Warner Classics Releases an Important Menuhin Set

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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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Peterson’s Personal Best Reissued At Last

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OSCAR PETERSON: EXCLUSIVELY FOR MY FRIENDS / PORTER: At Long Last Love*$. TAYLOR: Easy Walker*$. DAMERON: Tin Tin Deo*$. G & I GERSHWIN: I’ve Got a Crush on You*$. A Foggy Day*$. Our Love is Here to Stay. Someone to Watch Over Me. VAN HEUSEN-BURKE: Like Someone in Love*$. LERNER-LANE: On a Clear Day#. McHUGH-FIELDS: I’m in the Mood for Love#@. HEFTI-TROUP: Girl Talk#+. Medley: PORTER: I Concentrate on You/MANCINI: Moon River*@. JACQUET-THOMPSON: Robbins Nest. Medley: BROWN-WAYNE: Waltzing is Hip#+/ ELLINGTON: Satin Doll#+. In a Mellotone. PETERSON: Sandy’s Blues. Noreen’s Nocturne. FAIN-HILLIARD: Alice in Wonderland. TIZOL: Perdido. GREEN-HEYMAN-SOUR: Body and Soul. NEWLEY-BRICUSSE: Who Can I Turn To? (1st vers, 2nd vers#+). HENDERSON-DIXON: Bye Bye Blackbird. STORDAHL-WESTON-CAHN: I Should Care. WARREN-DUBIN: Lulu’s Back in Town. RODGERS-HART: Little Girl Blue. STRAYHORN: Take the “A” Train. SILVER: Nica’s Dream#+. KAPER-WASHINGTON: On Green Dolphin Street#+. GERSHWIN-HEYWARD: Summertime#+. YOUMANS-CAESAR: Sometimes I’m Happy#+. TRADITIONAL: Travelin’ On#+. MANDEL-MERCER: Emily#+. JOBIM-LEES: Corcovado [Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars] #+. BOLAND: Sax No End#+. CARTER-WILLIAMS: When Lights are Low#+ / Oscar Peterson, pn; *Ray Brown, #Sam Jones, bs; +Bobby Durham, $Ed Thigpen, @Louis Hayes, dm. / MPS 0209478MSW. Available at Amazon as 4 CDs or 6 LPs, or at Presto Classical as mp3 downloads only

When the legendary Art Tatum died on November 5, 1956 at the still-young age of 47, a great void was left in the jazz world. Who on earth could possibly take his place as the king of the piano? Who else had not only his technique but also his extraordinarily facile mind of fractioning rhythm and taking the listener on a tour of all 12 keys in the course of a single tune?

It’s sad to say that Earl Hines, then playing gigs at roller rinks and struggling to make a living, had yet to re-establish himself as jazz’s premiere pianist, and sadder still to think that Tatum’s most believed protégé, Dorothy Donegan (see my tribute to her here), was toiling in near-obscurity. Thus, of those high in the public eye, the mantle seemed to fall on the shoulders of Canadian-born pianist Oscar Peterson, 16 years Tatum’s junior, who had been playing in America since at least 1949 when Norman Granz signed him for a tour.

To his credit, Peterson never considered himself in the same league with Tatum. His first exposure to his playing, the 1933 recording of Tiger Rag, so disheartened and depressed him that he didn’t touch the piano for two weeks, and often told friends, “Tatum scared me to death and I was never cocky again.” Excellent as he was, Peterson lived in a different harmonic world from the multi-faceted Tatum; his inspirations were the classical music of Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninov (he even studied with Paul de Marky, whose own teacher was István Thomán who had studied with Liszt), and he was quite happy to stay there, mixing in their harmonic world with the rhythms of jazz and occasionally the blues. Thus Peterson continued to go on his merry way, didn’t try to fill Tatum’s shoes, and left that gap open for Hines to fill starting in the early 1960s until his own death in 1983.

front-coverA great many jazz listeners and critics, including myself, tended to enjoy Peterson most when he was in the company of outstanding partners such as Dizzy Gillespie or Stan Getz, but German record producer Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, a close friend of Peterson’s, was anxious to record him in a more relaxed and informal setting than he usually had. Since Oscar was under contract to Verve, he couldn’t be recorded in a studio or in a concert setting, but Brunner-Schwer got around this by setting up stereo tape machines in his living room and inviting a dozen or so close friends over to hear Oscar play.

original-cd-box-cover-1992And play he did. These recordings, originally issued as separate LPs by Brunner-Schwer’s MPS label from 1968 to the late 1970s, were later collected into a boxed set in 1992 with the title you see above. The original LP titles were Action, Girl Talk, The Way I Really Play, Travelin’ On and My Favorite Instrument. With the addition of a few extra takes not originally released, Brunner-Schwer was able to make this a 6-LP or a 4-CD set, and that is how it has been reissued here. Since I reviewed the recordings from downloads, I don’t know if the original 24-page booklet is included if you purchase the MP3 or LP sets, but of course it’s not included at all if you buy it as digital downloads from Presto Classical.

In such a relaxed setting, Peterson was able to let himself relax, playing almost as if for himself. As a result, there is less of the “showman” type performances that dominated his concerts and studio recordings. He is far more inventive rhythmically, a prime example being the way he plays Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll constantly behind the beat or the dazzling, uptempo romp he makes of the usually moribund On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and even harmonically there are a few Tatum-esque touches here and there that let you know that he knew how to do it but just didn’t have the inspiration to do so on a continual basis. One of the things I found most interesting about these performances was how much more often he included the blues, something he did only rarely in most of his concerts.

mi0000111577Another reason for his comfort are the rhythm sections, which include well-known compatriots with whom he was entirely at ease, among them his long-time bassist of the 1950s, Ray Brown. Granted, he won’t efface your memories of Tatum, Donegan or Hines, but this is as good as Oscar Peterson ever got. It’s almost as if you’re hearing him woodshed at home, completely relaxed and not trying to impress anyone, and the results are much more artistic than was normal for him. Happily, Brunner-Schwer was a master audio technician, thus he captured Peterson and his colleagues in absolutely superb sound. For those wondering about the nine tracks listed above that have no bassist or drummer listed, these were piano solos first issued as My Favorite Instrument.

No matter where you test him in this magnificent series of recordings, however, you will rarely be disappointed. For the most part Peterson is just having so much fun playing that it becomes infectious. Aside from On a Clear Day, the one track I particularly commend to your listening is one of his own compositions, Sandy’s Blues (originally part of The Way I Really Play). Oscar is so completely wrapped up in this piece that it’s almost like he didn’t want to come up for air. He’s locked in and doesn’t even relax the tempo until about the seven-and-a-half-minute mark, and when he does he schools you in some truly beautiful blues piano.

This is clearly some of Oscar Peterson’s best playing. If you just get the Tatum comparison out of your mind, I think you’ll find it one of the most spectacular and enjoyable musical rides you will ever take.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Salim Takes On Schulhoff

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SCHULHOFF: Concerto for Piano & Small Orchestra.# Suite No. 3 for Left Hand. Suite Dansante en Jazz. Ironien, Suite for Piano Four Hands* / Daahoud Salim, pianist; *Nadezda Filippova, pianist; #Symphony Orchestra of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam; #Andrew Grams, conductor / Challenge Classics CC72730

It’s almost a bit comical how many pianists over the past dozen or so years have suddenly “discovered” the wonderful and imaginative piano music of Erwin Schulhoff ever since Kathryn Stott first unleashed it onto the world in her Bis album. This represents the take of a young (b.1990) Amsterdam-based pianist, Daahoud Salim, but of the four works presented here only the Suite Dansante de Jazz is really well known at this point.

The 1923 Piano Concerto is the real “find” on this album. A full, three-movement work written near the beginning of his “jazz”-infatuated period (I put jazz in quotes because Schulhoff never really heard real jazz, but only the watered-down ersatz stuff as played by such people as Zez Confrey and Paul Whiteman), it is a wonderful piece with little or no ragtime elements in it. Rather, it is a late-Romantic work bordering on the Bartókian in terms of its veering from a relaxed, lyrical opening theme to crashing tone clusters towards the end of the first movement. The second movement is more conventionally Romantic and much more intimate, almost static in its development and concerned more with mood than form, while the third movement—finally, titled “Allegro alla Jazz”—gives us a no-holds-barred steamroller ride with sirens and percussion. But is it jazz? In the liner notes, Salim is quoted as saying “I often wonder just how jazzily I can play this music…One significant difference between the two styles has to do with the pulse. In principle this is tighter in jazz, while the classical idiom often allows for a bit more flexibility.” But this is, to be honest, the perspective of an essentially classically-oriented musician, which Salim has been since he was a tot. Although rubato as such is indeed much more a feature of classical music than jazz, jazz rhythm—or what is generally referred to simply as “swing”—is far looser than any “flexible” classical rhythm. In my book From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, I described in some detail the differences in approach to a true jazz rhythm within classical pieces that have a certain amount of jazz or ragtime (in Schulhoff’s case) influence, and although I have found that certain pianists nowadays are able to play Schulhoff’s music with a much more realistic sense of jazz rhythm than the composer himself actually achieved in his scores (Caroline Weichert is one such pianist), the essence of Schulhoff’s jazz-based piano works is not so much the motor rhythms, which remain somewhat stiff, but the extremely advanced harmonic concept, which was at least 30 years ahead of its time in terms of what jazz pianists would attempt in their improvisations. (I should point out that this is a live performance of the concerto, complete with applause at the end.)

The Suite No. 3 for Left Hand was entirely new to me. Salim plays it extremely well, particularly since it is a strictly classical piece and not one of his ragtime works although it comes from 1926. The music here is, again, largely late-Romantic, imbued to some extent with the French harmonies of a Ravel or Debussy within an essentially Germanic structure. I was particularly impressed by Salim’s ability to bring out the opaque qualities of the music, particularly in the second-movement “Air” and fourth-movement “Improvisazione.” As a pianist, he has clean articulation and a fine sense of musical line, if not an individual view towards interpretation.

Considering Salim’s statements about jazz rhythm, I was particularly curious to hear how he approached the Suite Dansante en Jazz. It’s a good performance, but tends to emphasize the ragtime content of the music—appropriate for its time and place in Schulhoff’s understanding of “jazz”—than to actually make something jazzy out of it, as some other pianists have done. On the other hand, however, Salim understands the concept of “slow drag” in the rhythm of the slower sections of “Strait,” holding the beat back slightly before allowing the right hand to move on from the slightly behind-the-rhythm playing of the left. Overall, then, it is effective in places you might not expect it to be.

In Ironien, another Schulhoff work new to me, Salim is joined by pianist Nadezda Filippova who says that she “started off by deciding that the music had to sound light…The challenge lay not so much in playing the actual notes as in reflecting the ‘fun’ aspect, with the feeling that the music was sort of sprouting on the spot.” Here, the duo fully catch the ragtime craziness of Schulhoff’s concept, reveling in the outré and sometimes bizarre harmonic changes, which seem to abut one another rather than grow out of the music organically. This four-hands piano duet is clearly the highlight of this disc, a real gem both musically and in terms of the execution. The music dances across one’s mind like some magical series of improvisations conjured up especially for your delight. It is an almost magical performance.

In toto, then, a good album of Schulhoff’s music with some ups and downs, well worth seeking out if for no other reason than to hear the Ironien.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Krainev & Kitayenko Explode in Prokofiev’s Piano Concertos

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PROKOFIEV: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5 / Vladimir Krainev, pianist; Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra; Dmitri Kitayenko, conductor / Melodiya MELCD1002227

This set is not to be confused with the one issued in 1998 on the Teldec label with the same soloist and conductor, but the Frankfurt Radio Symphony in place of the Moscow Philharmonic. There are tremendous differences in timbral sound of the orchestra, emotional involvement, and—more surprisingly—the cleanliness of the pianist’s execution. I found certain sections in the Teldec set, for instance Krainev’s entrance in the Third Concerto, to be surprisingly sloppy in execution. Now, granted, I couldn’t play the music that well, so I’m not trying to say that it was amateurish, but considering Krainev’s exalted reputation it was this Moscow set that revealed his highly polished technique to greater advantage as well as his musical sensitivity in quiet passages. Yet is is mostly the orchestra that differs. In addition to a much smoother, more Western sound, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony was recorded in a quieter soundspace that emphasized a homogenous blend. The Moscow players revel much more in biting winds and slightly edgy strings.

I should say straight out that although I love pianists who play with great fire—among them William Kapell, Sviatoslav Richter, György Cziffra and Sophia Agranovich—I am not, and never have been, one who likes pure pounding with no sensitivity. For that reason I have never liked such pianists as Vladimir Horowitz (five recordings, out of hundreds he made, excepted) Idil Biret or Martha Argerich, because I don’t hear any musical flow in most of their playing. They sure as hell can pound the keys, no question about it, but in the end it’s all surface glitter. I keep listening to them hoping to catch some semblance of musical sensitivity, but they always disappoint. Thankfully, the late Vladimir Krainev was not one of these. He had technique to burn and played with tremendous fire, but like Kapell and Richter he was a true artist. He had an innate musicality that led him to delve into the inner feeling of a piece, no matter how much he could dazzle you in fast passages, and that is what makes these particular performances the best I’ve ever heard in these works.

I should point out that Prokofiev himself played quite differently from not only Krainev but also such noted interpreters of his music as Kapell, Richter or Alexander Toradze. Anyone who has heard his splendid recording of the Third Concerto conducted by Piero Coppola knows what I’m talking about. Prokofiev’s own playing was surprisingly light in touch, almost like that of such jazz pianists as Art Tatum or Teddy Wilson. It almost boggles the mind to compare the way Prokofiev played his own concerto to that of others, but the music can certainly take a more aggressive approach—so long as the soloist doesn’t ignore the niceties of expression in the quiet moments.

As for the music, it is almost consistently interesting and inspired. Unlike his symphonies which, except for the first and seventh, I’ve never liked and still can’t warm up to 50 years after first hearing them, his piano concertos are quite possibly the essence of everything Prokofiev was aiming for in his compositional approach. Along with his opera The Love for Three Oranges and his great ballets The Prodigal Son and Romeo and Juliet, they are, in my view, the summit of his achievement as a composer. Yes, I like some of the piano sonatas, too, but I still think the concertos are better. They just have greater inner logic, they hold together better as music (except, perhaps, for the somewhat rambling, quirky second concerto), and they have tremendous “soul.” There is also a great deal of wit in this music, more so than almost anything else he wrote except for Love for Three Oranges—one example being the quixotically brief last movement of the Fourth Concerto.

I also can’t really say enough about Kitayenko’s conducting in this set. As mentioned early on, the textural clarity of the Moscow Philharmonic and greater emotional response when compared to the Frankfurt Radio Symphony is so much better that it scarcely sounds like the work of the same conductor. Everything about these performances, from first note to last, have a feeling of “rightness” about them, an authentic voice that speaks to you straight from Prokofiev’s heart. The effect is really quite amazing.

As a sidelight, I still don’t know what prompted Prokofiev to return to the Soviet Union when he was out and free, and worse yet, stay there until his death. He must surely have had a masochistic personality; I’m certain that, had he bothered to write a letter asking Shostakovich if it was a good idea, the younger composer would have told him, Don’t bother. But return he did in the early 1930s, and ended up stuck there until he died—in a last great ironic twist, on the exact same day as Joe Stalin. He really must have enjoyed living on Iron Joe’s shit list most of the time.

The first two concertos appear to have been recorded in 1976 and the last three in 1981 and 1983. I can wholeheartedly recommend them as the most brilliant and the most soulful performances of these works I’ve ever heard. Great job, Vladimir and Dmitri!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Martinů’s “Field Mass,” Double Concerto Inspire and Delight

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MARTINŮ: Field Mass.* Double Concerto for 2 String Orchestras, Piano & Timpani.+ # Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca, H. 252# / *Václav Zitek, baritone; *Czech Philharmonic Choir; +Jan Bouše, timpanist; +Josef Růžiča, pianist; *Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; #Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra; Sir Charles Mackerras, conductor / Supraphon SU3276-2

This recording, a reissue of a disc from 1985, presents the late Charles Mackerras conducting the music of Bohuslav Martinů with Czech orchestras, choruses and soloists. What’s interesting about this is that this was a time when the Czech Republic was still under the oppressive yoke of the kind of oppressive totalitarian government our loving academics and Democrats here in America are trying to impose on us. Having been introduced to the wonderful music of Martinů through his piano concertos, played and recorded by the late Rudolf Firkušny back in the 1990s (after the collapse of the Soviet Union), I am slowly but surely coming up to speed on many of his other works. These are gems.

The Field Mass, composed in late 1939, represents the composer’s reaction to the fall of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis (a bloodless coup to start with, but not for long) and the beginning of the long and painful war. The text represents men praying for their lives. One of the things I always loved about Mackerras is that he, like Edward Downes, Benjamin Britten and Colin Davis pre-1990, was one of those British conductors unafraid to take on new challenges and give them full-blooded readings. There is, thus, nothing timid or underplayed in these works; even the quiet passages seethe with life and an undercurrent of tension. Moreover, his being able to lead Czech orchestras almost assured the performances of the right musical “accent” and feel about them. In short, I can’t imagine them played much better than they are here. The only facet of this performance of the Field Mass that I could possibly see bettered is the vocal performance of the solo baritone. Václav Zitek has a rich and powerful voice, but it is not beautiful and is slightly unsteady. On the other hand, his powers of expression are first-rate. The recorded sound also helps greatly in that it adds dimension to the performance.

The Double Concerto is a virtuoso piece for the soloists and two string orchestras, represented here by the full string section of the Prague Radio Symphony. This is much more the virtuosic Martinů that one hears in the symphonies and piano concertos: exciting, breathlessly driving music, keeping the listener riveted to what is going on. Even the slow movement, a true Largo, has an undercurrent of menace about it. One online annotator has suggested that this work is “generally considered his masterpiece along with, perhaps, the third symphony.”

Interestingly, the late-period Frescos of Piero della Francesca are cut from the same tonal but harmonically-astringent cloth as the previous work. There is an evident attempt at leavening the mood here with passages of surprising lyric beauty, but this music would never be confused with Respighi’s Pines of Rome as a relatively lightweight series of tone poems. Interestingly, the three sections are simply given tempo markings (Andante poco moderato, Adagio and Poco allegro) rather than having titles descriptive of the frescoes under consideration. I remain amazed at the high level of intensity that Mackerras achieved in even this piece. As much as I admired his conducting, he was not always this intense, but the spirit and drive of these performances are simply incredible. The “Adagio” section contains some brief allusions to Strauss, but not the sugary Strauss of the later operas; rather, it is a paraphrase from the latter part of Salome. But the reference is brief, and in the latter half of the movement he includes swirling wind figures of great originality. The last movement includes an aggressive series of stabbing string figures in eighths before the music evolves into a pastoral series of motifs played by the violas and/or cellos, following which the trumpets interject abrasive figures into the shifting melange of rhythm and punching timpani.

This is a must-have disc if you are a fan of Martinů’s music.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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