Monk’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” Released at Last

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MONK: Rhythm-a-Ning (2 tks); Crepuscle With Nellie (2 tks); Six in One; Well, You Needn’t. Pannonica (2 tks). Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are. Light Blue. TINDLEY: By and By / Thelonious Monk Quintet: Charlie Rouse, Barney Wilen, t-sax; Thelonious Monk, pn; Sam Jones, bs; Art Taylor, dm / Sam Records/Saga SRS-1-CD

A few years ago, when I was reviewing for a music magazine, I had the pleasure of writing about the jazz-influenced American and European film scores of the 1950s and early ‘60s being released in outstanding boxed sets by Jason Lee Lazell of Moochin’ About records. The only score he missed, I mentioned to him, was Monk’s for Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Lazell told me that the only way you could get the music was from a print of the actual film, which had only been issued on VHS back in the 1980s, was out of print, and very expensive (it was selling, at the time for roughly $200 on eBay). He said that there appeared to be no stand-alone recording of the actual music.

Well, here it is—a whopping 58 years after it was recorded, due for release on June 16. The good news is that Thelonious Monk is still considered a major figure in jazz history, so there are definitely aficionados who will buy it. The sad thing is that, to most younger jazz listeners, Thelonious isn’t even a blip on their musical radar. Tupac Shakur and Louis Armstrong are in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Who’s Thelonious Monk?

For those who don’t know, he was one of the greatest yet fussiest geniuses in jazz. He was notorious for flipping members of his working groups between gigs and even in the middle of a recording contract. Orrin Keepnews recalled a time when he was supervising a Monk album; the leader showed up one week after the first session with three new musicians in tow. He was that fussy. But he was also as hard on himself, and could be very difficult to get to approve takes because he didn’t like his solos. As a composer, he was wholly unique, not fitting into either the swing or bop schools, although his own model as a pianist had been Duke Ellington. He wrote jagged, angular melodies, often with irascible countermelodies pushing hard against them. The late jazz critic Ralph Berton once aptly described him as “the Stravinsky of jazz.” Polyphony was his thing: just listen to Rhythm-a-Ning, Little Rootie Tootie or especially Four in One.

Yet it was as a pianist that Monk drew the most fire from critics. He attacked the keys in a flat-fingered, splayed-hands style that looked for all the world like a rank amateur who never took a lesson in his life, but he knew exactly what he was doing. Behind his back, some musicians referred to him as “Melodious Thunk,” but tt was part of his musical conception. In order to produce music that was rhythmically angular, he had to play the piano in a similar manner. Monk attacked the keyboard the way he did in order to dislocate stress beats and place them in wholly unexpected places: sometimes on 2 and 4, other times on 1 and 3 ½ , elsewhere in the middle of a measure where it made musical sense only to Monk. And it isn’t true that no other jazz pianists admired him. Count Basie adored him; witness that TV jazz special from 1957 where an obviously happy Basie is sitting on the opposite side of the piano, grinning from ear to ear as Monk plays. On the ride home in the cab, Monk turned to his wife Nellie and exploded. “Did you see that m*-f* staring at me?” Nellie replied, “He likes your playing, Thelonious! Be happy!”

Monk was also very self-critical of his own compositions, which is why he wrote so few of them. Considering the length of his career—ranging from his early days at Minton’s Playhouse in 1941 until his last tour with Dizzy Gillespie and the Stars of Jazz in 1971-72 (a tour on which he rarely said a word, even to Dizzy who was one of his closest friends)—Monk’s output is incredibly small, only about three dozen pieces, of which nearly a third are jazz classics (none more so than ‘Round Midnight). Thus this surprisingly wonderful, relaxed session, in which we have complete performances of one new composition (Six in One) and a complete studio performance of Light Blue, is particularly welcome to those of us who still love and honor this quirky but gentle giant of jazz.

It was altogether typical of Monk that even after he agreed to create music for a film, he didn’t bother to look at a script or care where the music fit in. He did sit through a private screening of it in New York a few days before the recording session, but when the time came he and his band just played whatever he wanted which the director then had to cut-and-paste to fit in into the finished product. The session was made, filed away after being snipped up for the film, and then promptly forgotten. Sad to say, this is typically French. Back in 1919, the legendary soprano Emma Calvé made about a dozen records for the French Pathé company, all of which were issued. Evelen years later, they were out of print, so an enterprising classical record collector visited their offices in Paris and asked if they could reissue them. “Calvé?” asked the Pathé executive. “Oh, no, she never recorded for us…she only recorded for La Voix son Maître (His Master’s Voice).” They didn’t even bother to check their own files to see if they had issued those records 11years ago.

Thus producer Zev Feldman, visiting Paris in December 2014, was told that François Le Xuan of Saga Jazz had discovered master tapes of a preciously unissued studio session by Monk made by French producer Marcel Romano. The tape box simply said “Thelonious Monk.” Feldman was duly impressed and thus spent the next two years working with the Thelonious Monk estate to gather in the photos and produce this release. And here it is.

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Art Taylor during a break. Man, that’s one relaxed session!

The sound is warm and clear. For whatever lucky reason, the tapes were taken very good care of and did not deteriorate as so many reel-to-reels have over the years. (Even some of the RCA Victor “Living Stereo” tapes oxidized over time, and they had pretty good care.) Of course, I haven’t a clue where this music fit into the film, having never seen it, but it is certainly one of the most relaxed, laid-back Monk sessions I’ve ever heard. Thelonious was obviously in a carefree mood that day. Now, in his case laid-back does not equate to smooth jazz, but by and large this is as close as you’re ever going to get to a late-at-night, deep in the blues Monk album. the playing is so transcendent that it zones you out. You get into the Now listening to these tracks, and the sound quality is so magnificent that it almost sounds as if the band is right in the room with you. I can almost pretend that I’m up at Baroness Nica’s New York apartment around one in the morning, sipping a cocktail and digging this set. Had the band played ‘Round Midnight on this set, that would have made a perfect title for the album. It’s got that kind of vibe about it. Even Well, You Needn’t, normally a very uptempo piece for Monk, is played at a nice medium tempo of the sort that has since disappeared from jazz. Charlie Rouse still has that bluesy edge to his solos that were his trademark, but the rest of the band just floats. Like, way out, man!

And if you want proof of what I stated earlier in this review about Monk’s piano playing, listen carefully to Six in One. This is what I meant about his ability to subtly add or shift the stress beats within a bar to suit his mood. (One other thing: if Monk’s pianism was as bad as they said, why did he almost never slip up or hit a klunker? He always played exactly the “right” notes than he wanted to play.) The two brief takes of Pannonica almost sound shy in comparison to some of his other performances/recordings of this well-known piece. Yes, indeed, Monk was in a relaxed mood for this session.

The recording session sheet reveals other tunes played and recorded that day which, for one reason or another, didn’t make it to CD. Among them is a minute and a half rehearsal of Off Minor, three stabs at Epistrophy (only one of the takes longer than 49 seconds), and two off-the-cuff improvisations. All were false starts or breakdowns. This was a typical Monk recording session: what came out well came out, the rest was to be scrapped. Interestingly, I found his playing in the quartet version of Pannonica even better and tighter than his playing in the two solo takes. Oddly, Barney Wilen misses a note or two here and there, as in the theme statement of Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are, but then again, he wasn’t a regular band member.

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Baroness Nica von Konigswarter, left, and Monk during a session break.

Seventeen pages of photos from the session, eight of them in a sort of faded color (they almost look like tinted B&W pics), shows how relaxed the session really was. There are two glimpses of Nica, both times sitting in a corner watching and listening, and two of Nellie, one a close-up and the other a shot of her back as she stood off to the side.

As the set goes on, there are some wonderful surprises, particularly this unusual reading of Light Blue. Art Taylor sets up a backbeat tom-tom rhythm, which gives the piece a wacky sort of feel as if the rest of the band was trying to wrest the tune away from the drum kit…and it ends in the middle of nowhere. Another is the alternate take of Rhythm-a-Ning that starts CD 2, as tight and exciting a performance as you’re likely to hear, considerably different from the tone of the rest of the music. Wilen is terrific on this one while the leader just plays a repeated two-note lick for his first chorus before opening up in the second.

The second CD ends with a 14 minute, 13 second outtake of the making of Light Blue. A lot of time is spent on Taylor playing his weird drum lick. At one point Monk says, “Just keep doin’ it, I’ll come in!” But it’s obvious that neither the drummer nor the rest of the band could figure out what the heck was in Thelonious’ mind. “Just keep counting to yourself!” he shouts at one point, when one of the tenor saxists plays the melody but then drops out. “The…the bass has got to play on the upbeat,” Monk explains to Taylor at one point. “You know when you’re coming in on the downbeat, you’re wrong!” Only Monk could keep this kind of rhythmic oddity clear in his mind. I recalled the old story about Monk rowing a boat in the pond at Central Park one afternoon. The ducks on the pond were quacking in one rhythm, he was rowing in another, and the New York traffic was honking and squealing in their own. “Man, that’s polyphony!” he suddenly exclaimed.

All in all, then, a good set with at least three outstanding performances. Would we think as highly of it had it been originally released in 1960 or ’61? Hard to tell. Sometimes just having a rare set by a jazz legend (witness Bill Evans’ Black Forest set) is enough to spark waves of adulation and awards. But for me, personally, it’s always great to hear Monk play, particularly during this period of time when he was still in his prime.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Fascinating Songs by a Singing Legend

 

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VIARDOT: Mein Fluss. Der Gärtner. Er ist’s. Nixe Binsefuß. In der Frühe. Das Verlassene Mägdlein. Die Soldatenbraut. Agnes. Morgenlied. Im April. Zwei Rosen. Der Gefangene. Auf die Rose. Die Meise. Auf Grusiens Hügeln. O Sing, du Schöne, Sing mir Nicht. Märchen. Verlangen. Des Nachts. Die Kapelle. Die Klagende. Rätsel. Das Blümlein. Das Vöglein. Allein. Die Sterne. Die Beschwörung / Miriam Alexandra, soprano; Eric Schneider, pianist / Oehms Classics OC 1878

Pauline Viardot-Garcia (1821-1910), the kid sister of opera legend Maria Malibran, grew up to become as accomplished an artist—possibly even more so—than her sibling. By age six she was fluent in Spanish, English, French and Italian, and in later life added German and learned Russian so perfectly that when she sang Russian songs she was mistaken for a native. Originally an accomplished pianist, she took lessons with Franz Liszt and counterpoint-harmony classes with Anton Reicha, but her mother moved her in the direction of singing once her father, Manuel Sr., died in 1832. By the 1850s she was considered the most musically superb and dramatically interesting mezzo-soprano in all of Europe. She created Fidès in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète. She sang the mezzo part in the performance of Mozart’s Requiem at Chopin’s funeral in 1849. Hector Berlioz wrote his arrangement of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurudice specifically for her, which she performed with him in 1858, and he had her in mind as Dido in his opera Les Troyens, which she strongly encouraged him to compose. Unfortunately, by the time Troyens was to be performed at the Paris Opéra in 1863, Viardot’s voice was in serious decline despite her relatively young age (she was only 41 years old), thus he assigned the role to another singer. But losing her voice didn’t stop her from teaching singing, just as it didn’t stop her older brother Manuel Garcia Jr., who had been a baritone, when he lost his voice before the age of 36. She taught a great many famous singers and pedagogues and died, full of honors, in 1910.

This superb collection of her own songs is a revelation. There’s not a single dull, uninteresting, or poorly-written piece on this album. If you were to hear this disc in a blindfold test, you would swear that these were songs by Schubert or perhaps even Schumann. That’s how good they are. The lively rhythms, lyrical melodies, interesting chord changes and ways of capturing the mood of each song bespeaks a master composer. So why haven’t we heard more of her work?

Beats me. There are collections of her music by Ina Kancheva (Toccata Classics), Isabel Bayrakdarian (Analekta), Julia Sukmanova (Fontenay Classics), Marina Comparato (Brilliant Classics) and Gyorgyi Dombradi (Ars Musici), and only the latter has a voice so fluttery as to detract from the quality of the music. In all of these, one is consistently impressed by the force of this woman’s writing, particularly in the piano parts which are generally even more brilliant and difficult than those in Schubert’s songs. In addition, violinist Ulf Schneider has recording her Violin Sonatine and 6 Moreceaux for violin on Ars Musici.

One of the most impressive songs on this album is Die Gefangene with its loping, “walking” tempo and feel, which in the second chorus morphs as the piano suddenly begins playing little fluttery 16ths on the second beat of each bar (the song is in 3/4) to break up the tempo a little. This is also a rare minor-key song for her, being in E minor.

As to the performances, pianist Eric Schneider is superb, able to make even the most difficult passages sound easy, and soprano Miriam Alexandra has a pure, clear soubrette voice. She only gives a generalized feeling of each piece, however; not for her the probing, brooding interpretations of Kancheva on Toccata Classics. This is a small drawback but a drawback nonetheless. Considering what an emotional, full-blooded woman and singer Pauline was, I would have liked rather more feeling in these performances, but it’s nice to have them sung by a soprano who at least has a fine voice and crystal-clear diction. Her only real drawback is the lack of a good, rich low range, which is a bit ironic considering that Viardot was a full-blooded mezzo-soprano. Other than that, these performances are clearly good enough to give one a good impression of these songs, each of which is a little gem.

In this particular song group, none of them really touch upon darker moods, but I’ve listened to one or two of Viardot’s Russian songs and those are much moodier. She was just a fine composer, plain and simple, and someone out there should be programming an entire evening of her songs…perhaps interspersed with some piano and violin pieces!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Rathaus’ Unusual Violin Sonatas Recorded

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RATHAUS: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Suite for Violin & Piano / Karolina Piatkowska-Nowicka, violinist; Bogumiła Weretka-Bajdor, pianist / Dux 1347

How many classical listeners have ever heard, or heard of, Karol Rathaus? Well, OK, the name doesn’t really suggest a fun experience. You almost expect the kind of well-written but turgid music that Max Reger churned out by the double handful. But, as it turns out, Rathaus wrote music that was both angular and modern on the one hand and rhythmically buoyant on the other. A strange combination, to say the least.

One of Franz Schreker’s favorite pupils at the Academy of Performing Arts and Music in Vienna, Rathaus followed him to the Berlin Music Academy. Upon graduation, Rathaus accepted a position as a teacher of composition and music theory at the Berlin University of the Arts, where he stayed until Hitler and the Nazis assumed power (pace Wikipedia).

Rathaus’ music combines superb form with deep feeling. It’s difficult to listen to these pieces without being emotionally drawn in; in this respect he was different from the equally brilliant Erwin Schulhoff, whose music is brilliant and fascinating but works strictly on a surface level. Of course, the emotional impact of any music is as much dependent on the performer as the composer, and in this case Rathaus is fortunate yo have two such passionate champions as violinist Piatkowska-Nowicka, whose lean, brilliant timbre explores these scores with great intensity, and pianist Weretka-Bajdor, who plays with a wonderful feeling for line and mood. Because of these scores’ angular construction the music is difficult to describe in words, but one thing I particularly liked about them was the fact that the musical construction is clear and easy to follow even when the melodic line and harmonies are not. This helps considerably in making a connection with any listener who is not immediately negative towards them due to their style.

Indeed, as these works progress, the depth and profundity of Rathaus’ music grabs you more and more. It’s so rare to find works of this quality in such great performances nowadays that I almost lost track of my “critical faculties” and just listened for the sheer enjoyment of it. To me, that’s the mark of a truly great recording. You don’t even feel the need to analyze because every note and phrase has a meaning and a message. One detail I particularly loved, though, was the way the third movement of the second Violin Sonata followed so quickly on the heels of the mysterious, brooding final note of the second movement. That was sheer genius on Rathaus’ part.

The Suite for Violin & Piano takes a deliberately less serious tone than the sonatas. Rathaus’ musical syntax is pretty much the same, but here he penetrates less emotionally, preferring to ride the surface of the music. Ironically, this would be a powerful violin sonata for almost any modern composer I can think of, because despite the less penetrating insight the music is extremely well written and fascinating. The last movement is a virtual moto perperual of modern harmonies in a bouncing rhythm—at least until the final E major chord on the piano, outside the home key, which suddenly ends the piece in the middle of nowhere!

Despite the brevity of this review, I cannot praise this album highly enough. You need to hear these performances of this music.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Getting to the Heart of Paganini

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PAGANINI: 24 Caprices for Solo Violin / Edson Scheid, violinist / Naxos 9.70264

PAGANINI: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-6 / Alexandre Dubach, violinist; Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo; Michel Sasson, Lawrence Foster, conductors / Brilliant Classics BC99582

In my review of Paganini’s Caprices as played by Rachel Barton Pine, I made it clear (or hope I did!) that her performances were an interesting excursion, a different “take” on the music using vocal bel canto techniques and applying them to the violin. But if you’re looking for Paganini’s music as he himself probably played it, you need to look elsewhere.

Why? Because Paganini was not only the most astonishing violin virtuoso of his time, he was also an exciting and dynamic player. He attacked the strings of his instrument as if he were trying to break them. As Peter Gutmann put it on his music blog,[1]

Paganini’s violin skill was sensational, perhaps the greatest ever. True, he “cheated” just a bit by flattening his bridge (to facilitate bowing from one string to another), used thin strings (to add brilliance and boost harmonics) and tuned unconventionally (to smooth the fingering of intricate passages). He owed his renown not only to raw talent, but to grueling work spurred by his parents – an overbearing father who starved him into practicing full-time, and an approving mother who viewed this cruelty as fulfilling a dream in which an angel had promised that her son would become the world’s greatest violinist.

To stretch himself, Paganini often wrote pieces even he couldn’t play and then spent months mastering them. Even for today’s luminaries, their challenges are formidable. Among their terrors are widely spaced notes (gliding between the outside strings without sounding the inner ones), a “skipping bow” (divided into up to l8 distinct notes without changing direction), sustaining a lush melody on one string while playing trills or rapid harmony on another, bowing to imitate the sound of flutes and horns, wildly chromatic runs, trilled octaves and arpeggiated guitar-like chords, all to be played with the seemingly impossible combination of furious speed and consummate grace.

Unfortunately, what Paganini accomplished requires extraordinarily hard work from even the most accomplished of violinists, even today; and because today’s violinists are trained to be cautious in performance, most of them somehow miss the sheer excitement of his music. For many years, for instance, I loved Yehudi Menuhin’s recordings of the first two Paganini Violin Concertos because of their charm and grace. Yet although Menuhin dutifully reproduced what was on the printed page, and gave the music some impetus, he lacked the sheer ferocity of the original’s own playing. Most violinists do.

That is why, as an alternate to the Pine recording of the Caprices, I am now recommending the superb 2016 recording by Edson Scheid. But don’t watch Scheid play any of the caprices on YouTube, even though the videos are there, because you’ll be disappointed. He’s as motionless as a statue when he plays, which is nothing like the pacing, tiger-like Paganini. But at least he sounds exciting, which is the whole point of a recording.

As for the concertos, they were given their finest readings ever in the 1990s by Swiss violinist Aklexandre Dubach. Dubach must have spent years mastering this music, because the way he tosses off the most difficult passages is simply astonishing. Moreover, he plays with more élan and somewhat more drive than Menuhin did. He manages to make those crazy passages of rapid, successive pizzicato notes sound as weird and savage as I believe Paganini himself did.

That being said, I didn’t much care for the music of the third and sixth concertos. All three of the discs in the Brilliant Classics set were originally issued singly on Claves, and those releases are still available. I recommend getting Vols. 1 and 2, which includes Concertos 1, 2, 4 and 5. That’s really all you need.

One thing I found interesting was the corollary between Paganini’s violin concertos and the music of Chopin. The Polish pianist-composer wrote his own piano concertos in a similar vein: tuneful but open melodies which allows for the soloist to stretch out and dominate the proceedings. In addition, there’s a tune in the first movement of the first Paganini Concerto that closely resembles the main theme from Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, later adapted for the pop song I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.

The performances on these discs are superb, and both are highly recommended.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

[1] http://www.classicalnotes.net/classics/paganini.html

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Roberta Peters’ Forgotten Recital

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ROBERTA PETERS IN RECITAL / J.S. BACH: St. Matthew Passion: I follow with gladness. Ich hatte viel Bekümmerus Seufzer, BWV 21. HANDEL: L’Allegro ed il Penseroso: Sweet bird that shuns’t the noise of folly. A. SCARLATTI: Io vi miro ancor vestitle, H. 664. SCHUMANN: Liederkreis: Mondnacht. Röseliein, Röselein. Frühlingsnacht. STRAUSS: Morgen. Amor. DEBUSSY: Apparition. Fleur des blés. RAVEL: L’Enfant et les Sortilges: Arrière! le réchauffe les bons / Roberta Peters, soprano; George Trovillo, pianist; unidentified flautist / originally issued as RCA Victor LSC-2379, available for free streaming at Internet Archive

The late soprano Roberta Peters burst onto the American musical scene in the early 1950s, already a finished artist at a very young age. She was as much admired for her sober, conscientous acting style and her impeccable musicianship as she was for the brilliance and accuracy of her voice and her attractive, petite presence. Naturally, New York being New York, there was no thought of putting her in contemporary works in which her voice and presence might have actually “sold” a reactionary audience on more modern music. Oh, no, we can’t upset the people who like Tunes and Arias. And so Peters sang the standard “coloratura soprano” fare: Rosina, Lucia, Gilda, Norina etc. with an occasional Euridice in Gluck’s opera thrown in for interest. And of course she sang the Queen of the Night. Don’t they all?

But Peters in recital eschewed this stunt music in favor of real, meaty works, pieces she had come to love during her years of intense study under William Pierce Herman, a strange, eccentric vocal coach who taught his pupils to produce their voices via intercostal breathing rather than diaphragmmatic pressure. Herman ruined most of the voices he worked on, but somehow or other Peters blossomed under him. Perhaps her very small physiognomy had something to do with it, but although she had to give up the notes above high D-flat once she gave birth to her twins, she maintained her voice for nearly 40 years, quite unusual for a soubrette. I heard her twice in person during the latter part of her career: once as Zerlina in Don Giovanni opposite Sherrill Milnes (Edda Moser was the Donna Anna), and once in recital, in Cincinnati, during the mid-1980s. I was astonished at how well she had kept her voice.

This album, recorded in 1960, gives us the best of both worlds: Peters’ earlier, fresher voice and her already well-developed sense of artistry. Her performance of the well-known Handel showpiece Sweet bird that shuns’t the noise of folly is one of the crown jewels of this set with its perfectly-articulated runs and trills (although not as rapidly tossed off as Nellie Melba had done in the early years of the 20th century). But so too is her performance of I follow with gladness from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, her splendid lieder performances, and the French material by Debussy and Ravel. What a pity that the Met never saw fit to stage Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges with Peters in the cast; she’d have been outstanding in it.

In the softer lied, particularly Schumann’s Mondnacht and Strauss’ Morgen, Peters faces the same challenge that Elisabeth Schumann had. Their voices were penny-bright, which made it hard for them to float tones in songs that required a more opaque sound. Both sopranos compensated by lightening their breath pressure somewhat. If the effect here is not quite as magical as when these songs were sung by soft-grained male singers, such as Leo Slezak or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, they are effective performances nonetheless. Peters is predictably good in Schumann’s Röselein, Röselein and Debussy’s Apparition. Pianist George Trovillo accompanies her sensitively, and the sadly anonymous flautist is also very good.

So what happened to this recital? It went out of print, as all such albums did in those days, although perhaps quicker than the Red Seal recitals by Cesare Valletti or the highly popular Mario Lanza. By the late 1960s it was forgotten, although it did turn up livingstereobanner2now and then in New York’s used LP stores for a pretty penny. Then, in 2005, it was issued on CD for the first and only time as part of Sony Classical’s 60-CD set, The Living Stereo Collection, a hodgepodge including both vocal and instrumental discs made between 1957 and 1964, the peak years of this technology. (Ironically, this reissue omitted the 1957 Monteux-conducted Orfeo ed Eurudice featuring Risë Stevens and Peters.) And then, just like that, the album disappeared again. Forever.

And so, in the spirit of providing my readers with great art that does not deserve to be lost, I’ve posted a liink to the sound files of this superb album. And where did I get them? Why, from Sony’s “Freegal” system of (and I quote) “free and legal downloads,” provided to me by my local library. All I needed to acquire them was my library card number and a passcode. If I can get them for free, so can anyone else with a library card. So here it is, complete and intact, for your enjoyment.

You’re welcome.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Antheil’s Orchestral Works Get a New Reading

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ANTHEIL: Over the Plains. Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5 / BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; John Storgårds, conductor / Chandos 10941

Having started a series of CDs on the music of Aaron Copland, the BBC Philharmonic is now embarking on a series of CDs devoted to the music of “bad boy” George Antheil. This is the first installment in that series.

To a certain extent, Antheil may be seen as the antithesis to Copland. The latter’s music was primarily tuneful, using several traditional American folk songs as its basis, whereas Anthiel’s was angular, choppy and full of unexpected surprises. Yet both composers tended to mellow out as time went on, and it’s interesting that the orchestra chose to begin its Antheil series with lae-period works. Moreover, the CD opens with the formerly unrecorded Over the Plains, which sounds so much like a Copland work from the early 1940s (borrowing, as it does, on cowboy music) that I was a bit taken aback. Yes, the orchestra plays the music in a sprightly manner, and yes, it does have some unexpected twists that only Antheil could have thought up, but still. It’s just a lightweight piece of musical fluff.

Not so the craggy, Shostakovich-like Fourth Symphony, subtitled by the year in which it was written, “1942.” Indeed, one might almost hear this as a more tightly constructed, Americanized version of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, given its American premiere that year by Arturo Toscanini. In the first movement, Antheil even presages Shostakovich—whose score he couldn’t possibly have heard or seen at the time of writing—by utilizing a quasi-French dance-like melody, as the Russian composer did with the “Maxim’s” song in his Seventh. One difference is that it comes much earlier in the score, in fact just a couple of minutes into the first movement. Another is that Antheil intensifies its impact by slowly tightening up the tempo and adding clashing harmonies and shrill trumpet and flute passages, until finally it assumes almost Mahlerian stature. Interestingly, the composer himself bristled at suggestions that he had been influenced by the Russian composer’s Seventh Symphony, pointing out that the theme he used in the first movement came from his own 1930 opera Transatlantic. But it’s still a fascinating parallel. Typically of Anthiel, he had to throw this back in the critics’ faces, writing, “I am not going to change my style to please said critics: finders is keepers.”

The orchestration, however, is very typically Antheil, full of bright sonorities and even a xylophone madly jangling behind the brass and winds as the theme becomes more martial and threatening. The very Mahler-like second movement “Allegro” has a startling theme and, later, the wonderful use of a counter-melody played by the basses in bowed eighth notes against a more angular tune played by a solo flute. This eventually gives way to a more relaxed, tonal theme which he develops quite interestingly. I should point out that although Theodor Kuchar’s recording of this symphony with the Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra is somewhat faster in tempo, I actually prefer Storgårds’ phrasing, which is more lyrical and more finely shaded in dynamics. Storgårds is also more dramatic in his use of the musical material.

The third movement turns away from references to Shostakovich or Mahler; both melodically and rhythmically, it is closer to the Antheil of the late 1920s/early ‘30s, although it is very light in both tone and orchestration. In the fourth we return to a more dramatic frame of mind, its initial theme interrupted by brash, double-time figures played in an equally brash manner by the brass, winds and that darn xylophone again. It comes to a very dramatic, crashing, yet positive end.

The Fifth Symphony is actually the second that Antheil wrote with that title. It seems that he initially wrote a very sorrowful, angst-ridden work with that title, but put it aside and never formally adopted it as one of his symphonic works. In its place, he wrote this continuous, jolly work—its subtitle is “Joyous”—which premiered under Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1948. Shortly thereafter it was performed at Carnegie Hall, where Virgil Thomson reviewed it quite positively. There are some auditors who hear in it a “copy” of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, but I find it considerably different, particularly in its construction which is much better and less rambling than the Prokofiev work. (Others hear it as being influenced by the Shostakovich Fifth, but I don’t hear that at all.) Oddly, I found my attention drifting during the second movement. It’s well written but doesn’t really say very much. I’m glad Thomson liked it.

The third movement bears some resemblance to the “Game of Pairs” from Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, but Antheil becomes a bit too garrulous and repetitious here. Overall, it’s a good piece, and Storgårds certainly conducts it well, but I just wasn’t convinced by it.

A split review, then. Over the Plains, pretty good. The Fourth Symphony, excellent. The Fifth Symphony, meh. What can I tell you? That’s how it struck me!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Molly Kien’s Music Fluid, Moving

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KIEN: Pyramids.* Song of Britomartis.+ Smarginatura* / Västerås Sinfonietta; *Eva Ollikainen, +Anna-Maria Helsing, conductors; Laura Stephenson, harpist / db Productions CD173

Molly Kien is a 38-year-old American composer who moved to Sweden in 2002. This was my initial exposure to her music and, while my very first impression of the opening of Pyramids was of floating sounds that didn’t go anywhere, I let the music continue and discovered something wild and wonderful.

At about the three-minute mark, the music of Pyramids opens up and blossoms. All those little “fills” one heard earlier from the clarinet now becomes the impetus for a new theme that suddenly develops into something quite powerful and moving. Little violin figures play across the top line of the music, trumpets and tympani work their way in and out of the orchestral texture, and before long we have a fairly complex and powerful piece of music. Eventually the busy activity recedes and a solo viola plays a slow, still theme while the rest of the orchestra makes commentary around it. The tempo doubles as the trumpets and tymps re-enter, now making a more dramatic, almost sinister statement. The volume recedes, slow-moving whole notes float across the musical landscape, but edgy string figures and pounding tympani continue to push the music along. Edgy flute tremolos suddenly end the piece—what a wild ride!

But if you thought Pyramids wild, wait until you hear Song of Britomartis. Here, Kien seems to be combining a somber ground bass (played by basses and cellos) from the 18th century with strange, edgy figures which swirl around in the winds and brass, playing together. The juxtaposition of these two disparate musical styles somehow coalesces, particularly when the other instruments swell up from the bottom of their registers and move, as if in a wave, slowly up the scale together. This then recedes, allowing solo harpist Laura Stephenson to play a secondary theme that sounds both prescient and a bit sinister. Soft, almost hushed string tremolos work behind the harp, along with sprinkles from triangle and other similar percussion, as Kien creates a unique soundscape that captivates listeners and sucks them in. And here Kien manages to keep her balancing act up for nearly 20 minutes! Her ear for color is extraordinary: listen to the way she uses the lower reed instruments or sometimes maintains a thread of music with the barest of orchestration. My readers who follow my blog know full well that I am not a fan of “ambient classical” or “neo-classical chamber,” but Kien finds a way of making her strange, floating music work because it is never stagnant or predictable. It keeps on moving, shifting and developing, in the process pulling the listener along with it. At about the 15:10 mark, strange, slow-moving bitonal chords flow behind the solo harpist, shifting and leading the ear further and further away from the established tonality. This is fascinating music. Little flurries of orchestral activity come and go as the music nears its conclusion.

Smarginatura begins with slithering figues played by what sounds like a combination of soft trumpets and clarinets; other high instruments sprinkle the music with their color until a forlorn oboe wends its way in and out of the ongoing texture. Having nearly 25 minutes to play in, Kien continues to add rhythms and textures as her music progresses. She plays around with minimalism in the form of a repeated string figure, but since the underlying music continually shifts and morphs it’s not really minimalist. Eventually a busier, double-time string figure comes on the scene, eventually forcing the rest of the orchestra to pick up its pace. Eventually this tug-of-war between the double time string figure and the slower theme played by the orchestra leads to a great deal of wind section chattering before it melts away, leaving floated clarinet and string chords (in different keys) playing against one another. The strings temporarily recede, leaving the winds to carry on for a while, but not for long. Staccato trumpets figures enter the picture, followed in turn by snare drum and lower winds; then another relaxation into an entirely different string figure accompanied by chimes and triangle. To a certain extent, Kien’s orchestration is as much if not more of a component of her music than the harmonic-melodic movement; one really cannot conceive of these pieces sounding the same, or even being as effective, played by smaller forces or different instruments. The motoric shifts in accent, tempo and meter between the different sections of the orchestra have a very specific function in her scores and, by extension, a very specific emotional impact on the listener. It’s kind of like imagining Ligeti’s Atmospheres played by a piano trio. The notes might indeed be identical, but the sound and impact would be radically different.

This is a fine, interesting album of music by a composer I hope to hear much more of in the future.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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