JAZZETTES / TANSMAN: Sonatine transatlantique (arr. Pascal). RAVEL: Violin Sonata. GROSZ: Jazzband. GRUENBERG: Jazzettes. COPLAND: Ukelele Serenade. SCHULHOFF: Violin Sonata No. 2. GERSHWIN: 3 Preludes (arr. Heifetz). MILHAUD: Scaramouche: Brasileira (arr. Heifetz). DEBUSSY: Le petit Nègre (arr. Frenkel) / Ursula Schoch, vln; Marcel Worms, pn / Zefir 9652
As I explained in detail in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond (see link at the end of this review), “jazz” of the 1920s inspired a great many serious American and European composers, but not all their works were created equal. This was due in large part to the fact that most of the Europeans, and even some of the American composers, had only a superficial view of what jazz really was. Close to 90% of what was played and recorded in the ‘20s was syncopated dance music, not really jazz either in rhythm or improvisation, and most of the true jazz bands, like King Oliver’s, Jean Goldkette’s and Fletcher Henderson’s, were not seen by the public as different, or better, than Paul Whiteman’s or the George Olsen’s, while the pioneer small bands of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone, Red Nichols and Jelly Roll Morton were not that well known by the general public until many years later.
Thus a recording like this, though excitingly played and wonderfully programmed, must be taken with a grain of salt. The only three composers here who had first-hand exposure to Real Jazz in their time were Ravel (who even went to Chicago where he heard Armstrong and Earl Hines in person), Gershwin and Milhaud, and of those three only Ravel really “got it.” Not only the violin sonata presented here, but also his great Piano Concerto and even the insinuating syncopation of Bolero, all caught the flavor of real jazz better than most of his peers.
That being said, the Sonatine transatlantique of Alexandre Tansman, Polish-born and French by adoption, is one of the better works on this disc. Lively and energetic, Tansman at least caught the Charleston rhythm pretty well and his high level of craft as a composer led him to create an utterly fascinating work, and violinist Ursula Schoch “gets it” as few classically-trained musicians ever do. A former member of the Berlin Philharmonic and current member of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Schoch has exactly the right amount of jazz swagger to bring this music to vivid life, which makes this the clear choice among all recordings of this work (few as they are). Pianist Marcel Worms, on the other hand, is lively and energetic but just does not swing. This is not an indictment against him, however; 95% of classically-trained musicians have trouble with the feeling of jazz rhythm. Even Friedrich Gulda, who played jazz for more than 40 years in addition to his classical career, became an excellent improviser but had trouble loosening up his swing.
Almost predictably, then, Worms is at his best in the Ravel violin sonata, written between 1923 and 1927, and the even more complex Violin Sonata No. 2 by Erwin Schulhoff (more on that later). Here he maintains a nicely flowing accompaniment to Schoch’s outstanding violin playing, slyly teasing the syncopations without ever really loosening up the swing. This Ravel sonata is a hybrid that leans more towards classical than jazz, although Ravel was an avid fan of the new music and very much wanted performances of his late works to have a jazz swagger. Once again, though, when one considers how difficult it is to “swing” Ravel at any point if one comes from a classical background, he at least provides a nice ragtime feel in the second movement, which feeds into Schoch’s slyly insinuating, Joe Venuti-like playing of the top line. All in all, it’s difficult to imagine a finer performance of this score, particularly since it has been my experience that violinists have more trouble loosening up their beat than pianists. The last movement of this sonata, written as a moto perpetuo, finds the duo playing with perfect acuity and synchronization. Although it is the least “jazziest” of the three movements, Schoch once again finds a way to make her part swing, particularly the middle section with its continuous stream of sixteenths.
Wilhelm Grosz, an avant-garde composer who worked in Mannheim and Vienna, was one of those Europeans who got their “jazz” second hand. Not surprisingly, he wrote an essentially classical piece, another perpetuum mobile, in which he tried to convey the excitement of the new music without really crossing over to the “wrong” side of the tracks. It’s a very peppy piece in which the pianist actually gets the more interesting music, a more developed theme and variations which is played against the violin’s rapid sixteenths. Oddly, it bears a strong resemblance to Dvořák’s Indian Lament, particularly in its harmonic sequence but also in its rhythm. The closest it comes to jazz is the syncopated middle section beginning at 3:50, and both performers do a splendid job here within the piece’s circumscribed rhythmic constraints.
By contrast Louis Gruenberg, a composer best known in America for his Afro-bullshit 1930s opera The Emperor Jones, wrote his Jazzettes in 1924—still a period of jazz infancy—with a much better feel for America’s native music. Once again Schoch is simply splendid, skittering over the rhythm with joie-de-vivre, while Worms does a sort of tap dance rhythm behind her. In the second movement, however, Gruenberg chose to present us with a thorough-composed spiritual rather than a blues (apparently he wasn’t listening to Bessie Smith). Oddly enough, it’s the best piece in the suite in terms of both structural interest and emotional communication. Schoch ends by playing five notes very high up, softly, with the edge of her bow. The syncopated but more ragtime-influenced last movement sparkles, with hints of the cakewalk (another predecessor of jazz) and, yes, a bit of the blues.
The liner notes tell us that Aaron Copland, born in 1900, “had been raised from his boyhood onwards with jazz,” but considering that the only jazz he could have heard in New York City (his hometown) until he left for Paris in 1921 where he studied for three years with Nadia Boulanger was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, this is hyperbole. He grew up with ragtime, and that is what informs his Ukelele Serenade, a nicely syncopated piece (though he did eventually get the hang of jazz a bit in the 1950s).
Next we get the Violin Sonata No. 2 of Erwin Schulhoff, whose jazz-influenced music has been revived like wildfire since pianist Kathryn Stott’s groundbreaking Bis album of the early 2000s. Schulhoff was, quite simply, a superb and highly original composer, despite the fact that he tended towards bourgeois tastes and in fact set Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto to music. Like many of the Europeans, his exposure to jazz was second-hand and largely confined to the likes of novelty pianist Zez Confrey and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra (which also impressed Arnold Schoenberg). Thus performers must work a bit overtime to push his music into the true rhythms of jazz, but it is possible, as Schoch proves here. The score itself is highly complex and goes far beyond mere “novelty” music; indeed, Schulhoff’s contribution to the jazz-classical axis was to influence jazz by introducing those who studied his scores to remarkably advanced and sophisticated harmonic writing. Worms plays well here because the music is so much more classical than most of its predecessors on this disc, providing Schoch with a cantus firmus while she goes flying off into realms of her own. They work so well as a duo that one’s mind is continually engaged in the ongoing musical development, which is both appealing and complex. The moody, smoldering second movement is probably the closest thing Schulhoff wrote to a real blues (in terms of feeling, not blues form), and in this instance Worms’ playing catches exactly the right mood. The third-movement “Burlesca” is highly syncopated but not really jazzy, yet again the music is so cleverly written that one is swept up in its progression. Interestingly, the last movement uses the theme from the “Burlesca” but takes it in different directions.
Next up is the most famous and popular piece in this collection, the Gershwin piano preludes in the violin-piano arrangement by Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz’ own recording, with Emanuel Bay on piano, actually caught the swagger of the music pretty well. Schoch does an equally fine job here, articulating the music in a different way from Heifetz while still retaining a jazz feel. Worms is pretty good but not as loose as Bay. We hear another Heifetz transcription in the Brasiliera from Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche. Milhaud, of course, wrote the first truly successful jazz-classical hybrid in history, La Création du Monde, and although Brasiliera is more Latin and not quite as jazzy it is certainly effective. The finale here is Debussy’s La petit Négre, a cakewalk piece (Debussy didn’t live long enough to hear jazz) and quite charming. The transcription here was made for violin by Stefan Frenkel, and both Schoch and Worms play it with lightness and energy.
Taken in all, this is an extraordinarily delightful and ear-opening CD. I was glad to have a chance to hear some of the offbeat pieces in this collection, despite their peripheral connection to jazz.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
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