Mátyás Seiber’s Jazz-Infused Fun Pieces

Seiber 1

MORE NONSENSE / SEIBER: Divertimento.*1,2 Andantino Pastorale.*3 3 Morgenstern Lieder.*4 Introduction and Allegro.*2,3 The Owl and the Pussy-cat.4,5 More Nonsense.*3-6 Serenade6,7 / *Killian Herold, clarinetist with 7Tino Plener, clarinetist; 1Philip Roy, 1Hwa-Won Rimmer, 5Felix Borel, violinists; 1Raphael Sachs, violist; 2Frank-Michael Guthmann, cellist; 3Nicholas Rimmer, pianist; 4Sarah Maria Sun, soprano; 6Anton Hollich, bass clarinetist; 5Carsten Linck, guitarist; 7Rune Brodahl, 7Saar Berger, French hornists; 7Rui Lopes, 7Angela Bergmann, bassoonists / Avi 8553602

Mátyás Seiber is not a name particularly well known in classical music circles, despite a long and distinguished career, partly because he diversified his talent so much. In the 1920s, while writing serious classical pieces in the Hungarian manner, he was also an entertainer on an ocean liner and the first professor of jazz in history with a chair in Frankfurt. During and after World War II, he lived and worked in Great Britain, mostly as a choir director and composition professor, but still had a hand in jazz, co-composing Improvisation for Jazz Band and Orchestra with famed bandleader Johnny Dankworth (Cleo Laine’s husband). Thus you can see that, in approaching a CD such as this, one never quite knows which Seiber will show up.

And, of course, the success of an album such as this depends greatly on the ability of the “classical” artists to play in a jazz style—something that, alas, does not come easily or naturally to most of them. Many don’t know how to swing or at least try to make the music sound as if it is improvised.

Happily, clarinetist Killian Herold, who plays on most (but not all) of the selections on this album, is a performer who understands the difference between classical and jazz clarinet styles. This is important because Seiber’s music vacillates between the two. In the opening Divertimento, for instance, the first piece, “Toccata,” moves like a jazz-age Charleston while the second, “Variazioni Semplici,” is more classical with Magyar-type harmonies—a cousin to Bartók. The third piece, “Scherzo,” sounds like a cross between the two. Herold, who has an excellent, rich tone, seems to have at least heard Artie Shaw if not Benny Goodman, so his playing in the jazz-influenced pieces have a nice swagger to them.

But this album does not only include instrumental pieces; it also contains some of Seiber’s vocal music, brilliantly sung here by coloratura soprano Sarah Maria Sun whose solo CD I recently gave high marks to. First up on the vocal selections are the 3 Morgenstern Lieder, one of which has words disappear down a funnel and another about a knee that goes walking in the woods. The clarinet part, florid though it is, is nothing compared to the fiendishly difficult, serrated vocal line, which almost sounds like a cross between Pierrot Lunaire and the Lucia di Lammermoor mad scene. Sun handles this music as if she had been singing it for years…well, who knows? Maybe she has! Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat is too well known to comment on, except that here Sun’s high coloratura voice sounds remarkably rich and low, and it is obvious that she hasn’t had much experience singing in English, though her German-accented diction is fairly clear. Seiber’s musical setting almost has the feel of a cabaret song about it, except that some of the features in the vocal line would be beyond the capabilities of many such singers.

In the midst of all this wackiness, the Introduction and Allegro sounds peppy but somewhat normal—well, at least normal for Seiber, though it includes some humorous touches such as clarinet and cello portamento passages. More Nonsense is a collection of four very brief songs on various silly texts, and here Sun’s diction is quite difficult to understand.

The program closes out with the Serenade for two each of clarinets, French horns and bassoons—a fairly strange combination in any case. It’s sort of a Hungarian-British variation on the kind of wind sextet that Jean Françaix wrote, amusing in its galumphing rhythms and folk-like melodies. Oddly enough, our star clarinetist, Killian Herold, isn’t even on this piece, but it’s still well played and fits the theme of the album.

This is a delightful surprise and, although not the most serious of music, surely a recording you’ll want to have!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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