The Ghost Train Orchestra Rolls Along

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BOOK OF RHAPSODIES Vol. II / SCOTT: Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxicabs. HERZON-LANG: Hare and the Hounds. FORESYTHE: A Hymn to Darkness: I. Deep Forest; II. Lament for Congo. Garden of Weed. HERZON-ANDRE: Pedigree on a Pomander Walk. WILDER: Walking Home in Spring. A Little Girl Grows Up. Kindergarten Flower Pageant.* The House Detective Registers. M. GOULD: Deserted Ballroom. CHOPIN: Fantasie-Impromptu / Ghost Train Orchestra: Brian Carpenter, tpt/voc/tape loops/toy pno; Dennis Lichtman, cl; Ben Kono, a-sax/fl; Peter Cancura, t-sax/a-sax/cl; Mazz Swift, vln/voc; Evan Price, vln; Emily Bookwalter, vla; Curtis Hasselbring, tbn; *Rob Reich, acc; Ron Caswell, tuba; Avi Bortnick, gtr; Michael Bates, bs; Rob Garcia, dm; Aubrey Johnson, sop; Katie Seiler, mezzo-sop; Tomas Cruz, ten; Brian Carpenter, bar; Joe Chappel, bs; Boston City Singers Cambridge Children’s Chorus / Accurate Records

This is the second CD by the Ghost Train Orchestra to bear the title, Book of Rhapsodies, and is due for release on October 20. The first came out in 2013 and, like this one, focuses on new arrangements of “tone poems and chamber music for orchestra and choir” as played by groups of the 1930s and ‘40s: Reginald Foresythe and his New Music, the Raymond Scott Quintette, the John Kirby Sextet, the Alec Wilder Octette and the Hal Herzon Septet. I am intimately familiar with the music of four of these; only the Hal Herzon Septet has escaped my notice, and since I cannot find a recording or even a reference to a recording online I must assume that this group fell through the cracks of time and never made a return Probably the band’s leader, Brian Carpenter, found some old Herzon 78s, was intrigued, and decided to throw them into the mixture.

What I find ironic about the other groups, however, is that despite their eccentric mixture of jazz with classical style and/or form, they have been mostly derided or ignore through the years. Foresythe was a gay black man from England who came to the United States around 1933 and made a good impression on Earl Hines, who used his Deep Forest as his theme song for years; Louis Armstrong, who also recorded one of his tunes; and Paul Whiteman, who recorded several of them such as The Duke Insists and Serenade to a Wealthy Widow (the latter also “covered” by Fats Waller). A jolly but highly addicted alcoholic, Foresythe stayed in Harlem with Duke Ellington for some time but eventually drifted back to the U.K. where his delicate but sad-sounding tunes eventually fell out of favor. He tried to revive his career after World War II but had little success, eventually dying of alcoholism in the late 1950s. In recent decades, his music was often played by the late Willem Brueker and his Kollektief, but following Breuker’s death went into hibernation again.

Both the Scott Quintette and Kirby Sextet came in for some scathing criticism from Gunther Schuller in his book The Swing Era for being “pretentious” and overly cute, but each of these two groups had an entirely different style. Scott, the brother of society bandleader Mark Warnow, had an active and fertile mechanical mind and thus saw music in terms of rapidly swirling passages with contrasting themes in different tempos and/or keys. In the late 1930s his music was extraordinarily popular among schoolmarms who otherwise wouldn’t have listened to a swing band if you put a gun to their heads. Scott came up with a large number of quirky tunes with equally quirky titles, of which the best known is Powerhouse because it made its way into Warner Brothers cartoons. I’ve always gotten a kick out of Scott’s music because it’s so strange that it makes you laugh, but of course would never consider him a true jazz musician because he allowed no improvised solos in his records despite using some of the best studio jazz musicians of his time. Bassist John Kirby, on the other hand, came up with an idea for a jazz sextet that was voiced like a small orchestra, played fast, fleet arrangements of both popular tunes and a large group of original compositions, and featured the dazzling solos of trumpeter Charlie Shavers, clarinetist Buster Bailey, alto saxist Russell Procope and pianist Billy Kyle. Shavers later went on to play with Tommy Dorsey and then had a fine solo career for about 20 years, Procope spent roughly two decades in the sax section of the Duke Ellington band, and Kyle went on to play with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, but by and large the Kirby Sextet was damaged by the draft (both Shavers and Procope went into the service) and when it re-formed after the war its vogue was over.

The Alec Wilder Octet, on the other hand, gained surprising respect from both musicians and critics (possibly because Mitch Miller played oboe in it), though his music walked a fine line between art and schlock. A decent composer, Wilder wrote some great standards that remain in the repertoire of jazz bands like I’ll Be Around, Trouble is a Man and Who Can I Turn To?, but also wrote some exquisite classically-influenced arrangements for singer Mildred Bailey in the late 1930s (Easy to Love, Darn That Dream, Hold On and All the Things You Are) in addition to the cutely-titled pieces by his Octet (Kindergarten Flower Pageant, The House Detective Registers, Dance Man Buys a Farm, etc.) which are the ones taken seriously by many listeners. I like some of Wilder’s music but find that a few of the Octet pieces go a long way.

For some readers this may be too much information, but I think it important to bring all this up before assessing Carpenter’s work on these same tunes. In Vol. 1 the pieces selected were Foresythe’s Volcanic (Eruption for Orchestra), Kirby’s Charlie’s Prelude, Beethoven Riffs On and Dawn on the Desert, Scott’s At An Arabian House Party, Revolt of the Yes Men, The Happy Farmer and Celebration on the Planet Mars and Wilder’s Dance Man Buys a Farm, It’s Silk Feel It!, Children Met the Train and Her Old Man Was (at Times) Suspicious. Hal Herzon was apparently not yet discovered.

Typical of Carpenter’s approach is his re-imagining of Raymond Scott’s wacky (well, all of his music was wacky!) Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxicabs, compressed into a mere 1:53 and featuring atonal harmonies along with a pungent small-band sound pitting clarinet against tuba. But if you think this is weird, wait ‘til you hear Hal Herzon’s Hare and the Hounds, a scattergunned piece in which little tunes chase each other across the soundscape like Elmer Fudd running after Bugs Bunny. This one will have you laughing, it’s just so funny.

We take a step back from the manic music of Scott and Herzon for Part 1 of Foresythe’s “Hymn to Darkness,” Deep Forest. The Ghost Train band, like Earl Hines’ orchestra, dispenses with the single chorus of lyrics that Foresythe wrote into the original, but here Carpenter throws in the high, soaring, wordless soprano of Aubrey Johnson along with the “Book of Rhapsodies Adult Choir.” An excellent alto sax solo (not sure if it’s by Kono or Cancura) is a highlight. Herzon makes a reappearance with his Pedigree on a Pomander Walk, another Ray Scott-styled piece of cartoon music, again played in wacky-cracks style—except this time, the Adult Choir makes a reappearance singing the alternating theme towards the end.

Alec Wilder makes his first appearance with Walking Home in Spring. Here I felt that the Ghost Train Orchestra modified the original a little too much towards their own orchestration. This is not so much a criticism as a matter of personal taste. I just always felt that the Wilder pieces worked the way they did because they were scored for a wind octet. Rescoring them for trumpet, trombone, tuba, violin, clarinet etc. is very clever, and I did like the clarinet and pizzicato violin passage in the middle very much, but in the end I think it loses some of what made Wilder Wilder, if you know what I mean. Nonetheless, the performance is impeccable, and Mazz Swift’s Ray Nance-like violin solo is definitely a highlight.

By contrast, I really enjoyed Carpenter’s re-imagining of Deserted Ballroom, a Morton Gould piece with which I was previously unfamiliar. One of the reasons his arrangement works is that he maintains the underlying staccato rhythms and gets into the surreal, often crazy-sounding top lines. The Adult Choir also sings briefly on this one, and there’s a great electric guitar solo by Avi Bortnick. (In case you didn’t think electric guitars were around in the 1930s, think again. Even before Charlie Christian hit the Benny Goodman band, Eddie Durham was playing electric guitar with Count Basie back in 1937-38.) I also really liked Carpenter’s way of expanding this tune to fill five and a half minutes without being repetitive or uninteresting. A wild, “outside”-type sax coda ends it.

I liked the arrangement of A Little Girl Grows Up even though it tended towards the old Ray Conniff sound of the 1950s, the wordless-voices-with-orchestra style he pioneered (remember the ‘Swonderful album?) before chucking it in favor of the Ray Conniff Singers in the 1960s. The leader plays an interesting trumpet solo on this one over a repeated clarinet-alto sax riff in the middle, and Hasselbring contributes a nice chorus on trombone towards the end.

Despite the fact that later generations of jazz critics dumped on the John Kirby Sextet, one even calling them “race traitors” because their music wasn’t “black” enough, musicians in their day absolutely adored them. They were thought of with awe and inspired a great many groups, not least of which was Fats Waller and his Rhythm, which adopted a Kirby-like sound for many of its later (1941-42) recordings. Carpenter does a nice job of recalling their brilliant virtuosity by retaining the clarinet-alto sax duos and once in a while throwing in a muted trumpet to make it a trio (Shavers normally played muted with the Sextet). A sidelight: in 1940, shortly before he left New York for California, Jelly Roll Morton happened upon the Kirby Sextet playing on 52nd Street and fell in love with the band, even sitting in for one set. The manager offered him a job as intermission pianist, but Morton was too proud to accept it.

Lyrics are added to Wilder’s Kindergarten Flower Pageant, but alas the children’s choir’s diction is so poor I couldn’t make out a single word of it. Maybe they were singing in Esperanto. I couldn’t tell. This arrangement, by and large, was less successful that A Little Girl Grows Up.

I was particularly interested to hear the “Hymn to Darkness Part 2,” Lament for Congo, because it’s one of the few Foresythe tunes I had never heard. This is played in a sort of funky clarinets-over-tom-toms style, not too dissimilar from Artie Shaw’s Serenade to a Savage, but the rhythm relaxes and the texture shifts considerably in the middle section. Bortnick’s guitar dominates the solo space, although Carpenter gets a few licks in on trumpet. Nice counterpoint in the last chorus, too.

The House Detective Registers is played less tongue-in-cheek than usual, with the band oddly enough reveling in the sort of high-pitched scoring (clarinets and muted trumpet) that Raymond Scott used. Swift plays a violin solo that almost sounds like something Carroll Hubbard might have swung out on one of the Lee O’Daniel Hillbilly Boys records of the late ‘30s. There’s another vocal on this one, by one of the adults, but the lyrics are again indistinguishable. A nice chorus follows, with the guitar playing a brilliant counterpoint behind the solo clarinet.

This Book of Rhapsodies wraps up with Foresythe’s Garden of Weed, one of his more popular pieces and more controversial titles, recorded at a slow pace by his own band and at a slightly brisker one by Lew Stone’s Monseigneur Band. The Ghost Train orchestra takes it even a shade slower than Foresythe himself, laying into its “coochy” feeling with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Nice clarinet and alto solos spice up the second half of the performance.

If I may make a suggestion for Carpenter’s next album, please rediscover the wonderful wind arrangements of jazz tunes by Paul Laval (later Lavalle) and his Woodwindy Ten from the early-1940s radio program, The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. These are peerless examples of early cool jazz arrangements of older tunes that desperately need revival.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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A Potpourri of Pieces for Orchestra and Large Ensembles

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TOMORROW’S AIR / TANN: Anecdote / Ovidiu Marinescu, cellist; State Philharmonic Orchestra of Târgu Mureş; Ovidiu Balan, conductor / BAKKER: Cantus for String Orchestra.1 PERTTU: To Spring – An Overture.2 JÄRVLEPP: In Memoriam 2 / Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra; 1Vit Micka, 2Petr Vronský, conductors / SCHROEDER: Late Harvest / Sarita Uranovsky, Zola Bologovsky, Colleen Brannen, Ethan Wood, Julia Okrusko, violinists; Peter Sulsky, Joanna Cyrus, Emily Rome, violists; Leo Eguchi, Dorothy Braker, cellists; Charles Clements, bassist; Yhasmin Valenzuela, bass clarinetist; Karolina Rojahn, pianist; John Page, conductor / OSTERFIELD: Silver Fantasy / Moravian Philharmonic Wind & Percussion Ensemble; Lindsey Goodman, flautist/piccolo; Petr Vronský, conductor / Navona 6108

This is one of those albums I almost dread reviewing: a potpourri of works by several different composers, all contemporary, of which I only know the music of one of them (Hilary Tann). Fortunately, the overall quality of the music herein was better than I had anticipated.

Tann’s Anecdote, written for solo cello and orchestra, is clearly one of her loveliest and most interesting compositions, using broad but interesting melodic lines in bold strokes against an insistent “knocking” rhythm on woodblocks. The solo cello seems to be more of a commentator on the ongoing musical discourse, playing serrated figures against the lush orchestral backdrop. Our soloist, Marinescu, has a rich, lovely tone and full command of the instrument, playing with considerable feeling once the music “opens up.” Eventually the orchestra, too, plays the same sort of fluttering eighths along with the cellist, the music sounding almost like leaves bobbing on choppy water. Eventually the orchestra waxes dramatic, transforming the eighth-note motif into something quite powerful, underscored by pounding tympani, which leads to a cello cadenza before the final section. This is a great opener to this collection, inspired by Wallace Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar” and the longest piece in this collection at 14:39.

Next up is Dutch composer Hans Bakker’s Cantus for string orchestra. Like Tann, his music is tonal but in his case even more pungent in sound thanks to his constant harmonic shifting, beginning in the minor but then moving into the major. A nice sort of syncopated bounce is set up by the strings, the violins and violas playing a repeated rhythmic motif against the “bouncy” cellos. This eventually relaxes as Bakker develops his simple theme and introduces a contrasting “B” section.

Daniel Perttu, currently an Associate Professor at Westminster College, sets up swirling figures in To Spring – An Overture. This is a more conventionally tonal piece than the first two, and in fact almost has the sound of film score music except for its more interesting use of counterpoint (the cellos playing one theme while the upper strings play another) and richer texture of scoring. The only drawback I felt in this piece was that the harmony stayed pretty much in one place for a bit too long.

Canadian composer Jan Järvlepp follows with In Memoriam, written in memory of his late brother. For a memorial work of evidently strong emotion, it struck me as too tonal and melodic, with little feeling of pain to reflect his loss. Were one to hear this piece without knowing its title or inspiration, one would think it a nicely-penned musical interlude, sort of a modern counterpart to that of Cavalleria Rusticana. In short, it’s not a bad piece but not a particularly great one.

French-American Pierre Schroeder’s Late Harvest is described in the notes as “a lush, emotional work for strings, clarinet, and piano that forms a part of his eleven-movement magnum opus Voyage.” Ironically, I felt more emotion in this music than in the previous piece, despite its tonal structure. Schroeder cleverly works his small body of strings—five violins, three violas, two cellos and a bass—with bass clarinet and piano through a melodic structure that is coherent and interesting. Written in D minor, it has an interesting development section and grabs the listener with its emotional appeal. There is also some well-conceived tonal modulation at the 3:35 mark which, when combined with an increase in dynamics, makes the piece sound quite dramatic. Schroeder has an excellent sense of pacing, which holds the listener’s interest throughout.

We end our brief journey with Silver Fantasy by Paul Osterfield, a moody and somewhat mysterious-sounding work for wind ensemble. I’m so happy to finally hear, in recent years, really creative and interesting music written for winds to offset the banal stuff such groups played with regularity in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Osterfield mixes in some unusual timbral blends, using the tuba, horns and trombones to create a dark texture on the bottom over which the flute and piccolo play. To a certain extent, this sounds a bit like the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony in microcosm, although Osterfield is not copying Mahler in style. Suddenly, around 4:45, the music doubles in tempo and becomes quite angst-filled, with spiky harmonies, rolling tympani and occasional tone clusters. Then, surprisungly, the music lightens up a bit in tone as we get a quirky but somewhat jolly piccolo tune played above staccato brass figures. It’s just weird enough that I really like it! After this section, the tempo doubles yet again, riding us out in a whirlwind of sound.

Despite one or two moments where one’s attention drifts, then, this is a surprisingly good collection of contemporary works in contrasting styles and a disc you will return to again and again.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Steve Rouse’s Wonderful Musical Fantasies

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MORPHIC RESONANCE / ROUSE: Violin Sonata No. 2 / Ben Sung, violinist; Jihye Chang-Sung, pianist / Form Fades / Indiana University New Music Ensemble; David Dzubay, conductor / Nevolution / Michael Tunnell, corno di caccia; Meme Tunnell, pianist / Ten Little Things / Matthew Nelson, clarinetist; Greg Byrne, percussionist King Tango / Evelyn Loehrlein, flautist; Sidney King, bassist / Ravello 7973

Steve Rouse, former composer-in-residence and currently Professor of Theory and Composition at the University of Louisville, writes unusual music that does not drift quietly across your mindscape. It is, rather, music that bounces and sings and takes little stabs at the listener, music that challenges and pushes the envelope. So much is evident from his Violin Sonata No. 2, a work that starts as if it’s already in the middle of the movement, the choppy piano rhythms pushing and prodding the violin to virtuosic heights of tension. In his notes, Rouse tells us that he wrote this piece specifically for these performers, who have been professional colleagues of his for several years. In the slow second movement, Rouse essentially plays long-held violin notes against single notes on the piano dropped in here and there—more like a slow summer rain than like the sound of bells which Rouse claims was his inspiration for this movement.

The third movement has a bounce and swagger akin to early jazz or ragtime. Once again the piano seems restricted to single notes and repetitive, choppy chords, while the violin line moves around it like a moth sizing up a night light on your porch. Rouse’s music seldom coalesces into recognizable or graspable shapes; rather, it flits around in strange, angular rhythms and even stranger harmonies that seem neither tonal nor atonal. The rapid last movement is a perfect case in point. The moth-and-flame comparison continues to hold up as the piano plays running single-note lines underneath equally rapid lines, moving in an apposite manner, by the violin. A slow section reduces some of the musical friction but does not stop the flow, which resumes in a more quiet manner as the piece moves into the coda. The violin whispers in its extreme upper range while the piano likewise moves upward, quietly, as the sounds evaporate in the ether.

The five-movement Form Fades is ensemble music in the truest sense of the word. Only a brief spot solo emerges here and there; most of the time, the sextet of flute or piccolo, clarinet or bass clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion generally play as one. Rouse’s penchant for angular music is even more evident here, and I found it interesting that the percussionist accents the music primarily with woodblocks, snare drum and cymbals, much like a jazz drummer would. Rouse also teases the listener by occasionally ending some of the movements in the middle of a phrase. One waits in vain for the other shoe to drop, but it never does. The energetic syncopated backbeats in “Pulse Frees” also tease the listener by building up expectations of where the music is going and then pulling the rug out. I was particularly intrigued by “Memory Feels,” the third movement, in which light snare drum taps set up a quirky rhythm into which the winds play equally quirky double-time figures that ascend but do not descend. The fourth movement, “Petal Floats,” is less typical of his style, allowing the various solo instruments to play long-held notes that overlap, later having the flute weave in and out of the texture with little arabesque figures. The last movement is a study in heavy rhythms and rhythmic shifts over which the solo instruments play arcing figures, as if trying to ignore the pull of the percussionist.

Rouse describes Nevolution as a piece written “for modern corno da caccia and piano, although is may be performed on any soprano brass instrument in B-flat, including trumpet, cornet, and flugelhorn. The natural corno da caccia was a 17th century instrument and early precursor of the French horn. Modern reproductions are sometimes called circular flugelhorn in B-flat, piccolo-horn, or trumpet-horn. Its sound is a haunting mix of horn and flugelhorn.” Rouse also mentions that the piece was composed for the soloist here, Michael Tunnell, who died in 2014. Its three movements are titled “Echo Migration,” “Starquiet” and “Morphic Resonance,” the last of which also gives us the title of this CD. The latter uses “the overtone series, which should be performed to allow the natural out-of-tune-ness of the series to be heard..” Tunnell was clearly a virtuoso on his instrument (his triple-tonguing is superb), which allowed him to play virtually anything that Rouse or another composer could throw at him. Once again, particularly in the opening movement, one notes Rouse’s proclivity to write in staccato figures—you might call it his musical signature—but he varies the technique enough in each piece that it never becomes predictable or wearing on the listener. Moreover, Rouse cleverly varies his rhythmic pulses as well as tempos and musical approach, as in the second movement here which again pits a lyrical top line played by the brass soloist over a repeated rhythmic pattern played by the pianist. The aforementioned “Morphic Resonance” is highlighted by a bass note motif on the keyboard, alternated with downward chromatic spirals, while the brass player meanders about, occasionally playing what sounds like off-center pitches. (Interestingly, early jazz virtuoso cornetist Red Nichols played around with this same technique in his mid-1920s recording, Plenty Off Center.)

Ten Little Things was written for two of Rouse’s university colleagues, clarinetist Matthew Nelson and percussionist Greg Byrne, and focus on different percussion instruments in each of the 10 movements. They are, in order, concert bass drum, chimes (tubular bells), 4 cowbells, vibraphone (mostly bowed), snare drum with wire brushes (yet another technique taken from jazz), tambourine, crotales, 2 conga drums, baritone musical saw (an instrument I didn’t even know existed!) and vibes played with mallets. These pieces almost seem to be a form of experimentation or mindplay for Rouse; with their focus on the percussionist in each piece, the clarinet writing almost seems incidental though it is musically crucial to the layout of each movement. The eeriest music comes in the fourth movement, titled “The Wall,” which features a bowed vibraphone sounding much like a glass harmonica, but Rouse plays with effects in most of these short works. The way Rouse uses the baritone musical saw in the ninth movement, titled “The Cloud,” almost sounds like a baritone theramin, with upward and occasionally downward glisses predominating while the clarinet plays soft, ethereal held tones.

The CD ends King Tango, written for flute and bass. Rouse explains that it is not really a traditional tango rhythm but rather “an abstract impression of the spirit or essence of the tango.” The bassist, Rouse tells us, gives “its flute partner a bold invitation or call to dance,” after which both instruments “take passionate, virtuosic liberties with tradition by stretching, pulling, and floating beyond the bounds of expectations, yet they always return to a subtle essence of the tango.” After suffering through way too many of Astor Piazzola’s pretentious and junky “classical tangos,” Rouse’s take on the form came as a welcome relief. I was particularly delighted by Rouse’s complete deconstruction of the tango form, which, like a polka, can be debilitating to sensitive listeners who choose not to want folk dance rhythms in their classical music. Indeed, were this piece not titled so I’d have a hard time defining it as tango-related. Sidney King, our bass player in this performance, was the dedicatee of the piece. He is former Assistant Principal Bass of the Louisville Orchestra and now Professor of Bass at the University.

All in all, a strange and wonderful album. I felt that the dirft-off-into-space ending of King Tango was an odd choice to end the CD, but all in all it is definitely music worth exploring.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Donald Tovey, the Composer

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TOVEY: Variations on a Theme by Gluck.1 Piano Quintet in C 2 / Ormesby Ensemble: 1Sarah Brooke, flautist; Robert Atchison, Jacqueline Hartley, violinists; Bill Hawkes, violist; David Jones, cellist; 2Olga Dudnik, pianist / Toccata Classics 0226

Sir Donald Tovey (1875-1940), best remembered as a brilliant musical pedagogue whose Essays in Musical Analysis was considered the most important book of its day—even Arturo Toscanini read it assiduously, and when he went to England in 1935 to conduct the BBC Symphony, made it a point to meet and speak with Tovey—regarded himself first and foremost as a composer, thus it is interesting to have these recordings to judge him by.

The first piece on this CD is the second composed, the Variations on a Theme by Gluck from 1913. The year after it was written, he began teaching music at the University of Edinburgh, which pretty much took over all his time and put his composing on the back burner. One of his principal theories regarding music, which we accept today as a given but was not so well accepted back then, was that works of music were organic wholes in which the musical principles manifested themselves in different ways within the context of a given piece. In other words, as the harmony moved, so too should the top (melodic) line and the harmony. It’s a principle that can be applied to any truly great music from Monteverdi to Stravinsky, and you can hear Tovey applying this principle to the variations on Gluck’s theme. The music is resolutely tonal but not dogmatically so; there are fascinating chromatic passages and sections where Tovey makes subtle changes in the chord structure to give a different flavor to the music. There is an excellent musical analysis of this piece in the liner notes, showing how tidy Tovey’s musical mind was. After all, this was a man who, in 1931, actually finished Bach’s unfinished Contrapunctus XIV from The Art of Fugue! The music dances and sparkles, often going far beyond Gluck in harmony and particularly so in counterpoint. No question about it, this is a brilliant piece of music, and the Ormesby Ensemble plays it with love and enthusiasm.

For all the brilliance of the Gluck Variations, however, it is the very meaty Piano Quintet in C that dominates this disc. This comes from 1900, when Tovey was only 25 years old, and is based to some extent on the style of Brahms. But Tovey would not be Tovey if the music maintained the somewhat static style of Brahms, thus what we hear is music that looks forward to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht as much as it looks backwards to the Romantic style. The pianist plays not the usual chordal accompaniment but continually moving lines, mostly as cantus firmus but also as counterpoint, and the upper strings often move with the piano in rhythmic and harmonic solidarity. This is music of considerable meatiness, then; despite its melodic style, it is not a piece that the casual listener can enjoy as background music to their Sunday brunch or talk-over music for a cocktail party. There’s a remarkable passage at just before the 10-minute mark in the first movement when the instruments play a brief canon in double time over the running piano line, followed by a series of string chords which transpose upward chromatically. Moreover, and this may be the result of the performers’ interpretation, Tovey didn’t often use the string quartet as a homogeneous unit. Because of his acute musical mind and intense fascination with counterpoint, Tovey insists on keeping each string in its own discrete “space,” playing as if they were four sections of an orchestra. It’s small wonder that Toscanini, whose mind also thought of music in individual strands playing against one another, was drawn to Tovey’s musical aesthetic. The CD booklet includes a quote from the critic for the London Times:

A work full of fine ideas carried out with astonishing ability, and yet one in which mere erudition is never allowed to predominate. One or two of the themes strike the hearer as not particularly original, but their working-out is masterly, and so interesting that the circumstance is easily overlooked.

Typically of Tovey, his own program notes for this quintet consisted of 12 pages “of cut-and-dried analysis with no fewer than 54 musical examples.” The liner notes continue that this “may have been to much of a stretch for those listeners, critics and public alike, who were not really knowledgeable enough to follow his argument.”

Not too surprisingly, this complex piece is played with both warmth and clarity by the Ormesby Ensemble. I consider their work here, in these scores, exemplary for Tovey’s unique musical mind. Even such a great and gifted group as the Nash Ensemble might have given this music too much sweep and not quite enough attention to structural detail. Even the slow movement is full of small and large details that many a chamber group might overlook, to wit, its opening in F minor and subsequent transposition to A-flat major, with a considerable number of key changes during the development section, eventually fading away on long-held notes of C as the music suddenly resolves itself in F major! Very few of the music’s complexities happen at a rapid pace, but many are so subtle as to elude the grasp of the casual or inattentive listener.

Tovey Cello ConcertoBefore leaving Tovey and his music, I’d like to briefly discuss the live performance of his massive 1935 Cello Concerto written for his great friend Pau (Pablo) Casals. This was a live BBC broadcast from November 17, 1937, fortunately recorded complete by the “Beebs” for future archives. At four movements (three numbered ones plus a 10-minute “Intermezzo”) and 64 minutes it is indeed Mahlerian in length, and pretty much his swan song as a composer. Here are the links to the various sections:

  1. Allegro moderato, Cadenza, II. Andante maestoso, Intermezzo, III. Rondo giocoso, Cadenza

The sound is quite rough and variable with considerable surface noise, crackle, and occasional grinding. The orchestra is particularly cramped, but there is no question but that Adrian Boult is conducting at a white heat. Thank goodness that Symposium, the specialty British label that issued this performance, was able to keep the music pretty much in pitch; old acetates of this vintage often went awry in that department. Casals sounds terrific; this was still within the range of his “good” years as a soloist; and the music, though quite evidently Romantic in scope and fairly slow-moving, still has signs of Tovey’s fastidious musical mind at work. The drawback is that, at such a massive length, he tended to repeat motifs and his development was not as tight or as closely argued as in the day of his Piano Quintet. I can easily see that such a work would not find much of an audience today, as it simply does not sustain audience interest.

So there is a quick survey of at least some of the music of Donald Francis Tovey. The Toccata CD is highly recommended both for the quality of the music and the high quality of the performances.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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VEIN Plays Ravel

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RAVEL: Le Tombeau de Couperin. Blues. Bolero.1,2 Pavane pour une infante défunte. Mouvement de Menuet.1 Five O’Clock Foxtrot / VEIN: Michael Arbenz, pno; Thomas Lahns, bs; Florian Arbenz, dms. 1Andy Sheppard, t-sax/s-sax; 2Martial In Al-bon, tpt/fl-hn; 2Florian Weiss, tbn; 2Nils Fischer, s-sax/a-sax/bs-cl; 2Noah Arnold, a-sax/t-sax / Challenge 71179

VEIN is a Swiss trio of jazz musicians with deep classical roots. This disc is a follow-up to their previous CD, The Chamber Music Effect, which was compiled of original pieces based on classical models.

I was particularly curious to hear this disc due to my research into Ravel’s “jazz influence” in a number of pieces that he wrote from the mid-1920s through the early 1930s. The fly in the ointment, of course, is that this music is not always played as if it had a jazz influence, mostly because the majority of classically-trained musicians simply cannot swing. It took me months to locate performances of Ravel’s music that had anything close to the right “feel” for the music, and often they were by little-known musicians who just happened to understand what Ravel was driving at, such as pianist Natalia Kogan in the Piano Concerto. This is important because, unlike many European composers whose idea of “jazz” stemmed from the recordings of ragtime pianist Zez Confrey and pop bandleader Paul Whiteman (Arnold Schoenberg actually bought new Whiteman records as they came out and assiduously studied the “jazz” orchestration on them!), Ravel came to America and specifically to Chicago where he heard such musicians as Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone and Noone’s pianist, Earl Hines, who so impressed Ravel that he offered to write a piano concerto for him. Hines, overwhelmed by such an offer from the greatest living French composer of his day, respectfully declined, though he shouldn’t have. Hines had a sterling technique and a great musical mind, and could have handled anything Ravel wrote for him.

But to come back to the subject at hand: pianist Michael Arbenz’ touch and tone are so classical that I almost felt as if I were listening to Alicia de Larrocha or Walter Klien playing Mozart. There’s a certain Jacques Loussier Trio-type feeling to this group, and that in itself makes them perfect fr what they do. VEIN’s approach is clearly to use Ravel’s themes as a taking-off point for jazz improvisation, not necessarily to stay confined in the form that Ravel himself wrote. Because of this, casual listeners will probably not recognize Le Tombeau de Couperin, taken at a surprisingly fast tempo and completely altered in rhythm and harmony as well as melodic line. Even such a familiar piece as Bolero assumes a strange form in these musicians’ hands.

My comparison of VEIN to the Loussier trio is not chosen at random, or because Loussier has made a career out of transforming Bach in jazz forms, but because both trios operate as an integral unit. The bass and drums are as important to each note, each accent and each phrase as such instruments can possibly be. VEIN’s three-way musical conversations are even more integrated than Bill Evans’ famous Village Vanguard trio with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. Listening carefully to their performances, one notes that bassist Thomas Lahns is constantly “thinking through” what pianist Arbenz is playing and contributing not just rhythmic support but parallel and sometimes opposing figures. I noticed that Arbenz often helps him by laying off playing left-hand figures himself. As for drummer Florian Arbenz, he swings in a deft, subtle manner, not too dissimilar from the way Elvin Jones functioned within the John Coltrane Quartet. He takes a fine solo on the last movement, “Toccata,” of the Tombeau de Couperin, but for the most part works behind the scenes, echoing Michael Arbenz’ piano figures or adding to them.

I admit to not knowing Ravel’s Blues or Five O’Clock Foxtrot prior to hearing VEIN’s takes on them, thus I cannot comment on how they have transformed them, but their performance of Blues sounds almost more like a Latin type of dance rhythm than a blues as we know it in jazz. Nonetheless, their performance is remarkable for its fully integrated unity, including a chorus in which Lahns’ pizzicato bass dovetails perfectly with Florian Arbenz’ woodblocks and rim playing on the drums.

Saxist Andy Sheppard appears on two tracks, one of which is the famed Bolero, on alto and soprano sax, but it is another guest artist—whether Nils Fischer or Noah Arnold, it does’t say (both play here)—who opens the piece on alto. Doing a 16 minute and 42-second take on Bolero is really a risk for a band such as this, since the original piece was essentially conceived as an exercise in orchestration using a slow, suggestive bolero rhythm with no real development or variation until the last two choruses, after a surprising transposition. Trumpeter Al-bon plays both an open solo and a muted chorus behind one of the altos. VEIN’s approach to this work is to continually shift the rhythm chorus by chorus in subtle ways, thus building up tension without moving away from the composer’s original conception. Michael Arbenz also switches from acoustic piano to some sort of electronic instrument that sounds like a toy piano, evidently getting in touch with his inner Schroeder. As the tension builds, the group really starts to swing hard, cutting loose from their rather pin-neat performances of the previous tracks into something rather strange. We hear a soprano solo by Sheppard with Fischer on bass clarinet rumbling around in the background. In the final choruses, VEIN doubles the tempo and the horn section (including trombone) really cuts loose. This is a Bolero that kicks butt.

The equally familiar Pavane, transformed during the Swing Era into a popular song called The Lamp is Low, will be difficult for even the most Ravel devoted fan to recognize, particularly in the open chorus where Michael Arbenz plays what sounds like a kalimba. It’s not until he switches back to the piano that the melody line is recognizable, played in a laid-back tempo with the trio sounding very Bill Evans-ish. For the sake of historical accuracy I should point out that the Pavane was written well prior to Ravel’s exposure to jazz, so it is not specifically a jazz-based tune. Mouvement de Minuet starts out with Sheppard on tenor sax, sounding surprisingly alto-ish. There is but a hint of minuet tempo here as VEIN plays in a manner that makes the 3/4 tempo sound more like a strange 4 (or maybe a 12/8). Pianist Arbenz relaxes the tempo for a ruminating solo, abetted by Lahns on bass and Florian on drums.

The album closes with Five O’Clock Foxtrot, which VEIN turns into a very swinging piece, albeit at a somewhat complex tempo that sounds 4/4 in places and in others like a mambo. A strange piece that really cooks! (After listening to VEIN’s version, I went to YouTube and listened to a “traditional” performance by Bernard Hermann and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Very much a jazz-based piece.)

All in all, then, VEIN Plays Ravel is that rarity, a jazz-classical fusion album that works because the musicians involved know both types of music and know what they’re doing. Great stuff!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Gielen’s Masterful Mahler Reissued

Gielen Mahler

MICHAEL GIELEN EDITION Vol. 6 / MAHLER: Des Knaben Wunderhorn / Christiane Iven, soprano; Hanno Müller-Brachmann, baritone / Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen / Peter Mattei, baritone / Symphonic movement, “Blumine.” Symphony No. 9 (live performance). Symphonies Nos. 1-10 / Juliane Banse, soprano (2nd Symph); Europe Choir Academy; Cornelia Kallisch, mezzo-soprano (Symphs 2 & 3); Freiburg Cathedral Boys’ Choir (3rd Symph); Christine Whittlesey, soprano; Wolfgang Hovk, violinist (4th Symph); Alessandra Marc, Jane Margaret Wray, Christiane Boesiger, sopranos; Dagmar Pečková, Eugenie Grünewald, mezzo-sopranos; Glenn Winslade, tenor; Anthony Michaels-Moore, baritone; Peter Lika, bass; Aurelius Sängerknaben Chor; Europe Choir Academy (8th Symph) / Kindertotenlieder / Cornelia Kallisch, mezzo-soprano / Rückert-Lieder / Elisabeth Kulman, mezzo-soprano / Das Lied von der Erde / Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor; Cornelia Kallisch, mezzo / SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; Michael Gielen, conductor / SWR Music 19042CD

With the release of this massive Mahler set, SWR Music sets Michael Gielen alongside such past conducting giants as Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan as among those with the most discs in print. Many Americans who do not live in Cincinnati, where Gielen conducted for several years in the 1980s, and in England, seem not to “get” him very well. I think, to a certain extent, the cosmic meteor that was Klaus Tennstedt tended to overshadow Gielen, but Tennstedt was either hit-or-miss in many of his performances whereas Gielen was “Steady Eddie.” I’ve even read customer reviews of his Mahler Symphony cycle, previously issued by SWR (but with only the “Adagio” from the 10th Symphony, not the whole work) complaining that Gielen was a “cool” interpreter of Mahler, whereas in hearing this complete set I find him among the most exciting and detailed of Mahler conductors. I suppose when your benchmark in Mahler is the hyper-emotional, over-italicized Leonard Bernstein, Gielen does seem a little tame, but then so do Horenstein, Haitink, Chailly, Wit and even Klemperer and Walter, all of whom I admire. As a matter of fact, the only Bernstein Mahler I like are some of his later performances with the Vienna Philharmonic, particularly the Sixth Symphony and Kindertotenlieder.

Since I had to review this set via downloads and streaming audio and didn’t have access to a booklet, I didn’t have any notes for this set. I was, however, fortunate enough to find the following blurb on the internet, which explains some of what we are listening to:

This volume of the Michael Gielen EDITION contains rereleases of Mahler’s Symphonies Nos. 1–10, which have already appeared in individual recordings as well as in a CD boxed set (2004). They were recorded between 1988 and 2003. Gielen avoided the First Symphony until June 2002; at least, no earlier recordings are known. It was the clamour of the finale that bothered him. Nonetheless, he conducted it at the gala concert for his 75th birthday in Freiburg. The recording production followed.

Michael Gielen conducted the Ninth Symphony numerous times, with the earliest recording by the Saarländischer Rundfunk (public broadcaster of the German state of Saarland) in January 1969. The work featured in a concert in Freiburg on June 30, 2003, which Gielen described to a friend as one of the best concerts in his life. Shortly beforehand, he had learned that Lotte Klemperer would not be able to attend this concert because she was on her deathbed. Klemperer’s daughter was one of Gielen’s closest friends and regularly travelled from Zurich to Freiburg for concerts, especially performances of Mahler. This performance of Mahler’s Ninth naturally became Gielen’s farewell gesture for Lotte Klemperer. She died the following day. Asked whether feelings of such a private nature should be published in this booklet, Gielen expressly requested that they should. A few Mahler concerts were televised by the SWR, as was this one. It is included in this box as a bonus DVD [ed. note: available online for free streaming at YouTube]. During the concluding ovation you can see that Gielen is visibly moved, and that he embraces his longtime friend and concertmaster Diego Pagin – a gesture not normally seen from the otherwise reserved Gielen.

For a long time, Gielen considered the Adagio to be the only part of the Tenth Symphony capable of being performed. But the Deryck Cooke version of the symphony subsequently attracted his attention, and he performed it in Cincinnati in January 1986. He decided there was much more of Mahler to be heard here than he had previously believed. The complete recordings of his Mahler symphonies in 2004 included only the Adagio, but this edition now also includes the complete recording of the Deryck Cooke version which was published in 2005. Additionally, the separate releases of the Kindertotenlieder, the Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) and the Wunderhorn songs with Blumine have found a place in this commemorative edition. Released for the first time here are the Rückert-Lieder and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen from Gielen’s last performances with the SWR Symphony Orchestra.

Des Knaben WunderhornWe start with the performance of Das Knaben Wunderhorn, somewhat more refined and less peasant-like or boisterous than the famous Wyn Morris recording with Geraint Evans and Janet Baker. Soprano Christiane Iven has a very attractive voice and shades the music well, but she’s no Dame Janet in interpretation. Hanno Müller-Brachmann, on the other hand, has a extraordinarily deep baritone, almost a bass-baritone, and characterizes nearly as well as Evans did, though the voice occasionally spreads under pressure. There are moments when Gielen cuts loose emotionally, which helps the music immensely, and typical of every performance in this set the textural clarity of the orchestra is almost 3-D, revealing a large number of little details that pass unnoticed on others’ recordings. I question, however, Gielen’s sequencing the Wunderhorn songs out of order: 1, 4, 6, 8, 7, 10, 3, 5, 14, 9, 15, 2, 13, 12, thus omitting the 11th song and ending with the “Urlicht” that Mahler re-used in the “Resurrection” Symphony. He also interrupts the sequence in the middle with the rejected “Blumine” movement from the First Symphony, which he takes at a rather quicker and more exciting pace than most conductors. Good performances, but strange programming. (Note: It suddenly struck me that the middle section of “Revelge” was re-used by Alban Berg for Marie’s “Soldaten” song in Wozzeck.)

Mahler 1stThe First Symphony is beautifully phrased and paced, reminding me in places of Bruno Walter’s 1939 performance with the NBC Symphony (the brisk pace of the “wayfarer’s” tune) and in others of Pierre Boulez’ extraordinary recording with the Chicago Symphony (the hushed quietude of the beginning, as if the sun were burning off the morning dew). And even in those soft opening passages, one hears underlying instruments that simply never registered in one’s mind before, particularly the lower winds. Towards the end of the first movement, Gielen’s tempos are a bit unconventional: he holds back a bit just before the French horns burst things open, then pulls back a little just after, increasing the tempo once again in the finale. The second movement is taken at almost as fast a pace and jaunty a style as the old Adrian Boult recording. The “Frêre Jacques” theme in the third movement is also taken slightly quicker than usual, but the entire movement is phrased quite elegantly. Gielen again has his own ideas on which phrases to hold back with rubato and which to play in strict tempo, but it works. If Gielen indeed had early misgivings about the loudness of the last movement, he seems to have overcome them by the time of this recording, because it is tremendously powerful and exciting, as good as I’ve ever heard it, and the lyrical middle section is caressed with great affection. He also holds back ever-so-slightly before jumping into the explosive D major chord in the middle of the movement, and the ensuing slow music is taken very slowly albeit with no lack of underlying emotion. The explosive coda is also surprisingly broad, and again one hears extraordinary clarity of detail. The incredible journey thus begins in splendid fashion.

Mahler 2ndGielen takes the Second Symphony just slow enough that it can’t fit onto a single CD (83:18) but not so slowly that it drags. He does, however, take the opening movement at a measured pace, not as briskly as Otto Klemperer or Zubin Mehta (two of my favorites) but not as slowly as Tennstedt (especially in his live performances), and the second movement is a true Ländler, not the usual drag-it-out-til-it-falls-apart tempo. And again, you hear things in the orchestra that you never noticed in anyone else’s recordings (note the clarinets at 19:45 in the first movement), which is pretty amazing when you consider that digital recording has been around since 1978, nearly 40 years ago. (And consider: digital recording has outlasted every other technical advance in the history of recorded sound. Acoustic recording lasted from 1888—the first private cylinders—until 1926, only 38 years, and the others were barely blips on the radar screen. Boxy electrical recording ran from 1925 through 1944, when both American and German engineers came up with expanded sound capability; high fidelity commercially from 1947 until 1958, although stereo recordings were made experimentally from 1932; and analog stereo commercially from 1954 until 1978, only 24 years.) All in all, I found Gielen’s reading of the first movement the most dramatic in terms of pacing and shaping of all the versions I’ve heard. The third movement is also rather faster than most conductors take it, quicker in fact than Gielen’s own performance of the Wunderhorn song on which it is based (St. Anthony of Padua and the Fishes). Cornelia Kallisch, a good mezzo, excels here in her beautifully-phrased and emotionally heartfelt reading of the “Urlicht” solo, and soprano Juliane Banse, one of my favorite singers, simply soars in her later solo lines in the last movement.

Mahler 3rdThe Third Symphony has often struck me as having some great movements that don’t quite gel together as a symphony. Before hearing this recording, only Jascha Horenstein and Klaus Tennstedt pulled a performance of it off in such a way that it convinced me that all the music belonged together, although this work was also the program for Gielen’s debut concert with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra way back in the 1980s. (The mostly elderly audience at the Friday matinee performance wasn’t much impressed. Somewhere during the sixth movement, an old man sitting behind me called out loudly, “It’s ten after one!” The concert had begun at 11:35 a.m.) The Cincinnati orchestra, not yet as finely tuned to Gielen’s tempos and phrasing as they would become—though they always hated him because he made them work hard—didn’t pull it off quite as well as in this splendid recording with the SWR Symphony, but it was quite good. The first movement here doesn’t quite have the flow that Tennstedt, Solti or Tilson Thomas brought to it; the slow section following the brisk horn opening has more of a steamy, plodding character, as if summer was struggling to arrive under the oppressive and tragic stomp of fate, but once again the orchestra and the incredible engineering bring out some quite stupendous sonic miracles never before heard by human ears. (Did you know there were pizzicato strings behind the horns at the 20-minute mark? I didn’t, because I’d never quite heard them clearly before.) This is truly Mahler in 3-D. Make sure you have your special blue-red goggles on.

Cornelia Kallisch is again our soloist, and although she doesn’t quite come up to the level of Janet Baker with Tilson Thomas, the overall performance of the movements in which she appears is far more interesting as conducted by Gielen. He creates a tremendous atmosphere in the fourth movement particularly with his impressive command of dynamics and transparency of texture, and the last has a great amount of warmth, which is needed to convey “What love tells me.”

Next I reviewed the Kindertotenlieder. which Kallisch also sings. She seems to have been Gielen’s favorite Mahler singer during the years in which he recorded these works. Considering the era, the only other mezzos who could have given more detailed performances, had he been able to hire them, were Vesselina Kasarova or Waltraud Meier, who Tennstedt was fortunate to get for his live Mahler Third. (Mitsuko Shirai would also have been a good choice though she seldom appeared with Mahler-sized orchestras.) But Gielen’s interpretation is again quite different from what you’ve been used to. He takes these sad songs at a fairly brisk clip, certainly faster than Bernstein, Horenstein, Lehel and many other conductors, and again there are details you’ve never noticed before, like the sudden appearance of the low bassoon in “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n” and “In diesem Wetter.” This is definitely one of my favorite performances of this usually-dreary cycle.

Mahler 4thThe Fourth Symphony is taken at a fairly fast clip as well; in fact, Gielen is the only conductor I’ve ever heard who plays the last movement at nearly the same manic pace as Mahler himself on the old Welte-Mignon piano roll, but his way of accenting the music is entirely original. He also has his own way of bringing out the strangeness and menace of the symphony, but particularly in the first movement doesn’t really equal the unbelievably intense James Levine recording with the Chicago Symphony (his greatest Mahler performance). Then again, no one else really does except Willem Mengelberg in his grossly distended 1941 performance with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Christine Whittlesey has exactly the right boy-soprano-like voice, better than many more famous sopranos on Mahler Fourth recordings.

Mahler 5thThe first movement of the Fifth Symphony is taken mostly very slowly with further touches of rubato to hold back the flow in the lower string passages, returning to primo tempo for the trumpet-brass passages. It reminded me very strongly of Klaus Tennstedt’s great live performance with the New York Philharmonic, my all-time favorite Mahler Fifth. This style brings out the sadness of the music; it’s a “Trauermarsch” that just barely marches at all. The louder passage in the middle is played with an almost unbelievable ferocity, the tempo pushed to the limit. The second movement has bite and drive a-plenty, the music almost exploding in one’s ears. “Grosser Vehemenz,” indeed! Yet this, too, comes in for its share of relaxed tempos and a feeling as if the music is floating, or flowing, without any bar lines. No matter how you listen to it, this is a Mahler Fifth unlike any other. The Scherzo is played in fairly strict tempo with little variation and the famous Adagietto is played sensuously.

Mahler 6thThe Sixth Symphony opens with a very heavy tread but not a fast one; the feeling is more like a sluggish but still threatening force moving towards you. It still has a high degree of menace, but doesn’t sound as if it’s right on top of you as soon as it begins. Think of it as the theme song for the Fascist hate group Antifa. Again Gielen’s phrasing and pacing are unconventional yet interesting and valid, with many rubato touches. It just doesn’t sound like anyone else’s first movement of the Sixth! The opening of the Scherzo is also rather slower and heavier than other conductors take it, and here Gielen’s tempo choice works, I think, particularly well to avoids any hints of superficiality or levity, as some performances inadvertently give it. Indeed, if anything this movement sounds just as eerie and even more grotesque than the first, which is seldom the case. I’ve heard about a dozen Mahler Sixths, including two each by Bernstein and Haitink and one each by Solti, Wit, Levine, Tennstedt, Chailly and Zander, all good in their way but none like this. The third movement, on the other hand, is phrased very much like Haitink’s first recording, a performance I liked very much indeed, except that Gielen increases the tempo a bit when you hear the cowbells. In the last movement Gielen unreels the music like a long spool of thread, letting out little bits or whole handfuls as the spirit moves him. Here his tempos are generally more conventional, but that may be misleading to the listener as he takes some passages slower than normal and others much faster. The SWR Symphony brass here has the snap and bite of an alligator, and for once you can really hear the three hammer blows of fate because the engineers put the hammer and anvil closer to the front than normal. In the last seven minutes of the symphony Gielen builds up the tension to an almost unbelievable height of intensity, riding a tank with a battering ram off into the sunset.

Mahler 7thBy contrast with his performances of the Fifth and Sixth, the Seventh Symphony features surprisingly brisk tempi with an almost continual forward momentum, which helps pull together this rambling score splendidly. Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado were given high marks by well-known critics for their recordings of this work, but to my ears Gielen outdoes them both. There’s a persistent streak of jolliness in his interpretation that I find both apropos and engaging; even the weird orchestration and the tympani outbursts sound more humorous than threatening. Only the Scherzo, long considered one of Mahler’s most menacing, is only somewhat creepy in his reading, though for me it’s creepy enough. I don’t always need to have Mahler give me night sweats. His interpretations of the two Nachtmusik movements are excellent, though to be honest I’ve always felt the second of them was repetitive and superfluous, and the Finale manages to present jollity with an undercurrent of drama—a neat trick.

Mahler 8thThe Eighth Symphony is notorious for the fact that the eight solo singers must all have splendid voices and a virtuoso technique, and most recordings fall flat one way or another. Here, Gielen gets some incredibly fine singing out of Alessandra Marc, an uneven soprano whose vibrato is usually all over the place, and the other two sopranos are fine as well. The problems arise from mezzo-soprano Dagmar Pečková, whose obtrusive flutter-vibrato inflicts her singing in the mid-range, though her high notes are splendid, and tenor Glenn Winslade, who simply sounds uncomfortably tight in his almost consistently high tessitura. Indeed, finding good tenors for the Eighth Symphony is extremely difficult because the score calls for so much singing above the break. To the best of my knowledge Nicolai Gedda never sang it, but his voice would have been ideal. So too would have been Pavarotti. The two best tenors I’ve heard sing it were Eugene Conley with Stokowski and Donald Grobe with Rafael Kubelik. But at least Winslade has a fairly nice-sounding voice, whereas many conductors use “dramatic tenors” who have neither the high range nor a pleasant timbre.

As for the performance itself, it strongly emphasizes the structure of the work, bringing out all the counterpoint and secondary figures that often pass by unheard, rather than the drama. This doesn’t mean that it’s not a splendid performance, because it is, but if you’re looking for heaven-storming angst you’ve come to the wrong picnic. Speaking for myself, this approach is most welcome. I’m not sure if I’ve ever enjoyed the music per se half as much as I did listening to this recording, except possibly on the more exciting live Kubelik performance, and despite the problems that Pečková and Winslade run into the singing is more consistently good here than on the Bernstein, Haitink or Tennstedt recordings. By paying close attention to the work’s structure, Gielen makes it sound more coherent and less of a mess than many of his more famous and excitable rivals. You’ll hear all sorts of little running string, wind and brass figures in the background as you listen, making you scratch your head and wonder why no one else plays it this clearly. Indeed, this is especially important in the oft-sprawling Part 2, where the music can easily sound as if it were rambling and not very coherent. Lorin Maazel’s awful recording is a worst-case example, but even Stokowski let the music sag in the second part and Haitink was not as crystal-clear as this. Surprisingly, Winslade is in much better voice here, singing with both passion and a fine tone—but this music is not as consistently high in his range. Gielen caresses the final section of the symphony with the gentleness of a father tucking his daughter into bed at night. All in all, a wholly remarkable performance. (This, by the way, is Gielen’s second recording of the work. The first was made for Sony Classical back in the 1980s with sopranos Faye Robinson and Margaret Marshall, Ortrun Wenkel as principal alto, tenor Mallory Walker and the Frankfurt Opera House and Museum Orchestra.)

Das Lied von der ErdeI reviewed Das Lied von der Erde next because chronologically it came between the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. Most critics have praised Gielen and tenor Siegfried Jerusalem, but given short shrift to mezzo Cornelia Kallisch. Although Kallisch doesn’t move me as much as Kerstin Thorborg, Christa Ludwig, Janet Baker, Brigitte Fassbaender or Alice Coote, she is certainly better than many another mezzo in recordings of this work. Her biggest shortcoming is that when she opens up the volume, the voice spreads. Jerusalem surprisingly struggles in the opening of Das Trinklied, and although he recuperates somewhat it’s obvious that he wasn’t in as good voice here as he was on his famous Wagner recordings of the same time (1992). Gielen conducts a sprightly, energetic performance, employing rubato at interesting moments in the score (such as the soft orchestral passage near the end of Von der Jugend). From a conducting standpoint, this is a Das Lied on par with Bruno Walter, Carl Schuricht, Carlos Kleiber and Marc Albrecht, and once again the engineers bring out considerable detail. Jerusalem does a splendid job on Der Trunkene im Frühling, interpreting well and shading the voice beautifully despite a couple of strained high notes. Der Abschied moves at the right pace and again reveals details in the score not normally heard, and it is evident that Gielen is “leading” Kallisch through the piece emotionally. Here her singing is generally well controlled because so much of it is soft, her phrasing is eloquent and although she is a bit detached emotionally she does, as mentioned earlier, a fairly good job. Marc Albrecht’s recording of this work is my top choice among digital recordings, but Gielen’s is more than credible.

Mahler 9thAs for the Ninth Symphony, this is the most difficult of all to pull off well. Walter, Bernstein, Kubelik, Tennstedt and young Haitink all failed. The only three great performances of it I’ve ever heard were Barbirolli, Solti and later Haitink. In Gielen’s commercial recording the soft opening doesn’t quite capture the feeling of complete repose, but as he gets further into the music he is much more emotionally involved, equalling Barbirolli and Solti in intensity. In the second movement Gielen again takes a proper Ländler tempo, except that this time the music is quirkier and a bit grotesque, which he also brings out well, slowing down the tempo for the middle section and employing considerable rubato. He also has considerable fun with the Rondo–Burleske, reveling in the quirky rhythms and harmonies that Mahler laid out like little booby-traps in the score, although the middle part of the movement seemed a bit draggy for my taste. The final Adagio, by contrast, is simply perfect from first note to last in both mood and pace. I felt as if I were riding on a high, slow-moving cloud, coming to land like a phantom parachuter in a dream.

The live Ninth issued on the bonus DVD, as mentioned earlier, was performed while Gielen’s friend Lotte Klemperer lay dying in 2003. It thus has deeply emotional, even painful associations for the conductor. Here Gielen hits the right tone from the start, and the emotion only becomes stronger as the music progresses. Being a live concert and not an engineer-controlled studio recording, there are sonic anomalies not found in the rest of the set, i.e., the roominess of the concert hall which creates a natural reverb around the instruments, which in turn obscures some of the orchestral detail found in the studio version. This is a trade-off, then: a greater performance vs. better clarity of sound. The live performance of the second movement starts off too slowly, yet the slow middle section has a better flow and the whole piece sounds more organic. On the other hand, I preferred the Rondo–Burleske from the studio recording; it moves faster and has more energy. I also preferred the final movement from the studio recording; this one is very nice and heartfelt, but doesn’t have that floating-on-a-cloud feeling. All in all, then, I would take the first movement from this performance and the last three from the studio recording as my ideal Gielen Mahler Ninth.

Mahler 10thGielen’s approach to the Tenth Symphony reminded me very much of the Kurt Sanderling recording of decades ago. It has a bit more passion than Sanderling, however, if not quite as much as the elusive Mark Wigglesworth performance, which was actually given away one month as a bonus CD with BBC Music Magazine. (I actually bought the CD separately from the magazine at Half Price Books back in the early 1990s and still have it in my collection.) The liner notes tell us that Gielen only performed the Adagio from this symphony for many years, until one day he was suddenly convinced that the Deryck Cooke edition of the symphony had much more authentic Mahler than he had previously thought. I’m not sure why it took him so long to come to this conclusion, however, any more than I can understand why Tennstedt never performed the whole symphony either. The evidence is quite clear: Mahler actually did finish the symphony in piano reduction, but only orchestrated the first movement. This puts it much further along than the Schubert Eighth, of which only about 21 bars of the Scherzo were sketched out and only the first eight orchestrated, or Charles Ives’ “Universe” Symphony, later completed and orchestrated by a different hand. The only reason it wasn’t orchestrated and performed earlier than the mid-1960s was because his widow, the famed nymphomaniac Alma Schindler-Mahler-Werfel-Gropius (and boy oh boy, did she Gropius!), refused to let anyone orchestrate the damn thing until she did the world a favor and died in 1963. What I hear in this 2005 Adagio is a conductor who vacillates between a cool, dispassionate reading of the score in the soft passages and emotional intensity in the loud ones. This gives one the feeling that Gielen is creeping up on the music in stages. Perhaps he was trying to make the soft music float with an ethereal quality, as he did in the last movement of the Ninth, but if he was he didn’t quite succeed.

Ah, but this isn’t Gielen’s only version of the Adagio. In 1989 he recorded it as a stand-alone movement on a CD with the Kindertotenlieder and Anton Webern’s Passacaglia and Summer Wind, and this is also in the set. This version is not only tauter and faster (22:15 compared to 24:10), but the emotion is on high intensity from start to finish. This is a great performance of the Adagio, and I’m a bit surprised that Gielen didn’t hear the difference himself and just say to SWR Music, “Go ahead and tack my old Adagio onto the rest of the symphony.”

The rest of the 2005 complete performance is generally better than the opening, although I felt that the first Scherzo could have been a little more manic in tone. My impression of Gielen’s Mahler is that, as he moved deeper into the 21st century, his approach generally tended to be warmer and less edgy. The Purgatorio movement emerges as more humorous and genial than ominous, but the second Scherzo is just perfect in feeling. The finale is played in a relaxed mode, brings out the sadness that Mahler must have felt as he wrote it, knowing that he probably wouldn’t live to hear it performed.

The Songs of a Wayfarer feature the fine voice of Peter Mattei, who sings beautifully but does not characterize the text as well as Hermann Prey with Haitink. He sings loudly, he sings softly, but none of it comes from within. Gielen’s conducting again focuses on clarity of detail but in this case sounds somewhat glib. By contrast, mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman is superb in the Rückert-lieder, singing with both musical sensitivity and a connection to the words. She is, in her own way, as fine as Janet Baker or Christa Ludwig, although Gielen again sounds a bit reserved.

Other complete Mahler sets, even the one by Tennstedt (as fine a Mahler conductor as I’ve ever heard), have uneven performances which, for me, disqualify them as overall recommendations. Except for the last two song cycles noted above, particularly the Songs of a Wayfarer, this one is superb in every respect. Yes, I have favorite performances of each symphony that differ in phrasing and tempo from Gielen’s, but each performance in this set is one I could proudly hold up to people and say, “This is how Mahler should go.” And that’s rare.

Symphony set coverThis set sells online for £62.95 or $81.10. If you consider that this includes 17 CDs plus a bonus DVD with the alternate version of the Ninth—a performance that Gielen considers one of his greatest of all time—it breaks down to $4.50 per disc, surely reasonable for such a treasure trove. (The original boxed set of just the nine symphonies plus the Adagio from the Tenth is selling at Classical Archive as download-only for $99.99.) My only regret is that, for whatever reason, Gielen never chose to perform or record Das Klegende Lied, the only major Mahler work missing here. All in all, this is my benchmark set of the symphonies with fascinating performances of Das Lied and the orchestral song cycles. Now that he is retired, we shall never hear Gielen’s like again. Almost all currently active conductors performing Mahler, with the exception of Marc Albrecht, are pygmies by comparison.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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