Weinberg’s Piano Quintet & String Quartet No. 7 in New Recordings

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WEINBERG (WAJNBERG): String Quartet No. 7 in C. Piano Quintet in F minor / Silesian Quartet; Piotr Sałajczyk, pianist / Accord ACD239-2

Over the last decade, the music of Miecyszław Weinberg—pronounced, and sometimes spelled, as “VAIN-berg,” or in this case spelled “Wajnberg”—has emerged from nowhere to become established as some of the greatest of the 20th century. It’s not just that his harmonic language was very close to that of his friend, Dmitri Shostakovich, but rather that his way of expressing himself had so much individuality and personality in it. Weinberg’s music touches the heart and moves the emotions as much as it stimulates the mind.

That being said, a release like this strikes me as a bit odd, pairing but one of his 17 String Quartets with the little-recorded Piano Quintet (only six other versions available), although the sales sheet accompanying this release informs us that this is to be the first of a seven-disc series of Weinberg’s music played by this quartet.

The performances are certainly quite fine. Their version of the Quartet No. 7 is certainly on as high a level as that of the Quatuor Danel, in their complete set of the quartets on CPO. In the very opening of the performance, it almost sounded as if the Silesian Quartet were using straight tone, except that I know from past listening that the high, quiet opening of this piece is to be played so lightly that vibrato would be intrusive. As the performance continues, we come to realize that the Silesian players are indeed using a quick, light vibrato, which is fine. Generally speaking, as a group they have a lean sound profile, which aids the listener in hearing the different lines of the music clearly while still maintaining a good ensemble sound in those passages where it is called for, but by and large Weinberg carried on a conversation between his instruments.

When the series is completed, I assure the listener that Silesian’s traversal of the string quartets will rival and possibly even surpass that of Quatour Danel. Just listen to the emotional angst they are able to bring our of the third and last movement of this quartet; it is almost nerve-wracking in its intensity! I’m also very fond of the sound quality, which is crisp and clear, almost in-your-face. I’m so tired of hearing string quartets recorded with too much space or reverb around the instruments.

As for the Piano Quintet, although an early work by Weinberg (Op. 18), it is not lacking in feeling or communication, but it is more of a melancholy piece than a dramatic one. Weinberg cleverly uses the piano in the opening movement as a “commentator” on what the string quartet is playing, rather than a consistently active partner. I found this very interesting; there are long sections in which only the quartet plays, and brief solos for the pianist without the strings. In those few passages where they are all together, the piano part is completely different from what the strings are playing. Occasionally, you hear the piano left hand more strongly, as a sort of basso continuo. It’s absolutely fascinating!

The second movement is even more interesting. Here, Weinberg seems to use all of the instruments in discrete sections, all playing music somewhat different from everyone else’s. Occasionally, the strings come together, but seldom in a harmonious manner; generally, they are fighting one another over who-knows-what. Having never heard this piece before, I can’t really say whether or not the lightweight, almost dispassionate playing of pianist Piotr Sałajczyk is exactly what Weinberg wanted, but it seems to fit into the context of the piece. Once in a while Sałajczyk attacks the keys with a bit more force, but never with much emotion. He is the outside commentator on the strings’ dialogue and/or argument.

The third movement is even odder, a slithering sort of melody in buoyant eighth notes, and here the piano part sparkles and, at times, dominates the scene, but again often divorced from what the strings are playing. Eventually we reach a mad sort of waltz, like a drunken merry-go-round, with the string quartet pushing the piano around like a beach ball on the crest of breaking waves. What a bizarre piece! By contrast the fourth movement, though marked “Largo,” has absolutely no repose about it; rather, it begins loudly, in a stentorian, stomping mood, laying heavily into half notes and eventually becoming a funeral march in E-flat minor before clearing the strings away entirely and allowing the pianist to play a long, meditative solo. For several minutes, we almost forget that this is supposed to be a piano quintet, until such time as the pianist is asked to play repetitive chime chords in E-flat major and the cello comes in for an achingly sad yet beautiful solo melody. When the upper string return, it is to intensify the mood and double the tempo, finally creating typical Weinbergian angst. Almost aggressive pizzicatos emerge as the piano tosses in a few licks that sound almost random in their placement, yet which add to the ongoing sequence. The movement ends quietly, as if in sad desperation.

The fifth and final movement starts as angst-ridden argument, but quickly and unexpectedly evolves into an Irish Jig! I kid you not! Only a composer with the vivif imagination of a Weinberg could have thought of such a thing, let alone executed it with such aplomb. Then, just as suddenly, the music moves into an aggressive 3/4 with the strings playing repetitive notes with aggressive bowing and the piano weaving in and out of their way. It almost sounds like a march to hell…except that, suddenly and unexpectedly, the tempo comes way down, everything turns quiet, and it seems the piece will end that way, except that the repeated bowed chords return (not quite as loudly and aggressively) as the quintet rides off into the sunset.

Put simply, this is a terrific disc. The Quartet No. 7 is fine, but the Piano Quintet is a stunner. You need to hear this album, particularly if you (like me) don’t have the latter piece in your collection.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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NBC Symphony Myths Debunked

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Here are a couple of the worst ones.

No. 1: “The Acoustics Were Perfect”

From p. 97 of Donald Carl Meyer’s dissertation, The NBC Symphony Orchestra:

Engineers also have taken advantage of the daily rehearsals of the ninety-two-piece orchestra under Dr. Rodzinski to conduct an elaborate series of experiments in acoustics and microphone placement in the huge Studio 8-H at Radio City …In the course of these tests, N.B.C. marshaled critical musical experts to listen in on rehearsals over a loudspeaker system and “piped” the music into its laboratories where engineers under the supervision of O. B. Hanson made scientific tests of the absolute tone quality of the transmissions.

Studio 8-H, largest in the world, was carefully checked to detect any possible distortion of tone or loss of richness even when the music of the orchestra swelled to its greatest volume. Following these experiments, experts said they were satisfied that the studio was ideally designed for the performances of the new symphonic group.

Specially calibrated microphones, like those used in the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, have been installed to bring the symphony concerts to the radio audiences. These microphones receive sound from a heart-shaped area in front. All extraneous noises from rear and sides of the microphone are eliminated.[1]

Reality:

Studio 8-H had dry, boxy acoustics because prior to Toscanini’s arrival it had been a radio program studio, and the goal of most radio shows was to minimize sound reverberation in order to provide perfectly clear reception. In terms of a musical group, however, it tended to make the sound cramped and two-dimensional, as if all the instruments in the orchestra were linedupinarowjustlikethis. Ironically, this artificially dry and claustrophobic sound suited Toscanini to a T. The Italian conductor had suffered some hearing loss over the years, most notably when leading an Italian army band on the Western front during World War I, and although there were still some sounds he could hear more clearly than other people his ability to hear the upper range in instruments had become dulled. When listening to transcripts of his Studio 8-H broadcasts, he was very pleased whereas others were appalled because he could hear all the instruments just as clearly as he could on the podium.

As a result of this, NBC stopped trying to improve the studio for a few years, though it was “sweetened” a bit in 1941. But the dry, airless sound of Toscanini’s studio recordings and most of his broadcasts during those years are part of the reason so many modern listeners dislike him. The sound is not merely substandard for its time, it is wholly artificial. No orchestra in the world sounds, or sounded, like that. The cramping of sound made the strings, already rather bright due to the presence of so many first-chair players, sound brittle and even harsh at times, and the same thing applied to the winds and brass.

In addition to all this, the NBC Symphony had a quintessentially “American” sound. We are much more used to this sort of sound nowadays, particularly when our orchestras play in spacious concert halls where the natural reverb makes them more pleasant, but in the late 1930s people were used to the sweeter tones of most European musicians who dominated the Boston, New York and Philadelphia Orchestras. Even comparing the late-‘30s performances of the NBC Symphony to contemporary broadcasts and recordings of the Lucerne Festival and BBC Symphony Orchestras under Toscanini, playing the exact same repertoire, shows how different the basic sound of the orchestra was. Two very good comparisons are the 1938 performance of the Brahms Third Symphony and the Schubert Second to contemporaneous performances by NBC. Despite the maddening limitations of shortwave broadcast sound, where occasional stretches of the music are distorted by what sounds like a “washing”effect, the Lucerne strings (led by Toscanini’s close friend, Adolf Busch, as concertmaster) and winds not only sound sweeter but have greater sweep. Passages that sound a bit choppy when played by NBC sound wonderful and smooth when played by Lucerne. And then there are the BBC Symphony and NBC Syhmphony 1939 performances of the Beethoven Fifth. The former is one of the greatest recorded performances in Toscanini’s entire discography, while the latter’s rhythm is so metronomic and the sound quality so cramped that it sounds like a hack job.

The acoustics were undoubtedly the major factor in these differences. The Lucerne Festival performances were given in a fine concert hall with natural reverb while the BBC Symphony ones were given in Queen’s Hall, an acoustically perfect venue that was sadly destroyed by German bombs in World War II. In these settings, the wide dynamic range that Toscanini typically drew from an orchestra add greatly to our enjoyment. In Studio 8-H, these gradations of dynamics were severely circumscribed.

One can tell to a much greater extent how this impacted Toscanini’s performances in the overtures to Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. These are well enough known to most classical listeners to illustrate my point perfectly. The almost whispering quietude required after the opening bars in both overtures is not heard in the transcripts of Toscanini’s broadcasts of them; on the contrary, the sound is “flattened out” so that the soft passages are only a bit softer than the loud opening. Yet we know that Toscanini was almost fanatically obsessed with dynamics as well as orchestral balance, which are probably the reasons he never allowed either overture to be released commercially. If you take the time to edit these recordings using an audio editor, however, following the score and carefully grading the volume up and down as the music indicates, you will find that they are superb performances. Yet they don’t sound that way in their raw state.

After a while, NBC/RCA just seemed to give up on Toscanini’s broadcasts and assigned whatever engineer was available at the time, with the admonition, “Make sure he can hear all the instruments.” Yet as B.H. Haggin pointed out, one sngineer with the last name of Slick found a perfect place to hang the microphones, and pushed a few rows of seats back just enough, to allow for some air around the instruments. He even left a detailed notation of where this microphone placement was. But his fellow engineers, wanting to show how clever they were, ignored his instructions and just did things their way. Sometimes they came close to the sound that Slick achieved, but never quite as good; most of the time, the sound was considerably worse. And this trend continued throughout the NBC Symphony’s 17-year career. Even such a master of acoustic balancing like Leopold Stokowski, when conducting the NBC Symphony, could just barely modify their sound enough to sound a tiny bit less harsh.

This is why I have referred to Toscanini’s NBC years as “the mirror of Narcissus.” Like the mythical Greek figure, the Italian conductor wanted the sound of his orchestra to reflect his idea of musical sound and his alone. It is true that he appreciated it when engineers were able to give more resonance to the sound while still retaining that X-ray clarity, but for him the X-ray clarity always came first. One infamous exmaple of Toscanini tinkering with a recording after it was made was his 1941 recording of the final scene from Götterdämmerung with soprano Helen Traubel. Traubel’s singing was magnificent, as was the playing of the orchestra, but when listening to the playback in his home Toscanini complained that the solo trumpet wasn’t clear enough. Haggin, listening along with him, said he could hear the trumpet just fine, and to dub it over again might damage the beautiful sound of the original recording, but Toscanini would not be deterred. He insisted on having RCA let him re-dub the trumpet part, and in doing so it somehow created a low-level electronic hum in the bass range which sometimes distorted Traubel’s singing. When she finally heard it, the soprano was incensed at what Toscanini had done, but the conductor was happier. Now you could hear the trumpet more clearly! Traubel wouldn’t even speak to him for six years after that.

Another reason the orchestra sounded better at times is that, after the first few years, the personnel changed, and depending on who was in the string and wind sections, the orchestra could sound considerably different. But by and large, one has to work at restoring a more natural sound to Toscanini’s NBC Symphony recordings in order for modern listeners to appreciate what he accomplished. Happily, a great many of his recordings have been so enhanced, although in the early days—meaning the hi-fi era of the 1950s—RCA sometimes went overboard in brightening the sound and adding reverb. Sometimes it worked, but many times it didn’t. The same was true of the “electronically enhanced stereo” added to Toscanini recordings in the late 1960s. As time has gone on, however, remastering techniques have improved, so much so that nowadays a musically sensitive listener can “genetically modify” Toscanini recordings to his or her own preferences.

And so they should be.

Myth #2: “All the critics thought Toscanini the greatest conductor.”

This has been pushed primarily by Joseph Horowitz, but even in 1959 Robert Charles Marsh made clear that there were critics as far back as 1929-30, when Toscanini was still at the New York Philharmonic, who complained that all he cared about was “the perfection of the machine,” i.e., that he only cared about perfect execution and clarity. A lot of this, however, was the work of those who preferred Willem Mengelberg’s looser approach to music.

But in the late 1930s, the anti-Toscanini press became more vociferous, particularly from the music critics of the New York Herald-Tribune. Happily, Meyer explains this as well. on p. 102 of his dissertation, he asserts that:

The New York Herald-Tribune, which was generally considered a partisan of the Philharmonic—its music critics were the program annotators [bold print mine]—now consented to review one of the benefits, as if performing in Carnegie gave the orchestra legitimacy. Of course, just the day before the Herald-Tribune had run a feature article on the problems with the “cult” of conductors. The animosity between the two orchestras, though subtle, still lingered.

This explains a great deal, particularly the extraordinary animosity shown towards Toscanini by The Herald-Tribune’s most famous and distinguished music critic, composer Virgil Thomson. For many decades, it was thought that Thomson went after Toscanini because the conductor never performed any of his works, and that may be true, but now I’m starting to think that Toscanini never performed any of Thomson’s music because he went after him. Most people fail to recall, if they ever knew, that in addition to the “trifles” of Ferde Grofé and George Gershwin, Toscanini also performed the music of such noted American composers as Samuel Barber, George Templeton Strong, Charles Loeffler, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Paul Creston, Charles Tomlinson Griffes and Morton Gould. Thomson’s essentially tonal style would certainly have appealed to him, but with the distinguished critic-composer bashing him weekly in the newspapers, why should he bother? (Even Haggin was puzzled by this, writing that in most things he wrote Thomson was an observant and accurate reporter on musical events, but when it came to Toscanini he brought out the bludgeon.)

And there was yet another critic, who chose to stay anonymous, who wrote for Time magazine. In the issue of December 11, 1939, there was a highly insulting article referring to the conductor’s audience as “Toscaninnies.” He insulted them for attending the concerts as if they were at church, taking cough drops to suppress their phlegm and holding programs printed on silk to avoid paper rustling during the concerts. (This part is true: NBC printed the programs on silk for this reason, later switching to cardboard.) They were cruelly mocked for “blindly” applauding anything and everything the Maestro did and of being part of a cult—undoubtedly the origin of the term, “The Toscanini Cult..” I’m pretty positive that this same critic, reviewing a 1945 concert in Time by Toscanini’s friend William Steinberg, said that he conducted much like his mentor, “loud and bombastic.”

As we can see, then, much of the Toscanini-bashing written during his active career was politically motivated. If we put two and two together, it’s quite possible that these critics were being urged, and perhaps even being paid, to do so by the ever-acrimonious Arthur Judson.

You have to take a lot of what you read about Toscanini, then, with a grain of salt, both the overhype and the bashing. Yes, much of the former came from the RCA publicity department, but we must recall that they gave the same treatment to conductors that Horowitz preferred such as Stokowski and Koussevitzky. Publicity was publicity, and exaggerated claims were made for every conductor that every record company was trying to promote.

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Before signing off, I just had to include this great letter. In the late 1930s a lot of “civic organizations” with high-minded cultural ideas in the U.S. were trying to book Arturo Toscanini to conduct in their towns and cities, but they somehow expected him to play for peanuts. I mean, after all, it was the DEPRESSION, you know, and we can’t all afford New York prices! But of course Toscanini wasn’t going to perform for nothing, or for union scale, so NBC had to try to negotiate a proper fee for him.

Eventually an NBC executive in charge of the orchestra, John Royal, wrote a mock letter to one such requester that he never actually sent, but it’s so funny I think you’ll get a laugh out of it:

Dear Sir:
We have your inquiry for ARTURO TOSCANINI, and shall be glad to book this artist with you at a fee of $1,000, which, you will agree, is entirely reasonable.
Out of this fee, however, we are obliged to pay the Federal Income Tax, Federal Surtax, New York Abnormal Tax, Excise Fees, Government Stamp Tax, Italian Emigration Visas, Military Taxes and AGMA license performance fees, making in all a total of $5,644.37, on which there will be due a Government Surtax of 42%, making the total $8,015.01. Adding this sum to Mr. Toscanini’s fee, we arrive at a grand total of $9,015.01, to which, since your engagement will take place in Cohoes, New York, we are obliged to add New York State Taxes of $2,933.67, bringing Mr. Toscanini’s fee to $11,948.68.
The artist’s fare to your city, or a point equivalent to Albany, New York, is included in the above quotation. If you wish Mr. Toscanini to bring his orchestra with him, please add $14,500 to the above figures, plus 22%, plus 9%, plus 38%, divide by 4, multiply by 14, deduct $2.80 for cash if paid within 10 days from receipt of bill-of-lading, and throw the whole thing into the Hudson River from a convenient point two and three-tenths miles above Troy, New York.
Please wire collect.

Sincerely yours,
John Royal (for the National Broadcasting Company)

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

[1] “Equipment Put To Many Tests,” New York Herald-Tribune, 14 November 1937, sec. 7, p. 12, col. 3. Rumor has it that Toscanini complained about the rumbling of the subway, more than eight floors below. NBC engineers solved the problem by giving the room independent structural integrity–Studio 8-H thus became the world’s first “floating” studio.

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“Duke’s Dream” a Fascinating, Creative Tribute

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DUKE’S DREAM / ELLINGTON-STRAYHORN: Far East Suite: Isfahan. ELLINGTON: Satin Doll. Take the Coltrane+. I Got it Bad (and That Ain’t Good). Reflections in D. Such Sweet Thunder: Sonnet for Caesar. Come Sunday+. PIERANUNZI: Duke’s Drean. Duke’s Atmosphere*. GIULIANI-PIERANUNZI: Trains / Rosario Giuliani, a-sax/*s-sax; Enrico Pieranunzi, pn/+el-pn / Intuition INT 3445-2

Here’s a surprisingly good and creative “tribute” CD. So many such discs that have crossed my desk of late have been so insipid that to call them tributes to their models is an embarrassment to the latter, but in pianist Enrico Pieranunzi and saxist Rosario Giuliani we have two musicians who really feel the music as well as think about it.

Their style is both alive and emotionally involved in the music; Pieranunzi’s pianistic approach is more on the order of Earl Hines or Martial Solal than any of the soft-grained pianists who unfortunately dominate the scene nowadays. He plays mostly long, single-note lines in the right hand with occasional chordal or arpeggio support from the left; he seems to be allergic to soft, slow ballad tempos, thank goodness, which means that even such normally dragged-out pieces as I Got it Bad, Reflections in D and Come Sunday are infused with a sense of drama. Giving himself splendid support from his left hand, he doesn’t need a bassist. Giuliani takes a similar approach on the alto sax (and soprano in one number), his playing recalling some of the late-1950s bop players with touches of 1960s jazz in it. In short, they are the perfect duo to be reinterpreting, and paying homage to, Ellington, who always prized emotional played over the cerebral. I Got it Bad, in fact, seems to be played at least partly in 3 rather than 4, a unique touch I don’t recall hearing anyone else attempt, and the duo gives very “springy” performances of Satin Doll and the little-heard Take the Coltrane.

Moreover, this is a duo that really listens to one another. They both complement and contrast with each other as they take turns soloing; several of the pieces here may best be described as extended “chase choruses” rather than mere solo flights, which gives each piece a unique feeling of structure. I have no way of knowing how many takes were made of each piece before a final version was decided upon, but I can attest that whoever made the final decisions made them well. Simply put, there isn’t a dull or uninteresting moment on this entire album.

Sonnet for Caesar, one of the pieces in the Ellington-Strayhorn suite Such Sweet Thunder, is one of the more sophisticated pieces on the album. Its melodic and harmonic movement, though graspable, is actually very subtle, sounding almost modal in its treatment here. (So many of the Ellington suites written between 1943 and 1966 were influenced by Strayhorn, even when his name was not on them, that trying to determine who wrote what is sometimes a challenge.) The duo gives it a surprisingly contemporary feel here, taking it apart and putting it back together in their own very personal way.

inlayComment must of course be made of the three tribute pieces here, Pieranunzi’s Duke’s Dream and Duke’s Atmosphere and their joint collaboration, Trains. These are pieces that strongly suggest Ellingtonia without being an actual part of it. Pieranunzi, a lifelong student of jazz, is well aware that although Ellington could indulge himself in unusual chord patterns (as witnessed by such pieces as Wig Wise and T.G.T.T.), it was not his liking as a rule. He enjoyed writing pieces that sometimes had thick chords and/or unusual melodic patterns (listen to The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse or parts of the Second Sacred Concert), but he loved to indulge himself in primarily tonal music and melodic patterns that even an amateur listener could grasp, thus Duke’s Dream follows a similar pattern. To the uninitiated listener, it fits so well into the authentic surrounding material that you might never notice that it wasn’t written by Duke or Strayhorn. Interestingly, Duke’s Dream becomes simpler as it progresses, eventually resolving itself in a repeated six-note lick tossed back and forth between the two musicians with variants coming in the bridge.

Duke’s Atmosphere is a jazz waltz, and a very fine one, here featuring Giuliani on the soprano sax. What I found interesting, however, was that his soprano sound is very full and rich, so much like his alto tone that there is scarcely any difference between them. Pieranunzi is particularly creative on this track, coming up with even more permutations on his original theme than the saxist, who nevertheless contributes some beautiful lines in the middle of the performance. Trains, which follows it immediately, is the most uptempo number on the disc and one that sounded to me as much if not more influenced by the music of Lennie Tristano (all those extended chords and rapidly-moving melodic fragments that somehow or other coalesce into a whole) than Ellington, but it’s certainly an exciting piece, in my view the best of the originals here. Both players seem to revel in the blistering tempo, and despite the Tristano-like quality of the composition, Pieranunzi’s playing has a very strong Ellingtonian feel.

Ending the CD with Come Sunday may seem an odd choice; this is one of Duke’s most personal and, to come listeners, emotionally cloying pieces, but once again the duo keep the tempo moving and come up with some unusual and very personal variants on it. I almost wished that Alice Babs were still alive to sing one of her stratospheric solos above them, so wonderful and deeply-felt is this performance. I especially enjoyed Giuliani’s gospel licks towards the end!

All in all, Duke’s Dream is one of the most surprising and vital duo discs I’ve ever heard, certainly a way of playing the music of a jazz icon in ways you’d never expect.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring “Baby” Sommer’s Wild, Multi-Faceted Jazz

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LE PICCOLE COSE: LIVE AT THE THEATER GÜTERSLOH / SCHOOF: Like Don. Mellow Mood. SOMMER: Inside Out Shout. Andartes. Marias Miroloi. Hymnus. TROVESI: No Parietto. Interview with Günter Baby Sommer / Manfred Schoof, tp/fl-hn; Gianluigi Trovesi, a-sax/a-cl; Antonio Borghini, bs; Günter “Baby” Sommer, dm / Intuition INTCHR 71321 (live: North Rhine-Westphalia, October 31, 2016)

It’s always difficult for an outsider to come into the world of a musician who’s been around for half a century, yet whose work you know nothing about. Such is the case of 73-year-old German jazz drummer-bandleader Günter “Baby” Sommer, whose playing combines elements of swing, bop, free-form, marching band music and a touch of Spike Jones. Coming out of Dresden, Sommer rose to fame in the German Deutsche Republic and is now a professor of drums and percussion in his native city.

The opening drum solo of the first piece, Like Don, sounded so much to me like the rhythm and tempo of the William Tell Overture that I started singing along with the “Lone Ranger theme” portion. Most of this piece, however, sounds like early Ornette Coleman except that it has a chordal progression which makes it unlike Coleman’s music. Nonetheless, alto saxist Trovesi sounds so much like Coleman on this track it’s uncanny, and Sommer lays down a hybrid swing-bop-ragtime drum base behind it all.

Sommer’s own Inside Out Shout, on the other hand, is free jazz in the style of later Coleman and/or some of those who followed in his footsteps (like Pharaoh Sanders). On both tracks, I was deeply impressed by the tremendous trumpet playing of Manfred Schoof, who has great chops and does a fine job of synthesizing different styles as the leader himself does.

Schoof’s Mellow Mood, though indeed mellow, is no namby-pamby soft ballad, but a slightly dark-sounding tune built around a four-bar progression with Borghini playing bowed bass. Trovesi switches to alto clarinet on this track, providing a lovely sound which was seldom heard in American jazz of the 1960s and later, when clarinets of all sorts except for the bass clarinet (made famous by Eric Dolphy) disappeared from the jazz scene. Oddly, this tune bears a closer resemblance to something Mingus would have done rather than Coleman, but in Trovesi’s No Parietto we are back in Ornette-land, very much so, with Trovesi scatter-gunning notes in the opening part of his solo and squealing in the second part. Schoof does his very best Don Cherry imitation, too, running up and down the horn and occasionally playing circular chromatic runs. Sommer plays aggressive-sounding paradiddles behind an excellent bass solo by Borghini, then both Schoof and Trovesi come in, together, to ride things out.

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Gunter “Baby” Sommer in 2008

Andartes begins with a march-like drum solo, and this beat continues into the tune, an odd-sounding melody in C which alternates between the major and the minor. Free-form squalls interrupt the flow in the middle, with both Schoof and Trovesi playing together while someone (Sommer?) blows on a whistle in the background. Marias Miroloi opens up with a rumbling, low bass drone on a pedal B-flat while Schoof (on flugelhorn) and Trovesi (on alto clarinet) play ominous figures around it in B-flat minor. Eventually a singer enters, doing a sort of Middle Eastern sort of whine…since no vocalist is credited, I’m assuming it’s the leader, since his role is reduced here to playing a chime in the background. The mood is broken with Trovesi’s entrance on alto sax, where the tempo suddenly increases and Sommer’s drums get busy. Sommer shouts encouragement behind him while ramping up his percussion contributions. The bass drone and the ominous figure return for the finale.

The last piece on this disc, Sommer’s Hymnus, is another Mingus-like piece, also built around a droning bowed bass but having a bit more rythmic energy. The simple but attractive theme, played in unison by the two horns, leads to a second chorus in which they play it in harmony. When Schoof reaches his solo, the tune has somehow morphed into something like a shortened version of the Tennesee Waltz. The tempo picks up slightly as he plays variants on this, then even more when Trovesi returns on alto sax. A bit later, both horns wail in counter-action to each other, creating a nice sort of jazz polyphony. A more free-form section in a similar vein acts as the piece’s coda.

The CD concludes with an 11-minute interview with Sommer, unfortunately in German with no translation available, but the music on this disc is surely of a high enough quality to persuade several Americans to take the plunge. I did make out that he mentions Louis Armstrong and Baby Dodds, the latter several times, so apparently that’s where his nickname came from!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Why did Arturo Toscanini Come to NBC?

Toscanini 1940 by Horst p. Horst

Toscanini 1940 by Horst P. Horst

One of the most puzzling moves in the history of Arturo Toscanini’s long career, which has long stumped those who knew his proclivities, was why he agreed to a long-term contract with NBC and its house symphony orchestra. The reason it is puzzling is that throughout his career to that point (1937), he had stubbornly and consistently resisted most attempts to record him and even to limit attempts to broadcast him. After his initial flurry of acoustic recordings in 1920-21, which he detested and called “a waste of precious time and energy, worthless,” he did not record again until 1926, a single disc (two sides) for the American Brunswick company. Apparently he had been intrigued to let them record him due to positive results he had heard in others’ recordings for the label, but after hearing the finished record he decided not to pursue them. That same year his son Walter had recorded him, without his knowledge, in rehearsal at La Scala. When the old man found out about it, he hit the roof and forbade him to try any such thing again.

The tentative relationship that Toscanini had with recording began to thaw, just a little, with a very fine series of recordings—including full recordings of the Mozart “Haffner” and Haydn “Clock” Symphonies—for Victor in 1929. RCA, the parent company, then entered into a sensitive relationship with the Maestro, offering to record—in live concert—a performance of the Beethoven Fifth. Two attempts were made, in 1931 and 1933; both survive but both were rejected by the conductor because the softest passages were almost inaudible. When he was in London conducting the BBC Symphony in 1935, he was approached by the BBC to let them record his concerts, the decision to issue them being his and his alone, but Toscanini adamantly refused. Fortunately for posterity, his close friend Adrian Boult ignored his recording ban and had several outstanding performances recorded, which were issued by EMI many years later.

AT BBCWhen Toscanini broadcast from Salzburg in 1936 and ’37, he insisted that they be shortwave broadcasts only because he knew that shortwave distorted the sound just enough that most people wouldn’t be encouraged to record the broadcasts. Then, when he returned to London in 1937, he was finally persuaded to record with the BBC Symphony (an orchestra he loved as much as his own New York Philharmonic) as long as RCA Victor, to whom he had become quite loyal, be the ones to issue the records in the U.S. Yet there were still many concerts secretly recorded that only came to light decades later, such as a fabulous Beethoven Fifth from 1939, a Missa Solemnis from the same year, and his greatest performance of the Verdi Requiem from 1937.

Thus it has always seemed inconsistent with his temperament that Toscanini suddenly agreed, in early 1937, to a long-term contract with a radio orchestra, and moreover agree in this contract to allow NBC-RCA to record him constantly…not just studio recordings and the broadcasts, but also all rehearsals, something he had theretofore resisted like the devil.

Little pieces of the truth as to why he agreed to this came out of Harvey Sachs’ 1978 biography, Toscanini, as well as from Norman Lebrecht’s book Who Killed Classical Music?, but some of the missing links were still missing.

Quite a few of them are now provided via an amazing doctoral dissertation written by Donald Carl Meyer at the University of California, Davis in 1994. The NBC Symphony Orchestra takes the story far beyond that of just Toscanini and his NBC broadcasts. It even goes further than to debunk the theories of hard-line foes of Toscanini like Joseph Horowitz (Understanding Toscanini) and Lebrecht (The Maestro Myth) that Toscanini was “bad” for American music because he conducted so few modern works during his tenure there. Possibly the most amazing part of this very long dissertation is the revelation that there was an NBC Symphony well before Toscanini came to the network, that this NBC Symphony participated (even during Toscanini’s tenure) on other arts programs such as the Magic Key broadcasts as well as The Voice of Firestone and other programs featuring opera and concert singers, in addition to Walter Damrosch’s musical education shows and a ton of other programming. And in these programs there was a great deal of new music, particularly American music, premiered. Moreover, Meyer’s appendix and chronology of the Toscanini years, which runs over 100 pages, gives us the full programs of every single NBC Symphony broadcast including those of all the guest conductors. And guess what? There was a TON of new music, and music seldom heard in America at the time such as Mahler, Delius, Griffes and Tailleferre, being broadcast REGULARLY by the NBC Symphony under its guest conductors. I started to make a list and just ran out of time, but here’s a sampling of just the first couple of years:

11-20-1937 Pierre Monteux:
Griffes: Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan

11-27-1937 Pierre Monteux:
Stravinsky: Firebird Suite
Tailleferre: Overture to an Opera Buffe
Isadore Freed: Adagio from Jeux de Timbres (cond. by the composer)

12-4-1937 Artur Rodzinski
Albeniz: Triana

3-12-1938 Carlos Chávez
Chávez: Sinfonia India
Chávez: Sinfonia de Antigone

3-19-1938 Carlos Chávez
Halffter: Sonatina – Danse de Bergère

3-26-1938 Howard Hanson
Hanson: Symphony No. 3 (first complete performance)

4-2-1938 Artur Rodzinski
Dohnányi: Suite for Orchestra

4-9-1938 Artur Rodzinski
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 (American premiere)
Albéniz: Ibéria – Fête Dieu à Seville

4-16-1938 Artur Rodzinski
Schreker: The Birthday of the Infanta – Orchestral suite

4-23-1938 Hugh Ross
Delius: The Mass of Life (soloists Julia Peters, sop; Lillian Knowles, alto; Fred
Hufsmith, tenor; Robert Nicholson, baritone)

4-30-1938 Pierre Monteux
Dukas: Le Péri

5-8-1938 Magic Key Variety Hour, NBC Symph. cond. by Walter Damrosch
Lekeu: Adagio for Strings
Honegger: Pacific 231
Philip James: Radio Station WGZBX: 4th mvmt

5-21-1938 Adrian Boult
Holst: A Fugal Concerto
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4
Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad

12-10-1938 Artur Rodzinski
Starakodomsky: Concerto for Orchestra (first NY performance)
Stravinsky: Firebird Suite

12-17-1938 Artur Rodzinski
Hindemith: Mathis der Maler

12-31-1938 Artur Rodzinski
Scriabin: Symphony No. 3 (Le Divin Poème)

4-8-1939 Bruno Walter
Mahler: Symphony No. 1

4-22-1939 Opera broadcast, Alberto Erede
Menotti: The Old Man and the Thief (world premiere)

5-21-1939 Hans Wilhelm (William) Steinberg:
Singalilia: Overture to Le Baruffe Chiozzote

5-25-1939 Frank Black
Gilbert: Riders to the Sea
Harold Morris: Violin Concerto (world premiere)
Spialek: Sinfonietta

5-28-1939 “Summer Symphony,” Hans Wilhelm (William) Steinberg
Langstreth: Scherzo
Haussermann: Symphony No. 1

You (and Joseph Horowitz) may complain that these were not TOSCANINI broadcasts, and he was the flagship conductor of the orchestra, but so what? They were played by the NBC Symphony, and I’m willing to bet you that the majority of music lovers tuned in every week to see who was conducting and what was being played, not just the 12-15 concerts per years conducted by Toscanini.

But what I found most interesting about this dissertation, when put together with what I learned from Harvey Sachs’ Toscanini and Norman Lebrecht’s Who Killed Classical Music?, is something not exactly spelled out by any one of them but a cross-reference of implications that seem to be conclusive. And that is this:

Arthur Judson, founder and head of Columbia Artists’ Management, also had an iron grip on the New York Philharmonic-Symphony as it was known in those days. He was a ruthless autocrat who appreciated good talent but did not like strong-willed artists. He demanded that all artists he promoted buckle under to him. Toscanini did not fit this mold. Neither did Wilhelm Furtwängler, but Judson brought Furtwängler over to the Philharmonic for the express purpose of nudging Toscanini to quit.

But the opposite happened. Although Toscanini disapproved of Furtwängler’s wild tempo fluctuations in symphonic music, he admired him as a “serious artist” whereas he began to think that Willem Mengelberg, his co-music director, was a charlatan. Judson purposely sabotaged Furtwängler at every turn, and thought he had created a feud between him and Toscanini when the Italian conductor could not begin one season on time because of bad arthritis in his conducting shoulder. The Beethoven Ninth that had been promised to Toscanini was thus given to Furtwängler, who conducted assiduous rehearsals of the orchestra, chorus and soloists.

The plan backfired in a way when Toscanini suddenly announced that he was feeling much better and would be able to return to New York in time for the Beethoven Ninth. Judson immediately pulled Furtwängler from the project and gave it back to Toscanini. The Italian conductor was amazed at the high level of technical proficiency to which they had been rehearsed, and asked them who had done this work. They told him, Furtwängler. But the German conductor, thinking that Toscanini had demanded that the Beethoven Ninth be returned to him, was very bitter and held it against him…this, then, was the origination of the bitter Toscanini-Furtwängler feud.

It also didn’t help that after two seasons, Judson decided not to renew Furtwängler’s contract. His concerts didn’t draw as many people as did Toscanini’s, he reasoned, so the German conductor could just go back to the Berlin Philharmonic. What he didn’t count on was that Toscanini blew up and insisted that Furtwängler stay; it was Mengelberg he wanted gone. This was the first real open battle between Toscanini and Judson.

The second battle came from within. Mengelberg began talking badly about Toscanini to the musicians in rehearsals; eventually it got so bad that Toscanini demanded that he be fired. In a rare concession to Toscanini, who was a major meal ticket, Judson and the Board agreed, but the war was just starting. During the early 1930s Judson hired guest conductors of whom Toscanini did not approve, such as Sir Thomas Beecham, and this angered Toscanini even more.

AT NYPO farewell concert 1936

People camping out to buy tickets for Toscanini’s “farewell” concert with the New York Philharmonic, April 1936

By the time his contract was to expire at the end of the 1936 season, Toscanini had had enough. He resigned as much as a thumb in the eye of Judson as for any other reason. But he had two last parting shots upon leaving. One was that, when he was asked who he would recommend as his successor, he named Furtwängler. A lot of people think he was being facetious, but Toscanini wasn’t that kind of man. He recommended Furtwängler because he knew he would maintain the musical discipline he had worked so hard to build up in the orchestra and also because he wanted to give him a way out of the Third Reich.

Furtwängler gladly accepted, but the heavily Jewish board members of the Philharmonic opposed him on the grounds that he was a Nazi, which he was not. Furtwängler was crushed by their decision, but Toscanini was told that Furtwängler had turned down the position. His next recommendation was his friend Artur Rodzinski. Rodzinski was just as strong-willed as Toscanini, so that was out, too.

The naming of the pleasant but ill-equipped John Barbirolli as the new music director of the Philharmonic made Toscanini very angry. He knew Barbirolli and liked him personally, but knew he was a tyro at leading a large, strong-willed group of virtuosi like the Philharmonic. Thus, through all of this, the seeds of revenge began to grow in him.

This explains a great deal as to why Toscanini, who had just left the New York Philharmonic, agreed to return to New York to lead an orchestra to directly compete with them and Judson. When you combine this with the fact that Toscanini had “brand loyalty” to NBC’s record division, Victor, even recording with them while “his” orchestra was being broadcast on CBS (when asked to make records in London with the BBC Philharmonic, Toscanini was only mollified when he learned that Victor would have the rights to issue the records in the United States), plus the fact that his friend and supporter Samuel Chotzinoff was the liaison for David Sarnoff in the negotiations with Toscanini to come to NBC, you start to realize that he was anxious for revenge and long viewed NBC-RCA as a congenial entity rather than as a big, evil corporation.

AT & Horowitz

Toscanini and his son-in-law, Vladimir Horowitz, c. 1941

Another factor, often ignored, is that from 1942 through 1945, during the years when Toscanini was conducting less concerts with the NBC Symphony (this includes the period during which Leopold Stokowski was its music director), is that he conducted some major concerts with the New York Philharmonic, some of them unrecorded. One such was the American premiere of Berlioz’ Romeo et Juliette Symphony, with Jennie Tourel as soloist…not a modern work, to be sure, but with the exception of Monteux no one else in America at that time was performing much, if any, Berlioz in America.

You can find information on the dissertation here for your edification. It is a fascinating read, written in a lively style most unlike many such papers I have read, and covering many interesting facts, nooks and crannies of the American radio broadcasting industry during the NBC Symphony era.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Dvořák’s “Spectre’s Bride” a Surprisingly Great Dramatic Work

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DVOŘÁK: The Spectre’s Bride (Svatební Košile) / Drahomira Tikalová, soprano (The Girl); Beno Blachut, tenor (Dead Man); Ladislav Mráz, bass-baritone (Narrator); Prague Philharmonic Chorus; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Jaroslav Krombholc, conductor / Supraphon 3574 (part of 2-CD set with Novak’s The Storm), also available for free streaming on YouTube

Here is yet another recording I discovered via a diversion. Dvořák’s very dramatic cantata, The Spectre’s Bride, was written and premiered in 1885 and was an unqualified success, but the maddening popularity of his sweetsy-cutesy Romantic opera Rusalka somehow pushed this 80-minute masterpiece off the cliff, from which it has never really returned. There are a few other recordings of it, including a recent one with the most miserable-sounding vocal soloists you’ll ever want to hear, but the drama and high quality of the music led me to this splendid 1961 recording.

And what makes it so splendid? Certainly not the sound, which is stereo but a bit on the scrappy side—although, to be honest, the slightly scrappy sound adds to the excitement. No, the real reason is that both the vocal soloists and the conductor (and with him, the orchestra and chorus) sound as if they’re 100% emotionally invested in this music…plus the fact that the singers all have solid voices and crisp diction, although soprano Tikalová had one of those typically acidic Czech soprano voices. The way this cast and conductor sing and play this music, they make it sound like Der Freischütz or Dvořák’s dramatic tone poems, The Noon Witch and The Water Goblin. Rusalka indeed has “prettier” music, but let’s face it, the forces of darkness and death always get the coolest music!

The plot, which is relatively simple (this is, after all, a cantata, though this performance is wholly operatic in style), concerns a young woman whose bridegroom has gone far away. How far he has gone becomes apparent when he returns as a dead ghost, beckoning her to follow him so he can consummate their marriage before daybreak. She follows him with fear in her heart, asking him questions but receiving no answers. The dead groom demands her prayer-book and rosary, which he hurls far away from them. They approach a graveyard behind a church; her groom has thrown her wedding dress over the wall and now asks her to jump over it herself. She refuses to do so, but this doesn’t stop the dead man from vaulting the wall and demanding admission to the house, which is surrounded by ghosts who ask a corpse laid out there to get up and answer the door. The girl again prays, this time to Mary the mother of Jesus to free her from evil. In the village a rooster crows, announcing the dawn; the ghost of the bridegroom disappears as churchgoers stand in surprise before an open grave, the now torn wedding dress next to the frightened woman. They learn of her story and praise her actions.

Despite Tikalová’s somewhat acidic voice, she sang with tremendous fervor and involvement; we believe in her as a character. Beno Blachut, as the dead groom, had a lovely and splendid lyric tenor including superb use of head tone. The third singer, bass-baritone Ladislav Mráz, assumes the role of narrator and often sings with the chorus. He had one of those wonderful Slavic baritone voices, rich and dark-toned; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he sang the roles of Alberich or Kaspar in Der Freischütz. Every time he sings, he dominates center stage, and that is something that most of the other singers of this role on other recordings just don’t accomplish.

And listen to that choir! WOW, do they kick butt! The music is far from being just splashy and uninteresting; Dvořák masterfully used chromatic movement, sometimes stepwise up and down, within sections of the cantata, to enhance the sinister mood. In one of the sections in which the bass-baritone sings with chorus, the music used sounds remarkably like Russian folk song. Moreover, his orchestral writing here is as good as anything that either he or Smetana ever did in any other piece they wrote. The way Dvořák builds and releases tension will keep you on the edge of your seat, as it apparently did at its world premiere, which took place—believe it or not!—in London, sung in English. The composer was absolutely euphoric over the reception of this work: “I just cannot tell you how much these British honor and like me!” he wrote. “Everywhere, they are writing and talking about me, saying I am the lion of this year’s musical season in London.” Undoubtedly, the rhythmic spring and energy of the music had a lot to do with this reaction.

As for the partner work in this 2-CD set, Vitězslav Novak’s The Storm (1910), it’s a good piece using quite a few Richard Strauss-isms, but not on the high level of his teacher’s (Dvořák’s) work. If you care to hear it first, it, too is available for free streaming on YouTube. Soprano Tikalová is in fresher, less acidic voice here; this appears to have been recorded in mono about five years before The Spectre’s Bride.

All in all, it’s difficult to say anything bad about either this score or its interpretation here. The music gets hold of you and, once it really gets going, never lets up until the very end. Despite the lack of action, I could easily envision this being staged as a one-act opera, coupled with something equally dramatic (and under-appreciated) like Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re. Hey, American opera companies! You want something interesting to spice up your season? This surely beats the latest opera about transgender people!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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

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