Aho’s Remarkable Chamber Symphonies

BIS-SACD-1126

AHO: Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 3* / *John-Edward Kelly, a-sax; Tapiola Sinfonietta; Stefan Asbury, *Jean-Jacques Kantorow, cond / Bis SACD-1126

Having been greatly impressed by Kalevi Aho’s soprano saxophone concerto and other works which I reviewed earlier this week, I decided to explore some of his other music, and one of the first things I hit upon was this stupendous album of chamber symphonies issued in 2012.

These are no ordinary chamber symphonies. They are not light, airy or inconsequential music. They have bite and drive; they are complex and interesting. Aho starts none of them with the idea of progressing in a comfortable vein, but rather with the purpose of simply using a chamber orchestra to project his startling and innovative musical ideas. Thus, even though the first chamber symphony begins in quietude, it quickly morphs into something fast, edgy and difficult. Aho is interested in music, not cheap mood music. This piece would never be heard on an American classical radio station because it has too much dissonance and too much bite. It’s not musical bullshit “for your body, mind and spirit.” It’s a shard of glass with an edge that cuts like a knife.

And as good as the first chamber symphony is, the second is even better: wilder, more imaginative, less predictable. The upper strings slither up and down in portamento, the lower strings grumble and complain, and when we move into the slow movement the orchestra pulls back from the sound barrier and becomes moody, even a bit forbidding. The portamento slides continue in the violins, but less frequently and with more purpose; they are now a part of the music’s evolution. Towards the end of the movement, the violas play short, sharp, edgy motifs before the music moves into the energetic but rhythmically irregular third movement. Here the upper strings skitter on the edge of their bows like frightened mice before falling away to silence, followed by sustained tones by the cellos and violas, during which the violins join them for a moment of respite from the fray.

This yin-yang pull of forces also marks the first movement of the third chamber symphony, a startling piece that uses string portamento in a way that suggests Oriental instruments. This, the longest of the three at 27 minutes and four movements, is also the most complex. Aho fully exploits his forces here, including a forlorn clarinet and an alto sax which play solo in the sad second movement. It’s interesting, to me, that Aho uses the saxophone almost like a bassoon in context of the music, ignoring all allusions to the instrument’s long association with jazz. He also pushes the instrument to its limits at both ends of the range, and since a saxophone never really blends with any other section other than more saxophones, it sticks out in this movement.

The third movement, however, begins even slower and more mysteriously than the second. Some of the basic material remains the same, but Aho disguises this somewhat in his sparseness of both notes and instrumental texture. The alto sax sings forlornly over the background of soft strings, answered by a solo viola; they combine sounds, going back and forth between them. Later on in the movement the alto cackles, first in its extreme upper register and then in the more common mid-range, occasionally using slap-tongue technique to make its points. At this point the movement becomes quite agitated, with strings and the alto sax arguing and vying for attention. Eventually the orchestra falls away, leaving the alto to play a bizarre sort of cadenza, but the basses rumble again underneath which leads to the fourth movement. Here soft strings play atonal themes in their upper register while the alto sax weaves its way in and out of the texture. All of which begs the question: is this really a “chamber symphony” or an alto sax concerto? Aho calls it a symphony, but one could make a case for the latter as well. As is common for Aho, the finale dies away into nothingness.

This is an extraordinary album. Words really do fail to do justice to it. This music has to be heard to be fully appreciated.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Thomas’ Promises: A New Collection of Works

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RITUAL INCANTATIONS / THOMAS: Ritual Incantations / David Finckel, cel; Taipei Symphony Orchestra; Felix Chiu-Sen Chen, cond. / Chi for String Quartet / Spektral Quartet / Qi for Percussion Quartet / Third Coast Percussion / Angel Tears & Earth Prayers / Allen Harrington, sax; Lotte Enns-Braun, org / Klee Musings for Piano Trio / Civitas Ensemble / Rhea Enchanted. Venus Enchanted / Scott Kluksdahl, cel / Dappled Things for male glee club / The University of Notre Dame Glee Club / Eurythmy Etudes / Lynn Raley, pn / Nimbus Alliance NI6355

I have to admit being completely oblivious to the music and career of Augusta Read Thomas (1964 – ). The American woman composers whose work I am familiar with are Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Nancy Van de Vate and Barbara Kolb, the first two of which are quite prolific and among my favorite living composers.

The titles of the works on this CD set off a warning bell for me. Any time I see quasi-Eastern-religious titles like Chi, Qi or Ritual Incantations, I see red flags. I remember only too well the drippy, over-Romanticized music of feminist composer Kay Gardner, whose treacly work normally sent me out of the concert hall each time I heard it.

As it turns out, however, Thomas is an extraordinarily talented composer whose work encompasses a surprisingly wide range of moods and stylistic devices. Atonal but with a driving undercurrent, she does not overdo the effects too much so that the listener is overwhelmed by abrasive sounds (i.e., Penderecki) or inundated with purposeless allusions to others’ music (as in the case of Schnittke). Indeed, I found her music to have a good amount of “backbone,” so to speak. It is logical, engaging and interesting. Her three-movement Ritual Incantations, subtitled Cello Concerto No. 2, takes the listener through a journey of remarkable proportions. Though divided into three movements the work is linked, and one can just as easily listen to and enjoy it as a whole piece. The orchestra is used sparsely, normally one section at a time or, when winds and strings are playing together, they are set off discretely from one another. And this is a true concerto in the sense that the solo instrument is the focus of the piece. It throbs with passion from first note to last, playing a melancholy tune and variations that run like a binding thread through the whole piece.

By contrast, the string quartet Chi begins much busier, with the cello playing a mixture of bowed and plucked notes in a rapid tempo while the other strings swirl around it. Eventually a fugue emerges, only to suddenly move into the slow, sustained second movement. This is much more tonal in design and consists primarily of sustained notes and chords, moving rather slowly (both metaphorically and literally) within its four-minute length. I found the third movement the most original and fascinating: quickly-moving and strongly syncopated, it combines almost jazz-like passages with occasional held chords. At times the music seems to be played in hocket style (one note per instrument in a round-robin exchange) while at other times the two violins play together, pitted against viola and cello. It’s simply an amazing piece! The last movement has, to my ears, a certain mystical, Olivier Messiaen-like quality to it, the quartet playing slowly-moving figures around sustained chords very high up in its range, creating a sort of ethereal luminosity. This, too, is a simply extraordinary piece.

This leads directly into Qi, which is pretty much a syncopated marimba piece in which four musicians share two instruments. It’s almost whimsical at times, but like most percussion pieces it is limited in expression because you can’t play different dynamics on marimbas (or most other percussion instruments except the piano).

Angel Tears and Earth Prayers, written for organ and trumpet but played here by organ and what sounds like an alto sax (the booklet does not say and the saxophone is so dominated by the organ sound that it’s difficult for me to determine). This is essentially very melancholy, dolorous music, somewhat strange in its harmonic bearing. Far more interesting, to me, is Klee Musings, in which I could easily hear how Thomas was inspired by the modernistic, pointillistic art of the work’s dedicatee. This is highly imaginative, playful music, the first movement in particular pitting a series of single-note motifs on the keyboard against the plucked and eventually bowed musings of the violin and cello. Eventually this, too, moves into hocket style. This, by the way, seems to be a favorite device of many a modern composer nowadays. As long as you don’t overdo it, it’s quite effective. The liner notes indicate that Thomas was “pitting Brahms cheek by jowl with Thelonious Monk and bebop in general,” but I honestly didn’t hear any Monk in it, and I am a HUGE Monk fan. (Incidentally, although he came up during the bebop era, Monk’s music was not bebop. Neither he nor his labels—Blue Note, then Riverside, followed by Columbia—ever claimed as much. Monk himself simply called it “modern music.” It had a stiff rhythm, not a bop rhythm.) The second movement, largely tonal and featuring a beautiful violin tune, still has a certain dry, unearthly quality about it, while the third movement (titled “Highways and Byways”), Thomas returns to her pointillistic playfulness, this time a bit less aggressive, often alternating with sustained tones.

Rhea Enchanted and Venus Enchanted are a pair of works, intended to be played separately but OK to pair if the cellist is so inclined. They are largely meditative pieces but contain busy middle sections in which the soloist ruminates in an explorative vein, although I found Venus Enchanted the more magnetic piece, its middle section more clearly wedded to the main theme and thus more appealing to me intellectually. Strictly from a musical standpoint, I was less impressed by Dappled Things for male glee club. It’s a tonal piece, and although it uses some counterpoint, too much of its construction—and use of harmony—reminded me too much of the kind of stuff the Norman Luboff Choir used to do.

With the Eurythmy Etudes, Thomas is back to her syncopated, pointillistic style, and here even the liner notes admit that she uses a hocket style (albeit here with just one instrument). The second piece, “Still Life,” has the fascinating feeling of being suspended in time.

All in all, then, a fascinating disc and one well worth acquiring. Thomas is a composer I’m going to explore a lot more of.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Discovering Pierre d’Assy

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MEYERBEER: Robert le Diable: Nonnes, qui reposez. Les Huguenots: Piff, paff!; Pour cette cause sainte (w/Marthe Bakkers, sop; Émile Boussagol, bar); Benediction. Le Pardon de Ploërmel (Dinorah): En chasse. L’Africaine: Adamastor, roi des vagues; Brama! Vichnou! Shiva! HALÉVY: La Juive: Anathème de Brogni. Le val d’Andorre: Voilà le sorcier. VERDI: Les vêpres Siciliennes: Et toi, Palerme. GOUNOD: Faust: Mais ce Dieu que peut-il pour moi…À moi les plaisirs (w/Antonio Rocca, ten); Le veau d’or; Seigneur, daignez permette à votre humble servante…Quand du Seigneur (w/Berthe Augez de Montalant, sop); Vous qui faites l’endormie; Alerte, alerte ou vous êtes perdus! (w/Augez de Montalant, sop; Rocca, ten). Philémon et Baucis: Au bruit des lourds marteux. Mirielle: Si les filles d’Arles sont reines; Voici le val d’enfer. Roméo et Juliette: Allons jeunes gens. REYER: Sigurd: Au nom du roi Gunther. MASSENET: Hérodiade: Astres étincelants que l’infini. Le roi de Lahore: Aux troupes du sultan qui menaçaient Lahore. PALADILHE: Patrie: Pauvre martyr obscur. MOZART: Die Zauberflöte: O Isis und Osiris (in French). ROSSINI: Il barbiere di Siviglia: La caulnnia (in French). ADAM: Le chalet: Il faut me céder la mâitresse; Dans de bois de sapin (w/Georges Régis, ten). BERLIOZ: La damnation de Faust: Chanson de Brander et fugue. THOMAS: Mignon: Légères hirondelle; As-tu souffert? (w/Suzanne Brohly, mezzo). MASSE: Les noces de Jeannette: Margot, lève ton sabot. BIZET: Carmen: Votre toast…Toreador, en garde. MONTOUR: Le muletier de Castille. NADAUD: Le soldat de Marsala. FLÉGIER: Le cor. PLANQUETTE: Le régiment de Sambre et Meuse. GANNE: Marche Lorraine / Pierre d’Assy, bass / Musique en Wallonie MEW1683

Musique en Wallonie is a specialty label that apparently issues obscure recordings by even more obscure French singers. Aside from this release, their catalog contains albums by dramatic tenor Fernand Faniard (absolutely terrific), baritone Louis Richard (couldn’t find a single note sung by him online), soprano Huberte Velcray (stunning, gorgeous voice) and mezzo-soprano Lucienne Delvaux (who sounds like a chipmunk in the Carmen “Seguidilla” on YouTube), but all of these made records electrically, though Richard’s output started in the acoustic era (1922). Pierre d’Assy (1868-1910), who died shockingly young as the result of kidney failure, is the only one whose entire recorded output is stuck in the era of the morning-glory horn, 1908-09, but he is no less obscure.

During the years of his active career, during which he apparently also used his family name of Bordet, d’Assy was active and popular almost exclusively in France and Belgium, singing in Saint-Martin, Lyon, the Hague, Brussels and La Monnaie, yet somehow never achieved much name recognition in Western Europe and America, as did his contemporaries Pol Plançon, Marcel Journet (with whom d’Assy shared bass roles at La Monnaie in 1899), Hippolyte Belhomme, Jean-François Delmas or Juste Nivette, though the last three were primarily famous from records and not from singing in America. Thus he remained something of a “hothouse flower,” an artist greatly appreciated in his time and place but not one that “traveled well.”

Despite my having been a collector of older singers since I was about 15 years old (starting, as most do, with Enrico Caruso and his compeers, Louise Homer, Geraldine Farrar, Giuseppe de Luca, Pasquale Amato and, yes, Marcel Journet), d’Assy’s is a name I had never run across before. Joe Pearce, current president of the Vocal Record Collectors’ Society, has told me that d’Assy’s original recordings are somewhat obscure but not really very rare. This is probably due to the fact that French-speaking collectors knew about and bought his records, and as they aged and/or died they were either sold to rare 78 dealers or bequeathed to any relatives who also had a hankering for Golden Age opera singers. The sound on these recordings is extremely variable, even from side to side. “En chasse” from Meyerbeer’s Le Pardon de Ploërmel (Dinorah), for instance, is extremely cramped and tinny-sounding, whereas the very next record, “Adamastor” from the same composer’s L’Africana, is clear as a bell, even the acoustically-recorded orchestra sounding surprisingly full and bright.

Pierre d’Assy had a wonderfully warm, rich and powerful bass voice, even in its registers and well produced from top to bottom. He studied voice, against the will of his family, with Jacques Bouhy and both voice and music theory with Joseph Delsemme. He established himself as a quality singer by 1895, when he was only 27 years old. Singers back then got gigs on the basis of their pipes, not because of how many competitions they entered and won.

In listening to these recordings, you get a tremendous sense of occasion, almost as if each one was recorded at a live performance. Indeed, track 3 on the first CD, “Pour cette cause sainte” from Les Huguenots, contains a chorus and two solo singers (soprano Marthe Bakkers and baritone Émile Boussagol, both unknown to me) and sounds like a snippet from a live performance. Everything is immaculately rehearsed and executed; you hear none of the sloppiness that often infected old opera records of that era, even sometimes on the Caruso discs. It’s all pin-neat and perfectly executed.

d'Assy as St Bris

d’Assy as St. Bris in “Les Huguenots”

On the other hand, one can see why d’Assy may not have made much of an impression among those British or American audiences who were rather spoiled by the likes of Plançon with his suave delivery and flawless technique or Journet with his equally fine technique and larger, more burnished tone. For all his excellences, d’Assy sings in a fairly straightforward manner. His singing is not “nuanced,” as the olden critics used to say, with such niceties as diminuendo, messa di voce or soft, floated high notes. It is never crude—in fact, if anything he sometimes followed the scores more scrupulously than Plançon did (d’Assy, unlike Plançon and Journet, doesn’t do that stupid slow-down in the first line of “Le veau d’or” from Faust)—and he occasionally revealed good control in singing runs (note “Et toi, Palerme” from Verdi’s Le vêpres Sicilienne), but he didn’t possess a trill, as both Plançon and Journet did (not to mention Polish bass Edouard de Reszke, who also sang a great deal of the French repertoire), and his interpretations, such as they are, are pretty much outward and painted in primary colors. Nonetheless, as one listens to the album one cannot help but be impressed by the voice’s incredible richness and the fact that d’Assy always seems to be a “presence” if not exactly the character he is supposed to be.

In short, it’s a surprisingly pleasant and rewarding experience to listen to him without effacing memories of your favorite French-repertoire basses. As long as that warm, lovely, resonant voice is booming around you, your mind doesn’t necessarily rush to comparisons. You like what you hear, and it’s a strong enough presence to make you want to keep on listening.

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Antonio Rocca

Take, for instance, the first-act scene from Gounod’s Faust, recorded in two parts with the obscure Italian tenor Antonio Rocca (1876 – ?), who had a pretty good voice if not a first-rate one. The tempos are crisp, the scene moves pretty well despite having some cuts, and both singers at least sound involved in what they are doing. Go back and listen to Caruso and Journet sing the single-sided “O merveille!” from the same scene, and Caruso sounds like a sick cow by comparison despite his much richer and more beautiful voice. Journet, always interesting as Mephistopheles, tried to pick things up but didn’t quite make it. By contrast, however, the Church Scene recorded by Geraldine Farrar and Journet has much more life and drive to it than d’Assy’s version with the excellent soprano Berthe Augez de Montalant. Despite the fact that both singers are in good voice, and Montalant tries to liven up her part, this is one recording where the orchestra, chorus and conductor fall rather flat, and d’Assy only makes a good impression in the second half. It’s a rare disappointment in this otherwise splendid collection. The “serenade” of Mephisto immediately following is pretty well characterized and, again, sung in fairly strict time.

D’Assy’s weaknesses come more to the fore in the slow arias from Hérodiade, Le roi de Lahore and Patrie! He was not particularly eloquent in the first two, and in the last one he tended to oversing a bit which led to a cracked note in the middle of the aria. Moreover, none of these pieces are particularly good music. At the beginning of CD 2, however, we get yet another slow aria, the well-known “O Isis und Osiris” from Die Zauberflöte (sung in French), and here d’Assy is in superb voice and once again sings cleanly—more cleanly than Plançon, who introduces some decelerando into the aria in an effort to sound “nuanced.” I’ll take d’Assy’s performance over his any day. He descends to a nice low F at the end. In Don Basilio’s “La calunnia” from The Barber of Seville, we are treated to some beautiful, clean singing but no indication of the character…another disappointment. Immediately following, however, is a pretty good rendition of the obscure aria “Voilà le sorcier” from the equally obscure Halévy opera, Le val d’Andorre. The lively if formulaic duets from Adolphe Adam’s comic opera Le chalet are sung with Georges Régis, a tenor so obscure that only one photo has survived and no one even knows the years of his birth or death. It was a nice, light tenor voice, however, just right for this type of music, sort of an acoustic-era Alain Vanzo. In the second half (it was recorded over two sides), Régis pulls a really nice high D-flat out of the air, perfectly placed.

A surprising record is the baritone aria of the “Song of the Rat” from Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust. It’s pretty good, with a nice-sounding chorus, and to my knowledge a VERY rare aria for that era. In the duet from Mignon he is paired with the great mezzo Suzanne Brohly, who sings magnificently as she always did. Vulcan’s famous aria from Gounod’s Philemon et Baucis is reproduced here a half-tone too high (the actual key is B-flat minor), which makes d’Assy sound way too baritonal, and he doesn’t have the trill. On the other hand, the arias from Mirielle, mediocre music though they are, are sung with great energy. He also does a nice job on the Carmen Toreador song; he has just the right voice, a baritonal top and a deep bass bottom. Plus they use a chorus, with sopranos—a real luxury in the acoustic era!

D’Assy has a good time singing the somewhat simplistic but well-crafted Le muletier de Castille, including some nifty runs. It’s one of five songs that end the album, of which the most famous are Flégier’s Le Cor as well as Planquette’s Le régiment de Sambre et Meuse and the well-known Marche Lorraine (the last two among the five recordings that d’Assy made for Zonophone under the pseudonym of Beaufort). Interestingly, near the end of his brief career his wife Jeanne, a soprano, was beginning to overshadow him, possibly because he lacked that “nuance” that so many listeners of the time wanted to hear. In his first season at the Garnier Theater, he was given mostly minor roles, which were made up for the next season, but she was beginning to eclipse him in the critics’ reviews. Sadly, his health took a sharp turn for the worse in early 1910 and on the night of March 6-7, 1910, d’Assy suffered an acute case of uremia and was pronounced dead at five in the morning. His funeral, on the 11th, was well attended by both members of the public and colleague of his who greatly admired his singing. Before his body was put in the hearse, the famous baritone Jean Noté gave an emotional speech, recalling his great successes and bidding him a fond farewell. And that was the end of Pierre-Joseph-Alphonse Bordet, a.k.a. d’Assy.

Collectors of vocal antiquities will undoubtedly want this collection, but I would think that at least a few aspiring bass-baritones might want to hear how he managed his splendid voice. The musical cleanliness of most of his performances will also appeal greatly to modern ears despite the dated sound. Finally, Pierre d’Assy has received his just due.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Nørgård’s Early Piano Pieces Released

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NØRGÅRD: Sonata determinata for piano. Miniature Concerto in G. Sonata capriccioso for piano. Trifoglio. Sonata in One Movement. Toccata for Piano / Niklas Sivelöv, pn / Dacapo 6.220590

Having struck musical gold, so to speak, with the tremendously inventive music of Per Nørgård, I was interested in hearing these early piano works, written between 1949 (when he was only 17) and 1956. His style was not quite fully formed at this time, yet these are clearly the works of a superior musical mind, already exploring somewhat new territory.

Nørgård’s music at this time was more purely rhythmic than it later became, picking up on the motor rhythms one heard in Stravinsky. This would have been normal, I think, in that day and age, since Stravinsky was clearly the most dominant composer of his time, even more so than Schoenberg. That being said, the “Andante” second movement of the Sonata determinata is more ruminative, built around modern harmonies to be sure but also with a surprisingly tender mode of expression far beyond what you would expect from a 17-year-old boy. And right away, one is clearly aware of pianist Sivelöv’s personal commitment and feeling for this music; he knows what it is about and how he wants to present it, and does so with tremendous acuity and feeling. Just listen to the playful way he approaches the “Vivo scherzando” of the third movement with its pointillistic expression. The playful last movement, whose motor rhythms again suggest Stravinsky (and whose harmonic movement suggests Petrouchka), is also taken in stride.

By contrast, I almost felt that the Miniature Concerto in G for solo piano had more of a Bartók-like feel to it in harmonic form if still Stravinskian in rhythm. There were some interesting moments in the Sonata capriccioso, particularly when Nørgård relaxed the tempo and allowed the soloist some ruminative playing, but by this point I began to feel that many of his early works were stuck in the same basic “groove.”

Trifoglio, written in 1954 and revised in 1956, is clearly in a different world. By this time, Nørgård had come under the spell of Jean Sibelius, and thus was working from a less busy and more atmospheric vantage-point. Yes, there are still highly rhythmic passages, i.e. in the second movement “Intermezzo capriccioso,” but his harmonic sense was expanding and he was thinking less in terms of a continual motor rhythm. There is also more counterpoint used here, as well as contrary-motion in the harmony. The third and last movement, an elegy, walks a fine line between Sibelius-like expression and Stravinskian harmony.

With the Piano Sonata in One Movement (1953, rev. 1956-7), we reach fairly mature Nørgård. This is no longer a brilliant student trying out new and different forms, but to my ears a composer who has found his style and is commanding in his use of materials. Sivelöv plays it with great affection and feeling, imbuing each and every page with just the right sensibility and feeling. Nørgård’s sense of construction and continuity is at its very peak here; all the various threads of the music are pulled together with great acuity. This is almost as fine a piece as Charles T. Griffes’ great Piano Sonata of 1919.

The Toccata is a surprisingly playful piece for Nørgård, once again using strong motor rhythms but in a varied way, occasionally loosening up the beat or throwing in some pretty quirky syncopations. Sivelöv is clearly having fun with this one, too, reveling in the off mix of meters while still pulling all the pieces together.

Nearly all these pieces except for the Sonata capriccioso, Sonata in One Movement and Toccata are world premiere recordings, and not too surprisingly Nørgård has dedicated all of them except for the Sonata in One Movement and Trifoglio to pianist Sivelöv. Overall, a delightful album and one that illustrates the early career path of this excellent composer.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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New Works by Kalevi Aho Released

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AHO: Concerto for Soprano Saxophone & Chamber Orchestra / Anders Paulsson, sop-sax; Lapland Chamber Orchestra; John Storgårds, cond / Quintet for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn & Piano / Markku Moilanen, ob; Pekka Niskanen, cl; Antal Mojzer, bsn; Ilkka Puputti, Fr-hn; Väinö Jalkanen, pn / Solo I for Violin / Jaakko Kuusisto, vln / Bis 2216

The music of Kalevi Aho (1949 – ) is somewhat akin to that of a Finnish Debussy or Koechln. He works in soft pastels rather than bright primary colors; his orchestration is delicate, his mode of development logical but based on whole-tone scales and chromatics. It veers towards tonality but somehow never quite arrives there. It’s just plain good, interesting music!

Thus this soprano sax concerto, dating from 2014, is not going to put you in mind of Sidney Bechet or John Coltrane. This is strict classical playing in a logical sequence of theme and development, with contrasting moods to keep interest up. Transfer Aho’s harmonic base to a more conventional form of Western tonality, and you’d have a composer who could be loved and appreciated by all.

Even as it is, however, I personally find these works eminently approachable and likable. If you can at least enjoy and understand Debussy’s aesthetic, you’ll fall in love with Aho. It’s that simple. In the first-movement cadenza, the soloist is asked to play several notes in chorded fashion, which of course means humming into the moutpiece of the saxophone while simultaneously blowing air. It’s an unusual effect, but it makes an interesting impression on the listener.

The second movement has a particularly forforn sound, in which very soft strings play hushed figures behind the solo soprano sax, who moans and whines on his instrument like a Japanese reed flute, occasionally answered by a French horn or a harp pluck. It’s very strange music and might almost fit into the category of ambient classical were it not for the interesting development. By contrast, the last movement shuffles along at a strange loping pace, the orchestra nudging the horn section and the soloist along its galumphing path. Eventually the tempo doubles, the playing becomes more virtuosic, and the music eventually builds up before fading out into the sunset.

The Quintet that follows is in a similar but not identical style. Aho evidently loves the French aesthetic, despite having studied composition with Boris Blacher among others. There is a decidedly Gallic form of expression and use of the quintet here that evokes the music of Poulenc, Taffenel and Françaix without expressly copying anything they wrote. Once again the opening movement is leisurely, allowing the listener to follow Aho’s mind as it drifts through a series of moods and musical progressions. As the music becomes more animated in tempo, the interaction of the five instruments becomes ever more contrapuntal as well as being used more in a revolving pattern than playing together as a unit. This is clearly not a “quintet” in the sense that those of Schubert and Brahms were, nor even those of early 20th-century French composers. Aho thinks of each instrument as an individual thread, to be woven into the other threads but not necessarily to form a homogeneous piece of fabric.

That being said, the second movement opens with three of the winds playing together as the piano plays rapid single repeated notes behind them before stretching the music out. Here, Aho uses the winds in pairs at times, but again almost never as a quartet. Occasionally the clarinet is used to play fluttering figures while the oboe and bassoon cackle beneath it and the French horn is off on its own tangent. In the third movement, Aho seems to be working in almost minimal gestures, placing a note or a chord here and there to suggest the progression without really asserting himself in any specific way. Fascinating!

In the fourth and last movement, Aho sounds the most like Taffanel or Françaix, often pairing winds in a swirling eddy of sound with the piano underpinning and occasionally commenting. There’s a certain high energy in this movement that suggests but never quite turns into jocularity; the tension in the music keeps one riveted, however, and the intense momentum is indeed infectious.

Solo I was written back in 1975 for the violin, which is Aho’s own instrument. Interestingly, the opening almost sounds like an organ playing in the high register. I do not claim to know all the ins and outs of violin technique, but I have known and conversed with several fiddlers over the years and know a trick or two, yet even I was somewhat baffled as to how Aho created and maintained this simulation. Bowing on the edge of the strings? I will hazard a guess that this is part of it, but the unusually “flat” droning sound is mesmerizing and draws one inward to the heart of the music. Eventually the music becomes considerably busier. In the liner notes, Aho compares this to “Stravinsky’s primitive, rhythmically incisive approach,” the music eventually ending with a wild stretto at quarter note = 192. Our soloist here, Kuusisto, does a remarkable job pulling this piece together. In the later pages, the soloist plays with rapid bow strokes that, oddly enough, almost simulate the sound of a country fiddle player.

All in all, a strange and wonderful album. I loved each and every piece on this disc, and think you will, too!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The Young-Promane Octet on High Octane

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DAVE YOUNG/TERRY PROMANE OCTET, Vol. 2 / RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: Oh, What a Beautiful Morning. MINGUS: Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love. FIELDS-McHUGH: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love. ELLIS-FRIGO-CARTER: Detour Ahead. GILLESPIE: Bebop. LEGRAND: You Must Believe in Spring. CALDWELL: Can’t You See. WILDER-PALITZ: Moon and Sand. D. PEARSON: Jeannine. WALTON: Hindsight / Dave Young, bs; Terry Promane, tb; Kevin Turcotte, tpt;/Fl-hn; Vern Dorge, a-sax; Mike Murley, t-sax; Perry White, bar-sax; Dave Restivo, pn; Terry Clarke, dm / Modica, available for download at iTunes

It was pioneer jazz arranger Bill Challis, way back in 1926-27, who first devised the idea of having a “moving bass line” that would change the harmony along with the top line of the reeds and brass, rather than have the bass remain steady in both tempo and harmony. On this, their second album, the Young/Promane Octet has taken that principle to a new level. As one can hear from the opening selection, not only does the bass line move and morph along with the chord changes up top, but the top line too morphs and changes along with the variations on the melody. Thus the well-worn Oh, What a Beautiful Morning turns itself into an entirely new composition, one might say a contrafact based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune.

In addition to this, the various soloists all sound as if they’re fully in synch with the concept, so much so that they fit what they play into the surrounding material. The result is a series of evolving compositions based on the familiar (and not-so-familiar) tunes listed above. Because this is a sax-oriented lineup, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte seldom explores the upper range of his instrument; rather, like the legendary Louis Mucci, he blends his tone in with the reeds, anchored by the baritone sax of Perry White. (Yes, I was tempted to say “Fresh from his engagement as editor of The Daily Planet.) Alto saxist Vern Dorge, who plays in a sort of relaxed bop style, also contributes nicely-sculptured solos to the evolving compositions. In Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love, his double-time solo is followed by the orchestra itself playing in double time for a chorus. It is one of several devices that our dual leader-arrangers have come up with for this album.

It may sound trite, but I was actually glad to hear drummer Terry Clarke playing relatively conventional beats. Nowadays it seems as though many drummers, freed of the conventions of old-school timekeeping, indulge themselves freely in complex polyrhythms that sound good but sometimes inhibit swing. In I Can’t Give You Anything But Love Clarke plays around a little with the beat, but by and large he and bassist-coleader Young keep things swinging smoothly. The other coleader, Promane, plays an outstanding trombone solo on this one, and if you missed the opening chorus in which the original melody was played with variants in both harmony and beat-lengths, you might be forgiven for not knowing what song this was. That’s how good, and innovative, the writing for this band is.

Mike Murley’s warm tenor is heard to good advantage in the opening chorus of Detour Ahead, which he almost makes his own, and in Dizzy Gillespie’s Bebop the band almost outdoes itself in the rapid shifting of chords underneath the fast-moving melody. Dorge shines again here, as does Turcotte, and Restivo’s single-note piano solo is superb. Surprisingly, Michel Legrand’s ballad You Must Believe in Spring is given a medium-up reading, the centerpiece of which is a wonderful Restivo solo, but it’s the ensemble improvisation that follows that grabs one’s attention.

Can’t You See features a rare bass solo by Young, who appears to be playing an electrified bass. I liked the ideas, but the tone was a little odd for my taste. Moon and Sand belongs primarily to Promane, who doubles the time throughout his solo, leaving pianist Restivo to play some nice fills on piano.

Jeannine starts with some booting baritone sax by White, followed by the ensemble, after which the tempo suddenly doubles as Young pushes the band along. Turcotte is particularly brilliant here on trumpet, wearing his Thad Jones shoes. Once finished, however, it’s the brilliant ensemble that takes over. Hindsight is the somewhat relaxed finale, played as if the band were skipping through a flowerbed in the park. Dorge shines again here on alto, Restivo plays a nice piano chorus and the band floats off into the ether.

An excellent outing and a disc worth repeated hearings.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Cotik Kicks Butt in Piazzolla!

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PIAZZOLLA: Escualo. Vardarito.1,2 Milonga del ángel.1 Las cuatro estaciones porteñas.2 Adiós Nonino. Introducción al ángel.1 Jeanne y Paul.2 Balada para un loco.1,3 Revirado. Fracanapa2 / Tomás Cotik, vln; Tao Lin, pn; 1Jeffrey Kipperman, bs; 2Alex Wadner, Bradley Loudis, perc; 3Alfredo Lerida, speaker / Naxos 8.573789

This is the kind of album I generally pass over for review on principle. Well, actually on two principles: I get bored listening to tango after tango after tango, which I personally don’t feel is a good form for classical composition and which I felt that Astor Piazzolla beat to death, plus the fact that most performances I’ve heard of Piazzolla’s music are pretty boring. But violinist Tomás Cotik emailed me and asked if I would be kind enough to audition this album, and I was so impressed that I became involved in his playing and decided to post my impressions here.

Perhaps one reason I liked these performances so much was that Cotik and Osvaldo Calo arranged these pieces for violin, bass and piano, but surely the main reason is that Cotik is a hell of a violinist who plays with tremendous vitality and rhythmic acuity. In his very able hands, the music practically jumps off his bowstrings, and in the process, both he and pianist Tao Lin sound as if they’re practically dancing as they play. (Well, who knows? Maybe they are. Classical performers nowadays do all kinds of crazy stuff when they play, like wave their hands and arms in the air when singing, or walk and dance around the stage when playing.) But the bottom line is that Cotik, Lin, and bassist Jeffrey Kipperman make of this material a tango festival that sounds much closer to the folk or pop version of the music than usual, and in so doing lift Piazzolla’s pieces out of their usually stodgy atmosphere and place them in the realm of crossover material that works. It is the same kind of enthusiasm and good music ideas that makes the music of Nikolai Kapustin sound so good because it actually sounds like jazz, and jazz rhythm, like popular tango rhythm, is much more infectious than its stuffy academic knock-offs.

Cotik

Tomás Cotik

A native Argentinean (how did I ever guess?), Tomás Cotik won first prize in the 1997 National Broadcast Music Competition and, oddly enough, the 2003-05 Government of Canada Award. But of course every mother’s child who plays a classical instrument nowadays wins competitions if they’re performing, because if they don’t win competitions they’re not playing, and quite a few of them are, in my opinion, glib robots who just spin out notes at 90 miles per hour. Cotik is not one of these. Just listen, for instance, to the slow, sensual Milonga del ángel for a good example of how well Cotik can draw a sweet legato from his instrument, equaling anything that such masters as Yehudi Menuhin or Jascha Heifetz did in their prime. In addition, he injects a feeling of lightness and fun into the proceedings that most classical fiddlers simply cannot, with the possible exception of Gilles Apap of the Transylvania Mountain Boys.

I do hope that Cotik will consider it a compliment when I say that his playing reminded me of such jazz masters of the violin as Joe Venuti (especially) and Stéphane Grappelli. Certainly, Menuhin himself thought Grappelli one of the greatest violinists of his genre, so much so that he played with him, both in public and on recordings, for a decade. Yehudi never could swing as hard as Stéphane but he gave it the old college try, and in the end he did learn how to improvise. If Cotik ever turned his attention to jazz violin, he’d have absolutely no trouble swinging. He does so here on Las 4 estaciones porteñas, and if he leaves pianist Lin a bit behind that’s OK, because at least he knows how to make this music fly.

When I say that Cotik reminds me more of Venuti than Grappelli it is due to two factors. First, the looseness of Venuti’s rhythm was always a shade wilder and less inhibited than Grappelli, and second, Cotik, like Venuti, has a slightly thinner and brighter tone quality. This is not a negative quality; by employing a somewhat thinner tone, Cotik is able to loosen the rhythm easier and more naturally. Indeed, most classical violinists (and cellists) cannot swing because they are so tone-focused that they can’t loosen the bow tension enough to make their instrument “fly,” and you absolutely have to do this in order to achieve this kind of sound.

As for the music, it’s delightful because of how Cotik plays it. Yes, Piazzolla injected classical development into the tango and milonga, and that’s all well and good, but because they were resolutely tonal (there are no modern harmonies here and only a few moments where he even employed chromaticism, as at the end of the second piece in Estaciones porteñas) it can easily wear on listeners who wants more variance. But as I said earlier, that’s why I’m not normally drawn to Piazzolla as a composer. A little bit of his music goes a long way for me.

We don’t hear bassist Kipperman until track 9, the Introducción al ángel, a slow, moody piece that bears a strong resemblance to both Bach’s Sleepers, Wake and the Villa-Lobos Vocalise. Kipperman thus performs the role of basso continuo—at least, until the tempo suddenly increases by fourfold and both Cotik and Lin play a “hot” chorus, which then falls back to the original pace.

Alfredo Lerida appears as narrator of Balada para un loco, based on the poetry of Horacio Ferrer, but there is no translation or description of the text in the skimpy booklet. Interestingly, Piazzolla himself thought very little of this piece, despite the fact that it became a major hit for him in 1969. Cotik, however, felt that it had to be included because it was one of the Piazzolla pieces he most loves to play. Much more fun to hear is Revirado (Crazy), the opening section of which almost has the feel of film music for a chase scene before settling down into a more lyrical theme. Cotik, Lin and the percussionists close out this set with the effervescent Fracanapa, which moves like a freight train from start to finish. Cotik is at his most daring here, pulling on his violin strings and hitting them with the edge of his bow, and the music practically jumps at you.

A wild and wonderful CD. I’m so glad I decided to review it!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Nordgren’s Bold, Compelling “Taivaanvalot”

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NORDGREN: Taivaanvalot (The Lights of Heaven) / Ritva Talvitie, bowed lyre; Merja Wirkkala, sop; Anssi Hirvonen, ten; Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra & Chorus; Folk Orchestra; Kaustinen Children’s Choir; Juha Kangas, conductor / Alba ABCD269 (live: Kaustinen, December 4-5, 1999)

My discovery of the phenomenally original and interesting Finnish composer Pehr Nordgren (see my review of Storm – Fear here) led me to hearing other works by him. One of those singled out in the booklet for special attention was this secular folk oratorio Taivaanvalot or The Lights of Heaven, performed and recorded during the composer’s lifetime but not released until 2009, a year after he died.

This is clearly the work of an exploratory and ingenious musical mind. The work is primarily modal, not atonal like some of his instrumental music, albeit with some strangely bitonal passages where the “folk orchestra” consisting of bowed lyre, two goat’s horns, a reed pipe, a herdsman’s flute, a bull-roarer, a percussion plaque, a shaman’s drum, five 5-stringed and three 36-stringed kanteles play a half-tone off from the regular orchestra. Here, too, Nordgren uses both a conventional adult choir and a children’s chorus in addition to two vocal soloists.

I had no access to a text for this work, but Hubert Culot, reviewing the CD upon its initial release for Music Web International, gratefully provided a brief synopsis, which I hereby quote from for the benefit of non-Finnish-speaking listeners:

Tainvaanvalot is a large-scale oratorio based on ancient Finnish creation myths…Nordgren uses a full range of modern compositional techniques, like Stravinsky in “The Rite of Spring,” to evoke a primitive culture. The short introduction…leads straight into the second movement (“The Bird of Night and Day”) mostly scored for soprano, treble voices and orchestra dealing with the [breaking of the Golden Egg and the] creation of the Sun, Moon and Stars. The next movements (“The Banishing of the Moon Swallower” and “The Forces of Evil Hide the Lights in the Depths of the Underworld”) are purely orchestral. “These [movements] were inspired by primitive beliefs about eclipses of the moon and the sun” (Nordgren). The final movement (“The Freeing of the Sun, Moon and Stars”) tells how “the smith’s maiden, the wise virgin” eventually freed the Sun, Moon and Stars by retrieving them from the underworld. This is the only movement in which everyone joins forces. It ends with an orchestral coda capped by a brief restatement of the opening, thus bringing the work full circle.

Those of you who listened to the music on the Storm – Fear CD will recognize several of Nordgren’s trademarks as a composer, but here he often bypasses conventional classical form to emphasize the primitivism of the work. Low basses rumble, upper strings glisten, and both brass and percussion (including a piano) have their say even when the folk orchestra is not present. Happily, our soprano soloist, Merja Wirkkala, is superb in voice control, pitch, diction and musicianship, thus contributing rather than detracting from the whole. The third section, “The Banishment of the Moon Swallower,” consists almost exclusively of percussion, much like George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique but focused more on the lower instruments than the upper ones (no xylophones). Although an oratorio, a great deal of the music is instrumental; in fact, the soloists and choruses only seem to pop their heads in now and then for color. In the fourth section, “The Force of Evil Hide the Lights in the Depths of the Underworld,” the folk orchestra and percussion fall away and Nordgren sticks to conventional instruments used in a style that sounds like a cross between Stravinsky and Bartók (think of The Miraculous Mandarin). Indeed, the music is so gripping that even a professional reviewer like myself can easily get caught up in its originality and drive and simply forget about analysis!

Several reviewers of Nordgren’s music have lamented the fact that until recently—meaning, of course, after his death—he was virtually unknown in the West, whereas Einojuhani Rautavaara (his older contemporary), Kaija Saariajo and Esa-Pekka Salonen are very well known. I concur. It’s kind of like knowing about Zoltan Kodály without ever having heard of Bartók. Kodály was an excellent composer, no two ways about it, but Bartók was even more original and interesting. In the fifth section, “The Freeing of the Sun, Mood and Stars,” the tenor soloist and adult chorus sing strophic lines reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, followed by a rhythmic section for both adult and children’s chorus with percussion in a fixed rhythm that puts you suddenly in mind of Carl Orff. But I’m not trying to suggest that Nordgren was consciously imitating these composers, simply that his inspiration led him to a simulation of primitivism, and in classical music both Stravinsky and Orff had left some great hints for him to follow. Certainly, his orchestration is more colorful than either, and considerably denser than what Orff achieved. An edgy, atonal string passage accompanies the tenor solo at one point (Anssi Hirvonen, who has a solid if not a particularly beautiful voice), which then develops further when the soprano and chorus enter the fray. The music continues to develop and build in intensity, sweeping the listener into its powerful vortex. I have no idea how long it took Nordgren to write this piece, but it almost sounds as if the whole thing just spun out of his mind in one long burst of inspiration.

After a pause—extremely necessary after such powerful music—we get to the last piece on this CD, “Intermezzo—The Cosmic Dance of the Heavenly Bodies.” This is dominated by something that sounds a great deal like a didgeridoo, along with sparse winds, bowed lyre and goat’s horn, with the tenor singing a vocalise while the women’s chorus (and possibly also the children) sing long-held notes behind it all. A primitive rhythm eventually finds its way into the music as it evolves. At the end, naturally, it just fades away into nothingness. Cool stuff!

I cannot recommend this album highly enough. Strange yet powerful and emotionally moving music, played and sung with deep commitment, and well recorded to boot.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Wadada Leo Smith Wanders Through the Mind of Monk

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SOLO: REFLECTIONS AND MEDITATIONS ON MONK / MONK: Ruby, My Dear. Reflections. Crepuscle With Nellie. ‘Round Midnight. W. SMITH: Monk and his Five Point Ring at the Five Spot Café. Adagio: Monk, the Composer in Sepia. Adagio: Monkishness – A Cinematic Vision of Monk Playing Solo Piano. Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium – A Mystery / Wadada Leo Smith, tpt / TUM Records 053

From the press release for this album:

“Most people would never realize that I am closer to Thelonious Monk than to any other artist,” says Smith. “It was Monk, his ideas of a band and composition, that were the closest to what I dreamed of being as an artist. His history of composition and his knowledge of how to use sound were a prime motivator, really, for me wanting to be a composer. I would go back and forth between him and Duke Ellington on this, but Monk had the upper hand in the end.”

Smith also believes that the essence of Monk is in his solo performances. Although I like them very much, I also find the essence of this great jazz composer in his band performances as well. They are different aspects of the same soul. Indeed, I believe that without the band performances we might never quite realize what a genius Monk was in his displacement of time and disruption of sound—of making stiff, mechanical figures swing in a way that no one else ever could or did. But I respect Smith’s aesthetic approach. For him, it works because he himself normally thinks in solo rather than ensemble terms, even when an ensemble is present on his recordings.

Thus when one listens to this recording, it would be more helpful to have first heard Solo Monk or Thelonious Monk Alone in San Francisco, where the composer-pianist leads one “to expansions and further explorations – allowing the compositions to grow and become renewed.” It seems hard to believe now, but in his day, and particularly in the 1940s and ‘50s, Monk was considered so far out as a jazz composer-performer that few of those who were not part of his inner circle (Idrees Sulieman, Sahab Shihab, Charlie Rouse and, briefly, John Coltrane) could even follow him when he played.

Of course, since Smith is playing a single-line instrument and not one on which chords can be played, he must suggest harmonic movement by introducing occasional notes within his explorations, much as violinists and cellists have to do in Bach’s suites. But as I say, the trumpet cannot chord whereas the violin and cello can, so Smith is forced to work with a more limited palette. Interspersed with the four Monk originals are a like number of originals composed by Smith as a tribute to his idol.

The performances are fascinating, and show as much as any record he has ever made how good his tone can be. Yes, there are rough moments where he approaches a note from the side and makes it a little rough around the edges, but by and large he shows a fine control of his instrument. It’s also interesting to hear what he can make of these pieces, taking the basic themes in new directions while still respecting what Monk wrote and could do with them himself. Ruby, My Dear, which leads off the album, is the longest performance on the disc and surely one of the best in terms of how Smith works with “space” in an interpretation. Not a single note is surperfluous or flash; all is substance. By the time he has reached the end he is in an entirely different place from where he began.

Even more interesting, to me at least, are his re-imaginings of Monk in particular moods or situations. The second piece on this album, Monk and his Five Point Ring at the Five Spot Café, is a faster, more virtuosic and harmonically more adventurous piece, clearly illustrating how Smith indeed built his aesthetic on Monk. He works here in a more limited harmonic framework than he usually does—except for some double-time flurries that are quintessentially his own style—yet makes the listener realize just how much his music is built around Monk’s aesthetic. A few flubs here and there do not take away from the spontaneous creativity of this track. It is brilliant not because it is avant-garde, but because despite being avant-garde and spontaneously created it has structure. That is one key ingredient in Smith’s music that runs like a golden thread, his ability to maintain structure, and this is one thing that separates him from many of his “outside” jazz peers.

Much to my surprise, Reflections begins with Smith playing into a cup mute. If anything, his exploration of this tune is even more thorough and diverse than that of Ruby, My Dear, leading Smith into new and unusual territory. In another of his originals, Adagio: Monkishness – A Cinematic Vision of Monk Playing Solo Piano, Smith limns his Monk-like lines with a remarkable legato feeling. Perhaps no Monk composition was so well loved by listeners, or more personal to him, than Crepuscle With Nellie, and Smith’s performance here has all the heart of a love letter to his idol just as the original was a musical love letter to Monk’s wife and lifetime companion.

Adagio: Monk, the Composer in Sepia, another muted performance, shows Smith getting very deep into the music in a short period of time, following his instincts and creating a piece of music in which chords are implied if not in fact stated. One must use one’s inner ear and instincts to follow Smith in these performances; they are lovely in and of themselves, but yield a much richer harvest when heard through the filter of one’s knowledge of implied harmony.

Once again it is another Smith original, Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium, that takes Smith into somewhat brisker tempi and more involved composition. One can clearly hear the Monk influence in Smith’s own work, but that work is broader in scope and contains other influences as well. Here it is the rhythm that seems to shift and change even more than the harmony, however; with a full band to back him, this could be quite an interesting trip! Even by itself the music grabs one’s attention and never lets go, moving around the trumpet’s range in a way that shows us how Smith puts invention above ease of execution or comfort in listening. Yet the music is never so ornate that it is uninviting; rather, he uses this “fantasy” to contrast the styles of two of the 1940s’ most influential and iconoclastic pianists—on a trumpet.

The album ends up with Monk’s most famous composition, ‘Round Midnight, and it is here that Smith unravels some of his most complex and involved improvisation. It is also in this piece that one gets the strongest sense of the underlying harmony as Smith plays a series of tumbling eights here and there that simulate harmonic movement. This is a brilliant album, clearly one of the most original and sensitively nuanced performances I’ve ever heard by a jazz trumpeter.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Fine New Recording of Ligeti’s “Requiem”

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LIGETI: Requiem.* Lux Aeterna (arr. Gottwald for a cappella choir). RAVEL: Soupir (arr. for chorus by C. Gottwald). DEBUSSY: Les Angélus (arr. C. Gottwald). Des pas sur la neige (arr. C. Gottwald). MAHLER: Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (arr. C. Gottwald) / *Gabriele Hierdis, sop; *Renée Morloc, alto; Kammerchor Stuttgart; Danubia Orchestra Óbuda; Frieder Bernius, cond. / Carus 83.283

It is my contention that most modern music, particularly that of the atonal, 12-tone and related styles, doesn’t really have a performance style or anything like a performing tradition. This is not just because the music isn’t performed very often, though that is part of it, but more that the music itself is nearly always played as written with no deviations in terms of accent, phrasing, rubato or rallentando. In other words, to quote a much-overused popular phrase, it is what it is, nothing more and nothing less.

Ligeti’s Requiem is a perfect case in point. So long as you follow the score directions and perform it with the right amount of energy, the score literally plays itself. Thus one’s decision to acquire this or that recording of it will only depend on whether or not you know and trust the conductor and particularly the vocal soloists. That is where, so to speak, the rubber meets the road: too many vocal soloists, particularly nowadays, do not have the requisite soprano range for the music, or one or both singers may have such vocal defects as a wobble or loose vibrato. Happily, both singers here deliver the goods and do so with great style. Moreover, soprano Gabriele Hierdis has phenomenal control of her upper range, an absolute must in this music that often requires leaps of an octave or more up and down one’s range. Hierdis has the ability to pull those notes out of the air like a vocal magician contributes in no small part to the performance’s overall success. By contrast, alto Renée Morloc, though quite good in her own right, is really just along for the ride.

Interestingly, Bernius takes a more lyrical and less edgy approach to the Requiem. For some listeners, this may take something away from the music’s semi-demonic quality, but for me it puts the score more firmly in line with my concept of a Requiem in the sense of the one bu Fauré, Duruflé and Gorécki. Since there are actually very few moments in the music that are marked forte, this is a good choice. Bernius emphasizes the music’s affecting qualities, leaving its more dramatic side to such conductors as Michael Gielen.

Similarly, Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna sounds almost like a modern version of Gregorian chant. Bernius, emphasizing a smooth legato flow, makes both the chorus and the orchestra sound like a nimbus of sound floating above the ether. This creates a luminous halo that washes the listener in a healing balm despite the extremely close harmonies. As the chorus sings the descending chromatics in the lower end of the chords, the music almost sounds as if it is descending slowly from that nimbus over us. This is the kind of performance you can listen to in the dark in the evening and come away with a feeling of healing peace.

Interestingly, Bernius fills out this disc not with other works by Ligeti or like-minded composers, but rather with music by the French impressionists, Ravel and Debussy, plus one piece of lieder by Mahler. These are choral arrangements made by Clytus Gottwald of some of these composers’ more advanced works. Certainly, Ravel’s Soupir and both of these Debussy pieces were entirely new to me. The liner notes tell us that the former was written by Ravel, rather spontaneously (very rare for him!), for his friend Igor Stravinsky as part of his Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé based on the former’s instrumentation for the Trois lyriques Japonaises (which in turn was based on Schoenberg’s score for Pierrot Lunaire). It’s a fascinating piece, particularly as performed by the Kammerchor Stuttgart. I cannot praise them for their perfect blend or top-notch musicianship too highly. They caress all of this music in a way that is practically unique in my 43 years as a professional reviewer. Bernius also maintains a similar style and feel for all of these pieces which makes them sound more akin to the Ligeti.

An unusual musical trip, then, and one that quite possibly can not be duplicated by another chorus or conductor.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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