Clare Fischer Comes at You “Out of the Blue”

Out of the Blue

OUT OF THE BLUE / C. FISCHER: Love’s Walk.1 Starbright.1 Out of the Blue.1,3 Millbrae Walk.2 Novelho. 49 (Larry Ford).1 BRASIL-NETO: Tema do Boneco de Palha (Theme of the Straw Doll).2 WASHINGTON-HARLINE-CHURCHILL: Medley: When You Wish Upon a Star/Someday My Prince Will Come. MANCINI: Two for the Road. MALHEIROS: Cascade of the Seven Waterfalls.2 JOBIM-GILBERT-DE MORAES: Amor em Paz. HODGES: Squatty Roo. REINHARDT: Nuages.1 BONFA-DE MORAES-JOBIM-MARIA: Medley: Carnaval/A Felicidade/Samba de Orfeo2 / Dr. Clare Fischer, kbds/arr; Brent Fischer, vibes/bs/all perc; 1Peter Erskine, 2Mike Shapiro, dm; 3Denise Donatelli, 3John Proulx, voc / Clavo Records CR201509

Here is yet another installment in the Clare Fischer project, overseen by his talented son Brent, of his father’s compositions and recordings. This one, like most of the tracks on ¡Intenso!, are arrangements of others’ works, with only four pieces on the album written by Clare himself, but as is usually the case his re-imagining of others’ music is illuminating and fascinating.

Happily, we start with a piano trio rendition of Love’s Walk, a tune Fischer had previously recorded as a solo. It was rare for him in his later years to really stretch out on piano through a full performance; usually he just contributed a chorus or two as one of the soloists in group performances. The man could really swing, and his playing was so full of surprises, that I feel a little guilty about there not being as much of his piano playing extant as his band and group performances. Taken at a relaxed “walking” tempo, Fischer shows us here how well he could swing at that pace and still be inventive. What a great opening for this CD! And, happily, it continues in his electric piano rendition of Brasil’s Tema do Boneco de Palha, in which he revels in the Latin rhythms with wonderful creativity.

Surprisingly, Fischer lays back on the medley of tunes from Walt Disney’s Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty, leading into When You Wish Upon a Star in a meditative, relaxed mode. He fully states the theme of the former, with little fillips added in the breaks, before slowly dissembling it. He then blends his playing seamlessly into Someday My Prince Will Come, a tune that was also a favorite of Dave Brubeck and Jack Reilly.

In Starbright, we have an almost old-fashioned ‘50s performance, complete with vibes, bass and drums. It’s also very ‘50s-ish in its harmonic innovation, sounding like some of the more far-out things that the West Coast bands of the time were doing. Thus I wasn’t surprised to learn in the liner notes that Fischer had written it in the ‘50s but considered it too far-out to record then. It’s largely but not completely tonal, with surprisingly fluid harmonic changes and unusual chord positions. Henry Mancini’s Two for the Road is yet another ballad performance, again wonderfully relaxed and inventive.

Oddly, the tune Cascade of the Seven Waterfalls begins in a way that sounds eerily like Blueberry Hill, only set to a Samba beat. Here Fischer really stretches out and becomes quite inventive, his rhythmic treatment of the tune bouncing along over the bass line. By contrast, the title tune of this album, Out of the Blue, was another adventurous piece by Fischer that he had not only never recorded before but hadn’t titled. For this recording, Denise Donatelli and John Proulx did the wordless vocals. This is a real gem, with Fischer playing a sort of walking bass line before his two-chorus solo later on in the track. Millbrae Walk, originally recorded on his tribute album to Cal Tjader, Tjaderama. This version features Brent Fischer again on vibes and bass with Mike Shapiro on drums. Amor en Paz is played completely solo, again in a slow tempo but not lacking in interest or creativity.

Johnny Hodges’ famous Squatty Roo receives the full-frontal Clare Fischer treatment: redistribution of beats, harmony and counterpoint. Brent plays the “guitar sounds” on his electric bass. Django Reinhardt’s Nuages is played at what I’d call a medium-slow tempo on electric piano, almost teasing the melodic line and harmony as he moves it along, yet still keeping up a jazz swing. You could electronically speed up this performance if you wished and it would swing like mad, but it makes a great effect at this pace. And what a great improvised section it has!

Novelho is another one of those wonderfully mad-sounding tunes by Fischer, this one written in the early 1960s and recorded at that time by an uncredited band without a title. Upon rediscovering this unreleased gem, Clare gave it its present title and later adding a bridge and transcribing it for clarinet choir, but to hear this original version is to appreciate the wonderful energy that young Clare Fischer had, and also to hear how much he owed to Lennie Tristano at that time. 49 was written as a tribute to Clare’s good friend Larry Ford, who died at that age. It’s a kind of lament, but a jazz lament, not a maudlin one, with his trademark harmonic movement and attractive but somewhat elusive themes. This is, again, a piano trio performance.

We end our current exploration into Fischer’s world with a marvelous Latin medley of three of Jobim’s most famous tunes, Carnaval (a.k.a. A Day in the Life of a Fool), A Felicidade and Samba de Orfeu from the film Black Orpheus. The performances are, again, almost achingly slow, with Fischer bringing out the melos of the firs tune beautifully before upping the tempo to a medium swing. Overall, a fine album of mostly late-period Clare Fischer at the 88s.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Scozzesi’s Rich Mezzo a Welcome Surprise


HERE COMES THE SUN / PORTER: It’s Alright With Me.2 McHUGH-FIELDS: I’m in the Mood for Love.2 NEWMAN: You Can Leave Your Hat On.1 TIOMKIN-WASHINGTON: Wild is the Wind.1 HARRISON: Here Comes the Sun.2 ELLINGTON-DeLANGE-MILLS; Solitude.1 RIO-WINKLER-AMARILLO; Tequila.1 HODGES-FRISHBERG: A Little Taste.2 HAGEN-ROGERS-TORMÉ: Harlem Nocturne2 / Dolores Scozzesi, voc; Nolan Shaheed, tpt; 1Quinn Johnson, pn/Hammond B3 org; 2Andy Langham, pn/melodica; Larry Koonse, Dori Amarillo, gtr; Lyman Medeiros, bs; Kevin Winard, dm / Café Pacific Records CPCD 14050

Dolores Scozzesi, a veteran jazz singer who got her start as an intermission singer at Budd Friedman’s Improv Comedy club back in the 1990s, gives here the kind of performance I really like: rhythmic singing with a feel for the jazz beat and, surprisingly, a rich mezzo voice rather than the usual soprano. Even from the opener, It’s Alright With Me, you know you’re in for a treat, but the way she does I’m in the Mood for Love will knock you out. And her backup band(s) are excellent, too. Coincidence: just the day before I listened to this CD, I reviewed the Clare Fischer Latin Big Band’s ¡Ritmo! album, and lo and behold, pianist Quinn Johnson played on several tracks of that album, too.

But as good as Johnson and alternate pianist/melodica player Andy Langham are, it’s Scozzesi who draws your attention. I wish she would sing “out” a bit more—she certainly has enough voice to do so—but apparently a “soft” approach has come to dominate West Coast jazz singing, thus she maintains a mezzo-piano throughout most of the set. In Dimitri Tiomkin’s Wild is the Wind she does a bit of scatting, and here she does open up the voice more, to wonderful effect. And on the very last note of the song, Scozzesi and the band suddenly change keys. George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun is given a fast Latin beat, with Scozzesi spacing her notes in an interesting rhythmic manner. There’s also a live YouTube video of her singing this song, and in that she opens up the voice a little more.

Lyman Medeiros’ bowed bass introduces the one ballad on the set, Duke Ellington’s early classic Solitude, but even in a ballad setting Scozzesi swings in her low-key way. Medeiros also has a rare solo in this number, showing a fine harmonic sense, and Johnson plays an understated piano solo. I had to smile hearing her sing lyrics to the old 1950s instrumental Tequila (lampooned by Spike Jones as Pimples and Braces). Johnson plays the Hammond B2 organ on this one in a good Wild Bill Davis imitation, and Scozzesi gives her singing a quasi-Spanish pronunciation.

I have to admit that I had never heard Johnny Hodges’ A Little Taste, here with lyrics by the marvelous Dave Frishberg, but Scozzesi sings it with tongue planted firmly in cheek. (An interesting thought just struck me: in certain places in her voice, Scozzesi’s tone reminded me of Lorraine Feather.) And just listen to her sure command of rhythm in this track…so sure and hip that it makes you smile.

The rather brief (34-minute) album ends with a vocal version by Mel Tormé of one of the best Duke Ellington songs not written by Ellington, Earle Hagen’s Harlem Nocturne. Scozzesi and the band bring the tempo way down and again give it a Latin beat. What a nice track!

I think you’ll really love this album. It’s perfect make-you-smile music for a gray, dull day.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring Robert Lloyd’s “Boris Godunov”

Boris - Lloyd

MUSSORGSKY: Boris Godunov / Robert Lloyd, bass (Boris Godunov); Alexander Morosov, bass (Pimen); Alexei Steblianko, tenor (Grigory/Dimitri); Ludmila Filarova, mezzo-soprano (Innkeeper); Vladimir Ognovenko, bass (Varlaam); Igor Yan, tenor (Missail); Olga Kandina, soprano (Xenia); Larissa Diadkova, mezzo-soprano (Feodor); Evgenia Perlasova, mezzo-soprano (Nurse); Evgeny Bobisov, tenor (Shuisky); Olga Borodina, mezzo (Marina); Sergei Leiferkus, baritone (Rangoni); Mikhail Kit, baritone (Schehelkalov); Evgeny Fedotov, bass (Nikitich); Grigori Karasyov, bass (Mityukha); Vladimir Solodovnikov, tenor (Simpleton); Kirov Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Valery Gergiev, conductor / Philips DVD 075 089-9 or available for free streaming on YouTube

A Gramophone critic once said that although Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is always an audience favorite in the opera house, it has traditionally been a very poor seller on records. Having lived 67 years and being exposed to most of the recordings of this work, I think I have some idea why.

To begin with, nearly all recordings of the opera made before 1976 used a corrupted version of the score, orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and the one that didn’t used an even more corrupt orchestration by Dmitri Shostakovich. I know several people who love the Rimsky orchestration and one or two who like the Shostakovich, but the plain fact of the matter is that both of them “gussy up” the orchestration with dazzling string, wind and brass passages that Mussorgsky didn’t use and wouldn’t have liked. The excuse usually given for Rimsky taking a few years out of his career to orchestrate Boris is that it wouldn’t have sold to opera audiences in the original version, but since it was never performed in the West with Mussorgsky’s own orchestration until the 1970s, we have no way of really knowing this. Certainly, a host of great conductors from Arturo Toscanini to Vladimir Fedoseyev loved the Mussorgsky orchestration with its darker, more muted colors, and since Mussorgsky DID write colorful orchestrations for A Night on Bald Mountain and his later opera Khovanchina, it’s clear that he really did know what he was doing and what he wanted wasn’t Hollywood-sounding glitz.

Another problem was that at least until the 1950s, Boris was performed in America by casts singing a polyglot version. The star bass doing Boris usually performed his role in Russian (a rare exception was Ezio Pinza, who did it in Italian at the Met in 1937), but the rest of the cast normally sang in Italian. This strange situation afflicted not only the 1928 Covent Garden performance starring the incomparable Feodor Chaliapin, of which only excerpts were recorded and released, but also the 1943 Met performance starring the great Alexander Kipnis as Boris. The latter, which I’ve heard, is a good performance, especially for Kipnis but also for Kerstin Thorborg (Marina) and Leonard Warren (Rangoni), and is conducted by George Szell, but who cares when you’re using both the wrong orchestration and the wrong language? I sure don’t.

To the best of my knowledge, the first complete recording in Russian was made in the old Soviet Union in 1948-49 for Melodiya. Its big star, Mark Riezen, was a stupendous Boris, Maxim Milhailov was a pretty good Pimen, and Ivan Kozlovsky was far and away the greatest of all Simpletons, but tenor Georgi Nelepp’s fluttery, dry voice didn’t make Grigori sound as youthful as he should have, and many of the other singers had either abrasive tones or annoying vibratos. Plus it was in dry, boxy mono sound.

In 1952 Leopold Stokowski recorded scenes from the opera in Russian. The great Russo-Italian bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, who I saw perform Boris in the early 1980s (not much voice but a GREAT actor), performed the hat trick of singing all three bass roles, Boris, Pimen and Varlaam, in that set. Then came the first complete recording in the West, the 1952 EMI set with the great Boris Christoff and tenor Nicolai Gedda, conducted by Issay Dobrowen. Not to let some upstart Greek get the better of him, Christoff also insisted on singing all three major bass roles in the set. Christoff sang beautifully, but his range of expression was generally limited, as it was in all of his recordings, too snarling. If you watch the video clip of him performing the Prayer and Death of Boris, he was a phenomenal actor, but little of this transferred over to records. In 1962 Christoff re-recorded the opera in stereo, but except for the Marina of Evelyn Lear (a hot property in those days) and the Shuisky of British tenor Philip Langridge, Christoff spoiled the recording by not only demanding to sing all three bass roles yet again but also by imposing on EMI a bevy of his Bulgarian friends in the cast, most of whom had abrasive voices. Somewhere in between, RCA Victor put out a 2-LP album of highlights from the opera, in the Shostakovich orchestration, starring American bass Giorgio Tozzi as Boris, but it was sung in English and featured the tight, dry voice of Albert da Costa as Grigori. (There was also a pretty poor 1954 recording for Decca-London featuring a bunch of second-rate Bulgarian singers.)

1970 saw the next “glamor” recording of the opera, with a few very good singers (Nicolai Ghiaurov as Boris, Martti Talvela as Pimen and Anton Diakov as Varlaam), but also the by-then worn out voice of Galina Vishnevskaya as Marina and another bunch of abrasive Bulgarian singers such as the nasty-sounding tenor Ludovic Spiess. So you tell ME why anyone would want to own any of these recordings? You might play them once straight through, but then just skip to the scenes and singers you liked, ignoring the rest.

Then in the 1970s, there was finally a push towards the original Mussorgsky version, but as usual the Metropolitan Opera just had to hedge its bets. They tapped short-term music director Rafael Kubelik to prepare his own version of the opera. Kubelik sort of mixed original Mussorgsky in with Rimsye-Korsakov; he insisted on performing both the St. Basil’s Cathedral scene from the original 1869 version of the opera and the Kromy Forest scene from 1872; and he truncated several passages in the rest of the opera. The result was a hodgepodge that could satisfy those with a limited knowledge of the score, like my own young self (I was only 24 at the time and only knew selected scenes I had heard by Chaliapin, George London and Christoff), but not musical connoisseurs. Nevertheless, that 1975 Met production, which I saw in person, was one of the most staggeringly powerful I’ve ever witnessed. Thomas Schippers conducted as if both he and the Met orchestra were on fire—the crescendo at the end of the Coronation Scene reverberated in the theater like an explosion—and the cast was so good that to this day I can see and hear all of them as if it were just last month. Martti Talvela was a magnificent Boris, towering above the rest of the cast (he was, after all, 6 foot 8), and in the death scene he pulled off a stunt I’ve never seen since, standing at the top of a small flight of stairs and, when he died, falling down those stairs as if he’d been hit with an axe. To say that the audience was surprised would be an understatement, although by the time of the Saturday matinee broadcast he stopped doing it. But everyone was superb in both voice and acting: Paul Plishka as Pimen, Harry Theyard as Grigory, Batyah Godfrey as the Innkeeper, Donald Gramm as Varlaam, Paul Franke as Missail, Betsy Norden as Xenia, Robert Nagy as Shuisky, Mignon Dunn as Marina, William Dooley as a conniving, controlling Rangoni, and Andrea Velis as the greatest Simpleton since Kozlovsky. A tape of the broadcast was supposedly issued, briefly, on a pirate CD as Bensar OL 12575, but I’ve never seen it and don’t know how to find a copy. As a substitute, I have CDs of a later broadcast in which Wiesław Ochman, Charles Anthony, Marvis Martin, Morley Meredith and James Atherton replaced Theyard, Franke, Norden, Dooley and Velis; they’re good but just not quite as great. James Conlon, an OK conductor but no Schippers, leads the performance.

In 1976 the first recording of the authentic Mussorgsky orchestration was released. The cast included the great Talvela as Boris, Nicolai Gedda as Grigori, and a bunch of no-name Polish singers in the rest of the cast. The biggest problem was that the performance (which, like the Met production, erroneously included both the St. Basil Cathedral and Kromy Forest scenes) was miserably conducted at a snail’s pace and with no energy by Jerzy Semkow. It was so bad and had so little forward momentum that even Talvela sounded sub-par in it, and Gedda’s voice, wobbly and strained, was shot by then. This hasn’t stopped some German guy from posting the complete recording on YouTube and calling it a “reference recording,” but most people who bought it (including me) junked it shortly thereafter.

Then, in 1978, we FINALLY got a great performance from everyone in the cast—of the Rimsky version. Evgeny Nesterenko was Boris, Vladislav Piavko Grigori, Artur Eisen Varlaam, Andreai Sokolov Shuisky and the great Irina Arkhipova, looking a bit like a battleship in a dress but singing gloriously as she always did, was Marina. Boris Khaikin conducted very well, but it was only issued on video: a VHS tape put out by Kultur and, later, a DVD version by VAI. Still, insofar as the Rimsky Boris goes, this is the one to get.

For whatever reason, it took conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev five years to make the next CD of the original Mussorgsky version. His conducting was, without question, the finest I’ve ever heard of it, and he, too, had a few truly great singers: Vladislav Piavko as Grigori, Eisen again as Varlaam, Sokolov as Shuisky and Arkhipova again as Marina. But at the very heart of the recording, in the title role, he got stuck with an old, worn-out, weak and gray-sounding bass, Alexander Vedernikov. Some critics felt that he “penetrated” the character of Boris. I didn’t. He was far too droopy, soft-sounding and weak to portray the power-hungry Czar.

And the next studio recording of the original version, from 1993, had solid but unexciting conducting from Claudio Abbado, more good singers in the supporting roles (Marjana Lipovšek as Marina, Sergei Leiferkus as Rangoni, Sergei Larin as an OK Grigori and the great Samuel Ramey as Pimen), but again, no frisson, particularly not from some loser bass named Anatoly Kotcherga as Boris. Kotcherga seemed to have a pretty good voice, but every time he sang he sounded as if he was yawning. There was zero drama in his performance, so again, the recording died on the shelves.

So you tell me: with these kinds of choices, why would anyone bother to go out of their way to own most of these recordings?

Then, in 1997, we had the Valery Gergiev double bill of the complete 1869 and 1872 versions of the opera. Both were well-conducted, both had solid supporting casts, but only in the early version did we have a truly fine Boris, Nikolai Putilin. The 1872 version featured a singer who had a sort of comic-bass voice, Vladimir Vaneev. He was better than Vedernikov or Kotcherga, but not good enough to rivet or hold your attention.

Which brings us to this 1990 live performance from the Kirov Theater. Gergiev’s conducting isn’t quite as incisive as it was seven years later, nor as good as Fedoseyev, but it’s good enough to hold the opera together and never drags. The only real drawbacks in the cast are the Shuisky, Evgeny Bobisov, who has the dual infirmities of vocal strain in the high range and a wobble you can drive a Mack truck through, and a Simpleton (Vladimir Solodovnikov) who has a fine voice but doesn’t really bring out the pathos of the character. Alexander Morosov, our Pimen, sounds a little bit too baritonal for the role but sings with great understanding. The rest of the cast is absolutely superb, including a youngish Larissa Diadkova as Feodor.

But at the heart of this performance is Robert Lloyd’s Boris, and it is as fine an interpretation (and singing job) as any I’ve heard since Chaliapin. Lloyd doesn’t just do a good job; he fully inhabits the semi-psychotic Czar perfectly. One tiny moment that will give you an idea of how good he was: in the middle of Act 2, he suddenly bursts out, “Ah, Shuisky!” through clenched teeth. It’s a telling moment, and one not brought out that well by any of the previous Borises on record. His “Clock Scene” comes close to the kind of psychosis that Chaliapin exhibited, and his “Prayer and Death of Boris” is as fine as anyone’s, even Talvela’s or Nesterenko’s. And no matter how you look at it, the lack of a really commanding Boris completely undermines the rest of the opera.

Surprisingly, the negative comments by some viewers on the YouTube video are so far off the mark as to be laughable. One calls Lloyd “the nose singer.” No, I would give that title to Vedernikov. But another viewer claims that Vedernikov’s singing is superior to Lloyd’s. Russian diction, yes; singing, hell no. Interpretation, no comparison. Vedernikov is weak; Lloyd exudes strength. True, in a large barn like the Metropolitan Lloyd’s basso cantate couldn’t compete with such cannon-sized voices as those of Riezen, Christoff, Ghiaurov, Talvala or Nesterenko, but as I mentioned earlier Nicola Rossi-Lemeni with his dry and very small voice was, in person, an even more intense and interesting Boris than Talvela, great though he was. And Gergiev must have agreed with me, because when he asked to use the Covent Garden production (which was staged by someone he greatly admired, Andrei Tarkovsky, famous for science fiction movies), he also insisted on using Lloyd as Boris, even over his current Kirov Opera stock of basses.

The visual production is good but a little bizarre at times; these were the early years of Regietheater, so although we do indeed get sets and costumes that at least look like Boris’s time period we also have some strange in-the-background images. But it works better than any modern production I’ve ever seen, though not as well as that 1978 Bolshoi performance.

I can hardly recommend this performance strongly enough. It is THE version of the original Mussorgsky to own, and the best alternative to the 1978 Rimsky performance. It is a version, in fact, for the ages.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Clare Fischer’s Fascinating “Latin” Bands

Intenso cover2

¡INTENSO! / GILLESPIE: Algo Bueno. ELLINGTON: Rockin’ in Rhythm. C. FISCHER: Gaviota.4 Solar Patrol.1,3 The Butterfly Samba.1,2,4,5 Renacimento.1,2 O Canto. Play Time.6 SALCEDO: La Mucura. FARRÉS: Trés Palabras / Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band: Dr. Clare Fischer, kbds/arr; Brent Fischer, cond/marimba/vib/el-bs/”gtr”-sounding parts/auxiliary kbds; Carl Saunders, Ron Stout, Rob Schaer, James Blackwell, Brian Mantz, Michael Silver, Anthony Bonsera, tpt; Scott Whitfield, Francisco Torres, Philip Menchada, Jacques Voyemant, tb; Steve Hughes, bs-tb; Alex Budman, Kirsten Edkins, sop-sax/a-sax/fl/cl/pic; Don Shelton, sop-sax/fl; Brian Clancy, Sean Franz, t-sax/fl/a-fl/cl/bs-cl/rec; Rob Hardt, t-sax/fl/a-fl/cl; Lee Callet, bar-sax/fl/a-fl/cl/rec; Bob Carr, bs-sax/fl/pic/Eb bass-cl; 1Quinn Johnson, kbds; 2Ken Wild, el-bs; Luis Conte, Kevi Ricard, perc; 2Ron Manalog, 6Walfredo Reyes, 3Tris Imboden, dm; 3Sheila E., timbales; 4Roberta Gambarini, 5Scott Whitfield, voc / Clare Fischer label (no number), available as high-def download at

Ritmo cover2

¡RITMO! / C. FISCHER: San Francisco P.M.1,3 Funquiado. Canonic Passacaglia, Blues and Vamp ‘Til Ready.4, 5, 6 Machaca. Guarabe. The Quiet Side.4 Pavillon. Vamp ‘Til Ready (Remix).4, 5, 6, 7 B. FISCHER: Rainforest3 / Rob Schaer, Pete de Siena, Ron Stout, Carl Saunders, Steve Hufstetter, 2Jon Lewis, 1James Blackwell, 1Brian Mantz, 1Josh Aguiar, 4Michael Stever, tpt; Charlie Loper, Andy Martin, Scott Whitfield, Jacques Voyemant, 1Francisco Torres, 1Mariel Austin, 4Charlie Morillas, tb; Steve Hughes, bs-tb/tuba; Bill Reichenbach, bs-tb; 4Jim Self, tuba; Don Shelton, Rob Hardt, sop-sax/a-sax/cl/flute/a-fl; Alex Budman, a-sax/cl/fl; Jeff Driskill, t-sax/cl/fl/a-fl; Sean Franz, t-sax/bs-cl/fl; Glenn Morrisette, t-sax; Lee Callet, bar-sax/cl/fl/a-fl; Bob Carr, bs-sax/bs-cl/fl; 1John Mitchell, bs-sax; Clare Fischer, 3Quinn Johnson, 5Alan Steinberger, kbds; 1Steve Khan, 7Matt Brownlie, el-gtr; Brent Fischer, el-bs/vib/marimba/aux kbd/rainstick; 3Alex Acuña, 6Peter Erskine, dm/perc; 1Poncho Sanchez, congas / Clare Fischer label (no number), available as high-def download at

The late Clare Fischer was undoubtedly one of jazz’s most interesting figures from the mid-1950s through the late 1980s (the bulk of his active career). Initially a jazz pianist, he wanted to get into arranging because he kept “hearing” music in his mind in fascinating chord mixtures that hadn’t occurred to others. He did so when he heard the jazz-pop vocal group, The Hi-Lo’s, and was intrigued by their unusual chordal blends. He approached them with the idea of writing arrangements for them, they agreed, and he was off to the races. In the early 1960s he visited South America and came back with some of the Latin musical sounds in his head and decided to use them in his jazz pieces and arrangements. He then moved into fascinating jazz-classical pieces for orchestra, one of which was written for Stan Kenton’s Neophonic Orchestra, and became known for that type of music. Later he created his own pop-jazz vocal groups, with which he recorded both complex arrangements and advertising jingles, and eventually he moved into classical works using improvisation. He also wrote a number of pop arrangements in the 1980s for such well-known artists as Chaka Khan, Robert Palmer, Paul McCartney, Prince and Michael Jackson.

In his later years, now with a doctorate and teaching music, he used much of the proceeds from his lucrative career to do what so many others were denied the chance: recording as much of his music that hadn’t been recorded before he died. Though now much older and suffering from heart disease, he arranged recording sessions when he could and leaned more and more on his talented son Brent to help him out in this venture. He also made Brent promise to release as much of these late recordings as he could when he died, a task which Brent has taken very seriously and kept up over the years despite his own busy schedule.

Thus, although I’ve never been much of a fan of Latin music except when it’s played by the old Dizzy Gillespie band. Machito (who was also strongly jazz-oriented) or Perez Prado, I am much taken by Clare Fischer’s music because these original pieces and arrangements retain a strong jazz flavor as well as incredibly innovative voicings. From the very opener of the ¡Intenso! CD, Dizzy Gillespie’s Algo Bueno, we know we’re in for a wild ride. Fischer takes the old DG classic and turns it on its head, using a salsa beat with the rhythm of the original tune redistributed and the underlying chord sequence completely rewritten. And please note, all of you young Jazz Giant Arranging hotshots, how completely original the voicings are, not to mention Fischer’s own high-wire electric piano solo that fits so beautifully into the arrangement.

But we’re just starting! In Gaviota, a tune very close to Latin pop in style, Fischer is still using innovative chording, here behind the very fine vocal of Roberta Gambarini, who scats her way through the second chorus with stunning musical brilliance—sort of a cross between Ella Fitzgerald and Alice Babs. Fischer’s solo on this one is more low-key, but tasteful and harmonically adventurous. In the last chorus, Gambarini returns, her vocal backed by high winds and a wonderfully inventive but understated bass line. She again scats her way to the finish line.

When I heard Duke Ellington in person, in 1973, his band played his famous Rockin’ in Rhythm with its usual uptempo brilliance. Here, Fischer slows the melody line down, again redistributing the beats in an innovative fashion, playing it against the rhythm section which almost makes it sound like a countermelody against a Latin-like bass line. This one is mostly ensemble, orchestrated by Brent Fischer and Matt Wong from Fischer’s score after his death, and features a nice tenor sax solo (unidentified in the booklet).

Solar Patrol, another Fischer original, features Sheila E on timbales. This was written by Fischer in 1983 and recorded by the odd combination of organ, two electric guitars and two electric basses with drums and percussion; this full band arrangement is also by Wong and Brent Fischer. There’s a hot soprano sax solo by Alex Budman as well as Sheila’s timbales playing. The Butterfly Samba again features Gambarini as vocalist. This is a new arrangement (by Brent) of Fischer’s old score from the early 1960s, with lyrics by Darlene Koldenhoven, and Gambarini really flies above the ensemble, with Scott Whitfield joining her in a scat chorus. It reminded me a little of the wondrous bop vocalizations that the legendary duo of Roy Kral and Jackie Cain did with Charlie Ventura’s old “Bop for the People” band did. There are also tasty if brief solos by Ron Stout, Kirsten Edkins, Rob Hardt, Ron Manalog, Alex Budman, Carl Saunders, Jacques Voyemant, Brian Mantz and Quinn Johnson. What a great chart!

Renacimento, the Latin word for Renaissance, indeed opens up with a Renaissance-sounding line played by the winds (including a recorder, played by Lee Callet). This is clearly one of Fischer’s finest fusions of Latin and jazz with a bit of classical, featuring punching brass and quasi-Stravinskian harmonies. Also recorded after Clare’s death, Brent combined his arrangement for the 1982 album And Sometime Voices with a version he wrote for nine saxes. The ensemble chorus in the middle, highly innovative, is clearly the star of the show, although Carl Saunders’ trumpet solo is stupendous.

In O Canto, Brent collaborated with composer-arranger Keith Horn on this chart, which also combines two of his father’s arrangements into one. Brent Fischer knocked himself out on this one, playing not only marimba but both the guitar and bass guitar parts, all of it set to a Batucada beat with the energetic drumming of Luis Conte. Saunders again plays a brilliant trumpet solo and Clare Fischer himself scats along with his own electric piano solo! La Mucura, a well-known Latin tune, is completely rewritten here by Clare, who first recorded it for his Crazy Bird album in the early 1980s but rewrote it here for big band. Says Brent in the liner notes, “You have to see his handwritten chart to soak it all in.” Once again, his redistribution of beats and imaginative harmonic daring completely change the line and texture of the music. Clare adds a tasteful eight-bar break on electric piano, followed by wonderful solos on soprano sax and trumpet (Saunders again?).

In Trés Palabras Fischer again displays his outstanding penchant for voicing. The Fischer-Wong orchestration uses a softer palette, with the flutes and high saxes playing mezzo piano in the opening chorus. There’s a quasi-Bach feeling to the polyphony along with an (unidentified) excellent flute solo. Since the notes don’t indicate a substitute keyboardist for this track, I’d assume that Clare Fischer plays the laid-back but tasteful solo here. This CD closes out with Play Time, another Fischer original and the last song he ever recorded. This was also its premiere recording, featuring a tasteful trombone solo by Francisco Torres and Clare playing along with the reeds. The arrangement by Brent Fischer is bright and full of joie-de-vivre, using a fade-out ending.

In the booklet for ¡Ritmo!, which actually preceded ¡Intenso!, Clare Fischer penned a brief introduction to the album, thanking his son Brent for originating the concept of this Latin big band for him to romp in.The personnel here is a bit different, too, including several musicians (Steve Hufstetter, Charlie Loper, Bill Reichenbach) who had played in Toshiko Akiyoshi’s great West Coast big band of the 1970s-early ’80s, before she and hubby Lew Tabackin moved East.

It opens with San Francisco P.M., a jolly tune apparently celebrating this “city by the bay” before it became an illegal Latino hellhole. Steve Khan guests here on electric guitar, playing a nice solo, followed by Rob Hardt on flute, Quinn Johnson on electric piano and another guest artist, Poncho Sanchez, on congas. A nice alternating brass riff is heard in the rideout chorus. Funquiado is based on a cute funky riff invented by Clare, who then also invented this title to describe it. It’s played by the brass section, which has a lot more input here on these charts than they did in ¡Ritmo!. There’s also an excellent trumpet solo here, possibly played by the indomitable Carl Saunders. There’s also some really nifty backbeat drumming by Alex Acuña, after which the mood quiets down while Clare plays a sparse electric piano chorus.

The strangely-titled Canonic Passacaglia, Blues and Vamp ‘Til Ready was commissioned by Dr. H. Owen Reed, Clare’s former professor at Michigan State University. Brent describes it as “a quadruple Latin rock canon, which occurs near the beginning of the piece and continues in triple canon into the main body of the work.” The opening is relaxed and beautifully scored, with Alan Steinberger guesting on keyboard while the band comes in behind him in canon (as advertised). This is clearly one of Clare’s most innovative pieces. Glenn Morrisette plays tenor sax on this one and the indomitable Saunders later follows on trumpet, contributing to the whole with improvisations that fit into the complex framework. The ensemble passages are all innovative and act as development sections in this wonderful piece. The tempo slows down at the six-minute mark for Morrisette’s second solo, played above suspended chords (evidently the “blues” section), after which the band plays in a somewhat funky groove for a while, with Saunders’ solo limning the ensemble. Had I known of this piece earlier, it would surely have gone into my master thesis, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond. It’s that good.

Machaca was the title track of the second Clare Fischer and Salsa Picante album, rewritten here by Clare for full orchestra. Brent admits in the notes that “This project was done in bits and pieces over the years so I’m not sure who the soloists are except the flute is definitely Don Shelton.” It’s a little too close to fusion-rock for my taste, but good in its own style.

This is followed by Brent Fischer’s Rainforest, a chipper samba-like piece originally written for the Zapp String Quartet under the title Undiscovered Rainforest. There are nice moving counterfigures in this, along with an excellent trombone solo by Andy Martin, a good tenor chorus by Rob Hardt and nice solos by Brent Fischer on electric bass and his father Clare on electric piano. It’s a heck of a piece! Guarabe is a Clare Fischer piece recycled from an earlier album with Cal Tjader, this arrangement commissioned by the California State University big band at a time when musicians like Gordon Goodwin, Randy Kerber and John Yoakum were in it. As with several of the pieces in ¡Intenso!, the rhythmic underpinning is quite complex, certainly beyond the skills of many bands untrained in jazz. The tempo drops to a nice middle-tempo groove for the second half.

By contrast, The Quiet Side is exactly that, a quieter piece that Brent found among his father’s effects when he died. The lush blending of reeds and brass in the opening chorus harks back to some of the innovative arranging style of Kenton’s Neophonic Orchestra, although Fischer’s voicing is unique. Pavillon has some nice Clare Fischer-type voicing by the high reeds but is a bit too much like rock music for my taste. The album ends with a different arrangement of the final section of Vamp ‘Til Ready, much more rock-funk than the original.

For the most part, then, these are excellent pieces by Clare Fischer plus one real gem (Rainforest) by Brent, superbly played with gusto and good taste.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Diethelm’s Fascinating Symphonic Works

Diethelm cover

DIETHELM: Saturnalia. Symphony No. 5, “Mandala.” Symphonischer Prolog. Symphonies Nos. 1, 3 & 4, “Homage to Joseph Haydn” / Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Rainer Held, cond / Guild GM3CD7808

The music of Swiss composer Caspar Diethelm (1926-1997) has a certain vogue in Europe, it seems, but is scarcely known in much of the world. To judge from this excellent 3-CD set, all of which are first recordings, this is surely a shame, for Diethelm’s music clearly occupied a unique position in the world of tonal classical music. Influenced in large part by Oriental and Middle Eastern music as well as astrology (he wrote a 14-part solo flute suite dedicated to the different signs of the zodiac) and mysticism, Diethelm carved his own niche in the musical world yet was largely bypassed by the selection of standard orchestral repertoire.

I was at a disadvantage in reviewing this set because I only had the front cover and album contents to go by. The booklet, which included liner notes by the composer’s daughter, Esther Diethelm, was unavailable to me, despite my emailing Guild Records and requesting a copy. I needed no guide to appreciate the fine qualities of the music, however, although I did have to go to Wikipedia to find out some information about him. Diethelm was born in Lucerne, studied at the Conservatory and School of Church Music there, later taking master classes in composition from Paul Hindemith and Arthur Honegger which had a strong influence on him. Later, he took summer courses with Karheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono. To quote from Wikipedia:

Diethelm’s sonic palette is highly distinctive… and generally pursues a broad melodic linearity. Harmonically, he uses free tonality; his rhythms are sometimes elementary, characterised by a strong impulse towards the dance and a preference for large, uneven cycles. He placed great importance on the use of predictable, completable forms, such as the sonata form with its basis in duality, the Lied, the rondo, arched and embedded structures; however, within these he always sought individual and variable solutions.

The seven-part orchestral suite Saturnalia opens up this program: attractive, accessible and yet intellectually interesting, it is music that makes its statements and does not overstay its welcome. Even more so than his flute suite Zodiak, Saturnalia is heavily influenced by Eastern music, so much so that the second movement, “Allegro vivace,” almost has the feel of belly-dance music about it, built around a quirky minor mode. Winds and high strings predominate the orchestration of this suite; brasses, low strings and percussion come and go but only to provide occasional “oomph” to the sound. The “slow drag” feel to the third movement (“Lento”) is fascinating, revealing a sure grasp of this style which in many cases has eluded most Western composers. In addition to his Eastern feeling, Diethelm was a traditionalist in terms of classical form and structure. His music develops well and interestingly, often using sound texture to make its points, in this movement using fluttering clarinets over a solo muted trombone among other such touches.

The “Allegro quasi scherzo” is amusing, using upward trombone swoops and bucolic oboe and bassoon interjections to make its points. A brief, syncopated passage for open trumpets is highly effective, as are the modal, repeated eighth-notes for strings behind it all. Brief solos and concertante passages for the winds come and go. The following “Allegro con spirito” is a continual whirlwind of activity for the orchestra in full and part, with an attractive, slower alternating theme for flutes and piccolos. The sixth movement, “Largo con espressione,” opens with an almost ominous-sounding gong, leading to low basses and trombones playing a mysterious theme, with French horns thrown in for color. It ends with muted tympani thuds. The last movement, “Allegro molto vivace,” is a sort of bacchanal for orchestra, with all the stops pulled out.

The Fifth Symphony which opens the second CD, titled “Mandala,” inhabits a similar sound-world but has a more muscular first movement. The strings and lower, darker winds substitute for the high wind sounds in Saturnalia. The music also progresses in a lumpier, less smooth fashion, surprising the listener with its sudden lurches both forwards and sideways. There’s a startling, full-blooded outburst in the middle by trumpets and tympani. The second movement, “Vivace,” opens with a tympani whack and a solo oboe before moving into a fast but quirky rhythmic theme that, again, moves around quite a bit. The tempo also fluctuates, moving away from the stated Vivace to slower and, at times, more rhythmically irregular passages. Little motifs and unexpected outbursts come and go, yet somehow it all makes sense in the listener’s mind. It’s almost a “Vivace – Larghetto – Vivace – Adagio – Vivace” sort of movement, coming to a dead stop at the 7:13 mark before continuing. By contrast, the movement marked “Larghetto” is more serious, moving at a stately pace and remaining fairly constant in its tempos and evolving themes, though the tempo temporarily increases at the 4:40 mark, the first of several louder outbursts (the loudest coming at around 8:15). Surprisingly, the last movement is in a quite different style, almost sounding like a German or British symphony. Despite the unusual use of winds, the forward momentum is insistent and powerful, rather like a pile driver in full force. Muscular brass and lower strings power the momentum, and the rhythm is more regular in both meter and tempo. The only real moment of relaxation comes at 12:11, two and a half minutes before the symphony’s conclusion (which is also slower and quieter). You could almost get whiplash listening to this music!

The Symphonischer Prolog is a fairly objective piece, opening with high winds swirling around and moving into a different world. The opening theme is bitonal and the secondary theme less settled in tonality than usual for Diethelm. Odd little solos by horn, flute and oboe intrude themselves on the primarily ensemble statements. There’s a whimsical concertante passage that almost sounds like a chamber group, slowing the tempo down and affecting the mood until 4:15, when the power suddenly ramps up again.

The third CD is comprised of three symphonies, the first, third and fourth. The earliest symphony is his Op. 35, considerably earlier than Saturnalia or the Fifth Symphony, with opus numbers between 180 and 200. This, like the last movement of the Fifth, inhabits a more neoclassic, less neo-romantic sound world, influenced to some degree by the musical trends of the late 1940s-early ‘50s. There is still power and emotion in the music, however; it is by no means solely objective in the manner of Stravinsky. It is, however, a bit more elusive for the untrained musical mind, its themes consisting of what seem like fragments. Diethelm keeps a firm grasp on what he is doing, but its more objective quality is simply less appealing to the neophyte. Your local classical radio station would never play this. The “Adagio” is a perfect case in point: the music is not unattractive but it’s not “lovely” or “pretty,” either. Oddly, the “Vivace” is not all that vivacious, being more of an Allegretto, but the music is again punchy, with tympani and brass having fun propelling it forward. In the last movement, “Allegro con slancio,” Diethelm drives the point home with a steady pace and more elusive themes bouncing around.

The Third Symphony seems to inhabit a sound-world halfway between his earlier and later styles. The tonality is less edgy and the themes more fleshed out, but it’s not as echt-Romantic as he later became in his mystical-Oriental period. The second movement, too, occupies a midpoint style, sounding curiously Stravinskian in its melodic contour and coolness of feeling. The third movement, “Allegro con spirito,” sounds a little more like the later Diethelm, more playful and attractive, less objective, while the fourth, “Presto ilare,” bounces along in a style that somewhat bridges the gap between both styles.

The fourth symphony is a bit unusual in that it was intended as a “Homage to Joseph Haydn.” Diethelm modernizes the Haydn approach in terms of the harmonic base but is true to the classic style in form. It is, however, less classical overall than Prokofiev’s First Symphony, thus it, too, might put off the average listener while delighting more experienced ears. By and large, I liked Rainer Held’s conducting very much, yet even though I was unfamiliar with these works I sometimes felt he was a bit too relaxed in the fast movements, particularly the finales of the First and Third Symphonies. In the first movement of the Fourth, however, I felt he was just about right, finding a pace that still defined “Allegro assai” while imparting elasticity and charm. The second movement, “Molto allegro e con fuoco,” was yet another one of those I instinctively felt was a bit too slow, but it certainly has variety in it, and some quite fiery moments too, with slashing brass and a great deal of percussion punctuation. By the time you reach the third movement (“Lento”) you begin to feel that this symphony is, like its predecessor, more a tribute to Stravinsky than to Haydn, although the music is quite good. In the finale, “Allegro energico,” Diethelm again pursues a Stravinskian aesthetic, this time using a strong beat and fairly rapid tempi to make his point.

This is an excellent introduction to a very fine and underrated composer, one who I think you will find bears repeated listening.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Scopel Continues Exploring Prado’s Celestial Charts


PRADO: Cartas Celestas Nos. 9, 10, 12 & 14 / Aleyson Scopel, pn / Aleyson Scopel, pn / Grand Piano GP746

When I reviewed Aleyson Scopel’s first two albums of Almeida Prado’s Cartas Celestas or Celestial Charts nearly a year ago, I mentioned that they were

his pianistic view of our galaxy, ranging from meteors, globular clusters, and constellations to the six closest planets, and in them he uses the piano like no one else I have ever heard—not even Alkan or Sorabji, two of the titans of the instrument. Rather, Prado sweeps across the instrument like a swarm of stars, literally consuming everything in its path. He doesn’t so much use tone clusters as much as he does mushroom clouds of sound. The pianist is called upon to explore and exploit virtually the whole of the instrument as if he or she were building a new musical device from the ground up. I often got the impression, listening to this extraordinary music, that Prado was channeling some of the “music of the spheres,” the electronic signals recorded by Explorer space capsules in the form of electromagnetic sounds. He didn’t so much write piano pieces as he did nebulae, capturing in sound waves a spectrum that encompasses nearly every known combination of tones known to man.

And now we have Vol. 3, with the fourth and last volume on the horizon. The music hasn’t really changed, or perhaps I should clarify that by saying that these new recordings follow similar but not identical patterns found on the earlier issues. Sometimes I wondered if Prado was inspired internally, in his mind, by the mere thought of certain star groups or clusters, or externally, by viewing the sky night after night, pulling ideas from what he saw and how he processed it.

Of course this isn’t music for everyone. Many listeners will, I’m sure, think it is not really music at all, but snippets of musical ideas that stop, fall apart or explode. But I assure you that this is not the kind of music that lacks form or “goes nowhere.” On the contrary, it has form and substance, but by evolving in stages that seem isolated and unconnected within each piece Prado pulls the rug out from under our expectations. Some of the music in these pieces is very tightly structured while other portions of it go off on tangents, as one’s mind would do if riding through the cosmos and seeing the stars at a much closer range.

Oddly, two of the four pieces given here have subtitles. No. 10 is titled “The Constellations of the Mystical Animals” and No. 12, “The Sky of Nicholas Roerich.” According to Scopel’s liner notes, the former was not initially planned that way but evolved as “poetically related to passages from the history of Jesus Christ. Tycho’s Supernova is a representation of the Star of Bethlehem, or Christmas Star, alluding to his birth. The Columba (Dove) Constellation suggests his baptism, while Pegasus, his preaching as the winged horse. Globular Cluster NGC=47 and Gegenschein, a celestial and muted vocalise, refer to Maundy Thursday. The Wolf Toccata brings out a


Roerich, “Saint Sophia the Almighty Wisdom,” 1932

torturous ferocity that paints the Passion and Death of Christ, and the final Phoenix Constellation, his resurrection.” The latter draws on two paintings by the famous Russian artist-philosopher, “Saint Sophia the Almighty Wisdom,” its “fiery orange sky represented by Prado as the resplendent Nebula NGC 7000” and “The Star of the Hero” which shows “a Tibetan watching a shooting star light across the sky, a cosmic phenomenon associated with the Shambhala.” The latter is portrayed as “the Constellation of Cassiopeia and three open stellar clusters, closing the work with a silent, peaceful and transtonal E major chord.”


Roerich, The Star of the Hero,” 1936

But all four tone poems have multiple movements, many with names and/or performing instructions. In No. 9 the four sections are attributed to the Brazilian sky as seen in spring, summer, autumn and winter, while in No. 14 they are named after star clusters (Open cluster IC2391, Constellation Auriga, Open cluster NGC2925 and Constellation Carina), although to someone else viewing these same phenomena the impression might be entirely different.

Nonetheless, the music is complex and moving, although one should be warned to take in just one at a time. Overexposure to music of this complexity can produce sensory overload!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Smoczyński’s “Metamorphoses” a Fascinating Album


METAMORPHOSES / M. SMOSZYŃSKI: Dorothy’s Dream. Violin Sonata No. 1, “Metamorphoses.” Manhattan Island. Up-Down. The Farmer. Zakopane. Dragonfly. Midnight Psalm. J. SMOCZYŃSKI: The Old Tune. SUMMER: Julie-O / Mateusz Smoczyński, vln/bar-vln / Zbigniew Siebert Foundation CD-FZS-4

My thanks to Turtle Island Quartet founder David Balakrishnan for telling me about this CD, released this past fall. Mateusz Smoczyński was second violinist of his quartet from 2012-2016, years I missed due to my financial situation and being unable to procure TIQ albums the way I used to. One online description of this album says this:

This is the fourth album by Polish violinist / composer Mateusz Smoczyński and his debut solo violin recording. The album, recorded at the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music, presents thirteen compositions, four of which are parts of a violin sonata No.1, which gave the album its title. Smoczyński is the composer of eleven of these compositions, one composition is by his older brother Jan Smoczynski and one is by Mark Summer, the cellist and co-founder of the legendary Turtle Island Quartet. The closing piece of the album, called “Midnight Psalm,” was inspired by the Zbigniew Seifert composition “Evening Psalm.”

The idea to have Zbigniew Seifert Foundation record and release Mateusz Smoczyński’s solo CD was quite obvious, as he won the 2nd Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition in 2016, and the foundation does not limit itself just to awarding the prize but cooperates closely with the competition winners, organising their concerts and supporting them in recording activity.

Despite the strong classical bias of the album—all the pieces here are composed, albeit with room left in for improvised passages—it has received a surprising amount of attention from the American and European jazz press. All of it is positive, but as is usually the case, most jazz critics have no concept of classical form or structure and therefore can’t adequately describe what is going on in this music. Dorothy’s Dream, for instance, is a modal piece in C in which Smoczyński plays chorded notes on the first and third beats of each bar in the opening exposition before moving into gentle rocking figures, playing a single-note accompaniment to himself on a lower string. In the following chorus, Smoczyński accompanies himself in an opposing melody on the baritone violin (dubbed in). This gives the music a second “voice” and it is in this part that he indulges in improvisation. At the end, the top violin falls away and the baritone plays the last few notes.

His Violin Sonata, “Metamohproses,” opens with a mysterious figure played in G, with out-of-chord embellishments and commentary as it goes along. There are pauses between the different sections of the piece, in which Smoczyński changes the key and with it, the color of the music. This first movement, however, never seems to fully develop; it is, rather, almost a sort of warm-up or prelude to the music yet to come. The second movement, titled “Lament,” is really not all that much like a lament; rather, it consists of falling figures that move sometimes chromatically and sometimes stepwise, followed in turn by rising figures that move through several keys. The tempo then doubles, with Smoczyński showing off some nice bow technique in chording. The rising and falling chromatic figures now become more agitated, followed by what is probably an improvised chorus built around the preceding material (and swinging with a bit of a jazz beat) before the tempo doubles yet again in the finale.

We then reach the third movement, “Mantra.” This begins with odd and oddly-spaced chords, searching for a home key but not quite deciding on one. As the movement progresses, Smoczyński shortens the time frame of each chord and omits the spaces between them, eventually adding a bit of the downbow “chop” developed by Balakrishnan. Eventually the music becomes quite agitated—a mantra, indeed! In the last movement, “Confession,” Smoczyński rips through a series of eighth note phrases almost nonstop, creating a swirling cyclone of sound.

From this point on, most of the material is more jazz-oriented although still with a sense of structure. The sequence begins with Mark Summers’ Julie-O, reduced from its string quartet version to be played on a single instrument. Like many of the pieces that follow, Julie-O has not only a jazz feel but also a sort of country bluegrass feel about it. Smoczyński plays some nice pizzicato here on the baritone violin, using strummed chords on that instrument to accompany his solo on the regular violin. He adds a nice touch by slightly displacing the beats in the accompaniment, rearranging them ever-so-slightly to suggest movement.

Manhattan Island, a piece that he wrote and recorded with his own Atom String Quartet, is given the solo treatment here. Although not quite as flashy as his own solo in the quartet version, Smoczyński nonetheless is fully engaged in the music’s urban bluegrass/jazz swagger, again using a second instrument to accompany himself, providing his own “chops” along with some frenetic bowed figures to push the rhythm along. Harmonically the piece is relatively static, sticking to just two chords, but he cleverly manages to increase the tempo ever-so-slightly as he goes along which sucks the listener into his maelstrom of sound.

The Old Tune, written by his brother Jan, starts out with odd single notes, spaced in such a way that they don’t quite make up a melody. There are also pauses between the first few choruses. Then Smoczyński begins to embellish the music slightly, slowly but surely “filling out” the sketchy score to create a real tune, eventually moving into double-time arpeggiated chords played as accompaniment to the melody, now fully formed. Up-Down is another bluegrass-oriented piece, rather uptempo, here using a stepwise melodic line that quickly evolves into a splendid improvisation. Smoczyński really gets going in this one, even to the extent of throwing in some quick double-time figures just for fun.

The Farmer is another bluegrass-type piece, this one quite uptempo and played with almost continual accompaniment from the baritone violin. The brief and somewhat simple theme is briefly heard, then it’s off to the races with improvisation. Smoczyński is quite virtuosic on this one. By contrast, the opening of Zakopane is played on the edge of the strings, creating a weird, almost ghostly sound before Smoczyński moves into a somewhat dolorous sort of melody that resembles Give Peace a Chance. Eventually he starts playing the development section on open strings, accompanying himself with pizzicato (whether on the same instrument or another, I don’t know). By contrast, Dragonfly is a perpetuum mobile played primarily on the baritone violin, although (it sounds to me) with “chops” provided by the regular violin. It’s a dizzying yet repetitive tune, really just a lick or two, over which Smoczyński adds all sorts of unusual sounds, including high string playing, again on the edge, to simulate the buzz of a dragonfly.

We end with Midnight Psalm, which opens in a more classical manner with a fully-formed introduction, alluding to a melody yet to come before actually heading in that direction. When it comes, however, the rhythm has changed—again to a quasi-bluegrass—and the tempo has increased. The fun of the piece comes in the “breaks” between the simple chorded theme where Smoczyński adds a dazzling array of violinistic tricks.

Taken altogether, an entertaining yet enlightening disc!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Fedoseyev Rips Through “Ivan the Terrible”

Ivan cover

PROKOFIEV: Ivan the Terrible / Irina Christjakova, alto; Dmitry Stephanovich, bass; The Yurlov State Capella; Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra; Vladimir Fedoseyev, cond / Nimbus NI5662

Unlike Prokofiev’s score for Alexander Nevsky, which was tidied up by the composer in a wonderful orchestral suite (with contralto solos), his score for Ivan the Terrible, longer, more complex and in many cases resistant to condensation in a suite, remained on the print of the film. Although Sergei Eisenstein was able to release Part 1 during the 1940s, Part 2 was held up by the Soviet censors because they felt that his portrayal of Ivan’s descent into madness would be seen by the public as a parallel to Stalin (who, ironically, admired Ivan). When Eisenstein replied, in so many words, that he didn’t really care about Stalin, that his purpose was to portray a psychological picture of a man descending into insanity, he got in more trouble for saying he didn’t care about Stalin. The upshot of all this was that the full film wasn’t released until 1958, by which time Prokofiev, Eisenstein and Stalin were all dead.

Thus what we generally hear under the title Ivan the Terrible was arranged in 1962 by Abram Stasevich, condensing the score into about an hour’s worth of music, some of it truncated, sometimes with a narrator and sometimes without. This recording, made in 2000, was the first to draw on the new edition of the score from 1997 collating all that survived by Prokofiev. In addition, Fedoseyev included about 18 minutes’ worth of music from the Russian Orthodox Liturgy that was actually sung in the film but not written by Prokofiev. I think this is not only appropriate but necessary, since Prokofiev knew they were being inserted and adjusted his own music before and after those passages to complement them. To my knowledge, the only other recording to use all this music is the Chandos version conducted by Valeri Polyanski, issued three years later.

But this is the performance to get. Fedoseyev digs into the music with muscle and grit, his chorus sounds as if their lives depended on giving their all (including those wonderful Russian basses that sound like didgeridoos), the end result being a performance that leaps out of your speakers and grabs you by the throat.

I’ve listened to this performance three times now, and each time I hear it it makes an impact. Unlike any other well-known composer who wrote film music, Prokofiev took his work very seriously. He wasn’t interested in just creating a “mood” behind the visual scenes projected onto the screen, but rather of reacting to those scenes by writing real art music that was not just moving but also creative and powerful. In a certain sense, all his film scores have a closer kinship to such operas as Boris Godunov or even (in a different style) Wozzeck.

Which is not to say that the music is as continuous as either Boris or Wozzeck, although within each scene Prokofiev worked hard to produce musical continuity. Yet the different character of each scene meant a slightly different style of writing. Most of the Wedding Scene, up until the section titled “The Wedding Riot,” is lighter in character than the scenes depicting Ivan, the Opritchniks and the battles, and the scene concerning Ivan’s illness and the death of Anastasia are also considerably different, the latter being the most tender and touching in the entire score. There are, in fact, several musical resemblances between parts of this music and his ballet Romeo and Juliet (i.e., “At the Polish Court” and “Orderly Dance”). One of the most impressive moments in the score is when Prokofiev combines the savage-sounding “Oath of the Opritchniks” with the famous Russian hymn “God Save the Czar,” the same tune Tchaikovsky used for the opening of his 1812 Overture, and then combines it with the blazing brass finale. A stroke of genius.

And Fedoseyev approaches each part of the score with a fresh mind and an evident desire to impress the listener with the alternate beauty and savageness of it. Absolutely none of this performance coasts on autopilot; it all comes from the heart and the gut. The Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, apparently the modern-day version of the old USSR Radio and TV Orchestra led by Gennady Rozhdestvensky in the 1960s and ‘70s, has that wonderfully edgy sound to it that only Russian orchestras can produce: a bright, razor-sharp upper range and a hefty, muscular low range that pushes the music forward with the force of a steamroller. And holy crap, the chorus is absolutely wonderful. Take that, you historically-informed nutcases with your MIDI-like choirs!

As for the two soloists, they are for the most part quite good. Basso Dmitry Stephanovich has a rich and surprisingly smooth voice, almost a bass-baritone, singing his Coronation Scene solo with a luxuriant tone and the “Song of the Opritchniks” with an appropriately rougher, peasant-like timbre. Contralto Irina Christjakova’s voice is so deep and rich that when she starts out in “The Azure Main,” you almost think it’s a tenor singing. Her one drawback is her Slavic vibrato. It’s not too bad in “The Azure Main,” but in her later “Song about the Beaver,” it becomes looser, rougher and more annoying. For this portion of the score only, I inserted the great Irina Arkhipova singing from the Riccardo Muti recording.

The music depicting battles and the Opritchniks is almost as raw as in the Scythian Suite, which may scare the poop out of non-Slavic listeners, but if you’re game for a profoundly moving and exciting experience, this is a recording you need to get.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring Pierre-Octave Ferroud’s Orchestral Works


FERROUD: Symphony in A. Types, for Piano (orchestral version).* Foules, Tone Poem for Orchestra. Serenade for Orchestra / *Elisabeth Laroche, pn; Lyon National Orchestra; Emmanuel Krivine, cond / Naïve V4909

This is a perfect example of how a great composer can fall through the cracks of time and somehow never come back up for air, even when his music is recorded digitally and issued on silver disc. This 1998 CD from Naïve attracted some attention at the time, most surprisingly from John Steane, normally an opera-only reviewer for Gramophone, but then submerged once again without a periscope or air supply. And it’s a shame, because the music is really, really great.

As noted in my review of his Violin Sonata in Judith Ingolfsson’s CD of French works, Ferroud’s music was not only modern in form and feel but rigorously constructed. He knew what he was about, and deeply impressed a bevy of fine composers including Poulenc, Milhaud, Dukas, Prokofiev and Florent Schmitt, who was his friend and of whom Ferroud wrote a biography. But he died at age 36, decapitated in a horrible auto accident, thus depriving the musical world of future great works and putting a kabosh on his posthumous reputation. Instead of being fêted, he was forgotten.

Which is a great pity, because as this superb disc proves, he really was a unique and interesting composer. The Symphony in A, which Prokofiev never tired of promoting or telling friends about, leads off the disc and it is a stunner. Beginning with a strong wind/brass chord and followed by scurrying string figures, it immediately establishes a bitonal atmosphere but then begins to lean towards tonality in the ensuing wind passage, sometimes dropping anchor in D major and sometimes moving on to other harmonic territory. There is a gentler contrasting theme at about 1:48, then a mysterious bass passage before bustling activity returns. All of it is, as Ferroud wanted his music to be, “optimistic, healthy and without flaw.” The second movement, an “Andante espressivo assai,” is less edgy harmonically though no less modern, presenting a lyrical theme that morphs with sometimes rapid changes. And of course there’s a sturdy, more invigorating theme in the middle of the movement to add contrast, later moving briefly into G major.

In the third movement, Ferroud starts with a blaring C major brass chord before giving us scurrying cello figures and moving the tonality around like chessmen on a board. Biting strings and slashing trombone figures interact for a bit, then the tempo eases up and we get an almost bucolic theme played by the oboe with flutes and cellos dancing around it. Soon enough the tempo ramps up again and Ferroud is off to the races, even bringing in the tympani to emphasize the energy. The oboe returns once again, followed by a flute, in a pastoral vein before returning to more bustle (including trilling trumpets). Small wonder that Prokofiev was so impressed by this symphony; it’s a gem. Swirling strings and punching brass end it.

This is followed on the CD by the orchestral version of his piano suite Types, recorded in that format by Marie-Catherine Girod in 1996. The three pieces are titled “Vieux beau,” “Bourgeoise de qualité” and “Businessman.” Written in 1924, this is quite obviously Ferroud in a rare playful mood, but his playfulness was akin to Stravinsky’s. Indeed, the influence of the older composer is evident throughout here, giving the music more of a neo-Russian slant than a French one. All of the elements one noted in the Symphony are present here, but more often with the scoring reduced in size and impact; only occasionally does the full orchestra blast out at us. Moreover, the themes themselves are whimsical if one can imagine such a thing in a work with modern harmonies. For whatever reason, “Bourgeoise de qualité” is performed here at a much slower tempo than the piano version; not sure why, but the performance still has vigor and drive (and a piano part, performed by Elisabeth Laroche). Punchy brass figures offset a somewhat drunken-sounding solo clarinet; a French horn solos briefly, followed by an oboe. The third piece, titled “Businessman,” scurries along like a manic typing pool in an old-styled office, with whoops from the horn and little fillips from the flute and piccolo amidst orchestral mayhem from the brass and strings.

Next up is Foules (Crowds), an 11-minute tone poem that begins in a surprisingly quiet vein. A fairly slow passage played by various winds with strings behind them leads us to passages of intermittent loudness and almost violent energy. Eventually the frenetic energy of the “crowds: overwhelms the quiet moments and takes over. Later on, and angular, repeated figure is tossed around from brasses to winds and then strings, leading to an explosive ending.

The finale of this disc is a tripartite Serenade, its movements titled “Berceuse,” “Pavane” and “Spiritual.” This shows Ferroud in a more relaxed mood, taking his time in presenting and evolving themes and using a more French style of composing. The score is reminiscent of Milhaud in its form and orchestration. “Pavane” doesn’t really sound like a piece in that style; Ferroud has completely restructured the music to present more of a slow march with acerbic and rather piquant harmonies. In the finale, “Spiritual,” he suggests an African-American piece of that type without ever really stating it in traditional form. It is surprisingly “punchy,” with occasional loud brass outbursts, followed by sardonic glissando trombones and a string theme that sounds just a little bit like a spiritual. It’s a very whimsical piece, dryly humorous and tongue-in-cheek.

We thus conclude our journey of some of Ferroud’s orchestral music. I guarantee you, it’s well worth the journey.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Hausegger’s Magnificent “Barbarossa”

cpo-Cover 07-2017_cover.indd

HAUSEGGER: Barbarossa. 3 Hymnen an die Nacht / Hans Christoph Begemann, bar; Norrköping Symphony Orchestra; Antony Hermus, cond / CPO 777666-2

Siegmund von Hausegger (1872-1948), largely neglected today, was an Austrian composer whose instrumental works are imbued with the musical spirit of Wagner. This came naturally to him since his father, Friedrich, was one of the first to recognize Wagner’s genius and impressed it clearly on his young son.

The huge symphonic poem presented here, Barbarossa, was largely the result of political maneuvering. In 1897 the Austrian prime minister, Casimir Badenyi, instituted a “Language Equality Act” in which he tried to put Germany and Czechoslovakia on equal footing. The result of this law punished German-speaking people, trying to force everyone to speak both languages. This was, of course, by no means easy for the German-speaking Austrians, whereas many Czechs already spoke German. Demonstrations broke out across the country. Hausegger, then living in Graz, considered the most German city in the country, saw the agitators and was very disturbed. His reaction to what he considered an injustice led him to consider the old emperor Friedrich Barbarossa and the glory days of his reign. There was a legend that Barbarossa and his followers slept on stone tables inside Kyffhäuser Mountain and that, when his beard grew round the table three times, he and his knights would awake to save the German people in their hour of need. Hausegger depicted this legend in three movements: The Distress of The People, The Magic Mountain and The Awakening. The first movement’s slow introduction symbolizes the German landscape, followed by an allegro section representing the woes of the people. Amidst the strife, a vision of the emperor appears. But the time is not yet right and the movement ends in a mood of desperation. The Magic Mountain depicts the legend of a peasant boy lost in the mists around the Kyffhäuser. Wandering into the caves, he comes across on the sleeping emperor. After a radiant preview of what Germany might become, the mists return and the music dissolves into pessimism. The Awakening opens with an outcry of frustration; the distress of the people is at its most intense. Yet, we hear distant trumpet calls growing nearer till, at last, the mountain splits open and Barbarossa emerges, ready to do battle. He and his knights drive out the oppressors; at last, the people are free. The work ends with a reprise of the introduction to the first movement, now transformed into a hymn of victory and thanksgiving. Hausegger wrote Barbarossa between December 1898 and September 1899, and it became his most popular work, almost a signature piece for him.

Antony Hermus, a good, solid modern conductor whose work I’ve liked in the past, conducts this work with tremendous energy and good clarity of sound. To digress for a moment, I’d like to point out that I believe that this modern style of conducting, by and large, reflects the strong influence of such conductors as Erich Kleiber, Rodziński, Toscanini, Böhm and Reiner, perhaps also Ormandy and Leibowitz to a lesser degree, who forced their public to accept performances without the distortions, large and small, imposed on tempos and phrasing by Furtwängler, Celibidache, Bernstein, André Previn and other such conductors who were dominant in their era and a bit later. To some extent, this approach is detrimental at times; certainly, the most imaginative of these conductors—Rodziński, Toscanini, Böhm and Leibowitz—did indeed introduce moments of rubato and rallentando into their performances which added to the interest of an individual interpretation. The problem always was a matter of taste rather than the modifications themselves. In our time, only the great Michael Gielen and Klaus Tennstedt were almost always able to modify the musical line in such a way that was not only interesting but musically acceptable; too many others, trying to be novel, went too far. Perhaps the most rigid of the modern school (though he is now quite aged himself and on the back end of his career) is David Zinman, whose performances are unfailingly correct in tempo and phrasing but too often metronomic and clinical. I mention this not to come down on poor Hermus, who I’m sure was trained in this school; at least he, like some others, leads consistently exciting performances; but I mention it because it is a tendency of our modern musical world that has become a bit rigid in thinking.

OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review.

The music is evidently informed by the aesthetic of Wagner without sounding like a carbon copy. In this respect, Hausegger avoided the trap that Humperdinck, for all his good ideas, fell into. Like Debussy, who was working from an entirely different mindset, Hausegger absorbed Wagner into his own style. The first movement begins with a horn call and orchestral chords that suggest the German master, but quickly morph into something more tonal in a Straussian way (another composer who absorbed Wagner without imitating him outright), with a surprisingly lovely rising string motif that includes a brief break by the solo oboe and two bars by a solo violin before returning to the Strauss world. Considering the date of Barbarossa, I’m wondering if the two composers knew each other or at least each others’ work; it certainly sounds it. Nonetheless, the central, more dramatic episodes of the first movement depart from both Wagner and Strauss, giving us rhythmically incisive music with strong string tremolos over which wind and brass figures play, followed by punching chords from lower brass. Then comes a very fine development section, with the themes altered and embellished upon. One could easily play this first movement all by itself as a tone poem. There’s a magical passage at about 11:25 where the volume decreases and Hausegger uses scoring similar to a chamber orchestra before rebuilding the tempo and volume for the final section, with rhythmically-driven violas providing another interesting rhythm underneath.

In the second movement, we begin with what sounds like a Scherzo, very softly at the outset with a strange undercurrent of apprehension. This quickly builds into a swirling mélange of sound, somehow combining the worlds of Berlioz and Mahler, then quietude as the peasant boy comes across the sleeping emperor and his retinue. A radiant theme ensues as Hausegger depicts the mental image of a great future Germany, which of course never happened in reality thanks to the Weimar and Nazi eras. The third movement continues the melancholy vein of the last part of the second, but then moves into a more positive and semi-martial mood as Barbarossa awakens, leading his knights to victory over the oppressors. Lots of festive if heavy-handed Teutonic music is heard. So much for German learning Czech!

Since I was deprived the ability to download liner notes for this CD, I didn’t have a clue as to what the Three Hymns of the Night are all about, but thanks to Emily Ezust’s LiederNet Archive (—which I urge every reader of this review to go to and donate a few dollars to help her with her ongoing work to keep this site up, which is an invaluable research tool for all those who love French chanson and German lieder—I was able to find the German lyrics by Gottfried Keller, which I then translated into English using Google Translate. This is an entirely different world from the symphonic poem just heard; it is gentle, exquisitely-scored lieder with orchestra in the style of of Schumann, Wolf or later (post-1910) Strauss. Here are the words in Google English:

Stille der Nacht

Welcome, clear summer night,
which lies on verdant corridors!
Hail me, golden stars,
playing in space while playing!

The Urgebirge around me
is silent, like my night prayer;
Far behind him I hear the sea
in the spirit and how the surf goes.

I hear a flute sound,
that brings me the air from the west
but already up in the east
the day quietly penetrates.

I think, where else in the world
Now a human child may die –
and whether perhaps the entry holds
the much-longed-for hero child.

But like in the dark earth valley
an unfathomable silence rests,
I feel so easy
and how the world is so quiet and good.

The last quiet pain and ridicule
disappears for the heart’s sake;
it is as if the old god were doing
finally told me his name.

Unruhe der Nacht

Now I have been unfaithful
the sun and its appearance;
the night, the night shall be lady
be of my heart now!

She is of dark beauty,
has pale norse face,
and a star crown
her dark head surrounds.

Today she is so worried
restless and full of pain;
she probably thinks of her youth
that must be a memory!

It blows through all the valleys
a moan, so mournful and bang;
like tears flow
the sources of the mountain slope.

The black spruce trees whiz
and weigh each other
and over the wild heath
lost lights fly.

The sky brings a serenade
the dull roaring sea,
and above me is a thunderstorm
with sounding games therefore.

It may want to numb
the night the age-old pain?
And even older sins
thinks her repentant heart?

I want to chat with her,
how to talk to the darling –
in vain, in her grief
she does not see and hear me!

I would like to ask you
and I’m always disturbed,
whether she’s before my birth
where my name belongs?

She is an old sibyl
and hardly knows himself;
she and death and all of us
are dreams of a dream.

I want to go to sleep,
the morning wind already draws –
her weeping willows at the churchyard,
my slumber song agrees with me!

Turn, you little star,
Earth! where I live,
that my eye ‘, far from the sun,
lift yourself upwards!

Holy is the star time,
opens all the tombs;
radiant immortality
walks through the air.

Does the sun like it so far?
other zones,
Here I feel connected
with the All ‘and One!

High desire, in the dark valley,
through the majestic hall
to go along breathing!

Swing, o green round,
in the dawn!
Divergent backwards, my mouth sings
cheering prayers!

The songs are exquisitely sung by baritone Hans Christoph Begemann, who has a voice of not only intrinsic beauty but of liquid tone and perfectly-controlled dynamics. As a pupil of the great Swiss tenor Ernst Häfliger, however, I would have expected no less. And it is here, moreso than in Barbarossa, that I felt Hermus pressed the tempo a bit too much and could have benefited from some relaxation of pacing, but the performances do capture the atmosphere of the delicately-shaded orchestration.

Overall, then, a fascinating disc presenting the music of an unfortunately-neglected composer.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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