Rodziński Conducts 20th Century Music

Rodzinski

SZYMANOWSKI: Violin Concerto No. 2.* Stabat Mater.+ STRAVINSKY: The Firebird – Suite. SCRIABIN: Symphony No. 3, “The Divine Poem.” SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 2 / *Henryk Szeryng, violinist; +Adriana Martino, soprano; +Anna Maria Rota, contralto; +Renato Capecchi, baritone; +RAI Turin Chorus; RAI Orchestras of *Rome and Turin; Artur Rodziński, conductor / Datum DAT 12306, mono (live: *Rome – March 18, 1955; Turin – April 1, 1955 [Sibelius]; April 3, 1955 [Stravinsky]; February 22, 1958 [Scriabin]; April 18, 1958 [Stabat Mater])

Artur Rodziński (1892-1958) was one of my favorite conductors and, in my view, second in excellence over a long period of time only to Arturo Toscanini, who he idolized. The reason I say this is that Rodziński is the only conductor to ever achieve the same brilliance and transparency of sound that Toscanini did. Under his guidance, orchestras played in an almost 3-D manner; you heard everything, even the third wind parts or those little back-of-the-orchestra brass interjections that often get obscured in others’ readings. In addition, he equaled Toscanini in the intensity of his performances. Every Rodziński performance, broadcast and recording was, it seemed, a matter of life and death. There was no coasting when he conducted, and he reportedly kept a loaded pistol in his jacket pocket to ward off attacks by disgruntled orchestra members!

Artur Rodzinski

Like Toscanini, Rodziński was neurotic and screamed at his orchestras in rehearsal…actually, far more often than Toscanini. But whereas Toscanini was always able to separate his professional demeanor from his personal relationships, Rodziński was incapable of being calm, even offstage. Norman Lebrecht, no fan of either conductor, constantly refers to him as “the combustible Pole.” Yet it was he who made both the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1929-1933) and the Cleveland Orchestra (1933-1943) major American symphonies during his tenure there, he who revived the New York Philharmonic from its doldrums after six years of John Barbirolli (1943-47), and he who also brought the Chicago Symphony up to its formerly great level during his one year there, 1947-48. Most of Rodziński’s problems stemmed from his quick firing of orchestra members without consulting management, although there were also arguments over programming works and choosing which guest soloists could perform with the orchestra.

After he was booted by the Chicago Symphony, his career went into a tailspin. Not having Toscanini’s big name and reputation, he spent most of the 1950s guest-conducting British and Italian orchestras. He did make great recordings for Westminster of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony and the same composer’s complete Nutcracker ballet, and just before his death a batch of excellent stereo recordings for EMI, but those were among his few excursions into the recording studio. Most of his later career is documented via mono Italian broadcasts, primarily of operas: Prokofiev’s War and Peace, Mussorgsky’s Khovanchina and Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Ironically, after his doctor warned him that further conducting activity would seriously damage his weak heart, he returned to the U.S. to lead a spectacular performance of Tristan und Isolde in Chicago with soprano Birgit Nilsson. The reviews were sensational; his reputation was restored; and then he died. This set, originally issued in 1993 and now made available again, contains some of his most interesting orchestral performances.

The problem is that Datum, an Italian label, scraped away so much of the original surface noise that they cut back too severely on the treble. This has made Rodziński, one of the brightest-timbred conductors in the world, sound dull and muddy, which is a completely false impression. I found that I had to boost the treble of the Szymanowski performances by a little more than 6db, the others by about 4db, excepting the Stravinsky which only needed a 1.5db boost. Once you do this, however, you will find that you have recordings that resemble the sound profile of a Rodziński orchestra. Even so, the Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 2 with Szeryng remains stubbornly dry as dust. I juiced it up with some room reverb, which helped quite a bit.

The liner notes make a much bigger deal out of the superb playing in these unusual works by the RAI orchestras of Rome (the Violin Concerto) and Turin, and indeed they do play well, but you have to give a lot of credit to Rodziński for his hard work. Szymanowski and Scriabin, in particular, were foreign musical languages to Italian orchestras of that time; to the best of my knowledge, not even younger Italian conductors like Giulini or Abbado were conducting that music in those years. Yet they give their all, and considering how little Rodziński had the chance to conduct Szymanowski’s music in the U.S. (orchestra board members were allergic to his music, even more so than Mahler), I was delighted to hear how idiomatic they were. Of course, in the Violin Concerto he had one of the great violinists of the day to play it with him, and that probably helped, too, but he got some really fine singing out of his Italian vocalists in the Stabat Mater. This is a performance that, for all its sonic limitations, goes right to the top of my recommendations for this work. The vocal soloists are first-rate; I was pleasantly surprised by the richness of Renato Capecchi’s voice (it thinned out considerably by the mid-1960s) and the fine singing of the little-known soprano Adriana Martino. Mezzo Anna Maria Rota is her usual excellent self, and I was really impressed by how well the RAI Turin chorus sings. All things being equal, the Firebird Suite is very fine but there are other performances out there of equal value and excitement, among them a contemporary broadcast by André Cluytens with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Yes, Rodziński brings out some extra transparency here and there, but Stravinsky’s score lends itself to this sort of thing anyway.

The performance of Scriabin’s Third Symphony, popularly known as “The Divine Poem,” makes one recall the incident that led to the permanent rift between Rodziński and Toscanini. In 1938 Rodziński programmed this work with the NBC Symphony, but during rehearsal Toscanini complained that he didn’t have the required number of extra trombones. Rodziński told him that he had asked for them, but the network brass refused to supply them. Toscanini angrily stormed into the NBC offices complaining, but was supposedly shown a letter from Rodziński stating that he understood the financial expense and would make do without them. No one has ever actually produced this letter, however, and knowing Rodziński’s high standards and explosive temper, it sounds unlikely. Still, Toscanini was convinced that Rodziński had chosen to do without them and lied to him. They eventually became cordial to each other in later years, but were never friendly again. I would presume that this performance has the extra trombones, and it is absolutely splendid—taut yet beautifully phrased, with chiseled rhythms propelling the music through its arc and excellent unity of the work’s structure.

This program concludes with the Sibelius Second Symphony, a work that just barely qualifies as a “20th-century work” (it was written in 1902). For me, as for the composer, the recording by his good friend Robert Kajanus is the sine qua non of performances, but both Toscanini’s version with the BBC Symphony and this Rodziński performance are pretty stiff competition. What he may lack in spiritual quality is more than made up for in the evolving sense of drama. So many modern conductors perform Sibelius in a “soft” way nowadays that it would be good for them to hear a performance of this quality and learn from it.

My bottom-line assessment is that this is overall a set of terrific performances in need of sonic enhancement. I’ve noted at Presto Classical that it’s available as a download for $10. I recommend that you buy it that way, juice up the treble as I explained in the fourth paragraph, and burn it to CDs that way. Bon appetit!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Kegel’s Great “Carl Orff Edition” Reissued

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ORFF: Die Kluge / Karl-Heinz Stryczek, baritone (King); Reiner Süss, bass (Peasant); Magdalena Falewicz, soprano (Peasant’s Daughter); Horand Friedrich, bass (Jailer); Eberhard Büchner, tenor (Man with Donkey); Siegfried Lorenz, baritone (Man with Mule); Harald Neukirch, tenor (1st Vagabond); Wolfgang Hellmich, baritone (2nd Vagabond); Hermann Christian Polster, bass (3rd Vagabond); Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Leipzig; Herbert Kegel, conductor (rec. 1980)

ORFF: Der Mond / Eberhard Büchner, tenor (Narrator); Fred Teschler, bass; Horst Lunow, baritone; Helmut Klotz, tenor; Armin Terzibaschian, bass (Four Young Men who Steal the Moon); Wilfried Schaal, baritone (Peasant); Hans-Joachim Hegewald, speaker (Mayor); Paul Glahn, speaker (Innkeeper); Reiner Süss, bass (St. Peter); Rundfunkchor & Sinfonirorchester Leipzig; Herbert Kegel, conductor (rec. 1970)

ORFF: Carmina Burana / Celestina Casapietra, soprano ; Horst Hiestermann, tenor; Karl-Heinz Stryczek, baritone; Dresden Boys’ Chorus; Rundfunkchor & Sinfonirorchester Leipzig; Herbert Kegel, conductor (rec. 1974)

ORFF: Catulli Carmina / Ute Mai, soprano (Lesbia); Eberhard Büchner, tenor (Catullus); Jutta Czapski, Günter Philipp, Wolfgang Wappler, Gerhard Erber, pianists; Rundfunkchor Leipzig & Percussion of the Sinfonirorchester Leipzig; Herbert Kegel, conductor (rec. 1971)

ORFF: Trionfo di Afrodite / Isabella Nawe, soprano (La Sposa); Eberhard Büchner, tenor (La Sposo); Renate Krahmer, soprano (Corifea/Soprano I); Horst Hiesterman, tenor (Corifeo); Reiner Süss, bass (Corifeo); Regina Werner, soprano (Soprano II); Karl-Heinz Stryczek, baritone (Baritone solo); Rundfunkchor Leipzig & Berlin; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Leipzig; Herbert Kegel, conductor (rec. 1975)

All of above: Berlin Classics 0300927BC

These famous recordings of Orff’s operas and “profane cantatas” have all been issued on LP and CD before, first singly and then Die Kluge and Der Mond in a 2-CD set, by Eterna, Philips and Berlin Classics. Since I had never heard them before, however, I thought it would be good to review them, as I like most of Orff’s music written before Oedipus der Tyrann, which is a dead-sounding piece of cow turd.

KegelHerbert Kegel (1920-1990), whose name was barely known in America when these records came out, was an East German conductor who established a high reputation for himself interpreting the music of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern and Berg). Many German critics were amazed when he took an interest in the “simplistic” music of Orff which, as we all know, was the great-grandfather of Minimalism. Orff’s modus operandi, after he wrote the brilliant early opera Gisei – Das Opfer (see my review here), was to take a note or a short motif and repeat it with slight variations in the rhythm (or in different octaves) over several bars. What sounds on the surface like annoyance turned out to be surprisingly popular, even during the Nazi era when more harmonically advanced music—like the Second Viennese School—was banned as “decadent.”

Kegel was known for being absolutely meticulous when it came to following the score. He conducted neither too fast or too slow, but as much as possible exactly what the composer wanted. Thus in these performances, one will hear (as I did) tempos that sometimes seem a shade less quick than other recordings and, in Carmina Burana, less raw power than is normally given to the music, particularly since the early 1970s when the Seiji Ozawa recording on RCA Victor created a sensation. In their place, however, you will hear a truly luminous quality to the music that is often ignored and some of the finest singing ever lavished on Orff’s music.

Die KlugeThus Die Kluge, which comes up first in this set, is not quite as visceral as the superb 1970 recording with Lucia Popp, Gottlob Frick, Thomas Stewart and Kurt Böhme, conducted by Kurt Eichhorn, but it’s wonderful to hear the orchestra and singers in such perfect synch that the latter sound like an extension of the former. Kegel pays much more attention to infinite gradations of volume in ensemble scenes than his predecessors. In addition, this is surely one of the best-sung performances on disc; every voice is golden in its own way, particularly soprano Magdalena Falewicz whom I had never heard of before. She has an even purer voice than Elisabeth Schwarzkopf on the old EMI set with Wolfgang Sawallisch, often thought of as the gold standard of Die Kluge recordings. Tenor Eberhard Büchner is also quite fine as the man with the donkey. Generally speaking, I find Eichhorn’s performance more theatrical and, due to the faster tempos more exciting, but Kegel’s more correct, measured pace brings out some felicitous qualities of the music that escape both Eichhorn and Sawallisch. This is the only work in this set, alas, that benefits from digital recording, the others all preceding its invention.

Der MondBut if Kegel’s Die Kluge has its peers, his performance of Der Mond surely does not. From the very first note, Kegel creates an aura of magic and light, and this feeling permeates the whole enterprise. The earliest of the recordings presented here, it benefits from a bit more reverb around the orchestra and singers, which helps the ambience. My regular readers know that I normally hate this kind of sound, but in this work—as in Britten’s War Requiem—it actually helps the music. Moreover, the extra roominess does not negatively impact the crispness of the orchestral sound, which is fortunate, for in this opera Orff gives us a feast of high strings and light percussion that add to the delightful sound of the music. And once again, the vocal performances are flawlessly executed. Büchner is the Narrator, his voice even fresher in 1970 than a decade later, and bass Reiner Süss, who sang the Peasant in Die Kluge, is also heard here as St. Peter. Once again, Kegel knits the vocal and instrumental forces together in a way that escapes most other conductors, and there is enough “stage business” here and there to give the whole thing the feeling of a live performance.

Carmina Burana KegelAs mentioned earlier, this performance of Carmina Burana is gentler than we’ve become used to, but then again, so were the Eugen Jochum recordings (1953 and 1967) made under the composer’s supervision. Personally, I like Kegel’s performance better than Jochum’s because it has more forward momentum. It also emphasizes the syncopations in the music better than both Jochum and Ozawa. Where the music seems to lack “power” is where Kegel does not lay heavily into the basses or the bass drum, which most conductors from Ozawa onward have done to extremes. The delicate choral passages have a much better feel to them than in most other recordings, and his soloists are all first-rate. He even gets a nice, rough peasant feel in the Tanz. (I still recall the late Klaus Tennstedt screaming at the Cincinnati Symphony string to “play rougher! This is a peasant dance, not a minuet by Mozart!”) Interestingly, after hearing Carmina Burana after Die Kluge and Der Mond, one notices that Orff used a far fuller orchestral palette in this work than in any of the pieces that followed it. I wonder why he chose to cut back in the later pieces.

As for the soloists, they’re very good but, except for tenor Hiestermann, bettered elsewhere. Soprano Casapietra has a wonderfully pure voice, but both Evelyn Mandac (Ozawa) and Arleen Augér (Riccardo Muti) have a warmer sound and more secure top notes. Baritone Stryczek sounds just a little thin and, oddly enough, exhibits a lisp he did not show on Die Kluge. I prefer Jonathan Summers with Muti. But this is splitting hairs; Kegel’s conducting is fantastic and he holds everything together extremely well.

Catulli CarminaI personally like Kegel’s Catulli Carmina better than Jochum’s, despite the latter using all-star soloists Augér and Wiesław Ochman. Once again, there is a forward momentum in Kegel’s conducting that just isn’t there in most other performances, and it really helps to hold this more episodic work together. In addition, both soprano Ute Mai and tenor Büchner are in really excellent voice here, so much so that I didn’t really miss Augér nearly as much as in Carmina Burana. Interestingly, where as Kegel’s Die Kluge and Carmina Burana were just a bit on the relaxed side, this is the zippiest Catulli Carmina I’ve ever heard.

Trionfo di AfroditeOther critics have noted that Kegel got more out of the third part of Orff’s trilogy, Trionfo di Afrodite, than any other conductor, and I second that opinion. This moves as briskly and smoothly as Catulli Carmina, whereas other recordings just seem to drag and bog down. Once again, I attribute this to Kegel’s unique ability to get the orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists all moving together on the same line of music. Soprano Isabella Nawe is a shade less good than Casapieta and Mai—her voice is not as beautiful, and there is a hint of strain in the voice production, although her soft high singing is clear and unforced—but by and large she does very well, particularly in the florid passages. The other soloists are all excellent in every respect, and I really appreciated the way Kegel got his chorus to constantly sing in a transparent manner.

I’m more than a little surprised that Kegel didn’t make a recording of Antigonae, which was surely his kind of music. We may never know why, but at least what we have here is for the most part quite precious and irreplaceable.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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John Pickard’s Unusual, Intense Music

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PICKARD: Symphony No. 5. 16 Sunrises. Concertante Variations.* Toccata (After Monteverdi) / *Martin Featherstone, flautist; *Geoffrey Cox, oboist; *Nicholas Cox, clarinetist; *Jarosław Augustyniak, bassoonist; BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Martyn Brabbins, conductor / Bis SACD 2261

John Pickard, born in 1963, is one of those rare British composers whose work is primarily promoted by a Scandinavian label, Bis. I was very much taken by his tone poems Channel Firing, The Flight of Icarus and The Spindle of Necessity on Bis 1578 as well as by his Fourth Symphony (“Gaia”) and Eden on Bis 2061. Now we have his fifth symphony as well as some incidental pieces, including his own arrangement of a “Toccata” by Monteverdi.

Pickard’s harmonic language is, despite all the extended chords and clashing harmonies, essentially tonal, but his use of harmony is only one of his unique features. He is also a master of unusual timbral blends, particularly writing pungent wind passages, sometime making the instruments “buzz” in an unusual manner, and his style of musical construction is remarkably dynamic and dramatic in style. Pickard’s music is intense almost to the point of mania; his rhythms do not edge forward as much as they lunge forward, almost in a lumbering style, so impetuous is his drive towards the next phrase or the next development section.

This restless intensity is immediately evident in the opening of the Fifth Symphony. Perhaps Pickard had a bit of Beethoven’s “shaking his fist at fate” in mind as he wrote it, so defiant and aggressive is its forward pulse. Although written as a single entity, it is indeed divided into four contrasting sections. The end of the first relaxes somewhat to allow him to move seamlessly into the second, which begins more quietly but soon increases in intensity, this time primarily through the strings and timpani. Eventually the lower strings play sustained notes while the winds (clarinet predominantly) and brass (French horns) interrupt with serrated double-time figures, eventually backed again by the timps. Shouting strings then lead us into the third section, marked “Maestoso” but sounding far more restless than majestic in stature. Pickard does, however, relax the tension here, giving us quiet if unsettled flute-clarinet passages above soft but grumbling basses and celli. A forlorn bassoon is heard briefly, followed by equally forlorn-sounding timpani, until the movement suddenly erupts again in a riot of sound and color. This, in turn, leads us to the manic fourth section, simply titled “bar 510,” whereupon Pickard returns us to the lunging, thrusting world of the opening movement, albeit with changes in thematic material and pacing. We get a moment of relaxation for some high, fluttering flute and piccolo passages, which increase in intensity until the timpani is playing every beat in the bar. This is followed by serrated viola and cello figures, to which violins are eventually added, before the whole orchestra comes in a bit at a time to make comment. Broad phrases intoned by wind and brass mixtures reach a climax before receding in volume and intensity; then the pattern is repeated.

Sixteen Sunrises is a different animal. Here, although we recognize Pickard’s unique orchestral handprint, the music is somewhat lighter in feel. Pickard states in the liner notes that it was conceived as a balance to his dark-sounding tone poem Tenebrae; he wanted 16 Sunrises to be “filled with light.” Nonetheless, Pickard seems incapable of composing music without an edge to it, thus these “sunrises” explode on the listener’s ear like fireworks blowing up in the sky. There is light in the music, but the light becomes shards. As Pickard explains, the title “refers to the number of sunrises that can normally be observed during a 24-hour period from the International Space Station, as it orbits the earth approximately once every 90 minutes.” The tempo, as I inferred above, is rapid, the orchestration sufficiently brilliant, and the collusion of sunrises eventually become musically juxtaposed so that the ear becomes unable to count the number of them. Again, as Pickard writes, this is because of the suddenness of seeing sunrises from the Space Station, where the process takes just a few seconds rather than whole minutes. I was expecially intrigued by his use of various percussion, including chimes and gong, perhaps to indicate a sunrise clash.

The Concertante Variations is the lightest original piece here, and indeed the jolliest and most purely entertaining work I’ve yet heard from Pickard. The composer explains that it was created for the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts in 2011, and was “certainly and enjoyable work to write.” In this context Pickard’s normal orchestral angst is turned to a buoyant lightness, scored for a chamber orchestra and using much more space than in his normally denser musical style. One recognizes Pickard’s footprint in the flute-clarinet passages and interjections from the oboe and French horn, but everything is happier and the extended harmonies are no longer extended here. One must praise the wind soloists of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who play with great tonal beauty and elegance of line here.

The Toccata (after Monteverdi) starts with the same music that opened the composer’s opera L’Orfeo but later includes a bit of the 1610 Vespers. It’s a short, lightweight conclusion to this CD.

Highly recommended for the original works presented here. This is pretty fabulous stuff!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Alice Coote Fabulous in Mahler Song Cycles

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MAHLER: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Rückert-Lieder. Kindertotenlieder / Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano; Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra; Marc Albrecht, conductor / Pentatone Classics PTC 5186 576

One of the anomalies of record companies and their marketing strategy is to sometimes push orchestral song cycles by the name of the conductor rather than the singer, thus this new Pentatone release features a photo of Marc Albrecht on the cover rather than the mezzo who is actually doing the singing.

This is particularly annoying since Alice Coote is one of the premier vocal artists of our day. Taking nothing away from Albrecht, whose contribution I will describe in a moment, the bottom line is that 70% of those buying this album will do so to hear what Coote does with the words and music, which is only fitting. SHE is the star of the show. The only three conductors I can think of who got this kind of treatment in the old days were Toscanini, Furtwängler and Fritz Reiner. Even Stokowski courteously gave way to singers having their pic on the covers of albums he conducted on unless it was a symphony in which they just sang in one movement.

And trust me, Coote is absolutely fabulous here. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that her sensitivity in interpretation here even outstrips that of Dame Janet Baker, and trust me, I worshiped the ground that Janet Baker walked on. Saw her once in concert at Carnegie Hall and stood on line for a half hour afterwards just to say to her, “If there were more singers like you back in the Golden Age, it would have been more golden.” So believe me, no one is more of a Baker fan than I am.

Alice Coote

Alice Coote

But just listen to what Coote does here. She uses her voice in a specifically dramatic way, coloring her voice to match the feelings and emotion in the words. Almost no one sings like this nowadays with the exception of Stephanie Houtzeel. “Word painting,” as it used to be called, was a standard feature of lieder singing in the Era of Fischer-Dieskau, although some critics felt that the great German baritone overdid it, but nowadays so many singers are trained to give generic interpretations—particularly in opera—because sick-in-the-head directors always want them to be “malleable” for their perverted stage productions. Coote obviously doesn’t play that game. She’s going to sing the words and music the way she wants to, and that’s that.

And yes, it’s true, Albrecht’s conducting is far more than just pretty good. I can’t recall ever hearing another conductor do as much with the music as he does here. It’s more than just coloration, more than just transparency of texture. Albrecht makes his orchestra “talk” in a way that’s difficult to describe. A touch of rubato here, a brighter color there, then a touch of joy or melancholy, and suddenly the orchestra is doing more than just accompanying. It is a full participant in the ongoing discourse. The end result, when combined with Coote’s singing, is absolutely magical, like handing a great poem to a reciter with years of experience in making words come to life.

This dual genius is particularly noticeable in the two song cycles that normally don’t come out so well, the Rückert-Lieder and especially Kindertotenlieder. The general approach to the latter cycle is to sing, and conduct it, in as dreary and maudlin a fashion as possible. The only other recording of it I’ve ever heard as good as this is the ancient 1927 version with baritone Heinrich Rehkemper and conductor Jascha Horenstein, and of course this one has it all over the earlier recording in terms of sound quality. It’s also, for me anyway, more appropriately sung by a mezzo than a baritone. Coote’s voice is amazingly flexible in every respect: not just in turning grace notes or arpeggios but also in being able to move the voice up and down the scale, lightening and darkening her tone to suit the mood of the text, and her diction is truly superb. In the words of the old Italian masters, she puts “the words on the lips and lets the breath run them out.” Her tone is like a fine port wine, and even the quick vibrato is used expressively, never spreading under pressure. Her floated high notes resemble Baker’s somewhat, except that Baker always had a “drop of acid” in her timbre while Coote does not.

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Mark Coote’s “all is motion,” 1981

To listen to Coote sing “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” from the Rückert-Lieder is like watching a master painter suddenly turn a blank canvas into a field of delicate pastels that dazzle the eye with their shimmering light and shade. Small wonder that Coote’s father, Mark, was a painter and a very fine one. In the Kindertotenlieder, the elegiac quality of the music is leavened somewhat by Albrecht’s use of the orchestra as if it were a chamber group, which allows the listener to add his or her own ideas of the music to it. I also find this approach preferable for another reason, and that is to allow the singer an opportunity to provide nuance without “overdoing” it, as so many do. Coote’s manner of singing here is so good that I think it will provide a gold standard for years to come.

I simply can’t say enough good things about this album. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Petr Fiala’s Splendid New Dvořák “Requiem”

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DVOŘÁK: Requiem / Simona Šaturová, soprano; Jana Sýkorova, alto; Tomáš Černý, tenor; Peter Mikuláš, bass; Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno; Brno Philharmonic Orchestra; Petr Fiala, conductor / Arcodiva UP0130 (live: Brno, November 11-12, 2010)

Dvořák’s Requiem, often considered good but not great in the early 20th century, has really come into its own since Istvan Kertesz recorded it in 1968 for Decca-London. Up until now, my gold standard performance of it was the recording by Philippe Herreweghe with soprano Ilse Eerens, mezzo Bernarda Fink, tenor Maximilian Schmitt and bass Nathan Berg with the Collegium Vocale Ghent and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic on Phi LPH016, but this was largely due to Herreweghe’s incendiary conducting and not necessarily to the soloists. The top three solo voices in that performance all had slight wobbles, not quite enough to make me run for the exits but not solid enough to make me like them better than anyone else.

This new release of a live performance conducted by Petr Fiala goes a very long way towards an ideal Dvořák Requiem. Fiala’s tempi are either the same or slightly faster than Herreweghe in most sections (the “Tuba mirum” is a bit slower), but by and large his musical approach is almost a clone of Herreweghe’s. The differences come in the soloists and the amount of “air” around the performance. Šaturnová, Sýkorova and Černý all have considerably darker voices than their counterparts under Herreweghe, but also much more solid voices. My sole complaint was that, although he is a very fine and expressive singer, Černý’s voice is not beautiful in the standard sense. He almost sounds like a cross between Waldemar Kmentt and Jon Vickers, which is quite unusual. But he has no strain in the upper register and the timbre never spreads under pressure. Curiously, Šaturnová sounds a little infirm in soft, quiet passages in the middle of her voice, but is solid as a rock above the staff. It’s not enough to be a continual bother, though.

The problem as I hear it comes from the further microphone perspective of this live performance. When the orchestra and chorus need to sound a bit ferocious, as in the “Dies irae,” part of the “Tuba mirum” and in “Confutatis maledictus,” the tympani and lower instruments are just a bit too far from the microphone to make the proper impact. I’m sure they must have sounded splendid in the actual concert, however, because giving all frequencies from 400Hz on down a three-decibel boost works wonders and thus makes the Fiala recording sound as good if not better than the Herreweghe.

In addition to having a more solid voice, mezzo-soprano Jana Sýkorova completely outclasses Bernarda Fink with Herreweghe in her more dramatically incisive approach to the music. Indeed, the only singer on the Herreweghe set who comes up to the level of his counterpart with Fiala is bass Nathan Berg. Peter Mikuláš, with Fiala, is just as good but no better.

The peculiarity I noticed in both performances, however, was an almost clinical coldness in the strings. I’m not quite sure if Herreweghe, Fiala, or both are using straight tone, but if they are it is ahistorical and completely wrong for Dvořák. I think this is even more odd in Fiala’s case because this is a live performance, and one would think that the hall reverberation would give a bit more warmth and body to the strings.

But I am nit-picking here. This is a great performance. In general shape and form, as well as in emotional power, there is little to choose from between Herreweghe and Fiala. This is not a bad thing, because both performances are superior to the Kertesz in terms of musical continuity and particularly emotional power. In the end, however, I have to give preference to the Fiala version because of the marked superiority of the solo voices, which are not insignificant in this work. My regular readers know that I am extremely fussy when it comes to singers in choral or orchestral works that have them; most of the time, even one defective solo singer can make or break a performance for me. It is utterly beyond me why so many performances are given, and worse yet, released on record, with wobbly, strained or otherwise defective vocalists. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, I feel a bit sorry for them because I’m sure their lives must be a burden to them, knowing that every time they go out on a stage to sing they bring pain and suffering to their audiences. Death, particularly a swift and sudden death, is too good for them. They must be made to suffer as we suffer when listening to them.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my homily for today. Bottom line: buy this Fiala Requiem via downloads, boost the low range by 3 db and burn it to discs, and you will have an absolutely splendid performance to enjoy forever.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Hyeseon Hong’s “Ee-Ya-Gi” a Strange But Fascinating CD

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EE-YA-GI / HONG: Harvest Dance. Friends or Lovers. Para Mi Amigo Distante. Boat Song. Disappearing Into Foam (Little Mermaid). Trash Digging Queen. First Love Song / Hyeseon Hong, leader/arr; Ben Kono, a-sax/s-sax/fl; Matt Vashlishan, a-sax/EWI/fl; Rich Perry, t-sax; Jeremy Powell, t-sax/cl; Andrew Hadro, bar-sax/bs-cl; Augie Haas, Ingrid Jensen, Jason Wiseman, Colin Brigstocke, tpt; Ron Wilkens, Daniel Linden, Ric Becker, Becca Patterson, tbn; Matt Panayides, gtr; Broc Hempel, pn; John Lenis, bs; Mark Ferber, dm; EJ Park, Subin Park, voc / MAMA Records M1053

My first reaction to the opening of Harvest Dance, the first track on this CD, was amusement bordering on laughter. There was just something so quaint about the see-saw sound of the ricky-tick flute tune that it put me in mind of those old 1940s and ‘50s movies where music like this always played in the background when someone was pulling a rickshaw. But within a few bars the big band came in, the music changed in rhythm and feeling, and things became more interesting.

Korean arranger-composer Hyeseon Hong, whose debut CD this is, has been living in New York for several years. The publicity blurb accompanying this disc explains that she “blends elements of classical music and modern jazz big band, and Korean traditional music.” You might want to think of her, then, as a sort of Korean Toshiko Akiyoshi, and like Akiyoshi she sticks to the progressive swing/bop axis in her compositions and mixes her ethnic culture into the tunes she writes. What impressed me the most, however, were the solos, all of which are ear-opening and highly creative, taking Hong’s basic concepts and making them fly. In the opening tune, I was most taken by a trombonist, who I assume is Ron Wilkens, and a trumpeter who may be Ingrid Jensen. It’s really a shame that the promo material doesn’t list any of the soloists by name.

Friends or Lovers starts out with a grumbling sound before moving into a polyphonic passage played by the saxes, over which Hong overlays trumpet figures in the second 8. This, in turn, leads to a catchy riff tune bounced around the ensemble. After a nice alto solo (possibly Ben Kono), we get a fairly routine spot by guitarist Matt Panayides that relies on blues licks. Fortunately, an inventive solo by Matt Vashlishan on Electronic Wind Instrument, which is then followed by swirling sax figures interspersed by biting trumpets. The instrumental voicings are not particularly striking in texture, but Hong makes them work by mixing and matching different rhythmic cells in ingenious ways.

Para Mi Amigo Distante is a ballad that opens with Ben Kono on soprano sax over the acoustic guitar of Panayides; the tempo picks up a bit when the full ensemble enters. One of Hong’s ensemble touches is to include the wordless vocals of EJ Park and Subin Park on certain choruses, which adds another dimension to the writing. Kono returns for an extended soprano solo of wonderful invention, occasionally going outside the changes and flying in the upper range of his instrument swirling sixteenths. Either Rich Perry or Jeremy Powell follows with a fine chorus on tenor sax; towards the end, the wordless voice rides above the ensemble before the brass comes back for an ensemble chorus of their own. The various sections mix and match in this way through to the end.

Boat Song opens with a prominent vocal, with words, by Subin Park in Korean, a cappella, before moving into interesting high wind passages with soft brass interjections. Park then returns for another vocal, accompanied by the orchestra. This is one of the more interesting pieces in terms of orchestral texture, borrowing some idea from the Gil Evans book. There’s a nice alto solo, relaxed and imaginative, that builds in intensity until Park and the full ensemble comes in behind him, eventually winding down to allow the singer to finish the song in a long, slow diminuendo.

Interestingly, Disappearing Into Foam, subtitled Little Mermaid, starts with both singers intertwining their voices in an a cappella passage, after which Broc Hempel’s piano leads us into the main theme. This is a jazz waltz, and a very charming one at that, with the instrumental voicings favoring the high instruments (flute, clarinet, soprano sax) and the melodic line wafting along gracefully in C minor. Hempel returns for an excellent extended solo. Following this, the ensemble returns for a melody that sounded to me like a variant on Chim Chim Cheree, though it then extends itself to include some exciting open trumpets. Hempel comes back one more time to ride things out.

Trash Digging Queen is surely the oddest and, to me, most intriguing tune on the album, starting with a military-style drumbeat and moving into a quirky, jagged melody that sounds half Korean and half jazz. This is almost on the level of the kind of quirky pieces that trombonist-arranger Rod Levitt wrote for his vastly underrated band back in the mid-1960s. Jensen plays a relaxed yet inventive trumpet solo over the churning rhythm section. Andrew Hadro plays a blistering solo on baritone sax, followed by one of the tenors in a cooler mode. The quirky, choppy outro is very amusing.

The disc ends with First Love Song, another ballad, also introduced by Hempel on piano. the melody is a bit vague, however, and not easy to grasp, although the band plays it beautifully. A trumpet solo rides above the ensemble with great invention, reinvigorating the music. It’s a nice ending to a fine album.

Recommended for Hong’s nice tune construction, the ensemble playing and the outstanding solos!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Szymanowski’s Piano Music Beautifully Played by Roscoe

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THE COMPLETE PIANO WORKS OF SZYMANOWSKI / 20 Mazurkas, Op. 50. Metopes, Op. 29. 4 Studies, Op. 4. Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3. Variations on a Polish Theme. Masques, Op. 34. Fantasia in C. Etudes, Op. 33. 4 Polish Dances. Prelude & Fugue in C-sharp min. 9 Preludes, Op. 1. Variations in B-flat min., Op. 3. 2 Mazurkas, Op. 62 / Martin Roscoe, pianist / Naxos 8504045

Having recently listened to a single disc of Szymanowski’s piano music by another pianist, I was disappointed by that artist’s prosaic approach to the music. Everything was played in a matter-of-fact manner. There was little or no light and shade in the performances. The pianist could have been playing Czerny exercises for all the difference it made.

In frustration, I went to the Naxos Music Library where, lo and behold, I discovered this set (in its original four individual CDs) by British pianist Martin Roscoe. And I was simply blown away. Everything that was wrong in the other pianist’s performances was unerringly right in Roscoe’s. He provided light and shade to the Chopin-influenced 9 Preludes, which was Szymanowski’s Op. 1, but also an underlying muscularity when the music called for it. I was hooked, and began listening to the rest of this set in earnest.

And what a treasure-trove this music is, and particularly his interpretations of them! I had reviewed, several years ago, two discs of his Beethoven Piano Sonata series and found them very solid and well-played but not quite on the exalted level of Annie Fischer, Walter Gieseking or Michael Korstick. But let’s face it, the Beethoven Sonatas have about 40 times more competition; one can even make a case for the complete sets of Schnabel, O’Conor, Sheppard and Gulda to place alongside Roscoe’s. Not so in the music of Szymanowski. I did, however, listen to the complete sets of Martin Jones on Nimbus, which was good but not quite as imaginative as Roscoe, and Sinae Lee on Divine Art, who was musically and stylistically correct but too cool and distant for my taste.

Checking online, I’ve discovered that other critics also like his Szymanowski set but have reservations that I didn’t have. Some complained that Roscoe rushed his way through the Mazurkas and the Third Piano Sonata. I didn’t mind this bit of impetuosity; they gave the music the feeling of a live performance, and besides, that’s the tempos to which mazurkas are actually danced. What amazed me the most was Roscoe’s tremendous ability to maintain complete clarity of texture while still imparting a feeling of mysticism to the music. This is an extraordinarily difficult balancing act, because clarity and mysticism are sometimes incompatible qualities. Pianists who excel at the latter do not always achieve the former; on the contrary, their goal is to blur and obscure as much as possible to create an “aura of mysticism.”

Martin RoscoeAnd I will go further. In my opinion, Martin Roscoe is a far greater interpreter and more interesting pianist than the much-vaunted Martha Argerich. To my ears, all Argerich has to offer is a blistering keyboard attack and somewhat well-bound phrases. She plays nothing from the “inside.” Roscoe plays everything from inside the music, and this is what made this Szymanowski series so consistently attractive.

I must warn the listener, however, not to take the composer’s titles for certain works too literally, particularly the sonatas. Despite his occasional bow to musical form, particularly in his use of fugues and canons, most of the music in his three piano sonatas sound much more fantasia-like to me. Indeed, the same thing applies to those mazurkas. An underlying mazurka beat is always discernible, but Szymanowski purposely goes outside the form, shifting tempos and obscuring the keys in such a manner that one is wrapped up in a swirling mélange of notes. The point I am making is that at times Szymanowski’s music approaches the kind of complex, swirling sound created by Sorabji. Of course, it was impossible for Szymanowski to have any knowledge of Sorabji before the late 1920s, when the Farsi-British composer first came to the fore, but since he continued writing music up through the late 1930s there is a chance that he might have been impressed and even influenced to some extent by the younger man’s aesthetic.

Szymanowski also took a very individual view towards the theme and variations form. His Variations on a Polish Theme and Variations in B-flat minor don’t even sound like variations at times, but rather like entirely new pieces of music built over the same harmonic sequence. Listening carefully to these works, one hears his musical mind becoming impatient with the theme-and-variations form the way it had been established and continued up to his time, thus his music goes off into a nether-world of its own.

The four CDs that make up this set were, of course, originally issued individually, and as usual with record companies in general and Naxos in particular, the music is out of order chronologically. In fact, his Op. 1 Preludes don’t show up until CD 4, and the set of 20 mazurkas Op. 50 are split up over the four CDs. I’m not particularly upset about this, however, because no composer really expected a pianist to sit down in a concert and rattle off all 20 pieces in a “set” in order. I seriously doubt that they were even written sequentially, let alone all at the same time. But this does delay the listener’s appreciation of where Szymanowski started, which was essentially as a lover of Chopin, before he discovered Debussy, Scriabin, Stravinsky and all those Middle Eastern mystics.

The bottom line is that Szymanowski’s piano works are not easy listening with the possible exception of the Op. 1 Preludes and Op. 4 Studies. His musical mind was always running off the tracks into melodic-harmonic combinations that pull the listener away from the music’s starting point, and as time went on even his starting-points were melodically and harmonically dense and obscure. This is advanced listening for minds that are willing to take the plunge with him, and I greatly admire Martin Roscoe for having the courage to interpret the music with the right feeling while maintaining clarity and transparency.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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