Korstick’s Wide-Awake Debussy, Vol. 5 Released

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DEBUSSY: Études, Books I & II. Étude retrouverée. Masques. D’un cahier esquisses. L’Isle joyeuse. Nocturne. Danse pour piano: Tarantelle styrienne / Michael Korstick, pn / SWR Music 19044CD / Bonus track: Jeux, piano version available for download or streaming

Michael Korstick’s traversal of Debussy’s piano music reaches its apex with this release of the fifth volume in the series. Here we have the very late Debussy of the Études, music that, by and large, many Debussy aficionados have never warmed up to. This is because they don’t sound like Debussy. By this point in his career, his music was influenced to some degree by his newfound friendship with Igor Stravinsky and an attraction to a more objective and less opaque sound-world. This is also the Debussy that produced the late ballet score Jeux, another work admired by musicians but seldom by the public.

Not surprisingly, then, Korstick plays the Études with a wide-awake, straight-ahead style for the most part, only occasionally giving us moments of opaque shades as in the third Étude of Book I. This is a far cry from the soft-grained approach of Jean-Yves Thibaudet on Decca 460247, where the pianist not only plays with more pedal but also distends many phrases with rubato and rallentando effects. Many critics jumped on Thibaudet’s bandwagon when that recording came out, but to my ears it has always sounded mannered. There is nothing mannered about Korstick’s approach.

The question then arises, What is the best way to play Debussy? One famous French pianist who was alive in Debussy’s time, Alfred Cortot, also did not indulge in soporific Debussy; his recordings of Debussy were as objective and crisp as his recordings of Schumann and Beethoven. The one feature that Cortot had in common with the composer’s own playing, as preserved in a handful of early G&T recordings and several Welte-Mignon piano rolls, was a way of eliciting sounds from the piano as if the keys were playing the fingers, not the other way round. Both had a superb sense of touch that drew the music out, and much to everyone’s surprise, Debussy’s own performances of his piano music were generally a bit faster than the scores indicated.

Korstick adheres to score accuracy as much as possible, believing that Debussy meant what he put down on paper. Whether or not the composer played these works that way, we’ll never know; he did not record the Études, but there is a Debussy recording of D’un cahier esquisses available on Pieran 0001 that is almost identical to what Korstick gives us here—minus a few moments of (unwritten) rubato. Moreover, as indicated in the liner notes, the first book of the études are indeed mostly finger exercises. It is only in the second book that he expanded his vocabulary to include more interesting compositional structures, such as the highly imaginative “Pour les sonorités opposées (For opposing sonorities),” which sounds like it might be stuffy and dry but is one of Debussy’s most atmospheric compositions. The last étude in Book I is as technically difficult as anything written by Liszt and nearly as difficult as Alkan, but then again, so is the first étude of Book II, “Pour les d’egrés chromatiques.” The important thing, to me, is that in all his other recordings of other composers’ music, including his superb series of Koechlin’s music, Korstick immerses himself completely in the score. It’s as if each note and phrase have become part of his own DNA, yet the genetic programming does not produce a mechanical result. Rather, his Debussy is as alive and vibrant as his Koechlin, Mussorgsky, and Beethoven. Korstick is truly a chameleon of the keyboard, one of the greatest of living pianists and one able to convince you that everything he does is right.

I can’t recall ever having heard the Étude retrouverée or Masques played more exquisitely than Korstick does here. He has surely worked on these scores until your listening experience comes close to what Debussy might have felt when he composed them. Of all the pieces presented here, only L’Isle joyeuse struck me as a bit prosaic in phrasing.

As a bonus track, available for download or streaming after the CD is released circa January 15, we have the piano reduction of his last ballet, Jeux. Debussy was, at this stage, very much under Stravinsky’s influence, and it shows in this complex piece, another work that many Debussy fans can take or leave. As musicologist Robert Orledge points out in the liner notes:

…his piano reduction of late 1912 represents what Debussy saw as the essential underlying musical argument within this complex creation…All that he heard in his head over and above what is in this reduction can be heard in the orchestral score, which means that the pianist should feel less responsibility to fit in the material on the extra staves that Debussy added in a smaller typeface.

Korstick’s performance, like the music itself, reveals a mixture of Debussy with several Stravinsky-isms. Moreover, like most of the Études, he again plays it in a wide-awake manner, leaving those who prefer the more opaque Debussy of La plus que lent or Clair de lune frowning in disappointment. But it is an extraordinary performance; in fact, I can honestly say that for the first time—having heard the orchestrated version at least a dozen times—I understand the structure better by listening to this performance. Korstick is not shy about playing the rhythms crisply, saving his moments of lingering for the rare soft passages such as those between the 11 and 12-minute mark, before the music again turns to a faster pace and more wide-awake style at 12:09.

Thus Korstick wraps up his Debussy journey, one as much a yardstick for future generations of pianists as his Beethoven sonatas. I cannot praise it highly enough.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Martinů’s “Epic of Gilgamesh” in English at Last

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MARTINŮ: The Epic of Gilgamesh / Lucy Crowe, sop; Andrew Staples, ten; Derek Welton, bar; Jan Martiník, bass; Simon Callow, narr; Prague Philharmonic Choir. Dzech Philharmonic Orchestra; Manfred Honeck, cond / Supraphon SU 4225-2

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest surviving manuscripts, from roughly 2114 B.C. It concerns Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk and the strongest of men, a brave warrior and fair judge, who surrounded the city of Uruk with magnificent walls and glorious temple towers. He began his reign as a despot, using slave labor to erect these edifices and raping any woman who struck his fancy, even the wife of one of his warriors and the daughter of one of his noblemen. The gods heard his subjects’ pleas and created a wild man named Enkidu who was just as powerful. Enkidu starts out living with animals, but a hunter sends a temple prostitute to him who coverts him to the pleasures of human love. She teaches him everything he needs to know to be a man, and Enkidu is outraged when he hears of Gilgamesh and his violent excesses, so he travels to Uruk to challenge him. When he arrives, Gilgamesh is about to force his way into a bride’s chamber, but Enkidu blocks his way and wrestles him to the ground. Although Gilgamesh wins the fight, he comes to respect him and the two become great friends. Enkidu forces Gilgamesh to change his ways and become an enlightened leader.

From SparkNotes:

Gilgamesh and Enkidu decide to steal trees from a distant cedar forest forbidden to mortals. A terrifying demon named Humbaba, the devoted servant of Enlil, the god of earth, wind, and air, guards it. The two heroes make the perilous journey to the forest, and, standing side by side, fight with the monster. With assistance from Shamash the sun god, they kill him. Then they cut down the forbidden trees, fashion the tallest into an enormous gate, make the rest into a raft, and float on it back to Uruk. Upon their return, Ishtar, the goddess of love, is overcome with lust for Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh spurns her. Enraged, the goddess asks her father, Anu, the god of the sky, to send the Bull of Heaven to punish him. The bull comes down from the sky, bringing with him seven years of famine. Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestle with the bull and kill it. The gods meet in council and agree that one of the two friends must be punished for their transgression, and they decide Enkidu is going to die. He takes ill, suffers immensely, and shares his visions of the underworld with Gilgamesh. When he finally dies, Gilgamesh is heartbroken.

Grief-stricken and contemplating his own eventual death, Gilgamesh dons animal skins and travels to the ends of the earth to seek out the mysteries of life and death. Along the way he seeks out Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian Noah, who has been granted eternal life, and and Gilgamesh hopes that Utnapishtim can tell him how he might avoid death too. Gilgamesh’s journey takes him to the twin-peaked mountain called Mashu, where the sun sets into one side of the mountain at night and rises out of the other side in the morning.

Again, from SparkNotes:

When Gilgamesh insists that he be allowed to live forever, Utnapishtim gives him a test. If you think you can stay alive for eternity, he says, surely you can stay awake for a week. Gilgamesh tries and immediately fails. So Utnapishtim orders him to clean himself up, put on his royal garments again, and return to Uruk where he belongs. Just as Gilgamesh is departing, however, Utnapishtim’s wife convinces him to tell Gilgamesh about a miraculous plant that restores youth. Gilgamesh finds the plant and takes it with him, planning to share it with the elders of Uruk. But a snake steals the plant one night while they are camping. As the serpent slithers away, it sheds its skin and becomes young again.

When Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, he is empty-handed but reconciled at last to his mortality. He knows that he can’t live forever but that humankind will. Now he sees that the city he had repudiated in his grief and terror is a magnificent, enduring achievement—the closest thing to immortality to which a mortal can aspire.

This bizarre story first caught Martinů’s fancy in 1928, when an English translation of the epic was published in London. It kept coming back to him until finally, in 1954, he began to set it to music. After its completion, the only place that would risk mounting the huge secular cantata was Switzerland, so he hurriedly translated the text into Suisse-Deutsch. It has generally been performed in German, and occasionally Czech (Martinů’s native tongue), ever since. This is its first recording in the original English edition. It would be nice to say that, because of this, I could understand every word that was sung…nice, but untrue. The chorus’ English is Czech-accented although the consonants are clear and sometimes understandable, but Czech bass Jan Martiník swallows his consonants so badly that most of the time it didn’t even sound like English, let alone English I could understand. Thankfully, narrator Simon Callow’s diction is as clear as a bell, which helps the English-speaking listener follow the story somewhat better. Tenor Andrew Staples’ diction is also fairly good, baritone Derek Welton so-so. Soprano Lucy Crowe, who is often the “girl with the curl” vocally, is in absolutely splendid voice here; this is clearly one of her best recordings made in the past five years. She tries to enunciate clearly but is obviously working hard on maintaining a well-focused tone in the high tessitura of the music, which works somewhat against diction. The only English sopranos of the past 70 years whose English diction was crystal-clear no matter what were Gwen Catley and Heather Harper. I often wish others would listen to their records and emulate them.

As for the actual performance, diction aside, it is magnificent. The liner notes make a great deal out of Martinů’s stated preferences for phrasing, accelerandi and even tempi, which sometimes contradicted what he wrote in the score, but without a score in front of me I simply judged what I heard and compared it to my existing recording of the work (in Czech) by reciter Otakar Brousek, soprano Marcela Machotková, tenor Jíři Zahrdniček, baritone Václav Zitek, bass Karel Průša and conductor Jíři Bêlohlávek, also on Supraphon (SU39182). In my view, this new recording is not only strong competition but even better. The modern digital sonics are absolutely stunning, almost creating a 3D effect in places even when played on my conventional stereo system (a good one, but not SACD). The natural hall reverberation captured here is astounding.

Despite their flaws in diction, both Martiník and Welton sing with both firm tones and dramatic conviction. Staples’ tenor is a little light for the music but he is a superb artist, and as I said, Crowe’s voice is truly magnificent here. Manfred Honeck conducts with both a good ear for color and a fine sense of drama; he knows when to caress the line lyrically and when to inject bite and drive into the proceedings. The music is clearly some of Martinů’s best; I have no idea why he could only find forces in Switzerland to mount a production in his own time. Largely tonal, it nevertheless keeps one’s interest through the use of frequent chromatic movement and biting rhythms. Martinů is one of those composers, along with Mendelssohn, Dvořak, Koechlin and Frank Martin, whose music continues to impress me no matter how many pieces I hear by them. They wrote very few duds. Here, I was particularly impressed by his use of the soprano voice as an instrument in the orchestra, singing wordless downward portamenti for coloristic effect, not to mention his extremely varied use of orchestration. And the whole is greater than the individual parts, making a strong impression as long as one is not listening for memorable tunes or high notes to thrill the ear.

In short, a truly fabulous recording of a great work, finally given in the composer’s original conception. If you are an admirer of Martinů, this album is a must. And the packaging is simply spectacular, a fold-over cardboard album including the CD in its own separate sleeve along with a 162-page booklet including the full text in English, German, French and Czech. Well worth your investing the $13.60 that Presto Classical is currently charging for the physical disc!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Lively Performances of Couperin’s “Les Concerts Royaux”

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COUPERIN: Les Concerts Royaux, Nos. 1-4 / I Fiori Musicali: Maria Giovanna Fiorentino, voice fl/sop recorder; Paolo Tognon, bsn; Rosita Ippolito, vla da gamba; Maria Luisa Baldassari, hpd / Urania LDV14031

I so seldom take a chance on early music recordings nowadays because of all this ahistorical “straight tone” nonsense, not to mention clipped, un-legato phrasing and emotional neutering of the music, that when I first started listening to this recording I was taken aback. This put me in mind of the old, marvelous recording of Couperin’s Le Parnasse ou l’Apotheose de Corelli by flautist Claude Monteux, oboist Harry Schulman, cellist Bernard Greenhouse and harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe. In short, it’s lively, energetic and interesting!

But look at the names of the musicians: they’re all Italians. And why does that matter? For two reasons. First, Italian musicians understand the traditions of early music better than the Germans, French or Brits because even such composers as Buxtehude, Couperin and Bach based their styles on Italian models. And secondly, even more importantly, Italian musicians know that these pieces were based on dances, which they understand better than some academics sitting around in conservatories, pulling their chins and arguing as to just how thin, nasty and ugly early music needs to sound before it can be considered “authentic.”

The result is a cornucopia of sounds that bring Couperin to rich, vibrant life. I was reminded more than a little bit of the superb recordings (two volumes) of Couperin’s Les Nations made by harpsichordists Jochewed Schwarz and Emer Buckley, which I gave a rave review to on this blog. This music was designed to delight audiences, not depress them or make them worry about how much straight tone is being used, and delight it does. Even Paolo Tognon’s bassoon bounces and swirls around the top line of the music, superbly played by Maria Fiorentino, like a child so excited by what he hears that he wants to join in the fun.

As for the music itself, it is typical of the French Baroque of the time. I make no claim that Couperin was a transcendent genius like Buxtehude or J.S. Bach, but he was more that just a craftsman. He knew how to develop his themes in a compact manner and, more importantly, how to contrast different sections within each suite or “Concert” for maximum effect. And by golly, even the slow movements here, such as the Preludes of each Concert, have a life and lift that takes them out of the dry, dusty Halls of Academe and make them living music once again. As in the case of the Monteux recording referenced above, the harpsichord part is somewhat subjugated to the whole. It does not dominate as in the case of Bach’s suites. This, too, was the French style of the time, although happily, Maria Luisa Baldassari’s instrument is recorded more clearly that Sylvia Marlowe was in the early 1950s.

Of the four musicians, only viola da gambist Rosita Ippolito adheres to the Religion of Straight Tone, and that is a shame, particularly in the “Air tendre” of Concert No. 2 where her instrument could have used a bit of light vibrato on those sustained notes. But at least the others bounce the rhythm so well that you don’t feel that the music drags at all. Indeed, I especially like the way they occasionally “teased” notes just a hair longer than written, as in the “Echos” of Concert No. 2, to create the illusion of movement. In Concert No. 3, Fiorentino switches from flute to recorder, which gives the music a somewhat deeper and “woodier” sound with no loss of animation. Of course these suites, like those of Les Nations,don’t have any set instrumentation, so any combination of instruments will do. Here, harpsichordist Baldassari gets to shine in a solo performance of the Sarabande in Concerto No. 4.

This is a really lively recording of some of Couperin’s better music.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Marteau’s Enigmatic Songs

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MARTEAU: 8 Mélodies for Voice & Piano, Op. 19c.* 8 Songs with Piano Accompaniment, Op. 28.* Fünf Schilflieder für Bariton+ / *Vesselina Kasarova, mezzo; +Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, bar; *Galina Vracheva, +Günther Weißenborn, pn; +Franz Schmidtner, vla / Solo Musica SM263

The music of Henri Marteau (1874-1934) is scarcely well known; indeed, an obituary published after his death at age 60 said that “his compositions are only of secondary importance” to his work as a violinist, but I’m a curious bunny, so I wanted to hear for myself.

The songs contained on this CD are generally in the same tempo and mood, medium-slow. They are tonal but also chromatic; as an admirer of Max Reger as well as of the French composers like Saint-Saëns, Marteau combined the sensibilities of both schools. At least to judge by this material, he wrote for voice in a fairly small vocal range, choosing to focus on matching music to words and not to showing off the voice. The somewhat odd combination of Franco-Prussian styles may initially strike you as enigmatic, but as you continue listening you become more attuned to his aesthetic.

Vesselina Kasarova’s voice has changed somewhat since her glory years of the 1990s. It is brighter, a bit more acidic in quality now, not as creamy as it once was, which makes her sound much more Bulgarian and less Western European. She sounds a bit like older-age Irina Arkhipova. But her interpretive abilities have not dimmed with age. She is just as great an artist now as she was then, and this, above all else, is what is needed to project Marteau’s strange songs. I am, however, working at a disadvantage since the booklet contains no texts or translations, and even Emily Ezust’s otherwise estimable LiederNet Archive has very few of his song texts available. One wonders what the label was thinking in issuing a CD of obscure songs by an equally obscure composer without texts.

Nonetheless, in a song such as Stille fährt (the first of the 8 Songs Op. 28), one can admire Marteau’s interesting chromatic handling of the musical material. This group of songs, in fact, is generally livelier than the first, and in my view more varied in its musical material.

The songs for voice, piano and solo viola come from early radio studio recordings (1956) by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and one is reminded once again of how great he was in his prime. Yet again, despite the interest of the musical material, one is frustrated by a lack of texts. Without knowing what he’s singing about, it’s hard to gauge the effectiveness of the performances, but in his case we automatically assume that they’re good interpretations. The sound quality is surprisingly sharp and clear for its time, and here the music is much more Reger-like, meaning somewhat turgid in the harmony.

All in all, then, an enigmatic but interesting CD. Perhaps someday we’ll know what on earth they’re singing about.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Mantas Completes Schumann’s Fourth Sonata

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SCHUMANN: Kinderszenen. Waldszenen. SCHUMANN-MANTAS: Piano Sonata No. 4. MANTAS: Poppy Fields / Santiago Mantas, pn / Claudio Records CR6033-2

Although this CD presents pianist Santiago Mantas’ performances of Kinderszenen and Waldszenen, as well as his own short piece Poppy Fields, the real highlight of the program is his own reconstruction of Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 4.

My readers know that I normally have reservations about other musicians completing the unfinished work of older composers. My suspicion was initially fueled, a half-century ago, by my first hearing of Puccini’s Turandot (which, it turns out, he had plenty of time to finish) with the crappy ending written by Franco Alfano, and was more recently squelched by the even more horrible “completion” of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony. The completed third movement of Schubert’s Eighth Symphony (“Unfinished”) is actually very good, but the various attempts at a fourth movement have ranged from inappropriate (using one of his own overtures, for example) to awful. Yet there are Robert Orledge’s superb recraftings of Debussy’s Edgar Allan Poe operas, Larry Austin’s excellent completion of Charles Ives’ “Universe” Symphony, and of course the various completions of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (which he actually wrote most of in piano reduction, just not getting around to orchestrating).

The booklet accompanying this CD has, on page seven, a commendation of Mantas’ work by Denis McCaldin, Emeritus Professor of Music for Lancaster University in the U.K. To quote professor McCaldin, “The work undertaken by Santiago Mantas to create plausible completions of the first and last movements of this Sonata is of the highest quality. The use of the existing sketches as source material is both sensitive and respectful. In both cases, the resulting elaborations reveal strong musicianship and a deep understanding of Schumann’s compositional style, providing us with credible completions of the movements concerned.” Earlier in the booklet are detailed explanations of how Mantas put the music together. Schumann left us 66 bars of the first movement and 166 bars of the fourth and last. In the second and third movements, Mantas used material written by Schumann in 1836 and originally intended for his sonata titled “Concert Sans Orchestra.” This is followed in turn by a detailed description of the number of bars inserted by Mantas, how much is by him and which parts were derived from Schumann himself.

Regarding his performances of the first two suites, they are very fine and sensitive performances if not quite on the high level of Clara Haskil in the first or the obscure but superb Vladimir Nielsen in the second. Mantas lovingly caresses the famous “Traumerai,” and does not ignore detail in the other pieces of the former, thus I was prepared for how he might approach the sonata.

The proof of any reconstruction is not in how cleverly the material has been reworked, but whether or not the finished product works as a piece of art. Anyone can stick arms on the Venus di Milo, but not all arms are going to look right on it. My ears tell me that the music is Schumann-esque in the sense that it has that element of surprise and unpredictability that characterizes most of his scores. Both the themes and their development have the ring of authenticity about them, at least in the first movement. The second and third movements, pure Schumann, do indeed seem to fit the sonata, and I really enjoyed the way Mantas plays them.

The long (almost 12-minute) last movement was probably the biggest challenge for Mantas, despite having 166 bars of authentic music to work with. Mantas takes the music into deep crevices of feeling, creating a tapestry of sound that envelops the listener like a blanket.

Mantas’ own Poppy Fields is a quiet piece, played in almost isolated single notes that fall on the ear like raindrops. I liked it but questioned its place in this specific album.

Overall, however, a notable achievement, particularly for the sonata.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Copland’s Early Orchestral Works Kick Butt!

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COPLAND: An Outdoor Overture. Sympony No. 1 for Large Orchestra. Statements. Dance Symphony / BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; John Wilson, cond / Chandos CHSA 5195

Those who have read my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music, under Composers – C, will know that I feel Aaron Copland to be somewhat overrated. Yes, he was a solid composer, but after he changed his style in the late 1930s to a more popular and populist one, quoting or simulating American folk songs and dances, he became more formulaic and less interesting to me. I do like his jazz-based music, El Salon México and especially his 1950s opera The Tender Land (a highly underrated masterpiece that needs to be performed more frequently by American opera companies), but when I hear a piece like the opener of this CD, the 1938 Outdoor Overture, it just seems very pleasant if solidly-written, tending towards background music. Yes, it’s peppy, and there are certainly features of interest greater than his Fanfare for the Common Man, Rodeo, Appalachian Spring and Lincoln Portrait, but it’s really not much better than a lot of similar works by other composers and in fact not as creative as some of John Williams’ better pieces.

Which is not to say that conductor John Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic do not play it well—they do. But for me, the real meat on this CD are the works from the 1920s and early ‘30s which follow. As Mervyn Cooke’s liner notes put it, “Newcomers to the Dance Symphony…might well be surprised by the sometimes grim, even Gothic, nature of a piece with a title more logically suggesting a carefree spirit,” and his Symphony No. 1 (1926-28) is also a more serious, less populist Copland. Originally written as a symphony for organ and orchestra in 1924, when he was still under the spell of the French modernists of that time (I would say Honegger even more so than Milhaud or Dukas), it is more astringent in harmony and much leaner in orchestral texture. When it was first performed in its original form in the U.S. in 1925, with none other than Nadia Boulanger making her American debut playing the organ part, conductor Walter Damrosch told the audience after the performance that a composer who could write such a piece at age 23, “within five years he will be ready to commit murder!” The quote was picked up and circulated frequently in the press, even though Copland himself recognized it was just a joke directed at the “conservative Sunday afternoon ladies faced with modern American music.”

The Symphony, as I say, isn’t really all that grim, just a very good modern piece. Copland really liked the work, which was recorded in its original form by E. Power Biggs and the New York Philharmonic in 1967, but realized that not every concert hall could supply the organ necessary, so he rewrote it for orchestra alone. The second movement (“Scherzo”) was the first to be premiered in the new format, in a 1927 concert conducted by none other than Fritz Reiner. The entire revised piece was given in Germany in 1931, with Ernest Ansermet conducting the Berlin Philharmonic to great acclaim (and no talk of murdering people). The highlight of the piece is actually the long (ten and a half minute) “Lento” finale, a brilliant piece in sonata form that could easily be played as a stand-alone work. This is a truly great performance, bracing and emotionally committed, and should easily convert even the most skeptical listener to Copland’s early style, particularly the faster, more energetic section beginning at the seven-minute mark and continuing on through to the end. (In its original form with organ, the ending was once described by a Chicago critic as “screaming like a wild banshee which by some twist of locale has found itself at the Wailing Wall.”)

Equally interesting, and even more bracing, are the six Statements from 1932-35, one of his last such works in this style. Virgil Thomson, in an equally early review (for him), called it “A manly bouquet, fresh and sincere and frank and straightforward.” The opening section, “Militant,” is played in a granitic, bracing style that echoes Shostakovich, while the second, “Cryptic,” foreshadows such American composers as Roy Harris and Walter Piston. Slow-moving, soft brass notes and chords are heard against a backdrop of tubas and trombones. Some of this orchestration, but not this style, found its way into some of Copland’s later work. “Dogmatic” follows, equally bracing as the first movement but more lumbering than aggressive. By contrast, “Subjective” is another quiet, mysterious piece with a louder section towards the end, more conventionally tonal than many of the others. “Jingo” is based on the song The Sidewalks of New York, its familiar tune woven in and out of the structure very cleverly and artistically, and not always prominent. Oddly, the ending just fades away abruptly, whereas “Prophetic” comes across as almost enigmatic and objective in its writing, at least until the piece explodes in volume before again receding from the sound barrier.

The Dance Symphony of 1929 came about as part of a composition competition sponsored by RCA Victor records. Copland had, say the liner notes, wanted to submit his Symphonic Ode, but not being able to complete it in time he edited scenes from his weird, Gothic,unperformed ballet Grohg. The liner notes make a big deal of the “dark” quality of this music, but to my ears much of it sounded quite chipper, just in an entirely different style from Billy the Kid or Rodeo. It is most definitely dance-oriented, however, with strong, insistent rhythms and his leaner, earlier mode of orchestration. (As it turned out, the winner of this competition was Atterberg’s Seventh Symphony; the Dance Symphony was one of five runners-up that got $5,000 apiece, and premiered in 1931 at a Philadelphia Orchestra concert conducted by Stokowski.) When this work was programmed by Artur Rodzinski with the New York Philharmonic in 1937, the orchestra members hated it so much that they threatened a cancellation of the concert. Copland, in turn, threatened to leave the League of Composers which was sponsoring the event. The program went on as planned. Listening to it today, one wonders where the heads of these musicians were at…but then again, this is New York City, which always pretends to be cutting edge when in fact most of the city’s musicians today are still playing music written no later than 1930, and whose present-day New York Philharmonic still thinks Carl Nielsen is revolutionary! (The orchestra balked big-time a few years ago when Alan Gilbert scheduled a series of all of Nielsen’s symphonies and many of his concerti.)

There is no question but that this is one of the finest Copland discs extant. I recommend it highly!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Osland’s UK Musicians Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rhythm Section

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STINKIN’ 3.0 / COFFIN: The Mad Hatter Rides Again. Low Spark. Tall and Lanky. HAMILTON: Cry Me a River. MOWER: Ford Fiasco. Kentucky Roastup. Yuppieville Rodeo. STRAYHORN: Lush Life. DRISKILL: A Change in the Gospel. Blues and the Bent Side Key. Straight Jacket. DAGRADI: Sohana Sha Kirpal. Sweet Faced Lies / Ian Cruz, s-sax/a-sax; Derek Wilson, Mitchell Tinnell, Angie Ortega, a-sax; Jeff Coffin, Michael Robinson, Colleen Wagoner, a-sax/t-sax; Jonathan Barrett, fl/t-sax; Kirby Davis, Jonathan Nickell, Zach Buskill, Tony Dagradi, Carlos Espinosa Jr., Jacob Slone, Philip Sohn, t-sax; Trevor Bowling, t-sax/bar-sax; Jared Sells, Khalil Dennis, Austin Pence, bar-sax; Nick Bolcholz, dm; Michael McSweeney, perc; Miles Osland, cond / Mark 53083

The rather odd title of this CD stems from a performance that Miles Osland’s Mega-Sax Quartet gave at Elmhurst College in 1995, part of a competition. After getting the highest score possible, one comment was written on the judges’ sheet: “You guys don’t need no stinkin’ rhythm section!” This led to his issuing their first CD the next year with the title, “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rhythm Section” and their second CD three years later, “Stinkin’ Up the Place,” though that CD did have a rhythm section on a few cuts. So this is “Stinkin’ 3.0.”

Like the second CD, the band does use a drummer or percussionist on five of the twelve cuts, but not a full rhythm section…no bass or drums. And the other seven tracks have no rhythm section at all. As in the case of all of UK’s Jazz Ensemble CDs, the music is not only swinging but creative. Happily, the liner notes by Professor Emeritus of Saxophone for the Eastman School of Music Ramon Ricker gives detailed info on the odd meters used in these pieces. It’s heartening to hear in so many jazz CDs nowadays that the unusual meters pioneered in the late 1950s and 1960s by Dave Brubeck, Stan Kenton, Miles Davis and Don Ellis have indeed become, as they claimed they would, “the future of jazz,” now the present. I should point out that not all of the musicians listed above play on all of the tracks, but the personnel shifts so often from tune to tune that I decided to just list everyone without inserting a dozen little superscript numbers into the header.

Another feature of the UK Mega-Sax Ensembles is no brass sections. I’m sure that Osland, who is a first-class musician and jazz educator, could easily write parts for brass if he so chose, and indeed I’m looking forward someday to a disc from his talented band that uses brass, just for a change of pace, but as in the case of the rhythm section, he doesn’t need brass. After a hard-hitting opener by Jeff Coffin, The Mad Hatter Rides Again, which alternates 4/4, 3/4 and 3/8 in a funky blues groove, we hear two pieces that could easily pass for Indo-Jazz fusion, one with drums (Low Spark) and one without (Tall and Lanky), and the sax writing here is exceptional. Those with an ear for historical jazz ensembles may wish for a chart that uses the full spectrum of the sax family, from sopranino to bass, as Shep Fields did in the 1940s (Fields’ “New Music” may be one of the greatest and least-remembered jazz ensembles of all time), which arranger Billy Kerr comes fairly close to in his gorgeous arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life.

I was also delighted to hear that not only are these pieces real compositions, with intros, alternating themes and development, but that they tend to focus on the ensemble. When you do hear a solo, as for instance in Tall and Lanky, it fits into the surrounding musical structure in addition to being a bit wild. DAMN, these guys (and in saying “guys” I am not overlooking such women saxists as Colleen Wagoner or Angie Ortega, who play on several tracks here) are good!

I was especially delighted by Jonathan Barrett’s extraordinary arrangement of the old Arthur Hamilton tune, Cry Me a River. I thought that clarinetist Tony Scott had made a great recording of it back in the 1950s, but this one is far more adventurous, using a sort of pumping bass line from the bari sax while the rhythm constantly shifts between 5/8 and 6/8. If you listen carefully, and only to the top line, you will recognize the melody, but only just. In fact, and I am saying this as someone who has admired every CD this band has released since “Mega-Mega Sax” in 2013, I was consistently astonished by the high level of creativity in each and every arrangement here. Listen to Mike Mower’s Ford Fiasco with its swirling figures that skirt bitonality, shift tempos constantly, and play as if the entire band was an organ that just one musician was playing with his or her two hands. Osland’s Mega-Sax Ensembles can compete with any fully professional jazz orchestra anywhere in the world. They’re that good. And between you and me, I sometimes wonder if his graduates may not feel underwhelmed when they play with other jazz bands after playing in this one. Unless the creative level is as high as this, it would be hard for me, were I one of his musicians, to accept anything less than what his Mega-Sax groups accomplish. I really mean that. Even in a relatively “simple” tune and arrangement like Jeff Driskill’s A Change in the Gospel, the level of the writing and technical execution of the score are so high that your mind never wanders.

Mower’s Yuppieville Rodeo takes jumping figures at a blistering tempo, go in and out of related keys in the blink of an eye, and toss in brief quotes from various tunes, some of which I recognized (like Peter and the Wolf, My Old Kentucky Home and Camptown Races) and some of which I didn’t. But it’s all fun as well as creative, typical Mega-Sax style. If I fail to go into such detail on all the remaining tracks, be assured that it is not because I found them inferior or didn’t like them but that they’re all so good that to do so would take more space than I have and turn this review into a mini-dissertation on jazz style, composition and performance.

Simply put, this is a GREAT jazz CD and one you really need to hear. Keep up the great work, UK!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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