Peterson’s Personal Best Reissued At Last

lp-front-cover

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

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

Standard

Salim Takes On Schulhoff

schulhoff

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

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

Standard

Krainev & Kitayenko Explode in Prokofiev’s Piano Concertos

krainev-front-cover

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

Return to homepage OR

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

Standard

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

martinu-front-cover

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

Return to homepage OR

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

Standard

Josh Green’s Debut Album Really Hops!

 

josh-greenJosh Green has made most of his name and fame through writing music for television, particularly as Music Supervisor for ITV America. Yet despite the financial rewards of composing backgrounds for reality television, he felt the need to return to composing more meaty music. Originally trained in jazz, Green moved on to contemporary classical music, studying at the University of Vienna in 2007 when he learned of the death of jazz great Michael Brecker. “I really looked up to Michael Brecker,” Green recalls, “and when I found out he’d died, it was a trigger for me to go back to my jazz roots. I wanted to write something that showcased the jazz language, bebop in particular, in a contemporary classical setting.” This initial idea took close to a decade to come to fruition, but it has done so here with this, his first album with the newly-formed “Cyborg Orchestra,” a group that includes a string section of two violins, two violas and a cello (four of these players members of the PUBLIQuartet), oboe, flute, various clarinets, Electronic Wind Instrument, accordion, trumpet, trombone and rhythm section.

I was so impressed by the album that I asked if I could do an e-mail interview with Green, and he was gracious enough to share some of his time with me. Here, then, is the interview as an introduction of sorts to the album review.

Art Music Lounge: I thought the music on this, your first CD as a group, was simply amazing, but what impressed me the most was the way you used classical principles without following any specific classical form. Are your pieces actually scored in notation? I ask because at least one such jazz-classical composer I know just sketches out a two-bar theme and then uses instructions like, “Bill and Jim play together for 8, followed by sax solo for 8. Others join in and play around him.”

Josh Green: Wow- thank you! Yes, all of the pieces are fully notated (with the exception of improvised solos, of course). Something that was ingrained in me early on as a student was not to rely on graphic notation if it wasn’t warranted in the piece.  I remember, as a student, having to recompose all sorts of fancy graphics & performance directions in my music, in order to find a way to notate my intentions specifically.  If those intentions went beyond traditional notation, only then could I reevaluate how I would approach the musical language.

In the case of Boy & Dog In A Johnnypump— I had originally notated all of the cartoonish squeaks and honks behind the solos, only to find that I wasn’t achieving the desired cartoon-style chaos that I was hoping for, and so in that instance, I actually removed all of the traditional counterpoint, and went with a splattering of graphic symbols to give the musicians more freedom to let loose.

AML: One of the few disappointments I had about the CD was the lack of liner notes, which I felt were important to understand some of your influences and the inspiration for various pieces. The only way I knew what was going on was because I also received the publicity blurb that went out to reviewers. Do you think you might repackage the CD with notes in the near future?

JG: I’m a strong believer in allowing the music to speak for itself, and to allow the listeners to uncover the music for themselves.  For the majority of my concert works in fact, I write very little program notes, and instead, like to leave a grain of inspiration in the title to get the audience on the right track without influencing their perception of the work.  That being said, I think I would take an opportunity to repackage the CD. While I may not use that to expound too much, I would love to highlight all of the fantastic musicians that have become such good friends and an integral part of this ensemble.  Many of those musicians will be featured on the March 2 debut at National Sawdust as well!

AML: Some composers I know, both classical and jazz, start out with a short theme, perhaps two bars or four, and just let their imaginations taken them from there. Others work backwards from the last chorus, constructing the music in such a way that the preceding chorus relates to the last. I’m just curious as to how you approach composition. Do you start with a tune, or a rhythm, or both? Does the harmony lead the melodic line for you, or vice-versa?

JG: I have a tendency to impose challenges upon myself as a composer. When it came to Boy & Dog In A Jonnypump, I had written the opening motif as a standalone idea first, the legato theme & harmonies as another idea, and used those two contrasting elements as the impetus to: “how can I merge these ideas in to a cohesive statement?”

In the case of The Lauer Faceplant, I went in knowing what I wanted the ending of the work to be, and I had the klangfarbenmelodie-inspired orchestration mapped out in my head as well. So, once the end was written, I knew where the work needed to arrive, and had the challenge of deconstructing it, and finding a way to build to that moment.

AML: In listening to the various pieces on the album, I did note the use of sound clusters here and there that reminded me of György Ligeti, which I then learned from the publicity sheet was one of your inspirations, but I also noted in my review that some pieces had a definite Charles Mingus-like feel to them…the use of fluid tempos, contrasting sections in different keys and rhythms within an extended piece, letting the written parts lead the solos and then switching over so that the solos themselves became the composition. Am I right? Is there, perhaps subliminally, some Mingus influence in your work?

JG: It is certainly possible!  I’m probably overdue for a Pithecanthropus Erectus listening session.  Although, if anything of Mingus’s work influenced me, it was more the rhetoric and approach to jazz than the syntax necessarily.

AML: Reading your resume, you seem to have been rather successful in writing background music for television programs, but I can well imagine that someone of your high creativity would feel frustrated by this. Such jazz composers as the late Allyn Ferguson and Dr. Clare Fischer also did a LOT of commercial music arrangements but always came back to their real love, classically-influenced jazz, Do you see this as a possible pattern for your career as well?

JG: That’s really interesting! I actually enjoy working in commercial music quite a bit and find that the cinematic/narrative writing has greatly influenced my more avant-garde tendencies.  Something that seems to come very naturally to me is that balance of writing avant-garde jazz that is both accessible and uncompromised in my intentions.

AML: I’m wondering how you found the right musicians to make your creative concept a reality. Did some of them play under you for your TV music? And, if not, how did you find them?

JG: The majority of the musicians were friends from various film, television, and musical theater projects. Working in that industry certainly gives you the opportunity to jam with some of the greatest musicians in this city, and get to know a lot of talented, enthusiastic individuals.  Anyone that I maybe didn’t know at the outset of this ensemble, was recommended by one of the other musicians, and also quickly become a great friend!

joshuagreenmusic_-198

Rhythm section of The Cyborg Orchestra: Josh Bailey, drums; Brian Courage, bass; Nathan Koci, accordion; Green; Michael Verselli, piano; Sungwon Kim, guitar

AML: I’m curious about the one long, solo piano work on the album, Improvisation & Nebula. I wrote in my review that it sounded a bit to me like something by Erik Satie with hints of Thelonious Monk. Were either of those composers in your mind when writing it? And if not, what was the inspiration?

JG: Funny enough… my main inspiration here was Science Fiction. The title is inspired by the process— the work was initially sketched as an improvisation at the piano, where I imagined a dense, quiet cloud of nebulous motifs. Those motifs and themes are strung throughout— obscured, twisted, and unraveled as they travel through quietly buzzing, dense clusters of ambiguity.

AML: I was a little surprised, but happy, to see that you’re planning to make The Cyborg Orchestra a real, live, in-person band starting on March 4. The reason I was surprised wasn’t that I didn’t think the music lacked quality—on the contrary, it’s extremely creative—but, rather, that it just might be a little too complex for the “average” jazz audience to grasp. Are you planning to play the works presented on this album in your debut concert?

JG: Yes! We will be performing the majority of the album at the show on March 2. I’m pumped!  While the music certainly is a bit complex, I like to think it’s quite accessible in it’s approach as well; and, it’s going to be a blast to have this music come to life in concert!  The music is quite difficult to perform, but I’m lucky to have some of the best performers around, and it’s going to be really fun to see them take on these works in a live setting.

AML: Are you planning to keep the orchestra as a part-time or full-time endeavor in live performances?

JG: We’ll see what happens! I’ll keep on writing for the ensemble and would love to continue recording and performing.

AML: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers about upcoming pieces or projects?

JG: The album officially releases (physical copies and digital copies available everywhere) on February 24.  And, I’m already in the early stages of working on the next batch of music for the future of the ensemble. So, I hope people will join us for the ride!

AML: Thank you so much for your time!

JG: It’s been a pleasure—thank you!

green_album_cover

TELEPATHY & BOP / GREEN: Boy & Dog in a Johnnypump. The Lauer Faceplant: Based on a True Story. Telepathy & Bop: I; Interlude; II. La Victoire. Improvisation & Nebula*; Reverie Engine: The Ambiguous Rhumba. Soir Bleu: A Rag of Sorts / Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra: Charles Pillow, oboe/a-sax/t-sax; Todd Groves, EWI/Fl/a-sax/t-sax/E-flat cl/contrabass cl; Jay Hassler, B-flat cl/bs-cl; Nathan Schram, Nick Revel, vla; Curtis Stewart, Jannina Norpoth, vln; Amanda Gookin, Clarice Jenson cello; John Lake, tp; Chris Misch-Bloxdorf, tbn; Nathan Kochi, acc; Sungwon Kim, gtr; Michael Verselli, pn; Brian Courage, bs; Josh Bailey, dm; *Michael Verselli, perc / Private issue, available for sale at http://www.joshuagreenmusic.com

The music contained on this disc is cleverly written, almost disguising the fusion between jazz and classical music in its varied use of form, harmony and rhythm. Indeed, except for the use of classical instruments, the average jazz fan would probably not recognize the connection in most of the selections performed here. Particularly so on the opening track, Boy & Dog in a Johnnypump (apparently influenced by a painting of Jean-Michel Basquiat), an

boy-dog-johnypump

Basquiat: “Boy & Dog in a Johnnypump”

almost ferocious-sounding number that begins in D minor/modal, later transposing to E minor among other keys. The rhythm is difficult to count without a score, but it is Green’s orchestration that intrigued me most. He uses the various classical instruments for color, as Claude Thornhill did with French horns in his 1940s big band, not to play the lead lines. The strings mostly play pizzicato here. Kim’s electric guitar solo dominates this track; after his first solo one hears the accordion playing with the bass, the other five instruments weaving around them. The full band plays a dramatic passage in rising chromatics in the break, which adds tension before the electric guitar returns. This was a little too much electric guitar for me, particularly since Kim plays here with that whiny, annoying heavy metal rock sound that has become an interloper, one might almost say an infection, in jazz performances over the past 30 or so years. Thankfully, this was not a trend continued throughout the album! Following the second guitar solo is another break, then a flute solo over a churning 4/4 broken up in an odd rhythm, which morphs as other instruments squawk and snort behind the flute.

The Lauer Faceplant: Basedon a True Story opens with a quirky contrabass clarinet and viola duo. The broken rhythms continue apace; eventually we get a tenor sax solo (not identified as being Pillow or Groves) which continues as the the rhythm dissipates; soft piano is heard in the background. The flute, with pizzicato strings, over the accordion create a funky rhumba-styled beat. Green’s music is wonderfully skewed in both form and structure,which apparently suits his personality. “I hate to take myself too seriously,” he says. “I’m a very lighthearted person.”

The three-piece suite Telepathy and Bop begins with crashing cymbals, followed by a tenor sax lick in E. Other horns then enter, immediately swaying the pitch up and down chromatically, almost in microtones, while clarinet and tenor play around them. Once again, Green uses his strings as a coloristic device, using their ability to slither chromatically to enhance the strangeness of the piece, moving from bowed playing to pizzicato and even striking the body of their instruments with their bows. Curiously, I found no real relationship of this music to bop as a musical form; it is much closer to modern classical music, particularly once the long intro is finished and the saxophone leads the band into a more tightly structured passage with stiff, almost Kurt Weill-ish rhythms. (But was Kurt Weill himself a classical composer? I’ve never really thought of him as such; to my mind, he was always a classically-trained composer of music that fell in that shadow-land between popular music and classical.) A rare string duet is then heard, not sure, it sounds like violin and viola but it could be two violins. The music is then developed (yes, developed) in a classical manner, though once again the untrained ear may mistake this for just being an arrangement. The strings then go back to wavering in pitch, sounding a bit drunk and woozy as they do so. One thing for sure, Green’s music is chock full of humor, much of it obvious but some of it subtle, what I would call musician’s jokes.

The Interlude is a ruminating saxophone over churning strings and drums; and although the scoring here is not really as dense, the music put me in mind of a jazz version of György Ligeti (reading the promo sheet that accompanies this, I discovered that I was not incorrect, that Ligeti is one of Green’s primary classical influences). In Telepathy and Bop II, Green uses a sort of skewed tango rhythm, which tosses the instruments pall-mall into the fray of a piece that sounds like a Bizarro-world version of Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music. Could he have inadvertently had that on his mind when he wrote it? Eventually, however, the skewed tango rhythm returns and the strings’ interplay becomes quite angular, eventually leading to an eerie, rising chromatic crescendo (similar to the “water rising” motif from the final scene of Wozzeck) before the whole piece comes to a crashing finish.

la-victoire

Magritte: “La Victoire”

La Victoire, named after René Magritte’s painting of a cloud floating through an isolated door by the seashore, has almost no rhythm to speak of, at least nothing very definable to hang on to. It begins with piano accompanied by background strings or saxophone, playing in and around it, before moving into a lovely melodic line that sounds like one of Charles Mingus’ Jazzical Moods. Indeed, the unusual scoring here, pitting the trumpet and strings against bass and bass clarinet, even has a sort of Mingus-like feel to it. A tenor sax solo eventually leads into a funkier, more rhythmically aggressive passage, just as Mingus used to do. Most unusual, however, is the counterpoint to the sax played by the accordion, a highly unusual touch. The evolving nature of the music is both engaging and very colorful in Green’s writing and orchestration.

The fairly long Improvisation & Nebula was also inspired, so the publicity sheet tells us, by Ligeti, but to my ears this is a more tonal and romantic piece than Telepathy & Bop. Indeed, it’s a slow, ruminating piano solo that sounds to my ears like a modernistic Erik Satie with hints of Thelonious Monk (and a few crushed chords near the end). Reverie Engine: the Ambiguous Rhumba is also a rather slow piece, starting with piano, soon joined by accordion and strings before we hear castanets and move into the pseudo-rhumba beat. Once the flute enters over the piano, the beat shifts and becomes more definite if not quite a traditional rhumba…it’s more like an impressionistic rhumba, in which EWI, contrabass clarinet and accordion are heard. Eventually the EWI dominates with a solo of its own as the key suddenly shifts upward chromatically to D major—but the key remains fluid and never really ever settles on the tonic. At the 5:50 mark, the pace suddenly slackens and the rhythm temporarily moves into either a 3/4 or 5/4 beat before the brief ride-out.

Soir Bleu: A Rag of Sorts opens with an audio joke, the beginning of a scratchy old LP playing before the piano sets the pace (keep this in mind, boys and girls, when you decide to go back to collecting music on “vinyl”). Once the full rhythm section enters, however, we get no rag at all, but more of a stoic march beat stomping on down. This is the one piece on the album that sounds the most surreal, often shifting into almost circus or calliope music in a quirky 3, later overlaid over 4. Suddenly a jolly-sounding tuba underpins an accordion solo with piano chords coming out of the left speaker and drumsticks coming out of the right. The melodic and rhythmic madness continues apace, until one almost feels as if one is caught in a Tilt-A-Whirl (remember those?) or a funhouse in an amusement park that one can’t get out of. At one point, the pianist plays a lick from the old ‘30s song Goodnight, My Love (recorded by Ella Fitzgerald with the Benny Goodman band), and the clarinet actually picks up on that lick as the impetus for his own solo, which then veers off in the direction of klezmer. The 3/4 circus-type beat returns for a piano solo, which then fades down and out in another bit of LP snap, crackle and pop.

The promo blurb says that Green is planning to make the Cyborg Orchestra an in-person band on March 2 of this year, when it will play its first gig at National Sawdust, an artist-led, non-profit club at 80 North 6th Street in Brooklyn, New York. I wish I could be there! This is a stupendous album, one of the most auspicious record debuts of any new band in recent memory.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Return to homepage OR

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

Standard

Schimmel’s Wild and Wacky Music Entertains and Surprises

roadshow-cover

ROADSHOW: MUSIC OF CARL SCHIMMEL / SCHIMMEL: Roadshow for Otto1-3. Roadshow for Thora4. 4 Nocturnes from “The Oblivion Ha-Ha.”5 String Quartet No. 2, “Six Faces.”6 The Pismirist’s Congeries1,7 / 1Alex Sopp, flautist; 2Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinetist; 3Sumire Kudo, cellist; 1Steven Beck, pianist; 4SOLI Chamber Ensemble; 5Lucy Shelton, soprano; 5Da Capo Chamber Players; 6Left Coast Chamber Ensemble; 7Sharon Roffman, violinist; 7Wendy Law, cellist / New Focus Recordings FCR167

Columbia University graduate Carl Schimmel’s music has been described by The New York Times as “vivid and dramatic,” but it’s also humorous, combining an intense “expression with a structural rigor which draws upon his mathematics background. In infusing his music with extra-musical influences such as poetry, art, and even unusual words, he strives to construct nexuses of experience which reflect both the inner life of emotions and the outer physical world (from the liner notes).”

The first two pieces on this CD, as well as the disc’s title, stem from the PBS program Antiques Roadshow and some of the toys Schimmel saw on that program. The first is dedicated to his son Otto, the second for his daughter Thora. The boy’s toys are “The Silver Atom Ray Gun” (oh, heavens! he supports toy weapons for children!), “The Clown Mandeville,” “Pedaling the Spirit of America,” “Camel and Monkey,” and “The Revolving Flashing Robot.” The girls’ toys are “The Yes No Bear,” “The Ives Trotter,” “The Clown Magician”(wow, he seems to have a thing for clowns, huh?), “Pulling the Pink Pig” (where are the animal rights activists to STOP this madness?) and “The Humpty Dumpty Circus Band.” All of this music is whimsical, lively and asymmetric, pitting the chamber instruments involved against one another rather than having them play as a unit. I should also point out that, for all its wackiness and humor, the music is resolutely tonal and, for all its asymmetric moments, highly rhythmic. It seems to my ears to draw on older popular music forms, occasionally spirituals (“Camel and Monkey” bears a strange resemblance to “Amazing Grace”!) and klezmer, particularly in his use of the clarinet. The allusions to the toy descriptions are merely symbolic for the most part, although Schimmel does occasionally try to simulate sounds that might be represented by the specific toys.

As for the underlying structure, it is mathematically balanced, as advertised, but doesn’t conform to any pre-existing classical form. In a reduced sort of way, the music put me in mind of Oliver Knussen’s wonderfully imaginative music for Where the Wild Things Are. There are many pauses and full stops written into each piece, short though they are (none of the Roadshow pieces are longer than two minutes, and many are about a minute and a half). Yet aside from their entertainment value, the music makes you think as you listen, perhaps because of those stops and pauses. A headlong rush through each piece would have been equally amusing, but it wouldn’t brig us up short and force us to hear what is really going on in the music. Perhaps the best example of what I mean within the first two suites is “The Clown Magician,” where Schummel creates an aura of mystery with slow, quiet music, the humor coming from the two or three “honks” of the clown’s horn, represented by the clarinet “honking” in the low register. Perhaps the most effective use, for atmosphere, of the stops and pauses comes in “Pulling the Pink Pig,” where Schimmel writes bouncy kiddie music to represent the moments when the pig (on wheels, obviously) is being pulled, and the silence to represent those moments when the pulling ceases. I’m sure that these words will mean very little to anyone who has not actually heard the music, but for those who have it will make perfect sense.

The 4 Nocturnes from “The Oblivion Ha-Ha” are voice-with-xchamber-group pieces, here featuring the inexcusably wobbly voice with a strained top range and incredibly poor diction of soprano Lucy Shelton, who ironically enough was used by Knussen many years ago to sing his Whitman Settings (she had a little bit of a wobble back then, but better diction and no strain up top). This music is consistently slow in tempo, imaginatively scored for the unusual quintet of flute, violin, clarinet, cello and piano, here played by the excellent Da Capo Chamber Players. Considering the fact that Schimmel has apparently paid great attention to the setting of these texts by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Tate, to exploit “the evocative and visual

nature of the poetry through word-painting, and to employ the natural stress and rhythm of the English language, like a scaffold over which I draped the verses.” Tough luck, Carl; you got stuck with a soprano for whom English is her native tongue who can’t sing a single syllable of it clearly. But the music is interesting and highly imaginative, just so long as you follow the words in the booklet and pretend the singer can be understood (I actually did make four or five words out in a couple of the songs, but only because I’ve trained myself to deciphering the poor diction of such singers).

The 12-part String Quartet No. 2—six numbered movements with a Prelude, Interludes, an Intermezzo and an Epilogue—represent different paintings. Schimmel lists them as Georges Braque’s Girl with a Cross (1911), Pablo Picasso’s Man with a Pipe (1911), Albert Gleizes’ Woman with Animals (1914), Juan Gris’ Woman with a Mandolin (1916), Jean Metzinger’s Woman with a Fan (1913), and Fernand Leger’s Man with a Cane (1920), thus this quartet may be called his own personal Pictures at an Exhibition. The music, however, is continuous, each movement and interlude running one into the next without a break, and there is no stylistic distinction between the various “portraits.” This does not mean, however, that the music is uninteresting; on the contrary, it is highly engrossing, being alternately quiet and dramatic almost to the point of violence, never really relaxed or relaxing. Indeed, Woman With Animals is so violent that, without being able to see the painting, I would almost think that she was wrestling a grizzly bear or some such thing (and that, despite moments of taming it, the grizzly bear won). Indeed, this quartet is less a Pictures at an Exhibition than a pretty edgy and nightmarish Night Gallery. Don’t look at these paintings in the dark!

Having come a long way from the whimsical opening pieces on this disc, we then move on to the final nine-piece suite, The Pismirist’s Congeries. Schimmel describes a pismirist as a person who collects “small or insignificant things.” And insignificant they are. The list of items described by the music, given in the booklet, sound like that old Bob & Ray comedy routine about the “hard luck person” they found at a bus station, to whom they give such gifts as sailing vessels used by the ancient Phonecians (to which the recipient, who was broke and needed a bus ticket home, would ask, “Now, what am I going to do with that?”). Among the indispensable gems collected by this person are a war flag of pre-heraldic Europe (Gonfanon), a clockwork model of the solar system (Orrery), a finger exercise machine for pianists (Chirogymnast) and a torture instrument for crushing fingers (Pilliwinks). Remind me to stay away from this guy. But the music is utterly fascinating, reminding me in form and structure of the late Marius Constant (yes, The Twilight Zone guy).

All in all, this is a fascinating, engaging, and almost wildly diverse set of creative vignettes by a composer I hope to hear more of. Keep on truckin’, Carl! I love it!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Return to homepage OR

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

Standard

Finley’s Sibelius Tribute Fascinating and Deeply-Felt

finley-front-cover

SIBELIUS: Pohjola’s Daughter. In the Stream of Life (orch. Rautuvaara)*. Koskenlaskijan Morslamet, Op. 33*. Romance. Hymn to Thaïs, the Unforgettable (orch. Jalas)*. Demanten på marssnön (orch. Hellman)*. Hertig Magnus (orch. Helasvuo)*. The Oceanides. På Veranden Vid Havet*. I Natten*. Kom nu hit, Död* / *Gerald Finley, bass-baritone; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Edward Gardner, conductor / Chandos CHSA 5178

Although Jean Sibelius died just three months short of his 92nd birthday, his fame rests on the music he wrote up until 1926, when he was 61, and the bulk of that output was composed before World War I. The liner notes remind us that his seven symphonies and a handful of tone poems, along with the Violin Concerto, comprise the bulk of his output, but several of his songs became well known through the performances and recordings of such artists as tenor Jussi Björling and soprano Kirsten Flagstad, who recorded a few of them (the most popular being Svarta Rosor or Black Roses). Here, in a tribute to the composer, conductor Edward Gardner gives us his take on three of his orchestral pieces—Pohjola’s Daughter, Romance and The Oceanides—which are interspersed with orchestral versions of his song output. Most of the orchestrations were done by the composer himself, an exception being Jussi Jalas’ 1945 version of Hymn to Thaïs, dedicated to the great Finnish soprano Aulikki Rautavaara (she was the Countess in both Fritz Busch’s and Bruno Walter’s 1930s Nozze di Figaro performances) in 1945. Aulikki’s son, the late Einojuhani Rautavaara, took a group of seven of the composer’s songs, including the popular Svarta Rosor, and orchestrated them for Finley to sing with an orchestra. This is the suite’s first recording.

What impressed me, perhaps more than anything, was the wonderfully idiomatic conducting of Edward Gardner, whom I had not previously known. His performance of Pohjola’s Daughter perhaps lacks a bit of the atmosphere that Serge Koussevitzky and especially the great Robert Kajanus brought to it, but compared to what one has been used to in the past 30 years or so, it’s a wonderfully detailed performance with great feeling. I admit not being previously familiar with the other instrumental pieces on this disc, but if I judge these performances by the first piece, I’d say they, too, were very good (although I found The Oceanides to be a somewhat weak piece). Perhaps his use of the Bergen Philharmonic, which has this music in their blood, has something to do with it.

Finley has long been one of my favorite baritones, but I’m more used to him in opera, particularly the operas of Britten (Owen Wingrave), Rossini (Guillaume Tell) and Mozart (particularly Le Nozze di Figaro, which I own on DVD). Lieder singing, even the lieder of a Scandinavian country like Finland, is a completely different sort of art; only the already-noted Svarta Rosor is really what you would call “operatic” in character, thus I was curious to hear how he did. His handsome voice has not deteriorated a whit over the years—in fact, it has darkened somewhat, and he now sounds uncannily like the late Heinrich Schlusnus—and he performs the songs with great refinement and attention to the text. At this point in his career, I’m happy to see him doing more lieder; he’s exceptionally good at it. I see that he has recorded Samuel Barber songs as well as Schumann’s Dichterliebe and three volumes of Liszt songs, but he should branch out.

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s orchestrations are colorful and very much in the Sibelius style. Too many conductors, particularly Karajan, make Sibelius’ music sound too “soft,” but when you really examine the scores you’ll see that the great Finn used many dramatic orchestral devices, and conductors like Kajanus, Beecham and Toscanini brought them out with tremendous vigor and clarity back in the old days. Since Gardner is also a very dynamic conductor, he, too, emphasizes the dramatic side of these new scores. One thing I did notice was Ratauvaara’s penchant for using solo strings and percussion instruments (particularly tympani and the triangle) in ways that Sibelius never quite thought of, yet the concept fits in with the songs, most of which are nature-driven and/or have central themes connected to nature (The Hunter Boy, The River and the Snail, The Water Spirit, I Am a Tree, and of course Black Roses). And guess what? I personally prefer the baritone key of the last song to the more familiar tenor and soprano versions. Aside from the fact that Finley interprets the song with much more detail than Jussi Björling, the music just suits a darker voice more than a brighter one.

I was also much impressed by his performances of the rather long and musically varied Koskenlaskijan Morslamet. (The attentive listener may note, in this authentic orchestration by the composer, the slightly different way he uses both strings and percussion. The tympani is present, but it does not quite dominate the mood as it does in Rautavaara’s orchestrations.) Possibly the most unusual song on the album, På verandan vid havet is very strophic in character, almost like a dramatic monologue from an opera. Interestingly, the lyrics only mildly suggest this sort of thing:

Do you recall the sigh of the shimmering waves,
that they had finally reached
Only an earthly coast, not the shores of eternity?

Do you recall a melancholy glimmer from heaven’s
inextinguishable stars?
Ah, to the fate of decay even they must yield in
the end.

Do you recall a silence, when everything was as
though sunk in the yearning for eternity,
Shores and sky and sea, everything as though
with a presentiment of God?

By contrast the next song, I Natten or At Night, is the most lyrical, although set to a relatively sparse (and dark) orchestration. Once again, Gardner brings out the work’s colors and moods very well. We end with Come Away, Death (Kom nu Hit, Död), quite unusually orchestrated by the composer in his last year of life for baritone, harp and strings. It is a fitting finish to one of the most deeply satisfying musical journeys it has been my pleasure to take.

This recording is a gem. Treasure it.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Return to homepage OR

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

Standard

Gielen Edition Vol. 4 a Mixed Bag

front-cover

THE GIELEN EDITION, Vol. 4 / MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Overture.1 SMETANA: The Bartered Bride: Overture.1 LISZT: Mephisto Waltz No. 1.2 WAGNER: Lohengrin: Act 1 & 3 Preludes.2 Die Meistersinger: Act 1 Prelude.2 Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod.2 BERLIOZ: Roman Carnival Overture.2 Symphonie Fantastique.2 Requiem.1, 8 WEBER: Der Freischütz: Overture.2 Piano Concerto No. 2 in E-flat min.2, 5 J. STRAUSS, Jr.: Kaiserwalzer.2 SCHUMANN: Scenes from Goethe’s “Faust.”3,4 Manfred Overture.2 Die Braut von Messina: Overture.2 Symphony No. 1 (orch. Mahler).2 DVOŘÁK: Violin Concerto in A min.1, 6 Symphony No. 7 in D min.2 Cello Concerto in B min.2, 7 TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 6.2 RACHMANINOV: The Isle of the Dead.2 SUK: Ein Sommermärchen –Symphonic Poem for Large Orchestra2 / 4Günter Reich, baritone (Faust); 4Judith Beckmann, soprano (Gretchen/Soprano 1); 4Robert Holl, bass (Mephisto/Böser Geist); 4Margit Neubauer, alto (Martha/Schuld/Mater Gloriosa/Maria Aegyptiaca); 4Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, tenor (Ariel/Pater Ecstaticus); 4Doris Soffel, mezzo (Sorge); 4Mitsuko Shirai, soprano (Not/Magna Peccatrix/Soprano 2); 4Helmut Berger-Tuna, bass (Pater Profundis); 4Tadao Yoshie, baritone (Pater Seraphicus/Dr. Marianus); 4Brigitte Messthaler, alto (Mangel/Mulier Samaritana/Soloist); 5Ludwig Hoffmann, pianist; 6Josef Suk, violinist; 7Heinrich Schiff, cellist; 8David Rendall, tenor; 8Kölner Rundfunkchor; 8SWR Vocal Ensemble Stuttgart; 1Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra; 2SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden und Freiburg; 3SWR Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart; Michael Gielen, conductor / SWR Music 19028CD

This latest entry in SWR’s ongoing Michael Gielen Edition focuses attention on Romantic composers, ranging in timespan from the 1810s (Weber) to the last vestiges of that style in the early 20th century (Rachmaninov and Suk). Elvira Seiwert’s liner notes asks the question, “Who would have thought that Michael Gielen, a ‘down-to-earth, nuts-and-bolts, professional Classicist’ would have revealed a weakness for Romantic music of all things?…Perhaps he was attracted by that state of compositional crisis experienced by the Romantic ‘post-Beethoven’ composers, who felt that Beethoven, in his later works, had ‘burst form itself asunder.’ The dying embers of the Classical era began to draw new nourishment from contemporary literary sources, and darker shades of nuanced, woodland gloom began to be heard in the music.” All of which, pardon the crudity, is a crock of BS. Any conductor’s work in any period of music must be judged in light of its appropriateness of style to the music as well as whether or not the conductor’s concept works.

I heard Gielen conduct a fairly wide range of music when he was with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and liked much of what he did with Schubert and Brahms, among others, but in listening to the rather huge collection presented here I have to say that, for whatever reason, several of these performances just don’t click, and principal among the misses (and they’re not even near-misses) are the various Berlioz pieces (I don’t recall him conducting Berlioz in Cincinnati). Berlioz is one of those composers who, like Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler, absolutely need a plugged-in DC-current approach in order to work, regardless of whether or not the tempi are fast or relaxed, and Gielen simply doesn’t respond to this music. Neither the Symphonie Fantastique nor the Requiem have anything like the energy they need in order to put them over, and it isn’t just Berlioz who suffers. So too does Tchaikovsky, another composer who needs an injection of passion. Gielen’s rendition of the Fourth Symphony isn’t even as intense as Artur Rodzinski’s, let alone the brilliantly-driven recording that Evgeny Svetlanov left us. Of his Wagner excerpts, the most successful to my ears was the Meistersinger Prelude, albeit a bit stodgy in tempo. The other pieces are beautifully sculpted but not conducted from “inside” the music.

To some extent, I got the feeling that the sound quality of some of these recordings was a factor in my emotional reaction to them…not many, but some. By and large, SWR seems to go for a soft-grained orchestral sound, and this is not the way Gielen sounded in person. Quite the contrary: as I’ve said in my reviews of previous Gielen releases, he tended to favor what I would call a somewhat “scrappy” orchestral sound, lean and transparent, the very opposite of that. Indeed, this was one of the things that the older, more conservative Cincinnati audiences disliked about him, that he didn’t project a warm orchestral ambience. The Bartered Bride overture is close to what I heard in person, but many of the other recordings are just a trifle too warm and a bit muffled. As one goes through the set, however, certain performances grabbed my attention more than others, and in some cases Gielen’s emotionally cooler approach really isn’t bad at all. In fact, some of these performances really are quite good, but one must skip around to find the gems. The interesting thing, considering the wide range of years of these performances (1968-2014), is that the earliest performances are not necessarily the most engaged and the late ones not always the least. You just have to pick and choose. Here are my choices:

  • The Bartered Bride overture is surprisingly jolly and sparkling for Gielen, even livelier than Rudolf Kempe’s famous recording.
  • Schumann: Scenes from Goethe’s “Faust.” This is music that is right up Gielen’s alley, dramatic and innovative, and he brings out the underlying structure very well, being both swifter in tempo and more brooding than Claudio Abbado’s famous version with Bryn Terfel and Karita Mattila. Of the various soloists, only baritone Günter Reich as Faust is a bit rough-sounding and disappointing; everyone else is superb (particularly the little-known Judith Beckmann as Gretchen), and the music is extremely interesting if a bit uneven. Gielen’s interpretation is perhaps a bit less explosive than one might expect, but his tempos, phasing and long view of the score compensate for this. The Schumann overtures are also very good, particularly Die Braut von Messina. Gustav Mahler’s reorchestration of the First Symphony is very effective dramatically, but for my taste somewhat heavy in weight and texture when compared to the original (though the original is less colorful).
  • Weber’s Piano Concerto No. 2 receives a rousing performance, crisp and thrilling in its accents and flow, with a good account of the solo part by Ludwig Hoffmann (for all you Historically-Informed nuts, he plays a very modern-sounding piano with heft and weight, and though the strings use a very light, rapid vibrato, they do not play with straight tone).
  • The Dvořák Violin Concerto is his best performance of this composer’s works, surprisingly lively and effective, due in large part to the superbly idiomatic playing of Josef Suk. The Cello Concerto is absolutely gripping from the orchestral standpoint, but although Heinrich Schiff is a fair cellist he doesn’t have the drive or stature of a Feuermann, Piatigorsky or Leonard Rose to pull the music off.
  • Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead may be his greatest achievement on this set. Gielen takes a maudlin, echt-Romantic piece of bathos and gives it backbone and drama. Part of his secret is the way he emphasizes the numerous chromatic changes in the second half, punching the music home rhythmically at the same time. He also brings out numerous inner voices we seldom hear or notice; in short, similar to what Toscanini did for Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung. Without question, this is the best recording of this piece.
  • I had never heard Josef Suk, Sr’s A Summer’s Tale prior to this performance, and although I found the music somewhat formulaic in spots I was deeply impressed by Gielen’s granitic approach and dramatic sweep. Since I have no other frame of reference for this music, I can’t say how it compares to other versions, but taken on its own merits I found it held my attention and conveyed great drama.

What I recommend, then, is that you acquire the better selections from this set via downloads, paying for the good stuff and bypassing the ones you probably won’t listen to twice. This is always the risk a record company takes when they issue a massive set like this. The label and the artist have a vested interest in selling you everything they have by that artist, but no conductor’s oeuvre is perfect from start to finish, not even Toscanini who has, to my ears, the highest percentage of great performances, about 80%. And here, in this interesting but uneven collection, we just hit a wall. Gielen was undoubtedly one of the great conductors of our time, far more interesting and consistent than Pierre Boulez, but despite the treasures described above this is a mixed bag.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Return to homepage OR

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

Standard

Fischer’s Mahler Seventh a Solid Performance

front-cover

MAHLER: Symphony No. 7 / Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra; Adam Fischer, conductor / AVI 8553349

Having spent most of the last 20-plus years rehearsing and recording the complete symphonies of Haydn (probably the definitive set) and Mozart (most certainly the best digital set yet made), Adam Fischer returns here to one of his early loves, Gustav Mahler. He had already left us fine recordings of the first symphony, Kindertotenlieder and Songs of a Wayfarer, and now he has tackled the Seventh Symphony with the Düsseldorf Symphony.

Had this recording been made 35 years ago, it might easily have been the recommended version of this difficult and enigmatic work. At that time no one had really produced a satisfactory recording of this symphony, but then Simon Rattle’s live performance came out on EMI, followed a few years later by an excellent studio recording by Claudio Abbado. Several years later, when the New York Philharmonic issued its massive set of live Mahler performances, we were treated to perhaps the best version of all, a scintillating broadcast conducted by Rafael Kubelik. That one remains my all-time favorite Mahler Seventh; I don’t think it will ever be surpassed.

For the most part, Fischer has the full measure of Mahler’s thorny score. None of the rhythms or unexpected turns of phrase faze him, and he manages to sound elegant and eloquent even in the wild Scherzo, but to a large extent I felt that there was something a bit too smooth about the overall performance. Somehow or other, Fischer just misses the danger of the music, and without that danger the Mahlerian edge is somewhat dulled.

Mind you, it’s not a bad performance at all, but to be honest I even prefer Michael Halász’s recording with the Polish National Radio Orchestra on Naxos to this one. It’s certainly possible that the lack of frisson may have been affected by his working with this particular orchestra, but that’s only a supposition on my part. As I say, there are some very good things about the performance that I like, but when push comes to shove Fischer neither shoves nor pushes, and that’s really the crux of my argument.

Bottom line: if you don’t have the Abbado, Kubelik or Halász recordings, this one will satisfy you, but it will not thrill you, and for me, Mahler is not Mahler unless he raises some small haris on the back of my neck when listening to him.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Return to homepage OR

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

Standard

The Amazing Fats Waller

fats_waller_8120760

Recently I became involved in a bit of an argument with a “jazz” person (or group, I’m never sure which they are) on Twitter. This group or person has consistently been promoting non-jazz entertainers, which I found annoying, several of them of an explicit sexual nature. My patience broke when they spent two full weeks Tweeting three times a day about the upcoming “Surrealist Ball” on New Year’s Eve at the Roxy Hotel. I’m not sure why; perhaps they were being paid to do the promotion. This non-spectacular exhibition of perversion was led by “Buster Poindexter,” a pseudonym of David Johansen, former member of the New York Dolls, who since the late 1980s has been singing lounge music under that name. I saw “Buster Poindexter” once on Saturday Night Live. He couldn’t sing, at least not on key…he wasn’t a jazz artist. And he certainly wasn’t entertaining. The result of my Tweet that this sounded like the most boring event in the world was for this Twitter group to insult me for having under 100 followers and then block me. Real open-minded, they are.

Yet as you can see from this article, I hold a certain few jazz artists dear to my heart even when they also happen to be entertaining…but they MUST play JAZZ, and they must be exceptional at it. Otherwise, I’m out the door before they even hit the stage. And there is no question at this point, 113 years after his birth and 74 years after his death, that Thomas “Fats” Waller was a major figure in jazz, clowning or no clowning. Yet few have ever taken the time to isolate and identify the components of his style that made him so appealing, beyond his oversized, outgoing personality.

Waller had an unlikely trajectory to fame and fortune. The son of a Harlem minister, he was raised in a strict religious family and although his keyboard prowess became evident at an early age, his initial outlet for this talent was classical music and music of the church. At age 18 he managed to go to the Big City, where he became immediately involved in the burgeoning jazz scene. He made the acquaintance of the great James P. Johnson, originator of the stride style of piano, who took him under his wing and showed him around (as well as some new tricks on the keyboard). In his later years he actually paid for lessons from piano pedagogue Leopold Godowsky.

This was what I would call Point A in Waller’s transformation from a well-bred, morally upright young man into the hedonist he became. I am not passing any moral judgment on him; he certainly made his own decisions in life and had to live with them; but the fact that he went hog-wild in the world of “booze and broads,” to use a crude colloquialism, was a major component of his personality. To a certain extent, this was not much different from the rite of passage that many Amish teens go through. They, too, are finally allowed to leave their tightly-controlled communities and let loose in the “real world,” to do whatever they choose as long as they remain true to their moral code. Most of them end up returning to the Amish communities where they spend the rest of their lives, but there is always a percentage that strays from the fold forever. Not much is known of Waller’s siblings, although we do know that he had a sister, and that she remained a good, moral Christian throughout her life. I’m sure that she, too, had the opportunity to see what the outside world was like when she hit 18 as well. But Tom was just one of those people who indulged himself well over the top, and this, in my mind, was a major and often-overlooked character flaw that merged with his outstanding talent.

Moreover, the talent itself was prodigious. Even Art Tatum, the one pianist that he and everyone else came to admire as the greatest of the great, had to work at his technique and, in fact, never really stopped honing and refining it throughout his life—one reason why he died of uremia at the age of 46. But Waller was one of those people who, like classical pianist Walter Gieseking, could literally roll out of bed at any time of the day or night, hit the keyboard, and sound fabulous without even a moment of warmup. This, too, led to his choice of a more hedonistic lifestyle. A key to these features was given when former musicians in His Rhythm, the small band that he played with for most of his career (1934-1942), told interviewers in later years that Fats was like a big child, a spoiled child. That was exactly it. Because everything came so easily to him, he didn’t have to work at it, and without a work ethic hedonism could take root more easily. Waller wasn’t just the kid in the candy store; he was the kid who owned the candy store.

By 1926, when he was only 22, Waller was not yet famous to the general public but was already well known to musicians. And not just to black jazz musicians, like bandleader Fletcher Henderson and his arranger Don Redman, but to white musicians like Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti, and even Paul Whiteman. He had the knack of being able to write instrumental tunes that could then be orchestrated for different sized groups (up to big band) that sounded like stride piano. This was not an insignificant talent; Johnson, skilled as he was, could not do it as well. Out of this talent came several wonderful instrumentals over the next few years, such as Henderson Stomp, Whiteman Stomp, St. Louis Shuffle, Fats Waller Stomp, Harlem Fuss and The Minor Drag. This in addition to what was to eventually grow into an incredible number of quality popular songs like Ain’t Misbehavin’, I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby and Honeysuckle Rose that he wrote with lyricist Andy Razaf as well as with others.

Yet Waller’s lifestyle became so busy, whirlwind and almost out of control that even his closest friends and associates could scarcely believe how he held it together at all. He wrote a great many songs that he then sold, for top dollar, to other songwriters because he was always broke (one of them, he always claimed, was On the Sunny Side of the Street), and he was always broke because as fast as he made money it went out twice as fast. Liquor, women and marijuana were his vices of choice, and he indulged in them uninhibitedly. Even during his long recording career with Victor in the 1930s, he seldom arrived at the studio to make records without a jug of corn liquor on the piano, which he would offer to his sidemen if one of them played a chorus on a record that he particularly liked. He had so many women at one point that he began to lose track of them, and even had the nerve to bring his young son Maurice with him on Sunday afternoons to visit “aunt” so-and-so on condition that he not tell his mama where they went that day.

lenox-aveHow he was able to continue playing the piano—and organ—at such a high level over such a continuous period of time still remains a mystery. The vigor of youth certainly had something to do with it, but even so, there were other young pianists who also led frantic lifestyles who couldn’t do what Waller did. In fact, his pipe organ solos recorded at Camden in 1926-27 are still considered to be among his most creative and amazing recordings. It’s relatively easy to make a small electronic organ swing, which Waller also did in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, but the kind of “slow” sound that a real massive pipe organ has, lacking crispness, does not lend itself to the jazz pulse known as “swinging.” What Waller did has seldom been duplicated, let alone surpassed, in all the decades since. I strongly urge you to listen to some of these to hear what he was able to accomplish:

St. Louis Blues (November 17, 1926)
Lenox Avenue Blues (same date) – later used in the soundtrack of David Lynch’s film Eraserhead
The Rusty Pail
(January 14, 1927)
Stompin’ the Bug (February 16, 1927) also heard in the soundtrack of Eraserhead

Even as early as 1929, Waller’s life was in such disarray that he was starting to forget that he even had recording dates. The most legendary instance was the “Fats Waller and his Buddies” session of March 1, 1929, when a mixed band including Charlie Irvis on trombone, Arville Harris on clarinet and tenor sax and Eddie Condon on banjo was to record two sides for Victor. Fats was asleep and had to be awakened by Condon an hour before the date took place. He didn’t even have any music written for it. After quickly washing up and getting dressed, Condon pushed him into a cab where he began writing the music. It was finished by the time he reached the studio; but after making the records the Victor brass realized he hadn’t given them any titles. Waller told them that the fast one was called Harlem Fuss and the slow one The Minor Drag, but someone either forgot or didn’t write it down because when the record came out the titles were reversed. Thus the wild, uptempo romp has forever more been called The Minor Drag while the slow, bluesy number became Harlem Fuss.

maxresdefaultOne of Waller’s strangest dates came on March 5th and 6th 1931 when white bandleader Ted Lewis decided to help the New York jazz community, which was struggling financially in the wake of the Depression. His all-star band included Muggsy Spanier on trumpet, Benny Goodman on clarinet, George Brunies on the trombone and Fats on piano and vocals. Egyptian Ella was a showcase for Lewis’ bizarre singing and clarinet playing, but I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby was Waller’s coming-out party as a vocalist, followed the next day by Dallas Blues and Royal Garden Blues. Not knowing the lyrics of the latter two, Fats simply made up his own on the spot (my favorite bit being “I’ve got the Dallas blues and the mainstream heart disease!”). This kind of ad-libbing was to become a major feature of his entertaining ability throughout the years of Fats Waller and His Rhythm.

The long string of records made with His Rhythm are, of course, the major part of his legacy. I know of several very serious jazz critics who dismiss them as a waste of his talents, purely entertainment records with little or no real jazz value. This, like assessments of Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s, is a case of missing the forest for the trees. While it is true that the Rhythm almost never included major jazz talent, mostly because those musicians didn’t want to bother with Waller’s crazy schedule and touring agenda, they fail to notice that Fats got the players he did use to play at an extremely high level of proficiency. And this was one of the aspects of his talent that is often overlooked or taken for granted. Waller could inspire anyone to play well, whether the trumpet player was Herman Autry or John “Bugs” Hamilton or the clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow (clearly the worst well-known clarinetist in jazz history) or Rudy Powell. Tenor saxist Gene “Honey Bear” Cedric managed to amass a fairly large following and high reputation due to his consistently good work on the Waller records, but after Fats died he was shown to be merely a mediocre musician. Yet all but perhaps two dozen of those nearly 400 recordings they made are superb jazz, all the more so because more than half the songs they played were Tin Pan Alley garbage. Waller and his band(s) managed to elevate such banal material as Nero, Baby Brown, Abdullah, Garbo Green, Breakin’ the Ice, Got a Brand New Suit, If It Isn’t Love, How Can You Face Me?, Who’s Afraid to Love and The Curse of an Aching Heart into jazz masterpieces. Who else, in jazz or pop music history, could possibly have made something palatable out of Don’t Let it Bother You? No one, I’ll bet, yet this is one of Waller’s great musical and comic masterpieces.

And therein lay the other secret of his appeal: people really liked him, and the personality he projected was real albeit amplified for commercial purposes. You could possibly fake being a nice guy for the sake of playing a role, as Andy Kaufman and Gary Burghoff did on famous TV shows, but you can’t consistently fake being funny. You either are or you aren’t, and Waller was genuinely funny.

But in the end, we have to ask ourselves: was Fats Waller a comedian who played jazz, or a jazz musician who was also did comedy? It’s hard to say. In 1941 he realized his life’s dream by playing a solo concert at Carnegie Hall, and in the second half he played music “straight.” Yet I find it telling that he didn’t choose to play established classical pieces, which he certainly had cut his musical eye-teeth on, but rather improvisations on “original themes.” It has often been carped about that the public refused to take Waller seriously as an artist, but I find that complaint hard to support considering that he didn’t play anything really classical. In fact, the review of the concert made it very clear that the audience became restless not just because he wasn’t doing his comedy but because each number he improvised on sounded like the one before. Yet to listen to such a surrealist performance as Loungin’ at the Waldorf, with his muttered and very funny asides superimposed on a jazz performance of impeccable taste and phenomenal facility (Waller may have envied Tatum’s brilliance as an improviser but he clearly had as big a technique), is to marvel at the whole and not debate about which part of the performance controls the flow.

In his last year of life (1943), Waller wrote and produced an off-Broadway show called Early to Bed about a whorehouse in Martinique. He spent a great deal of time working on and refining the songs, a rare trait for him, because he really thought this was going to catapult the next phase of his career. Only a couple of acetate discs of Waller performing a few songs from the musical exist today; the musical did indeed open to good reviews, but he died before his dream could be fully realized. And even his death was typical of his uncontrolled lifestyle. Following the shooting of the film Stormy Weather, Waller was performing at a Los Angeles club that had a new, experimental form of air conditioning. The cold air blasted directly on Waller, who after the first week came down with a horrible cold, but he kept on performing. Finally, feeling really bad, he went to a doctor, who told him he had pneumonia and insisted on his spending a few days in the hospital to recover. But Fats didn’t want to do this—not because it interfered with his gig but because it interfered with his drinking and doping and hanging out with his buddies for hours after each night’s performance. He figured that he would be able to catch up on his rest on the long train ride back to New York the following week, but his immune system ran out of immunity. On the train heading east, during a stop in Kansas City, he was found dead in his upper berth bed. Louis Armstrong, on the train heading west, also had a stop in Kansas City and was told that someone had died on the other train. When they told him it was Fats Waller, Armstrong reportedly cried for days.

Waller remains consistently entertaining because he was also a fine jazz musician, although his improvisations tended more towards the fractioning of rhythm than towards harmonic ingenuity. As one musician said of him, “Some small people have some music in them, but Fats was all music, and you know how big he was.” Or as Paul McCartney put it, “I loved Fats Waller. I love his instrumental abilities, his vocal abilities and his sense of humor.”[1]

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Return to homepoage OR

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

[1] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/p/paulmccart454315.html?src=t_fats

Standard