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

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music


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

Return to homepage OR

Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music


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

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music


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

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music


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

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music


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

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music