Lourié’s Piano Music Re-imagined by Koukl

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LOURIÉ: Cinq Préludes Fragiles. Deux Estampes. Mazurkas. Quatre Poèmes. Formes en l’Air (à Pablo Picasso). Masques (Tentations). Upmann, a Smoking Sketch. Petite Suite in F. Dialogue / Giorgio Koukl, pianist / Grand Piano GP727

This is Vol. 1 of pianist Giorgio Koukl’s intended series of the complete piano music of Arthur Lourié, who studied with Glazunov but was most heavily influenced by Scriabin. I’ve heard some of his music previously, particularly in the recordings by pianist Moritz Ernst on Capriccio, but of the pieces on this album the only ones I had heard were Upmann, Forms en l’Air and the Petite Sutie in F.

Koukl, as he did in his remarkable recording of the piano music of Kaprálova, definitely has his own approach to things. His playing is both structurally sound and rhythmically fluid; he plays in a clear, wide-awake style with only a nod to Impressionist opaqueness, yet also manages to inform the music with a fluid rhythm not too dissimilar from jazz. I doubt that the composer knew what jazz was when he wrote these pieces, but the rhythmic looseness works beautifully in these interpretations, which are full of shade and nuance. Listen carefully, for instance, to the cascading eighth notes in the fourth Prélude Fragile, where Koukl spaces the notes slightly irregularly in pulse. This has the virtue of making each note stand out and not sound like just another cog in the gear, and it is a small but important indication of the kind of sensitivity he brought to this project.

A few facts on Lourié. Born in Propoysk, now Slawharad, Belarus as Naum Israilevich Luria, he changed his first name to Arthur in honor of Schopenhauer and his middle name to Vincent in honor of Van Gogh. He nominally converted to Catholicism in order to marry a Polish Catholic woman, but several years later became a very ardent Catholic due to the influence of the philosopher Jacques Maritain. A weird sort of guy, Lourié. And the music becomes equally strange as one goes on. The first of the Deux Estampes, for instance, has an exotic quality about it that seems to combine the harmonies of Debussy with the exoticism of Scriabin, whereas the second ha the feel of sprayed raindrops in the right hand over a chordal left-hand melody with intimations of Ravel in it. By the time you reach the first mazurka of 1911-12, you are smack in the midst of full-blown, mature Scriabin style; indeed, it sounds far less like a mazurka than Scriabin’s own, which had the stamp of Chopin on them. Interestingly, the Quatre Poèmes have so much of the same mystical sound in them that they sound like much the same kind of music as the mazurkas!

I am so much enamored of these pieces, and their performances, that I find it difficult to write about them in an objective manner. Once again with Koukl, you almost feel as if the composer is communicating direclty with you, that there is no middle man (or woman) playing the instrument. It’s a hard thing to put into words, but I always feel this way when listening to Koukl’s playing. He always seems to be the conduit for the composer’s thoughts and feelings, seldom the “interpreter” in the conventional sense of the term. That is a high compliment.

Apparently, the earliest years of the Communist Revolution were a boon to artists like Lourié. This was due in large part to the far-sighted guidance of the chief Commissar for Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, but like nearly everything that was good in the Communist Revolution, it came to an end in 1921 because they had finally looted as much as they could from the wealthy and were running out of money. It’s ALWAYS like that in Socialist and Communist systems, boys and girls, so please pay attention! Socialism is not a glorious future; it’s a short-term panacea that eventually leads to misery and most people living on the bottom. Lourié became so depressed by this that he defected to Berlin, where he stayed briefly with Ferruccio Busoni, which led to his music being banned after the formal creation of the Soviet Union in 1922. That’s another wonderful thing about Socialism and Communism: it shuts out any dissenting opinion as “non-thought” or “oppressive speak” and closes down your thought process. Read 1984.

Meanwhile, back to the CD, Koukl resumes his pianistic journey of Lourié with the Formes en l’Air, played with greater elasticity of phrasing than in the Ernst recording. By this point—1915, the year of Scriabin’s untimely death—Lourié had even begun to move somewhat beyond him, adopting his harmonic language but using it in slightly different ways and forms. There is more “space” between the notes here, and Lourié seems to be thinking in terms of ambient mood much more than even Scriabin did. Broken rhythms seem to have been a hallmark of this period.

Lourié’s music begins to change with Upmann, a Smoking Sketch, a three-minute ballet piece written in 1917. Here the rhythms are stronger, more regular in pulse, and the harmonies closer to some of the modern German music of the period, but it is really with the Petite Suite in F from 1926 that we notice the biggest shift towards neo-classicism. From here on out, Lourié’s music would be more in this vein. The harmonies are now much less exotic, although still modern in the sense that Stravinsky and Poulenc were, and the rhythms far more regular. The final piece on this CD, Dialogue, was not published during Lourié’s lifetime and this is its first recording. Undated, it seems to me to be closer related to his earlier style with its quirky rhythms and unusual pauses.

This is a wonderful album and one highly recommended for its unusual content, splendidly played and recorded.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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A Wacky New CD From Mostly Other People Do the Killing

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LOAFER’S HOLLOW / ELLIOTT: Hi-Nella. Honey Hole. Bloomsburg (For James Joyce). Kilgore (for Kurt Vonnegut). Mason and Dixon (for Thomas Pynchon). Meridian (for Cormac McCarthy). Glen Riddle (for David Foster Wallace). Five (Corners, Points, Forks) / Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Steven Bernstein, tpt/slide tpt; Dave Taylor, bass tbn; Jon Irabagon, t-sax/sopranino sax; Brandon Seabrook, bj/electronics; Ron Stabinsky, pn; Moppa Elliott, ba; Kevin Shea, dm / Hot Cup Records HC161

This new CD by bassist Moppa Elliott and his band, Mostly Other People Do the Killing, is based on a Western Pennsylvania town now part of South Park Township but originally called “Loafer’s Hollow.” At another point in its history, it was renamed “Library” because they built a big new one there, thus the sub-theme of the CD is music inspired by specific authors who Elliott likes.

In addition to the band having a new configuration, one of its new members is grizzled veteran bass trombonist David Taylor, who among other gigs has played several of composer Daniel Schnyder’s jazz-classical compositions, among them Afterthought, Teiresias, and subZERO, his concerto for bass trombone and orchestra. More interestingly, the first two selections—Hi-Nella and Honey Hole—are obvious tongue-in-cheek parodies of “old style good time music,” the first of them being so wacked-out that it put me in mind of Spike Jones and his City Slickers (all it was missing were the pistol shots and cowbells, and I’m surprised he didn’t throw those in, too). But Elliott, who wrote all of the compositions, retains much of the same feeling in virtually every piece on this wacky but wonderful CD. Even the solos tend towards parody. The publicity flyer accompanying this disc claims that the music “owes a great debt to the music of the swing era, and Count Basie’s many ensembles in particular,” but this simply isn’t true. Believe me…I know the early Basie band’s style and recordings inside out and upside-down, I’ve listened to them since I was 17 years old, and there’s no relation between them and MOPDtK. What really makes me laugh is that I’m sure some college-trained jazz historian who also studied sociology will write some wordy essay on this disc wondering about the deep psychological meaning of all the little tricks and twists that Elliott and his musicians have thrown into this music!

Probably the wackiest of the many wacky solos on this disc is the one Taylor plas on Kilgore, purposely groaning and straining in the lowest possible register of his bass trombone, but the surrealistic piano excursion on the same tune goes so far off the deep end in terms of harmonic contortions that it very nearly equals it in zaniness.

With Mason and Dixon, the band finally relaxes its uptempo madness, the first half of the tune being taken up by a ruminating, if still somewhat surreal, piano solo by Ron Stabinsky. Then, suddenly, Spike’s City Slickers come back for another pseudo-corny outing, complete with a purposely repetitious, out-of-tune banjo solo…shades of the Bonzo Dog Band! (Does anyone out theme remember the Bonzo Dog Band?)

Meridian actually begins with a fairly nice tune, somewhat reminiscent of Makin’ Whoopee, built on one of those wonderful interlocking-chord-patterns that lay at the base of so many tunes during the so-called “golden era” of American popular song. For once, we get a relatively straight-sounding solo from trumpeter Steven Bernstein…well, at least to start with. It doesn’t take long before his inner George Rock takes over and he starts slurring and going outside the tonal center, making a parody of his own solo! A double-time, high-pitched banjo solo leads to some pretty wild cacophony before the Makin’ Whoopee-like tune returns. The final note, played by the trumpet, wavers in pitch.

Glen Riddle has another catchy melody, this time sounding like something Squirrel Nut Zippers would have played. The piano gets purposely lost both rhythmically and harmonically, but instead of abandoning him the bassist tries his best to follow him, apparently thinking this is the way to go. The rest of the band just waits him out before resuming the initial tune as if his wayward solo never even happened. Again, the final notes are wavered by the trumpet.

Five (Corners, Points, Forks) is as wacky and mechanical-sounding as the opening number, with Jon Irbagon happily cackling away on sopranino saxophone above the ricky-tick sound of Stabinsky’s piano. Bernstein squnts (sort of a cross between a squeal and a grunt) on trumpet, but all the band members take their turns at solo cornball parody on this tune. When the full band comes into play, it’s almost drone-like in its feeling, with the low instruments (tenor sax and bass trombone) driving the ensemble. Eventually the trumpet and trombone just go nuts above the fray, which collapses into a heap of cacophony. Say goodnight, Gracie.

No, this isn’t what you’d call an artistic jazz album. I’m not even sure if the term jazz really even applies to it. But it does occupy a niche of its own, much as the parallel zaniness of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s classical parodies do (see my reviews of his music in Older Blog Posts). For what it’s worth, I absolutely loved this album. It made me laugh on a day when I was in tremendous pain and not feeling very well with the world, and that says a lot about its therapeutic value!

—© Lynn René Bayley

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Garrido’s Stunning Monteverdi Operas & Vespers Reissued

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MONTEVERDI: L’Orfeo / Victor Torres, baritone (Orfeo); Adriana Fernandez, soprano (Euridice); Gloria Banditelli, soprano (Sylvia/Messenger); Maria Kristina Kiehr, mezzo-soprano (Speranza/La Musica); Antonio Abete, bass (Caronte); Furio Zanasi, tenor (Pluto/4th Shepherd); Roberta Invernizzi, soprano (Prosperina/Ninfa); Maurizio Rossano, tenor (Apollo); Gerd Türk, countertenor (Shepherd 1); Fabian Schofrin, countertenor (Shepherd 2); Giovanni Caccamo, baritone (Shepherd 3/Spirit 1); Salvatore Suttera, baritone (Spirit 2); Coro Antonio il Verso; Ensemble Elyma; Gabriel Garrido, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

MONTEVERDI: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria / Gloria Banditelli, soprano (Penelope); Furio Zanasi, baritone (Ulisse); Maria Cristina Kiehr, mezzo-soprano (Minerva/Fortuna); Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, bass (Telemaco); Fabian Schofrin, countertenor (Pisandro/Umana Fragilità); Marcello Vargetto, baritone (Antino/Tempo); Adriana Fernandez, soprano (Giunone/Amore); Guillemette Laurens, soprano (Melanto); Gian Paolo Fagotto, countertenor (Iro); Giovanni Caccamo, tenor (Giove); Pablo Pollitzer, countertenor (Anfinomo); Mario Cecchetti, tenor (Eurimaco); Roberto Abbondanza, tenor (Eumete); Alicia Borges, mezzo-soprano (Ericlea); Antonio Abete, bass (Nettuno); Salvatore Sutera, tenor (A Physician); Coro Antonio il Verso; Ensemble Euphonia; Gabriel Garrido, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

MONTEVERDI: L’Incoronazione di Poppea / Guillemette Laurens, soprano (Poppea); Flavio Oliver, countertenor (Nerone); Fabian Schofrin, countertenor (Ottone); Emanuela Galli, soprano (Drusilla/La Virtú); Gloria Banditelli, soprano (Ottavia); Ivan Garcia, bass (Seneca); Adriana Fernandez, soprano (Damigella/Amore/Coro di Amori); Martin Oro, countertenor (Arnalta); Alicia Borges, mezzo-soprano (Nutrice/Pallade); Mario Cecchetti, tenor (Lucano/Soldier 1/Tribune 1); Elena Cecchi Fedi, soprano (Valletto/Coro di Amori); Phlippe Jaroussky, countertenor (Mercurio/Friend of Seneca/Coro di Amori); Beatriz Lanza, soprano (Fortuna/Venere); Furio Zanasi, tenor (Liberto/Consolo 1/Soldier 2); Marcello Vargetto, bass (Littore/Consolo 2/Friend of Seneca); Giovanni Caccamo, tenor (Friend of Seneca/Tribune 2); Coro Antonio il Verso; Ensemble Elyma; Gabriel Garrido, conductor / final duet available for free streaming on YouTube

MONTEVERDI: Vespro della Beata Vergine / Emanuela Galli, Adriana Fernandez, sopranos; Martin Oro, Fabian Shofrin, countertenors; Mario Cecchetti, Rodrigo del Pozo, Pablo Pollitzer, Francesco Garrigoso, tenors; Furio Zanasi, baritone; Daniele Carnovich, Ivan Garcia, basses; Coro Antonio il Verso; Coro Madrigalia; Ensemble Elyma; Gabriel Garrido, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

MONTEVERDI: Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda / Alicia Borges, mezzo-soprano (Armida); Adriana Fernandez, soprano (Sinfonia); Marinella Pennicchi, soprano (Clorinda/Erminia); Giovanni Caccamo, tenor (Tancredi); Daniele Carnovich, bass (King Aladin); Mario Cecchetti, tenor (Olindo); Furio Zanasi, baritone (Testo); Martin Oro, countertenor; Ensemble Elyma; Gabriel Garrido, conductor / BERNARDI: Sinfonia Prima à 6. NEGRI: Armida in stile recitativo. MONTEVERDI: Sinfonia. Vattene pur, crudele. La tra’l sangue. Poi eh ‘ella in se torno. Piagn’e sospiro. EREDI: L’Armida del Tasso. D’INDIA: La tra ‘l sanguee le morti. Ma che? Squallido e oscura. MAZZOCCHI: Chiudesti i lumi Armida. MARINI: Canzon VIII. Le Lagrime d’Erminia. La Bella Erminia. FIAMENGO: Dialogo di Sofronia e Olindo. GRILLO: Sonata Primo à 7. CIFRA: Era la notte / Ensemble Elyma; Gabriel Garrido, conductor / Accent ACC24328 (12 CDs)

From the liner notes by Stefano Russomanno:

At the end of the 1990s, the recordings of Gabriel Garrido represented an important landmark in the interpretation of Monteverdi operas. What attracted one’s attention in his versions were the brilliance and the hedonism of the actual recording itself. Garrido involved not only the typical instruments which can play contrapuntally (keyboard, organ, archlute, harp, etc) but those with melodic capabilities as well. The resulting sound was opulent but never ornamental; and from it the dramatic rhythm flowed in a series of subtle ways.

Reinforcing the instrumental complement was never done to the detriment of vocal concerns, which continued to have a leading role. It was precisely with the voices where Garrido set himself apart from his predecessors. By deciding to surround himself with Latin voices (Italian, French, Spanish, Argentinian…) he endowed his Monteverdi with warm, rounded and sensual vocal colours. Many of the individual vocal performances continue to represent interpretative touchstones: the Messaggera and Penelope of Gloria Banditelli, the Proserpina of Roberta Invernizzi, the Telemaco of Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, the Caronte of Antonio Abete, the Ulisse of Furio Zanasi and the Melanto of Guillemette Laurens stand out in particular.

Seldom has the publicity for a set of recordings been so accurate as the one above. Over the years I’ve found that early American and later Italian conductors of early music actually had a lot more in common than, say, Americans and British musicians (although several of the latter have come over here and made careers, such as Monica Huggett) or American and German, although the shamefully underrated conductor Reinhard Göbel fits into the American-Italian mold. Many of the latter-day Italian conductors, ensembles and singers have much the same kind of unfussy, emotionally direct appeal as the old New York Pro Musica or Alan Curtis’ Oakland, California-based ensembles of the mid-1960s. This was before Curtis became internationally known, but those of us who so greatly admired his landmark recording of L’Incoronazione di Poppea with Carole Bogard (Poppea), Charles Bressler (Nero), and Herbert Beattie (Seneca) knew what a landmark it was. Save for the authentic manner of singing those “spotted flute” trills, which was unknown at the time, this old Cambridge recording could stand up with the best of latter-day performances.

And so, when you begin listening to Garrido’s Monteverdi with his breathtaking L’Orfeo, it is the sheer exhilaration of the performance as well as the extraordinary instrumental clarity and Latin liveliness of the whole enterprise that takes one’s breath away. I found it ironic, almost comical, to read a review of this set when it was first issued in 1996 in the Gramophone, a music magazine for which the gold standard for all classical music is always British musicians. The reviewer was simply bowled over by the performance—you can tell it in the subtext of what he is saying—yet he absolutely had to go out of his way to criticize the use of a baritone as Orfeo because he prefers tenors, specifically (of course!) British tenor Nigel Rogers. Now, I owned that first Rogers recording of L’Orfeo for about a decade and liked his performance of it very much, but there is no question in my mind that baritone Victor Torres does an equally superb job with the role, and moreover than Garrido’s orchestra and chorus simply run rings around what Rogers presented us. But the Gramophone critic simply wouldn’t admit this, so in the end round he came to recommend the Rogers recording over this one despite its overly-careful, academic performance style.

One of the detriments I had in reviewing these recordings is that not all of them were available to me. This was not an album that Naxos could provide me as downloads, but luckily some enterprising souls were kind enough to upload Garrido’s L’Orfeo, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria and the Vespers on YouTube, which is where I got them. The complete L’Incoronazione di Poppea was not available online, but a few excerpts were. Although I really liked Garrido’s clarity and rhythmic lift, I was far from convinced by his use of a countertenor Nero. Monteverdi clearly specified a mezzo-soprano. He didn’t even have countertenors to sing opera in his day, and no matter how you slice it, hearing a brute like Nero being sung by someone who sounds like a sissy-britches isn’t my idea of the thing at all. Harnoncourt used light-voiced Mozart tenor Eric Tappy for his Nero, but in the case of this opera I’m still partial to the live performance conducted by John Eliot Gardiner on DG Archiv because the cast is just so good from top to bottom.

Now, I can take countertenors in roles where Monteverdi used falsetto singers—in his day, not exactly like the countertenors we have now—such as the shepherds in L’Orfeo or Arnalta in Poppea, so that didn’t bother me very much. And I really do love the way his recordings display such exceptional instrumental clarity and rhythmic drive and lift. These compensate for a lot, and I especially appreciated the fact that in addition to having wonderful voices, all of his singers had exceptionally clear diction and a good emotional identification with the characters they were singing. To me, that means a great deal, and as soprano Carole Bogard used to say, there’s really no reason to sing early music so “pinny neat” that you’re afraid the music might break if you give it some emotion. Yes, you should have pure-toned voices for this music, but this does not preclude singing with feeling.

More to the point, there is no authentic precedent for having your orchestra and chorus perform in an over-delicate manner. I doubt that most lovers of Monteverdi have ever heard the landmark 1951 performance of L’Orfeo directed by Paul Hindemith, also with a largely Latin cast and a dedicated group of young musicians eager to play in an authentic style (Nikolaus Harnoncourt was one of the cellists). It had a feeling about it similar to this, except of course that this is in digital stereo and the polish and sheen of the massed vocal and instrumental forces are considerably better than what Hindemith had to work with…but the results are similar. Both the solo singers and the orchestral players give their all here, and the last act is about as emotional an experience as you’re likely to have in early Baroque opera.

Garrido’s performance of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse uses reduced forces, but not really as reduced as most recorded versions on CD and/or DVD. The problem with the two later Monteverdi operas is that they were not presented at the Court of Mantua, funded by wealthy patrons so that he could hire as many musicians and singers as he wanted. Rather, they were among the first publicly staged operas at local theaters, meaning that anyone could buy a ticket and come see it. This was, by itself, not a bad thing, but in those days (the 1640s) theater managers were not used to staging operas, and thus were unprepared for the cost overruns. The result of this was that Monteverdi was told he could only use a very small orchestra, perhaps 15-20 musicians, and likewise only small choruses of maybe 8-10 singers. This is the reason why L’Orfeo’s orchestral and choral writing are so much more colorful than the later operas. Garrido has taken the unusual, and I say correct, path of bolstering Monteverdi’s sparse orchestration (something that even John Eliot Gardiner did for Poppea) to give it a bit more fullness of sound. He also uses another composer’s music for the orchestral prelude—specifically, Giovanni Grillo’s Sonata Secondo à 7—which I personally found more questionable. But once the performance gets rolling, there is no denying its beauty of sound (although he uses a countertenor for Human Frailty the opening sequence, and said countertenor is one of the most annoying and hooty-sounding representative of its species), clarity and forward momentum. I’ve never quite figured out why early Baroque composers thought these “moralistic” prologues featuring people dressed up as “virtues” or “human frailty” or whatever. And they seem to go on forever, don’t they?

But of course, Ulisse is the least complete and most flawed of Monteverdi’s surviving operas anyway. The music exists in only one manuscript, some of it sloppily written and not all in Monteverdi’s own hand. It lacks details, is incomplete in places and has many tiny errors: obviously a working copy made for a stage performance and not a real “manuscript” in the true sense. But it’s better than nothing, and Garrido—like Alan Curtis and Martin Pearlman before him—has fashioned his own working edition. Except for the predictably draggy Prologue, I’d say it works very well indeed. Both his lively pace and the wonderfully involved singing, one’s interest is held much better than you might expect for a long performance of an early opera without the benefit of visuals. His 23-voice chorus is probably double the size Monteverdi himself had to work with, and it’s a good chorus that sounds like people singing, not a whiny straight-toned choir that sounds like a MIDI. Indeed, considering the extreme length of the work and its poisonously static quality (watch a stage performance sometime; you’ll be amazed at how much of nothing actually goes on in terms of movement), Garrido manages to really make it move once we get to the better part of the libretto. The Italianate drive of the performance almost becomes palpable at times, and by wedding the orchestral and vocal lines as much as he does, Garrido presents us with a unified artistic concept. Furio Zanasi is really emotionally wrapped up as Ulisse..just listen to his long monologue, it’s so full of passion and fire! Garrido also uses certain techniques that most HIP performers reject, such as dynamics changes and contrasts. These help a lot, too.

Yet it is with the 1610 Vespers that Garrido made the sharpest break with HIP, and everyone else’s, tradition, because he absolutely refused to conduct the music at a snail’s pace, getting it done in less than two hours (as did Gardiner). Some online commentators have taken him to the woodshed over this, complaining that his tempos are “awful” and that he showed no respect for such deeply religious music, but who said that religious music has to be conducted at a funereal pace? Think of Bach’s Mass in b minor: most of that is not draggy music, at least not unless the conductor chooses to make it so. Moreover, Garrido’s tempi were consistent not only with his approach to the operas but also, I might add, with the way most conductors old and new conduct Monteverdi’s madrigals, on which the Vespers are based in form. The chorus is again magnificent, not only tonally but in terms of enthusiasm, and the orchestra plays with an almost white heat. I am now 66 years old, have been listening to recordings of the Vespers on and off for close to 40 years, and have NEVER heard such a lively, enthusiastic performance. Since I did not have the studio recording from 1999 to work with, I downloaded and listened to the “live” 2000 concert version, but YouTube did not identify the soloists so I’m not altogether positive if they’re the same as on the studio recording. But no matter. Plain and simple, Garrido’s Vespers will carry you away with their wonderful sweep and passion.

Sadly, I had no access to his recordings of Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda or the madrigals based on the “Gerusalemme Liberata” (most of them by composers other than Monteverdi) except for Francesco Eredi’s L’Armida del Tasso, so I cannot make any comment on them, but I was fortunate enough to hear his performances of the Selva Morale e Spirituale and Messa à Quattro Voci da Cappella, and they, too, are very detailed and exciting performances.

There is no doubt in my mind that Garrido’s Monteverdi is a landmark of recording history, on a par with Toscanini’s Beethoven Symphonies and Missa Solemnis, Harnoncourt’s Schubert Symphonies and Robert Kajanus’ Sibelius, a very special and unique musical journey unlike any other in its specific field. I cannot recommend this set highly enough; even the somewhat flawed Poppea has an aura and a feeling all its own. At the moment you can acquire the whole set on Presto Classical for $46.75, which breaks down to $3.89 per CD (a steal!), but even at the regular price of $54.25 it’s an excellent bargain.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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NTWS’s “Inventions” a Potpourri of Remarkable Music

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INVENTIONS / WILLIAMS: For the President’s Own. WOLFGANG: 3 Short Stories. BROUGHTON: In the World of Spirits. MACKEY: The Ringmaster’s March. Wine-Dark Sea. DAUGHERTY: Winter Dreams / North Texas Wind Symphony; Eugene Migliardo Corporon, conductor / GIA Wind Works CD1004

This is one of those potpourri-type albums that college wind bands put out from time to time, generally trying to mix “standard” wind band fare (marches, festive overtures, etc.) with more artistic pieces. In this particular case they were fortunate because one of the standard-type works, For the President’s Own, was written by John Williams who is one of our finest light music composers, and another, 3 Short Stories, was composed by jazz-classical hybrid composer Gernot Wolfgang, whose work I have had the good fortune to review last year on this blog.

The Williams piece, composed for the “president’s own” United States Marine Band. Typically of his best work, it juxtaposes jaunty themes with intriguing chord changes and imaginative scoring. My lone complaint is that it was really too brief, but at least Williams didn’t overload the listener with superfluous music.

Wolfgang’s 3 Stories starts auspiciously with Uncle Bebop, a terrific piece that, if you didn’t know better, you could mistake for a jazz piece from the 1950s. The North Texas orchestra plays it with not only fine technical skill but also the right amount of swing. It’s such a pleasure to hear a wind band (other than the U.S. Armed Forces jazz ensemble) that knows how to swing. Wolfgang’s piece wends its way along, developing its boppish theme in strict classical form, ending with a “teaser” coda that has a big pause before the final two chords. The second piece, Rays of Light, is more impressionistic and less jazz-oriented, yet also reveals a fine musical mind. Here, the music is very lightly scored, featuring a fine saxophone solo by Brian Horton around which the various winds—playing mostly in their lower registers—wend around it. With Latin Dance, Wolfgang moves into the realm of such groups as Machito and his Orchestra, the famed Afro-Cuban band of the late 1940s. The difference is that Wolfgang’s music ls less heavy on the Latin beat and more playful, with swirling clarinets and flutes, until an alto sax solo by Colin Crawford is head, reminiscent of the kind of work Charlie Parker did with Machito. Horton joins Crawford for a few bars of sax duet near the end of the chorus, followed by some pretty good Latin percussion, then the ride-out by the reeds and brass.

Bruce Broughton’s In the World of Spirits begins promisingly enough, with imaginative swirling high winds and punchy brass. The tempo relaxes as more winds are heard, but the playful mood picks up again with staccato trumpets. Eventually a lively, rather jumpy 3/4 is established, followed by a mysterious, quiet passage for sub-tone clarinets and miscellaneous rhythm instruments, with the other reeds slowly adding into the mixture. My sole complaint of this piece was that it repeated material already heard, dressed up in different orchestration, and wasn’t quite interesting enough to sustain its 11-minute length.

The first piece by John Mackey here is The Ringmaster’s March, written as the final movement of his suite The Soul Has Many Motions. It’s a lively enough piece, with a few harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns to make it at least interesting enough to get through its brief (three-minute) length, occasionally using what I would call “march cliches” to an almost comical effect.

Michael Daugherty’s Winter Dreams is a musical tribute to the famed Iowa artist Grant Wood, written as a tribute to the composer’s father. It’s an exceptionally lovely piece in the correct sense of the word, using an exceptionally light touch and delicate wind colors to “paint” his image of the famed artist, and can easily be appreciated for its softness and great imagination without having to conjure up images of American Gothic or Wood’s other paintings. Indeed, I found this to be the most complex piece on the CD, eventually moving to a point where clarinets play a jaunty in double time while the soft wind melody continues in the background, after which the composer develops his material with equal lightness and a touch of mystery. A wonderful flute solo comes and goes just before the end.

Mackey’s second piece, Wine-Dark Sea, is the longest work on this CD, a three-part suite commissioned by the University of Texas at Austin and premiered there in February 2014. In the liner notes, the composer explains that the music is based on the Odyssey. In the first movement (“Hubris”), Odysseus fills his ship with the spoils of war but “carried another, more dangerous cargo: pride.” What I found interesting about this piece was its use of a Latin-jazz sort of rhythm a couple of minutes into it, over which is eventually laid double-time figures played by flutes, trumpets and other winds that goes against the underlying beat. There’s a certain galumphing, heavy quality about the music that put me in mind of some of the things the Stan Kenton band did in its heyday. The difference lay in the frequent use of the snare drum to play press rolls as if in a marching band. Interestingly, when the music turns delicate a harp is used, but not in typical harp style; rather, it plays ascending, oddly-spaced arpeggios. Eventually the band falls away and we hear a pounding bass drum, followed by what sounds like vibraphone playing ambient sounds in the background. A forlorn English horn is heard, plaintively chanting, followed by what sounds like a bassoon. A soft muted trumpet is heard in the background as the strangely ominous mood continues softly in the foreground. The movement sort of fades out.

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Corporon with the North Texas Wind Symphony

The second movement, “Immortal Thread, So Weak,” begins with the harp playing in a more conventional mode, soft plucked chords establishing a fragmented theme before a forlorn clarinet is heard playing a new melody in front. Other instruments enter, one by one, until a rich but soft blend is heard. This movement is based on the song of a beautiful nymph who finds Odysseus near death on the shore of the island where she lives. The music is absolutely exquisite, creating and sustaining a remarkable mood via subtle changes in texture and harmony. Even when Mackey uses very close chords and tone clusters, his soft-grained textures remove all feelings of edginess from the listener; he or she is wrapped in a warm, comfortable space, even when the volume increases and more brass enters along with the winds. Wind band music has surely changed for the better since I was young!

The last movement, “The Attentions of Souls,” depicts that moment when Odysseus makes a sacrifice to the dead at the gates of the underworld. As he “cuts the throats of the sacrificial animals, the spirits of the dead swarm up.” This movement is an object-lesson in sound-painting of the highest order. Eventually the music becomes more animated as the spirits of the dead taunt and mock Odysseus. Words fail me to describe everything Mackey does here; this is music on a level with the finest creations of Mahler or Ligeti. Eventually, a “dance of the dead” enlivens the tempo, creating an imaginative atmosphere on par with Berlioz’ “Night of the Witches Sabbath.”

Thus we come to the end of this collection of “Inventions,” as the CD is so aptly titled. Get it, if only for the works of Wolfgang, Daugherty and Mackey…they are gems.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Brubeck’s Zurich Set Surprises and Delights

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ZURICH 1964 / BRUBECK-DESMOND: Audrey. BRUBECK: Cable Car. Koto Song. Thank You. COOTS-GILLESPIE: You Go to My Head. DESMOND: Take Five. BURKE-JOHNSTON: Pennies From Heaven. MORELLO: Shimwa / Dave Brubeck Quartet: Paul Desmond, a-sax; Brubeck, pn; Eugene Wright, bs; Joe Morello, dm. / TCB 02422 (live: Zurich, September 28, 1964)

Fifties and Sixties jazz has been undergoing a sort of Renaissance lately as numerous reissues and new concerts by Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Svend Asmussen and Brubeck have come to light. I can’t always keep up with them all because some of the labels involved don’t supply downloads for review, but I’ve been fortunate enough with several of them, and am always happy to review anything by the Brubeck Quartet.

I was nine years old when Take Five became a hit record, and from that day to this have been greatly enamored with the quartet as a whole but especially the interaction between Paul Desmond’s alto sax and Brubeck’s piano, and to this day I don’t think that a majority of their fans really understand why their collaboration was so successful. It was as much a matter of blending timbres as it was of contrasting styles. Brubeck played, for a white musician, an unusually rich, chunky, deep-in-the-keys sort of piano. It was a sound much closer to black pianists with a deep blues base like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Ramsey Lewis than to those pianists raised more on a classical aesthetic, and this includes both white musicians like Tristano and Evans and black ones like Powell and Teddy Wilson. This is unusual in light of the fact that Brubeck did come from a classical background, and one that was part of the French school (Darius Milhaud) to boot. But somewhere around 1950 or so, Brubeck became enamored of the blues-drenched playing of black pianists, and his chunky chords were a hallmark of his style.

Desmond, on the other hand, was one of those alto saxists like Lee Konitz who played his instrument with a light, somewhat “reedy” tone. One of my friends, the late trad-jazz clarinetist Frank Powers, once told me that the first time he heard Desmond he thought he was playing a clarinet. When he was told it was an alto, his comment was, “That’s one goddamned hard reed!” And it was. Desmond liked to refer to his tone as a “dry martini,” despite the fact that he himself drank Dewar’s scotch and not martinis. And somehow or other, that combination of his dry alto tone and Brubeck’s rich, chunky piano blended perfectly. Desmond’s contract specified that when he recorded on his own he was not to use a piano so that the recording could not be confused with his work with Brubeck, so he usually used guitars, but the thin sound of the usual electric jazz guitar didn’t really contrast with his tone, it sounded too much like it.

Yet all of the above may seem moot when one listens to the delicate tracery of Brubeck’s piano introduction to Audrey. As the liner notes point out, this may be the quartet’s best performance of this not-so-often-performed tune, casting a hypnotic spell over the listener as it goes along. Regarding the quartet’s rhythm section, I always loved Joe Morello on drums (and he was the only member of the quartet I saw in person, in 1971) but never really felt that any of their bassists did much more than offer good support. This isn’t a knock on Eugene Wright, who was an excellent bassist, but it’s also not a knock on Norman Bates or any of Brubeck’s other bass players. The bass really had more of a “grounding” function within the quartet. As the performance continues and Dave plays his own solo, the hard attack and chunky blues style comes more into play, and you begin to understand what I’m talking about. Eventually Brubeck’s solo becomes a mere sequence of syncopated block chords, repeated in the same position and sequence. After a single-note break, the chord positions shift and so does the rhythm, now playing against the bass and drums rather than with them. Wright takes a nice solo, reaffirming my assertion that he was a nice bassist but not a terribly important cog in the machine. At one point he plays a quote from When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on his Tuba. Desmond’s following solo is simply exquisite.

Cable Car sounds like it’s in 6/4, but without seeing the score I’m not 100% positive. No matter, though: this is Brubeck’s tune, and he tears it up on piano in a sort of Meade Lux Lewis kind of way, shifting the rhythm so much that by his second chorus, if you haven’t followed what he was doing from the start, you’de be lost. Just for laughs, he later throws in a quote from Jack Benny’s theme song, Love in Bloom. It was that kind of concert: everyone and everything was relaxed and a good time was being had by all.

You Go To My Head is another fine example of the kind of communication that Dave and Paul had with each other. A few light chords from Brubeck, and Desmond falls right in with an epigrammatic delineation of the melody. Improvising right from the start, the theme is suggested but never quite obvious. This version of Take Five, like so many of his live performances of it, is considerably quicker in tempo than the studio recording and thus loses some of its hypnotic quality (especially—and I hate to say this—when it was issued in its original “360 Sound” mastering, with just enough reverb added to make it sound like the bass and drums were playing in a deep cavern), but what it loses in atmosphere it makes up for in invention, particularly from Desmond once he really gets rolling. Interestingly, at this quicker tempo it almost sounds as if Wright and Morello are subtly shifting the rhythm to add an extra grace note per bar. Brubeck’s own solo is fascinating, starting out in a more classical vein with rolling triplets. Morello’s solo is one of his gems, reminding me of the one time I saw him in person. I still think that he and Elvin Jones were the most creative jazz drummers I ever saw, although Buddy Rich certainly had his own spectacular qualities.

Koto Blues is one of Brubeck’s most unusual pieces, the harmonies based on the open intervals of that instrument’s strings. This one is largely Brubeck’s show on piano. One of the concert’s highlights is surely Pennies From Heaven, an old song that modern pianists have had fun playing with, from Lennie Tristano to Clare Fischer. Brubeck’s version kicks off at a brisk tempo, and shortly after we hear the original tune it scarcely appears again. Both Desmond and the leader turn their considerable talents to deconstructing it and putting it back together, but never to a point where they use atonality or any outside chord changes. Morello’s Shimwa appears to be a modal tune (no key changes) in a quick 3 tempo built around a few little melodic cells, which Brubeck plays quite well.

Thank You is the perfect closer, jaunty and relaxed at the same time. This one, too, is mostly Dave on the piano. Towards the end the rest of the quartet drops out and he plays a surprisingly complex, rhapsodic sort of cadenza, both musically astute and tongue-in-cheek at the same time.

An interesting note about this release: although it claims its origin as a concert, it is in fact a Swiss radio broadcast that has been around for years (in far inferior sound) as a broadcast from September 28, 1963. The biggest difference is the sound quality. The “pirate” version sounds pinched and cramped; this one sounds like an early digital recording.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Méhul’s “Uthal” a Fascinating Dramatic Opera

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MÉHUL: Uthal / Karine Deshayes, mezzo-soprano (Malvina); Yann Beuron, tenor (Uthal); Jean-Sébastien Bou, baritone (Larmor); Sébastian Droy, tenor (Ullin); Philippe-Nicolas Martin, baritone (Le Chef des Bardes/Troisieme Barde); Reinoud van Mechelen, countertenor (Le Premier Barde); Artavazd Sargsyan, tenor (Le Deuxième Barde); Jacques-Greg Belobo, bass (Le Quatrièm Barde); Les Talens Lyriques; Chœur de Chambre de Namur; Christophe Rousset, conductor / Ediciones Singulaires ES1026

It’s really a shame that the operas of Étienne-Nicolas Méhul, greatly admired by Beethoven and Berlioz (and partly an influence on Fidelio), are virtually unknown today. Every opera I’ve heard by him—Le Chant du Départ, Joseph en Égypte and Stratonice—has been not only interesting, but also highly unusual in its musical character and quality, and Uthal, despite a somewhat convoluted plot, is no exception. Based on a legend of the Irish poet Ossian, it concerns Larmor, the old chief of Dunthalmon, who now lives in the woods because his son-in-law Uthal has usurped his authority, deeming him no longer able to fight in battle. Larmor’s daughter Malvina tries to calm his anger and persuade him to reconcile with the husband he gave her. But Larmor, though touched, rejects her arguments. He sends his faithful bard Ullin to Fingal’s palace to inform the latter of the injustice done to him.

Fingal decides not to fight such a weak enemy himself, but sends the men of Morven to do it for him. The warriors land on the shore and Larmor tells them to “Steep yourselves in the traitors’ blood.” Malvina stays by herself, despairing that her father and Uthal might fight each other in mortal combat. At the same moment, Uthal enters the forest and bemoans his faithless wife whom he still loves dearly. Malvina, not recognizing Uthal, approaches him to ask his assistance to avoid a fatal outcome. Curious, Uthal at first is careful not to be recognized and is moved by Malvina’s confession, but soon his anonymity becomes impossible, and when Larmor shows up with the men of Morven, come to declare war on him, Uthal refuses to submit and chooses an unequal combat. At the end of the battle, while the Bards try to comfort Malvina by singing her an ancient ballad, Uthal is taken prisoner. Larmor denies him the death he wishes and condemns him to the shame of exile, but when Malvina declares that she will leave the palace to follow him her compassion so moves Uthal that he agrees to kneel before Larmor. The old chief, touched, grants his pardon.

From the very opening of the overture, one is immediately plunged into an ominous and unique sound world. Méhul completely dispensed with violins in his scoring in order to give the music a dark character, and it works. Only edgy-sounding violas, cellos and basses are heard amid a largely wind and horn-based orchestra, and nearly all the scoring is low and ominous. The music works up to a fever pitch in this overture, and suddenly Malvina’s voice is heard riding the agitated orchestra, much like the opening scene of Gluck’s great Iphigénie en Tauride. Being an opéra-comique, there is spoken dialogue, but either Méhul’s librettist kept it to a minimum or the performers here did so, because it is not overlong or obtrusive on the thoroughly exceptional music. This is a dark, powerful work that plunges headlong in its progression. Solos and duets are generally brief and wedded into the preceding and ensuing music. Occasionally, as in Malvina’s sung dramatic strophe “Quoi! Ce combat affreux!”, the music takes on a declamatory quality; in others, like the following quartet “O de Selma” (sung by the three Bards and Malvina), Méhul employs a much more lyrical vein for the three men but overlays a much more tense and dramatic line for the mezzo-soprano. In these ways Méhul keeps the music moving, and developing, and maintains your interest. Moreover, by keeping the whole of the opera to one hour, he does not drag out what could have been a tempest in a teapot to oversized proportions.

uthal-castPre-echoes of Beethoven abound in this music, as do post-echoes of Gluck. Méhul was a well-grounded and highly imaginative composer, and there is not a wasted moment or gesture in Uthal. On the contrary, this is music of a very high order, and it is to the credit of the cast—none of which I’ve ever heard of before—that they not only sing with beautiful tones and fine styles but give themselves over to the drama, lifting it out of its artificiality and making it valid and interesting. The one real aria in the opera, Uthal’s “Quoi! je la cherché en vain!”, is set in G-flat minor to an uneasy 4/4 with ominous syncopated accompaniment by the basses. After one of the longer spoken dialogues between Uthal and Malvina, their duet is a driving, urgent piece in B-flat minor with a distinctly Beethovinian sound about it.

I simply cannot say enough good things about the performers. One and all, from the top female voices down to the chorus, orchestra and conductor, they give 110% and make as strong a case for this music as could possibly be imagined.

I reviewed this record via downloads, and thus only received the booklet as an Adobe PDF file, but if you buy the hard copy you’ll get a deluxe package , slightly taller than a DVD case, with an exquisite hard binding and fine paper pages with the liner notes and complete libretto. Very highly recommended!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Zych’s “Alice” Fantastic, Imaginative, Enigmatic

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ZYCH: Alicja w Krainie Czarów / Orchestra of the Opera at the Castle in Szczecin; Jerzy Wołosiuk, conductor / Dux 1249-50

Przemysław Zych composed this ballet based on the wildly imaginative Tim Burton film of Alice in Wonderland. The booklet, such as it is, pushes this big-time with photos of performers in all sorts of colorful costumes and lighting in animated and/or contorted positions. Since the booklet is only in Polish, I haven’t a clue what any of it means, but I know Alice in Wonderland inside-out and upside-down, having been exposed to it as a child of four and being very attached to it at least up through my junior year in college, when I wrote a paper on it for my English class.

alice-4From the very first notes of the “Magical Overture,” the listener is in for a treat. This is resolutely tonal music, but it is as delicately scored as fine Dresden china and written with exquisite care and inspiration. In some scenes, like the end of the first, I could sort of imagine what was going on—Alice knocking at the little door, then drinking the anonymous “Drink Me” potion and shrinking down to a small enough size to get through it—but for the most part I just let my imagination run wild and enjoy the wonderfully creative score that Zych has created. In addition to its delicate orchestration, it is also interesting in texture. At times, the soft winds (low and high ones, playing very softly) mix with equally soft-textured percussion to create swirling figures. I wish I had the visuals for every scene, but in a sense I, who know the Alice story inside out, didn’t really need to, so image-specific is Zych’s wonderful score.

alice-1Indeed, the music is even better than the very fine score recently written for the Royal Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland production of a few years ago, and that is saying something. Zych is able to maintain the sort of atmosphere that one needs to create a dream world that appears real to the dreamer (Alice) but is known to be a dream by the observer (you). Even when the music becomes louder and more aggressive, as in the second scene (possibly the Caucus Race?), the constantly shifting harmonics and almost “slippery” feeling of rhythm keep one un-grounded, so to speak. The fourth scene (track 5) has some particularly witty music, with trombones sliding around and the feel that you are not quite grounded though you think you are. Scene 7 has got to be the Mad Hatter’s tea party…it just sounds it!

alice-3By the tenth scene, we are probably in the garden with the living playing cards painting the roses…or are we? I don’t know, but the atmosphere is right, particularly when things get a big loud and noisy, possibly announcing the Queen of Hearts. The huge scene 14 (CD 2, track 7) is obviously the “trial” of the Jack of Hearts for tart-stealing, capped by monstrously powerful music representing the monstrously powerful Queen. Then things quiet down as the jury-box erupts, the cards fly in Alice’s face, she panics and then wakes up with her head in her sister’s lap (I think…again, I couldn’t see it). But it all sounds like that in the score!

alice-2Indeed, as the ballet continued my only complaint, aside from the fact that I couldn’t see it, was that Dux chose to split it over two CDs when one would have sufficed. Nowadays even home burning programs like Nero can accommodate up to 82 minutes 20 seconds on a blank CD without signal loss or distortion, so 81 and a half minutes is really no big deal. Other than that, this is a stupendous ballet score, certainly one of the best I’ve heard in my life. Highly recommended!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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