Gulda Plays Mozart & Gulda

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MOZART: Rondos for Piano & Orchestra: in A, K. 386; in D, K. 382.* Piano Sonata in C, K. 330. GULDA: Improvisations 1 & 2. Play Piano Play: Excerpts. Suite for Piano, E-Piano & Drums: Aria / Friedrich Gulda, pianist; *Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; *Leopold Hager, conductor / BR Klassik BRK900713 (live, Munich: *October 4, 1969; June 27, 1982)

Why is it that I love Friedrich Gulda’s Mozart so much and tend to dislike so many other pianists playing it? Not all, mind you; I enjoy Nadia Reisenberg, Annie Fischer and Clara Haskil in the concertos and Ronald Brautigam in the sonatas. But not many. I think it’s because Gulda, like those others, played his music with guts. He didn’t play it like some mincing drawing-room quadrille to be admired by slothful wealthy patrons but not by the general public.

Of course, much of this stems from Gulda’s own aesthetic, which was that music should be eaten by the performer and then internalized, to be played out as if it were part of your DNA. His lifelong affinity for jazz, which he eventually came to play pretty well, had a lot to do with it—that, plus the fact that as a jazz musician he was, ipso facto, a creator himself. The Improvisation No. 1 on this album starts out like a tumbling pile of bricks on a construction site, only to evolve into something quite simple, tonal and lovely. But the undercurrent of the construction site is still there under the lace and gingerbread. Only Gulda, it seems, could juxtapose two such wildly different moods and make them work together. Moreover, the delicate ending of his Improvisation makes a perfect intro to the Mozart Piano Sonata K. 330, which he limns with surprising elegance. The wild man of the keyboard could also have his tender moments, and still make them work.

So does this CDs appeal primarily to Gulda fans? I suppose it all depends on your viewpoint. Surely, Mozart’s music outweighs his own. Twenty-four minutes of music are of his own compositions, 31 minutes are of Mozart’s, and I can’t even think of another pianist who played the Rondos as well as this. Leopold Hager, well known and respected for his Mozart interpretations, matches Gulda’s vivacity and sense of fun in conducting these two pieces. It’s interesting to note how young Hager was at the time of recording, only 34 years old. Gulda himself was five years older, but had been playing jazz professionally for more than a decade by then. The classical world wanted him to go away and stop returning to the classics while the jazzniks wanted him to give them up, but Gulda would do neither. He stayed right in his comfort zone, which was to go back and forth between the two, often in the same concert. He wanted his jazz audiences to appreciate Mozart and Beethoven, his twin idols, as he wanted his classical audiences to appreciate jazz. So he just kept it up until he died. He did vocals under a pseudonym, which he pretended was an entirely different person. At one point in the 1990s he even faked his own death just to see what the obituaries would say. He was that kind of guy.

The second Improvisation takes the opposite route of the first, starting out in a classical vein and become more jazz-like as it progresses. Gulda’s sense of jazz rhythm was always a little stiff; being Austrian, and raised in the classics, swinging didn’t come easily to him; but he never stopped trying. It was his life’s blood. Perhaps his most swinging compositions were the set of “etudes” he published under the title Play Piano Play. I’ve yet to see any pianist record the full set. I was a little surprised by how romantic, in a pop-music sense, his excerpt from the Suite for Piano, E-Piano and Drums was. Evidently, Gulda had his sentimental side as well.

Sorry if this review isn’t as musically detailed as usual, but when listening to Gulda’s own pieces and improvisations I just let my mind wander inside of his and follow it where it goes. And so should you. Recommended!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Barab’s “Red Riding Hood” a Laugh Riot

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BARAB: Little Red Riding Hood / Margaret Astrup, Jennifer Caraluzzi, sopranos; Hernan Berisso, baritone; ad hoc orchestra; Andrew Gordon, conductor / Centaur CRC3508

I wonder if anyone besides those who lived through the late 1950s and into the ’60s really remember Seymour Barab and how wonderful he was. The publicity blurb for this release tell us that Little Red Riding Hood was his first and most successful comic opera (actually an opera comique with spoken dialogue, like his later Snow White and Rose Red), but Barab wrote a ton of wonderful music during those years that is still delightful to hear. How many of you remember his setting of A Child’s Garden of Verses (recorded by Russell Oberlin) or Dorothy Parker’s Songs of Perfect Propriety (sung, and recorded, by the wonderful Barbara Cook)? Or, for that matter, his updating of Snow White and Rose Red?

Be that as it may, this sprightly, lively performance of Barab’s Red Riding Hood will make you smile and perhaps even more than that. Conductor Andrew Gordon and his cast of three not only deliver their lines with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek, but they can all sing without wobbles (a miracle!) and they have perfect diction (double miracle!). The only problem was that the album cover didn’t indicate which soprano was singing Red Riding Hood and which one the Mother, so I had to go to YouTube where I found a recording of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by Margaret Astrup. She’s definitely our mother and grandma (singing the latter in a cracked, nasal voice, very much in character), so Caraluzzi is our Red Riding Hood.

Barab’s genius was in being able to write for children without writing down to them. Thus his jokes, although sometimes a bit corny, are always funny because they presume that his audience of children are bright and not a bunch of dunces. Puns were always a part of his librettos, which he normally wrote himself, but there were also little jokes on being a child…having to mind one’s manners, not talking to strangers, all the time showing the kids that being a bit of a smart-aleck was not only fun but important to survival in our modern world. In Red Riding Hood, the wolf makes it clear in his introduction that he’s not a vegetarian, so please don’t bother giving him fruits or veggies to eat, so later when Red Riding Hood describes the “delicious” strawberries in her basket, the wolf yells out, “STOP it! You’ve gone and ruined my appetite!”

So of course when the wolf dresses up as Grandma (who isn’t eaten, she hides in a closet) and Red Riding Hood is attacked, she talks about all the various ways one can serve strawberries: shortcake, pudding, ice cream, souffles, etc., until the wolf almost upchucks and runs outside to save himself. The friendly woodsman kills him with his axe, and they all live happily ever after (apparently this was the only Grandma and Riding Hood eater in the neighborhood). Listening to this, I was also reminded of the old Fractured Fairy Tales version of the story, in which the wolf was blown up by a substitute “basket o’ goodies” loaded with dynamite. Ah, yes, they don’t write those fairy tales like they used to!

A splendid fun release, highly recommended for those days when Beethoven and Mahler just seem to dour and deep for your mood.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Amandine Beyer Plays Superb C.P.E. Bach

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C.P.E. BACH: Violin Sonatas: in B-flat, Wq 77; in C min., Wq 78; in G min., H545; in B min., Wq 76 / Amandine Beyer, violinist; Edna Stern, fortepianist / Alpha Classics 329

This is a reissue of an album made by Amandine Beyer for Zig Zag Territoires in 2005. I already had the Sonata in B minor, Wq 76, on a compilation album by her and so wanted to hear the full set.

I was not disappointed. I’ve mentioned before, and will repeat again, that Beyer is one of a very small number of “straight tone” Baroque violinists who knows what she is doing in terms of phrasing, dynamics markings and coloration of her tone. If she would only add a touch of vibrato to her sustained notes (yes, I know, in the HIP world that’s heresy), she would surely be one of the greatest violinists of all time, but at least I can listen to her with pleasure because she is a creative musician and not just a mechanical robot.

Interestingly, however, I found Beyer’s and Stern’s performance of the Sonata Wq 76 not quite as spacious as the one by violinist Leila Schayegh and harpsichordist Jörg Halubek on Pan Classics 10305, and the difference is in the keyboard playing. Of course, a harpsichord just sounds so much better than a fortepiano that I automatically “hear” the music as drier and klunkier when played on the latter instrument, but the real difference is that Beyer and Stern take it at a much faster clip—the first movement only runs 7:23 as opposed to Schayegh’s 7:49. Yes, a half-minute longer does make that much difference. Yet when one listens carefully, he or she will note that it is Beyer who does so much more with the violin part than Schayegh, although Schayegh is very, very good in her own right (I certainly wouldn’t have kept her album if she wasn’t good). Do I wish that Stern would have played the harpsichord? Yes, I do, but that’s water under the bridge by this point. We have to accept what was done and deal with it on its own terms.

And the bottom line is that Beyer is absolutely hypnotic in every phrase she plays. How does she do it when scores of her rivals can’t, or won’t? I cannot say, but I know she is a genius. She knows exactly when to pull back, when to press forward, when to lighten the sound and when to darken it. Beyer’s musical instincts are so superb that it almost sounds as if she wrote the music herself. That’s how good it is.

And this is very clearly prime C.P.E. Bach. All those unexpected stops, starts, sudden shifts in tempo and occasional unexpected modulations are hallmarks of his mature style. Take, for instance, the opening movement of the Sonata Wq 78, which sounds like something his father might have written until you reach the development section, which is much more expressive, and the second movement almost sounds like something that early Beethoven would have written. Beyer brings out all the feeling and color of the music in her own unique way.

Heard in context, by which I mean after having heard all the preceding sonatas on this disc, the opening movement of the Wq 76 sonata still sounds a little glib in terms of Stern’s performance, but Beyer adds all the drama one could ask for in her performance of the violin line. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, much of this has to do with the nature of these old fortepianos, which had zero sustain ability; it almost sounds as if the accompaniment were played on a xylophone. (Yeah, I know, don’t give them any ideas.) This is a real problem in the expressive second movement, where Beyer is responsible for carrying the fortepiano on her back as she plays those long, beautiful lines that C.P.E. wrote.

All in all, a fine album and another feather in Beyer’s cap. Highly recommended for what she is able to extract from this music.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Getting Into the Heart of Pauline Viardot

Viardot in old age

Pauline Viardot in old age

After having discovered the marvelous German songs of Pauline Viardot-Garcia in the album by Miriam Alexandra, I decided to explore further some of the various other recordings of her music available. In addition, I tried as much as possible to zero in on recordings by singers whose voices came close to the verbal descriptions of Viardot’s own voice in order to get, as the academics would crow from the balcony, as close as possible to the way the artist herself actually sang her own material.

This, of course, is not easy, and not just because Viardot never recorded. It’s difficult because she had one of those rare voices that was extraordinarily large and extraordinarily flexible: try to imagine a combination of Jon Vickers and Juan Diego Florez (or, on the distaff side, Birgit Nilsson and Kathleen Battle). Such voices don’t normally exist in nature, but she had that kind of voice. Heinrich Heine, the German poet, described it thus:

She is not merely a nightingale who delights in trilling and sobbing her songs of spring. Nor is she the rose, being ugly, but in a way that is noble…She reminds us more of the terrible magnificence of a jungle rather than the civilized beauty and tame grace of the European world.

One of her greatest admirers, composer Camille Saint-Saëns, was more exact in his description:

Her voice was enormously powerful, had a prodigious range and was equal to every technical difficulty but, marvelous as it was, it did not please everybody. It was not a velvet or crystalline voice, but rather rough, compared by someone to the taste of a bitter orange, and made for tragedy or myth, superhuman rather than human; light music, Spanish songs and the Chopin mazurkas she transcribed for the voice, were transfigured by it and became the triflings of a giant; to the accents of tragedy, to the severities of oratorio, she gave an incomparable grandeur.

Thus we have a description of Viardot as woman singer: “ugly beauty,” transformed in the crucible of her soul into something that deeply moved the most sensitive and musical of listeners with something indescribable. By these accounts, the very pretty voice of Miriam Alexandra is not an approximation of how Viardot herself sang, fine though her performances were.

To find a singer, or singers, whose voices come close to Viardot’s we have to pick and choose. Soprano Soile Iskoski, who has also recorded her songs, is a marvelous interpreter but has a defective high soprano voice—not the right fit. Soprano and mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, who has recorded her Hai Luli!, Havanaise and Les Filles de Cadix, comes closer.

But the two who impressed me the most were Bulgarian Ina Kancheva, in her stupendous recital on Toccata Classics 0303, and Russian Julia Sukmanova on Fontenay Classics FC1006. Both have rich, deep lower ranges—remember that Viardsot-Garcia was a mezzo-soprano and not a soprano—and in addition Kancheva has the remarkable flexibility demanded to sing all those trills, mordents and appoggiatura. And this brings us to a more important and germane discussion, which was Viardot’s composing style.

As someone who was originally set to be a concert pianist, Viardot knew her instrument intimately, and with her quick ear and studies in harmony and composition she was able to absorb musical styles like a sponge. In the liner notes for the Kancheva recital there is a remarkable anecdote:

One day her husband was visited by a friend who admired Mozart above all composers, and Pauline announced that she wanted to sing for them a magnificent aria by Mozart that she had recently discovered. She sang a long aria, with recitatives, arioso and a final allegro, which the two men praised highly without knowing that she wad written it herself specifically for the occasion. Saint-Saëns remembered that he, too, had heard the aria, and attested to the fact that “even the sharpest critic might have been taken in by it,” He continued:

“But we shouldn’t imagine from this that her compositions were pastiches; on the contrary, they had a highly original flavor. Why is it that those that were published are so little known? One is led to believe that this admirable artist had a horror of publicity. For over half of her life she taught pupils, and the world was unaware of it.”

Further on in the notes, Saint-Saëns goes further on her composing style:

I do not know how she learnt the secrets of composition; apart from handling the orchestra, she knew them all and the numerous lieder she wrote on French, German and Spanish texts testify to an impeccable technique. In contrast to most composers for whom nothing is more urgent than publicity for their products, she concealed hers as though they were a fault; it was extremely hard to persuade her to have them performed; the least of them, though, would have done her honor. She announced as a popular Spanish song one with a savage tone and relentless rhythms, which Rubinstein was infatuated with; it took me several years to get her to admit that she was the composer.

Here’s a small example (one of the few I could find online) of her writing, the last page of her song Bonjour, mon cœur:

Bonjour mon coeur p 4

A highly intelligent and complex woman, Viardot-Garcia was hailed by all who met her. Schumann, Brahms, Liszt and Wagner were among her friends and admirers. Clara Schumann once asserted that she was the most intelligent woman she had ever met in her life. Viardot was also a surprisingly fine sketch artist and caricaturist; here is her drawing of her father, Manuel Garcia Sr.:

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Because of her high intelligence, linguistic skill (she spoke French, German, English, Italian and Russian fluently, and sang like a native in all five) and remarkable musical and poetic intuition, Viardot attracted the most sensitive and intelligent men in all of Europe despite her homely appearance. The Russian poet Ivan Turgenev saw her perform Rosina in The Barber of Seville at St. Petersburg in 1843 and remained hopelessly in love with her for the next 40 years. She set many of his poems to music and in fact he eventually lived into the house next door to her until he died in 1883. Viardot also set more poems by Alexander Pushkin to music than any Russian composer, and was the first to set the famous Les filles de Cadiz to music, years before Délibes tried his hand.

Viardot 01Listening to her Russian songs as sung by Kancheva (you can find sound clips of some of the songs on YouTube under her name), after having heard the German songs sung by Alexandra, one is startled by the completely different musical style. One would never guess that they were written by the same composer, so entirely different is their treatment of melody, harmony and rhythm. The Russian songs almost sound like something Glinka or Mussorgsky would have written, whereas, as I said in my earlier review, the German songs would do honor to Schubert or even to Schumann without really copying anything they had composed.

And then we reach the Chopin Mazurkas. She set 12 of them to lyrics, admittedly rather poor lyrics, in two sets of six each. The last mazurka in each set is a vocal duet. Who did she herself sing them with? We may never know. She actually performed them with Chopin, another friend of hers, at the piano on occasion. These are the most often recorded of her songs, but Kancheva sings them as I imagine Viardot herself did, with the voice of a lion. The performances are entirely remarkable, as are the songs themselves. To hear so large and powerful a voice turning mordents and trills at the speed of light is simply astonishing; it is probably the closest we will get in our lifetimes to hearing Viardot herself.

BayrakdarianAs yet another facet in her style, we then turn to the Italian and French songs. Here we must rely on another very pretty voiced soprano, in this case the remarkable Isabel Bayrakdarian, who sang at the Metropolitan Opera very briefly in the early 2000s, on Analekta AN29903. It would be easy to dismiss her performances as not being like Viardot’s own, but Bayrakdarian caresses the line with such evident love and extraordinary brilliance of tone that we are immediately captivated. But to complete this series of French and Italian songs, we need to turn to mezzo-soprano Marina Comparato on Brilliant Classics BC94615. Here, she presents us with a piece I didn’t even know existed, a vocal version of the Haydn String Quartet “Serenade,” the one that was for decades ascribed to Roman Hofstetter but is now again accepted as authentic Haydn (mostly because none of Hofstetter’s other quartets are nearly as distinguished). Following this are the Viardot Songs front cover10 Mélodies, “Album du Chant.” Comparato has a somewhat prominent vibrato, which was not something Viardot-Garcia possessed, and the recorded sound is also somewhat overly reverberant which exacerbates the vibrato, but they are all we have of these remarkable songs. In neither the downloads of the Bayrakdarian disc or in the hard copy of the Comparato CD are there any texts or translations of these songs, but do not despair. I highly recommend Emily Ezust’s stupendous “LiederNet Archive” at http://www.lieder.net/lieder/index.html, where she has at least the original texts of most of these songs and the English translations of many. But please do not overlook her request for donations to help keep the site up. This is a labor of love for her and she has spent hundreds of thousands of hours providing this invaluable information to art song lovers worldwide since the mid-1990s.

Sukmanova 01Following Bayrakdarian and Comparato, we then turn to another dark-voiced Slavic singer, Julia Sukmanova on Fontenay Classics FC1006. This album has texts in German only, but 13 of the songs here are duplicated in the Miriam Alexandra CD. Nevertheless, I strongly urge you to acquire these performances because of the richer, deeper quality of Sukmanova’s voice and her emotionally powerful delivery. She literally transforms this music, giving you more meat and less perfume, if you know what I mean. Moreover, her pianist is her sister, Elena, and she is absolutely terrific, a fit partner for her sister’s emotional delivery.

Viardot also wrote a Violin Sonatina in A minor, but this is disappointing. She really didn’t know how to write for the violin and so fell back on her song experience. It’s tuneful but not particularly interesting. Better are the 6 Morceaux for violin and piano, particularly Nos. 2-4 and 6. There are several recordings available of these, but the ones I enjoyed the most were the performances by violinist Laura Kobiyashi and pianist Susan Keith Gray on Albany TROY1081. Viardot also wrote a charming “chamber opera with piano” for children, Cendrillon. I found a few different performances of it on YouTube, but the best of them was the one given by singers of the Westminster Choir College. It’s also easier to follow because the copious dialogue is spoken in English. My thanks to David Hansel for bringing this work to my attention! It’s not a great opera, but it is remarkably charming, witty and very well written. Typical of Viardot, she wrote it in the mid-1880s but it wasn’t premiered until 1904, when she was 83 years old.

I absolutely guarantee you that you will not be disappointed in exploring the music of this remarkable woman. As Saint-Saëns said, even the “weakest” song is well constructed and lovely, while the majority of them are much more than that. Bon appetit!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Matthews’ Violin Pieces Engaging, Inventive

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MATTHEWS: Fantasia on Paganini’s Second Violin Concerto. 3 Chants. 4 Australian Birds. Sonata for Solo Violin. The National Anthem. Song Thrust Fragment. Birthday Piece for Richard. An Album Leaf for Sally. Not Farewell. 15 Preludes for Solo Violin / Peter Sheppard Skærved, violinist / Toccata Classics 0309

My introduction to British composer David Matthews was his splendid album of piano trios (Toccata Classics 0369), and here we have an album of a cappella violin pieces played by his friend and colleague Peter Sheppard Skærved, for whom they were written. According to the brief promo sheet, Matthews enjoys challenging Skærved with technically difficult works while the violinist enjoys being pushed to the limit and responds with some of his most expressive playing.

Certainly, I was captivated by the Fantasia on Paganini’s Second Violin Concerto. Here is a piece that, unlike the majority of such pieces, does not quote too heavily from the original before taking off in its own very different direction. Matthews’ personality comes through clearly: his penchant for out-of-tonality outbursts, rhythmic daring and a level of adventure in everything he writes. And Skærved is the kind of violinist who pushes himself to the max, not only technically but also emotionally, which makes for some exciting, edge-of-your-set listening. In the 3 Chants, Skærved is asked to hum and whistle along with his own playing, to interesting effect. This music is not as technically challenging as the former piece, but strange and wonderful in its own way, evoking strange moods in its long, sustained notes and unusual melodic lines. 4 Australian Birds is written in the same vein as the Chants, but without vocalization. The music is evocative and charming without being sugary sweet or treacly. Matthews mimics the sounds of the birds with occasional portamento effects or high-range “twittering” on the violin strings. In the fourth piece, quarter tones are used to find notes “between the cracks.”

The solo violin sonata, although very challenging technically, is surprisingly short, lasting only 13 minutes (and the third movement is the longest at 5:20). Here, once again, Matthews shows his mastery of form within the parameters of his own unique style, producing interesting, contrasting themes and lines for the soloist to play. Interestingly, in that slow movement, Matthews employs much the same sort of musical and technical effects that he used in the 4 Australian Birds, and Skærved responds with some deeply-felt yet intriguing playing.

The National Anthem is, of course, God Save the Queen (or King, depending on who’s on the throne), played with daring double stops and strong downbow attacks. The other very brief pieces which follow are all basically sound-snapshots in which Matthews pushes Skærved to the limit technically, although An Album Leaf for Sally incorporates these things into a plaintive and lovely melody that is wholly unique.

The 15 Preludes for solo violin alternate slow-moving pieces with rapid ones. Mood is uppermost in the performer’s mind, and Skærved responds with what is now his expected combination of perfect pitch and placement and emotional projection.

The music on this CD is not for casual listening, despite its intimate quality. Moreover, I feel that continuous listening to the complete CD does the music a disservice, as its density somewhat numbs the mind as the album progresses. I would, rather, recommend hearing it a few tracks at a time in order to better appreciate all the remarkable detail that Matthews has put into it.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Natalia Trull Digs Into Prokofiev!

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PROKOFIEV: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-9 / Natalia Trull, pianist / Sorel Classics SC CD 007/8/9

Here’s a rare case of a relatively unknown pianist, coming out of nowhere with a recorded set of major piano sonatas made two decades ago, who astonishingly pushes all contemporary competitors into the dust. If you Google Natalia Trull’s name, you’re going to be disappointed. There’s a pitifully small bio, mostly out of date, on Music Fest Perugia:

Nataliya Trull began studying the piano in St. Petersburg. She later moved to Moscow where she graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. Among her teachers were professors Y. Zak, M. Voskresensky and T. Kravchenko.

Her performance career was launched when she won first prize at the Belgrade International Piano Competition in 1983. However, the biggest success came in 1986 she won the silver medal at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. The public was swept off its feet by her interpretation of composers such as Schubert and Stravinsky. Her “Petroushka” suite left an everlasting impression on the public and critics alike. In 1993, Nataliya Trull was awarded the Grand Prix at the Piano Masters Competition in Monte-Carlo (where only winners of international competitions are accepted as participants).

Nataliya Trull’s complete control and fantastic virtuosity place her in a class of her own, and she is in great demand as a performer all over the world. Among the distinguished orchestras with whom she has performed are the London Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestre de Monte-Carlo, Tonhalle Symphony Orchestra and all of the major Russian Symphony Orchestras. Natalia Trull has also played with such conductors as Raphael Frubeck de Burgos, Raymond Leppard, Jean-Bernard Pommier, Eri Klas, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Vassily Sinaisky, Yuri Temirkanov and many others.

And then there’s this on a website called Quora.com:

Where is Natalia Trull?

Does she still play? Her Prokofiev 3 was stunning.

Posted by Lukasz Yoder, Been pianist in the making for the past 12 years:

My mother is a good friend of hers. Mrs. Trull presently teaches in the Moscow Conservatory of Music, and many of her students have won top prizes (relatively) recently. I recall my mother and her listening on Youtube to one of her students play on the final round of the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition—apparently her student was unaware he had made it to the final round from the semi finals until 24 hours before the competition—he practiced twelve hours non-stop! Unfortunately he did not get anything, but still, quite an accomplishment.

To summarize, she may be taking a break from concertizing, but she is definitely still active as a teacher/lecturer. I also hope she will play more concerts soon—but age takes a toll on everyone.

And that’s it. She came, she won competitions, she gave concerts, she went into teaching. And now, out of nowhere, we suddenly get her 1997 recordings of the Prokofiev sonatas.

In December of last year, I reviewed the second CD of a planned three by Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev on Nimbus Alliance of Prokofiev Sonatas Nos. 1, 2 and 9, and called the performances “stunning.” They were indeed. Yakushev played them with tremendous cohesion and “binding” of phrases, and he had a nice headlong momentum that compared favorably to the legendary 1956 recordings of sonatas 6, 7 and 9 by Sviatoslav Richter, though Richter was much more fiery in certain passages.

Upon first approaching the Trull set, I immediately noted that her movement timings were slower than Yakushev and slower yet than Richter. Normally, this does not bode well. It usually means slack performances that don’t penetrate the angst of the music or produce great dynamism. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Although I did note that Trull relaxed the tempo a shade more than Yakushev in slow passages, taken on their own these performances don’t sound slower than his, although both Trull and Yakushev sound much slower than Richter,. who bulldozes through them at an astonishing pace.

Wondering about this, I pulled up the score of the Sonata No. 7 to check for myself. Surprisingly, Prokofiev wrote no metronome markings, though the movements have unusual titles: “Allegro inquieto,” “Andante calorioso” and “Precipitato.” Here, see for yourself:

Prokofiev 7th 1

But please note that, although there are no tempo markings, there are numerous dynamics markings, including the opening bar played mp, changing to p in bar five, not opening up into a mf until bar 8, and not really roaring until the poco a poco crescendo beginning in bar 12. Richter doesn’t start mp but, rather, in mf, and his passing attempts at a true piano are mere lip service. Trull gives you all of these, and more; and she does this in page after page of sonata after sonata. After comparing Trull to Yakushev in Sonatas 1, 2 and 9, then comparing Yakushov to Richter in No. 9, and further comparing Trull to Richter in Sonata No. 7, I became more and more convinced that it was Natalia Trull who most closely penetrates the heart of this music. When needed, she has the fire and bold attack of Richter, and she makes more of the dynamics contrasts than both he and Yakushev in movement after movement.

This is, quite simply, an astonishing achievement. I can’t even think of another pianist who has played these sonatas better, and that includes Richter, whose performances I now view as a one-off, not necessarily what the composer called for (but still valid in its own way). Another good example of how fantastic she is is the final “Vivace” of the Second Sonata. Yakushev plays it with wonderful clarity of line, as does Trull, but Trull sounds as if she is setting the keyboard on fire and then eating it. She has a way of “dashing” certain passages off as if they were splashes in a pond, yet still articulating cleanly and clearly. And this woman only won the SILVER medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky Competition? Who won the gold, God? (It puts me in mind of the 1935 Wieniawski Violin Competition, where the splendid Henri Temianka came in third. You scratch your head and wonder why until you find out that David Oistrakh came in second and Ginette Neveu came in first.)

In addition to all the musical excellences of her playing, Trull fully captures the dynamism and sense of surprise in every sonata. Absolutely nothing sounds static with her; this music is completely alive under her fingers. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think these were live performances and not studio recordings, so vivid and vital are they.

Overall, the best word I could find to describe her performances was smoldering. The fire is always lit, even in soft passages. There is no “coasting,” no riding on the laurels of her superlative technique, as Martha Argerich has done for 40 years. Argerich is a paper tigress. Trull could eat her alive for breakfast and still have room for a dozen of these efficient machines who win competitions nowadays. That being said, even Trull could not make the Fifth Sonata, which I consider the weakest of the nine, sound interesting to me, although she did her best in the last movement to wake the music up. I was also struck, for the first time, by how much the second movement of the Sixth Sonata sounds like some of the music in his ballet Romeo and Juliet. In the third movement Trull pulls much more out of the music, expression-wise, than Richter did, but here Richter didn’t fully seem to understand what “Lentissimo” meant. Trull’s performance is a minute and a half longer than his, and gains in expression from this.

Natalia-TrullIn certain passages, such as the opening of the Eighth Sonata, Trull creates real magic in the way she phrases and articulates the music. In the second movement of this work, she caresses the line and makes it sing in a way I’ve never quite heard before, almost making it sound like a tune from a Viennese operetta. In the second movement of the Ninth Sonata, she finds much more in the shifting rhythms of the middle section than others. Watching her old performances on YouTube, I noticed a difference in posture between her playing and that of a real idol of mine, Annie Fischer. Petite as she was, Fischer sat bolt upright at the keyboard; all of her power was generated by her muscular arms and shoulders. Trull, who appears to be a small-boned woman, hunches over the keyboard so that you rarely see her face. She attacks here instrument as if she has been sent by a wrecking crew to demolish the keyboard. There may be some shoulder motion here, but a close-up photo reveals that she had small, sloping shoulders. I think all her power is generated by her forearms and full-body energy. It’s quite astonishing to watch!

Needless to say, this recording is a must if you like Prokofiev and particularly the sonatas. No one else even comes close. You could listen to this set of records every day for the next five years and never tire of them, that’s how good they are.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Bill Cunliffe’s “BACHanalia” a Fun Ride

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J.S. BACH: Sleepers Wake.* Goldberg Contraption (arr. Cunliffe). CUNLIFFE: Afluencia. PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 3: I (arr. Cunliffe). C.P.E. BACH: Solfeggietto (arr. Cunliffe).* LEVANT-HEYMAN: Blame it On My Youth. DE FALLA: The Three-Cornered Hat (arr. Cunliffe).* PORTER: I’ve Got You Under My Skin* / Bill Cunliffe Big Band: Wayne Bergeron, John Daversa, Dan Fornero, Jamie Hovorka, Kyle Martines, Kye Palmer, Jon Papenbrook, Terell Stafford, Bob Summers, tpt; Ryan Dragon, Erik Hughes, Alex Iles, Andy Martin, Bob McChesney, Ido Meshulam, Ira Nepus, Francisco Torres, tbn; Ben Devitt, Cody Kleinhans, Bill Reichenbach, bs-tbn; Jeff Driskill, Nathan King, Brian Scanlon, Bob Sheppard, a-sax; Jeff Ellwood, Bob Lockhart, t-sax; Tom Peterson, Adam Schroeder, bar-sax/bs-cl; Bill Cunliffe, pn; John Chiodini, Larry Koonse, gtr; Alex Frank, Jonathan Richards, bs; Joe LaBarbera, dm; *Denise Donatelli, voc / Metre Records M1009

Here’s a fun CD, due out June 2, in which pianist-bandleader Bill Cunliffe mixes some classical themes of two Bachs—J.S. and his son C.P.E.—Prokofiev and Manuel de Falla with jazz. To alternate, he throws in an original tune, a rare Oscar Levant song and a timeless standard by Cole Porter.

I describe the album as a “fun” disc because although the arrangements are clever and swinging, they’re not as sophisticated as those done in the past by Gil Evans, Willem Breuker or Jack Walrath of classical pieces. (Check out Walrath’s great album The Serpent’s Kiss for an example of what I mean.) They are, rather, light and airy, with a lot of space in the big band arrangements, which emphasize a mellow rather than a bright timbral blend. So much is evident from the opening track, a takeoff on J.S. Bach’s Wachet auf, featuring the wordless vocal of Denise Donatelli who appears on four tracks. Cunliffe’s piano solos remind me a bit of Vince Guaraldi and a bit of Gordon Goodwin (whose work I think is vastly underrated by jazz critics). In the band arrangement, Cunliffe plays some nifty tricks with rhythm and key transitions.

This is followed by his own original, Afluencia, which ironically starts off with a dense atonal chord more startling than anything he did to Bach. Following this, however, we are in an irregular Latin-style rhythm (it sounds like 7/4 to me). I should point out that not all of the huge list of names in the header above play on every track, as the album was recorded over a three-year period in different venues with different personnel. On Afluencia and the Prokofiev Piano Concerto, for instance, the only trumpets are Bergeron, Palmer, Stafford and Summers, the only trombones Iles, Martin and McChesney, with Reichenbach on bass trombone, Sheppard and Scanlon on alto saxes and clarinets, etc. It’s too complicated for me to reproduce here, but the info is all in the CD liner notes. Sheppard’s soprano sax dominates Afluencia.

The principal theme of Prokofiev’s concerto is taken way down at a ballad tempo to start with, but quickly morphs into yet another uptempo Latin-styled piece, with Rob Lockhart’s tenor sax pushing the beat with an edgy solo, but this extra-long track (17 minutes), which slowly continues to build in tempo and excitement, is largely a showcase for the ensemble with spot solos. The Latin beat shifts from samba to cha-cha for Cunliffe’s own solo, then relaxes into a swinging 4 for some band ensemble with spot drum breaks. All in all, I felt this was one of the real highlights of the album, a fascinating joy ride on the back of a very serious composer. The multiple tempo changes put me in mind of some of the Boswell Sisters’ great tracks of the 1930s.

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Denise Donatelli

Despite my being a huge fan of C.P.E. Bach, I admit not being able to positively identify the Solfeggietto used here, but then again, the man wrote even more music than his father, which is saying something. This puts us back in a definite and very uptempo swinging 4/4, again focusing on Donatelli’s vocals and Cunliffe’s piano. I was rather amazed to learn that Donatelli was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, not too far from my own birthplace of Shamokin, and that she was originally a classical pianist for 15 years, winning first place in the National Federation of Music Clubs competitions three years consecutively! No wonder she has such great pitch and style.

Levant’s Blame it On My Youth is by far one of the most advanced and sophisticated charts on the set, the tempo taken way down and substitute chording provided to make the piece sound almost contemporary. This is a vehicle for some lovely floated brass-reed combinations and an even lovelier trumpet solo by Terell Stafford which dominates the tune. Following this, Cunliffe creates some fascinating interwoven lines which then fall away into quietude for Larry Koonse’s guitar solo.

J.S. Bach’s principal theme from the Goldberg Variations becomes the impetus for Cunliffe’s arrangement, which he calls Goldberg Contraption. By and large, however, this is a more genial and less complex arrangement than the Prokofiev concerto, despite some nice spot solos and occasional ensemble licks. Much tighter, and more impressive, is his wonderful conception of the theme from de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat ballet. Here Cunliffe pulls out all the stops insofar as rhythmic subtlety and timbral blends are concerned, with a centerpiece of the arrangement being a sudden tempo and theme shift to a fast-moving flamenco-styled passage and back again. Donatelli again appears in spot vocal passages. The tempo is suddenly suspended for a brief trombone appearance by Ido Meshulam, then again for Jon Papenbrook’s trumpet. This is a terrific rewriting of this piece.

The closer is Cole Porter’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin, once again in an asymmetric tempo (basically in 3, but with added beats), and once again with Donatelli on vocals, this time singing the words. It’s a warm, relaxed ride-out to this basically fun album.

Recommended for the Prokofiev and de Falla arrangements, Cunliffe’s Afluencia, and some of the very fine solos.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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