pretty much the same instruments he wrote the early sonatas on, or at least close enough.

In addition to all this, Ohlsson’s technique is superb enough so that every thread of the music emerges as clear as a bell. He also manages to do something that very few pianists, except for Laredo and Bengtson, do, and that is to reveal the underlying structure of the music clearly. No longer does this music strike the ear as soft phrases followed by loudly-crashing ones, but rather as orderly compositions with an inner logic all their own. A critic for the Guardian in England, reviewing one of Ohlsson’s all-Scriabin concerts at Wigmore Hall in early 2015, complained that he defused the edgy drama of Scriabin in his pursuit of clarity and order. I didn’t find this to be the case at all, although certainly there were isolated moments in the later sonatas where I appreciated some of what Laredo and Horowitz did. But moments are not compositions, and for all their volcanic fire they did not convince me as well of the underlying structure or logic as Ohlsson continually does.

By the Fourth Sonata, Scriabin had found his chromatically-infused sense of harmony with its extended chord positions playing a central role in his music. Ohlsson captures all the mystery in the opening movement while not ignoring—again—its underlying structure.

There is a certain level of showmanship, or brinkmanship, in the way he handles the last five sonatas, all of which were conceived in single long movements. But that’s fine; I’ve long felt that Scriabin’s growing sense of self-importance (he conceived of his final work, Mysterium, as not only impressing music-lovers but of transforming the world into a single unit of peace and love) came out in his later music. Thus, any performances of the late sonatas or symphonies must, by definition, have a certain amount of external charisma about them in order to be effective. Here Ohlsson continues to approach the music as if he wrote it, finding and holding up this new way of listening to them more as a revelation of the composer than of himself.

Mind you, he achieves much of this extra clarity by playing the music slightly slower than most pianists, which is perhaps what caused the Guardian music critic to chastise him for eliminating some of the “danger” in the music. A few examples:

Laredo             Ohlsson
Sonata No. 4          8:00                 9:43
Sonata No. 6          12:48               12:59
Sonata No. 7          11:28               12:39
Sonata No. 9          7:19                 8:19

Nevertheless I found myself continually amazed and often startled by Ohlsson’s fresh new approach. Perhaps knowing that Scriabin “saw” colors when he composed, Ohlsson emphasizes the music’s colors and shadings. Listening to Scriabin’s few recordings of his own music (played on Welte-Mignon piano rolls), I hear much the same approach to the music although he himself had a more ethereal touch at times. All in all, however, this is a great release and one that now replaces both the Laredo and Bengtson sets as the recommended recordings of these sonatas.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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The Singer’s Singer

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Buddy Clark, who was born in 1912 and died in 1949, had a hard, long climb up the ladder of success until he was considered to be on a par with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, but it all came crashing down—literally—when his rented private plane ran out of fuel and was forced to make an emergency landing on Beverly Boulevard in West Los Angeles. Clark was the only passenger to be severely wounded; he made it to the hospital but died there of his injuries a few hours later, thus snuffing out the career of one of the finest singers America has ever produced.

It was a shame in so many ways, not least because Clark suffered through many years of being well enough known to be liked but not well enough known to be famous, which is an entirely different thing. Born Samuel Goldberg, he was originally slated for a law career at Boston’s Northeastern University, but the siren call of show business was too much for the young man. He changed his name to Buddy Clark and made his recording debut as a tenor with Gus Arnheim’s Orchestra at the age of 20. He was strained-sounding as a tenor, so he lowered his voice by a couple of notes and became a high baritone. In this he was successful. His recording debut as a baritone was on a Freddy Martin record of Stars Fell on Alabama, made on September 14, 1934. Shortly thereafter he was hired by Benny Goodman as the male singer of his fledgling big band on the “Let’s Dance” radio program. Clark was a surprise hit on the show, singing both solos and duets with the perky Helen Ward, but only made two studio recordings with Goodman, a fairly sappy ballad titled Like a Bolt From the Blue (for Columbia, November 1934) and, much more excitingly, I’m Living in a Great Big Way for RCA Victor (April 1935). It’s not entirely clear why Clark left the Goodman band, but timing may have had a lot to do with it. Benny was signed to do a cross-country tour with the orchestra that summer because they were struggling financially. This was the tour that was to end with a resounding success at the Palomar Ballroom in California in August, which is what made Goodman’s name and ushered in the Swing Era, but of course neither Goodman nor Clark could foresee that. Buddy chose to remain behind in New York and try his luck getting radio jobs.

In this he was successful, becoming a staff vocalist for CBS radio before joining the Ben Bernie Show on NBC’s Blue network. Later on in the decade he became a fixture on both “Your Hit Parade” and CBS’s “Melody Puzzles” with singer Freda Gibson, who later changed her name to Georgia Gibbs. He also had a summer replacement show, “Buddy Clark’s Summer Colony,” with Hildegard and the Leith Stevens Orchestra. He also continued to record with a bewildering variety of bands including Johnny Hodges (A Sailboat in the Moonlight, uncredited!), Lud Gluskin, Eddy Duchin and Wayne King. In 1938 he had a top-20 hit on Brunswick, Spring Is Here. And yet he still couldn’t break into the kind of stardom that Bing Crosby, Bob Eberle and others seemed to find so easily.

buddyclark03At this point we should take a moment to discuss Clark’s basic qualities as a singer and try to analyze why he wasn’t making it. As I’ve said, he had a high baritone which mellowed a bit in the following decade. It had a Crosby-type quality but was far more beautiful in tone. He had superb diction, first-class musicianship, and best of all, a natural sense of jazz “time,” as Frank Sinatra did. This doesn’t mean that Clark scatted all over the place; he did not; but when he sang you could feel the subtle beat shifts in the rhythm, and his total command of where he was rhythmically in the center of each phrase and note. He was a pleasure to listen to because he could swing without making a big issue of it. Even when he sang “straight,” the sensitive listener felt the time shifts within his phrasing. In some of his later work with Doris Day and Dinah Shore, he took full advantage of working with them and such swinging arrangers as George Siravo and Ted Dale to produce what I would call “pop jazz” performances.

Why he didn’t make it, in my own view, had as much if not more to do with his appearance than his obvious vocal gifts. With his long face and equally long, prominent nose, he looked more like a comedian than a romantic ballad singer. Remember that despite her classical voice training, Judy Canova had to go into “hillbilly” comic roles to make the big time. Ray Bolger had the skills of a classical ballet dancer, but eventually became a light comedian and “eccentric” dancer to make a living. And we won’t even go into how long it took Jim Nabors to be recognized as an outstanding singer, and Nabors had an even more classically-trained voice than Clark.

After working on the “Here’s to Romance” radio show with bandleader David Broekman in 1942, Clark enlisted in the Army.After the war, he resumed his career on “The Contented Hour” with Jo Stafford—another singer’s singer—and the orchestras of Victor Young and Percy Faith. In late 1946 he was finally signed by a big label, Columbia, who saw him as a potential rival to Vaughan Monroe on RCA. He made a wonderful recording of South America, Take it Away with Xavier Cugat in late 1946, but then hit the big time at last with his 1947 smash record Linda with the Ray Noble band. This was the song that Jack Lawrence wrote for his friend Lee Eastman on the birth of his baby daughter, the same Linda Eastman who lindalater married Paul McCartney. Linda stayed in the #1 slot for weeks and in the Top 20 for six months, suddenly making Clark a hot property. Hit followed hit: How Are Things in Glocca Morra?, Peg O’ My Heart, I’ll Dance at Your Wedding, a double-sided hit record with Doris Day (Love Somebody b/w Confess), and even a cover version of Vaughan Monroe’s RCA hit Ballerina. This busy and exciting period also included some wonderful duets with Dinah Shore: Let’s Do It, ‘Swonderful and one of the most classic recordings of all time, Baby, It’s Cold Outside. Listening to these records, particularly the Cugat disc and the duets with Day and Shore, you can hear Clark’s fully mature style, insouciantly holding back on or slightly pushing the rhythm forward, fractioning beats, and just having a ball. Interestingly, during this period he also sang the Sam Coslow-Ken Lane tune Everybody Loves Somebody on the radio, a superb version that was much better than rival Frank Sinatra’s record of it—also for Columbia. Everybody didn’t become a hit until Dean Martin recorded it with a slow-triplet shuffle beat in the 1960s.

At the time of his death Clark had finally made some major film appearances, but mostly as a voice artist. He was the Master of Ceremonies in Walt Disney’s mostly animated film Melody Time, and as the singing voice of actor Mark Stevens in the role of songwriter Joe Howard in the film I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now.

Most of Clark’s postwar recordings—the Day and Shore duets notwithstanding—were of soft, relaxing ballads with heavy string accompaniment, which was extremely popular in America after World War II. It would have been interesting to see how he might have adapted to the more rhythmic songs of the mid-1950s. I seriously doubt that Clark would have bothered with Tutti Frutti or Blue Suede Shoes, but I can well imagine him singing the more rhythmic pop songs of the era. He might even have reunited with his old boss Benny Goodman once Columbia re-signed the King of Swing in the ‘50s. But anything Buddy Clark might have done post-1949 is pure speculation. The point is that he was unquestionably one of the most musical pop singers of his era, up there with Sinatra and Mel Tormé, and one with a finer natural voice than either. He was surely destined for superstardom at the time of his death, and it’s a real shame that his name has faded so badly since the early 1960s.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Saariaho’s “Woman’s Opera” Fascinating But Overdone

lamour

The Metropolitan Opera, full of ballyhoo and gender politics, praised itself for staging Kaija Saariaho’s 2000 opera L’Amour de Loin on December 1 and broadcasting a performance of it December 10 (today). Apparently it was a success when first staged at the Salzburg Festival, which commissioned it, and so it is being given—in the Met’s own publicity description—via “a dazzling new production by Robert Lepage, featuring glimmering ribbons of LED lights that extend across the length of the stage and over the orchestra pit.”

Dazzling the lights and production may be, but I had some real issues with the music vis-à-vis OPERA, which believe it or not is supposed to be sung drama. The plot doesn’t really involve what I would call a dramatic situation so much as a psychological one. Jaufré Rudel, Prince of Blaye, is tired of the life of pleasure led by the young people of his rank. He yearns for a different, distant love, but he is resigned to the idea that he will never find it. A chorus of his old companions reproaches him for the change and makes fun of him. He tells them that the woman of whom he sings doesn’t exist. Then, a Pilgrim who has arrived from overseas asserts that there is such a woman, and that he has met her. Jaufré can no longer think of anything but her. This launches five full acts of music in which no real action takes place but his search for “the ideal woman,” yet he resists finding it in a real human being. When he does find it, he’s as much terrified by it as drawn to it. Eventually, on the point of death in the last act, he asks to see her. Her presence helps revive him little by little, they sing together, he dies in her arms and she rails against heaven. And that, as they say, is that. Britten’s Death in Venice was an action-packed thriller by comparison.

The music of this opera is interesting melodically, harmonically, and in the effects Saariaho has demanded for the voices, but it has two major flaws. First is that many of the scenes go on too long and also go nowhere; once she finds a mood she likes for the character, she stays there for five or so minutes—in the case of one soprano monologue, twenty or so minutes. The sung lines are essentially tonal but jagged, conveying no graspable melodies. Worse yet, although her music definitely projects moods, it does not seem to have much if anything to do with the actual words sung. In short, Saariaho has composed an interesting if long-winded symphony for voices and orchestra. Her music has even less to do with the ongoing drama than Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande or Berg’s Lulu. In basic form, it is more similar to Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder. Those who have seen it in the opera house profess that nothing is going on in the way of acting because there’s nothing for them to do but stand around and sing.

lamour-2

Apparently even the Professional Critics didn’t have much to say about the plot because it is so threadbare. Anthony Tommasini, in the New York Times, made an offhand and uncalled-for reference to America being “shaken by its own conflicts, having just gone through an election stoked by rhetoric about immigrants and renewed calls for nationalism.” Nothing in the libretto of L’Amour de Loin calls for nationalism. It’s about ideal love. His excuse for injecting politics into his review is, apparently, that when the opera premiered in Salzburg “Europe, especially Austria, was roiled by rising nationalism, movements to protect the sanctity of borders and demonization of the other.’” Did the Salzburg audiences approach L’Amour du Loin with the attitude of nationalist politics? I doubt it. And besides, will someone please tell me what is WRONG with nationalism or “the sanctity of borders”? Who the hell wants one-world-order global Socialism? Kaija Saariaho?

In a nutshell, the female singers, Susanna Phillips and Tamara Mumford, were quite good, although the former had a rapid vibrato that could sometimes be mistaken for a trill, which was a problem because Saariaho wrote a lot of trills for her. On the other hand, baritone Eric Owens, as Jaufré, had a terrible wobble which offset his remarkably deep, rich tone. If they wanted to use an African-American baritone, why not use Gregg Baker, who can sing rings around Owens? Just asking. The conducting of Susanna Mälkki, who the Met rushes to point out is a Woman Conductor of this woman-composed opera, was outstanding in every way considering the very complex orchestral textures she was asked to bring out. But ever since James Levine improved the Met orchestra, restoring it to world-class standards by the late 1970s, it has been able to play virtually any score with excellent results.

The reader may surely infer from the above that I dislike L’Anour de Loin, but that’s not entirely the case. I simply dislike it as an opera because it clearly doesn’t operate as one onstage. When the entire focus of your attention is the lighting and the effects created thereby, and not the characters and their situations, you simply don’t have AN OPERA, no matter how fine the music. And, in the last two acts, the music very definitely becomes rhythmically tauter and more dramatic—though, again, not specifically tied to the text but to a general mood.

Which brings us to the question of why the Met chose to stage this piece in the first place. The only answer I have seen is that it is the work of a woman composer, the last such to have an opera presented at the Met was Ethel Smyth, whose Der Wald came to the New York house on March 11, 1903. Der Wald was far from Smyth’s finest stage work; that distinction belongs to The Wreckers, but apparently the Met felt more comfortable staging a 75-minute woman’s opera than a two-and-a-half-hour one. The reviews were not kind. A review the next day in the New York World described Der Wald as “ultra-modern music, strident, formless, passionate music that stirred the blood with clangor of brass, the shrieks of strings, the plaint of wood winds and disdained to woo the senses with flower-soft melodic phrase.”

But several other woman composers have written operas, and one of them, All Quiet on the Western Front by Nancy Van de Vate, is in my view a musico-dramatic masterpiece. Why not stage that at the Met? Possibly because Van de Vate’s music is cogently dramatic, has form and structure, but is less tonal than L’Amour de Loin and therefore more prone to sour on the Met’s usual audience, which normally consists of Romantic-melodic-loving operagoers to whom a good tune is great music, even if it has a rum-tum-tum rhythm and bears as much resemblance to the drama of the text as Yankee Doodle. All of which is a shame, because I daresay that for all its good points L’Amour de Loin is destined to go the way of Der Wald and Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, which is Nowheresville.

My very serious recommendation to Saariaho, which I doubt she will take even if she deigns to read this blog, would be to chop this score down to about an hour and a half and reform it as a concert piece with voices. That would work remarkably well, I think, so long as one is cognizant of the fact that her music here is more of an allegory for the plot and not, as it is now trying to be, a stage work with living feelings involved. If she does this, I am sure that the chopped-down torso of L’Amnour de Loin will be received with better acclaim. In the meantime, I strongly urge the Met to consider programming All Quiet on the Western Front to raise its audience’s artistic level.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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