Vivaldi’s Cello Concertos Jump and Jive With Fishman


VIVALDI: Cello Concertos: in D, RV 403; in A min., RV 418; in C min., RV 401; in F, RV 410; in D min., RV 405; in B min., RV 424; in G, RV 413 / Guy Fishman, cellist; Members of the Handel and Haydn Society / New Focus Recordings FCR907

My regular readers know how little I respect most musicians who pursue the “Historically-Informed Performance” style of flat dynamics, straight tone strings and all that jaz, because I researched the Baroque and pre-Baroque era for a decade back in the late 1970s-early 1980s and learned that much of what they propose either never existed in that time or is an exaggeration of what was actually done. That being said, I have made exceptions for a handful of groups and individual performers who play in that style, among them Tafelmusik, the Boston Baroque, and any group conducted by Fabio Biondi, Marc Minkowski or the late Alan Curtis.

To that short list I must now add the Handel and Haydn Society, which plays with energy and enthusiasm. The cello soloist, Guy Fishman, is sort of a special case. He does play with straight tone, and in the slow movements I sometimes find his sound too wan for my taste; but he also plays with considerable flair and fire, turning these concerti into real showcases for his instrument. He almost makes you like the style because he is such an enthusiastic and committed musician within that narrow and ahistorical framework, thus you can appreciate his many virtues while admitting to his few weaknesses. At least he produces a full tone in slow sections most of the time, which compensates for his lack of vibrato.

More importantly, both Fishman and the ensemble approach these works with the enthusiasm of people who have discovered fire for the first time. I love the way they can turn their grupetti on a dime, making the music flow despite their strict adherence to the style. By doing so, the entire group makes you focus on what is going on in the scores and not notice the technique that leads to their musical conclusions.

As for the music, it is typical of Vivaldi in his prime, meaning short movements where single motifs are worked out satisfactorily but do not lend themselves to profundity. Igor Stravinsky once said that “Vivaldi did not write 400 concertos, he wrote the same concerto 400 times,” but this is clearly facetious Even within the seven concertos on this CD, there is great variety not only in key but also in thematic use and mood. Of the slow movements, I particularly liked the “Adagio” of the concerto in C minor for its expressive content, and the last movement in this concerto is quite inventive for Vivaldi, with several “leaning” harmonies that temporarily push the music out of its tonal center. But every movement on this astonishing album comes to vibrant life in the hands of these talented musicians—listen, for instance, to the opening of the Concerto in F, which they make sound like a big guitar enthusiastically strumming out the rhythm.

This disc is, quite simply, a gem, and I recommend it highly.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Mayer’s “Dhammapada” Still Vibrant After 40 Years


MAYER: Dhammapada / London Music Fusions: Chris Taylor, fl; Tony Coe, cl/t-sax; Henry Lowther, tp; Clem Alford, sitar; Dreschen Theaker, tabla; Neil Colon, sarad/tanpura; John Leach, koto/cheng; Zack Laurence, pn; Toni Campo, bs; Harold Fisher, dm; Tristan Fry, Gary Kettel, Terence Emery, perc / Portraits of Bengal. Tantrik Dances / Chris Taylor, fl/pic; Philip Hill, oboe/E-hn; Thomas Kelly, cl/bs-cl; Clem Alford, sitar/tanpura; Keshav Sathe, tabla/tanpura; Catherine Sathe, Neena Guppa, tanpura; Jan Latham-Koenig, pn; Christopher Lawrence, bs/el-bs; Terence Emery, perc; John Mayer, dir / First Hand Records FHR-50

John Mayer, the son of an Anglo-Indian dockworker and a Tamil mother, was born in 1929 and grew up in what amounted to a shack in Calcutta. When his mother noted that he was musically talented and wanted to play the violin, she went to see Dr. Philippe Sandre, principal of the Calcutta School of Music, and asked him to take her son as a pupil. Sandre agreed on the condition that he be brought to him during his lunch break so that no one could object to his teaching him free of charge. This led to an unorthodox but great career: playing in the string section of the Calcutta Symphony by age 13, playing in the musical ensemble of the Lighthouse Cinema at age 15, then studying Indian classical music with Melhi Mehta, Zubin Mehta’s father, where he made great progress. Already by age 22, in 1951, Mayer won first prize in a violin competition which allowed him to study violin at the Royal Academy of Music in London and composition with the excellent but now-neglected composer, Matyás Sieber. For the next decade he combined life as an orchestral musician with composing his own music. He died in 2004.

mayerBy the early 1970s, Mayer was becoming famous for writing Indo-Jazz fusion music, thus in 1976 Lansdowne Records, a division of EMI, commissioned him to write a piece which he was to record with musicians of his own choosing. The result was Dhammapada, an eight-part suite that combined his three great loves in life: Indian music, classical music and jazz. As you can hear on this excellent reissue, the music was like nothing else then or now. It starts out gently, as music for meditation, but gradually turns into an Indian-flavored jazz romp not too far removed from the kind of music that Don Ellis had produced with the Hindustani Jazz Sextet or his own big band (although there are listeners who dislike the music of the Ellis big band).

The opening section of the suite, which is the longest at 12:57, is one of those pieces that morphs, develops and grows in a way similar to Charles Mingus’ Cumbia and Jazz Fusion, with the jazz improvisation not entering the picture until the 5:30 mark with a crackling trumpet solo by Henry Lowther. The band fairly bubbles behind him as Mayer cleverly blends Eastern and Western instruments together, the sitar bending blues licks behind Tony Coe’s tenor sax solo. In addition to being creative and exciting, this is also happy music, a kind so seldom heard nowadays.

What makes Mayer’s achievement so interesting is the way he was able to build this huge structure on a few very simple musical building-blocks. This was obviously a technique he learned from Sieber, whose own jazz-based works used the same principles. The really neat part about it is that Mayer is not just assuming a position of jumbling things together, but really knew what he was doing at every step. His deep knowledge of both Indian and Western classical music kept him grounded as he fused the two together; he knew exactly how to dovetail rhythms and timbres, how to switch between two different structures. It’s truly engaging and creative music. By the time you reach the fifth section, titled “Bhikkhu,” you almost feel as if you’re swinging down Yo-Yo- Ma’s Silk Road, but with a different beat. Some of it almost sounds like belly dancing music. My only disappointment was that the last track, “Chakka,” faded out. I always consider fade-outs to be musical cop-outs.

This is followed on the CD by two live performances Mayer gave in 1974. The greater space around the instruments makes them sound as if they are being played in a vast auditorium, the sounds almost hovering above your head, and the music, by and large, is more concise, much more classically-oriented and lacking a jazz reference. This does not, of course, mean it is less interesting or well-written, only that the feel of the music is more ruminative, relies more on wind instruments and is meant to create an ambience. Many of the pieces in 9 Portraits of Bengal sound like they cold be background music for an Indian movie or a TV mystery show although the Finale is rhythmically lively with an uninteresting backbeat playing against the syncopations of the oboe and sitar.

The Tantrik Dances are looser music combining meditative moments with some very strong rhythmic kicks. The most ruminative music is “The Search for Radha” while the most effervescent is the “Dance of Ecstasy.” All in all, Mayer’s music really does inhabit its own unique sound-world, and this CD is a unique and precious document of one of the most intriguing and eclectic composers of his time.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Kick-Butt Brahms From Vladar, Kouzmanova-Vladar & Amara


BRAHMS: Horn Trio in E-Flat, Op. 40. Violin Sonatas:No. 1 in G, Op. 78; No. 3 in D min., Op. 108 / Bojidara Kouzmanova-Vladar, violinist; Wolfgang Vladar, hornist; Magda Amara, pianist / Paladino Music PMR-0078

It is always with a certain sense of trepidation nowadays that I approach new recordings of old chamber music because of the almost insane fetish most young performers have with Straight Tone and the Religion of “letting the music speak for itself,” which generally means playing everything in a flat, non-inflected manner that is the aural equivalent of flat soda pop. Thus I first downloaded just the first movement of the Horn Trio from this album to give it a listen.

Needless to say, I was impressed. I am impressed.

Not in a long time have I heard three such musicians “let the music speak for itself” and still have the sensitivity and intelligence to bring out the colors and contours of the scores with such vibrant sensitivity. Here are three musicians playing together who don’t even have a formal name for their trio, although I suspect that the violinist and hornist are married to each other, yet who approach the music of Brahms with a splendid combination of no-nonsense, bracing post-modernism and old-fashioned values like phrasing, rubato, and a wonderful use of dynamics. For the record, Kouzmanova-Vladar doesn’t play with straight tone but with a very light, tight vibrato, which is historically correct for this music. Hornist Vladar has a lovely tone that is pointed and compact (he studied with the legendary Roland Berger, who led the Vienna Philharmonic horn section for decades), again historically right. Too many modern-day French hornists play this music (and other pieces from the same era or earlier) with the big, bloated instruments of today, which are designed to cut through a 120-piece band and whoop it up in Wagner. That doesn’t work for me, and it certainly doesn’t work for Brahms.

But this does work. They tear into the first movement of the Horn Trio, a fiendishly difficult piece to bring off as attested to by the large number of failed recordings (including one with Dennis Brain and two drips appropriately named Salpeter and Preedy, and Alan Civil with Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin), as if they couldn’t wait to play it. The whole movement has that kind of breathless thrill one gets from playing a piece one really loves for the first time, and they continue this feeling throughout the entire work. Just listen to that second movement, where Kouzmanova-Vladar’s bow fairly bounces off the strings…she’s enjoying it so much she can scarcely contain herself. And the others fall in line with her, Amara responding in the repeat of the opening theme with some rich, deep-in-the-keys playing, the enthusiasm building as they go through the movement. Brava and bravo, ladies and gentleman! Well done! It’s the kind of performance that’s so good you almost can’t wait to hear how they do each succeeding movement.

Moreover, the violin-piano duo from this group does an equally impressive job with the violin sonatas. Listening to No. 1, I was reminded of the Adolph Busch-Rudolf Serkin recording, except that Kouzmanova-Vladar’s tone is sweeter and more ingratiating. And listen to the way she “leans into” certain notes for stress value; this is first-class musicianship! She makes the whole sonata come alive in a way I’ve seldom if ever heard before.

And if you think the first sonata is good, listen to the way they tear into the Third. This has the same fire and energy as their playing in the Horn Trio; Kouzmanova-Vladar shows herself here to be a master of color, producing sounds on her violin ranging all the way from a breathless whisper (surprisingly sexy in its own way) to a fiery forte, with all manner of variations in between. And Amara, a professor of piano at the Vienna Music Academy, shows you why she won such a prestigious position at such a young age. The two of them are as potent a duo as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Anne-Maria McDermott were back in the early 2000s.

This is the kind of Brahms that Brahms himself would have loved. I say this because I know how much he adored the fiery yet sensitive playing of young Bronislaw Huberman, who Kouzmanova-Vladar resembles to some extent (although she doesn’t employ the portamento he used so well). If you even like Brahms a little, this is one disc that has to be in your collection. Wow!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Trio Kavak’s “Heirlooms” a Fascinating Album


HEIRLOOMS / SCHIMMEL: The Moon Rabbit Syllabary. WEBB: The Love We Save. BAYOLO: Six Portraits in Flowing Time. SILVERMAN: Would Not Could Not. KELLOGG: Songs for Grandma / Trio Kavak: Amelia Lukas, flautist; Victor Lowrie, violist; Kathryn Andrews, harpist / New Focus Recordings fcr174

This fascinating disc of chamber music for flute, viola and harp is very similar to the Carl Schimmel Roadshow album I reviewed recently; in fact, it even starts off with a Schimmel piece, The Moon Rabbit Syllabary. This piece is equally whimsical but not quite on the wacky-humorous level of his Roadshow pieces; rather, it conjures up moonlight in a way I have seldom heard music do, and I was absolutely delighted by the tremendous emotional involvement that Trio Kavak invests in this piece.

Orianna Webb’s The Love We Save is one of those pieces that, though tonal and aspiring to melodic lines, seems somehow more elusive to the mind than The Moon Rabbit Syllabary. There is one flute melody about 3:20 into the piece for the listener to hang on to, but for the most part the music is lovely and engaging depsite the lack of formal melody. It makes perfect sense that Webb wrote this music for her then-three-year-old daughter. The opening, she explains in the notes, is a “developing chaconne,” which probably explains the lack of a definable melody. In the latter part of the piece, Webb uses some clever development in her interaction of the three instruments.

Armando Bayolo’s Six Portraits in Flowing Time takes a diverse approach to composition, utilizing slightly different styles and harmonic approaches as he moves from piece to piece. The opening, “Album Pages,” is essentially tonal and lovely, whereas the second piece, “She Finds Her Voice,” is unusually structured and rides on occasionally bitonal harmonies. “Giggles” is a bubbling, effervescent piece reminiscent of some of Duke Ellington’s writing for his River suite, while “Bridal Song” is sparse, with sustained notes by the viola and jagged bursts of sound from the flute and harp surrounding it, at least until a lyrical flute melody enters at about 1:40, just in time for the piece to end. Interestingly, “The Little Risk Taker” also begins in a jagged manner, this time with all three instruments enjoined in the rhythmic spikiness, and remains so throughout its length. “A Song Before the End” is a slow, haunting piece, played on the flute as if it were a recorder of bamboo flute, with interfections from the harp and a drone-like obbligato from the viola. It has much more the feeling of folk music than the other pieces in the suite. The second half of this piece stays focused on just two tones played by the flute, over and over, in an almost minimalist style.

Adam Silverman describes his Would Not, Could Not as a musical setting of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham. It is a bustling, energetic piece, once again tonal but not necessarily melodic. Silverman used the rhythms of certain couplets from the Seuss book as a basis for his music, but does not let us know which ones he used. Silverman does say, however, that although “not entirely strict, the phrases of the character Sam are commonly given to the viola, while the words of the unnamed, green-eggs-detesting character are given to the flute.” This creates an interesting tension and interplay between them; the harp is relegated to the role of occasional commentator and accompanist. One of the things I found interesting, and amusing, about the piece was that Silverman was able to continually knit these little bursts of musical conversation together to form a coherent whole. In the latter section, the conversation seems to break up into smaller pieces of information and, as a result, little shards of music knitted cleverly together.

The album concludes with the wordless Songs for Grandma by Daniel Kellogg, honoring the relationship his daughter Kaela had with her grandmother, Win Kellogg. The opening piece, “Longing,” is extremely gentle music, haunting in its own way and utilizing a lot of “space” between segments. Trio Kavak does a beautiful job of entering into the spirit of the piece, nudging it along with a gentle but persistent rhythm and a feeling of loving warmth so essential to the mood of the piece. In the second piece, “Christmas Squirrels and Candy,” Kellogg uses the harp in a percussive manner, sparking the flute and viola tune to characterize their last Halloween together, while “I Dream of Butterflies” opens with an a cappella flute solo, leading into another viola drone as a sort of basso continuo and, a bit later, sparse harp interjections. Eventually the viola assumes a larger role in the development, interacting with the flute as a sort of “grounding” for the latter’s flutters (and the harp plucks) representing the butterflies.

All in all, Heirlooms is an interesting album, introducing a trio new to me as well as some composers I had not previously known.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Sommer’s “Rübezahl” a Lively Wagnerian Comedy


SOMMER: Rübezahl / Magnus Piontek, bass (Rübezahl); Johannes Beck, baritone (Herr Buko); Anne Preuß, soprano (Gertrud); Hans-Georg Priese, tenor (Wido); Jueun Jeon, baritone (Bernhard Kraft); Kai Wefer, baritone (Otto Kettner); Alexander Voigt, tenor (Hieronymus Stäblein); Opera Chorus of the Thüringen Theater & Philharmonic; Altenburg-Gura Philharmonic Orchestra; Laurent Wagner, conductor / PanClassics PC 10367 (live: March 31-April 2, 2016)

Here we have a composer and an opera so obscure that even lifelong operaphiles (like myself) have never heard of either. Hans Sommer (1837-1922) was a part-time composer whose first influence was Robert Schumann, but later in life he was more strongly influenced by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, both of whom admired his work. Born Hans August Friedrich Zincken, the son of pioneer photographer Peter Wilhelm Friedrich von Voigtlander, he was initially drawn to mathematics but also took private music lessons. Through his mathematics teacher Julius Otto Grimm and lecturer Peter Gustav Dirichlet, who happened to be Felix Mendelssohn’s brother-in-law—i.e., Fanny Mendelssohn’s widower—young Hans made the acquaintance of Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim. Although he became a mathematics lecturer just one year after graduation, he also stayed involved in music, founding the first Verein für Konzertmusik at Braunschweig in 1863. This was a concert festival that organized orchestral, chamber and choral concerts in which such stellar musicians as Clara Schumann and Hans von Bülow participated. Yet it wasn’t until 1881, by which time he was 44 years old, that he decided to work full time in music.

sommerSommer wrote a great deal of lieder when he was younger which is also rather forgotten today, yet one of his lieder collections led to his meeting Richard and Cosima Wagner in 1875. The Wagners were much taken with the young man and recommended him to Cosima’s father, Franz Liszt, for further study. In the 1890s he began writing operas, of which the first was Lorelei in 1891. The current work, Rübezahl und der Sackpfeifer von Neiße (to give it its full title) was premiered under Richard Strauss’ baton in 1904. So why isn’t he or this opera better known? For one thing, Sommer conspicuously avoided a publisher for his music. For whatever reason—caprice, paranoia or just laziness—he never bothered to get any of his works published. He also wasn’t particularly energetic about self-promotion, and without an agent no one else was going to stump for him either. Thus he just sort of faded into oblivion as time went on.

Rübezahl is based on a folk legend once well known in Germany, Poland and the former Czechoslovakia. Rubezahl is a mountain spirit whose real name is Lord John who supposedly kidnapped a princess who liked turnips (rübe in German). To keep her company, Lord John magically turned the turnips into her friends and acquaintances, but since the turnips wilted in time so did the people he modeled them after. For the most part Lord John was amiable and taught people natural herbal medicine, but when people teased him by calling him “Rübezahl” he exacts a severe revenge.

The way Sommer structured his opera, Rübezahl plays an important role but is not the center of the plot, which revolves around the painter Wido, the coppersmith Kettner, the author Stäblein and several others. They tell Wido of the townspeople of Neiße who are suffering under the tyrannical regime of Buko. Although Wido is in love with Buko’s daughter, Gertrud, he decides to fight for the town. Gertrud, overhearing him, begs Wido to stay with her and stay out of the battle. In distress, Wido calls out for help from Rübezahl, who appears but chides Wido and then turns himself into the bagpipe player Ruprecht Zagel, forcing Wido to dance. This gives him the idea to take Rübezahl/Zagel with him when he attacks Buko’s fortress. Appearing in front of a crowd of villagers, Gertrud incurs their wrath as she is Buko’s daughter. Wido tries to quell the crowd to no avail, but suddenly Zagel plays his bagpipes and all are forced to dance.

bukoIn the third act, Buko swears revenge on those who attempt to topple him, but Gertrud, the only person who means anything to him, has suddenly come down with a horrible fever. Her maid, Brigitte, tells Buko that Gertrud talks in her fevered sleep about a man she loves. Buko orders a servant to summon Zagel to play the pipes for him, but unbeknownst to him the real Zagel refuses to appear and it is Rübezahl in disguise (once again) who takes his place. Rübezahl reveals his true identity, urging Buko to let Wido and Gertrud marry, but the enraged despot has the mountain spirit thrown into prison. Gertrud, somewhat recovered, confronts her father and admits her love for Wido, which ends with her father banishing her. A servant rushes in to report that the real Ruprecht Zagel has died.

rubezahl-gertrudIn the fourth and last act, Buko visits Zagel’s grave, the gravedigger explaining that sometimes Wido comes there to pray. When Wido arrives, he is arrested by guards and taken before Buko. Gertrud pleads for her lover, but is also arrested. Wido then summons Rübezahl, who arises from the grave along with all the dead spirits, who come to life and demand justice from Buko. When the clock strikes the hour, the tower collapses, Buko dies, and the wise man Theobald Kraft becomes the new ruler. Everyone still surviving then lives happily ever after, The End.

Typically of German composers of his era, and particularly those influenced by Wagner, Sommer tended to overwrite. To paraphrase one critic (whose name I forget) who said of Die Meistersinger that Wagbner poured out music in quarts and gallons when a few pint-pots would do, some of the same defects apply to Rübezahl, but to his credit Sommer kept things moving and blended in some modern harmonices borrowed from his new friend, Richard Strauss, with the many Wagnerisms (there’s a chorus in the first scene that sounds for all the world like Hagen summoning the vassals from Götterdämmerung). Also, like Meistersinger, the music of Rübezahl is consistently lively, happy and interesting. Sommer never really gets bogged down in the kind of rambling, slow monologues like Hans Sachs’ “Wie duftet doch der Flieder?,” although much of his writing, harmonically interesting and orchestrally colorful though it is, relies on the kind of sung recitatives that run all through Meistersinger.

But of course, in the case of an opera so completely new to us (neither the title nor the composer’s name can be found in James Anderson’s near-definitive Harper Guide to Opera and Operetta, one of my go-to books for virtually everything operatic), you miss something by not having any visuals other than the photos in the accompanying booklet. These suggest a very modern production with some bizarre features (the worst being the fact that, for no apparent reason, Rübezahl’s face is covered all over with lines and squiggles drawn with makeup pencil and Wido, naked from the waist up, is spattered with body paint) but I’m sure that seeing the opera onstage would compensate for some of the “what are they doing?” questions that pop in your head from time to time. Hans-Georg Priese, as Wido, has a nice, light tenor voice in the mold of David in Meistersinger, and his role in the opera is of a similar length. Once he enters, he almost never stops singing (as opposed to Walther, who gets lots of breaks). Anne Preuß, as Gertrud, has a wobbly, ugly voice with a strained top, which completely ruins any enjoyment of her scenes (and, for me, was the deciding factor not to keep this recording). The long Gertrud-Wido duet in the first act was, to my mind, too long, and the recitative-like quality of the music didn’t help.

Happily, Magnus Piontek as Rübezahl has an absolutely fabulous voice, one of those jolly-German bass voices with a bottomless pit in the low range. Every scene he is in benefits from not only his superb voice but his genial and very musical delivery. This may be the best moment in which to also praise our conductor, Laurent Wagner, who leads the performance with both vigor and and undercurrent of bubbling humor. He also brings out much orchestral detail, which is important in an opera with such rich scoring. Our bagpipe player, Ruprecht, also has a warm, jolly-sounding baritone voice, and his music is jolly as well. Johannes Beck, as Buko, has a darker-timbred voice that is steady with excellent diction. The orchestral music in the Act II scene, “Wido, bist du’s?,” sounds so much like Rosenkavalier that you’d think it was a case of Strauss influencing Sommer, but the latter opera was then seven years in the future.

Sommer reserves some of his greatest music for the last act, where his choral writing and dramatic effects with the orchestra and percussion provide some fascinating moments. In this act, too, baritone Beck’s voice takes on a darker hue, sounding for all the world like the late Gustav Neidlinger. Is he possibly an Alberich in the making? I wouldn’t be surprised.

All in all,  this is a fine performance of a real operatic rarity. It’s something different, it’s upbeat and well-crafted as music, and it appeals to those who prefer their operas tonal, although there isn’t really a single memorable tune in the whole thing—in fact, there’s nothing at all in this opera that resembles a real aria except for Gertrud’s “Ich suche das Leben.” Even Buko’s long Act III monologue, “Tag, Vetter Stadtvogt,” has less the feel of an aria about it than Donner’s scene in Das Rheingold before he bashes the anvil and creates thunder. This was evidently artistic choice on Sommer’s part; despite the length of the opera (157 minutes), he wanted it to move and move lightly, not get bogged down in tunes that plebian audiences would probably want encored. Is it a masterpiece on the level of Meistersinger? No, not really, but an occasional revival wouldn’t hurt.

I have only two complaints about this release, both related to the packaging. First of all, although it’s nice to have each act complete on a CD (CD 2 contains both Acts II and III), the opera could easily have been fit on two CDs instead of three. The third disc, which contains Act IV, is all of 37 minutes long. And secondly, perhaps more importantly, they really should have provided the libretto in both German and English instead of just the former. But what the heck, with so many Muslims in Germany nowadays they probably should have also printed it in Arabic. Other than that, a fascinating release.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Richter Plays Szymanowski in Live Concert


SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Sonatas Nos. 2 & 3. Mythes: 3 Poèmes for Violin & Piano (“Dryades and Pan” played twice)* / Sviatoslav Richter, pianist; *Oleg Kagan, violinist / Doremi 2015 (live: November 26, 1982)

This disc, Vol. 23 in Doremi’s ongoing series of CDs by Sviatoslav Richter, is one of the most fascinating because it is focused on a single concert of music by Karol Szymanowski. Sandwiched between the Second and Third Sonatas is a performance of the composer’s superb Mythes for violin and piano, in which Richter is joined by Oleg Kagan.

It’s a fascinating excursion. Richter, of course, is Richter, meaning that his approach to almost any music is that of a piano titan who combined a powerful touch and granitic fingering with moments of tenderness. It was his modus operandi over a career that lasted an astonishing 64 years. Not everything he played survived the emotional outpouring he expended but he was nothing if not consistent and, deep down, a serious artist who tried to do the very best he could with every piece he played.

Thus as one listens to this recital, happily recorded in digital stereo, one is almost immediately overwhelmed by the power of his approach. The question, of course, is whether or not the music of Szymanowski can withstand a Mussorgsky-Scriabin approach, and I feel it can for the simple reason that Szymanowski was strongly influenced by the latter composer. Like Scriabin, he employed a somewhat atonal style which he blended with Debussy-like impressionism, producing emotionally powerful music within a post-modern harmonic idiom.

This is exactly the kind of music that was meat and potatoes to Richter, and it shows in these extremely well-crafted performances. One can almost hear the intensity of his mind at work as he plays the Second Sonata, particularly the slow second movement. Perhaps the one small complaint I have is that Richter does not quite allow some breathing room in spots, but this is more than compensated for by his assured grasp of the music’s form. Indeed, I can scarcely think of another pianist who so completely enters into the spirit of the score as he. So long as you are comfortable with Richter’s immensely powerful, leonine keyboard approach, I think you’ll be suitably impressed by his playing here.

Richter is surprisingly light and subtle in the Mythes, but in this case it was violinist Kagan who I felt had too heavy an approach. His thick, Russian tone seemed to overwhelm the music in “La fontaine d’Aretheuse” despite some moments of sublime beauty. This is, quite simply, one of the most Debussy-like of Szymanowski’s compositions, and a light, French-style violinist (or a reasonable facsimile, like Yehudi Menuhin) is ideal for it. As the music progressed, however, I felt that Kagan produced some moments of great beauty in “Narcisse,” and “Dryades et Pan” came out very good indeed—so much so that the duo was forced to encore it—though I have to admit that the recently-unearthed recording by Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin (see my Menuhin review) is nearly perfect in expression.

Happily, however, Richter continues the lightness of touch he exhibits in the Mythes in his performance of the equally impressionistic Sonata No. 3. Indeed, this may be one of the pianist’s all-time best performances of light and airy music. He finds exactly the right expression for this one-movement work, and is not afraid to bring out the power (to some extent, at least) when it is called for. This is simply a magnificent interpretation, relaxed and fully in control of his musical and technical resources. He almost becomes the music, so rapt is he in its quasi-mystical sound world.

In short, then, a delightful excursion into Szymanowski’s unusual sound world and an important addition to the Richter discography.

—© Lynn René Bayley

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Höhenrieder and the Saxon Chamber Players do Sextets


THUILLE: Sextet for Piano & Woodwind Quintet. POULENC: Sextet for Piano & Woodwind Quintet. FRANÇAIX: L’Heure du Berger / Margarita Höhenrieder, pianist; Kammerharmonie der Sachsischen Staatskapelle Dresden / Solo Musica SM251

This particular disc of beautifully-played woodwind sextets features works by one Tyrolean (Ludwig Thuille) and two 20th-century Frenchmen. Their playing style, though in the modern mold—crisp and clean, with little room for rubato or other niceties of expression—happens to fit the music very well, the one exception being the Thuille sextet. This is because, to be charitable about it, the music is pretty mediocre. It toodles along in its comfortably Tyrolean way, nicely organized from a formal standpoint and developed well in terms of technical accomplishment but saying little or nothing that hasn’t been said, and much better, by dozens of other composers writing in a similar style. What does make it work is the crisp, clean style of the performers. By not lingering too much or pulling the tempo around like taffy, they present the best-case scenario for its acceptance.

Interest picks up considerably with the wonderful Poulenc Sextet, a real gem in his output. It has long amazed me how witty his music was, especially considering what a melancholy streak the man had in him. I suppose it was a case of someone laughing on the outside and crying on the inside. My sole caveat about this performance was that it sounded a bit rushed, but it is played splendidly with exceptional tone quality from the winds of the Staatskapelle Dresden Chamber Players. It’s difficult to ruin Poulenc if you’re a good musician, but I simply must single out French hornist Robert Langbein for his exceptionally beautiful, rounded tone and almost inexhaustible breath control. Bravo, Robert!

As for pianist Hohenrieder, she plays extremely well in context. Chamber playing of this style is a completely different art from solo or even duo-sonata style; the artist must completely subjugate him or herself into the ensemble, and this is particularly true of 20th-century French works like those of Poulenc and Françaix, whose music screams for clean lines and an unfussy delivery. I did, however, feel that the sonics were a bit on the glassy side, not so much as to be a detriment but not as warm as I might have preferred.

Interestingly, L’Heure du Berger is the only piano-woodwind sextet that Françaix wrote, his other such work being for six wind players and no pianist. But this is clearly his wittiest work, using the winds in such a way as to almost suggest a drunken swagger through the music, and the Saxon Chamber Players play this up to the hilt. It’s so much fun to listen to that you forget and forgive them for the Thuille piece that opens this CD.

All in all, a truly charming recital by a group that I hope to hear more of, and a pianist I’d like to hear in solo performance as well!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Warner Classics Releases an Important Menuhin Set


THE MENUHIN CENTURY: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS WITH HEPHZIBAH MENUHIN / MOZART: Violin Sonatas: No. 35 in A, K. 526 (2 vers); No. 24 in F, K. 376; No. 18 in G, K. 301: II. Allegro; No. 26 in B-flat, K. 378: II. Andantino sostenuto e cantabile; No. 27 in G, K. 379; No. 35 in A, K. 526: III. Presto; No. 33 in E-flat, K. 481: II. Adagio. Concerto for 2 Pianos in E-flat, K. 365. 1,6,9 Piano Concertos: No. 14 in E-flat, K. 449 1,9; No. 19 in F, K. 459. 1,9 Concerto for 3 Pianos in F, K. 242 1,5,11 Piano Quartet No. 1 in G min., K. 478 3,7 / BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonatas Nos. 3, 5 (2 vers), 7, 9 (2 vers), 10 (2 vers); No. 8: III. Allegro vivace. Rondo in G, WoO 41. Trios: No. 3 in C min., Op. 1 No. 3; 4 No. 5 in D, “Ghost” (1st vers,2 2nd vers3); No. 6 in E-flat, Op. 70 No. 2; 3 No. 7 in B-flat, Op. 97, “Archduke.”3 Piano Concerto No. 3 in C min., Op. 37 1,10 / SCHUBERT: Rondo in B min., D. 895, “Rondo Brillant.” Piano Trios: No. 1 in B-flat, D. 898; 3 No. 2 in E-flat, D. 929; 3 in B-flat, D. 28; 3 in E-flat, D. 897, “Notturno”3 / BRAHMS: Violin Sonatas: No. 1 in G. Op. 78; No. 3 in D min., Op. 108 (3 vers); Sonata in A min., “F-A-E”: III. Scherzo. Horn Trio in E-flat9 / FRANCK: Violin Sonata in A, M. 8 (2 vers) / LEKEU: Violin Sonata in G / BARTÓK: Violin Sonata No. 1 / ENESCU: Violin Sonata No. 3 in A min., Op. 25 (2 vers) / PIZZETTI: Violin Sonata in A / BACH: Violin Sonata No. 3 in E, BWV 1016 / SZYMANOWSKI: Myths, Op. 30 No. 3: Dryads and Pan / SCHUMANN: Violin Sonata No. 2 in D min., Op. 121 (2 vers) / TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Trio in A, Op. 50 (1st vers,2 2nd vers3)/ ELGAR: Violin Sonata in E min., Op. 82. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Violin Sonata in A min. / MENDELSSOHN: Double Concerto for Violin & Piano in D min. 1,9 / Yehudi Menuhin, violinist/1conductor; 2Maurice Eisenberg, 3Maurice Gendron, 4Pablo Casals, cellists; Hephzibah Menuhin, 5Yaltah Menuhin, 5Jeremy Menuhin, 6Fou Ts’ong, pianists; 7Luigi Alberto Bianchi, violist; 8Alan Civil, hornist; 9Bath Festival Orchestra; 10Philharmonic Orchestra de l’ORTF; 11London Philharmonic Orchestra / Warner Classics 825646208302 (20 CDs)

This is the second “monster” release by Warner Classics, new corporate conglomerate owner of what used to be EMI records, to celebrate the “Menuhin Century” of 2016. The great thing about this specific release is that it gives us all of his recordings with his younger sister, Hephzibah, on piano. The awful thing is that, unless you fork out big money for the hard copies of the CDs, you won’t have a clue what you’re getting unless you spend close to an hour, as I did, online digging up who the accompanying musicians and orchestras are, and even then you don’t have recording dates because the booklet they give you to download with this set provides no such information. The only additional info is this thing, from the Warner Classics website page:


Which is next to nothing. I was able to find the accompanying musicians and orchestras for all the other works by going to four or five different sites online (after sifting through a dozen dead ends), but alas, I cannot provide you with any recording dates except for the first Tchaikovsky Trio, recorded on March 3 & 4, 1936, and the first version of the Beethoven “Ghost” Trio, which was recorded on March 5, 1936. I only have release dates for some of the others. Not providing recording dates for everything, at the very least, is completely irresponsible in a set of this magnitude.

The other botch job on this set is the sound quality of the 78-rpm transfers (at least a third of the recordings). In some cases, not many, it sounds as if the engineer went out of his or her way to clean up as much surface noise as possible, but in those cases they left behind a fairly dull-sounding artifact that needed considerable high-end brightening to come close to simulating the sound of Menuhin’s violin tone, which was light and bright throughout his career. In most of the others, they left so much surface noise in that the recordings sound as if they come from the stone age of electrical recording, which they do not. In those cases, both noise removal and sonic brightening were needed to give some life to them.

In only one case do I forgive them for what they did, and that is on the rare performance of Szymanowski’s Dryads and Pan from his Myths. This was an unissued recording that suffered much the same bad pressing and electroplating that befell Arturo Toscanini’s Philadelphia Orchestra recordings of 1941-42. There are sections where the sound of Yehudi’s violin and Hephzibah’s piano breaks up into powder with partial interruptions and considerable surface noise. The engineer did a pretty good job of restoring this as best he or she could, and it is indeed a remarkable performance, although why on earth they didn’t re-record it remains a mystery. But the engineer botched the Brahms Sonata No. 1 the same way, allowing the “crumbling” sound of the original records to remain, particularly in quiet passages, and there are other, less obvious but no less irritating moments throughout the 78-rpm recordings (of which there are many). Some of the stereo recordings also needed some top-end brightening, too, particularly the live performance of the Mozart Piano Quartet No. 1, a splendid interpretation that sounds as if it were recorded under a blanket.

I wanted to get my carping about this set out of the way first because so much of what follows is going to be praise—not for the uneven engineering or the shoddy packaging, but for the actual performances. When I was much younger, I ran across a couple of 78-rpm sets on RCA Victor of Yehudi and Hephzibah playing together (one of them a Mozart sonata, the other Beethoven), and was absolutely thrilled. In my estimation, except for the occasional “special guest” accompanists that Yehudi had in his career, such as harpsichordist Wanda Landowska in his New York Town Hall Bach concert or his mid-‘60s CBC performances of Beethoven and Schoenberg sonatas with pianist Glenn Gould, Hephzibah was the finest accompanist he ever had.


Hephzibah Menuhin, c. 1970

The reason was not just that she was a fine pianist who could play virtually any style of classical music, though that was true. Nor was it because she never chose to have a solo career, preferring to be her brother’s “go-to” accompanist of choice for nearly a half-century. It was because she, even more so than her younger sister Yaltah—also a fine pianist—had a real psychic connection with her brother. When Yehudi and Hephzibah played together, it was the same brain playing both violin and piano. They felt the contours of the music exactly alike: not only the same tempos and phrasing, but the same approach to dynamics, attack, even the length of the occasional brief pauses between notes. “Yehepzibah” was a classical duo unlike any other in history, and it’s a perfect miracle that they recorded together so often. Listening to many of these recordings, I almost imagined that I was hearing to Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn playing together, so close was their musical affinity for each other.

Listening to the whole set is truly a heady experience, and even though I liked most of the music and certainly like the performers, it took quite a bit of patience to slog through it all. I mean…20 CDs’ worth of music? This is sensory overload of a conspicuously sadistic kind, no matter how much you may love the Menuhins, separately or together.

A personal note. When I was first getting into classical music, I heard the old 1940 recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto by Jascha Heifetz and Arturo Toscanini. Despite the dry, boxy sound, I love the boldness of the musical conception and also could appreciate—even at a young age—Heifetz’ sturdy, piercing but generally interesting sound. A few years later, however, I heard the Menuhin-Furtwängler recording of this same concerto and was hooked. Menuhin didn’t seem to be trying to prove he was the world’s greatest violinist, which Heifetz always seemed to be doing, and I loved his more relaxed (but still vibrant) approach to the music and especially that sweet, pointed tone of his. From that day forward, he was my favorite violinist, even more so than Kreisler or Oistrakh (who I also liked quite a bit), at least until Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Kyun-Wha Chung came along. I was also lucky enough to hear him in person once, in the mid-1990s, near the end of his career, playing the Beethoven Concerto. He had some rough spots that night, but for the most part his tone was how I remembered it from recordings. I feel so blessed to have at least seen him, but was disappointed that he wasn’t feeling well enough to greet visitors backstage. I would have loved to have told him how much his playing had meant to me over the decades.

Hephzibah, of course, I never heard. As Yehudi put it, she clearly had the technique and style to pursue a solo career, but preferred a back seat to her brother. There is a quote from her online that “Freedom means choosing your own burden.” I suppose that being her brother’s preferred musical doppelgänger was good enough for her.

What I didn’t know was that she recorded so much with him, and so late, too, well into the 1970s. Because of my early limited exposure to just a few of her recordings with Yehudi, I came to think of their duo partnership as an intermittent thing of the 1930s and ‘40s. Clearly, as this set proves, I missed a lot of their later collaborations, including her appearance as a piano soloist with her brother conducting. To a certain extent, Hephzibah was a hothouse flower who bloomed best in the presence of her brother (though she did record the two Brahms Clarinet Sonatas with George Pieterson for Philips), but when she bloomed the blossom was fragrant, vibrantly colored and irresistable.

Yet there were misfires, as this set proves, and they weren’t always the unissued recordings. Superb in Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Franck, Enescu and Szymanowski (I’d even go so far as to say that the Menuhins’ Mozart Sonata recordings are the best I’ve ever heard), she was curiously cold in Bach, Lekeu, Pizzetti and Tchaikovsky. What makes the latter so surprising is that, especially in the earlier version of the Trio, Yehudi is his inimitable best, his violin dancing and singing alternately throughout (with Maurice Eisenberg on cello) while Hephzibah sounds oddly klunky and stiff, even playing some wrong notes (not at all typical for her). What’s particularly surprising about this is that the Beethoven “Ghost” Trio, made the very day after they finished the Tchaikovsky, is a phonographic classic, Hephzibah in particular digging into the music with drama and fire. But sometimes they both fizzled out, such as in the first recording of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata. I think both of them decided to play it more lyrically than is usually done, and this they accomplished, but the sonata completely loses its edge. Yet ironically, their early performances of the other Beethoven sonatas have that edge and drive that the “Kreutzer” lacked. Weird, huh? Hephzibah plays far better technically in the stereo recording of the Tchaikovsky Trio with Gendron on cello. Interestingly, the performance style of this version is more French than Russian, yet it is tremendously exciting and valid.

Interestngly, some of the later mono and stereo remakes of the earlier pieces just aren’t as successful, but some of this has to do with Yehudi’s emotional response. His playing in the later version of the “Ghost” trio is very fine, and still recognizable as Menuhin, but that certain something is gone. I ascribe it in part to the change of cellist: Maurice Gendron simply isn’t as interesting as Eisenberg, and Hephzibah’s accompaniment lacks that certain something it had in 1936. Some of this also afflicts the “new” pieces, too, such as the Brahms Horn Trio. This performance doesn’t come close to the superb recording by Zbigniew Zuk, Jan Stanienda and Piotr Folkert on Zuk Records, let alone the classic 1933 account by Aubrey Brain, Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin for EMI. It’s a complete emotional neuter from start to finish. On the other hand, the duo’s later recording of the Beethoven Sonata No. 10 is nearly as good as their first, and the “Kreutzer” Sonata remake is better (though not on a level of the best versions, e.g. Bronislaw Huberman with Ignacy Friedman or Barbara Govatos with Marcantonio Barone). For whatever reason, neither Yehudi nor Hephzibah really “let go” emotionally in the “Kreutzer.” I have no idea why, as it suited their temperaments well (and EMI seems to think highly of this recording, reissuing it on other CDs). They’re also emotionally circumscribed in a prim performance of the “Archduke” Trio, and the stereo remake of the Enescu Sonata No. 3 completely lacks the mystery of the old mono version.

Sometimes the remakes, when not too far apart in time, are of equal quality. Such was the case with the Brahms Sonata No. 3. The second version is slightly slower than the first, not by much, yet the tensile strength of both Yehudi’s and Hephzibah’s playing remains, and the emotional involvement is similar—so much so that, except for the fact that Warner wanted to include everything, there was really no reason for the duplication. The third version, similar to the second, was simply done to have it in stereo. Better they should have remade the Szymanowski. The second version of the Beethoven Sonata No. 10 is considerably slower than the first, and emphasizes the rhythm and nuances of the music differently. I found it interesting in its own way—had I been in the concert hall, I probably would have liked it very much—but overall, I preferred the earlier version.


Maurice Gendron

Of the three cellists heard here, I prefer Casals and Eisenberg. French cellist-conductor Maurice Gendron, once a famous name, has a sound that is a bit light for my taste but plays well in context. He is best in the Brahms, Schubert No. 2 and Tchaikovsky Trios.

The stereo recording of the Beethoven “Spring” Sonata (No. 5) is lovely and charming in its own way, and without an earlier comparison one accepts it as a very fine performance, yet in the back of my mind I suspect that the lift and lilt of Yehudi’s violin would have been livelier back in the 1930s or ‘40s. It’s hard to say about the Bartók First Sonata, however; this is a performance of incredible intensity but their first recording of it, and I think the newness of the piece inspired them both. Yet the same is true of their stupendous second reading (high fidelity but not stereo) of the Schumann Sonata No. 2.

So what inferences can we draw from these performances? My own reaction is that, like so many classical musicians whose names were not Arturo Toscanini or Annie Fischer, Yehudi Menuhin was better in certain pieces the first several times he played them. As time went on, his repertoire grew and new interests replaced the old, his performances remained highly professional and still had his stamp on them, but were less imaginative. The same thing was true of his various recordings of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. The very first one with Wilhelm Furtwängler from the late 1940s was the most fascinating. The second version with Furtwängler, the famous 1953 studio recording, was still very fine and had similarities to the first, but lacked some of its spontaneity. The third version with Constantin Silvestri was also a shade less lively, but still recognizably Menuhin, while his last version, with Otto Klemperer, was stodgy, not just because late Klemperer was stodgy (which he was) but because Menuhin had probably had enough of the Beethoven concerto by then. (He was also somewhat uninvolved when I heard him in the 1990s, but I put that down to old age.) Interestingly, I always felt that his amanuensis, Heifetz, managed to retain an interest in every piece he ever played. Some later Heifetz performances were slightly less interesting than his earlier versions, but just slightly.

And of course, as Yehudi’s moods went, so did Hephzibah’s. She mirrored them perfectly, and did so for a very long time, but it was always his moods. She was her brother’s favorite passenger on his journey through music, but never the driver of the car. Perhaps this was what she meant when she said “Freedom is choosing your own burden.” It should be noted, however, that Yehudi constantly urged her to pursue a solo career, so I’m not blaming him for her decision to stay his accompanist. And, as I’ve mentioned, he usually played better with her than with anyone else in chamber music. Their performances of the Elgar and Vaughan Williams Sonatas are simply terrific: impassioned and full of fire, the way they should have played the”Kreutzer.”

It’s interesting to hear the concerto recordings with Yehudi conducting and Hephzibah as soloist. For all his allegiance to Furtwängler, Menuhin’s conducting style was rooted in that of Szell or Toscanini: direct, unfussy, dramatic and binding the music in such a way as to emphasize its structure. One expects Hephzibah to be at her best in the Mozart Concertos, and she is (particularly reveling the lesser-known 2- and 3-piano concerti), but more surprising is her performance of the Beethoven Third. Not quite as forceful as Fleisher (with Szell), Serkin or Arthur Rubinstein, she nonetheless surprises one with her complete grasp of a piece she probably never played in public before or after. She exhibits a tensile strength and intuitive sense of drama, helped tremendously by ber brother’s splendid conducting. This is yet another instance of the symbiotic relationship that existed between them, and as the performance evolves one can clearly hear Yehudi whipping up the orchestra in certain sections to match his sister’s impassioned attacks. Once again: two minds operating musically as one. It could just as well have been both played and conducted by Hephzibah.

There is, of course, much I could say of every performance in this set, but for the most part I think that pretty much wraps things up. You may have your own favorite recordings as you go through the set, and your taste may certainly differ from mine, but I am giving you the benefit of my own reaction based on decades of listening. If you choose to buy the set as downloads rather than hard discs, I seriously suggest that you follow at least some of my recommendations to save yourself some money. Their collaboration was a valuable and unique one, but not as consistent as the publicity blurbs want you to believe.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Sidney Jacobs’ Second CD Interesting and Stylish


FIRST MAN / JACOBS: First. First Man. Last Night. Sabine’s Grind. Fly. Say What You Will. The Love Within You. Long Walk. ETOROMA: Undercurrent. RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: My Favorite Things. WITHERS: Lonely Town, Lonely Street. LAMAR: You Ain’t Gonna Lie. DISTEL: The Good Life. TAYLOR: Secret o’ Life /Sidney Jacobs, voc; Nolan Shaheed, tp; Wendell Kelly, tbn; Francesco Canas, vln; Josh Johnson, a-sax; Justin Thomas, vib/marimba; Michael Jarvey, pn/el-pn/vla; Josh Nelson, pn; Greg Poree, gtr/el-gtr; Cathy Segal-Garcia, bcgd voc; Zephyr Avalon, bs/el-bs; Efa Etoroma Jr., dm / Baby Chubs Records

School psychologist Sidney Jacobs has never let his day job stop his singing and songwriting activities, and it shows in this, his second CD, to be released on January 23. An artist in the Al Jarreau mold, Jacobs combines a certain amount of scatting with his own personal way of using his voice like an instrument, yet unlike Jarreau he is much more text-oriented in his singing. Words obviously mean a lot to Jacobs, and he skillfully blends these two diverse skills together in an exuberant manner.

Of the songs on this CD, only one is an established standard, My Favorite Things, although some listeners may also be familiar with Bill Withers’ Lonely Town, Lonely Street or James Taylor’s Secret o’ Life. The others are all originals: Kendrick Lamar’s You Ain’t Gonna Lie, Efa Etoroma, Jr.’s First and Undercurrent, and seven tunes penned by Jacobs himself. The singer is not only his own best songwriter for his personal style, but also the producer of this record and CD label (this appears to be the first release on the Baby Chub label, which was incorporated in September 2016 by Jacobs). In the notes he says that “FIRST MAN began in earnest when I reached out to Zephyr Avalon, after having written the song Fly (which was inspired in part when I heard him and Tina Raymond playing one weeknight in the fall of 2015). Through him I met Michael Jarvey – whose commitment to the music and friendship have moved me, and Efa Etoroma Jr. – whose consistent pulse and inventiveness inspire me to name him ‘The Undercurrent.’ With the core trio set, my writing progressed at a fevered pitch.”

The album has the feel of having been recorded in one or two days, so consistent is the level of inspiration in the performances. Jacobs’ voice has a tawny quality about it which is generally attractive except for a few moments when he yells out the high notes, but by and large when you listen to this album what you hear is that amazing sense of style, his gift for communication, and the way he fits words and music together. The music itself leans towards funk jazz with a touch of calypso here and there, but the ebb and flow of the band and the singing is so musical that you just enjoy the way it all fits together. It’s the kind of set that, if you heard it in a club on a Saturday evening, would make you sit up and take notice. It has that kind of immediate appeal.

The highly accomplished musicians in the band are generally relegated to backing Jacobs up, with an occasional alto sax solo by Josh Johnson here and there (a particularly lovely half-chorus on Say What You Will, a tune in waltz time which also includes a brief solo by pianist Michael Jarvey). This was my only disappointment: I would have liked a few other solos by the trumpet, trombone, violin or vibes here and there. Perhaps on his next CD we can hear more of the band.

All in all, First Man is the kind of jazz CD that can satisfy in a number of contexts: rainy afternoons, relaxed party evenings and just for fun!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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“hat trick” Weaves a Spell on Listeners


GARDEN OF JOYS AND SORROWS / AGUILA: Submerged. DEBUSSY: Sonata for Flute, Viola & Harp. TAKEMITSU: And then I knew ‘twas Wind. DUBOIS: Terzettino. GUBAIDULINA: Garten von Freuden und Traurigkeiten* / hat trick: April Clayton, flautist; David Wallace, violist; Kristi Shade, harpist; *Aine Zimmerman, reciter / Bridge 9472

Although I’m not normally the kind of person to respond to “ambient classical,” “classical lite” or “neo-classical chamber” (all euphemisms used nowadays for light, airy music in a classical vein), occasionally I am taken in by music that is relaxed and exquisitely beautiful so long as there is some “meat” on its ambient classical bones. Such is the case with this recording, which I was tempted to review because it contained two works by composers I like, Debussy and Takemitsu, and in the case of the former it was nothing less than one of his late masterpieces, the trio sonata for flute, viola and harp, an oft-neglected gem if there ever was one.

Before getting to the Debussy sonata, however, we have a performance of Miguel del Aguila’s Submerged, a nine-minute work commissioned by hat trick (yes, that’s the name of the group, and they use lower case). The opening section of the work was very lively with a Celtic feel to it, but nice as it was it scarcely prepared the listener for the second half. Here, the music dropped in both tempo and volume to create an incredible atmosphere, almost diametrically opposed to the first. I was absolutely mesmerized by this, so much so that I stopped what I was doing and just listened hard, absorbing it all in. Quite exquisite!

Their performance of the Debussy Sonata, according to the notes, is based on an entirely new edition of the sonata which went back to the autograph. “Due most likely to circumstances surrounding the interwar time period when this work was originally published,” say the notes, “many details of Debussy’s own score were changed slightly upon publication…some smaller, some more significant.” Without having the score in front of me I was unable to catch them all, but of course the bottom line is, How good a performance is this? I found it first-rate, nearly as good as my all-time favorite version by members of the famed Nash Ensemble on what is surely one of the most exquisite Debussy albums ever released.

Takemitsu’s And then I knew ‘twas Wind was inspired by Emily Dickinson’s poem, Like Rain it sounded till it curved. The score is remarkably similar to Debussy in both mood and scoring, even to the point where he used some bits of the Debussy sonata in his own work. Théodore Dubois’ 1905 Terzettino is the most lightweight piece on the disc, but hat trick plays it with such exquisite care and detail that they make it come alive.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s 1980 piece Garten von Freuden und Traurigkeiten is the other great masterpiece on this disc. Carefully crafted and sounding more Oriental than anything else, utilizing the instruments in unusual ways, such as having the harp played with all ten fingers at once as if it were the inside strings of a piano, and having the viola play very lightly on the edge of the strings. Although the piece is 15 minutes long, hat trick’s performance is so involving and deep that one scarcely notices the passing of time. After it is over, Aine Zimmerman recites the Francisco Tanzer poem on which it is based in German.

All in all, this is a very fine and refreshing disc, well worth hearing. It makes great music for bringing yourself back to your calm center.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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