Stănculeasa & Maddox Explore “Pyramids”

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PYRAMIDS / MESSIAEN: Fantaisie. Théme et variations. NIELSEN: Violin Sonata No. 2. ENESCU: Violin Sonata No. 3 / Vlad Stănculeasa, vln; James Maddox, pn / Footprint Records 101

A duo recital of modern-sounding works for violin and piano is not as rare as it once was, but it’s not terribly common, either. Just as in the operatic and orchestral worlds, most audiences for chamber music bristle at the sound of dissonances they don’t like and melodic contours that don’t have “tunes.” Thus I always find it refreshing to hear a recital disc like this, where the program is refreshingly unconventional and the performances bold and committed.

Neither of the Messiaen pieces here are as outré as his later work would become, however. Composed in 1932 (Théme et variations) and 1933 (Fantaisie), these scores have much more conventional tempos, motor rhythms and harmonic bases. Despite the use of some dissonance, the Fantaisie almost sounds like something Enescu might have written. The young Rumanian violinist Vlad Stănculeasa has a strong, firm tone and sterling technique, like nearly all violinists nowadays, and his interpretation of this and indeed all of the works on this CD are bold and straightforward, with little in the way of nuance. His musical partner, Australian violinist James Maddox, has a clear, crisp touch at the keyboard that matches Stănculeasa’s bright, bold style perfectly.

Interestingly, the Nielsen Violin Sonata No. 2 is more adventurous music that I recalled, using frequent chromatic movement in the harmony. This makes it a good fit for this recital, and here young Stănculeasa introduces some moments of tenderness into his playing that I found quite refreshing. The duo thus recedes from the exciting opening into a quiet, almost rhapsodic passage, only to ramp up the emotion again when the music becomes more agitated. It’s a marvelous performance.

The Messiaen Theme and Variations begin more playfully than his Fantaisie, yet at the same time is more harmonically unsettled. Pianist Maddox does a fine job of playing up this aspect of the music while Stănculeasa plays ardently around him. They make an absolutely outstanding duo, acting as mirror reflections of each other, particularly in the latter part of this piece when Stănculeasa plays with ardent passion.

By comparison with the preceding works, Enescu’s Violin Sonata No. 3 is a bona-fide staple of the repertoire and the most famous piece presented here. There are several outstanding recordings of it available, including one by Enescu himself on violin with Dinu Lipatti at the piano and another by Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin. Stănculeasa’s interpretation is authentically Rumanian in feeling, evoking the country’s folk song traditions and performed with strength and passion, although in the second movement he just misses the feeling of mystery captured so well by Enescu and Menuhin.

Overall a good disc with some decidedly strong performances and only a few weaknesses of interpretation.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Mark Murphy’s “Midnight Mood” Reissued

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MIDNIGHT MOOD / ELLINGTON-WEBSTER: Jump for Joy. CLARKE-WOODE: I Don’t Want Nothin’. DEUCHAR-MURPHY: Why and How. SCHWARTZ-DIETZ: Alone Together. COLEMAN-LEIGH: You Fascinate Me. BOLAND-MURPHY: Hopeless. J. WOODE: Sconsolato. WEILL-GERSHWIN: My Ship. WOODE-BOLAND: Just Give Me Time. CARMICHAEL: I Get Along Without You Very Well / Mark Murphy, voc; Jimmy Deuchar, tpt; Åke Persson, tb; Derek Humble, a-sax; Ronnie Scott, t-sax; Sahib Shihab, fl/bar-sax; Francy Boland, pn/arr; Jimmy Woode, bs; Kenny Clarke, dm / MPS 0212419MSW

The title of this album, recorded December 18, 1967 at the Lindström Studios, Cologne, is misleading. One would expect a program of mostly ballads or at least soft middle-tempo tunes with a trio, but these are mostly uptempo, hot numbers in which Murphy is backed by an octet from the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band. Among the hot soloists on the album are trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar, trombonist Åke Persson, tenor saxist Ronnie Scott and flautist-baritone saxist Sahib Shihab, just off from spending a few years in Denmark leading a great radio jazz band.

Insofar as these performances are concerned, the most interesting participant in these sessions was Clarke. The seminal bebop drummer, the man who created an entirely new way of playing a jazz beat (even as far back as 1939, recording with Earl Hines and Sidney Bechet), Clarke didn’t play on the beat. He played the offbeats and between-beats, and thus provides Murphy with a kind of backing he rarely if ever received. Not that other jazz drummers of the 1960s and ‘70s were uninteresting or slouches, only that Clarke was unique and everyone knew it, but he detested the American jazz scene so much and felt so much at home in Europe that once he moved there in the 1950s he stayed there until the end of his life.

But of course it’s also great to hear such individualists as Ronnie Scott and Sahib Shihab (the latter of whom began his career playing with Thelonious Monk) behind Murphy as well, not to mention the joy of hearing Murphy in his vocal prime. He never lost the ability to swing or be creative in his displacement of beats, but his voice per se deteriorated with age, as in the case of nearly all singers jazz or classical. And to judge from this record, 1967 was a very good year. In fact, he sounds even better here than he did on his breakout Riverside album, Rah! The voice sounds nearly as fresh here as on his late-1950s Capitol recordings, when he was mistakenly being promoted as a sort of hip pop singer. Neither he nor Capitol were happy with this situation, so when his contract expired he moved on, and the rest was history.

I have a (long-distance) friend who always seems to be suspicious of jazz singers. He doesn’t think they improvise much if at all. I can’t seem to get him to recognize how good people like Anita O’Day, Jon Hendricks, Mark Murphy, Ella, Alice Babs or the Boswell Sisters were. He’s probably the only one I know who wouldn’t dig this album. But being hip isn’t all. Half the album presents older tunes like Duke Ellington’s Jump for Joy from his 1941 musical of the same name, Arthur Schwartz’ Alone Together, Kurt Weill’s My Ship and Hoagy Carmichael’s I Get Along Without You Very Well, but the remainder of the album presents relatively obscure tunes, some of them (like Francy Boland’s Hopeless and Jimmy Woode’s Sconsolato) very unusual. But the way Murphy sings them, he makes them sound as if they were all part of his standard repertoire and he’d been singing them for years. That was one of the miracles of his amazing talent.

MPS has managed to bring the full frequency range of the original tapes out on this release, giving an almost digital sound to them. A great set!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Ančerl Conducts Suk & Krejči

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SUK: Asrael. KREJČI: Serenata für orchester / Südwestfunk Orchester Baden-Baden; Karel Ančerl, cond / SWR Classic 19055CD

Despite a few pieces that have sneaked into the orchestral repertoire now and then, the music of Josef Suk (1874-1935) is not nearly as well known in the West as it should be, and the music of Iša Krečki (1904-1968) not at all, thus it is wonderful to have two such powerful and committed readings of these off-route pieces reissued in such splendid sound. Of course my incentive in reviewing them was the conductor Karel Ančerl, surely one of the most musical and exciting podium masters of his day. A pupil of the great Vaclav Talich, Ančerl was the one responsible for establishing the Czech Philharmonic as an international orchestra, primarily through his extensive world tour of 1959, and record collectors have valued his work ever since.

Suk’s Asrael, written in 1904-06, he considered to be his greatest and most ambitious work, a grand symphony written to commemorate the death of his great mentor, Antonin Dvořak, who died on May 1, 1904, but it took him much longer to write it than he thought it would and by the time he finished it he also suffered the death of his young wife Ottilie, which affected him even more deeply. Passionate, dramatic and full of innovative and interesting musical ideas, Asrael is titled after the “angel of death” as referred to in the traditions of Shi’ite Islam, a being who separates the soul from the body by the order of Allah. What’s really fascinating about this recording is that it was recorded in 1967 with an orchestra not his own, his first official recording of a piece which was a staple, at least, of his repertoire. (There is also an unofficial live recording of the piece by Ančerl conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in existence, which I haven’t heard.)

To say that the conductor gives his all would be an understatement. This is a performance of Toscanini-Rodziński-Carlos Kleiber-like intensity, never hard-driven but consistently moving nonetheless. As the liner notes say, “What is most astonishing…is how Ančerl is able to usher the SWF Symphony Orchestra into the Czech idiom, as if they were playing music with which it has long been acquainted.” The orchestra, indeed, has that uniquely Slavic sound with biting brass, edgy strings and acerbic winds that one heard consistently from the Czech Philharmonic during its glory years under both Talich and Ančerl.

And what music it is! Late Romantic, yes, but utterly bursting with ideas, constantly moving and shifting themes and sub-themes, using chromatic harmonic movement. Suk only really indulges in “Romantic melody” in the third movement (“Vivace”) where he presents us with an almost Straussian tune somewhat reminiscent of Ein Heldenleben or Elektra. Somehow or other, SWR Music has managed to make the quality of this 50-year-old document sound like a modern digital recording, so natural and clear are the sonics and the phenomenal detailing of the orchestra. Ančerl was famous (or infamous, depending on your view) for driving orchestras very hard in rehearsal, demanding 100% faithfulness to written tempi and dynamics as well as 100% emotional commitment. I consider his recording of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky cantata to be the greatest ever made, likewise his version of Janaček’s Sinfonietta.

The symphony is clearly divided into two parts. The first, encompassing the first three movements, are his tribute to Dvořak while the second, encompassing the last two movements, are his dedication to Ottilie. The character of the music shifts considerably in the second half. The music here is gentler, more tender, less dynamic than the first. It is no less interesting, but it does inhabit a different sound world and has a different feel about it. Suk was no longer paying tribute to a great and mighty giant of the music world but to the love of his life. There is a very touching mood about the fourth movement (“Adagio”), much more so than the “Andante” of the second, and although power and drama return to the music in the last movement (“Adagio e maestoso – Allegro”), there are more moments of tenderness and the dramatic moments sound almost chaotic, as if Suk has lost his emotional center and compass. It is deeply personal music, surely his finest score. Ančerl’s performance is consistently tauter and more dramatic than Talich’s own, made near the end of his career when he had slowed down quite a bit from the firebrand he was in the 1920s and ‘30s.

By contrast with all this, Krečki’s Serenata is primarily humorous and entertaining, although with a bit of seriousness mixed in. It sounds a little like Prokofiev or even Poulenc in a comic vein, but more manic in pacing. Once again the Südwestfunk Orchester Baden-Baden responds with crisp, dynamic, spot-on playing, reveling in the music’s wry wit and grotesqueries. Krečki uses quite a bit of swirling string passages and biting, punching brass accents, all of which come through with incredible clarity. All in all, a splendid disc.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Gaponenko Duets With Herself

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DUO FOR ONE / STRAVINSKY: Suite Italienne. 3 Movements from “Petrouchka.” VILLA-LOBOS: A Prole do Bebê No. 1. SERVAIS: Fantasia, “Souvenir de St. Petersburg.” PAGANINI: Variations on One String (Mose-Fantasia) (arr. Gaponenko) / Elena Gaponenko, cel/pn / Genuin 15376

Having given Elena Gaponenko’s Opus 8 album a five-star review, I was delighted that she liked what I wrote, but in saying that I wonder if she ever thought of playing duets with herself. To my surprise, she wrote me that she already had, and sent me this CD as proof. Well, how could I not review it when I considered her such a great talent?

As seems to be usual with this wonderful and charming woman, the pieces selected for this recital mean something personally to her. Reading the liner notes and her descriptions of each piece, one would think that she personally wrote them for herself. I say this not just from the obvious love and admiration that she lavishes on them in her verbal descriptions, but in the warm and loving manner in which she plays every single note on this disc. Judging from her selection of composers and works, here as well as in the Opus 8 album, Gaponenko apparently loves any music that is melodically and harmonically rich, regardless of era. She is not above playing Stravinsky in an Italian vein or a French composer (Servais) in a Russian vein, and in choosing Villa-Lobos’ rarely-heard The Baby’s Family of 1918 she revels in the “story” of the pieces, trying as much as possible to convey the feeling behind each and every piece.

How can you not fall in love with such an artist? Her playing goes beyond mere technique. She is making love to the music she plays, and sharing that love with an audience. Gaponenko sounds as if she is playing for her own enjoyment, every note as vibrant and alive as if they were nerves in her body vibrating to the effect the music has on her. I’m sure this will sound like an exaggeration to those who haven’t heard her, but it’s absolutely true.

In reviewing Opus 8 I made mention of the fact that her pianism had exactly the same kind of warmth and emotion as her cello-playing, and vice versa. Here, listening to her accompany herself, you get to hear both instruments played at once, and ironically her cello playing leads and sometimes even overwhelms her pianism. Perhaps this is because she is an outstanding pianist but an almost overwhelming cellist. Imagine, for instance, Rostropovich—who was also a surprisingly good pianist—accompanying himself. I think the result would be similar, and for the same reason: the cello is the warmer and more “vocal” instrument while the piano, for all its good points, is a percussion instrument. Both Rostropopovich and Gaponenko think in a linear fashion when they play, therefore it is natural for the cello to lead the piano rather than the other way around. This is not a negative criticism of her piano playing, just a natural condition when the two instruments are put together.

The Villa-Lobos suite concerns a little Brazilian girl who owned eight dolls, each of a different nationality, which she imbued with a different personality. No. 1 is the portrait of a beautiful blonde European doll who was just set up for show. No. 2 depicts a brunette doll who was vivacious and jumped around with the girl. No. 3 was a beautiful Indian doll with a lotus flower in her hair who meditated. No. 4 was a mulatto doll who was fickle, No. 5 an African doll that followed her on her adventures. The sixth doll, old and rather ugly, she rocked to sleep in her arms every night. The seventh was a very fast street clown who made her laugh, while the eighth and last always hid her face under a hood because she was a witch. One day, in broad daylight, she stood in a meadow and whispered over her cauldron, creating a thunderstorm, but then the storm suddenly ended and a rainbow appeared which caused the witch to fizzle and disappear. This is played on the piano alone, allowing Gaponenko to show how she creates a mood on that instrument when the cello is absent. It is a lovely, heartfelt performance in which she absolutely revels in the unusual harmonies and Brazilian rhythms.

In Servais’ Souvenir de St. Petersburg which, as Gaponenko points out, closely resembles the music of Tchaikovsky, she once again accompanies herself. Since Servais was called “the Paganini of the cello,” the focus is clearly on that instrument. Gaponenko the pianist thus gives Gaponenko the cellist plenty of room to play this piece with all the sweep and warmth one could imagine. As a rule I shy away from showoff fantasias like this, which I always feel is music meant to appeal on a surface level only, but Gaponenko so obviously loves this music that, when the piano has a brief solo around the 5:25 mark, she lays into it as if it were a piano sonata, and her cello playing, so rich in tone from top to bottom, complements it beautifully. Indeed, I was so captivated by her playing that I found the music to be of a much higher caliber than I thought prior to hearing it.

I admit to being stunned that Paganini’s Variations on One String is actually the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Rossini’s Mose in Egitto, because I’d never heard it before and had no idea that Paganini was a Rossini admirer. This is one of those pieces, like the Chopin Polonaise Brillante, that stretch the cello way up into the violin range at one point, but of course the amazing thing is that this is played on just one string.

We end our journey as we began, with Stravinsky, but in this case the piano-only 3 Movements from “Petrouchka.” Here Gaponenko revels in her piano playing, not indulging in the race-to-the-finish style normally given in this music but, rather, carefully articulating each note and phrase with exceptional clarity. It’s a stunning performance, as is the entire CD. You really should hear this!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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James Hall Goes Cool!

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LATTICE / HALL: Shoy. Black Narcissus.* Lattice. Brittle Stitch.* Gaillardia. Traveler. Kind Folk. Terrace / James Hall, tb; Jamie Baum, fl/a-fl; Deanna Witkowski, pn/Rhodes; Tom DiCarlo, bs; Alan Mednard, dm; *Sharel Cassity, a-sax / Outside In Music (no number)

To begin this review, a statement and disclaimer. I intend absolutely no offense whatsoever to James Hall and his excellent little band. They play refreshing, well-written music in the cool school vein—soft brass textures, a flute and peppy yet relaxed rhythm section—with a few modern elements such as ambiguous tempos to pique one’s interest. I like them, and this album, very much. But it does no good but rather harm to read, in the publicity material, such exaggerations as that their music “weaves in and out of some of the highest realms of Jazz and Classical tradition.” It really does not. It’s very good, but John Lewis or Fred Katz it isn’t.

That being said, this album, scheduled for release February 9, presents Hall playing in a style very close to that of Jimmy Knepper, the great trombonist who was a mainstay in Charles Mingus’ bands through the 1950s and ‘60s. One difference is that Hall has a smoother style than the sometimes burry-sounding Knepper; at times he could be confused for such technical masters as J.J. Johnson or Delfeayo Marsalis. (I might also have referenced Tommy Dorsey, but T.D. wasn’t as great a jazz musician as his kid brother Jimmy.) The music here is, as mentioned earlier, ambiguous in melodic line as well as rhythm, which seems to be the standard nowadays for any jazz calling itself innovative. Within that context, however, the music is wonderfully relaxed without being mushy or “ambient jazz,” a style I abhor. I was particularly impressed by the title track, which has a relatively graspable melodic line and weaves it cool jazz way through a series of really wonderful solos that fit nicely into the tune’s structure. This, at least, bears some resemblance to the jazz-classical fusion excitedly claimed in the blurb.

With Brittle Stitch, the band suddenly leaves the soft, ambiguous rhythms of the previous tracks and jumps in a really nice West Coast-school swinger. The addition of alto saxist Sharel Cassidy on this track (she also appears on Black Narcissus), with her cool tone and excellent solos, adds to the band’s color. Gaillardia returns us to the group’s principal style, this time with a bit of a Latin-style beat. One of the really nice features of the band is the manner in which Hall and flautist Jamie Baum intertwine their lines in theme statements. Being just a quintet, it adds a nice flavor to the overall sound. On this tune, Hall’s solo is particularly adventurous, as is Baum’s.

And so the album goes. Traveler is a nice piece, but the following Kind Folk is even better. This begins with an interesting bass solo by Tom DiCarlo before Witkowski enters on piano, followed by Hall playing the theme in tandem with Baum, here on alto flute which blends even better with the trombone. Baum’s ensuing solo is fascinating in the way it builds around the principal theme without sounding too busy; it could almost be a written-out passage, so organic is it. After a piano break Hall comes back in to duet with the flute again, followed by a piano solo with somewhat busy drums, then the brief ride-out.

The finale, Terrace, is unusual in that Hall begins the piece playing into a plunger mute, the only instance of this on the set, which he then removes when Baum enters. Witkowski’s piano solo is delicately traced in single-note fashion, playing around the harmonic changes nicely, with a few Brubeck-like chord passages tossed in for color. The flute and trombone then play in and around one another for a chorus before Hall sticks the plunger back in his horn for a solo chorus, taking it back out for an uptempo rideout, a nice touch ending this fine album.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Ebenstein’s Debut Album of Songs

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SCHOENBERG: Brettl-Lieder. ZEMLINSKY: 2 Brettl-Lieder. STRAUSS: Krämerspiegel – 12 Songs of Alfred Kerr. KORNGOLD: Songs of the Clown, after Shakespeare / Thomas Ebenstein, ten; Charles Spencer, pn / Capriccio C3007

Thomas Ebenstein is a light-voiced Austrian tenor who sings light comic roles in opera and operetta, but in his recording debut he concentrates on German lieder of the early 20th century. Those unfamiliar with Arnold Schoenberg’s eight Brettl-Lieder may have a difficult time recognizing in them the composer of Pierrot Lunaire or Erwärtung, although they are not as harmonically straightforward as the cabaret songs of contemporary composers. Ebenstein sings them very well indeed, with an ear for both vocal shading and interpretation, though his very bright comprimario voice lacks some of the sensuousness one might wish to hear in them. By way of compensation, however, he has superb diction—something that is not always a given nowadays—and a firm, solid tone without any trace of infirmity.

Of course, he is aided musically here by the superb Charles Spencer, which helps immeasurably. Zemlinsky’s two Brettl-Lieder actually sound even closer to café music than the ones by Schoenberg, although the first of them calls for a quick trill, which Ebenstein sings fairly well.

Strauss’ Krämerspiegel from 1918 (for some reason, credited here to 1921) are among his least-known songs, and also fit into the quasi-popular variety explored in this album. Ebenstein’s voice is not only brighter but also slightly harder in tone than that of Brenden Gunnell, who sings the cycle in the Two Pianists set of all of Strauss’ music for voice and piano, but Ebenstein’s rhythmic vitality and interpretive skill is greater and pianist Spencer is clearly a more interesting acconpanist that Gunnell’s Malcolm Martineau.

I was previously unfamiliar with Korngold’s Songs of the Clown, not being much of a fan of his, but surprisingly these songs are much more interesting musically than much of his other music. In both their melodic and harmonic construction, they resemble some of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs, and Ebenstein sings them in passable if not always fully clear English.

The musical fare of this album tends towards the light side, but for the most part the music is good and Ebenstein’s singing is extremely interesting.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Ingolfsson and Stoupel Play 20th Century Sonatas

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POULENC: Violin Sonata. FERROUD: Violin Sonata. RAVEL: Violin Sonata No. 2 / Judith Ingolfsson, vln; Vladimir Stoupel, pn / Accentus Music ACC30436

Violinist Judith Ingolfsson and pianist Vladimir Stoupel are co-directors of the Aigues-Vives en Musiques festival in southern France and “The Last Rose of Summer” festival in Berlin’s Mendelssohn-Remise, but here they are immersed in strictly French sonatas of the first half of the 20th century.

We begin with the latest of the three, Polenc’s 1943 Violin Sonata, premiered by Ginette Neveu with the composer at the piano. Neveu shot to stardom while still quite young in 1935 by winning the first Wieniawski Violin Competition, where she beat out David Oistrakh (second place), Henri Temianka (third place) and Ida Haendel (seventh place), three others who went on to become noted violinists. Knowing Niveau’s playing style from a few of her recordings, very heartfelt as a rule but not generally “driving” or “edgy,” I was a bit surprised to hear the duo’s interpretation of this work which emphasized the excitement of the piece. In the slow section of the first movement, Ingolfsson eases up on the tension and plays with a nice, light vibrato and lovely phrasing, but her emotional involvement is reserved for the fast passages, played with a wonderfully bright, edgy tone and spot-on technique. Stoupel, whose playing I am familiar with from other recordings, is fully engaged as her partner throughout.

In the slow second movement Ingolfsson sounds warm and relaxed, justnot quite as warm as Neveu usually did. Both musicians, however, are fully involved in the driving finale, which Poulenc surprisingly revised after Neveu’s death in a plane crash in 1949.

The odd composer out for me in this recital is Pierre-Octave Ferroud (1900-1936). Born in Rhone, he studied music with Georges Martin Witkowski and for a time assisted fellow-composer Florent Schmitt. Along with Henri Barraud and Emmanuel Bondeville he founded the modern music society Le Triton in 1932. Prokofiev praised his Symphony in A in a letter to Boris Asafiev. Tragically, Ferroud died in an auto accident in which he was decapitated. His music is very busy, almost Hindemith-like in its melodic and harmonic contours without being a copy. Ferroud once stated that his objective was to write “music without redundancy or flaw, music that is strong, healthy, optimistic, music that moves forward.” If this sonata is typical of his work, he surely succeeded. Poulenc, who was one of those in his musical circle (along with Casella, Enescu, Schmitt, Roussel and de Falla, was reportedly devastated by his unexpected death.

Ferroud’s violin sonata is indeed healthy, unredundant music, using frequent harmonic shifts via his changing of chord positions, although the second movement’s somewhat mysterious mood departs from his stated goal of optimism. This is, however, a great piece, beautifully constructed and well played by the duo. Simply by playing the second movement with calmness and a pure legato, Ingolfsson is able to bring out the melos of the music without having to be emotionally attached to it. The brilliant third movement is right up Ingolfsson’s alley, and she plays with with bracing rhythm and strong character. Stoupel is also outstanding in his playing as well.

In the Ravel sonata, unfortunately, Ingolfsson is up against a style of music for which she has no affinity. This sonata is in general, and specifically in the first two movements, a jazz-influenced work. Ursula Schoch understood this completely in her superb performance of it on her Jazzettes album (see my review here), but Ingolfsson plays it like a straight French sonata and thus loses connection with the jazz side. It’s a bit like playing the violin music of Enescu and leaving out the Rumanian Gypsy flavor; it just doesn’t sound right. And, sadly, neither performer really knows how to play the second-movement “Blues,” despite Ingolfsson’s attempt at a jazzy portamento. which comes off sounding a bit artificial. Listen to the way she plays the pizzicato passages: they’re stiff as a board, lacking any suggestion of swing. Interestingly, Stoupel seems to catch the right vibe for the finale, but Ingolfsson plays metronomically.

Overall, then, a good recital, particularly in their performance of the Ferroud work, that just doesn’t quite work in the Ravel.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Donatoni’s Strange Chamber Music

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DONATONI: Marches for Harp Solo. Nidi for Piccolo Solo. Clair for Clarinet Solo. Small for Piccolo, Clarinet & Harp. Estratto for Piano Solo. Secondo Estratto for Piano, Harpsichord & Harp. Quarto Estratto for Piccolo, Flute, Violin, Mandolin, Harp, Harpsichord, Piano & Celesta / Ensemble Adapter / Kairos Music 0015021KAI

What other composer do you know who would even think of writing marches for a solo harp? Particularly those you can’t really march to? But that pretty much sums up Franco Donatoni, perhaps the strangest of Italy’s avant-garde composers of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, whose music I have praised in the past. Even his performance instructions were strange, as witness this direction to his harpist:

Staccatissimo, as soft as possible; the white notes are to be played by hitting the fingertip against the corresponding string, without plucking the string.

Pretty strange, huh? But as I say, not as strange as the music itself. He once summed up his aesthetic this way: “A single idea suffices to compose a piece. There’s no need to amass scores of them. Again and again, I observe how ideas are simply wasted, resulting in arbitrariness and complete confusion. In order to avoid this, we should think about codes or sets of guidelines, according to which we can organize, transform and develop single ideas.” But it wasn’t as simple as that. Donatoni often worked with strict mathematical or geometric patterns, the liner notes tell us, “in which chains of pitches are perceivable not as shapes or expressive gestures but rath­er as structured flows of energy.” To put it another way, he went off the deep end but always had SCUBA gear with him to provide oxygen when he needed it.

The two pieces titled Nidi for Piccolo Solo are as abstract as anything you will ever hear, yet the music is fascinating in its own way. Beginning with a single, simple idea, it builds on itself almost like a Bach violin sonata or cello suite, with little notes both high and low sprouting from the main theme to embellish and fill it out. I find it a bit odd that the individual musicians of Ensemble Adapter do not identify themselves anywhere in the booklet or on the CD inlay; they are all fine virtuosi and should be applauded individually for their efforts here. I had to go to their website to find their names: Kristjana Helgadóttir on flute and piccolo; Ingólfur Vilhjálmsson on clarinet; Gunnhildur Einarsdóttir on harp and Matthias Engler on percussion (and, I would assume, piano and harpsichord). The clarinet pieces titled Clair are so virtuosic that even the difficulties of Bartók’s Contrasts fade into the background; this is riotous, almost manic music, particularly the first of them which requires acrobatics from the soloist.

But when you get to Small for piccolo, clarinet and harp, you realize you haven’t even heard the strangest music yet. This is begins like ambient classical, except that it uses bits and pieces of the previous three works, combining them and eventually becoming quite excitable. The piccolo screams in the upper register, the clarinet plays a lyrical theme and the harp surrounds them with a series of corrugated eighth notes. Eventually the clarinet gives up trying to be lyrical and instead tries to shout the piccolo down, to no avail. Of this piece Donatoni stated, “One could say that the piccolo is the husband, the harp the wife and the clarinet ‘the third party.’”

Estratto, a one-minute piece for piano, is comprised of “short, systematic attacks that form a continuous pulse.” The Secondo Estratto is ten and a half minutes long but uses the same principle, multiplied in this case by dividing the music up between piano, harpsichord and harp. In this instance, however, I felt that Donatoni went on too long and said nothing of any value for the last eight and a half minutes. The fourth Estratto, for piccolo, flute, mandolin, harpsichord, harp, piano and celesta, instructed to play “as quickly as possible,” is undoubtedly the most interesting. Here the cross-currents of the various instruments create a whirlwind pattern that the ear must straighten out and make clear. It’s possible to do this but it takes great concentration. A snippet of the score (below) gives one an idea of the piece’s difficulty in performing.

Quartetto Estratto

With the exception of the second Estratto, I liked this collection of pieces very much. They’re strange enough to capture the imagination and different enough to hold one’s interest.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Martinů’s Great Early Orchestral Works Recorded

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MARTINŮ: Vanishing Midnight. Ballade (after Böcklin’s picture, “Villa By the Sea”). Dream of the Past / Agnieszka Kopacka, pn; Sinfonia Varvosia; Ian Hobson, cond / Toccata Classics TOCC 0414

This, the third in a series of CDs by Ian Hobson of Martinů’s orchestral music, begins with a bona-fide masterpiece. The three-part suite Vanishing Midnight, finished in 1922, was the first of his works to be performed by the great Czech conductor Vaclav Talich (though not in its entirety). The music is absolutely incredible: powerful, complex and at the same time appealing, it occupies the same sound-world as his 1955 masterpiece The Epic of Gilgamesh (which I reviewed earlier in this blog). Here Martinů expands his orchestral palette to encompass an entirely new world of sound, while at the same time taking a tip from Mahler in using only a small portion of the orchestra here and there for more intimate moments. Because of this, the music struck me as almost being like a concerto grosso in which the wind section here and the strings there play passages that contribute to the whole. It’s astonishing to consider that this is its world premiere recording.

As usual with conductor (and pianist) Ian Hobson, we get a clean, emotional but largely no-nonsense performance. There are no passages that linger or stop to smell the roses. Once the rhythmic impetus is set, the music moves on its own course from start to finish. In between, Hobson works hard to bring out the orchestral detail of the score the same way conductors like Rodziński did. He also does not indulge in bathos or other Romanticized touches. I believe this is the right approach; the Czechs, like the Hungarians, have long produced musicians and composers who are more interested in getting to the core of the music and not in trying to impress the listener with impressionistic touches.

In Vanishing Midnight the top line of the music that “leads” the harmonic changes, not the other way around. This is the opposite of the French impressionistic approach of Debussy or Koechlin. Even when the music becomes quiet, as towards the end of the first movement, clarity rather than an opaque sound is the rule. That being said, the central movement, titled “The Blue Hour,” sounds somewhat like the exotic music of Koechlin’s The Jungle Book. This was the piece that Talich conducted in 1923, and it was repeated in a performance by Karel Kalik in 1926. To quote from Michael Crump’s excellent liner notes:

For many years, Vanishing Midnight was thought not to have survived intact. In the first edition of his catalogue of Martinů’s works, Harry Halbreich listed only ‘Modrá hodina’, stating that the piece was the central movement of a larger triptych. He went on to state that the first movement, ‘Satyři vháji cypřišu’ (‘Satyrs in the Grove of Cypresses’), was lost, but that orchestral parts for the second movement and indeed the third (‘Stíny’ – ‘Shadows’) were housed in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra archive in the Rudolfinum in Prague.

Yet somehow the music was found, although Crump doesn’t tell us where or how the missing first movement (“Satyrs in the Grove of Cypresses”) was discovered. The music is, as I say, quite astonishing. Crump gives us some detail of the musical progression and how Martinů put it together:

‘Satyrs’ begins in D flat major, the violas embellishing the seventh of the chord with trills above and below it. Muted horns sound in the distance, and a cloud of polytonal semiquavers issues from the violins and dispels in an instant, like ‘the scent of blossoms rising from the garden’. Longer string lines emerge, each beginning with a descending perfect fourth, inherited from Dream of the Past and destined to head the majority of the important themes in Vanishing Midnight. Presently a solo violin delivers a languid theme, followed by a four-bar solo for trumpet, lifted from Dream of the Past with only minor rhythmic adjustments. A brief reminiscence of the opening bars rounds out this introduction, setting a precedent for the entire movement: each new episode that arises during its course is fatally attracted and destroyed by the gravitational pull of the opening bars, like objects on an event-horizon succumbing to the irresistible strength of a black hole.

The bulk of ‘Satyrs’ is devoted to the symphonic elaboration of a slow waltz delivered at first by solo flute and then clarinet. This melody has also been heard within Dream of the Past, somewhat concealed within the long oboe solo towards the start (the clearest resemblance is found between 9:03 and 1:59). In the earlier work, this phrase is a mere incident, but in ‘Satyrs’ its symphonic credentials are revealed and exploited at once; it is developed through a gradual accelerando by the oboe and then by full strings, capped by a thrilling Maestoso and a tumultuous chromatic descent. Once more, the textures of the opening return to absorb the energy of this impressive outburst, though now the distant sounds are all but drowned out by massive swells from the percussion.

A sudden turn to C major announces the second half of the movement, generally swifter in tempo and perhaps portraying the ‘distant celebrations’ of the programme. This section introduces a two-bar theme on the trumpet, another theme with a kinship to material from Dream of the Past (compare 8:54 with 7:36). Again, Martinů is keen to develop this old material in its new surroundings; the trumpet snippet alternates with snatches of the earlier waltz theme, later becoming the springboard for an idyll high in the strings as well as a more urgent sequel in the woodwind.

But it’s not just “Satyrs” that’s great; so, too, is the third movement, “Shadows,” which has even more complex counterpoint and a highly dramatic, surging pulse and top line that belie the impression conveyed by its title.

Conversely, the earlier Ballade (1915) was one of only two pieces by Martinů inspired by a piece of visual art (the other was the later Frescoes), in this case Arnold Böcklin’s various paintings of Villa by the Sea. The cypress trees in all of them are bent to the strong ocean winds, and a woman gazes pensively out to sea. Martinů tried to capture this feeling in dark colors and a feeling as if the sea winds were moving relentlessly towards the villa, only to fall back when the winds recede. This is by no means an immature work; on the contrary, it is beautifully and well crafted, and in addition to the use of a piano there is a long, forlorn viola solo. Hobson manages to capture the lonely quality of this music beautifully, as well as the more powerful moments that surge in and out of the score. Moreover, Martinů “builds” the music in stages of intensity as he develops his themes. Oddly, however, the solo piano, playing softly, rides the music out to the end. It’s a heck of a piece, and this, too, is a world premiere recording.

villa-by-the-sea 1865

Villa by the Sea 1878


Two versions of “Villa by the Sea,” 1865 and 1878.

Dreams of the Past comes from 1920 and, although it may be the slightest work on this set it is by no means a poor piece. It is, however, more resolutely tonal and impressionistic in character, making it sound, perhaps, less Martinů-like than the other works here. There is a louder middle section with a tambourine(!) that acts as an effective contrast. Later on we hear swirling winds around a solo oboe, followed in turn by a surprisingly dark, sinister orchestral passage. The piece does, however, end quietly with the winds playing and soft strings in the upper register playing in the background.

This is a simply wonderful CD and a great addition to Martinů’s legacy.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Miles’ Mega-Sax Groups Stir Up the Gumbo

Profound Like Gumbo

PROFOUND…LIKE GUMBO! / WATSON: Conservation.1 MOWER: The Easter Islander.1 Building.1 Svea Rike.1 Full English Breakfast.1 D’RIVERA: Wapango.2 JACKSON: The Frequent Flyer.2 KONITZ: Ablution.3 DAILEY: Title Goes Here.3 First Step.3 Union County Line.4 OSLAND: Lisa’s da Bossa.3 CARUCCI: Cecilism.4 Grey Swans.4 PRATT: The Kwisatz Haderach.4 Blame It…4 KIRK: Serenade to a Cuckoo4 / 1Mega-Sax Quartet 1: David Balfour, s-sax/a-sax; Rudy Brannon, a-sax; Lindon Kanakanui, t-sax; Joe Carucci, bar-sax. 2Mega-Sax Quartet 2: Chris Barber, s-sax/a-sax; Jana White, a-sax; Joshua Branham, t-sax; Tom Wallis, bar-sax. 3Osland/Dailey Duo: Miles Osland, s-sax/a-sax/fl; Raleigh Dailey, pn. 4Profound Gumbo: Kelly Pratt, tpt/fl-hn; Brad Kerns, tb; Joe Carucci, bar-sax; Dailey, keyboards; Danny Cecil, bs; Matt Skaggs, dm / Sea Breeze SB-4546

And here is yet another earlier CD from Miles Osland’s Mega-Sax bands. This one, from 2002, is just as interesting as Stinkin’ Up the Place.

The opening selection, Robert Watson’s Conservation, is well written if more in a jazz form than classically-influenced, with powerful solos by Rudy Brannon on alto and Joe Carucci on baritone sax. It’s just that here structure isn’t quite as important as the swing and drive of the music; it’s still there but not quite as complex. But any composition written by Mike Mower has solid and often unusual structure, and his four pieces here clearly fit the bill. Nonetheless, The Easter Islander, written for soprano, alto, tenor and baritone, is simply amazing in the manner which the saxes interweave behind David Balfour’s soprano solo as well as after it. It’s almost like Bird meets Monk. Mower’s Building follows, a rare slow piece for him with some space between the notes, allowing the melodic line to coalesce more fluidly and less rhythmically…at least for a while. Soon enough, the saxes begin to intertwine in polyrhythmic complexity. This could easily have been part of yet another Stinkin’ album. Eventually the baritone sax plays an ostinato figure while the top saxes interweave around each other, then a quick ride-out. Mower’s Svea Rilke is similarly structured. Boy, does he like counterpoint!

Paquito D’Rivera’s Wapango, though built around an opening chorus in Latin rhythm, is also informed by counterpoint. Mower’s Full English Breakfast is, perhaps, a bit less interesting than its predecessors—not from lack of contrapuntal figures but simply because the theme and its development seem to me a bit less original—but taken on its own merits, it’s a good, swinging piece that shows off the group’s chops. The tempo slows down for Carucci’s baritone solo, but he turns up the heat with his hard-swinging beat.

We then get into several duets between Osland on soprano sax and flute and Raleigh Dailey on piano. Lee Konitz’ Ablution almost has a Lennie Tristano vibe; after all, Konitz was one of Tristano’s close friends and colleagues. Dailey’s light and airy solo nonetheless sounds a bit more West Coast style and less like Lennie’s complex playing. It’s a little odd not to hear at least a bass working in the background, but the lack of any rhythmic underpinning gives the music an almost weightless quality, as if it were floating on air. The same goes for his original pieces, Title Goes Here and First Step, although his own compositional style is bluesier than Konitz’. The first of these almost has a sound like those “Western”-styled pieces that were so popular during the 1950s, while First Step is a ballad, with rich chord changes and a lovely lyric line played to perfection by Osland on the flute. Dailey’s piano solo is also a gem, and when Osland returns the two play together in perfect synchronization with a nice, genial feeling for the swing of the piece. The last of their duets together is an Osland original, Lisa’s da Bossa, a reference to his wife, who is also a saxist. It’s a very nice piece whose melody line and chord choices have a strangely Mingus-like quality, though Dailey’s piano solo suggests a Latin beat in the first eight bars. It’s really wonderful to hear these two outstanding artists and pedagogues play together, two musical minds that obviously like and respect one another.

Dailey’s Union County Line, written for the Mega-Sax Ensemble, returns to the sort-of-Western beat of Title Goes Here, punched up in this case by Dailey on a Fender Rhodes and the wonderfully swinging but understated bass lines of Danny Cecil. Miles flies on alto here, followed in turn by (surprisingly) a couple of brass players, trombonist Brad Kerns and trumpeter Kelly Pratt. This one almost has a “Blue Note” vibe about it that I really liked. Dailey’s solo is as clean as if he were engraving each note on a locket. The cool jazz vibe returns for Joe Carucci’s Cecilism, played with Pratt on flugelhorn and featuring some delicious intertwining of the various instruments in fugal fashion. This sounds as much unlike the usual hard-hitting Mega-Sax sound as you can possibly imagine, but it works beautifully, providing a nice contrast. Pratt’s solo is a real gem.

The Kwisatz Haderach is a piece that seems combine a Latin beat with Middle Eastern harmonies…again, another ‘50s type of sound. It’s beautifully written, avoiding the flashier sort of style for which Osland’s Mega-Sax groups are famous, with excellent spot solos. By contrast, Carucci’s Grey Swans is a moody ballad, scoring the trumpet and the reeds down in their middle ranges and spotting Dailey again on piano. The composer provides a nicely meditative baritone solo, followed by Pratt in his lower range (sounding a bit like Louis Mucci) and Dailey.

Pratt’s original, Blame It…, begins in ballad tempo, built around a slippery theme (played well by Dailey) which fades into a cymbal wash followed by a drum solo. Following this the tempo doubles, the theme changes, and Pratt’s trumpet leads us into an ostinato groove over which he plays for a chorus. Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Serenade to a Cuckoo begins with what can only be described as coherent cacophony, out of which comes a slow but swinging bluesy beat with the band playing nice and relaxed. Kerns contributes a nice, burry, Eddie Bert-like trombone solo, and Carucci plays his heart out on the baritone sax. A great finish to a great album, another triumph for the U of K musicians!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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