Salvo Losappio’s Short-But-Sweet Debut Disc

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LONG STORY SHORT / PARKER: Shaw ‘Nuff. STYNE: The End of a Beautiful Friendship. LOSAPPIO: Boerum Hill. Leo for Two. ELLINGTON: Sophisticated Lady. JOLSON-ROSE-DeSYLVA: Avalon. YOUNG: A Ghost of a Chance / Salvo Losappio, t-sax; Sacha Perry, pn; Ari Roland, bs; Phil Stewart, dm / Gut String Records GSR031

Here’s one of those sad-but-true examples of the sad state of jazz releases nowadays. Italian-born Salvo Losappio, an immensely talented tenor saxist, puts out his first CD. The timing is short, barely over a half an hour’s worth of music, and his bandmates are only identified by name (not the instruments they play) on the front cover. Lucky for me, I had a publicity blurb which identified them, but both Ari Roland and Phil Stewart were listed as bass players. Recorded just nine short weeks ago on January 30, 2018, the album is due for release on MAY 15th, so it came to my door for review at the midway point between gestation and birth. Oy vey!

Happily, the music is excellent, and that’s what matters most. Losappio firmly identifies himself as a “bop kid,” so to speak, and although his tone is warm and a bit cool, not as hard-edged as many tenor players of the bebop era (including Coleman Hawkins), he has the phrasing and the pulse down pat. Moreover, though he uses some Charlie Parker turnarounds, his solos are generally very original.

But folks…aside from Losappio, the star of this disc is bassist Ari Roland. A Juilliard graduate and veteran of the bands of Lou Donaldson, Betty Carter and Barry Harris, he cooks on bass in a way I haven’t heard in many, many years. He can “buzz” on his instrument in the manner of Slam Stewart and drive the band even if a drummer were not present. And oh yes, pianist Sacha Perry, who played with Donaldson and Harris, is also outstanding. Given such a great backup to work with, it’s little surprise that Losappio’s playing is as good as it is.

Highlights abound here, not least of which Losappio’s own bop composition, Boerum Hill, on which he, Perry and Roland really cook. Yet I was even more impressed by the leader’s double-time solo on Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady, an outstanding tune whose chromatic changes play well into his talented hands. Leo for Two, the other Losappio original, is a medium-tempo swinger, and the band really tears into Avalon in a nice way. Perry channels Bud Powell on this one, at least in terms of style (he doesn’t quite capture Bud’s intensity), and the leader gives us a lesson in bop tenor, running up and down his horn with felicity. Roland gives us another edgy-sounding Slam Stewart solo, extremely virtuosic and well-constructed. This is good stuff.

The brief set wraps up with Victor Young’s A Ghost of a Chance, taken at its normal slow ballad tempo. Losappio plays a nice, relaxed solo, staying fairly close to the melody with some bop turnarounds in the bridge, but Perry plays double time in a quite interesting way., and Roland follows suit in his bowed solo. When the leader returns he gives us his own variants in a beautifully-crafted solo.

This is an excellent little album and a great introduction to Losappio and his talented band.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Davis & Coltrane’s 1960 European Tour Released

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MILES DAVIS & JOHN COLTRANE: THE FINAL TOUR / PORTER: All of You. DAVIS: So What (4 tks). The Theme (Bye Bye) (4 tks). Fran-Dance. All Blues (2 tks). KAPER-WASHINGTON: On Green Dolphin Street (3 tks). CARPENTER: Walkin’ (2 tks). HENDERSON-DIXON: Bye Bye Blackbird. MONK: ’Round Midnight. ROLLINS: Oleo / Miles Davis, tpt; John Coltrane, t-sax; Wynton Kelly, pn; Paul Chambers, bs; Jimmy Cobb, dm / Sony-Columbia Legacy 88985448392

For whatever reason, the jazz world has shrunk in the last 27 years. Clubs that once thrived have lost audiences; some of the bigger name clubs are hanging on, but many of the smaller ones have closed their doors. Even in Europe, which always took jazz more seriously as an art form than we do here in America, performers struggle for gigs. Many of the smaller labels that specialized in jazz have either disappeared or taken to selling downloads only and the big labels, now owned by Sony Entertainment (RCA Victor and Columbia) or some other faceless corporations (Riverside, Verve, etc.), are a mere shadow of their former selves. They subsist mostly on reissues of older jazz records.

All of which tells you that jazz consumers in the USA and elsewhere are, for the most part, aging, while the younger jazz fans—though enthusiastic—don’t go to clubs as often, preferring to download jazz to their iPhones, iPads, Androids or whatever. The current release, however, is a little different in that it is the first authorized release of the French and Swedish concerts given by the Miles Davis Quintet with John Coltrane, two of the most potent names in jazz.

This was actually the first of two European tours by the Miles in 1960, the second made between September 27 and October 13 with Sonny Stitt. But of course this one has had all the fuss made over it because it was the last time he played with Coltrane. This tour was also one of the last sponsored by the legendary Norman Granz under his umbrella title “Jazz at the Philharmonic,” and he can be heard on two occasions introducing the group. Granz was not, however, present at their first stop at the Olympia in Paris, thus when you hear him say that the March 22 concert in Stockholm is their “first appearance,” it was actually their second.

Much had happened to the Davis band since they recorded Kind of Blue the year before. Gone were pianist Bill Evans and alto saxist Cannonball Adderly, and Coltrane himself was expanding his musical vocabulary into what was, for some of the European audience, strange and unlikable harmonic territory. He had already adopted the rapid chromatic triplet exercises by Nicholas Slonimsky into his playing, was using more overblown notes, and moving into what would be called his “sheets of sound” approach. In some ways this was an experimental period for him; by his own admission, in the rare interview with Carl-Erik Lindgren included in this album, he admits that he used these rapid turnaround phrases as a way of killing time until he could come up with a different idea, and was already trying to play “all the notes at once,” a tendency that led to his last and (for many, including myself) musically confused style in his last year and a half. Miles Davis himself was also expanding his style, moving a bit away from the cool, sparse playing one heard on Kind of Blue into busier realms. The tempos he chose for such well-known chestnuts as All of You, So What, All Blues and Walkin’ are considerably faster than before.

Trane and MilesBut the real revelation for those familiar with the sympathetic relationship these two giants of jazz had since they first started playing together in 1955. Whereas previously Coltrane seemed to be listening to what Davis was playing and reacted musically when it was his turn, by 1960 he ignored what everyone else was playing and went off into his own world. This didn’t sit too well with the volatile Davis. When Coltrane told him that he was trying to play all the notes at once, Davis responded, “You can’t do that. You got to stay with one idea at a time before you go on to the next one.” Even funnier was Davis’ reaction when Trane told him he didn’t know how to end his choruses. “Take the damn horn out of your mouth!”

This is not to say that I discount Coltrane’s playing entirely from this period, but as you move from piece to piece you will hear an inconsistency of approach from the saxist. In some tracks he is intermittently brilliant, in some consistently excellent, but in many others it sounds as if he is relying too much on the Slonimsky exercises in addition to chording and overblown notes, and these don’t always make musical sense. But Trane was a humble and deeply religious man, he viewed music-making as almost a holy experience, and he was trying his best to work things out. Nonetheless, I think you will agree, upon hearing this complete set, that although Coltrane is generally interesting and trying to create a new jazz style not quite worked out, Davis and pianist Wynton Kelly—too often overlooked in this band—are the most consistent solo constructionists. Their work keeps the performances grounded and gave Coltrane a framework to build on.

milesdavis_allofyou_cmbMany of these performances were initially released on a 4-CD set by Acrobat Music in 2014, a compilation that did not include the Paris concerts (due to contractural reasons) but did have performances not on this set: from the Kongresshalle in Frankfurt, West Germany on March 30, the Deutsches Museum in Munich on April 3, 1960, and the final concert at the Zurich Kongresshaus on April 8. What’s interesting about these is that they included a second version of ‘Round Midnight as well as a tune not played in any of the other concerts, Frank Loesser’s If I Were a Bell (at the Zurich concert, their last stop). The last-named is available for free streaming on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EARL4KHkY0k.

The breakdown of the performances given here are as follows:

Olympia, Paris, March 21, 1960:
   CD 1: First concert – All of You, So What, Green Dolphin Street
Second concert – Walkin’
CD 2: Bye Bye Blackbird, ‘Round Midnight, Oleo, The Theme

Tivoli Concert Hall, Copenhagen, March 24, 1960:
CD 2: Introduction by Norman Granz, So What, On Green Dolphin Street, All Blues, The Theme

Konserthuset, Stockholm, March 22, 1960 – First Concert:
CD 3: Introduction by Norman Granz, So What, Fran-Dance, Walkin’, The Theme

Konserthuset, Stockholm, March 22, 1960 – Second Concert:
CD 4: So What, On Green Dolphin Street, All Blues, The Theme; John Coltrane interview with Carl-Erik Lindgren

Despite any misgivings I may have about Coltrane’s approach in these live sessions, these are still fascinating documents…one might say diamonds in the rough. And the performances are all so intense that they force you, the listener, to pay close attention to what is going on at all moments. One of the most interesting revelations to me was Chambers’ playing, almost always bowed in the style of Slam Stewart rather than pizzicato as in the case of 99% of other jazz bassists.

I have to admit that of the tunes they played—a fairly short list, as you will notice—I have never been much of a fan of So What, not even on the Kind of Blue album, because to my mind it’s not a piece of music at all. It’s merely a two-note vamp played over and over with one short modulation upward in the middle of the chorus, which consists of 16 bars in D, eight in E and eight more in D again. Jazz critics are pleased to call this “modal jazz,” but that’s a cop-out. Many a great piece of music, from Gesualdo’s motets on forward to the present day, were built around the old Greek modes that were far more complex than this. Listen to some of George Russell’s modal pieces to see what I mean. Nonetheless, since this is a solo-oriented band and not one for which arrangements as such meant a whole lot, there is much to hear in their four performances of it on this tour.

The one drawback is that, regardless of the country or venue, poor Wynton Kelly seemed to get stuck with a piano that sounded like a barroom upright rather than a concert grand. The French and Swedes would never have thought to give so poor an instrument to Martial Solal, Earl Hines, Lennie Tristano, Jaki Byard or Bill Evans when they played Europe, but apparently they didn’t think Kelly important enough to provide a quality instrument. Which is a shame, because to my ears these are some of his consistently finest solos. He wasn’t the kind of pianist who played a lot of notes, but that works in his favor, because what he does play is always interesting and well-constructed. He is, in short, the glue that holds this band together, and this set is as much a showcase for him as it is for the two horns.

Jimmy Cobb was one of those understated drummers whose work is all too often taken for granted, but like the equally subtle Roy Haynes (still alive and performing at age 93!) everything he plays helps the ensemble and adds tastefully to the whole. Yes, he plays a few of what were once called “bebop bombs,” i.e. accented snare or bass drum beats between the beats, but by consistently working on a different rhythmic plane than Kelly or Chambers he keeps the music moving while adding some interest—particularly in the various takes of the normally dull So What.

And was Davis ever in fine form! He took many more risks here than on his Columbia recording sessions, sometimes shooting for high notes to ramp up the drama of his solos (which he occasionally flubs) and playing in a somewhat “busier” style. Not too surprisingly, Coltrane really thrives in this generally monochromatic tune, producing a flurry of notes but managing to play well-constructed and interesting solos. In the Paris version of Walkin’, he even adds some lip buzzes and wonderfully “squashed” notes while playing open horn most of the time, recalling his earlier bebop style.

Coltrane also sounds especially relaxed and inventive on the Paris version of On Green Dolphin Street, here incorporating his rapid turnarounds and overblown tenor buzzes into the evolving improvisation to produce a real composition. This is one of the few times, too, where he seemed to be listening a bit to what Davis was playing before he came in. And just listen to Kelly here, sparkling, joyful and inventive, playing with the right hand in the upper range of his instrument to give the music a brighter sound. This track also includes the first of Chambers’ many bowed solos, and he picks up on Kelly’s cheeriness to a T. In Walkin’, Trane takes off like a supercharged rocket and never looks back, though he does throw in a few of his Slonimsky exercises along the way. Kelly’s solo in this one fairly bounces off the Olympia’s walls. On the other hand, I was generally unimpressed with Coltrane’s tricked-up solo in Bye Bye Blackbird (though the crowd seemed to eat it up).

The one and only performance of Sonny Rollins’ Oleo is an uptempo bebop romp, but Miles sticks to muted horn here despite some brilliant rapid phrases. Chambers propels him like a juggernaut. Coltrane comes out of the gate like a thoroughbred horse at Belmont chomping at the bit, playing one of his finest solos. He’s also exceptionally good in the opening So What of the first Stockholm concert. The relaxed pace of Fran-Dance brings out the best in Davis and Coltrane, but Kelly is just OK on this one. Chambers plays a rare plucked solo that’s sparse but packed with good ideas. The Swedish version of Walkin’ is a swinging affair, taken at a more relaxed tempo than the first. Again, Miles plays a lot of open horn. Oddly, though, Trane just runs changes with not much to say here; fortunately, Kelly picks him up with a solo that begins with a few simple licks but develops from there like the opening of a flower.

In the second Swedish concert, Trane does his best but sounds a bit ill at ease finding his footing in So What, yet is surprisingly lyrical, relaxed and inventive in his first chorus on Green Dolphin Street, and even when he runs his changes in the second chorus they make sense, including the melody line amid his flurry of notes. Kelly and Chambers remained consistently excellent.

The interview with Coltrane sounds about as I expected; he was always shy about talking, especially about himself, and didn’t seem particularly pleased by the interviewer throwing negative comments about his playing from other critics at him. It was also no surprise that Sonny Rollins was his favorite tenor player among his peers, or that he considered Blue Trane and Giant Steps his favorites among his recent recordings.

All Blues, first played by the band in their second March 22 Stockholm set, is a welcome relief from the constant 4/4 of the other tracks, being a jazz waltz by Davis. The leader opens it on muted horn but then takes the mute out and blasts away in fine form. Here, for once, I found Cobb’s bomb-dropping a bit too much for the music, intruding on the mood. Coltrane is simply wonderful on this one, altering both his mood and his musical approach from chorus to chorus, though at one point he seems to get lost in a series of bluesy squalls on a D. In Kelly’s solo, he and Cobb almost give this 3/4 tune a 4/4 feel.

In the last concert presented here, given at the Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen, the band sounds particularly upbeat and chipper. Having a day off really seemed to help their mood. In this version of So What, there’s a nice passage where Davis plays repeated notes on trumpet while Coltrane works around him before moving on to his own solo, and a good one it is, swinging as well as inventive. He does use some of his Slonimsky runs, but doesn’t stay on them forever, moving on to bluesier territory which suits the quick tempo and driving pulse of the rhythm section. Kelly picks up on Trane’s last ideas to open his own solo, which he then expands.

No offense to Bronislaw Kaper, who I’m sure was a good tunesmith, but by the time I heard the third version of On Green Dolphin Street I was sick of it. What exactly was it about this song that made jazz musicians think it was so hip? Yeah, it had nice changes in the middle section, but big deal. There were so many other, better songs out there to use, with rising chromatics in the chords, that would have been much more interesting. That being said, Davis is in fine fettle here and the opening of Trane’s solo is surprisingly uncluttered and swinging. Kelly is his usual good self, and Chambers delivers another jolly bowed bass solo. This second take of All Blues doesn’t quite match the joie-de-vivre of the first overall, but the solos are also pretty good, and the band seems to hit a nice groove behind Coltrane’s solo, a very good one.

The recordings are in mono, but beautifully recorded mono. You hear everything, including the crisp sound of Cobb’s cymbal work, as if you were sitting in the audience. I still don’t know why Sony chose to omit the German and Swiss performances, particularly since the last two of the four CDs run pretty short (the whole set could easily have been fit onto three CDs instead of four), but what you do get is of a very high quality and indispensable to your Davis or Coltrane collections. Since I was forced to review this release via streaming audio and MP3 downloads (what else is new?), I had no access to the booklet, which I am told is very good.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Vickers’ “Samson” Outstanding But Muddy

Samson Andromeda

HANDEL: Samson / Jon Vickers, tenor (Samson); Joan Carlyle, soprano (Dalila); Lauris Elms, contralto (Micah); Joseph Rouleau, bass (Manoah); James Pease, bass-baritone (Harapha); Joan Sutherland, soprano (Israelite Woman); Royal Opera, Covent Garden Orch. & Chorus; Raymond Leppard, conductor / Andromeda 9070 (live: London, January 3, 1959)

The late Jon Vickers, though considered one of the greatest tenors in the world, made a relatively slim legacy of studio recordings. He left us two versions each of Handel’s Messiah, Verdi’s Otello, Beethoven’s Fidelio and Wagner’s Die Walküre, and one recording each of Aida, Samson et Dalila, Tristan und Isolde, Peter Grimes, Les Troyens and Carmen. In addition, there are professional videos of his Pagliacci, Carmen, Peter Grimes and Otello, the last of these lip-synched to his second (Karajan) recording of the opera. That’s it. The rest of his legacy is relegated to live performances of various, and sometimes dubious, sound quality.

This 1959 Covent Garden performance of Handel’s Samson, one of his greatest roles (and a bit of a signature for him), is one of these, and it has circulated on and off for years on various pirate labels (including Gala, an issue I’ve not heard). This 2012 Andromeda release, boldly advertised as a “new remastering,” is a sonic disaster but an indispensable issue for those who love this magnificent vocal maverick as much as I do.

What Vickers brought to the role was not just his powerful, cannon-sized voice, which defines the Biblical hero far better than most of the wimpy British tenors who have recorded it, but a psychological portrait of the character as well as some incredibly fluid coloratura singing and tender, sensitive moments. In his hands, Samson is no longer a wussy-sounding Baroque bel canto exercise, but a powerful character that will burn itself into your consciousness and stay there. Of course, the HIP crowd will stay far away from this recording, not just because of its dreadful sound but because of its pre-HIP orchestra and chorus, but in all honesty Samson is one of those Handel works, like Rodelinda, that calls for a charged emotional atmosphere in order to make it work. The only other performance of it I’ve heard that comes close is the version in German conducted by Ferenc Fricsay from September 18, 1955, and that one is conducted with a bit more tightness though suffering from all those German consonants, which simply don’t suit the music. Nonetheless, I gave this recording a good review when it was recently issued on Urania because the sound was pretty good and because tenor Ernst Häfliger, one of my favorite singers of the 1950s, gave a performance strongly similar to what Vickers accomplished here.

But if the sound is so bad, why recommend it at all? Because, if you have an audio editor like Audacity or especially Goldwave, you can clean it up by boosting the treble by 12 db and then using light hum removal to clean up the artifact noise. It’s a bit of a chore, but if you’re serious about opera as living drama, you won’t want to live without this performance.

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Jon Vickers as Samson in the Saint-Saens version (Metropolitan Opera)

Like the Fricsay, this performance is somewhat abridged (but you get more of the score here than on the Fricsay version), but what you do get is powerful and moving—and it’s not just Vickers. He was lucky to have a pretty good conductor in Raymond Leppard and a generally strong supporting cast. The only questionable voice as such is that of Joseph Rouleau as Manoah. For some reason, he was considered a star at Covent Garden during the late 1950s-early ‘60s, but I never liked his somewhat rough, woolly tone. Nonetheless, he sings with great feeling, and he isn’t as bad here as he was in the 1958 Don Carlo with Vickers and Tito Gobbi, conducted by Guilini. Young Joan Carlyle, as Dalila, has a fresh-sounding voice and sings with some feeling, as does the little-known but rich-voiced contralto Lauris Elms as Micah. James Pease doesn’t have the fluidity of technique in his famous aria, “Honour and arms,” that Peter Dawson displayed, but then again neither does anyone else, and he at least has a firm voice to offer us. Another surprise is the young Joan Sutherland as the Israelite Woman. I say “surprise” because her voice was not only much brighter here than it later became, but she was still enunciating her consonants at this point in her career, a practice she rather gave up by 1963 or so. (The only studio recordings that capture her voice at this point are the Giulini Don Giovanni, her first Lucia di Lammermoor, the Acis and Galatea with Peter Pears, and her blockbuster 2-LP vocal recital, The Art of the Prima Donna, still, to my mind, the best of all her recital albums). I found it amusing that the album cover features a picture of her and not of Vickers.

Some of Leppard’s tempi are a tad slow compared to almost everyone else (including Fricsay), but since the musical concept centers around Vickers’ Samson, which is broadly phrased compared to most other tenors, this doesn’t bother me so much. And this was a staged performance, given as an opera, not a concert performance given as an oratorio.

Which brings us to the real crux of the matter. Would you rather hear Samson played by a smaller orchestra than the one Leppard uses here (which is akin to a chamber orchestra of the 20th century, about 55 musicians with harpsichord), and a chorus that sounds like human beings singing—not to mention solo singers who sound like human beings interpreting the text with depth and feeling—or a 35-piece band of straight-tone whiners and singers who have “appropriate” Handelian voices but far less feeling? I suppose it all depends on what you’re looking for in a performance of Samson. I, for one, prefer humanity in all musical performances. Listening to Vickers sing “Why does the God if Israel sleep?” with its clean runs—an ability he never quite lost, no matter how many Siegmunds and Enées he sang—it’s hard to discount him as inappropriate to the music. My decade of research into the Baroque era and its actual performance practices, as opposed to the artificial ones created by the HIP movement, showed me that critics of the time, such as Pier Francesco Tosi, were always looking for “affective” performances, i.e., ones that touched the heart and brought out the emotions of the characters, not glassy but clean singing, as was also prevalent in that era. And that is certainly what you get in this performance. Only the Israelite Woman, a role that Handel tacked on late in the oratorio’s creation to please the prima donna who he wanted to sing the role (and for whom he wrote “Let the Bright Seraphim” almost as an afterthought), is strictly in the “decorative” style of singing that Tosi described. Everyone else was expected to interpret their roles, no matter how florid the musical line.

So, again, we return to the sound quality as the principal obstacle to this recorded live performance. It’s a shame, to be sure, but considering that this seems to be the only complete Handel Samson that Vickers left us, the ear can adjust once you’ve re-equalized the performance. Therefore I strongly urge you to purchase the album as downloads rather than hard discs and fix it up to your taste. Once you do, despite still-somewhat-defective sound, you’ll have a Samson for the ages.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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The Strange Piano Music of Robert Saxton

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SAXTON: Chacony for Piano Left Hand. Piano Sonata. Hortus Misucae, Books 1 & 2. Lullaby for Rosa / Clare Hammond, pn / Toccata Classics 0458

As the back cover inlay of this CD states, British composer Robert Saxton’s music “generates a soundworld somewhere between Takemitsu and Tippett.” If that sounds like a strange combination, it is, but it’s also a fascinating one.

His family background, which he considers important to his “compositional journey,” is eclectic. His paternal grandfather was an Anglo-Jewish amateur singer whose family came from Lithuania and Russia, while his maternal grandfather was a Polish-born Cambridge mathematician. The latter’s cousin, also Polish, was a physicist was one of Albert Einstein’s research assistants at Princeton. His maternal grand-uncle managed the Windmill Theatre in London’s West End while his great-aunt, a photographer for the Suffragette movement, moved to New York where she ran a photo studio on Broadway, taking pictures of the original production of Porgy and Bess and photos of Fred Astaire, Al Jolson, Leonard Bernstein and the Gershwins, among others.

He was also mentored as a composer by the late Benjamin Britten, who rigorously reviewed his work as if developed. I think this may actually be a more important influence, though his own music does not really resemble Britten’s all that closely. He uses bitonal harmonies to launch motor rhythms as well as whatever melodic lines exist; the music thus moves at a pace that, if one removes the strange harmonic base, makes clear sense in an almost neo-Classical or neo-Baroque style. At least, that was the impression I got from the opening Chacony, one of the most challenging pieces I’ve ever heard written for the left hand only. It was commissioned by Oliver Knussen for American pianist Leon Fleischer. Florid cascades of sound fill the air, with occasional bass notes used as a ground. Pianist Clare Hammond is clearly an artist as well as a technician, playing the music with both verve and style.

The 11-minute piano sonata also occupies its own sound world, starting from an opening that includes E, F#, F and B, which sets up the unusual harmonic basis of the work, using the last three notes as a tritone which can baffle the listener trying to find any sort of solid harmonic base. Again, Saxton moves his musical materials around in an unusual way, moving through “varied surface subsections to a dramatic climax.” One of the things I liked most about Saxton’s work here is that, in addition to the purely structural elements, he infuses his work with feeling and emotion—or, at least, that is how Hammond plays it.

The two books that make up the Hortus Musicae or Musical Garden treats, in his mind, the idea of a garden as “a sacred space.” Written for Hammond, it, too, is a complex harmonic work, here built around “pitch centres” for each work. These are first recordings of the suite. At times, such as in the latter part of the second piece, almost sound minimalist in its treatment of a single tone, but for the most past Saxton’s music is dynamic and ever-evolving. Surprisingly, some of the pieces, such as No. 4, “Hortus Infinitatus,” are actually quite lyrical and less harmonically abrasive. The first piece of the second set, “The Flowers appear on the Earth,” begins with mysterious crushed chords and grows through a slow crescendo. No. 3, “The Garden of Changing Perspective,” is a series of chords that are continually altered. “Beech Bank,” surprisingly, channels both Chopin and Haydn.

The CD ends with Lullaby for Rosa, a short piece written for Clare Hammond’s new daughter. It’s quite tonal, in fact a lovely little ballad, played with piquant tenderness by the pianist.

All in all, a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a musical iconoclast.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Oramo’s Powerful Florent Schmitt Performances

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SCHMITT: Antoine et Cléopâtre: Orchestral Suites Nos. 1 & 2. Symphony No. 2 / BBC Symphony Orchestra; Sakari Oramo, cond / Chandos CHSA 5200

I’m almost (but not quite) embarrassed to say that I came to appreciate composer Florent Schmitt rather late in life, but better late than never. In part, Schmitt was ignored for many years because of his proclivity for shouting our invectives from his seat in the concert hall; the music publisher Heugel called him “an irresponsible lunatic.” At a 1933 concert of music by Kurt Weill, who had just been expelled from Germany for being Jewish (and who was present), Schmitt led a group in shouting “Viva Hitler!”

But talent is talent, and Schmitt had this in spades. His incidental music for Shakespeare’s play on Marc Antony and Cleopatra, written in 1920, has been very rarely recorded over the years. Oramo, a no-nonsense conductor famous for his performances of modern music, conducts it here in a no-nonsense performance, emphasizing the work’s structure even over its impressionist tendencies. This works quite well, however, as it brings out both the structure and the textural clarity of the music, which is quite interesting albeit not one of Schmitt’s finest works. Perhaps this is due to the interpretation rather than the score itself; I admit not hearing the work before, by anyone else. There are many characteristics here of Schmitt’s mature scores, yet in several places it sounds to me more functional than expressive music, splashy and flashy. According to the publicity blurb accompanying this release, I appear to be alone in my assessment, however. A Financial Times critic, reviewing Oramo’s live performances of these suites at Barbican Hall, called his performances “sensuous and exotic.” Thus your reaction to it may be quite different from mine.

This, Oramo’s debut release on Chandos (he has previously recorded mainly for the Bis label), benefits from their crisp, clear sonics, which serves his approach very well indeed. The orchestral brightness is brought out exceedingly well, and despite my reservations about the suites as a whole there are some very original and striking passages in them. The opening of the second suite is much better music, impressionistic and sensual, classic Schmitt. In the second piece, he returns to his quasi-movie-music style (yes, there weren’t sound films in 1920, but you get my point), although in the second half some of the music is indeed sensual. I’m thinking the score may be more effective when heard as incidental music to the Shakespeare play, but here, given as orchestral suites, pieces are strung together that probably have more impact in the theater when heard separately.

The Second Symphony is a far more complex and interesting work. Once again, Oramo plays it with a straightahead style and dynamic intensity. This piece I have heard before, in Leif Segerstam’s outstanding recording, which I like very much. Oramo’s take on the music is quite different from Segerstam’s, valid in its own way, but I like the latter’s performance of it rather better because for me it captures the mood with a more authentic style.

In short, an interesting disc, primarily because of the rare Antoine et Cléopâtre suites; this would be your primary reason for acquiring this disc.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Quatuor Danel’s Fine Franck CD

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FRANCK: String Quartet in D. Piano Quintet in F min. / Quatuor Danel; Paavali Jumppanen, pn / CPO 555 088-2

With so many modern-day chamber groups pursuing a generic sort of sound, regardless of repertoire and style, it was refreshing for me to listen to these stylish and well-modulated performances by Quatuor Danel, whose recordings of Weinberg’s complete string quartets on CPO I gave a good review to some years ago in Fanfare.

As is usual with Franck, the music is romantic but has a number of interesting features in it, particularly his use of fluid harmonic changes. I emphasize the word “fluid” here because the quartet’s playing is certainly that; they keep the music moving forward without resorting to the sort of all-purpose “cereal shot from guns” approach of many of their peers. They pay great attention to legato phrasing and dynamics, with little touches of portamento here and there to keep the performance somewhat authentic. They also play with a lot of heart, which keeps the music from sounding routine or uninteresting despite its lyrical, Romantic proclivities.

It rather surprised me to learn that these recordings were made five years ago, but are only now being issued on CD. It’s as good a reflection as any of the sad state of affairs in the classical music business nowadays, and I’m sure they aren’t the only ones who keep plugging away, hoping that sooner or later someone will issue their performances. They’re lucky that CPO took an interest in them in the first place.

I also very much liked the way Franck kept the inner voices moving in his quartet. Like many modern works, he seemed to like having the harmonic movement direct the melodic line rather than the other way round. Quatuor Danel also injects a bit of the no-nonsense French style into these performances, meaning that they keep the music moving forward despite moments of rubato. They understand pacing and shaping, and know how to make the most of their material. I particularly liked their quicksilver yet somewhat mysterious way of playing the scherzo, with muted violins scampering around while the viola and cello play counterfigures against them. The last movement is also very strange in its own way, alternating between muted, quiet passages and frantic ones with strong string tremolos.

If anything, the Piano Quintet is even more dramatic than the string quartet, possibly because of the addition of the keyboard. Here, Franck assigns one line of music to the pianist, a different line to the quartet, this time playing as a unit around the soloist in the manner of a concerto. Indeed, it is possibly this concerto-like feel that prompted him to write it this way. There’s a wonderful passage in the first movement where rising chromatics give a sense of urgency and momentum to the music, despite the fact that several bars in it are played quietly. Happily, Quatuor Danel adjusts to this different sound-world brilliantly, and although I think that pianist Jumppanen sometimes lacks a little of their drama, he acquits himself very well. This almost sounds like French Beethoven (or Brahms at his most dramatic). Even the middle section of the slow movement is dramatic and intense, and the finale does not disappoint.

This is an outstanding CD in every way, a very pleasant surprise!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Korstick Tackles Kabalevsky

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KABALEVSKY: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3. Rondo, Op. 59. Recitative & Rondo, Op. 84 / Michael Korstick, pn / CPO 555 163-2

Dmitri Kabalevsky was considered one of the “big four” of Soviet-era composers, or to be more precise, Stalin-era composers, but whereas Shostakovich and Prokofiev wrote meaty and often great music, Kabalevsky, like Aram Khachaturian, tended to write kitschy tunes that pleased the Soviet musikbureau and the masses but not critics as a whole. During the 1940s, his Colas Breugnon Overture and second symphony had a strong vogue worldwide; even the generally retro-repertoire conductor Arturo Toscanini performed them in America, and the former became so popular that even the NBC Symphony musicians lampooned it in a private little concert for the Maestro, playing it on kazoos and toy instruments (which apparently suited it very well, because even the sober-sided Toscanini laughed uproariously at the parody).

The liner notes claim that except for Scriabin and Prokofiev, “the piano sonata does not play a major role in the history of Russian music.” But this list does not take into account the most important Russian composer of piano music in his day, expatriate Nikolai Medtner, who wrote seven numbered sonatas plus two unnumbered ones (Opp. 22 & 30), a Sonata-Ballade, a Marchen-Sonate, two Op. 53 sonatas (Sonata Romantica and Sonata Minacciosa) and a Sonata-Idylle. Perhaps Korstick can turn his attention to the great and underrated Medtner next.

I took a chance on this CD for one reason, and that is Michael Korstick, who I consider the greatest of all living pianists (you may have your favorite, but he’s mine), and anything he’s touched I have been deeply impressed with. He has also recorded this composer’s piano concerti, a disc I missed hearing, and here turns his attention to the sonatas.

The music, as I hear it, is more harmonically modern and imaginative than his overture or symphony in places, but still tied to Russian folk songs in its choice of themes (whether original or not, they sound like folk songs). Yet Kabalevsky presents us with a stronger, more serious side here…or is it Korstick’s interpretations? He has the knack of making everything he play sound great and important; although I heard a few passages here and there which sounded to me flashy and in a sense superfluous, but he plays them with seriousness and manages to tie them to the more interesting material; preceding and following them. The slow movement of the first sonata, for instance, is pleasant but to my ears contains little substance, yet he somehow finds a way to make it sound substantive. Like certain earlier piano masters, i.e. Schnabel, Fischer and Gould, he’s such a great artist that he can turn even slight works into fascinating listening.

The last movement of the first sonata, clearly the finest of the three, is complex and interesting, and here Korstick shows why he is so good. Clarity of texture and a way of binding the music to reveal its structure are combined with a personal intensity and integrity.

Though written much later than the first sonata, the second and third are not really an improvement but, to my ears, more populist in approach and less interesting harmonically. There is more in the way of tunes and flash here, and although the music is nicely structured it doesn’t say much to me. Yet again, listen to the way Korstick plays them! His sense of musical drama leads him to take these scores and drive them with an intensity that is thrilling. He almost makes the fast section of the first movement sound like Prokofiev, and that’s saying something. Once again, it’s the last movement of the Sonata No. 2 that is the meatiest, and he makes the most of it.

In the third sonata, the second movement is more interesting than the first, and Korstick plays it with an exceptionally fine legato as well as a way of stressing certain notes in the opening melody. Near the end of the movement, I heard a motif that sounded like Alberich’s curse music from Wagner’s Ring. The last movement is a sort of hyper-sounding march in which Korstick has a ball, bringing out the music’s quirky humor.

The rondos are much in the same vein as the last movement of the third sonata, but in some ways denser as well as pianistically quite challenging. Korstick romps through them with élan, relaxing the tension for the rather unexpected quiet sections.

In brief, if you like Kabalevsky you’ll truly enjoy this album…and if you like Michael Korstick, you’ll also appreciate it for the way he treats the music.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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