Inside the John Perrine Quartet

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HERE’S THE THING / PERRINE: The Tao of Lenny Bruce. Tarantino’s Lullaby. Here’s the Thing. Greener the Grass. “Heard a Joke Once…” Welcome to the Monkey House. Rack-On Touring. Prelude to the Screwtape Letters / The John Perrine Quartet: Perrine, a-sax/s-sax; Rock Wehrmann, pn; Adam Plank, bs; Bill Ransom, dm / Centaur 3604

Well, here’s the thing: John Perrine, Associate Professor, Coordinator of Jazz Studies and Department Chair at Cleveland State University, paid to have his music recorded and issued by Centaur Records. Perrine holds a DMA from Louisiana State University, a Masters in Jazz Pedagogy from Northwestern University, and a BME from Stetson University. He is a founding member of the Neo-Tessares Saxophone Quartet as well as the Red Stick Saxophone Quartet.

Happily, as academic jazz musicians go, Perrine is pretty cool. His music is best described as straightahead jazz with a twist—actually, several twists. The opener, The Tao of Lenny Bruce, begins with a lick that sounds like Thelonious Monk only with some piano counterpoint in the intro. The chord changes in the improvised sections also have a Monk-like feel to them, and pianist Wehrmann has fun working around them, producing solos of considerable ingenuity and invention. Perrine’s solo on the opener is relaxed and laid-back, almost like some of the West Coast players of the 1950s. The piece ends with a cute little riff played in thirds.

By contrast, Tarantino’s Lullaby is anything but lullaby-like, rather an uptempo piece in which Perrine switches from alto to soprano sax. Here, his solo is busier and more angular in design, wailing as if he were playing on a Mingus chart. The harmonic base of the tune seems to be primarily two chords, but this doesn’t hold back any of the soloists here; Wehrmann is again inventive and swinging. Drummer Ransom has a nice couple of solos on this one, too. Here’s the Thing is a strange piece, built around an odd, bitonal melodic contour that seems to keep going on and on without developing until Perrine interrupts with his alto solo. And his solo really develops here, going on and on is a linear fashion, creating an entirely new line that bears little resemblance to the opening tune. It is Wehrmann who is more sparse in this one, playing laid-back single-note lines against the bass of Adam Plank. The latter gets his own solo, and it’s a very nice one; he plays electric bass, but the tone is clean enough to resemble an acoustic instrument.

Greener Grass begins with Perrine squealing outside jazz on his alto, followed by a funk sort of beat which leads into the main tune, the bridge of which is resolutely tonal, but the passage following is more relaxed and sounds quasi-classical—a strange mixture. Yet Perrine and his quartet manage to pull all of these elements together in a fine performance, multi-layered and fascinating.

“Heard a Joke Once…” begins in ballad tempo, relaxed and somewhat wistful in feeling. Perrine is back on soprano for this one, stretching out the melody line with superb breath control, and pianist Wehrmann is equally mellow. Welcome to the Monkey House has a sort of quirky opening line similar to Here’s the Thing, but once again Perrine’s and the band’s strong grasp of structure make the music sound unified in concept and execution, this despite a series of rapid-fire notes played at double tempo on alto and equally busy background from the rest of the band. This almost resembles an Ornette Coleman sort of piece. Perrine goes “outside” quite a bit on this one, following which the tempo comes way down for a piano-bass lick over which Perrine plays in a more relaxed fashion. Clearly, he knows his jazz composition; these are all fine and interesting works. It ends on a repeated, quite different lick.

Rack-On-Touring opens with a bass solo, then moves into a sort of Eastern belly-dance sort of tempo, with Perrine back on soprano and the rhythm section cooking like mad behind him. Wehrmann is relaxed, almost minimal in his solo here. When Perrine returns, he plays like mad—this track clearly belongs to him. The album ends with a fairly brief (two-minute) Prelude to the Screwtape Letters, a piece played in a stiff ragtime beat with a bit of shuffle-rhythm from drummer Ransom and Perrine playing the unusual melody—except for the brief uptempo bridge—before the tempo relaxes for a few bars, then returns to the ragtime shuffle for the finish.

A thoroughly delightful album, varied in concept and beautifully carried out by the quartet. Bravo!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Examining Fagerlund’s “Stonework”

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STONEWORK / FAGERLUND: Drifts for Orchestra. Stonework for Orchestra. Transit, Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra / Ismo Eskelinen, gtr; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu, cond / Bis SACD-2295

Sebastian Fagerlund (1972 – ) is a Finnish composer who studied with Erkki Jokinen, graduating with a degree in composition in 2004. The notes tell us that he creates “musical dramas in which powerful expression is combined with intensity and vivid communication, as well as an openness towards different musical expressions.”

My impression of his music, from the low-level but dramatic percussion opening of Drifts through the six-movement guitar concerto Transit, is of a composer who works more within the tonal system than many of his compeers while still retaining a fairly high degree of modernity in structure and harmonies. It is music not too distant from that of Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Benjamin Britten and other composers of the 1940s and ‘50s who created similar pieces, yet he definitely has his own style and voice. He uses primarily dense orchestral textures, particularly with rich string writing, and his music has a clear structure using a great deal of legato and what, for lack of a better term, I would call “sweep.” At times he tends to be a bit melodramatic, exploding in sound at moments that call for a bit more reticence, but this is also a part of his style. In Drifts, wind and brass figures swirl wildly around the more lyrical strings and winds at key moments, which also creates a feeling of movement. His music thus communicates on two levels, that of highly organized themes and variants as well as on emotion. Towards the end of the piece, a strong rhythmic figure emerges underneath all the turmoil, which propels the music with even more energy towards the final section.

The notes also indicate that Fagerlund now considers Drifts, written in 2016-17, to be the second part of a trilogy, of which Stonework (2014-15) is the first part, but he has not yet finished writing that third piece. Considering this, I’m puzzled as to why the earlier piece follows the later one on this CD, but it is clearly cut from the same cloth. In this case, however, Stonework begins loudly, with a trumpet fanfare that leads into a thick, slow theme for cellos and basses, but then explodes in a riot of rapid brass (trumpets playing staccato figures on top, horns and trombones whooping it up above) that leads into a complex development section with counterpoint. Woodblocks and tympani rattle around in the background, ramping up the tension as the strings eventually play rising glissandi that lead into the stratosphere, and thence to a quieter and slower section in which winds and strings are scored much more sparsely. Slowly, however, an undercurrent of tension returns, buffeted by timpani outbursts as sustained string figures vacillate between peaceful and ominous. Occasional biting winds make a commentary on the musical progression; then quietude again, with pizzicato strings and winds, a whooping French horn, snare drum and then pounding drums adding to the mix. I cannot say enough for Hannu Lintu’s remarkable musical direction; he leads performances that are crystal-clear in texture as well as emotionally charged and lyrically effusive. Equally slowly, the volume of the piece also ramps up again, leading to a loud climax before a sustained high A on the trumpet pulls the others slowly into its vortex as the volume recedes once again, followed by a low rumble of timpani at the end.

The guitar concerto was a challenge for Fagerlund because he was not as well acquainted with the instrument and its limitations. He apparently wrote a solo guitar piece, Kromos, in 2011 as a forerunner of the concerto, which uses some of the same material. It is certainly not a guitar concerto that will appeal to those who love the more famous Spanish works of the past; its music is generally dark and atmospheric, with the guitar used as another solo voice in the full texture of the work. True, it dominates the movements, using such techniques as slapping the instrument, pulling on the strings and bending strings in addition to more conventional picking, but its music is far more dramatic than one is used to.

All in all, a thoroughly fascinating album and one that you will return to again to hear different layers of the music!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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New Recording of Messiaen’s Famous Quartet


MESSIAEN: Fantaisie for Violin & Piano. Theme & Variations. Quatour pour la Fin du Temps / Ensemble Nordlys: Christine Pryn, vln; Viktor Wennesz, cl; Øystein Sonstad, cel; Kristoffer Hyldig, pn / Danacord DACOCD756

Twenty-six years after his death, Olivier Messiaen remains a controversial and, for many listeners, a difficult composer to absorb. His music was astringent in such a manner that even as late as the mid-1960s, American music critics wrote polemics denouncing his music as unlistenable rubbish (I know; I remember those articles in High Fidelity). For me, he was generally cold and unapproachable until I heard Tashi’s groundbreaking recording of the Quatour pour la Fin du Temps in the 1970s, but even then, it took me two more decades before I finally “got” some of his other music. And to this date, I still don’t like his opera on St. Francis of Assisi or his organ music, the latter of which I find dark and sinister.

But to understand Messiaen one must look into his background and examine his mindset. The son of Cecile Sauvage, a poet who also thought herself a mystic, she deemed her son mystical as well and raised him to believe in spiritual themes, some of which were true and universal—our connection to nature and the universe, and being part of the universal mind—and some which were rubbish, such as the belief that Jesus controls our lives and fate and that birds are mystical creatures whose songs are messages from God. Messiaen bought into both concepts, mixed them together, and endeavored to produce music rooted in Roman Catholic mysticism and nature, particularly his love of birds. Thus when he was a prisoner of war in World War II, thinking he would not survive his incarceration, he wrote his Quartet for the End of Time for himself on piano and the three musicians imprisoned with him, a clarinetist, violinist and cellist. It remains his most popular and, in some ways, most personal and gripping work.

What I found interesting in this CD was the inclusion of two works from the early 1930s that are neither dark nor unapproachable, the Fantaisie and the Theme and Variations. Although clearly bitonal music, neither is unapproachable for the average listener and both are largely rooted in tonality with excursions into remote harmonies and moments of bitonality. Moreover, the musicians of Ensemble Nordlys (Northern Light Ensemble) play them with great enthusiasm and drive, which makes them even more likeable. My sole complaint about the Fantaisie is that I thought it was too short; it was so delightful to listen to that I wanted it to go on for at least another minute. Both works are played only by violinist Christine Pryn and pianist Kristoffer Hyldig, both highly emotional musicians who are completely involved in the music. This in itself makes their performances gripping and engaging in addition to the approachability of the music.

As for the famous quartet, I eventually came to prefer the recording made two years before Messiaen’s death by his wife and longtime musical partner, pianist Yvonne Loriod, with violinist Christoph Popper, clarinetist Wolfgang Meyer and cellist Manuel Fischer-Dieskau (Dietrich’s son). It wasn’t so much a technically superior performance—Tashi clearly played the music well—as an extra layer of sadness and fear in the feeling of the pieces. Considering its origin, this is clearly what Messiaen—who, as I said, was present at the recording session—wanted.

Thus I listened to Ensemble Nordlys’ performance with this in mind. Their approach is somewhat mixed; the drama is there, but in soft passages they only occasionally capture the otherworldly feeling of the score. This isn’t necessarily a condemnation of their approach; many performances don’t quite capture this, and Ensemble Nordlys clearly wanted to give a lucid, dramatic reading. And occasionally, as in the third section, “The abyss of the birds,” they do penetrate into the mystical feeling better than Tashi. But Loriod et al set the bar very high, and in my view only clarinetist Viktor Wennesz consistently reaches for it, although violinist Pryn plays with great tenderness of tone in “Praise to the eternity of Jesus.”

This may be nitpicking, but to my ears the playing of Loriod is what outshines most others’ performances. This isn’t surprising, as she was clearly one of the greatest French pianists of her time, often taken for granted because she was Messiaen’s wife. Taken as a totality, Ensemble Nordlys’ reading is for the most part quite satisfactory, though there’s just more “edge” in the Loriod version, particularly in the “Liturgy of crystal” that opens the work and in “Dance of wrath for the seven trumpets” that overshadows all others.

If this is your only exposure to this work, you may not feel disappointed. As I say, it occupies a position midway between Tashi and Loriod etc. But I still recommend Loriod as the reference recording of this work. It’s a pinnacle that may never be reached by anyone else.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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The Arúan Ortiz Trio in Zurich


LIVE IN ZURICH / ORTIZ: Analytical Symmetry. Fractal Sketches. IMPROVISATION. CHOPIN: Étude Op. 10 No. 6 (arr. Ortiz). COLEMAN: Medley: Open or Close/The Sphinx. SCHWARTZ-DIETZ: Alone Together (arr. Ortiz) / Aruán Ortiz Trio: Ortiz, pn; Brad Jones, bs; Chad Taylor, dm/Mbira / Intakt 301 (live: Zurich, 11/26/2016)

My first taste of Aruán Ortiz was his Hidden Voices CD, to which I gave a rave review when it appeared in late 2016. Here, it seems, he took his trio and three of the major pieces in the set (his two originals and Ornette Coleman’s Open or Close/The Sphinx) to Zurich a couple of months later. This live CD is the result of one of those concerts.

Ortiz’ approach to the music here differs from the studio album. In Analytical Symmetry, for instance, he opens with an out-of-tempo introduction before moving into the percussive effects of his right hand playing a steady sort of beat against the percussion (Mbira) played by Chad Taylor. This interplay goes on for quite some time, with the Mbira shifting its accents and bassist Brad Jones making some commentary here and there. The performance here is considerably more abstract than the recording, with Jones playing high figures on bowed bass and Ortiz also more abstract in his piano commentary. One could almost call it an ambient jazz performance except that the music has much more substance. It develops more slowly, too, but develop it does, eventually moving into a steady beat with the pianist throwing in some Monkish figures over a bitonal foundation. The rhythm is also more Latin-sounding here than on the record, although in places the beat dissipates and the performance takes on the feel of an Art Ensemble of Chicago performance. (Reading the liner notes, I discovered that I was not far off the mark. One of Ortiz’ strongest musical influences was Muhal Richard Abrams, a former member of the AEC who died last October 29. Abrams took Ortiz to museums and had long discussions with him about Chicago’s progressive African-American music and Scriabin.) In short, it’s completely hypnotic, drawing the listener deep into the workings of the trio’s musical mind. Ortiz also blends his Fractal Sketches into the music, thus giving us a 34-minute performance of modern jazz as high art.

Indeed, the abstract quality of the performance almost defies description. It’s almost like having an inner view of the workings of Ortiz’ mind as he plays with themes and variants, connecting and disconnecting musical ideas as they occur to him. You simply have to stay with him as he moves themes, motifs and improvisations around like a musical chess game in which there are no winners or losers, merely different moves. It’s free jazz, but it’s not, because whatever free (and, in this case, atonal) musical ideas are thrown out there, he is able to corral them and use them as a springboard for further invention.

The second set opens with an a capella bass improvisation by Jones as fascinating and inventive as Ortiz’ pianism. This eventually morphs, surprisingly, into a jazz reconstruction of Chopin’s Étude Op. 10 No. 6, unrecognizable to most Chopin-lovers except for portions of the top line of music. And Chopin somehow morphs into the Coleman pieces. As sometimes happens in Ortiz’ playing, there are hints here and there of Tristano, who I still feel is one of the most underrated influences on modern jazz in history. Ortiz plays a long series of single-note improvisations, eventually bringing in the left hand as counterbalance. Eventually he introduces some Cuban rhythms, but then deconstructs those as well, producing a sort of swirling, asymmetric vortex of sound on the keyboard. He wraps it up with a swinging, rhythmic riff.

The album ends with a surprise: Ortiz’ treatment of the old Arthur Schwartz tune Alone Together—or, to be more accurate, a spacey rewriting of Alone Together. Ortiz is unusually subdued here but still inventive, reveling in the rich chord patterns of the tune until he eventually meanders off into playing figures higher and higher on the keyboard until the music simply disappears into the ether.

Quite a trip!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Gee’s “Amazing Sliding Circus” Interesting


AMAZING SLIDING CIRCUS / VINCENT: A Most Grand and Marvelous Spectacle. Mrs. Nisbett’s Particular Lament. The Triumphal Coulrobonia. KARL KING: The Melody Shop. STRAVINSKY, arr. PIENAAR: Pulcinella. BERIO: Sequenza V. SONDHEIM, arr. KNIGHT: Send in the Clowns. CARPENTER: Fischietto è morto. KEELEY: Circus Games. LEONCAVALLO, arr. KNIGHT: Pagliacci – Intermezzo & Vesti la giubba / Matthew Gee, ten-tb/bs-tb/dm/cymbals; Sulki Yu, Shana Douglas, Joana Valentinaviciute, Anna Smith, Charlotte Ansbergs, Manuel Porta, vln; Abigail Fenna, Liz Varlow, vla; Jonathan Ayling, cel; Chris West, bs; Emer McDonough, fl; Katherine Lacy, Emily Meredith, cl; Katy Ayling, bs-cl; Lawrence Davies, Fr-hn; Gerald Kirby, vib; Christopher Glynn, pn; Nigel Woodhouse, mand / MG Music 02

British trombonist Matthew Gee, a nonconformist, writes the following in the notes for this album:

Where by first release, Paradiso e inferno, sought to challenge the trombone’s buffoonish stereotype, this second solo album…seems to embrace it.

The trombone’s ability to produce raucous glissandos has naturally drawn composers to focus on the instrument’s comic potential – its undeniable clownishness. Of course, those with a deeper understanding of the instrument, such as the composers and arrangers represented on this disc, also exploit the trombone’s vast array of colors, and its capacity for nuance and beauty.

The album begins with a real piece of musical chaos, Simon Vincent’s A Most Grand and Marvellous Spectacle. Gee was just playing around one day with different mutes, and out came the raw material for this piece. It’s comical, all right, but not much in the way of music; it’s the kind of piece I like to call “schlumph,” meaning non-sequential nonsense. Immediately following, however, is Karl King’s peppy little march, The Melody Shop, in which Gee multi-tracked himself to produce a nicely rounded performance. His staccato technique is simply astounding in the second half of the piece, lipping a series of notes into place as if they were popcorn coming out of a popper.

We then move into a pert performance of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, with Gee accompanied by pianist Christopher Glynn. Played straight, it’s a nice transcription so far as it goes. Though I missed Stravinsky’s orchestration, it was funny to hear Gee “blatting” in the low range or growling out notes on occasion. Glynn’s piano, however, sounds a bit odd, very bright and almost tinny, as if he were trying to emulate a fortepiano. In the “Toccata,” Gee uses a cup mute while playing staccato through most of it, giving the music an odd color, while in the succeeding “Gavotta” he produces a really beautiful, rounded tone, almost like Lawrence Brown or Tommy Dorsey. The clownish-sounding slide work in the “Vivo” is extremely well done, as are the lipped staccato notes in the Finale.


Portrait of Mrs. Nisbett by Robert William Buss

As an interval we get another Vincent piece, Mrs. Nisbett’s Particular Lament. This is dedicated to a famous and beautiful 19th-century comedienne; again multi-tracked, including on the bass trombone, this one begins somewhat melodically but quickly moves into a smear of notes backed by electronic sounds. This acts as a prelude to a series of pieces either written to portray clowns, comment on them or, in the case of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza V, dedicated to one, his neighbor Karl Wettach a.k.a. Grock the Clown. But of course there is nothing clownish about Berio’s music, which is abstract in the extreme, played here by Gee a cappella, unless it is the strange wah-wah effects (created at times simply by placing a hand over the bell for a mute) or the even stranger growling through the horn. Following this as contrast is the perfectly banal Send in the Clowns of Stephen Sondheim. Why this song gained popularity completely escapes me; why Gee included it here, other than for its title, puzzles me. Much better, and more interesting, is the quirky little piece that follows by Gary Carpenter, Fischietto è morto, based on the mock-funeral scene from Fellini’s movie I Clowns. Setting the trombone (mostly muted) against a lyrical but odd figure played by strings, it is both original and enticing. Carpenter also develops the piece well and along traditional classical lines, eventually using broad tonal themes for the strings before moving into a quirky scherzando passage.

Next we hear Circus Games by Rob Keeley, whose intention was to cast the trombone “as a circus ringleader, and the winds, piano and vibraphone as embers of a circus troupe.” The music is, like Fischietto è morto, odd but delightful, with several interesting effects created by Keeley’s playing the winds against the percussion instruments in funny little musical cells while the trombone weaves it way around them. This, in turn, is followed by a full orchestration of the Intermezzo from Pagliacci, played quite straight by Gee with his warmest TD tone and a small string section, followed by “Vesti la giubba.” Very pretty but nothing special. The disc ends with a cacophonous thing called Coultrobonia, “the irrational fear of clowns.”

All in all, an interesting disc, uneven in spots but with meaty portions you can savor.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Broder’s “Heritage” a Fun & Creative Album

Heritage cover0001

HERITAGE / BRODER: Goin’ Up Home. A Wiser Man Than Me.* HAZAMA: Wherever the Road Leads. TRAD., arr. HOLMAN: Jambalaya. TRAD., arr. McNEELY: Cripple Creek. TRAD., arr. TRUESDELL: Wayfaring Stranger.* TRAD., arr. HAZAMA: I’m Not Afraid to Die. TRUESDELL: Brodeo.* HORNE: The People Could Fly / The American Roots Project: Scott Wendholt, tpt/fl-hn; Nick Finzer, tb; Sara Caswell, vln; Owen Broder, a-sax/t-sax; James Shipp, vib/perc; Frank Kimbrough, pn; Jay Anderson, bs; Matt Wilson, dm; *Wendy Gilles, Kate McGarry, Vuyo Sotashe, voc / ArtistShare AS0158

The concept of this album is to combine traditional Americana, i.e. folk music, with jazz. Saxophonist-bandleader Owen Broder chose this format in order to show links between the two types of music, but although I enjoyed it quite a bit I’d still have to say that it’s only because he makes jazz out of the folk music, not necessarily because the two types of music are related. Alan Lomax Jr., former director of folk music at the Smithsonian Institution, spent decades trying to prove that jazz was a form of folk music (including his recording and later writing about Jelly Roll Morton) and failed. Folk music is its own thing, and I do like much of it myself, but it doesn’t swing and it has nothing to do with improvisation.

Happily, the arrangements presented here are lively and inventive. I was really glad to hear an arranger who does his own thing and doesn’t just work from formula. Moreover, some of the original pieces on the album, particularly Miho Hazama’s Wherever This Road Leads, have a somewhat different “feel” to them, and lean much more in the direction of jazz tunes than American folk or blues.

And best of all, Broder allows himself and his talented bandmates to express themselves in a purely jazz sense, which lifts the project up and puts it on a nice level. I was particularly happy to see the name of drummer Matt Wilson among the players here, as his own music has given me some very happy listening over the past couple of years. His enlivening and multi-faceted technique keeps things swinging, even under Sara Caswell’s Turtle Island-like jazz violin chorus in Wherever This Road Leads, which suddenly morphs into a bluegrass hoedown in the final choruses. I was quite surprised by the slow, impressionistic introduction to Jambalaya with its displacement of rhythms and altered chords. Hank Williams would never recognize the piece played this way, and for a few choruses neither did I! Scott Wendholt’s bebop trumpet solo is played over band riffing, after which the group plays a written variant on the original tune, with flatted thirds and other jazz devices tossed in for fun. A different kind of Jambalaya, you bet!

Cripple Creek gets a sort of exotic Middle-Eastern feel to it, resembling some of the things that Rabih Abou-Khalil did so well back in the 1980s and ‘90s. Once again, Broder’s arranging skills are so acute and so original that the music is transformed. What a wonderful reading this is, with a sort of group improv in counterpoint just before Wendholt’s solo. The leader’s tenor sax solo is joyous and inventive, fitting into the structure beautifully. Just listen to Wilson on drums, producing varied backbeats through yet another polyphonic chorus before it suddenly starts to swing out like bluegrass Dixieland, two forms of music that do fit together, if you remember some of those old Jimmie Rodgers records from the late 1920s-early ‘30s, here taken to extremes that Rodgers could never have imagined.

Wayfaring Stranger is taken way down in tempo, beginning with an a cappella out-of-tempo chorus by pianist Frank Kimbrough with polytonal chording, under which Jay Anderson’s bowed bass plays ominously. Kate McGarry’s soft-grained voice sings the lyrics with Wendy Gilles later joining her in close harmony. The writing in this chart for the violin is positively haunting. From a jazz perspective, however, only Anderson’s solo leans in that direction.

I’m Not Afraid to Die, another original by Hazama, again dispenses at first with any allusion to folk music, played in a nice middle tempo with fine writing for the trombone underneath the trumpet lead. Kimbrough’s solo is rich in feeling as well as in his variants, while Wendholt switches to flugelhorn for a beautifully relaxed outing. Ryan Truesdell’s Brodeo begins uptempo in a hoedown sort of beat, again scored with a fine ear for texture before moving into a more relaxed pace. Here, Caswell’s violin is more in a jazz-classical sort of vein, followed by the leader’s ethereal alto and an nice, double-tempo polyphonic chorus over Wilson’s drums.

Alphonso Horne’s original The People Could Fly is based on the Bantu music of South Africa. This is, however, a very varied arrangement, shifting in tempo and beat, with Nick Finzer playing plunger trombone in the manner of Tricky Sam Nanton. Some chanting and hand-clapping liven up the latter portion of the piece. This is a real butt-kicker! Vuyo Sotashe and the two ladies contribute some neat vocal effects, too.

We end our journey with another piece by Broder, A Wiser Man Than Me, based on New Orleans dirge style and featuring a much looser arranging style. The slow beat in 3 put me in mind of some of those Southern gospel-jazz pieces that G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live band used to play as bumper music back in the late 1970s-early ‘80s. And the band here gives it the same kind of “koochy” feel, getting under the skin of the music as it rides nice and easy into the sunset.

This album is a wonderful find and strikingly original in addition to being appealing music.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Reappraising William Grant Still

Wm Grant Still

Behold, a composer: now, as in his lifetime, celebrated as “The Dean of African American Composers,” yet in many ways still misunderstood. Handsome, dapper, and extremely bright, William Grant Still (1895-1978) lived a life simultaneously in public and in the shadows. In many ways, his fame came with a caveat. As “Dean of African American Composers,” he was not Dean of American composers. Raised in Woodville, Mississippi, both of his parents were teachers, although his father also worked in a local grocery store. Their heritage was of mixed blood: African-American, Scotch, Irish, American Indian and Spanish. His father died suddenly at age 24, when William was only three months old. His mother, Carrie, took her baby with her to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she taught high school English for 33 years. There, she met and married Charles B. Shepperson, who was a wonderful stepfather to young William. Shepperdson noted his musical talent early and nurtured it, buying several Victor Red Seal records of classical music and taking him to local concerts whenever he could. Something of a late bloomer, William started violin lessons at age 15, but also taught himself how to play the oboe, double bass, viola, cello, clarinet and saxophone. His other musical influences during those years would stay with him for the rest of his life, notably the ragtime, blues, cakewalks and Spanish dances he heard.

Still was so precocious that he was able to graduate high school at age 16, whereupon he wanted to go to college—a daunting goal for a young African-American in 1911—but his grades were so good that he was snapped up by Wilberforce University in Ohio. Since his mother thought he would never make it in the current racially-skewered environment as a classical musician, she insisted that he study to be a doctor, thus he took up a Bachelor of Science course of study. But music kept pulling him away from medicine; he conducted the university band, learned various instruments and began to compose and write orchestrations. His talents were so notable that he was awarded a scholarship to Oberlin College.

Still enlisted in the Army in 1918 and served in World War I. Upon his release from the service in 1919, he worked as an arranger for W.C. Handy’s orchestra and played in the pit band of the big Noble Sissle-Eubie Blake hit show, Shuffle Along. He then studied at the New England Conservatory of Music with conservative Romantic composer George Whitfield Chadwick and avant-garde modernist Edgard Varese. Falling under Varese’s spell, many of his earliest mature works were exceptionally modern, but within a few years he felt that he was not being true to himself and so reverted to a more tonal style, incorporating Negro folk tunes, cakewalks, rags and spirituals into his work.

His first big breakthrough was Dark America in 1925, but it was his Symphony No. 1, subtitled “Afro-American Symphony,” that really put him on the map in 1930. By this time he had written some interesting arrangements for popular white bandleaders, i.e. a concert version of St. Louis Blues for Don Voorhees and two pretty advanced versions of the popular songs Poor Butterfly and Limehouse Blues for Red Nichols. But jazz as an art form held little appeal for him. As someone who through-composed everything, even when ragtime or the blues was its influence, Still was uncomfortable with the concept of freewheeling instant improvisations. It took him nearly a decade to become attuned to individual musicians playing their own variations on his themes; thus, jazz per se was never a strong influence on his work except as it pertained to the blues. It has never been recorded what he thought of Duke Ellington’s work, which managed to dovetail written themes with improvisation, but it’s telling that he never wrote a single arrangement for a black jazz orchestra, not even the well-known bands of Earl Hines, Chick Webb, Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie or Billy Eckstine. Basie’s freewheeling, open-arrangement style could not have appealed to him very much.

The “Afro-American Symphony” caught the attention of fellow-composer Howard Hanson, then music director at the Rochester-Eastman School of Music, and it was there that the work was premiered in 1931. It was an instant success, which led to Hanson performing his ballet Sahdji the same year. With Sahdji, however, a trend began to make itself apparent. Mixed in with some truly original and inventive music, Still also wrote sentimental tunes in a popular style. This was to become his one weakness, a tendency to combine the artistic with the commonplace. It was probably his own proclivity to do so, but it often undermined the structure of his pieces. The same weakness, I hasted to point out, did not afflict the classical pieces of African-American composers John Lewis or Ornette Coleman, nor the jazz-classical hybrids of Charles Mingus, George Russell or J.J. Johnson.

But the general musical public responded to Still’s music with great enthusiasm, and he slowly but surely became more famous, his arranging and writing skills in demand. He became an arranger for Willard Robison’s Deep River Hour and “King of Jazz” Paul Whiteman’s Old Gold program in the early ‘30s, then moved to California where he became an arranger for films. These included such box-office hits as the Bing Crosby film Pennies From Heaven (1936) and Lost Horizon (1937), where he scored the music of Dimitri Tiomkin. He became the first African-American to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in 1936, and a year later received a commission from the WPA to write a ballet on the life of blacks in New York, which he titled Lenox Avenue. He was also fortunate enough to be able to record this work under his own direction with the Los Angeles WPA Symphony.

At this moment, we need to step back and inspect what Still was attempting to do, and compare that with its realization in sound by others. With his rich background in the African-American musical vernacular, Still wrote music that was, although not jazz, intended to be played in a jazzy manner. His recording of Lenox Avenue points this out quite clearly. He was most proud of the section that included a spiritual and an original blues, the latter built around an ostinato figure played by the French horns (a gently rocking alternation of two notes in the key of F (initially A-G, A-G, A-G, but shifting as he moved into the dominant 7th) over which the piano and clarinets played the principal theme. Eventually a trumpet section outburst, buttressed by strings, played a variant on the piano’s theme, with the cymbals playing a backbeat against it. This hypnotic riff tune became so popular that, three years later, he expanded it into a six-minute piece for Artie Shaw’s orchestra, leaving spots open for short solos. Some critics felt that Still was “slumming,” but no such thing. It took me a long time to realize, by listening to and comparing various recordings of his music, that this bluesy “feel” was not only intentional in this piece but in fact in all of his concert music. In other words, most conductors, then as now, played it incorrectly because neither they nor their musicians in the orchestras they led could “feel” a blues or ragtime rhythm properly. In short, most classical musicians play his music too primly, and without that blues-ragtime swagger, Still’s music fails to make its proper impact.

I bring up the Blues from the Lenox Avenue Suite because it is such a glaring example. Nowadays you generally hear it played by a violin-piano duo: the tempo is slowed way down so that it sounds more like a funeral dirge than the blues, the hypnotic two-note riff is often omitted, and the violinist takes excruciating pains to play the flatted third as if just producing the note was causing him or her great suffering. Who plays it today the way Still himself or Shaw did? I haven’t heard it.

Another example, and a very important one, is the “Afro-American Symphony.” There are several performances of it available on YouTube, including those by Neeme Järvi, John Jeter, Anthony Parnther, Marion Daniel, Bethany Pfluger, Adam Riccinto and Orlando Cela, but the only one that captures the right swagger of the piece is a version by the New Trier High School Symphony Orchestra conducted by one Peter Rosheger. And the difference isn’t minor or insignificant; the Rosheger performance really swings. The others don’t have a prayer of doing so. And the listeners’ reactions as recorded in the comments (such as those below the Järvi performance) are typical: “Sounds just like Gershwin”…“Amazing! So soothing to the ear.”…”EASY LISTENING!”

Well, it’s not supposed to be entirely easy listening, folks. That’s just the point. And it’s also not supposed to sound just like Gershwin.

In short: most of the performances you’ve probably heard of Still’s music, even by such great and famous artists as George Szell, Pierre Monteux, Howard Hanson, Rachel Barton Pine and Neeme Järvi, are simply too polite-sounding. They water down Still’s original concepts as much as listening to, say Arthur Fiedler conducting Duke Ellington. You need to hear Still’s music played by musicians, white or black, who have some rhythm in their soul in order to appreciate it.

The situation is analogous to a comedy skit done many years ago by the Canadian satirists on Second City TV. A white music director, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and buck teeth, is leading his chorus in a series of songs he calls “white scat singing.” This includes such tunes as Abba Dabba Honeymoon and Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral, with the chorus flailing their arms and moving around as they sing. The whole concept is, of course, absurd, but I seriously wonder if the classical musicians who “straighten out” and “whiten up” Still’s essentially black rhythms and motifs realize what damage they’re doing to his music. Ironically, there don’t seem to be many African-American classical musicians who take much of an interest in Still’s music. I’ve found very few performances by black musicians of any of his scores on YouTube or in the discography, particularly of the orchestral works.

For those who’d like to know Still’s music the way Still conceived it, here are links to the best versions I’ve heard:

Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American” (1930) / The New Trier High School Symphony Orchestra; Peter Rosheger, conductor. Ironic that the hippest, loosest performance comes from an orchestra of young white musicians from Winnetka, Illinois, but there you are.

Lenox Avenue: Spiritual and Blues (1937) / The Los Angeles WPA Symphony Orchestra; William Grant Still, conductor. Go to, move the cursor to about 11:16, and listen to the Spiritual and Blues (runs about six and a half minutes). I have no way of knowing how many Africa-American musicians were in this orchestra, but the gospel choir certainly sounds black.

Suite for Violin and Piano / Timothy Schwarz, violinist; Daniel Weiser, pianist. The only performance I’ve heard with guts, though the recording balance favors the pianist.

Ennanga (1956) / Ann Hobson Pilot, harpist; Videmus Ensemble – Still wrote this piece under the influence of the African harp, transcribing some of its effects for a conventional harp. It’s not quite as African-sounding as I might have liked, but spirited enough to give the right impression, particularly in Pilot’s wonderful solo work.

Frisco Jazz Band Blues / The Azusa Pacific University Chamber Wind Ensemble. A little-known and unusual work by Still, simulating the slightly off-kilter rhythmic playing of West Coast black blues bands of the late 1910s, probably written while he was W.C. Handy’s band arranger. The APU wind ensemble miraculously captures this archaic jazz-blues style with its funky and slightly off-kilter ragtime rhythms.

Africa: III. Land of Superstition / American Symphony Orchestra; Leon Botstein, conductor. The first two parts of this suite are rather romantic-sounding and unremarkable, but the third section is highly imaginative. Today it is often played by solo pianists who don’t have a clue what to do with the music. Botstein doesn’t always capture the “feel” of Still’s music right, but in this performance he is really very good.

Danzas de Panama: 4. Cumbia e Congo (1953) / Cincinnati Conservatory of Music Encore Advanced Chamber Orchestra; Jaime Morales-Matos, conductor. Not one of Still’s most imaginative works, but a piece built around an insistent Afro-Caribbean rhythm, conducted with great brio by Morales-Matos.

So there’s your crash course on William Grant Still. Poke around and listen to other music by him, and if you find any performances that match these in looseness and rhythmic verve, email me and let me know! (Email address on my home page.)

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Stoltzman Terrific in Jazz-Influenced Clarinet Music


AMBER WAVES / GERSHWIN: 3 Preludes (arr. J.A. Gach). BERNSTEIN: Clarinet Sonata. McKINLEY: Clarinet Sonata. FISCHER: Clarinet Sonata. HYMAN: Clarinata. ROWLES: The Peacocks. TRAD., arr. STOLTZMAN: Amazing Grace / Richard Stoltzman, cl; Irma Vallecillo, pn / RCA Victor 886446488240

One of my good friends was the late trad jazz clarinetist Frank Powers, a local figure well known for his promulgation of the Johnny Dodds school of playing, and although he did listen to and like much of later jazz (up to and including Buddy DeFranco and Tony Scott), he shocked me once by saying that he didn’t like Richard Stoltzman’s tone. This surprised me no end because, even as far back as his days with the chamber group Tashi, Stoltzman always struck me as the one classical clarinetist whose playing and tone were most influenced by such jazz players as Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman.

In this recent release from last May, Stoltzman plays a diverse program of music by jazz-influenced American composers from Gershwin (the oldest) to the still-living nonagenarian Dick Hyman. The only name I did not recognize in this lineup was that of William Thomas McKinley, who died in 2015. McKinley, also influenced by jazz, had a long association with Stoltzman and his fellow Tashi artist, pianist Peter Serkin, in addition to the great British cellist Colin Carr and American conductor Gerard Schwarz.

One of the things that surprised and delighted me immediately was that he included the clarinet sonata by the great, and still underrated, American jazz and classical composer Clare Fischer, whose son Brent I am in touch with (for professional reasons) and who is still issuing new works and arrangements by his late father. Fischer had a discursive and varied musical mind, ranging in his influences from the jazz of Lennie Tristano and Bud Powell to Latin music (primarily Brazilian) and pop. I don’t know if Stoltzman had any personal contact with the late composer, but his performance here will surely bring a smile to Brent’s face.

In my own personal view, only one name is missing from this list, and that would be the great Eddie Sauter, who wrote some extremely interesting classical-influenced jazz pieces for both Goodman and Shaw back in the 1940s. I can’t imagine why Stoltzman didn’t include a piece like Clarinet à la King, one of Sauter’s finest works, or Clarinade. Either one would have made a fine item on this smorgasbord of jazz-classical works.

Personally, I liked Stoltzman’s reading of the Gershwin Preludes, certainly one of his finest works, in what may well be their first transcription for clarinet. Both he and pianist Vallecillo give the music a proper jazz swagger, so often missing from others’ performances—including Gershwin’s own recording, which was locked into an early-1920s ragtime rhythm. Without going into too much detail, these are clearly the best performances of these often-overplayed works I’ve ever heard. This is especially true of the central “blues,” which Stoltzman plays like a jazz pro, with infinite detail and shading of his instrument. I also liked his occasional “acrid” tone in the upper range, although I questioned the addition of a few extra notes at the end.

In the year of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary (2018) we get his clarinet sonata, and this was one Bernstein work with which I was unfamiliar. Considering how much different the Gershwin sounds from everyone else’s versions, I can’t say with certainty how much or now little Stoltzman shifts the rhythms here, but since Bernstein was even more involved with jazz than Gershwin, I’d say that the composer would surely have enjoyed his interpretation. The music is more involved and developed, as was generally the case with Bernstein compositions, but taken on its own merits this is clearly an enjoyable and interesting performance, full of color and an interesting use of dynamics. I particularly liked the way Stoltzman played the gentle “Grazioso” section of the second movement, in which he and his accompanist give the effect of gentle rain sprinkling the musical landscape before suddenly swinging into the “Vivace e leggiero” section (and back again to “Grazioso”).

McKinley, it seems, was constantly sprinkling his scores with such detailed instructions as “Play with a vivid red tone” or “with silver intensity.” A distant cousin of the assassinated 25th president, he also performed as a jazz pianist with such famous names as saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz. His clarinet sonata skillfully blends the two worlds, sounding very classical indeed in the opening “Andantino” despite occasional jazz inflections from both Vallecillo and Stoltzman; considering their long working relationship, I’d have to say that the clarinetist presents the composer’s wishes here. There’s a fascinating, upbeat middle section in this movement, with the pianist playing repeated ostinato chords below the clarinetist’s excited high-register outbursts before settling back down into a lyrical vein, a passage that recurs in the movement’s development section. Later on the music that sounds like it could be improvised but is probably written out. The movement ends with a low clarinet trill. In the second movement “Scherzando,” the rhythm is clearly a classical one, albeit syncopated more in a 1920s vein, with the variations working around this motif in double time. The third-movement “Largo” is quintessential Americana in feel and scope, while the final “Maestoso” features high repeated chords from the pianist, with the clarinetist playing an odd, serrated melodic line above it, becoming more frantic as the music progresses. The late Artie Shaw would have loved this piece.

Fischer’s sonata also skillfully blends the jazz and classical worlds. Formally trained but bitten by the jazz bug as a young man, Fischer was forever toying with altered and extended chords, even in some of his more commercial work, and here used rich and fascinating chords in the opening movement, marked “Energetic.” Considering how little the clarinet was featured in post-1960 jazz, it’s notable that Fischer, who loved the instrument, continued to write both solo and concerted numbers for it, often using four- and five-voice clarinet choirs in his orchestrations (which his son Brent has continued to this day). Interestingly, this movement, too, ends with a low clarinet trill. In “Slowly and freely,” Fischer created a dark, moody piece in G-flat that floats through your mind, with sparse piano commentary on the clarinet’s meanderings, with a surprise transition at the end to E major. The last movement, “Metrically Steady With a Lilt,” is a decidedly bitonal 3/4 piece in Fischer’s more complex style, the pianist opening it up with a strange solo before the clarinet enters above it with commentary.

Dick Hyman’s Clarinata is a lively piece, almost a jazz-influenced polka albeit with references to the Eddie Sauter works cited earlier (particularly Clarinade). It’s essentially a virtuosic showpiece with a nice, lyrical “B” theme that acts as an effective contrast to the busyness of the opening and closing sections. By contrast, Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks is slow and atmospheric, with a well-defined melody played, once again, with infinite shadings (and some jazz-influenced note-bending) by Stoltzman while Vallecillo fills in with soft chord punctuations.

Stoltzman’s arrangement of Amazing Grace, a persistently popular but banal piece of hymnody, begins with a cappella clarinet playing the melody straight before introducing jazz-tinged variations in the second chorus. This helps the music considerably.

All in all, then, a surprising and surprisingly good album with truly great performances of both the familiar and unfamiliar works. Clearly, one of Stoltzman’s finest and most interesting albums!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Busch at Glyndebourne: Mozart Starts Here

Busch at Glyndebourne

FRITZ BUSCH AT GLYNDEBOURNE / MOZART: Le Nozze di Figaro (abridged) / Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender, bar (Figaro); Audrey Mildmay, sop (Susanna); Roy Henderson, bar (Count Almaviva); Aulikki Rautavaara, sop (Countess); Luise Helletsgruber, sop (Cherubino); Constance Willis, mezzo (Marcellina); Italo Tajo, Norman Allin, bs (Dr. Bartolo); Heddle Nash, ten (Don Basilio); Morgan Jones, ten (Don Curzio); Fergus Dunlop, bar (Antonio); Winifred Radford, sop (Barbarina); Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra & Chorus; Fritz Busch, cond

MOZART: Così fan Tutte / Heddle Nash, ten (Ferrando); Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender, bar (Guglielmo); John Brownlee, bar (Don Alfonso); Ina Souez, sop (Fiordiligi); Irene Eisinger, sop (Despina); Luise Helletsgruber, sop (Dorabella); Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra & Chorus; Fritz Busch, cond / Così fan Tutte (Highlights) / Richard Lewis, ten (Ferrando); Erich Kunz, bar (Guglielmo); Mario Borriello, bass (Don Alfonso); Sena Jurinac, sop (Fiordiligi); Blanche Thebom, mezzo (Dorabella); Alda Noni, sop (Despina); Glyndebourne Festival Chorus & Orchestra; Fritz Busch, cond

MOZART: Don Giovanni / Salvatore Baccaloni, bass (Leporello); Ina Souez, sop (Donna Anna); John Brownlee, bar (Don Giovanni); David Franklin, bass (Commendatore); Koloman von Pataky, ten (Don Ottavio); Luise Helletsgruber, sop (Donna Elvira); Audrey Mildmay, sop (Zerlina); Roy Henderson, bar (Masetto); Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra & Chorus; Fritz Busch, cond

MOZART: Idomeneo (Highlights) / Richard Lewis, ten (Idomeneo); Alexander Young, ten (Idamante/High Priest); Sena Jurinac, sop (Ilia); Dorothy McNeil, sop (Elettra); Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra; Fritz Busch, cond / Warner Classics 0190295801748

Well, folks, here it is, finally put all together and properly cleaned up after more than 80 years: Fritz Busch’s complete Glyndebourne legacy, recorded between 1934 and 1951, the year of his death. None of the famous Busch brothers (violinist Adolf and cellist Hermann) lived much past 60 years old; they just had bad genes. But as someone who grew up listening to these recordings on the miserable RCA Victor Collector’s Series LPs and the even worse, muffled-sounding Turnabout Vox Historic Series (the 1930s operas, not the 1950-51 addenda), they come as a revelation. Not even Ward Marston’s meticulous restorations for Naxos’ Historical Series sound this good. The voices and orchestra practically leap at you out of the speakers with a clarity that not even the 78s probably had. And there’s a ton of natural hall reverb in these performances, which stuns me no end because “natural sound” was something you could never say about the LP issues or the earlier CD releases (such as those on Grammofono 2000). The restoration was done by “Studio Art & Son,” and whoever Art & his son are I can only say, Bravo, bravissimo!

Now that you can finally hear them clearly, the performances are, for the most part, surprisingly modern in concept, briskly conducted and mostly very well sung. Back in the day it was fashionable to dump on soprano Audrey Mildmay, who sings Susanna in Figaro and Zerlina in Don Giovanni, because she was the wife of Glyndebourne founder John Christie, but on relistening to her I find that she possessed a very fine soubrette voice, not at all third-rate or offensive. I’ve heard far worse on modern recordings of Mozart operas, Figaro and Don G included, and you can take that to the bank.

Not only were these the first complete recordings of any of the big three Mozart-da Ponte operas (although, technically speaking, Le Nozze di Figaro was more of an expanded highlights, with all of the dialogue omitted), but they set a standard that was hard to beat during the War Years and beyond until the late 1950s-early 1960s when conductors like Hans Rosbaud, Josef Krips, Carlo Maria Giulini and Colin Davis suddenly revived them with good recordings. (Of Karl Böhm I have little good to say; a superb Beethoven and Strauss conductor, he performed Mozart with a Romantic aesthetic and maddeningly draggy tempi.) More importantly, Busch, Christie, their artistic director Carl Ebert and general manager Rudolf Bing, firmly believed in ensemble casting, which led to perfectly-integrated performances—something the Metropolitan has yet to observe and Covent Garden, which employed a similar aesthetic in the 1950s and ‘60s, has since gotten away from. The exorbitantly high fees charged by quality singers, a jet-setting schedule, planning productions 8 to 10 years in advance and the rise of Crap Productions (Regietheater), have all contributed to the rotting decay that opera companies regularly throw on the stage and are pleased to call “challenging” productions.

At Glyndebourne, the base of the Mozart ensemble in the 1930s included seven key names: Mildmay, American soprano Ina Souez (who was one-quarter Cherokee Indian), Austrian soprano Luise Helletsgruber, Australian baritone John Brownlee, German baritone Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender (the father of the great mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender), British tenor Heddle Nash and Scottish baritone Roy Henderson. To these were added other Brits and Scots as needed (Norman Allin, Fergus Dunlop, David Franklin, Constance Willis, Winifred Radford, etc.) and as many “star” foreign singers as they could afford and were available and willing to buy into the concept, like Salvatore Baccaloni, a very young Italo Tajo, Koloman von Pataky, Irene Eisinger and Aulikki Rautavaara, the great Finnish soprano who was the mother of composer Einojuani Ratauvaara. This meant that sometimes you just had to bite the bullet and use who was available, which is why, for instance, we hear Henderson’s somewhat dry, oratorio-styled voice as Count Almaviva and Masetto and two different Dr. Bartolos (Tajo and Allin) in Nozze. By and large, however, Busch ran a tight ship, his philosophy was Mozart First, and the end result were performances that were amazingly modern for their time with little in the way of archness or constant rallentandos to suit prima donna singers. One need only compare Baccaloni’s Leporello here, for instance, to the one he did at the Met in 1943 under Paul Breisach, or Mildmay’s cleanly-sung Zerlina to the slop job done by Bidú Sayão in the same performance. Busch’s musical conception of Don Giovanni is in many ways the equal of that of Giulini and Colin Davis, no small feat in the depressed 1930s.

One feature of these performances that may irritate modern listeners is the use of a modern piano in place of a harpsichord (or period fortepiano) in the recitatives. Busch reportedly tried a harpsichord in rehearsals, but was dissatisfied with the instrument’s carrying power in live performance and didn’t want to put a microphone on it. (Fritz Reiner received criticism for doing the same thing in his Met performances of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in the early 1950s.) It doesn’t bother me too much because the piano is played crisply and cleanly, and the surrounding music is conducted at tempos very near those of historically-informed performances. Busch used a small orchestra, roughly corresponding to the one Mozart had, but used modern instruments. This doesn’t bother me either because of the wonderful transparency he achieved, although for some odd reason the bass always seemed to be a bit more thumping than it should have been.

Figaro is first up in this set, and despite the badly cut performance (a third of the opera is missing, including almost all recits), this is a wonderful performance that travels on fast feet. Busch zips through the overture à la Toscanini, one of his idols and a friend through his brother Adolf. Other critics have complained of Domgraf-Fassbaender’s Italian, particularly his singing “qvelle” in place of “quelle,” but this was a common feature of German, Austrian and Danish singers performing in Italian at the time and it doesn’t bother me quite so much. You have to remember, this was still smack in the middle of the era in which operas were sung in the vernacular of the country they were performing in, so many of these singers were used to performing their roles in German (or English). His voice was a very high, light, bright baritone (he sang the tenor role in a 1932 film version of Smetana’s Bartered Bride), quite different from the usual darker German baritones of the time. Audrey Mildmay had a very pleasant soubrette voice, well suited for Susanna, and she sings with pert liveliness. Busch pays particular attention to the light, feathery strings and the winds, with excellent results throughout. After “Se vuol ballare” we get Italo Tajo singing “La vendetta,” and very well, too. The Marcellina-Susanna duet also goes well, with Constance Willis surprisingly good in the former role, and Helletsgruber catches the breathless quality of “Non so più” fairly well. Here as elsewhere, Busch’s tempi are on the (proper) brisk side, quite different from the lethargic style popular in Germany and Austria from the 1910s into the ‘40s. In the quartet “Cosa sento,” we have the treat of hearing Heddle Nash, the finest light British tenor of his time, sing Don Basilio. Rautavaara’s rich, creamy voice is a special treat in the Countess’ music, although her “Porgi amor” is one of the few draggy spots in the music. (By the way, the score indicates “Andante” in 2/4 time, yet many conductors, even into the 1990s, seemed to think it was in 4/4 and so conducted it too slowly.) Unlike the rest of this set, where the background is fairly quiet. most of the Nozze 78 sides presented here still have excessive surface noise. I recommend filtering them with a good audio editor. Towards the end, we hit the one bad spot: “Deh’ vieni non tardar” is taken very “tardar,” at a snail’s pace in fact which causes Helletsgruber to nearly run out of breath in spots.

Brownlee as Giovanni

Brownlee as Don Giovanni

By contrast the Don Giovanni, though recorded complete, is somewhat uneven. The individual performances are consistently solid if not always imaginative. Brownlee’s Don Giovanni will stand up to anyone’s, Baccaloni was a great Leporello, Mildmay an appropriately pert Zerlina, and although Souez failed to sound properly frantic in her opening scene, she sang the living crap out of “Or sai chi l’onore” (but her runs were surprisingly sloppy in “Non mi dir”). Helletsgruber’s Donna Elvira doesn’t match the frantic tone of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf or Kiri te Kanawa, but is sung well. Von Pataky sings a fine “Dalla sua pace,” but “Il mio tesoro” is too slow, forcing him to take two breaths in the long run on “tornar.” The chorus sounds odd, as if Busch only had half the forces he needed for certain numbers. The bottom line is that, as an ensemble, they’re as good if not better than anything you’ll get nowadays if not as good as the greatest recordings (Davis and Riccardo Muti) of the past. The superb detail and clockwork execution Busch draws from them in the Act I finale, though lacking some fire, is clean and taken at the right fast pace, but here as elsewhere the cast as a whole occasionally forgets to interpret because they’re so wrapped up in the technical aspects of the music.

Saving the best for last, we move on to Così fan Tutte. Always the stepchild of the Mozart-da Ponte collaboration, it has suffered in reputation because it demeans the women members of the cast, showing them to be shallow, gullible and easily fooled in love. But what is often missed in Così is that Ferrando and Guglielmo are also pretty shallow young men, in the end nearly as dopey as their girlfriends, and more importantly, Despina is not portrayed as stupid. On the contrary, she’s as sharp a tack as Don Alfonso, easily able to see through the lovers’ foreign disguises and equally adept at fooling the women into thinking she’s a doctor just because she wears a hat, false beard and glasses and carries a medicine bag. The key to understanding Così is that it shows that protected, white, upper-class women are the dummies. All of da Ponte’s libretti are about the upper class behaving badly; Ferrando and Guglielmo just act a little more shamelessly than most of the others, and they neither apologize nor get punished for it.


Ina Souez

This is, far and away, the finest performance of the three da Ponte recordings. Its only real drawback is that Souez didn’t have a really good trill, though she did do her best at the end of “Per pieta.” Given only 40 78-rpm sides on which to record it, Busch was forced to dispense with a little of the dialogue (but not most of it) and four numbers from Act II: Ferrando’s arias “Ah, lo veggio” and “Tradito, schernito,” Dorabella’s aria “E amore un ladroncello,” and an ensemble scene, “Come tutto congiura…Non c’e altro.” But I’ve always felt, as have some other perceptive critics, that Così’s second act isn’t nearly as strong or inventive as the first. Having come up with miracle after miracle in the first act (none finer than the exquisite trio “Soave sia il vento”), he found himself struggling to keep up this high level in the second act, where the action is much more stationary and aria follows aria follows duet follows trio. Nonetheless, had EMI been generous enough to allow only two more records (four sides), we would have had it complete, but this was the Depression and Così was relatively unpopular.

Yet what a great performance this is! Everyone sounds like a “character” and not like a singer singing music, which is often what you get nowadays, and this is especially true of the two “devils” who initiate this crazy masquerade, Don Alfonso (Brownlee) and Despina (sung by the fantastic German-Jewish soubrette Irene Eisinger). Nowadays the trend is to cast lyric sopranos as Despina (Teresa Stratas under Alain Lombard, Marie McLaughlin under James Levine, Nancy Argenta under Sigiswald Kuijken, Graciela Oddone under René Jacobs) which doesn’t make them sound different from Fiordiligi, and in addition they don’t sound very funny. Eisinger is not only bright-voiced and pert but a laugh riot, chuckling her way through the Act I ensembles and “In uomini, in soldati,” and acting up a storm with her mock-serious “doctor” voice in both acts. Heddle Nash, the quintessential British lyric tenor from the mid-1920s through the late 1950s, had a voice that sounds a bit unusual to modern ears because he brought his head voice down pretty far into his range, at least as far as the break around E-F-F#. A friend of mine goes further, claiming that Nash constantly sang in falsetto. It’s not falsetto. The old Italian singing method, which Nash learned from Giuseppe Borgatti in Italy, placed the upper voice at a spot just above the nasal cavities and between the eyebrows. They called it “aperto ma coperto,” or “in the dome of the head.” The one drawback was that constant use of this technique could color the voice to sound a bit nasal, and this is what one hears in Nash’s singing (particularly on the Italian “soft e” vowels, which here sound like the letter A). It is, nonetheless, a very pretty nasal sound, and he was a first-class musician who stuck to the score and always gave you what the composer wrote. He’s also a surprisingly lively Ferrando, as is his sidekick Domgraf-Fassbaender. Souez is undoubtedly the strongest-voiced Fiordiligi I’ve ever heard; I think she might have been performing this role and Donna Anna at about the same time, because she definitely has some of the latter’s gutsy sound in her singing. Add it all up, and despite the cuts noted above (and the use of a piano for the recitatives), this is absolutely the best Così fan Tutte ever recorded. Now that the sound has been improved, it goes straight to the top as the preferred version on records (yes, even better than René Jacobs, though his is the finest of the complete modern recordings).

After spending a decade away from Glyndebourne, which was closed from 1939 to 1945, Busch returned in 1950. The later excerpts from Così feature a young Richard Lewis as Ferrando, Erich Kunz as Guglielmo, Sena Jurinac as Fiordiligi, Blanche Thebom as Dorabella, Mario Borriello as Don Alfonso and Alda Noni as Despina. It’s very well-sung, Busch’s tempi are virtually the same as in 1934-35, but except for a bunch of chuckles from Lewis and Kunz, the performance sounds more studied, like so many modern recordings of the opera, and not nearly as involved or funny. It’s the difference of hearing what resembles a live performance (1935) and a run-through rehearsal (1950). The performance doesn’t fly on light feet; it plods. Only Jurinac’s “Come scoglio” sounds really involved. In “Per pietà,” Jurinac’s lack of a really good low range rather defeats her performance, the whole point of this aria being to show off the singer’s wide range (it was written for Mozart’s sister-in-law, who had a truly phenomenal three-octave voice). Lewis sounds simply awful in “Fra gli amplessi,” as if he had a bad cold and couldn’t get the voice loose.

Following the official recorded excerpts are some tracks taken from rehearsals. These aren’t much more than a curiosity. The singers are out of synch on “Dunque fa’ un po’.” Jurinac sounds badly tentative in “Per pieta,” and the horns play wrong notes. You can, however, hear Busch admonish the orchestra, telling them at one point to “even it out a little bit,” so that in itself is somewhat valuable. If anything, Lewis sounds even sicker here than in “Fra gli amplessi.”

The 1951 excerpts from Idomeneo, an opera virtually unknown in those days, have frustrated collectors for years because the alternate Elettra in the cast was a young Birgit Nilsson, who did not record a single note. Here, the role is sung by the first-cast soprano, one Dorothy McNeil—and we don’t get much of her, thank goodness, because her voice is wan and pallid, about as interesting as a bowl of cold oatmeal. Overall, however, the intensity level of this performance is unquestioned; this is Busch at his best, conducting it as if it were Gluck. Ironically, Jurinac sounds much more comfortable as well as much more involved in the music of Ilia, even singing much better trills in “Padre, germani, addio!” Lewis too, is more involved with the drama, and sings a fine crescendo in “Vedrommi intorno,” but all of the runs and trills were cut out of “Fuor del mar.” The complete recording of this opera was made at Glyndebourne six years later, again with Lewis as Idomeneo and Jurinac as Ilia, but with Leopold Simoneau as Idamante and the fantastic Lucille Udovich as Elettra. The conductor, however, was John Pritchard, a wet noodle if there ever was one (the chorus in particular sounds anemic compared to these Busch excerpts), thus the opera continued to languish in international attention for another couple of decades.

The set ends with an oddity, a snippet of spoken dialogue entitled “Grosser Zarastro” from Die Zauberflöte. The speaker is Carl Ebert, Glyndebourne’s first stage director.

The question, then, is how valuable is this set to modern ears? I would say considerably so for Busch’s unique vision of Mozart in his time, particularly for the complete Così fan Tutte, most of Figaro and Idomeneo, and at least some portions of Don Giovanni. But even if you only buy it for the Così it’s a pretty good bargain, selling on Amazon for a mere $21.54, far cheaper than the more modern Jacobs recording.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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New John Carollo Release a Stunner


MUSIC FROM THE ETHEREAL SIDE OF PARADISE / CAROLLO: Awakening for String Orchestra. Romanza!1 Splendido Affare.1 La Tortura dell’Amore.1 Un Giorno Teso.1 Metamorphosis No. 2 for Solo Violin.2 Guitar Prelude No. 3 – The Tai Chi Set.3 Guitar Etude No. 7 – The City of 100 Spires.3 Guitar Etude No. 9 – What Now?3 Little Gems.5 She Saw the Rainbow.5 Moon Dust.5 Crafted Stardust.5 Metamorphosis No. 13 for Solo Flute.1 Bright Stillness (You Are My Desire) for String Orchestra / 1Duo46; 2Darel Stark, vln; 3Christian Saggese, gtr; 4Lisa Cella, fl; 5The Composer’s Choir; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra; Stanislav Vavřínek, cond / Navona NV6148

This new CD from Parma of John Carollo’s music, due out March 9, combines earlier recordings of his music with two entirely new works, the string orchestra works “as bookends,” as the composer put it. The guitar and violin pieces are part of a large suite in nine movements titled Romantica Passione, Suite for Guitar and Violin (2004), which he dedicated to Beth Schneider and Matt Gould, who perform under the name Duo46. Lisa Cella, the flautist on this recording, also played the premiere of Carollo’s Metamorphosis No. 13 in Italy several years ago.

Happily, I did not own any of these recordings, thus I was able to enjoy and savor Carollo’s interesting and well-crafted sound world, beginning with the rather mysterious-sounding Awakening for String Orchestra in which a series of unusual chords lead into a slow-moving melodic line. This has a certain kinship to Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings, including a dramatic climax in the middle. The strings of the Moravian Philharmonic play this with exceptional feeling and outstanding tonal beauty. Romanza!, part of the suite written for Duo46, is in Carollo’s more contrapuntal style, using an ambiguous tonal base and strong backbeat counterpoint. I was particularly pleased in the way Carollo uses the guitar and the way Gould plays it, with hard downstrokes on the strings rather than in the usual soft, goopy manner of many classical guitarists. This style is evident in Splendido Affare, but this is more of a ballad, and in any case Gould varies his attack as the dynamics of the music change. I also liked the way this piece ended on an unresolved chord. In La Tortura dell’Amore I was impressed by Carollo’s use of the guitar’s middle range, almost as if it were a viola or a high cello, often strengthening its sound to bring it to the forefront. This is clearly an exceptional piece, including a swaggering 6/8 section in the middle and a long, slow finale.

In Un Giorno Teso, Carollo gives us a modern simulation of Leroy Anderson’s Syncopated Clock, filtered through his own aesthetic and including out-of-tempo passages of fantasia-like quality. The Metamorphosis for Solo Violin moves through serrated passages towards a more melodic section that is constantly interrupted by cheerful, rhythmic figures. It’s unusual playful music, sounding as if the violinist were inventing it as he or she was going along. Again towards the end the melodic section returns, changed somewhat, leading to a quiet finish.

This is followed by three guitar solos, Prelude No. 3 – The Tai Chi Set and Guitar Etudes Nos. 7 & 9. The former is the closest thing here to classic Spanish guitar style, hovering back and forth between A-flat major and minor. The second, subtitled The City of 100 Spires, is a chromatic piece in unsettled tonality that moves along with the lower strings playing a melodic-rhythmic accompaniment to the upper strings. It, too, ends in the middle of nowhere. The third guitar piece, Guitar Etude No. 9 – What Now?, begins with fast upward runs which form a recurring motif in the work, interspersed with serrated eighths and out-of-tonality licks. Eventually a melodic line appears out of this mixture, tying all of the elements together. Very interesting!

The choral works here are among the earliest of Carollo’s pieces, though not recorded until 2012. They are well written and resolutely tonal, almost in church motet style, albeit with unusual harmonic shifts within each piece. These are followed by the Metamorphosis No. 13 for Solo Flute, a well-crafted fantasy with Middle Eastern overtones. As the piece progresses, the flute plays its own accompaniment via rapid figures that bounce between the lower and upper range of the instrument. In addition, the development becomes ever more complex, putting the flute through some dazzling figures in the middle and end of the piece.

We conclude as we began, with the Moravian Philharmonic strings. Bright Stillness (You Are My Desire) uses a gentle rocking motif of chords, again in Barber-like fashion, which change as the music develops, hovering around the key of C. This is even more of a mood piece than the opener on this set, never moving towards or rising to a loud climax.

As potpourri albums go, this one is excellent in every respect, showing different facets of Carollo’s musical personality. Well recommended!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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