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.

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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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Tansman’s Ballets Beautifully Performed in New Release

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TANSMAN: Sextour, Ballet-Bouffe.* Bric à Brac: Ballet en 3 Tableaux+ / Polish Radio Symphony Orchesrea; *Łukasz Borowicz, +Wojiech Michniewski, conductors . CPO 777987-2

Alexander Tansman was always a sort of “musician’s favorite” composer, seldom a mainstream name, and this situation hasn’t changed much over the decades. Here are two of his superbly crafted if obscure ballet scores, superbly played by the Polish Radio Symphony under the direction of two of its outstanding conductors, both of whom have received praise from me in the past.

The first piece, Sextuor, Ballet-Bouffe, is based on the surrealist story of Alexandre Arnoux in which a violin and a cello vie for the love of a flute. The characters are other musical instruments, which excited the young Tansman, and the notes tell us that this 1923 ballet was one of Tansman’s few international successes, making him famous. The score is extraordinarily colorful and, even better, highly creative. Although this is music for dancing, nothing in it is rhythmically predictable. Indeed, even when the violin and cello enter as characters, Tansman keeps the music shifting in tempo and mood, exploiting various colors. One superb example of his imagination is the whimsical trombone solo, accompanied by an almost extroverted kettledrum; another is the succeeding passage, in which a solo clarinet leads us into a riotous orchestral outburst before the love interest, the flute, enters the scene—accompanied by a wry comment from the trombone. Much of the middle portion of the ballet, in fact, is slow, almost Romantic in feeling, but by using a sparse orchestral texture and fluid changes of tonality Tansman succeeds in keeping it from sounding goopy or maudlin. Apparently the whole orchestra gets all het up over this love triangle, for this section is followed by a segment played in strong march tempo with staccato trumpets pitted against the rest of the orchestra which has apparently lost its way to the home key. Eventually they find it, yet the violins plays a wild series of up-and-down arpeggios in A while the French horns and the flute are involved in the key of C, later subtly morphing into F. The lucid and lively conducting of Borowicz is evident throughout this piece.

tansman_05The Bric à Brac Ballet en 3 Tableaux was written considerably later, in 1935. The plot for his work seems to be rather obscure; the director of the Paris Grand Opéra wanted to have it set “between stalls of wood and corrugated iron at a flea market near the Porte de Clignancourt for a premiere during the 1939/40 season.” Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War II put off its actual premiere until 1958. This is more seasoned Tansman, equally original in his musical expression and sense of orchestral color without being quite as wildly imaginative as he had been in 1923. He is still adept at shifting moods and tempi, and the occasional lively episodes show a continued imaginative use of orchestration (in some places reminiscent of Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet). Although presented on the CD in a single track, the score is broken up into 14 scenes, and there are moments here where Tansman suggests his newfound love of jazz (he wrote a Blues and a jazz-tingled Piano Sonatine “Transatlantique” as well), particularly the section beginning at 9:42 that sounds for all the world like a paraphrase of the second movement of the Gershwin Piano Concerto. Yet another Gershwinesque reference comes in at the 21:50 mark. The orchestration here is richer but the tonality a bit more conventional. Because of its greater length, however—36 minutes as compared to Sextuour’s 18—Tansman was able to stretch out his ideas more and work them in a more thorough, if also more conventional, manner.

None of which is to suggest that Bric à Brac is in any way inferior to the Sextuor, merely different in scope and scale. The same whimsical musical mind is clearly at work here: note the jolly French-sounding tune played by the clarinets at the 14:20 mark, which sounds for all the world like 20th-century Offenbach and develops in a most interesting manner. Also, when he re-introduces his Gershwinisms after 21:50, Tansman plays havoc with the rhythms, breaking them up and redistributing them in comical ways. It’s just that he chose to be a bit more formal here than he was in 1923. Michniewski gives as fine a performance of this ballet as Borowicz does of the earlier.

One of the odd things about this release is that the two pieces were recorded 12 years apart, Bric à Brac in 2001 and the Sextuor in 2014. My guess is that CPO intended to do a Tansman release way back in the early years of the new century, got Bric à Brac on tape, and then ran out of money and/or interest until Borowicz came along and recorded the Sextuor. Such are the realities of classical recording in the new era, and what makes it ironic is that when the first recording was made physical CDs were still a major force on the market, whereas now, for reasons still unclear to me, most music lovers prefer hearing classical music played on crappy little speakers or “ear buds” on their electronic “devices.” Just another piece of evidence, if such were needed, that we live in a degenerate and disposable culture. Nothing is permanent, not even the best in music. C’est la vie!

Bottom line: If you’ve been previously unaware of Tansman, this is a great place to start, and if you know some of his music but have never heard these ballets you need to get this disc.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Penetrating the Dark Musical Mind of Roslavets

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ROSLAVETS: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 2 & 5. 3 Compositions: I. Adagio; II. Agitato con passione; III. Allegretto grazioso. Prélude (1915). 2 Sochineniya (Compositions): I. Très modéré; II. Lent. 2 Poems. 3 Études. 5 Préludes. Berceuse. Danse. Valse (reconstructed by M. Lobanova). Prélude (reconstructed by M. Lobanova). from 4 Compositions: Prélude; Poème / Olga Andryushchenko, pianist / Grand Piano GP743-44

Despite the fact that Sonatas Nos. 3 & 4 are missing, this set is advertised as the complete piano music of the obscure Nikolay Roslavets (1881-1944), who Stravinsky called “The most interesting Russian composer of the 20th century.”

Because he is such an obscure and controversial figure, some detail must be given on his background. This in itself is difficult because Roslavets published three completely different autobiographies! In the 1924 version he deliberately misrepresented his own life to prevent attacks by the “Proletarian Musician” faction in the Soviet Union. But there are also different accounts of his birthplace, one saying that he was born in Dushatyn to a family of peasants whereas he was actually born the son of a Ukrainian railway clerk in Surazh, now in Bryansk Oblast. During the 1910s he became enchanted by the late music of Alexander Scriabin and his “mystic chord”; despite having Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov as his composition teacher, he turned to the mystical music of Scriabin as his starting-point. Upon graduating in 1912, he won a silver medal for his cantata Heaven and Earth, inspired by Byron’s verse drama.

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Roslavets c. 1920

During the 1910s his compositions were published in Russian Futurist journals, and some “futurist” artists designed covers for his music. After the Bolshevik Revolution he became a prominent public exponent of “leftist art,” and a friend of Arthur Lourié, Kazimir Malevich, Vsevolod Meyerhold and others (pace Wikipedia). He taught violin and composition in Elets, Khariv (then known as Kharkov) and Moscow. He was also a musicologist and editor of the arts journal Muzykalnaya Kultura, fighting for the best in Russian, Western classical and New Music and criticizing “vulgar identifications of music with ideology” in his article On Pseudo-Proletarian Music. Because he wrote the first Russian article about Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, he was viciously attacked during the 1920s by the “proletariat musician” movement, particularly by representatives of “Prokoll,” the Productive Collective of the Students of the Moscow Conservatory. This led to his being branded “counter-revolutionary” and bourgeois, “alien to the proletariat” and a formalist “class enemy.” During the late 1920s and ‘30s, he was given the worst insult of the time, being accused of being a Trotskyite. In 1930 he was even banned from getting a political editorial position for two years and banished to Uzbekistan where he worked at the Musical Theater in Tashkent. After moving back to Moscow in 1933, he eked out a living giving piano and violin lessons and doing menial labor. A target of political purges, he never again obtained a good position in the Soviet Union. In 1938 he suffered a stroke, and in 1944 he died.

Musically speaking, Roslavets came out of the Scriabin style with his own musical “system of sound organization” which regulated the 12-tone chromatic scale. He developed “synthetic chords” of six to nine tones, expanding his system during the 1920s to encompass counterpoint, rhythm, and musical form while elaborating new principles of teaching. In his later years, however, he simplified his style somewhat, being more influenced by folk material.

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Roslavets in the late 1930s

Listening to his piano scores from the early years, the Scriabin influence is quite extensive, yet in terms of the form and direction of his music it sounds nothing like Scriabin, who always remained tied to a more lyrical system of music. Roslavets’ scores almost sound like a German equivalent of Scriabin, with thick, heavy chords and a monotonous rhythm. All the expression of his music was in the melodic and harmonic direction, even in short pieces like the 1915 Prélude (which sounds more like a lament or a dirge), the 3 Compositions and the 2 Compositions. Pianist Andryuschchenko describes his music as being a combination of “fire and ice,” and that is an apt description of his pieces. The music doesn’t flow so much as it drifts, and this drifting is almost consistently dark in color and mood. Dissonances do not resolve themselves, as in Scriabin, but either remain unresolved or morph into other unresolved dissonances. The first of his 2 Poems simply ends on an unresolved single note F, repeated twice, that simply stops the piece in the middle of nowhere. So too does the second Piano sonata, this time on a C.

Incidentally, if you think his piano music is rather strange and wild, you should hear his orchestral works. Go to YouTube and type in “Roslavets – Komsomoliya,” click on the link and be prepared for one of the wildest rides of your life. This is like Scriabin on acid! Of course, he also had his tender side, as evidenced by the Nocturne and the Violin Concerto No. 1, but returning to his piano music and listening to the sonata No. 2 one is again plunged into a world of darkness in which no light can penetrate. Peering into Roslavets’ mind is a scary experience because there is no way out of his musical mazes. They are complete and impenetrable.

Although every piece on CD 1 was previously recorded, CD 2 presents a handful of previously unrecorded works: the Berceuse, Danse, Valse (reconstructed by Lobanova), Prelude (ditto) and excerpts from the 4 Compositions. Although none of Roslavets’ piano compositions are in his later style—the latest work here is the Piano Sonata No. 5 of 1923—there is a discernible change in his use of rhythms in his post-1917 music. These pieces are livelier in pace and have more forward momentum than his earlier music, and the piano writing is occasionally ornate. In addition, the consistently dark mood of the earlier works is now occasionally leavened, for instance in the 5 Préludes of 1919-22 where, as the notes point out, he “composes using barely discernible gradations of time and movement… His point of departure is microthemes, microdynamics, microfacture, microarticulation.”

Andryuschchenko’s playing is rich-toned and evocative. She does her best to pull the music together and in most cases succeeds, even in those pieces where Roslavets subverts her intentions with ambiguous form and drifting harmonies. Overall, my impression of his piano music is that it is extremely complex and interesting, but not always communicative. The listener, for instance, will have a hard time hearing a waltz or a berceuse in those pieces marked as such, and the continual harmonic ambiguity, without much in the way of resolution, makes it rather wearing on the listener. In short, most of these pieces, depending on the era and style, tend to sound very much alike, yet one is occasionally riveted by the cleverness and complexity of his style. My advice would be to take him in small doses, and to leaven his piano music with his orchestral and chamber works like the String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3. These will give you a different side of Roslavets and break up the monotony of his dissonant knots of music that make up each of his piano works. Perhaps the persecution he suffered in his lifetime had something to do with his style, which seemed to be defiant to the point of stubbornness. He had a lot to offer, but also a tendency to ramble. Recommended for its creating mood if not for aesthetic appeal.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Ravel’s “L’Heure Espagnole” Gets Sparkling New Reading

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RAVEL: L’Heure Espagnole / Gaëlle Arquez, mezzo-soprano (Concepción); Julien Behr, tenor (Gonzalve); Mathias Vidal, tenor (Torquemada); Alexandre Duhamel, baritone (Ramiro); Lionel Lhote, baritone (Don Iñigo Gomez); Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Asher Fisch, conductor / CHABRIER: España / Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Asher Fisch, conductor / BR Klassik 900317 (live: Munich, April 24, 2016)

Maurice Ravel’s one-act comedy L’Heure Espagnole hasn’t had a lot of recordings—I count only six in the current catalog, the most famous of which are Ernest Ansermet’s venerable performance with Suzanne Danco as Concepcion and Lorin Maazel’s supposedly classic account with Jane Berbié, Michel Sénechal and Gabriel Bacquier—thus this entry is very welcome. For those unfamiliar with it, the opera is set in 18th century Toledo, Spain, where the clockmaker Torquemada, on his rounds to tend to the municipal clocks, is cheated on by his rather randy wife Concepcion. The gag is that two of her lovers (Gonsalve and Don Iñigo Gomez) are hiding in large cabinet-sized clocks, and she ends up making love with the poor muleteer Ramiro who had just stopped by to have his watch fixed before Torquemada went out on his rounds.

Listening to this performance after hearing excerpts of the Maazel recording shows an entirely different style. Whereas Maazel’s conducting is all smoothness and elegance, Asher Fisch emphasizes the music’s rhythmic elements, bringing out far more detail in the orchestration and much livelier interpretations out of his singers. Of course, the latter signifies a significant shift in performance style of French vocal music, a shift that began in the early 1950s with the performances of Gérard Souzay, Nicolai Gedda, Rita Gorr and Gabriel Bacquier, then continued through the work of Huguette Tourangeau, Janet Baker and Régine Crespin. It was a shift (which had been gradually inching that way for a couple of decades) away from just singing the words “straight,” with no inflections or interpretation (in French chanson as well as in opera) to more of a style of acting with the voice. When Maazel’s recording was made in 1965, only Bacquier was in the new style of singing-actor. In this live performance, everyone is in the swing of things, and the result is one of the most delightful and entertaining performances I’ve ever heard.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that all of the singers have splendid voices, although our Gonsalve (one of Concepcion’s lovers), Julien Behr, is a little rough in his first entrance (his voice smooths out as he warms up). In addition, they all have crystal-clear diction, which helps enormously. I’m not sure if it’s a performance that Ravel would have approved—when it premiered in 1907, just three years after Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande—the old French style of singing was still very much in force—but I can’t imagine that anyone listening today wouldn’t enjoy it.

Indeed, as the opera progressed I became more and more enamored of the music and its performance. Fisch brings so much color and detail out of the orchestration that it’s almost like having a 3-D image of the score. You hear things you may not even have known were in there, little moments where a bassoon or a muted trombone is heard in the background texture. This may not sound like much, but if you listen to the recording carefully I think you’ll be as spellbound as I was. “Standard repertoire” fans probably won’t like it very much, largely because there’s really only one aria in the opera, Ramiro’s “Voilà!…Et maintenant, Señora,” unless you count Concepcion’s succeeding strophic monologue “Oh! la pitoyable aventure!,” but I absolutely loved it. Even at this early stage of his career, Ravel’s music was lively and colorful, and here he did a splendid job in matching the rhythms of the words to music, creating a score that flows remarkably well. The final scene, in which the solo singers’ voices overlap each other in a syncopated passage in which the rhythm seems to flow backwards, is especially well done.

All recordings of this opera have a filler, since it only runs about 47 minutes. Fisch has chosen another Spanish-influenced piece by a French composer, Emanuel Chabrier’s well-known chestnut España. It makes a nice if somewhat odd closer to the opera performance. I didn’t find it quite as lively as Leonard Slatkin’s live performance on YouTube, but it gets better (and brisker) as the performance goes on.

All in all, this is a splendid recording and performance, possibly a new benchmark for this poor little neglected gem of an opera.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Re-Evaluating Maud Powell

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Sometimes you inadvertently overlook an artist because of a bad first impression. This was my experience, and my error, in regards to violinist Maud Powell. Yes, I knew that she was the first American violinist—and certainly the first American female—to be considered on a par with such European giants as Ysaÿe, Kubelik and Kreisler. But the bulk of her recording activity, sad to say, leaned too much in the direction of effluvia: short pieces, encores and bonbons, all of which proved that she could play the violin but none of which showed her as a great artist.

Now mind you, such pieces formed the bulk of Kreisler’s output, too, but Fritz Kreisler had a way of playing those pieces, gently nudging the beat along with Viennese charm, that he was able to overcome this; and he lived long enough to actually record some substantial works, i.e. Grieg, Beethoven and Schubert sonatas with Rachmaninov, the complete Beethoven and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos, and even the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas (with Franz Rupp). Plus, he wrote a large number of well-crafted and popular short pieces himself and participated in a long-running and artistically successful series of duets—many of them of Rachmaninov songs—with tenor John McCormack.

But Maud Powell, who died on January 8, 1920 at the relatively young age of 52, had no complete concerto or sonata recordings to her name, and most of the short pieces she recorded—aside from Humoresque, the Schubert Ave Maria and the Offenbach Barcarolle (the latter, in my view, not much of anything when played on the violin)—were of incredibly banal music. Just look over the titles:

St. Patrick’s Day
Souvenir
Silver Threads Among the Gold
At the Brook
Annie Laurie
Little Firefly
Molly on the Shore
To Spring
The Little Red Lark
Ben Bolt
Deep River
Slavonic Cradle Song
Arkansas Traveler
Have Pity, Sweet Eyes!
Adoration
Petite Valse
Love’s Delight
Song of India

And even some of those titles that looked interesting—like “Fifth Nocturne”—turned out to be rubbish. Thus it was very hard for me to think of Powell as a great artist.

But then I ran across some recordings on YouTube that really opened my ears, particularly the finale from the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Recorded with piano in one take in 1904, it is a performance of such vigor and, more importantly, dazzling precision of fingering and bowing, that it literally blew me away. That’s when I started searching for other “better” Powell recordings and came up with a fairly impressive list of titles:

  1. François Schubert: The Bee / Chopin: Minute Waltz (May 29, 1909) B-4671-3
  2. Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen (abridged) (June 20, 1916) B-11149-4
  3. Thomas: Mignon – Gavotte (arr. Sarasate) (June 24, 1914) B-15000-1
  4. Bach: Violin Sonata in E, II. Allegro (June 6, 1916) B-17805-1
  5. Bach: Violin Sonata in E, IV. Presto (same date) B-17806-1
  6. Sibelius: Valse Triste (June 24, 1914) C-14999-1
  7. Vieuxtemps: Polonaise (May 20, 1909) B-1899-2
  8. Mozart: Divertimento No. 17 – Minuet (June 11, 1907) B-4668-1
  9. Chopin: The Maiden’s Wish (arr. Francis MacMillen) (June 7, 1917) C-20024-2 [portion]
  10. Alexander Zarzycki: Mazurka (May 20, 1909) B-7097-2
  11. Émile Sauret: Will O’ the Wisp [Farfalla], Op. 40 No. 3 (June 6, 1916) C-9008-4
  12. Massenet: Thaïs – Intermezzo (May 19, 1909) C-7098-1
  13. Jean-Marie Leclair: Tambourin (June 18, 1915) B-16108-2
  14. Jenó Hubay: Hejre Kati Scenes de la Czardas (September 27, 1912) C-12427-1
  15. Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E min., III. Finale (Presto) (November 8, 1904) C-1911-1

Tracks 2, 4, 5, 11: Arthur Loesser, pianist. All others: George Falkenstein, pianist

It is in these recordings that some of Powell’s greatness can be heard. The bad: she , like every other violinist of her time, used portamento as a means of expression. This was a device that went back to the 18th century, and was then still considered an important part of a violinist’s (and singer’s) art, but of course the advent of violinists like Szigeti and Heifetz eventually led to its demise. Yet if you look past that, you’ll hear a remarkably expressive artist who took great pains to play everything in her repertoire with feeling and care.

Powell The BeeWe can decry the fact that she didn’t live long enough to make complete concerto recordings. I would especially have liked to hear her play the Sibelius Concerto, which she premiered in America, and which the composer himself heard her play and gratefully approved, as well as the Dvořák Concerto, which she gave the world premiere of under the composer’s baton. But we can hear some of her artistry in such short pieces as the Sibelius Valse Triste, Chopin’s The Maiden’s Wish and two pieces that are much better than the titles suggest, Zarzycki’s Mazurka and Émile Sauret’s Will O’ the Wisp. Even Francois Schubert’s The Bee is given a serious, virtuoso performance. And then there are the second and fourth movements of J.S. Bach’s third Violin & Keyboard Sonata. These show an artist taking infinite care in her phrasing and at least trying to perform in the correct style, and she does a very fine job.

We may still feel a bit cheated in not being able to hear Powell in her best repertoire, and not very much of it. But I think if you come at least halfway towards her and try to hear the genius in her playing, you will indeed hear it. Here is the link to cleaned-up reproductions of each of the tracks listed above.

You may or may not hear what I hear in the recordings of Maud Powell, but I would at least ask you to give her a chance. I think your patience will be rewarded. Her bow and fingering technique was second only to the amazing Pable de Sarasate, and her interpretive skill second only to Bronislaw Huberman.

The one thing that still puzzles me, though, is why on earth Victor—which had a ton of great singers on its roster—never paired her with a famous singer. Jan Kubelik recorded with Nellie Melba; Kreisler recorded with McCormack; Mischa Elman with Caruso; but not one singer bothered to record with Maud Powell. I wonder why!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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New Richter Release of Live Schumann

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R. SCHUMANN: Novelettes, Op. 21 Nos. 1 & 2. Fantasie in C, Op. 17. Liederkreis: Mit myrten und Rosen.* Piano Quintet in E-flat.+ C. SCHUMANN: Er ist gerkommen in Sturm und Regen* / Sviatoslav Richter, pianist; *Nina Dorliac, soprano; +Borodin String Quartet / Doremi DHR-7786 (recorded in studio, Moscow, 1950 [C. Schumann song]; live: Bucharest, 1948 [R. Schumann song]; Dubrovnik, August 15, 1967 {Novelettes]; Budapest, June 12, 1980 [Fantasie]; Moscow, December 31, 1985 [Quintet])

This latest entry in Doremi’s series of live Richter performances, numbered Vol. 7, centers around the music of Robert Schumann except for one song by his wife Clara. Both the Piano Quintet and the Fantasie are released here for the first time ever, while the two songs with Richter’s long-rime partner, soprano Nina Dorliac, see their first CD issue here.

Sometimes you really have to feel sorry for most of these Soviet-era musicians. Stuck in a totalitarian state, the likes of which the new American Left is desperately trying to force on our own country today, Richter had little opportunity to actually play the piano professionally until he was 19 or 20 years old, he didn’t study at a conservatory until he was 23, and he didn’t get to perform in Western countries until 1958, by which time he was 43 years old. Happily he was well enough known behind the Iron Curtain to be recorded as early as 1948. He also lived long enough to have a splendid career in the West, and was lucky enough to survive the collapse of the Soviet Union as well.

Richter’s aesthetic was of a kind not much in favor nowadays. He was a steel-fingered virtuoso who played the piano like the crashing of two trains on the same track, but unlike Vladimir Horowitz, who was a virtuoso first and foremost, Richter tried hard to be a sensitive artist. He modified his steel-fingered approach to match the character of each composer, and I was surprised to learn on Wikipedia that he was a lifelong lover of opera and vocal music. Even in his most tender moments he would never be confused for such coloristic pianists as Cortot or Cherkassky, but his tenderness always seemed to come as a surprise to those who only “heard” the steel-fingered virtuoso. Thus, in the Novelettes, one hears an aggressive keyboard approach that takes no prisoners—perhaps a bit heavy for this music—mixed with moments of great tenderness. Richter always “bound” his phrases lyrically, no matter how strong the keyboard attack, but he used very little pedal. In this respect his playing was, curiously, very close in approach to that of Benjamin Britten, whose own pianistic skills were vastly underrated.

It may come as a shock to those who never saw Richter in concert that he was an incredibly shy, almost introverted performer. He detested being photographed while playing and also tried, to the best of his ability, to block all unauthorized recording or filming of his concerts. Most of the time, especially in his later years, he played with the house lights dimmed, his sheet music illuminated only by a tiny lamp at the top of the music stand. Not everything he did was perfect or among the best of all performances of that specific music, but he tried to be a sincere artist every time he touched the keyboard.

Of the performances on this CD, only the Clara Schumann song with soprano Nina Dorliac is a studio recording. The Robert Schumann song comes from a live performance in 1950, although both songs are issued here for the first time on CD. Both the Fantaisie and the Quintet are released here for the first time ever, which means that only the 1967 Novelettes have been previously released on CD.

Dorliac & Richter c. 1950

The Fantasie performance, from 1980, found him in a particularly felicitous mood. Even at his most stentorian, his piano sings and exults in the music, and the digital sonics make his playing sound a bit warmer than usual. I was particularly interested to hear the songs because I had never ever heard, or heard of, Nina Dorliac before. She had a very pretty soubrette voice, very expressive; a shame that she sang in Russian instead of German, but you can’t have everything.

Despite its 1985 performance date, the sonics on the Quintet are quite rough, making the piano sound boxy and the strings surprisingly scrappy. Undoubtedly this was one of those performances recorded secretly without Richter’s knowledge or permission, so we should be grateful that we have it at all. It’s a very fine performance, ebullient and forceful as one would expect, surprisingly so in the third movement,  although I personally prefer the wonderful recording by pianist Joyce Yang and the Alexander String Quartet on Foghorn Classics.

All in all, a bit of a mixed bag, as one would expect when live performances heretofore unknown surface. I particularly loved the Fantasie and the songs, and portions of the quintet were very well conceived and executed. The choice is yours.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Telemann’s Flute Fantasies Remarkable, Fascinating

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TELEMANN: 12 Fantasias for Flute Without Bass, TWV 40:2-13 / François Lazarevitch, flautist / Alpha Classics 267

Here’s a new recording of Telemann’s flute Fantasias, certainly among his most creative and remarkable pieces, and what makes them so remarkable is that he applied to the flute the same principles that J.S. Bach applied to the solo violin and cello, i.e., it is music in which the solo instrument creates its own counterpoint and accompaniment.

But not everyone approaches this music the same way. Several flautists, obsessed with the melodic quality of this music, de-emphasize the contrapuntal elements; this is how Claire Guimond performs them on Analekta FL23084: Guimond plays the flute very nicely but in a safe, preditable style. Her emphasis is beauty of tone, not variety of sound or emphasis on counterpoint. All the rhythms are “regular,” meaning that the quarter and eighth notes all balance out in a regular metric pattern. By contrast, Lazarevitch employs more rubato in his phrasing, making the quarter and eighth notes sound a bit irregular in meter. He also plays around with the rests, giving the music some space in the middle of a busy phrase in eighths. This gives the music much more the feeling of fantasy, meaning a liberality of pulse that makes the listening experience far more interesting. This is also, if you read the accounts of music critics of the time, an appropriate style of playing Baroque music. The word “baroque” means “ornate,” and it was often considered the mark of a great artist to “break up” the rhythm in an irregular manner in order to make the music more interesting. This was an art that was lost by the late 1930s, when music-making became more and more rhythmically strict and regulated, and it was not really revived until the 1970s in the work of such musicians as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Reinhard Goebel, Gustav Leonhardt and a few others. And then, they were kicked to the curb as the British HIP musicians moved in, took over, and forced everyone back into a strict time-beating manner of playing and conducting.

Playing the Fantasias in this manner also allows the listener to discern the different movements within each piece (the first Fantasia is only 3:22, but all the others range between four and six and a quarter minutes) more clearly, and the ear also allows one to discover relationships between those movements. One also hears remarkable touches, such as the chromatic glisses in the third Fantasia or Telemann’s interesting manner of combining elements of German, French, Italian and even Polish music. Indeed, in the middle of the Fantasia No. 5 in C, one hears a couple of real Irish jigs! The way Lazarevitch plays these pieces they are fun to listen to, and I’m all for enjoying the music I hear. Interestingly, I immediately recognized the opening melody of the Fantasia in G (the eleventh), which is probably the most well-known of the set.

One of the few detriments of this release is that Lazarevitch’s flute is absolutely swimming in a sea of echo. This is one of the banes of modern classical recordings, a tendency to overdo the reverb. Once in a while it helps us appreciate the way Telemann bounced his counterpoint off the melodic line, but too often there is a discernible post-echo or feedback that almost makes it sound as if he is playing the notes twice. Yes, of course you can tell the difference, but considering how many modern-day musicians of all genres love to “play off the feedback,” it detracts from what is otherwise an ebullient and well-thought-out performance.

Strictly from a technical standpoint, Lazarevitch seems to emphasize technique over tone quality. I don’t mean to say that his playing is rough, but producing a consistently round, golden tone on the flute isn’t his thing. You often hear him blowing air across the mouthpiece, and he prefers a lean tone to a round one. This doesn’t bother me very much, however, because of his close identification to the music and his stated goal of projecting the different mood of each piece. As he puts it in the liner notes, “Telemann plays on effects of contrast and surprise by switching between opposing characters and tempi.” Not every flautist is on the same high level of a Claude Monteux or a James Galway, able to produce both a beautiful sound and an interesting interpretation, and I always prefer the latter to the former.

Indeed, as the series progresses, one notices all sorts of little minutae and details in the music. Tonal it may be, but it is certainly not unvaried. One such moment comes at about 2:20 in the midst of the Fantasie in D major (track 7), in which Telemann asks the performer to create an echo effect. Interestingly, he does not continue in this vein, but then suddenly at 4:18, there is it again. By using such devices, he keeps the listener off balance.

The twelve Fantasias climb up through the chromatic scale, but not consistently so. The first is in A major, the second A minor, the third B minor, the fourth B-flat major, then C, D min., D, E min., E, F-sharp min., G and G min. And within each key Telemann finds a different means of expression, but of course pitch is relative. Lazarevitch is hung up on so-called “Baroque pitch,” meaning around A=420 or so, which makes each piece sound a half-tone flat to modern ears. I’m still not entirely sure why the hang-up on this. In a world that operates on A-440—and it’s not going to change in a widespread way any time soon—why bother? Is your flute going to blow up if you play these pieces in A=440? It’s an affectation, folks, but only an irritant to those who have “perfect pitch” (perfect, again, being relative to A=440).

I’m not normally drawn to Baroque music for its own sake, nor really to music for solo flute, but this is quite an extraordinary album despite the few caveats noted above.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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