The Lutosławski Quartet’s Strange New Music


MARKOWICZ: String Quartet No. 4. KWIECIŃSKI: [P/PE(s)] MYKIETYN: String Quartet No. 3 / Lutosławski Quartet 2016 / CD Accord ACD233

The Lutosławski Quartet is a group of four bright young Polish musicians who play modern Polish music. Happily, Poland seems to have gotten over its infatuation with Krzysztof Penderecki, who I always considered a blight on the map of classical music, and moved on to composers who really know how to write music.

The problem I always had with Penderecki was that his music was ungodly ugly and purposely so. His goal was not to write music that was meaningful, even to him, but merely to shock and disgust people. He succeeded eminently. And now he is out of the picture.

Of course, this is not to say that none of these pieces surprise us. On the contrary, Marcin Markowicz’s String Quartet No. 4, written in 1979 when Penderecki-mania was still rampant in Poland, begins with stark, percussive sounds played by the four strings; but it doesn’t stay there. On the contrary, the music morphs and develops throughout its five separate but interlocking movements, shifting and changing in both tempo and meter yet always returning to that choppy opening motif as a form of musical glue that cements the work together. Occasionally, the four musicians tap and hit their instruments with their bows and their open palms, creating an even greater feeling of percussion. By and large, this quartet is more of a “mood” piece than a complex construction, and in this respect I found it very interesting that the Lutosławski Quartet plays it completely through with straight tone. THIS is the kind of music that cries out for that sort of treatment, not the quartets of Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven, and it was fascinating to hear how this gifted group of musicians used it in an artistic way.

Andrzej Kwieciński describes his music in the liner notes as being analogous “to playing a computer game of skill, e.g. Super Mario Bros, which was hugely popular in the 1980s. The protagonist, Super Mario, goes through difficulty levels – he must jump, run, and overcome hurdles. The person playing the game has an almost palpable experience of all the protagonist’s movements. Playing such a game, you must think fast and respond quickly. Exactly the same happens in my music where musical gestures change very dynamically, where you need to focus, be agile and responsive.” My take on it is that the music does indeed sound like an aural profile of a video game, jumping around with little shards of music bouncing off one another while the upper strings play whimsical, whining upward portamenti as commentary. The question is, however, whether or not [P/PE(s)] is really music—even as compared to, say, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s absurdist little musical comedies—or merely aural effect meant solely to amuse. At times I liked it, but I felt that it went on for far too long and didn’t say anything that I personally responded to. Bottom line: it just went nowhere.

By contrast, Paweł Mykietyn’s Quartet No. 3 seemed to me minimalist yet focused. Mykietyn uses acceleration/deceleration and shifting stress beats within an essentially repeated pattern of notes as a means of negotiating his way through the musical landscape. Thus his own description of his music as “time and acceleration” is apt and needs no further interpretation. Surprisingly, a pleasant viola melody enter the picture at roughly the four-minute mark and provides the listener with some grounding around which the little squeaks and bleeps of the instruments add context. This melody, too, undergoes acceleration and time-condensing as the quartet proceeds. Again, it’s music in the abstract, meant to provide a temporary cushion against reality, not to inform or enlighten the listener.

By and large, I found this an interesting listen but not the kind of music I would want to hear over again. Does that sound odd to you? Well, that’s what happens when the music you write is designed to be odd but not more than that. Recommended with reservations.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Return to homepage OR

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


Aruán Ortiz’ “Cub(an)ism” a Wonderfully Strange Disc


CUB(AN)ISM / ORTIZ: Louverture Op. 1 (Château de Joux). Yambú. Cuban Cubism. Passages. Monochrome (Yuba). Density (Golden Circle). Dominant Force. Intervals (Closer to the Edge). Sacred Chronology. Coralaia / Aruán Ortiz, pianist / Intakt CD 290

I’ve had occasion to praise Aruán Ortiz previously, in a group setting, but here he spreads his wings in a solo session that is utterly fascinating. Using the piano almost like a conga drum at times, Ortiz’ music is both forward-moving in melodic-harmonic structure and as percussive as a Cuban band.

The relationship of these particularly pieces to cubism as a visual art form is not amiss. Ortiz takes his own music apart and rebuilds it in the abstract, rolling out his aural canvases like a master painter. At times, it’s even difficult to hear where one piece ends and the next begins, for instance the movement from Yambú to Cuban Cubism, although the latter is by far one of the most abstract—one might even say modern classical-sounding—pieces on the CD. Ortiz’ musical mind is so polyglot in its musical tastes that there are frequent moments where the mere concept of jazz, let alone the word itself, scarcely registers in the mind.

And make no mistake, Ortiz knows exactly what he is doing and has both a composer’s and an improvisor’s mind in addition to almost frighteningly prodigious technique. Although they operate in different aesthetics, I would place his work in the same vein as Wadada Leo Smith or Jack Reilly, two other “jazz” musicians who have a firm grasp of classical structure and aesthetics. Indeed, I could only describe Passages on this album as a classical piece, despite the jazz-like runs in the right hand here and there. In Monochrome (Yuba), Ortiz plucks the dampened piano strings with his right hand while playing a minimalist tune with his left around the middle of the keyboard…yet it is the plucked notes that become busier, more agitated and even more percussive, giving the piece a sense of being played by two different minds and possible even two different musicians.

If anything, the music becomes even more abstract as the album progresses. Indeed, I seriously doubt that most diehard jazz fans will be able to hang with Ortiz or understand what on earth he is doing by the time he reaches Density (Golden Circle), which is as atonal and abstract as anything written by a “serious” composer in the past 50 years. Eventually one discerns a pattern in the low-pitched, shifting chords, but the movement is slow and the musical pace granitic. This is music to describe lumbering brontosaurs on the range in prehistoric times.

We briefly recover a semblance of jazz in the Latin rhythms of Dominant Force, but neither the melodic line (minimal as it is) or the ungraspable harmonies will get through to those who prefer funky blues playing. Intervals is just that: slowly-played, widely-spaced single notes exploring intervallic sound. Sacred Chronology is so abstract that even I had some trouble following it: a piece of almost savage intensity (sharply-attacked single notes and crushed chords) that perhaps only Ortiz knows the meaning of. And yet it’s still fascinating to hear!

In the final number, Coralaia, Ortiz suddenly switches gears and gives us a lovely but very slow-moving tonal work that almost sounds like an Erik Satie exercise.

All in all, then, a stupendous display of compositional virtuosity (and diverging styles) from a composer-pianist who certainly deserves your attention. Aruán Ortiz may yet develop into one of the most creative and original composers in the world.

Highly recommended!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Return to homepage OR

Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


Laks’ Startling Chamber Works Revived


LAKS: String Quartet No. 4. Divertimento for Violin, Clarinet, Bassoon & Piano. Sonatina. Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet & Bassoon. Passacaille, arr. of Vocalise for Clarinet & Piano. Piano Quintet / ARC Ensemble with Sarah Jeffrey, oboist; Frank Morelli, bassoonist / Chandos CHAN 10983

This is one of the CDs in Chandos’ “Music in Exile” series, devoted to Jewish composers of the inter-war years who were either interred in concentration camps, died there, or miraculously escaped but lived their lives in exile. The problem with the concept is that, as in the case of nearly any group of men (and isn’t it interesting that they’s all men? Apparently, the Nazis were sexist as well as racist!), talent is not evenly distributed. Viktor Ullmann, for instance, was a fascinating composer, but Hanns Eiler was just an annoying man who thought he was a good composer.

As it turns out, Polish-born Szymon Laks was extremely talented and, more to the point, individual and interesting. His String Quartet No. 4 begins with quirky atonal counterpoint, above which one of the solo violins comes in to play a similarly quirky melody. Throughout the brief (4:27) first movement, Laks continues to play this cat-and-mouse game, and in the slow movement he shows us his own method of writing moody music with a harmonic “edge” to it. This is truly innovative stuff. The third movement seems to be in an irregular meter, albeit an edgy one with a ferocious forward drive to it. The liner notes call the music “jazz-inflected” but as a lifelong student of jazz I can assure you it most certainly is not.

Laks brings a similar sensibility to the 1967 Divertimento for clarinet, violin, piano and bassoon, except that here the edginess of the 1962 Quartet has become a bit more playful. Believe it or not, I hear in his music a strong and very direct influence on most of our modern American composers today. Despite the fact that he lived out his post-War life in France, I don’t hear much of an influence on modern French composers, who more often than not seemed to follow in the footsteps of Poulenc, Honegger or Messiaen. The only French composer whose work sounds to me influenced in some manner by Laks is Jean Françaix.

Laks was living in France when the Nazis arrested him in 1941. At first he was sent to the camp at Pithiviers, but then he was transferred to good old Auscwhitz-Birkenau in Poland. Now here’s a linguistic lesson for all of you sticklers for language out there. Auschwitz is the GERMAN NAME ONLY for the town in which this concentration camp was built. The actual, real Polish name for the town is Oświęcim, but historians and Holocaust rembrance groups continue to call it by its occupiers’ name. By the same token, Birkenau’s original Polish name was Brzezinka, although the camp also included the villages of Babice, Broszkowice, Rajsk, Plawy and Harmeze because Brzezinka was too small by itself.

In any event, Laks was one of the lucky few whose musical skills were so extraordinarily that he was spared to become the arranger and conductor of the camp orchestra. (Contrary to some rumors, Alma Rosé, daughter of famed Austrian-Jewish violinist Arnold Rosé, was also spared when she was in Auschwitz but died of an infection that could not be cured.) One way wonder why some of the best Jewish musicians were actually spared. If the biography of Alma Rosé is to be believed, and there seems little doubt that it is true, it was because Dr. Joseph Mengele, the “Butcher of Auschwitz,” was a fanatic classical music fan and adored their playing. (According to the bio, Mengele personally interceded on Alma Rosé’s behalf and desperately tried to save her life.) If this seems incompatible with the Nazi attitude towards Jews, I will agree with you, but please remember that for many years the Jewish tenor Joseph Schmidt was not only spared persecution but allowed to make films and recordings in Nazi Germany. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who adored Schmidt’s voice, was once said to have responded to a critic, “I will decide who’s Jewish and who isn’t!” But of course this was the lucky fate of only a chosen few. Laks made it very clear in his post-War remembrances that “music was powerless to effect any tangible improvement, and irrelevant to the quality of prisoners’ lives,” and the horrors he witnessed in the camp depressed him for the rest of his life.

To return to the music: the earliest piece in this collection, the 1927 Piano Sonata, reveals a similar use of spiky and unsettled harmony but a more elegant musical line, particularly in the first movement. This almost sounds like a cross between Poulenc and Stravinsky, and once again Laks’ extraordinary talent for musical construction comes to the fore. In the later movements, however, Laks’ penchant for restless motor rhythms again drives the music. I should mention at this point that all of the musicians involved in this project (using the umbrella title ARC or Artists of the Royal Conservatory in Canada), young though they are, take to this music like ducks to water. An interesting story in the booklet is that when the quintet was performing a piece by Laks in 2008, they were approached by an old woman named Halina who told them she hadn’t heard any of Laks’ music for 50 years.

The 1965 Concertino is also a bright, witty piece, and here one clearly hears more of a French than an American sensibility. Laks eschews his normal atonal or polytonal style here to produce a work of elegant, bouncy charm. By contrast, the clarinet version of the 1945 Passacaille for voice and piano is lyrical in Laks’ own unique way. A personal note: although it is beautifully played, I wish they had used a singer for contrast’s sake.

We end this excursion into the mind of Szymon Laks with his 1967 Quintet for Piano and Strings “on popular Polish themes.” Because of his use of folk music, Laks walks a tightrope between that world and his own world of spiky classical harmonies. The effect is bracing; one hears the “Polish themes” being played, with some of their original harmony, above a much more astringent tonal base played just beneath the surface. Moreover, the composer’s mind was quite obviously let loose on re-imagining this music, Seldom have I heard such a piece where the “folk themes” used as a basis for a classical piece are so thoroughly integrated. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell where the “Polish theme” ends and Laks’ own music picks up, or exactly how he worked out the transitions back and forth throughout each movement. This is the kind of piece that takes several listenings to appreciate and fully grasp, but it’s certainly worth the effort! I was especially fascinated by the sighing, seductive second movement, although the pizzicato third is certainly ingenious in its own way, particularly when he suddenly switches to a mazurka theme in the middle.

This is quite an extraordinary and interesting disc, all the more fascinating because both its composer and its performers are not well known, but should be. Bravo to all who took part in the conception and production of this splendid disc!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Return to homepage OR

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


Muczynski’s Chamber Music Brilliantly Played on Brilliant Classics


MUCZYNSKI: Fantasy Trio, Op. 26. Sonata for Cello & Piano. Duos for Flute & Clarinet. Time Pieces for Clarinet & Piano. Sonata for Flute & Piano / Ginevra Petrucci, flautist; Glen Kanasevich, clarinetist; Dorotea Racz, cellist; Dmitry Samogray, pianist / Brilliant Classics 95433

The music of Robert Muczynski (1929-2010), not being as familiar with audiences as it should be, is always welcome to hear, and this new collection on Brilliant Classics is surprisingly good.

Muczynski, who studied with Walter Knupfer and Alexander Tcherpenin, joined the composition faculty at the University of Arizona in 1965 and stayed there for 23 years. His Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra was nominated for, but did not win, a Pulitzer Prize in music. He is frequently referred to as one of the most distinguished neoclassical composers in postwar America. His music is essentially tonal, but due to his constant shifting of chord positions and pivoting within those chords, his music sounds restless and modern. He was also very fond of irregular meters with 5 or 7 beats to the bar, which further complicated the listening process.

The works on this CD are typical of his output, and are played with tremendous sensitivity as well as precision by this enthusiastic group of young musicians. Italian flautist Ginevra Petrucci, American clarinetist (and composer) Gleb Kanasevich, Croatian cellist Dorotea Racz and American pianist Dmitry Samogray, here performing as a duo or trio in the various pieces, give committed, beautifully articulated readings of these appealing yet tricky scores. As a pianist, Samogray is the kind of player I like to characterize as a “chamber music specialist,” much like Menahem Pressler; he has a fluid and fluent technique, but by and large stays within a relatively narrow dynamic and emotional range, which makes him absolutely perfect as a chamber musician. Samogray’s special talents are fully on display in the Cello Sonata with Racz, in which he shows his mastery of line and color within his self-imposed limits.

Muczynski’s music tended to sound edgy and energetic both as a result of his irregular meters and his natural proclivity towards rhythm-driven music. Only in the slow movements or slow introductions did he relax his pace and ease up on this aesthetic, yet somehow it all dovetailed together and he made it work. Even in the Scherzo of the Cello Sonata, for instance, using a fairly conventional 3/4 or 3/8 rhythm, Muczynski’s tendency towards altered harmonies makes the listener sit up and pay attention. There was always something going on in his music!

By contrast with the preceding pieces, the Duo for Flute & Clarinet is an essentially witty piece, full of playful cat-and-mouse chases between the two instruments. Only the pensive “Allegro molto” is serious in feeling. The Time Pieces for clarinet and piano also have their playful side, but are more driven than jocular. One of Muczynski’s more endearing qualities was conciseness; his music said no more and no less than it had to, thus even in the movements at or over five minutes, one rarely feels like “tuning out.” For me, this is always the mark of a good composer, which is one of the reasons (aside from his bathos and religiosity) why I so heartily dislike Bruckner.

The Flute Sonata is also sprightly and energetic; indeed, I was amazed at how much Muczynski was able to extract from the same basic style of composition. His “brand,” so to speak, might tend to be repetitious by using similar devices in every piece, yet at least within the confines of these works the impression one gets is that of delight rather than déjà vu.

All in all, then, an excellent album all round. Surprising, good music played by really talented young musicians who seem to enjoy it. Who could ask for anything more?

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Return to homepage OR

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


Hausegger’s Amazing Orchestral Works Exhumed

Entwürfe cpo-Cover 04-2017_cover.indd

HAUSEGGER: Aufklänge, Symphonic Variations. Dionysische Phantasie, Symphonic Poem. Wieland der Schmeid / Bamberg Symphony Orchestra; Antony Hermus, conductor / CPO 777 810-2

OK, boys and girls…how many of you have ever heard of, let alone heard, the music of Siegmund von Hausegger? Just what I thought. No hands up!

Well, it’s all right because I had never heard of him, either. Hausegger (1872-1948) was the son of a jurist and musicologist who hoped his son would show musical talent…how different from all those stories we hear of young men and women forced to go into law or medicine, because that’s that their families wanted, only to scrap it all to become a pianist or an opera singer? Apparently, Hausegger scored a few important musical victories early on, particularly when Richard Strauss mounted his opera Zinnober in 1898, directed the Frankfurt Museum Concerts in 1903-06 and became music director of the Berlin Blüthner Orchestra in 1911, but somehow things went awry for him. He was named music director of the Munich Academy of Music in 1920, but abruptly resigned in 1934 when the Nazis assumed power and then relinquished all his other posts four years later. Hausegger’s resignations were based as much on aesthetic principles as political ones. In addition to being virulently anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual, the National Socialists (never forget: these were the German Socialists) detested most modern music, and Hausegger was very deeply involved in new German music and art, which was clearly being attacked and pushed out of Germany at that time.

A follower of Beethoven, Wagner and Nietzsche, Hausegger created his own sound-world, based largely on his own instincts and enthusiasms rather than a meticulous study of counterpoint and form. Happily, his musical instincts were so great that he was able to create a sort of “alternate Straussian universe” in music that had its own direction, color and musical rules. So much is evident in Aufklänge, the longest work on this CD, an energetic and ingenious piece that only resembles Strauss in terms of the colorful orchestration (and a couple of paraphrases from Till Eulgenspiegel shortly after the 24-minute mark). Written in 1917, it was—surprisingly enough—his last major work, compiled on the children’s song “Sleep, little child, sleep” to celebrate the birth of his daughter Veronika. Despite its great length (31:20), the music is continually evolving and changing. Hausegger refuses to fall into the trap, which afflicted such late Strauss works as the Sinfonia Domestica and Alpine Symphony, of trashy Romantic-pop tunes worked to death within a large framework.


Siegmund von Hausegger

We then jump backwards in time 21 years to the Dionyssische Phantasie of 1896-97. This is even starker and more cogently dramatic, darker than any of Strauss’ tone poems. Indeed, with its strong rhythms and almost abrasive scoring in which the winds dominate, it almost sounds like something Beethoven would have written had he lived into the era of Brahms, albeit with Berlioz-like orchestration. One wonders if Hausegger had not seen or heard any of Mahler’s early symphonies by this time, too, for there is a certain kinship to his work as well. One difference here is that the forward momentum of Dionyssische Phantasie is consistent and relentless; he does not indulge in any of the extreme contrasts of tempo and mood that characterized so much of Mahler’s scores.

And I really have to spend some time here singing the praises of conductor Antony Hermus. It would have been easy, perhaps even forgivable, if he and his orchestra performed these scores in the accepted modern fashion, which is to just “play the notes” and not inject any personal viewpoint of their own, but this is not the case. The orchestra really digs into these scores with bite and drive; if Hausegger’s music is not to your taste, you absolutely cannot blame the performers for your lack of enthusiasm. I really can’t imagine that these works could be performed any better than they are here.

The last piece on this CD, Wieland der Schmeid (1904), was dedicated to his wife and inspired in part by the poetry of Nikolaus Lenau, whose songs Hausegger had just set to music. This is the most Straussian of the three works presented here, but once again Hausegger has his own voice and his own modus operandi. The story is based on a symbolist literary fragment by Richard Wagner about Wieland the blacksmith. Hausegger wrote the following preface to the score:

            The power and fame his art have created do not suffice for Wieland; he yearns for more. A swan-maiden (Schwanhilde) hovers, descends out of the sky and inclines toward Wieland. He reaches out, but, frightened by his singeing subterranean fire, she flies away. Powerless to follow, he collapses, assailed by the paralyzing thought that he who would be lord of the skies is bound insolubly to earth.
The vision of Schwanhilde fades; a cripple, Wieland stumbles, friendless through his life. Of what use is his art, power, fame? The pain of longing builds up to a cry for redemption.
           Suddenly, the lethargy melts away. The transfiguring and blissful vision of Schwanhilde rises within him. His strength returns, bolder than ever. His art will carry him to luminous heights!
            He forges himself wings of glittering steel. From the sky, the voice of Schwanhilde calls. Free of his earthly woes, he spreads his mighty wings and    flies up to his woman. United in love, the couple soars into the sun.

I am indebted to the website, part of a scholarly article on von Hausegger and his work, for this information as well as for the musical examples provided below. The tone poem begins with stabbing tremolos followed by a brief, explosive figure symbolizing Wieland’s frustration:

Wieland 1

I quote from the website: “This figure – according to the composer the most important theme in the work – builds sequentially to a rapid climax, to be followed by a more lyric theme, that of Earthly Longing:

Wieland 2

“He soon combines a variation of it with the theme of Heavenly Longing:”

Wieland 3

It’s a wholly remarkable piece, in which Hausegger develops both themes, with interjections of the first example (played by the horns), “leading to an especially anguished outcry of Ex 2, after which the mood shifts. Divisi violins, flageolet lower string tones and feathery, cascading woodwind sextuplets introduce Schwanhilde’s theme in E flat major, on a solo violin. The horn fifth harmonies in the woodwinds clearly indicate Alpine skies.” And so it goes, relentlessly, until the end.

Hausegger also wrote a 56-minute Nature Symphony which is, again, a darker and more dramatic work than Strauss’ mature-themed pieces. There is only one recording of it in existence by the WDR Rundfunkchor and Sinfonieorchester Köln, conducted by Ari Rasilainen; fortunately, it’s available for free streaming here on YouTube, and it, too, is a surprisingly fine performance.

This is the kind of composer and music that people like me live for: someone who was a genuine genius, somehow fell through the cracks, and is in desperate need of revival and re-examination. Who needs dead-heads like Bruckner when you have Hausegger to explore?

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Return to homepage OR

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


Rozhdestvensky’s Marvelous Enescu Recordings Reissued


ENESCU: Symphonies Nos. 1-3*. Suite No. 3, “Villageoise.” Romanian Rhapsodies Nos. 1 & 2 / BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; *Leeds Festival Chorus; Gennady Rozhdestvensky, conductor / Chandos CHAN 10984

In my opinion, George(s) Enescu (his first name was spelled both ways, depending on whether or not he was staying in France for an extended period of time) was the greatest of all violinist-composers. The problem, if problem there is, is that Enescu had so much talent that people didn’t automatically think of him as a violinist first and foremost, as they did with Wieniawski, Sarasate, Kreisler or Paganini; but then again, the same was true of Antonio Vivaldi, who I put second in the all-time list of violinist-composers. Yet the violin was Enescu’s primary instrument, which is the reason he taught Arthur Grumiaux and helped “finish” Yehudi Menuhin’s technique for him, although he was also a first-rate pianist, a cellist, and an excellent conductor in addition to being a composer.

These 1996-98 recordings of his orchestral music, including all three of his numbered symphonies (he wrote three un-numbered ones and a Chamber Symphony) and the ever-popular Romanian Rhapsodies, are given a bit of a Romantic feel by the wonderful Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Listening carefully to the recordings, the ear catches some noticeable digital splices and I’m sure there are others in there not so noticeable, but I forgive the BBC Philharmonic because Enescu’s music, great as it is, is still not standard repertoire except for the Rhapsodies. People like their Tunes, and Enescu’s symphonies, late Romantic but not pandering to plebeian tastes, are far more dramatic and technically complex to be sopped up by those who just love repeated hearings of the Beethoven Seventh or Brahms First.

Just listen, for instance, to the first movement of the first symphony. Yes, it’s a bit heavy-handed here and there, trying to make a big impression, but there’s so much going on here in terms of shifting meters, wholly unexpected harmonic changes, counterpoint and even counter-melodies that it just overwhelms you. And then there is the second movement, sensuous but not treacly or sentimental, with its wonderfully broad melodies. By contrast, the opening movement of the “Villageoise” Suite No. 3 is much simpler in construction, exuding a “folksy” Rumanian feeling. Yet there is the unexpectedly eccentric second movement, with its fluctuation meter and unusual use of the xylophone. And in that long third movement, bearing the long descriptive title “The old childhood house in the sunset – Shepherd – Migrating birds and crows – The vesper bell,” Enescu works around a long oboe or English horn melody (there’s so much reverb around the instrument I couldn’t hear it clearly) with strange atonal and bitonal wind chords, creating a bizarre tapestry of sound.

Only in the Romanian Rhapsodies did I feel that Rozhdestvensky gave the music a softer, more “romantic” profile in the sense of more tender contours, yet even so he maintained the basic core strength of the music when it was called for. The Second Symphony, though composed not too long after the first, is an entirely different animal, being more like a tone poem in its shape and style; obviously, the composer was thinking of a symphony in altogether different terms. Moreover, the extremely long first movement (over 19 minutes) almost seems like a separate tone-poem, but I didn’t care at all for the long second movement, a bit like the slow movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique in that it meanders too much and says too little. Then, suddenly, the last two movements sound like Mahler, but very confused, chaotic Mahler. This is not one of Enescu’s better works.

The Third Symphony, written in 1916-17, begins with a slow but sad-sounding movement. Both the rhythm and the structure are tighter here, and there is less rambling and ruminating. Rozhdestvensky holds the structure together beautifully, caressing the line and nudging the tempo forward. Parts of this movement also sound Mahlerian, but by this point Enescu had a better grasp of what he (and Mahler) was trying to do, and thus manages to balance it out with some of his own ideas. The musical flow is more consistent here and less “I-don’t-know-where-I’m-going.” Eventually the temp picks up but the mood remains dark; Enescu, who actually fought in World War I on the side of the Allies, was evidently mourning his lost friend and comrades. The liner notes indicate that he makes frequent use in this movement of the Mixolydian mode, which gives the score a restless feeling.

The second movement, marked simply “Vivace ma non troppo,” is not quite Mahlerian in scope, despite a Mahler paraphrase at the two-minute mark; rather, it sounds almost like early Stravinsky in a light, but not a jocular, vein, with swirling winds and strings playing off of a viola-cello melodic line. Eventually, however, the music becomes extraordinarily muscular, almost overpowering, with ferocious brass and percussion passages, before lightening up again and moving back into light string and wind interplay. The third movement, by contrast, is all beauty and harmonic resolution, featuring a wordless chorus à la Holst’s “Neptune, the Mystic.” The biggest problem here, however, as in the last movement of the Second Symphony, is that it goes on for too long.

The first Roumanian Rhapsody was even more popular than the second—even Toscanini played it, and Rozhdestvensky has a ball with it here. Enescu spoke with disdain of the rhapsodies, however, somewhat angry that they became concert-hall staples while his better works languished, but he was so busy with his playing, teaching and conducting that he didn’t have much time left over for composing. As this set proves, he was an erratic composer but when inspired quite original and effective, surely more interesting to listen to than anything Bruckner wrote.

By and large, then, an interesting but uneven set. Personally, I recommend CDs 1 & 3 but not CD 2, so if you can find them separately that is what you should go for.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Return to homepage OR

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


Steprans’ Hip Little Quintet Cooks

Steprans cover

AJIVTAL / STEPRANS: Shades of White. Luna’s Tune. Ajivtal. Rebirth. Chambre No. 5. One for Vedady O. Suite des Thèmes Lettons. Une Autre Original. FISHER: That Ole Devil Called Love / Janis Steprans Quintet: Steprans, a-sax/s-sax/t-sax/cl; Gabriel Hamel, gtr; Geoff Lapp, pn; Adrian Vedady, bs; Andre White, dm / Effendi FND145

Saxophonist-composer Janis Steprans is of Latvian descent though born in Montreal. He apparently started playing the alto sax in high school, later studying at McGill University with Gerry Danovitch and playing in the big band, combos and sax quartets there. After winning the concerto competition in 1975, he attended the New England Conservatory in 1982-84 where he studied with Joe Allard and also played a concert in George Russell’s Living Time Orchestra.

This album is best described as “cozy” jazz. The basic aesthetic is very similar to the modal jazz pioneered in the 1950s by the likes of Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Tony Scott, but although the basic style of the music breaks no new ground it is very fine music nonetheless. Steprans plays with a laid-back beat that sounds as natural as breathing, thus producing music that is both comfortable and intriguing. All of the innovation is in the solos, which are all of a very high order. Although the leader is obviously the star of the show, he does not hog the spotlight but allows his sidemen to comment on and interject when they feel the urge to. Interestingly, bassist Adrian Vedady is one of the most inventive of Steprans’ sidemen, playing solo after solo of breathtaking originality.

The work that gives its name to this album was inspired by Sonny Rollins’ famous composition, Airegin, which is Nigeria spelled backwards. Ajivtal is the name of the country of Steprans’ ancestors, Latvija, also spelled backwards. As the notes indicate, “The piece is built around a previously imagined musical motif, an exotic motif evoking Russian, Middle Eastern and Jewish music. While writing this piece, I was reflecting on my own origins and how they influence my music.” But the odd Eastern rhythms and backbeats only last through the first chorus; we then move on to a straightahead medium-uptempo swing beat with the leader playing a nice modal solo on alto.

Rebirth is another mid-tempo swinger, on which both guitarist Gabriel Hamel and pianist Geoff Lapp sound particularly in their element. Chambre No. 5 is a nice ballad in B-flat with an interesting modal structure on which Steprans plays a nice, cool tenor. By contrast, One for Vedady O is another swinger with an unusual leading melody and rhythm, in which Lapp really shines…but so too, once again, does bassist Vedady.

Suite des Thèmes Lettons has an odd, swaggering backbeat taken at a slowish pace: surely one of the most unusual pieces on the album. Steprans is back on soprano sax here, leading his troupe through the music’s melody which sounds extended by an extra couple of beats (it sounds to me like 7/4). The leader plays both soprano and tenor on this one, switching saxes so quickly that it almost sounds like two different players coming in one after the other. The tempo picks up around the five-minute mark, just a bit, as we lead into an excellent guitar solo by Gabriel Hamel which is interesting and creative without pandering to the rock crowd, despite a few hot blues licks thrown in for fun. This in turn leads back to the leader, on soprano again, now playing in a light, airy manner reminiscent of Paul Winter. 

The lone standard on this set is Doris Fisher’s That Old Devil Called Love, on which Steprans surprisingly switches to clarinet. His playing is cool, however, recalling Jimmy Giuffre rather than Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw. The rest of the band sounds very relaxed and comfortable in this piece, as if they’d been playing it for years, though Lapp’s single-note piano solo with occasional left-hand chord interjections gives it a more modern bent.

The program ends with another Steprans piece, Un autre Original, which begins like something out of Ornette Coleman’s book, an angular melody without an evident home key. After the intro, however, it settles down a bit, moving around E-flat until it finally lands there. The leader is back on tenor for this one and dominates the first half before Lapp comes in on piano, picking up from where the leader left off, followed by a chase chorus between Vedady and drummer Andre White. It’s a nice, joyous finish to an overall fine album, one you should explore.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Return to homepage OR

Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz