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

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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.

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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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Yakushev’s Stunning Prokofiev Sonatas

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PROKOFIEV: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 2 & 9 / Ilya Yakushev, pianist / Nimbus Alliance NI6336

This is the second of Ilya Yakushev’s series of the complete piano sonatas of Prokofiev, the first being Nimbus 6267 which contained Sonatas Nos. 3, 6 and 7. The most famous series of these sonatas issued in the digital age comes from the superb pianist Yefim Bronfman on Sony Classical, although Michel Beroff has recorded them on EMI, Bernd Glemser has recorded several of them on Naxos, Alexander Melnikov is recording them on Harmonia Mundi, and Peter Jablonski is recording them on Exton (and this list does not include miscellaneous sonatas recorded by Glenn Gould, Sviatoslav Richter, Gary Grafmann and others).

As a pianist, Prokofiev himself favored consistently quick tempos with little room for rubato, rallentando, and other such devices favored by the 19th-century pianists like Rubinstein, de Pachmann, Paderewski etc., but he also preferred a surpassingly light tone, almost delicate compared to those who play his music now. Listen, for instance, to the way Prokofiev himself played his own Third Piano Concerto with the London Symphony conducted by Piero Coppola, then listen to any modern pianist (Bronfman included) play it, and you’ll hear tremendous differences in phrasing and articulation. That being said, his first piano sonata, written when he was 28, is essentially a short, one-movement bravura piece designed to show off technique more than anything else. It was only with the Second Sonata of 1912 that the more harmonically adventurous Prokofiev begins to appear.

That being said, I was amazed to hear Yakushov play that first sonata with much more dynamics contrasts and less slam-bang pressure on the tempo than Bronfman, despite the fact that he takes it a few seconds faster, finishing it in 6:53. Once again, and I cannot stress this strongly enough, it is a matter of phrasing and use of dynamics rather than just warp-speed technique. Yakushev certainly does not lack for the latter; in fact, his playing of the double-time passages in this sonata is, if anything, faster than Bronfman, but he very carefully separates the notes in such a way that the listener hears everything even when he recesses the volume. I also felt there was much more affinity to Prokofiev’s own style in his playing because there was much more lightness of touch. Advantage, then, clearly goes to Yakushev in this sonata.

I was a bit concerned about approaching the first movement of the Second Sonata because he takes it a half-minute quicker than Bronfman. Surely, this approach would kill the mood of the music and miss the point of Prokofiev’s carefully-notated phrasing and dynamics markings. Yet this doesn’t happen because of Yakushev’s consistent use of shading and nuance, which even at this quicker pace was much more detailed, and thus provided more contrast, than in Bronfman’s playing (and I generally admire Bronfman very much). Nearly every detail that the latter pianist brought out in his reading is brought out with an almost infinite range of colors by the former. I was in awe of Yakushev’s ability to consistently color the music without any sacrifice of drive or momentum. He does not lack for excitement—far from it—but he also seems to have tapped into the coloristic effects that one heard from the old-time pianists like Paderewski and Cherkassky. The effect is uncanny; he not only holds your interest but also enhances the music at the same time. I simply can’t get over it.

Needless to say, his treatment of the “Adagio” in the Second Sonata is almost magical, floating the music as if it were a piece by Debussy except with modern Russian harmonies. My overall impression is that Yakushev is the kind of pianist who works hard to achieve these effects, yet who also knows how to give the impression of spontaneity in his playing. This is a very rare quality, particularly nowadays when fast but soulless pianists rule the roost. In short, Yakushev has “IT,” that indefinable something that separates the very great artists from the “just OK.”

Aiding him in these performances is some absolutely splendid sound. The piano is recorded clearly enough that one can hear his most delicate impression, yet also with a bit of distance and ambience to soften his somewhat more percussive attacks. And Lord knows, Prokofiev reveled in percussive attacks!

Needless to say, Yakushev is also masterful in his performance of the Sonata No. 9, particularly in the long and delicate “Allegretto” that opens the work. Here he displays the full range of his tone and coloristic effects, presenting the music like a rich feast to be savored. It is quite an achievement, as is his evident delight in the playful “Allegro strepitoso” which follows. He also makes effective contrasts in the third movement, where the “Andante tranquillo” suddenly explodes in the central “Allegro” section.

All in all, then, a major surprise and a great representation of these sonatas. For once, they made sense to me as music rather than just flying past one’s ears as a series of notes. Highly recommended!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Reassessing Paderewski, Wizard of the Keyboard

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PADEREWSKI: THE AMERICAN RECORDINGS, 1914-1931 / COUPERIN: Pièces de Clavecin: La Bandoline (Rondeau); Le Carillon de Cythère. SCHUMANN: Fantasiestücke: Warum? Waldszenen: Vogel als Prophet. Nachtstück in F. CHOPIN: Nocturnes: in F-sharp; in F; in E-flat. Polonaises: in A, “Heroic;” in E-flat min. Waltzes: in C-sharp min.; in A-flat (2 tks); in E-flat. Etudes: in E, Op. 10 No. 3 (2 tks); in G-flat, Op. 10 No. 5; in C min., Op. 10 No. 12; in G-sharp min., Op. 25 No. 6; in C-sharp min., Op. 25 No. 7; in D-flat, Op. 25 No. 8; in G-flat, Op. 25 No. 9 (2 tks); in A min., Op. 25 No. 11.  Berceuse in D-flat. Sonata No. 2 in B-flat min.: III. Marche funèbre – Lento (2 tks); IV. Presto. Mazurkas: in A min.; A-flat (2 tks); in F-sharp min.; in D; in C-sharp. Impromptu in B-flat min. Préludes: in D-flat (2 tks); in A-flat. CHOPIN-LISZT: My Joys [Chant Polonais]. The Maiden’s Wish. PADEREWSKI: Minuet in G (4 tks). Chants du Voyageur: Melodie. Cracovienne Fantastique, Op. 14 No. 6 (2 tks). Nocturne in B-flat. LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 2 & 10. Etudes de Concert: La leggierezza. MENDELSSOHN: Songs Without Words: Spring Song. Spinning Song. DEBUSSY: Images Book I: Relfets dans l’eau (2 tks). Preludes, Book I: Danseuses de Delphes; Le Vent dans la Plaine; Minstrels (2 tks); Voiles. SCHUBERT-LISZT: Hark, Hark the Lark. SCHUBERT: Impromptus: in B-flat; in A-flat (2 tks). Moment Musical in A-flat. WAGNER-LISZT: Der Fliegende Holländer: Spinning Chorus (2 tks). SCHELLING: Nocturne à Raguze. STOJOWSKI: Chant d’amour. By the Brookside. PAGANINI-LISZT: La Campanella (2 tks). BEETHOVEN: Sonata No. 14, “Moonlight”: I. Adagio. RUBINSTEIN: Valse-Caprice in E-flat. RACHMANINOV: Preludes: in C-sharp min.; in G-sharp min. WAGNER-SCHELLING: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I. BRAHMS: Hungarian Dances Nos. 6 & 7. J. STRAUSS-TAUSIG: Man lebt nur Einmal (2 tks). SPOKEN WORD: My dear friends. My dear American friends / Ignacy Jan Paderewski, pianist/speaker / APR 7505 (mono, acoustic & electrical)

When I was much younger, I ran across a copy of Victor 78-rpm disc 6690. Side A was the first movement of the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata; Side B was Paderewski’s famous Minuet in G. Since I was of Polish descent, I approached the listening of this disc almost like the discovery of The Holy Grail. In addition to being a world-famous pianist, Paderewski was Prime Minister of Poland from January through November 1919 and, concurrently, Minister of Foreign Affairs from January to December of that year. He was later appointed Chief of the National Council of Poland—a Polish parliament in exile in London—from December 9, 1939 until his death in New York on June 29, 1941. Because of the Nazi occupation of Poland, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His body was not transferred to Poland until after it regained its freedom, in 1992. My Uncle Mike, who joined the Army the year before Pearl Harbor happened, was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the pallbearers at his funeral, thus the pianist had an almost mythic reputation in my family, not just as a great pianist but as the leader of a free Poland. (On an entirely different note, he’s also the person who introduced Zinfandel grapes to California way back in 1924; when the grapes matured, the wine was made for him by York Mountain Winery.)

I was bitterly disappointed by the record. There seemed to be a slip in fingering at the very beginning of the Minuet, and his playing of the “Moonlight” sonata was both too fast and lacking in atmosphere. I put it down to the fact that he was probably too old at the time (66) and thus past his prime. I let the record go from my collection a couple of years later.

moonlight-sonataRelistening to those selections now, in the light of what I’ve read in the booklet that Paderewski generally felt uncomfortable making records, I think he felt rushed making the disc, despite the numerous takes of the Minuet (12 of them!). I also think he’d have been more comfortable spacing that first movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata over two sides of a 10-inch record, which would have given him close to six minutes, rather than squeezing it onto one side of a 12-incher. (In the 1937 film, Moonlight Sonata, a 77-year-old Paderewski plays it more slowly.) And I’m still puzzled why he didn’t record it complete in the studio in 1926, as he did on Welte-Mignon piano rolls (see next paragraph) and at the EMI studio in London in January 1937. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only sonata he ever recorded complete.

I’ve just alluded above to some smudgings and finger-errors on these records, but if you go further back to the 1906 Welte-Mignon piano rolls, you hear a lot more fudging around with the music and an almost unbelievable number of mistakes. A good example is that “Moonlight” Sonata, the first movement of which he does indeed play at a slower tempo than his Victor recording (running 7:32 compared to 4:58), but far messier. It’s not even just smudged notes, but actual wrong notes, in addition to constantly slowing down and speeding up the rhythm that sounds like a taffy pull. This is not just “individual” playing; this is rubbish. I could play the first movement of the “Moonlight” better than that and I was far from being a professional pianist. Paderewski also takes the second movement much too slowly (and the trio section in the middle even slower than that!) with no forward impetus and his detached-hands style that does the music no good and himself no credit. And I’ll go even further regarding the Welte-Mignon system: I believe that its accuracy is highly overrated. It accurately reproduced ONLY tempo and phrasing, but not at all tone or touch and only a minimum of dynamics contrasts. Another good example is to compare his Welte-Mignon piano roll performance of Chopin’s famed “Heroic” Polonaise to the Victor recording. The piano roll version is so God-awful that it sounds like a very drunken and off-form Liberace trying to play it—and that is not an exaggeration.

The conclusions I came to when making these comparisons were two. One, Paderewski probably didn’t take these piano roll recordings very seriously or he’d have never passed them for release with all those technical errors. And two, I honestly believe that the tempo and phrasing of these performances (but not the technical errors) represent Paderewski’s earlier style as it existed when they were made circa 1906. Which now brings us to the Victor recordings of 1914 onwards, where one can hear that although there are still a few quirks that annoy modern ears, the playing is not only more consistent technically (although, as noted earlier, he sometimes needed 12 takes of something even as simple as his own Minuet) but not as far-off musically. This doesn’t mean that they’re perfect by any means, but better is better, and this is immediately evident in the first two selections, very strangely, music by François Couperin. Immediately we hear not only a more technically assured but more stylish pianist: these are very good interpretations that would not have embarrassed Wanda Landowska, and that’s saying a great deal.

paderewski-chopin-etudeThe one thing that is seldom caught on his recordings, but is caught in film clips of him playing, was his ability to “float” the piano tone out over a concert hall as if the music emerged from the sky and showered down on the audience. Film sound caught some of this, but not the dead, boxy studio records he made. Without at least some room ambience, and particularly in those claustrophobic studios of yore, some of his careful pedaling effects and unusual style of playing the left hand slightly behind the right at times, were obscured. The recording horn, or microphone, simply recorded it as a “slip” whereas in actual concert it created an ambience of somewhat magical proportions. One feature of his technique that was acceptable then but not today was his manner of playing the right and left hand very slightly apart from each other by a split-second (you might think of them as “rolled” chords). This gave some listeners the idea that he couldn’t play a chord properly, when in fact it was artistic choice. But like string portamento, this is a technique now so frowned upon that it is not only never taught but actively admonished.

As a result of this—and all you have to do is go and listen to Paderewski playing “live” on film to hear the difference—it’s hard to accept the sound of these records, as they existed on the original shellac discs and as they now exist on this CD reissue, as the “reality” of his art. The sound needs some slight distance, some perspective, some reverberance to make them come to life properly. And they also need, for the most part, to be cleaned up sonically much more than Mark Obert-Thorn has done. Obert-Thorn is great at finding the proper width stylus to play each record so that not a single note comes out distorted, and he also is an expert at re-equalization when that is needed. But he is British, and the British tend to be what I call “noise collectors,” meaning that the noisier a 78-rpm transfer sounds on a CD, the better. They firmly believe that the “overtones of the music are in the surface noise.” This is not true. Yes, it is true that too much processing of the record suffocates the soft notes, making them sound a bit muddy, but giving the records more noise-scraping than Obert-Thorn allows, then adding a judicious amount of reverb and echo, helps restore at least a modicum of ambience to the playing of the one pianist most noted for using hall ambience to create his magic.

But I also feel that Paderewski’s “mastery” of the piano was never quite perfect technically, else we wouldn’t hear so many fingering slips. My guess is that he was a bit better than Alfred Cortot and Artur Schnabel, but not as solid a technician as Walter Gieseking, Wilhelm Backhaus or Josef Hoffmann. Yet all these pianists, as well as some others from that era (like Vladimir de Pachmann, Ignacy Friedman and Benno Moiseiwitsch), all worked hard on touch and tone in addition to musicality, and this is now completely lost in pianism since the end of World War II. The only pianist I ever heard in person whose playing fused touch and tone with style and technique was Shura Cherkassky, and he is often acknowledged as the very last of that line. The coming of more objective pianists like Arthur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau, Rudolf Serkin and Dinu Lipatti—all very fine artists in their own right, of course—pretty much killed off the “touch and tone” style, which is a great pity. They threw out the baby with the bath water.

The 1917 performance of Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise heard here, though much cleaner than the piano roll, has to my ears a bit too much rallentando, a pulling back of tempo that drags the forward momentum. But if one listens to the Chopin recordings of Raoul Koczalski, who studied with one of Chopin’s prize pupils, one hears similar things in his performances, none of which are in the scores. Like so many composer-performers, then, Chopin had one conception of the music when he put it down on paper and quite another when he himself performed it. (You can hear the same thing in the recordings that Prokofiev and Sorabji made of their own music; Sorabji said his own recordings gave “the general idea of what I want.”) So is this right or wrong? Or just different? Today’s Historically-Informed Historicals will tell you that none of it is any good unless you’re playing it on keyboard instruments of the composer’s own time anyway, with tinny tone, lousy damper pedals and inferior wire frames, but that’s a whole other fetish. They don’t care, and never have, about how pianists or violinists actually played stylistically anyway because they don’t know squat about it.

As the set goes on, and one becomes more deeply involved in Paderewski’s sound-world, a certain consistency emerges, particularly if one reduces the surface noise level well below what Obert-Thorn has given us, and that is of a very poetic pianist whose occasional technical brilliance is merely the icing on the cake. The cake itself is that delicious blend of tone and touch, and despite the sonic limitations the acoustic recordings of 1914-24 capture his sound-world with a fair degree of accuracy. The famous Chopin Waltz in C-sharp minor, despite a somewhat exaggerated slow-down at the end of the opening theme, is played with such obvious love and understanding that one accepts it gratefully simply because it doesn’t sound like 300 other pianists’ versions of it. It sounds like Paderewski, and only like Paderewski.

Another feature of his playing that differs significantly from that of modern pianists is the way he plays mordents or turns. They just sort of roll off his fingers like a great singer singing a grace note…well, that’s another thing that’s changed over the years, too. Go back and listen to even such older pop singers as Irving Mills, Connee Boswell, young Bing Crosby or Buddy Clark sing grace notes, and they have a nicely rounded profile about them that trips easily from the lead note to the one following. Nowadays you don’t even have many classical singers who know how this is done, let alone actually do it. And of course, Paderewski—like Cortot, Gieseking and Cherkassky—sings on the piano. It is almost a vocal instrument, and in fact his peculiarly “soft” attack on the keys, even at full volume, only enhanced this illusion. Under Paderewski’s fingers, the piano was not really a percussion instrument.

I hasten to add, however, that Paderewski’s playing was NOT wimpy, or mushy, or any of those things that so many modern pianists seem to like indulging in. For all its singing tone and floating quality, it was still a distinctively masculine sound, just that of a man who is trying to seduce his listeners rather than putting them to sleep. He is not narcoleptic, just poetic. Hear, for instance, the way he makes the Chopin Berceuse float like zephyr but not numb you out like Sominex. Moreover, this is especially important when you hear him play his own pieces, and not just the Minuet. In his own Nocturne in B-flat, you hear much the same kind of magical tone and touch. No one today plays Paderewski’s music like Paderewski, thus what you hear on recordings is the aural equivalent of a flattened-out black-and-white image of, say, the Grand Canyon at sundown. Not only are the colors missing, but so too is the perspective.

There are other fascinating touches throughout this recital, as when he reaches the famed uptempo melody in the second half of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Although he increases the volume, he doesn’t “slam” into it, but gently “teases” the notes to produce a sort of lopsided Gypsy rhythm before then playing it “straight.” In the electrical recording of the “funeral march” from Chopin’s second piano sonata there is real magic in the soft crushed chords (how I wish he had recorded that sonata complete!). His performance of Chopin’s famed “Winter Wind” Étude (in A minor, Op. 25 No. 11) is, surprisingly, on the slow side. Artistic choice or lack of technique? He certainly played fast enough on other recordings from the same period (hear the Mendelssohn Spinning Song immediately following), thus I’d have to say that he wanted his listeners to hear every note articulated clearly, although this seems to run counter to Chopin’s feeling of a winter wind. Curiously, his recording of Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor isn’t really given a mazurka rhythm until the middle section, and then a bit fast; the outer sections almost sound like a fantasia of sorts, with the pianist emphasizing the unusual key changes in the downward notes at the ends of the phrases. It’s little details like these that keep you listening to him. And I liked the May 1923 take of his famous Minuet best of all of them; it has real lilt and forward movement, and all the notes are played properly.

paderewski-debussyPerhaps the most surprising of all his recordings, however, because they are not only good but his only examples of modern music, are his Debussy recordings. I thought Minstrels just a shade stranger than I liked, with a few too many ritards, but all of them have the kind of floating sound quality that Debussy himself prized, and of course with his manner of coaxing sound out of the instrument his tone and touch were, again, perfect for the material. Oddly, he races through Rachmaninov’s famous Prelude in C-sharp Minor to fit it on one side of a 10-inch disc yet is able to articulate all the notes clearly.

All in all, then, this is a good if slightly uneven representation of Paderewski the pianist, certainly better than his 1937-38 EMI recordings which really were past his prime (although APR has reissued those as well on a separate CD). The voluminous number of selections may seem daunting, but his mesmerizing style and touch keep the listener engaged even when one wrinkles a nose or makes a face at the occasional exaggerated rallentando or oddly-articulated phrase (as at the 4:40 mark in the Schubert Impromptu in B-flat). Yes, this is Old School pianism of a style now dead and gone, but I’d say that at least 85% of it is not only still valid to modern listeners but revelatory as to how some of these pieces should really sound.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Yondani Butt’s Very Good Beethoven

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BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1-9. Overtures: The Creatures of Prometheus; Fidelio; King Stephen; The Consecration of the House; Egmont; Coriolanus; The Ruins of Athens; Leonore Overture No. 3 / Rebecca Evans, soprano; Wilke te Brummelstroete, contralto; Steve Davislim, tenor; Neal Davies, bass; London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra; Yondani Butt, conductor / Nimbus NI-1713 (6 CDs)

In a world where new sets of popular Beethoven works—the symphonies, piano sonatas and concertos, violin sonatas, cellos sonatas and string quartets—seem to be recorded over and over and over and over again, with no real signs of greatness or even originality in their interpretations, it’s refreshing to find this new set of the symphonies in digital sound at a budget price ($29.99). True, it doesn’t top my favorite sets of these works, those of Michael Gielen with the SWR Baden-Baden und Freiburg Symphony Orchestra and Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony, but compared to everyone else’s—including Karajan (four cycles), David Zinman, Leonard Bernstein, René Leibowitz, Charles Munch (fascinating but not quite home ground), Furtwängler (incomplete), Sir Roger Norrington, Christopher Hogwood, Tafelmusik, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and God knows how many others—these performances by Yondani Butt come closest to satisfying one’s taste for musically accurate but still deeply-felt performances that at least try to apply the composer’s own directions and tempos.

Granted, there are moments that to me fell a bit short of ideal, such as the somewhat tepid opening passage of the last movement of the Ninth, but for the most part Butt has the measure of the composer in a way I’ve not heard in the digital era save from Gielen. There is a rhythmic spring in his step; he understands not only the right tempos but the right phrasing, which is far more difficult to ascertain; and he knows when to apply rubato and when not to. I was also quite pleased to discover that these are not “historically informed” performances with whiny straight-tone strings, pitches below A=440, or other anomalies or quirks. Despite using a modern symphony orchestra, however, the sonorities are lean, clear and transparent, as they should be (something Leibowitz and Karajan never quite figured out) without sacrificing real phrasing and a fine sense of drama.

Perhaps one of the most deceptively difficult movements of any symphony to pull off successfully is the first movement of the Fourth Symphony. Only a truly first-rate musician has the instinct to pull back on the slow introduction in such a way as to produce the right sense of mystery in this work (Erich Leinsdorf failed miserably) before the score and the orchestra open up into the rather jolly tune that follows. Butt understands this and produces a fine reading, one of the best I’ve ever heard.

I’m thinking that if these had been live performances instead of studio recordings, the forward drive might have been greater, but since I’ve not heard Butt in live performance I can’t really say that with any degree of certainty. Yet every movement of each symphony delivers the proper Beethovenian effect. In the Sixth Symphony, Butt combines fairly quick tempi with the fine stylish elegance this work needs, and to my mind only Toscanini (especially in his 1939 recording with the BBC Symphony) really surpasses him in this symphony. In the last movement of the Ninth, the somewhat rough singing of basso Neal Davies is compensated for by some real interpretation of the lyrics, something you rarely hear. Butt takes the tenor solo at a faster clip than Toscanini, which is actually closer to score, and does not speed up the fugue in the middle of the movement, although he does miss some of the lightness and sense of mystery in the quiet choral section just before the “Freude, schöne Götterfunken” vocal canon that explodes afterwards.

I’m also pleased to report that Butt does not slough off any of the overtures, as so many conductors are wont to do. In fact, his performance of the Fidelio overture is far finer than the one that Claudio Abbado gave us as the opener to his sadly disappointing recording of the complete opera, or for that many many other versions (other than Gielen’s) I’ve heard in the digital era. He never quite gives us that headlong rush that Toscanini and Felix Weingartner so often achieved here and there, but neither does he let you down when you expecting the music to be enlivened and exciting. It’s just that his somewhat tempered approach never quite reaches that state I would call “unbuttoned.”

If you happen not to be one of those people who are impressed by Toscanini’s readings of these symphonies, you may very well want this set as a contrast to the sometimes hyper-explosive Gielen box. This one is a bit more of what you would call “home ground.” It is sure to please almost anyone you know who enjoys Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures, being a very “musical” reading of these thousand-time-done scores without wasting your time in the listening. I’m also very well pleased with the sonics, which are close yet still have a bit of ambience around the sound. In short, this is Beethoven done to a turn. I give it five fish!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Ken Schaphorst’s New Album Deceptively Innovative

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HOW TO SAY GOODBYE / SCHAPHORST: How to Say Goodbye. Blues for Herb. Mbira 1+. Green City. Amnesia. Take Back the Country. Float. Mbira 2. Global Sweat*. Descent / Ken Schaphorst Big Band: Schaphorst, *tpt/+Fender gtr; Tony Kadleck, Dave Ballou, John Carlson, Ralph Alessi, tpt/fl-hn; Luis Bonilla, Jason Jackson, Curtis Hasselbring, tbn; Jennifer Wharton, bs-tbn; Michael Thomas, a-sax/s-sax/cl; Jeremy Udden, a-sax; Donny McCaslin, Chris Cheek, t-sax; Brian Landrus, bar-sax/bs-cl; Uri Caine, pn; Brad Shepik, gtr; Jay Anderson, bs; Matt Wilson, dm; Jerry Leake, perc / JCA Recordings 1602

Jazz composer-bandleader Ken Schaphorst is chairman of the Jazz Studies Department at the New England Conservatory. That made me a bit suspicious, because throughout my lifetime—except for the phenomenal George Russell—most chairmen or women of jazz departments tend to get those positions through academic connections rather than outstanding talent. When was the last time you saw someone of the caliber of Jack Walrath or Ornette Coleman appointed to the chair of a university jazz department?

Happily, Schaphorst has real talent in terms of writing for big band. His approach is not unique or original, as were the scores of Rod Levitt, Clare Fischer, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Willem Breuker or Daniel Schnyder (for that matter, when is a jazz orchestrator going to start employing timbral blends borrowed from Ligeti, Ginastera or Lutoslawski, all of whom are dead and gone? Isn’t it about time jazz graduated into using updated classical music techniques?). Rather, Schaphorst borrows the kind of instrumental blends—soft brass mixing with saxes and winds—pioneered by the Claude Thornhill band of the late 1940s under Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan and further developed in the late 1950s-early ‘60s by Marty Paich, Allyn Ferguson and Mulligan himself. That being said, there is tremendous joy and elan in Schaphorst’s scores. The album’s title is a reference to the deaths of musicians Bob Brookmeyer and Herb Pomeroy.

How to Say Goodbye may be best described as a tune built around swirling eighth-note figures. That is pretty much the gist of this score, but the interest lies in the way the underlying rhythm becomes diffuse and develops into two (or, to my pears, three at one point) rhythms playing against one another. Moreover, the ensemble develops much more interestingly than the somewhat rambling trumpet solo; in fact, it sounds to me as if the orchestra is leading the improvisation and the soloist following along. An interesting concept I haven’t really heard much since Jelly Roll Morton used it in Red Hot Pepper – Stomp. I was particularly intrigued by the sudden shift towards a heavy march-like beat for the coda.

Blues for Herb uses a modification of the old Sy Oliver trick of pitting a baritone sax playing in its lower range against reeds and brass playing the top line. There is also a nice polyphonic passage for the saxes before Donny McCaslin emerges with a very nice tenor solo, inventive and a bit intense, using serrated figures and sixteenth-note swirls. Once again the music reaches a point of a complex beat, in this case almost suspending forward progression with long-held chords while McCaslin continues to improvise above them while pianist Uri Caine roils underneath. Schaphorst is very lucky to have the services of drummer Matt Wilson, whose recent CD I gave high marks to, in his rhythm section. Mbira I features an unusual solo by Schaphorst himself on Fender Rhodes guitar. Here he uses a much different type of orchestration, having the brass and reeds play a split-second behind one another in their first ensemble chorus to produce an almost “electronic” type of sound. Jerry Leake is heard on a variety of percussion instruments on this one, particularly behind Curtis Hasselbring’s superb trombone solo, and once again McCaslin contributes some nice playing as does Dave Ballou. The volume and intensity level of the band continues to rise throughout this piece before receding back into quieter space.

Green City has a distinctly Gil Evans kind of feel, much like the late arranger’s scores for the Miles Ahead album. Here Chris Cheek is the tenor soloist, and although he is not quite as original in expression as McCaslin, he has his own say. The middle section is scored for low clarinets, making an effective contrast in sound. Amnesia, with its odd feeling of being in 3 rather than 4 (or perhaps a mixture of the two beats), floats along in its own space, here somewhat reminiscent of a Johnny Richards score in timbre. Once again it is the orchestral score itself, and the way Schaphorst develops it, that commands attention, even over the ornate alto sax solo of Michael Thomas who also sounds as if he is embellishing what the ensemble is playing. At around 4:45 the piece comes to a dead stop before resuming in short, interrupted phrases at a much slower pace. Compositionally, this is surely one of the most interesting works on the album.

Although this was recorded in 2014, the title of Take Back the Country seems oddly prescient of our recent Presidential election, though the accompanying publicity blurb says it was written as a tribute to the late trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. Schaphorst employs a nice opening chorus mixing trombones with saxes in a way that puts a little bit of space between the notes even at a medium-fast clip. Trombonist Luis Bonilla takes a pleasant solo, followed by Landrus and Carlson. The latter’s solo, on flugelhorn, is really nice, underscored by some fancy cymbal work from Wilson,which then leads into a really cool uptempo chorus for the brasses—one of my favorite moments on the entire CD! Float is a pleasant enough piece, but here I felt the soloists, particularly pianist Caine, were the dominant forces behind it. In the second ensemble, I couldn’t help hearing echoes of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Imagination or reality? And no, I don’t really like the Battle Hymn, so it wasn’t wishful thinking on my part (the allusion resurfaces just before the five-minute mark).

With Mbira 2 we return to the feel of the first Mbira piece but with different timbral blends. This score sounds much more like conventional American jazz than African mbira music, however, and Brad Shepik’s bluesy guitar solo is quite fine. On Global Sweat, described by Schaphorst as “a vivid sonic depiction of a swelling storm” (not the now-debunked myth of man-made Climate Change), the music begins in an uneasy calm as the gathering of warm air is about to clash with the cold to produce a storm. Schaphorst uses some ingenious scoring here, developing his themes gradually as the music moves from a crawl to a slow waltz beat before eventually exploding in an eruption of gale-force brass and winds. Along the way there is a terrific polyphonic passage of overlaid themes and rhythms that is a real attention-getter. The piece suddenly ends, quietly, in the middle of nowhere.

The album closes with Descent, which despite its title is not a tune built around descending melodic structures or harmonies but rather an old-fashioned, uptempo swinger. Caine has a particularly happy piano solo in this one, and there is a quirky middle section with almost broken-carousel-type rhythm and harmonies beneath Ralph Alessi’s unusual and exploratory trumpet solo.

How to Say Goodbye is, then, a fine album mixing straightahead big band writing with some bold and innovative passages of wonderful imagination. Definitely worth a listen!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Dorothy Donegan: A Study in Frustration

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Let’s say you are a woman born in 1922—a good year, the beginning of the “Jazz Age”—but you have the handicap of being African-American in an era where it’s difficult for you to get ahead. Yet your family discovers that you have immense musical talent at an early age, so you begin piano lessons at age five and you blossom. Despite the fact that you are black in a white-biased society, you have dreams of becoming a classical pianist. In you favor, you are light-skinned and very pretty. But by the time you’re eight years, the Depression hits and those doors seem closed to you.At age 14 you are already playing professionally in South Side nightclubs for $1 a night. A little later, while still in high school, she was hired to play with Bob Tinsley’s jazz band.

Then you arrive in New York, impress some of the right people with your astounding talent, and are introduced to Art Tatum, the greatest pianist in the history of jazz. Tatum, too, is impressed by your talent—he was quoted as saying that you are “the only woman who can make me practice”—and you become his protégé. (You later say that Tatum “was supposed to be blind…I know he could see women.”) He tells you that you’re too good to work for substandard pay, thus you should always demand the same money as a male pianist. When you and Tatum are both in the same club and another pianist challenges him, he tells him to play against you first, and if they can “beat out a girl” then he’ll compete with him. But no one ever does beat you, and Art takes particular glee in seeing you demolish the competition. Tatum helps you get connections to record your first album on the RCA Bluebird label in 1942; in 1943, you become the first African-American to perform at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. The first half of your concert features Rachmaninov and Grieg; in the second half you “drug it through the swamp,” playing jazz. Chicago’s acerbic music critic, Claudia Cassidy, praises your terrific technique. Your career appears to be well and fully launched. 

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But something happens. You never seem to get a handle on exactly what, except for the fact that you continue to hold out for top dollar. Tatum introduces you to Cab Calloway, who gives you a wonderful cameo in his movie Sensations of 1945. You are offered appearances in other films, but not as a star; the pay is low and you refuse. Despite headlining the first all-Black show at Hollywood’s Tom Breneman Café in 1949 the jazz critics ignore you; you struggle for gigs, and even worse, for recording opportunities. In the late 1950s you marry John McClain, and by the early ’60s you have a young son to raise. The marriage sours and you get a divorce but retain custody of your son. You try going back to classical music, the love of your life, but although you manage to get one or two engagements in the post-Civil Rights era, you don’t have a high-powered agent and you don’t have a marketable name, not even in the jazz world. So you continue to play when and wherever you can. One of your most memorable concerts was one in which you played opposite Marian McPartland on NPR’s “Piano Jazz.” After a rousing performance of Little Rock Getaway, Marian says, “Oh Dorothy, you wasted me!” To which you replied, “It was no contest!”

Then suddenly, you catch a break—late in your career, perhaps too late to make a difference, but a break nonetheless. You perform at Carnegie Hall in 1981, and are heard by John Wilson of the New York Times, who writes that you are one of the greatest jazz pianists in the world. This leads to an appearance on pianist Phil Moore’s TV show, Ad Lib, and to bigger venues. In 1983 you are one of several pianists (Billy Taylor, Maxine Sullivan, Jaki Byard) chosen to perform at the memorial service for the great Earl Hines, and again you are singled out for praise. Suddenly, in your sixties, your career takes off a bit. You find a lot of work in Germany, and finally get to make some albums of your own. By 1993 you are a known commodity and are invited by President Bill Clinton to perform at the White House. Your fame is on the rise, but then you come down with cancer. Undeterred by the chemotherapy treatments, you continue to perform with your bald head wrapped in a turban. You are dazzling audiences again the way you did in your twenties, only now the money is better and you finally have name value.

And then, at age 76, you die.

This Hollywood movie-like scenario actually happened, and the recipient of those decades of hard luck was Dorothy Donegan. Jazz insiders knew who she was, but to the general jazz public she might as well have been invisible. Yet when she performed, she gave her all. If you watch the string of videos on YouTube of her dating from 1944 to 1998, you will see a woman who electrified audiences when she hit the keyboard. You’ll also see a performer with a “schtick” all her own. Donegan looked around the room when she played—often anywhere but at the keyboard. She made faces as if she were about to attack the keys like untamed lions. She hunched her shoulders, danced with her feet while seated or stood up and did a Jerry Lee Lewis-type of act. She would sometimes pretend to play badly before turning on a dime and producing perfect, two-handed Bach imitations. To many audiences, it seems, this was a bit too much; she was criticized for having “an excess of personality” when she played. Yet she still managed to evolve a style of her own, combining several Tatum-isms (she was, in fact, the only pianist besides the late Bobby Enriquez who could give you a nearly perfect Art Tatum imitation) with boogie woogie and the blues. Some of her playing sounded closer to that of Harry “The Hipster” Gibson than Tatum, and in some places she sounds prescient of such musicians as Phineas Newborn, Jr. or Horace Silver. She could play bebop with such incredible speed that she could even run Bud Powell into a corner. But she continued to struggle for decades while her male counterparts—and those women who would work for less money than men—got ahead.

It’s a little comforting to know that at least her last 18 years were relatively happy, but I have to think that for Dorothy fame came too late for her to really savor and enjoy it. Yet when one listens to her performances, one hears nothing but joy, the joy of producing music the way she liked it, emanating from her piano, even though at one point she tells a TV host that her real heart always lay with the classical side. Like all jazz musicians (even Tatum, to some extent), Donegan could “coast” on remembered licks, but more often than not she was inspired and inspiring to listen to.

I give you a few of her finest moments to savor:

1944: Her appearance in Sensations of 1945 in which she plays a swing arrangement of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 with another pianist, Gene Rogers. Rogers also has a dazzling technique, but it is not as beautifully coordinated between his two hands as is Donegan’s playing; even if you weren’t watching the video, you could tell the difference when he solos.

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1972: A blistering performance of Lover, combined with a rollicking blues-boogie rendition of Proud Mary.

1978s: A rare TV clip of Donegan playing and SINGING I Cried for You. This is the program where she admits that classical music is really the love of her life.

1980: A full set with her trio (other musicians, alas, unidentified) recorded in Aachen, Germany at the home of Friedrich & Gabi Klemme.

1981: Her appearance on Phil Moore’s Ad Lib program with a fairly good jazz singer, Spanky Wilson. I particularly loved their uptempo version of Summertime, and the funny, suggestive lyrics of a Pennies From Heaven parody called Benny’s From Heaven.

1980s: An absolutely dazzling arrangement and performance of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Flight of the Bumble Bee in jazz time. This one will make your head spin!

1991: A really lovely performance with Dizzy Gillespie of Sweet Lorraine.

1996: A TV appearance with the Count Basie band’s rhythm section in a program hosted by Steve Allen. On this program, Donegan plays a truly Art Tatum-esque rendition of I Can’t Get Started before moving into a boogie-woogie and classical music pastiche that is both wildly inventive and hysterically funny. For one of the few times in his life, Allen is at a loss for words.

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Dorothy Donegan surely deserves wider recognition than she has so far gotten. I would say that, if anything, her star has fallen again since her death and can’t get up. If you enjoy listening to her as much as I do, PLEASE PASS THE WORD AROUND! This great, great talent deserves wider recognition. I now rate her one of my top 10 favorite jazz pianists, and that is a rarefied list that includes only the crème de la crème: Hines, Tatum, Powell, Nat Cole, Tristano, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Jack Reilly and Enriquez.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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