McLean’s “Capuchin Swing” Hard-Hitting, Thrilling

McLean Capuchin Swing

CAPUCHIN SWING / McLEAN: Francisco. Condition Blue. Capuchin Swing. BISHOP: Just for Now. On the Lion. McHUGH: Don’t Blame Me / Jackie McLean, a-sax; Blue Mitchell, tpt; Walter Bishop, Jr., pn; Paul Chambers, bs; Art Taylor, dm / Blue Note 7243 5 4003356

Normally I’m not a huge fan of most Blue Note-style jazz of the 1950s and ‘60s because I prefer jazz with structure and orchestration to straight-ahead blowing sessions, and most (but not all) of BN’s records were open blowing sessions. That being said, there’s no question but that owner Alfred Lion was usually able to coax the hottest and most exciting playing out of the musicians who recorded for him, getting them to “schwing,” as he put it, as if they were in a live gig.

And make no mistake, this session is one of the hottest in the BN catalog. Recorded on April 17, 1960 at the Rudy van Gelder studios in beautiful downtown Hackensack (as someone who grew up in New Jersey, I can attest that Hackensack scarcely registered as a “city”…it was more like a big town, sprawling and spread out, with few buildings taller than three stories), it was a surprisingly intense and creative session.

McLean, originally an acolyte of Charlie Parker (weren’t most of them in the 1950s?), started veering in the direction of Ornette Coleman’s harmonically loose structures by the time this record was made. In time he became even more avant-garde, going off on a deep end like so many other alto and tenor saxists of the mid-to-late ‘60s. This session catches him in mid-style, and is possibly the best introduction to this eclectic, deep-thinking musician. His solos absolutely burst with new ideas; even in the opener, Francisco, he is sometimes locked into a Bird style, sometimes veering off into a free style, but always coherent and interesting.

One of the real surprises (to me) in this session was trumpeter Blue Mitchell, who at this time was quite evidently smitten by the playing of the late Clifford Brown. Though a bit harder-hitting in his drive and less baroque in his excursions, he nevertheless follows Brownie’s patterns of development while still retaining his own identity. I was consistently pleased with everything he played. Walter Bishop is his usual fine self, playing a harder-driving style than Bud Powell but still maintaining long lines in his improvisations, creating entirely new melodies that could easily have been taken out of context to form new pieces to play. He is especially fecund on Don’t Blame Me, taken at a medium fast tempo instead of its usual doleful ballad pace, on which he is the only soloist (not counting breaks by Chambers and Taylor). Most aficionados are familiar enough with Paul Chambers and Art Taylor that they need no descriptions from me.

With Condition Blue, we reach a piece that is more of a composition than the two opening tunes. The stiffly-played opening melody, almost in march tempo, is only loosened up when Mitchell enters on trumpet, but this is one of those pieces in which the solos are meant to complement the structured tune, which they do. For instance, when McLean enters, following Mitchell, he takes pains to reiterate the melodic structure for four bars before taking off on his own. And what a solo it is, going off on tangents not touched by the trumpeter. You can hear someone (Taylor? the voice sounds recessed) shouting encouragement in the background as he goes on. Bishop has quite a chore following this when he enters, but he does a credible job, starting with a few brief quotes from what McLean had just played. He’s not quite as adventurous but equally structured. Following this McLean returns, picking up from where he left off. It’s quite a display of his abilities!

The title tune, Capuchin Swing, has a pseudo-Latin beat in the first four bars, after which it alternates between straight-ahead swinging and back again. This rhythmic pattern continues beneath the solos as well, with Taylor evidently having fun back there. McLean is a bit looser and less structured on this one, yet still manages to make his presence felt in an excellent solo. Mitchell, on the other hand, maintains his Brownie groove in one of his finest solos on the album. Bishop is playful and relaxed, indulging in double-time runs and single-note playing in the right hand that stays within an octave and a half.

On the Lion is evidently titled in honor of the label’s owner. It’s one of the most conventionally constructed tunes on the album but, in keeping with Lion’s dictum, it “schwings.” Bishop responds beautifully to its medium-uptempo with one of his most inventive solos, and McLean plays with space and time in his own solo. Mitchell really flies on this one, sounding evne more like Brown here than anywhere else, and his horn almost sounds as if it’s in the room with you.

A slice of history, a moment in time, but what a slice and what a moment. Capuchin Swing is one of the liveliest and most life-affirming jazz albums you’ll hear in this or any other year.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Solal and Kuhn Take Flight in Paris

Solal-Kuhn

DUO IN PARIS / DAVIS: Solar. KUHN-SOLAL: Journey Around the World. Musica 2000 / Martial Solal, Joachim Kuhn, pianists / Dreyfus Jazz 3460503650329 (live: Paris, 1975)

Originally issued on LP as Musica 3002, this is one of those recordings that you feel lucky exists in spite of poor sonics. Evidently recorded with inexpensive portable equipment, the duo-piano performances on this CD have a somewhat metallic quality and limited piano resonance,. but the playing is on a phenomenal level of both virtuosity and invention. Both Solal and Kuhn take turns spinning their piano duo out into musical orbit, creating swirling figures that somehow still make sense even when it seems that one of them is evidently pulling the other along. The fact that they were given plenty of time to stretch out on these three tunes, and two of them appear to have been spontaneously created out of a few traded licks does not detract from the sheer invention of it all.

In fact, I would defy any classical pianist or pianists to create anything remotely like this. The music is essentially grounded in tonality (Solal, of course, was a classically trained pianist brought up on the classics), yet their imaginations allow them to embellish and expand on any basic theme or motif in such a way that would be the envy of many a formal composer today. In Journey Around the World, for instance, listen to the way they take a few melodic cells and by 2:45 begin spinning them into quasi-baroque fantasies. What’s interesting about this music is the way the two of them together manage to sound, occasionally, like Art Tatum playing all by himself. This is, of course, a great compliment to Tatum, but it’s also a key to the kind of music-making these two fine artists were able to accomplish in this relatively brief (41 minute) session.

LP cover

Original Musica LP cover

Only occasionally do they get bogged down in what I’d refer to as “spinning,” i.e. playing rotating figures around a basic chord or motif and thus staying static, and even in those moments there is tremendous mutual stimulation going on. Of course I have no idea who is playing what; theses are duets, and at no point did I hear just one piano going at a time. Moreover, both Solal and Kuhn were “two peas in a pod” when it came to style and invention; I’m sure they could have gone on for another hour and continued stimulating each other.

Not only in the spontaneously created pieces, but also in Miles Davis’ Solar, Kuhn and Solal manage to create an abstract universe of sound. At several points their playing almost sounds like an exploding starburst firecracker, with showers of notes flying through the air, yet at no point is the music incoherent. Oddly enough, I felt there was a similarity here to the piano music of Kaikhosru Sorabji, equally ornate and fantastic in nature.

The only question one has is whether or not these two artists pre-planned either of the spontaneous pieces. Certainly, there seems to be more structure and coherence here than in other, similar encounters, such as that between Friedrich Gulda and Chick Corea.

This is a wholly remarkable set and one you need to hear regardless of your jazz proclivities!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Hindemith’s “Das Marienleben” in a Great New Recording

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HINDEMITH: Das Marienleben / Rachel Harnisch, soprano; Jan Philip Schulze, pianist / Naxos 8.573423

Paul Hindemith’s song cycle Das Marienleben or The Life of Mary was considered, even by the composer himself, as possibly the best work he had ever written…quite an accomplishment in an oeuvre that includes his seven string quartets and the operatic masterpiece Mathis der Maler. But although he was initially very proud of the original 1923 version, he later became somewhat dissatisfied because he felt the vocal line was not quite as well related to the text or the piano part, so a quarter-century later, while living in America, he reworked the cycle into what he considered its definitive form.

This 1948 edition is the one recorded here, although a little poking around the Internet has turned up a number of recordings of both versions, including a double-CD set on Koch International Classics in which soprano Judith Kellock performs both. Probably the most famous, or at least well-publicized, version of the earlier version is the Columbia/CBS recording by soprano Roxolana Roslak and pianist Glenn Gould. But the point I am making is that there are many fine recordings of this cycle in both incarnations.

I won’t pretend that pianist Schulze—or almost any other pianist in any recording of this cycle—comes close to the remarkable style that Gould exhibited in his recording. Few, if any, pianists played with the kind of X-ray clarity that Gould did, in which ever finger strike on the keyboard seemed to have equal force and thus equal expression. Jan Philip Schulze plays with a lovely, somewhat soft quality, coaxing rather than commanding the notes under his fingers. But in addition to the musical changes Hindemith made in the score, this performance is much brisker, taking only 65 minutes to Gould’s 79, and this tighter binding of the music results in a much more dynamic performance. An excellent example is the second song, “Die Darstellung Mariä im Tempel,” in which the duo of Roslak and Gould walk through it at a measured pace whereas Harnisch and Schulze give a much more dynamic and dramatically inflected reading.

Both singers, incidentally, had/have fine voices of different types. Roslak’s voice was very bright in timbre with a pleasant but noticeable flicker-vibrato. Harnisch’s voice also has a natural vibrancy, but she can control it better, sometimes letting it ride on the breath and sometimes draining the voice of vibrato for interpretive effect. Her voice is also creamier in quality than Roslak’s. Some of the impact of the two recordings is also due to the sound quality. As usual, Gould demanded a crisp, clean sound with minimal room sound around him and the singer, whereas the present recording has rather more reverb. This, as I’ve pointed out many times in the course of my reviewing, is a modern-day fetish that most classical listeners apparently like and approve of, but which I find detrimental to my enjoyment of almost any kind of music. Nonetheless, one cannot punish the artists or the high quality of their interpretation for the engineering.

As mentioned earlier, there are several fine recordings of this song cycle available, yet oddly the two most highly praised versions are by sopranos with edgy and rather unattractive voices, Maya Boog on CPO and Soile Isokoski on Ondine. Harnisch is clearly their equal as an interpreter—listen to the quicksilver changes of mood and inflection in the rapid song “Rast auf der Flucht nach Ägypten”—and has a much more beautiful voice than either. I slightly prefer Marita Viitasolo’s pianism in the Ondine recording, which is almost as clear and pungent as Gould’s, but again, this might be due to the clearer, less goopy sonics on the earlier disc. Schulze is clearly an excellent pianist, and he plays very well in this performance, but his instrument’s sound is too recessed at times.

My own personal proclivity is towards soprano Cato Brink and pianist Maria Bergmann (SWR Music 10327) as the best of the 1923 versions and this recording as the best of the 1948 revisions. Some critics feel that Hindemith’s later revisions of his earlier works were somewhat misguided, and that the original version of this song cycle had some very good things in it that were lost in his desire to “unify” the music more strongly. One could spend some time enumerating all the changes, most of which are explained in Paul Conway’s excellent liner notes. Entirely new versions were written of No. 3, “Mariä Verkündigung,” and No. 7, “Geburt Christi” (The Birth of Christ), the rest undergoing smaller changes except for No. 12, The Calming of Mary with the Resurrected One, which remained the same. One such revision came in the sixth song, “Verkündigung über die Hirten” (Annunciation of the Shepherds), where Hindemith made the final section “majestic and celebratory, anticipating the events of the next song.”

One of the most difficult songs, No. 9 “Von der Hochzeit zu Kana,” contains several dissonances and huge vocal leaps. Harnisch sings them as if they were in the middle of her voice and not difficult at all. She possesses the kind of technique and command of legato that was once a hallmark of singers of the so-called “Golden Age,” the period between 1900 and 1928 when great singers of all rangers proliferated with just such virtues. In addition to all her vocal gifts, she also has fine, clear diction, in my view a prerequisite for a truly great singer. This, then, is a truly great recording, possibly a new benchmark for this sometimes underrated cycle.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Blecha-Wells & Kim Revel in Martinů’s “Small Storms”

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SMALL STORMS / MARTINŮ: Variations on a Theme of Rossini. Ariette for Cello & Piano. 7 Arabesques for Cello & Piano. Suite Miniature. Nocturnes for Cello & Piano. Variations on a Slovakian Theme / Meredith Blecha-Wells, cellist; Sun Min Kim, pianist / Navona NV6092

Here’s an absolutely delightful CD with a theme, that being the charming but small-scale music that Bohuslav Martinů wrote for cello and piano. What makes the album so special is not just that Martinů’s music is so attractive and imaginative, though it is, nor that Meredith Blecha-Wells and Sun Min Kim are such excellent musicians, but that they’re having so much sheer fun with the music that it is infectious from the very first note and never lets up.

Even as slight a piece as the 1:44 Ariette for Cello & Piano has something to say, and Blecha-Wells and Kim have something to say about it. Of course, since most of this music is of a light nature, it was difficult for me to judge what their playing would be like in something more substantial. Sometimes exuberant players don’t always treat such music with more depth. But I’m not reviewing anything of that nature here, and the present release is just so good that I could scarcely contain my joy in listening to them. The third of the 7 Arabesques is perhaps a bit more subtle in expression, and yes, they do play that very well, so perhaps my fears are ungrounded.

As for these Martinů’s scores—all entirely new to me—they reinforce my view that he was certainly one of the greatest and most enjoyable composers of the 20th century. Yes, he utilized Slavic folk elements in his music, particularly the unusual harmonies or modes, but his many decades in America also led him to pick up on several Americanisms, particularly those borrowed from popular music and jazz. Here and there throughout these pieces one hears a rhythmic feel that is quintessentially American (like Arabesque No. 4, Allegro or the sixth and last piece of the Suite Miniature), and he absolutely revels in such moments. And every collection or suite seems to have its own character, despite the proclivity towards brisk tempos and a light mood.

If you think that Martinů’s Nocturnes would be in the tradition of Chopin’s, think again. They are of mixed tempos, the first being marked Andantino and the last Allegretto, and once again he simply delights in fooling the ear into thinking the music is going one way when in fact it goes another. Sometimes his harmonies move neither up nor down, but actually sideways; in the Andantino he opens several chromatic trap doors through which the music falls, trying desperately to find its harmonic footing amidst its playful atmosphere. Only in the second nocturne, marked Lento, does Martinů use a pace similar to Chopin’s, but the injection of Czech folk harmonies and astringent open chords bowed on the cello make it stand out. As the piece goes on, he does bring in a somewhat romantic melody, but it’s neither sentimental nor cloying. In this piece, however, I felt that pianist Kim got somewhat deeper into the music than the cellist, beautiful though her playing was. The last of the four nocturnes has about as much to do with the moon or the night as a jig, but it’s absolutely delightful music.

Variations on a Slovakian Theme brings us to the final work on this CD, with Martinů again finding a way to work through his music in novel and unexpected ways. Here the sweep of the music is the defining factor in its performance style, pushing the cello and piano along in waves and eddies of sound.

All in all, a splendid and surprising disc, well recommended.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The Altius Quartet Jumps from Haydn to Hip-Hop

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DRESS CODE / HAYDN: Strong Quartet in C, Op. 74 No. 1. BRUBECK-JACKSON: Take It. BOLCOM: Three Ghost Rags. LED ZEPPELIN: Stairway to Heaven. KING: Stand By Me. A-HA: Take on Me. RICE: Mustang Sally / Altius Quartet / Navona NV6078

This is the debut CD by the Colorado-based Altius String Quartet. The publicity blurb accompanying this release says that their mission (they need a mission? do they have a due date and are they getting instructions from the CIA?) “is to strive for universality in their music and communicate directly with their listeners.”

Basically, the layout of this album is that Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 74 No. 1 is split up with one movement played every two or three tracks, Bolcom’s Three Ghost Rags given the same split-up treatment, and then several rock, disco and hip-hop novelties are interspersed among them. All of the latter were arranged by cellist Zachary Reaves. Of course their playing of the Haydn is strictly in keeping with the religious belief in historically-informed practice, meaning that it is brisk and crisp with no “give” in the rhythm and uses straight tone throughout. I found it peppy in style but a tad mechanical, though they did inflect the music with some dynamics changes which is a step in the right direction. Were they to specialize in this kind of repertoire, I would suggest that they listen to the Takacs Quartet’s classic accounts of Haydn for a few pointers on musical style.

Although I am a huge Dave Brubeck fan, I must admit that I didn’t have a clue that Michael Jackson had collaborated with him on a new piece using music from Paul Desmond’s Take Five. If Jackson himself made this arrangement, he attributed the wrong composer, but the upshot of it is that this is one of the most delightful pieces on the entire CD. Here Altius is (pardon the trite expression) in their element, giving a nice, loose feeling of swing to the piece, particularly in those moments when Take Five is directly quoted. This is considerably better than their Haydn, almost on the level of the legendary Turtle Island String Quartet.

Interestingly, although their performance of Bolcom’s first rag, Graceful Ghost, has a nice ragtime feel to the rhythm, their treatment seemed to me just a shade over-delicate, as if they were afraid to let go and enjoy themselves. Perhaps their live performances have more spirit to them (sorry about that).

Next up is their reinterpretation of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Since I’m probably the only human being on Planet Earth who never heard this record, I went to YouTube and listened to the original before judging this performance. Needless to say, I found myself suffering through Led Zeppelin’s performance, with a great deal of private eye-rolling. Most of it is a banal tune endlessly repeated with different lyrics in each verse, eventually leading up to the ubiquitous “heavy metal jam” section, which pretty much sounds like what it is. Heavy. Metal. Jam. Think of an explosion in a boiler factory. Mercifully, Altius plays it with much more grace and charm, varying their approach with sections of pizzicato accompaniment and subtle modifications in the melodic line, though there’s not a whole lot you can do with an eight-bar loop that repeats itself ad infinitum. As the performance evolves, however, they perform some really interesting variants in place of the “jam” section, showing that their musicality is far above that of the average heavy metal group (thank goodness). Following this with the second movement of the Haydn quartet was a bit of culture shock, though, and I wonder how their audiences feel about such juxtapositions. This slow movement was, I felt, the least successful because they didn’t seem to have much feel for it beneath the surface of the notes.

Bolcom’s second rag, Poltergeist, is jauntier in rhythm if still (to my ears) a bit held back in feeling. Altius seems to have good instincts but not always the ability to give of themselves in performances of this type of music. That being said, Poltergeist is a more varied and inventive piece than its predecessor, and Altius does seem to enjoy some of its quirky turns of phrase. Immediately following this is the “Menuet” from the Haydn quartet, played in an even jauntier style than Bolcom’s rag. Well done!

The third Bolcom piece, Incineratorag, follows immediately after, and here Altius really unbuttons their vests and gets down and happy with the music. A superb performance, thoroughly enjoyable and fully in the spirit of the music. With Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, we finally reach a rock tune I know (and like), and their performance of it is also splendid. Here were three consecutive tracks of really loose, relaxed, unbuttoned playing by Altius. The last movement of the Haydn quartet is spirited, but alas,not as rhythmically relaxed as their performance of the minuet.

I have to make a second admission, that not only have I never heard Take on Me but I didn’t even know who, or what, A-ha was. I had to look them up on Wikipedia. Apparently they’re a Norwegian rock band. Reflecting on my bad experience in listening to Stairway to Heaven, I took a pass on listening to A-ha’s original version of this tune. Taking Altius’ performance on its own merits, it seemed to me rhythmically stiff and melodically threadbare, but hey, what do I know about this kind of stuff? I like music that is interesting and challenging, not repetitious claptrap.

The back cover inset to this CD only shows 11 tracks, the last being Take On Me, but my download mp3s included a twelfth track, Mack Rice’s Mustang Sally. Like Stand By Me, their performance of it is light and lithe, with plenty of spirit. Personally, I would have made this the official closer of the CD and put Take on Me as the bonus track for download.

All in all, the Altius Quartet is highly skilled and have a nice proclivity for music outside the mainstream. I suppose that their Colorado audiences enjoy the Led Zeppelin and A-ha things more than I did. My gut feeling is that they should specialize in playing jazz-influenced and classic rock pieces and chuck the Haydn overboard. An interesting first release, though.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Fricsay’s “Samson” Deeply Moving

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HANDEL: Samson (abridged, sung in German)/Ernst Häfliger, tenor (Samson); Maria Stader, soprano (Dalila); Marga Höffgen, contralto (Micah); Kim Borg, bass (Manoah); Heinz Rehfuss, bass (Harapha); Maria Reith (Philistine Woman); RIAS-Kammerchor; Chorus of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral; RIAS-Symphony Orchestra; Ferenc Fricsay, conductor / Urania Arts 121.360-2 (live: Berlin, September 18, 1955)

A great many people, myself included, were shocked and saddened when Ferenc Fricsay suddenly retired due to ill health in early 1962 and then died a year later. Many of us saw in him not necessarily a successor to Toscanini, which he thought himself, but certainly one of those conductors who acted as a bridge from the old days of heavy and incorrect performances of standard repertoire (particularly of the Classical era) towards a new leaner, cleaner, more transparent sound without sacrificing emotional intensity. This heavily abridged performance of Handel’s Samson, recorded in one day (!) at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik on September 18, 1955, is issued here for the first time ever.

There are some obvious reasons why it was held back from issue on LPs. First and foremost is its abridgment. Particularly during the stereo LP era, which came about just three years after this performance was recorded, it would surely have put off a great many record buyers. So too would its performance in German instead of English. We were nearing the end of the era when operas and oratorios were performed in the vernacular of the country in which they were given (America, as usual, excepted), but we weren’t quite there yet. Indeed, one of Fricsay’s last public appearances was a performance of Don Giovanni at the Berlin opera in September 1961, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role, and it, too, was in German. The Germans and the Russians were among the last to cling to this tradition, not letting go until the late 1960s.

But the true test of any performance of any music, regardless of era, sound quality and/or the forces used, is its ability to transcend the printed page and move the listener, and I am here to tell you that this is by far the greatest performance of Samson I’ve ever heard. But what about Karl Richter’s “classic” complete recording with Alexander Young, Martina Arroyo and others? Beautifully sung, but too weighty in orchestral sound and too slow. Nikolaus Harnoncourt? Also too slow. Raymond Leppard? Too romantic in style. And all the HIP performances, including Gardiner’s, sound absolutely punk. Not only are they too thin in orchestral and choral sound, but the solo singers range from just tolerable to dismal…especially the tenors singing Samson. I certainly won’t claim that Swiss tenor Ernst Häfliger could give Edward Lloyd or Tudor Davies a run for their money, but he’s surely better than wobbly Mark Padmore and the rest of those teeny-voiced whiners who represent Samson on modern recordings. Plus, Häfliger has something that none of the others except Young possessed, and that is heart. He sings “Total eclipse,” positioned here third in the first act instead of in 14th place as it is supposed to be, with as much soul as I’ve heard from any tenor not named Jon Vickers. He is flat out stupendous in the role.

Moreover, Fricsay manages to maintain a consistency of musical vision from start to finish that is both musically taut and deeply felt. Being a live performance, it captures the conductor at his best. Fricsay, like his predecessor Toscanini, always gave more of himself and modified his tempos with more elasticity in live performances.

Judging from the sound, the orchestra seems to be comprised of about 40 to 50 musicians, and although the basses sound a little thick to modern ears there’s really not much else to complain of. Fricsay uses Baroque trumpets and a harpsichord in place of a fortepiano. In short, he at least simulates the sound and quality of a Baroque orchestra, certainly to a far greater degree of fidelity than one hears nowadays from most HIP orchestras. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear singers like basso Kim Borg, who didn’t always sing this repertoire, perform with the necessary flexibility in their coloratura runs. Moreso than in “bel canto” operas, florid runs and trills in Baroque music were meant to signify great excitement and/or anguish, and Borg sings his difficult aria “Thy glorious deeds inspir’d my tongue” with superb flexibility for so large a voice. Maria Stader, one of Fricsay’s favorite sopranos, sounds far more involved here than in any other recording in which I’ve heard her. The echo effects that she and Maria Reith achieve in their duet “My faith and truth” are as beautiful as I’ve ever heard from any singers in any material. And in the great baritone showpiece, “Honour and arms,” Heinz Rehfuss does as splendid a job as the great Peter Dawson, which is quite a compliment.

In short, this is a deeply moving performance, historically accurate in terms of the performing forces and fairly close to the right style, and to be honest I am more than willing to let the extra hour-plus of missing music go in exchange for this powerful dramatic experience. One small moment that sums up the whole experience: in Act III, Micah has a recitative titled “With might endured above the sons of men.” Just listen to the sweep and drive that Fricsay gives to this music: it’s almost like a mini-tidal wave. With drama like that, who needs wimpy white-toned strings and hooty countertenors? I sure don’t. And the choral singing is to die for. It sounds like the Voice of God. Only one caveat: the CD back insert claims this recording is in stereo, but it is not. It is good quality German radio studio mono.

Well, I’ve laid out my case for this recording. If you agree with what I wrote, you need to go out and grab it. If you don’t, you’re more than welcome to Mark Padmore and whatever hooty countertenors are singing with him.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Walton’s “Façade” In A Lively New Reading

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WALTON: Façade / Carole Boyd, Zeb Soanes, reciters; Ensemble directed by John Wilson / 1955 BBC Home Service interview with Dame Edith Sitwell / Orchid Classics ORC100067

Sometimes art can be fun, but only when the creators of that art are 1) immensely talented (not a prerequisite nowadays) and 2) see eye-to-eye on what it is they’re creating. Such was the case with Façade, an “entertainment” concocted in 1921 by 19-year-old composer William Walton and 34-year-old poet Edith Sitwell.

When you listen to Façade for the first time, you’re not really quite sure what’s going on. Some of the lines of poetry make sense, sometimes an entire poem makes sense, but most of the time it’s just nonsense rhymes. You also can’t quite figure out of the music was written to fit the words or vice-versa. But perhaps most of all, it’s hard to fathom how the hell this thing came about in the first place.

Actually, Edith Sitwell, part of a remarkably eccentric British family with her equally off-center brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, had been writing and publishing the nonsense poems later used in Façade as early as 1918. Somehow or other, she got the teenage Walton interested in setting 21 of them to music, the plan being to have two recitants shout the poems out through megaphones (microphones then being in their infancy and not available for home use) from behind a curtain while the band played. A trial performance was given at the Sitwell home in January 1922. The first public performance was given at Aeolian Hall in London in June 1923. Neither audiences nor critics knew what to make of it; half the time they couldn’t even understand a single word being yelled through the megaphones. One commentator said that Sitwell should be “shut up somewhere,” evidently referring to an insane asylum.

Facade 1921

Edith Sitwell, right, and an unidentified reciter, here using a highway traffic cone in place of a megaphone!

And yet the score was sufficiently attractive and colorful—using a small ensemble based on then-current jazz bands, and employing rhythms borrowed from early jazz—that it stayed in people’s minds and slowly but surely came to be understood…once the reciters spoke the poems through microphones, and particularly when it was finally recorded in December 1929. That first recording featured recitation by Sitwell and Constant Lambert, with the small orchestra conducted by Walton himself.

Alas, the coming of the Depression somehow pushed poor Façade to the side. Sitwell made another recording of it in 1947, reciting all the poems herself. In 1954 Sitwell and famous English tenor Peter Pears were the reciters in a famous Decca recording conducted by Anthony Collins. This has since been considered the “classic” Façade recording, the benchmark by which all others are judged.

But then came the 1960s, the Hippie Era, and “Happenings” of the kind that spawned Façade were again popular. In 1965 the American Decca label released a splendid recording of the work narrated by actress Hermione Gingold and countertenor Russell Oberlin. Thomas Dunn provided sparkling accompaniment, surely the best since Walton’s own original recording. Two years later, in English, we got the very first performance of the work by legitimate jazz musicians. Johnny Dankworth’s jazz band played the music with the recitation by his wife, Cleo Laine, and fellow jazz singer Annie Ross. Both recordings helped revive interest in the work. In the 1970s there were several other recordings, including one by eccentric mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian with conductor Giorgio Bernasconi and a very famous one by Tony Randall and Arthur Fiedler. A great deal of publicity and hubbub pushed the latter recording, but I’ve never liked it because Randall just shouted all the poems at the top of his lungs. Granted, this is how it probably sounded in its original incarnation, but more than a half-century had made listeners accustomed to subtler and more relaxed readings.

A problem arises when reading the poems aloud, because Edith Sitwell made it clear that she wanted them read without inflection and without a hint of their being “sung” on specific pitches. I mention this because three of the legitimate singers who recorded it, Pears, Oberlin and Berberian, did indeed give the suggestion of carrying over certain words on the beat with a singer’s legato, and with both Gingold and Laine (the latter also an actress in addition to being a singer) there was indeed a certain amount of interpretation given to the readings. But as I’ve pointed out many times in the course of this blog, performance practices change with time. We no longer sing French opera or chanson with zero interpretation, and we no longer perform Façade like that, either.

The present recording starts out a bit stiffly—both the “Fanfare” and the opening poem, “Hornpipe,” are a bit self-conscious to my ears—but as soon as Carole Boyd enters near the end of the latter, she loosens things up and from then on, the performance is an utter and complete delight.

Wait…did I just say that Carole Boyd “enters near the end” of a poem? Indeed I did, and this is the novelty of this recorded performance. Both reciters not only split the poems but more often than not perform together on most of them. Boyd speaks the lines attributed to a girl or a woman while Soanes speaks the lines attributed to a man. Sometimes, as in “Old Sir Faulk,” they seem to be splitting the poem up just for the fun of it. Between the two of them, Boyd is surely having the most fun. In fact, I can’t recall a female reciter giving such a loose, relaxed performance since Laine and Ross. She absolutely revels in the swaggering rhythms, and in doing so she pulls Soanes and conductor John Wilson along with her.

Yet the real treasure of this issue is the inclusion of the seldom-heard 1955 radio interview that Sitwell gave with Lionel Hale, Margaret Lane and Paul Dehn. Edith talks about her creative work, her eccentric appearance (“It’s completely natural, the way the skin of the panther is natural,” saying that her ornate brocaded clothing and huge rings were “the way I was born”) and other such topics. One thing you had to say about all the Sitwells, they loved being the centers of attention! Edith comes across as the kind of person who seemed to be a fun person to know on the surface, but underneath was a rather prickly personality.

Before closing out this review, I should mention that a sequel, Façade 2, was created from the poems and music they collaborated on in 1921-22 but not used in the original entertainment or its definitive score edition in 1951 (they first appeared in Walton’s 1975 Façade Revisited and then as Façade 2). This hasn’t been performed much at all, although Susana Walton, Richard Baker and the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Richard Hickox recorded it along with the original Façade. Neither the music nor the poems are nearly as memorable, but there are some gems in there. All in all, I really loved this recording for its spirit, its unusual approach, and especially for Edith’s interview.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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