Trio Vitruvi’s Schubert

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SCHUBERT: Piano Trios in E-flat, D. 929 & 897 / Trio Vitruvi / Bridge 9510

The playing style for Schubert’s music has shifted considerably over the past century, from a more relaxed, Romantic and warm aesthetic to the brisk, taut, and brighter sound heard on this CD, and thus a tradeoff has been made. The more modern style brings the structure of the music into clearer focus, to be sure, but with only occasional moments of rubato (as, for instance, at the moment the music becomes quieter in the first movement of the D. 929 piano trio that leads off this CD), his music sounds much less Viennese. And, at least until the late 1970s, the Viennese style was all about relaxation in music-making.

Of course, after saying all this, I have to admit that in most of Schubert’s music I like the crisper approach. Arturo Toscanini practically gave Viennese and German audiences heart attacks with his approach to the Second and Ninth Symphonies, which were diametrically opposed to “tradition,” but I still don’t care much for his great String Quintet in C being played like cereal-shot-from-guns (as in the Heifetz-Piatagorsky concert recording). The booklet for this disc opens with the headline, “Emerging From Beethoven’s Shadow,” and to a certain extent this is true. Beethoven didn’t care much for Schubert’s music, which he found over-written and indulgent, and in fact when they were in the same wine bars at the same time the older composer made a point of completely ignoring him. This hurt Schubert’s feelings considerably since Beethoven was one of his idols. So maybe the younger composer really did want his music played at brisker tempi and less indulgent Romanticisms in phrasing. Who knows for sure? Vas you dere, Sharlie? Again…this is why “historically-informed performances” cannot claim to be historically informed at all. Recordings didn’t exist, and even as late as the early 1950s, the Germanic tradition was to conduct Beethoven symphonies like Schubert, not the other way round.

Listening to this CD, I was consistently struck by the tautness of Trio Vitruvi’s approach. The running piano figures up and down the keyboard have the crispness of the Beaux Arts Trio’s Menahem Pressler, not the discursive playing of earlier Schubert pianists, and the violin and cello playing is as lean and taut as if they were first-desk players of the NBC Symphony. Yet their style does not ignore nuance; there are several moments when they relax the tempo a shade and give the music a nice feel, particularly in the slow movements which, to my ears, sound more “Schubertian.” Still, the reader should understand that their approach is non-traditional. The “Scherzando” movement of the trio D. 929 is a perfect example. It has good forward movement but the rhythmic approach is somewhat metronomic, lacking a bit of Viennese swagger. This may seem like nit-picking, but such things must be made clear. In their favor, Trio Vitruvi does a good job with the louder and more aggressive trio section in this movement. The last movement is considerably longer than the performance by the Stuttgart Trio on Nimbus (19:19 compared to 16:08), but this appears to be due to the fact that Trio Vitruvi takes more repeats, because the Stuttgart Trio’s performance is more relaxed, a true “Allegro moderato” compared to Allegro without much moderato in this new performance.

But of course individual tastes vary and, as I say, there is considerable interest in this new approach that I’m sure will appeal to many others. We critics sometimes fall into the trap that everyone must hear music the same way we do, but this isn’t the case at all. These are clearly virtuoso performers who have their own take on this music.

The much shorter (one movement, 8:16) trio D. 897, subtitled “Notturno,” is played with great tenderness by the trio but, again, with a “cool” sound by the strings. The short review is that this is an interesting take on these old classics.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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The Blair Big Band’s Debut CD

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SUCH SWEET THUNDER / MIDDAGH: Sorry Not Sorry. Indra Kunindra. ELLINGTON: Such Sweet Thunder. MANDEL: Emily. J. COFFIN: Espoo You. WASHUT: Cubaneando. D. RODGERS: Sivan. HAMILTON: Cry Me a River. NOBLE: The Very Thought of You. M. LEAGUE: Atchafalaya / Blair Big Band; Ryan Middaugh, dir / Suite 28 STE017

This is the debut CD of the Blair Big Band, an aggregation formed at the jazz school within Vanderbilt University. I admit to not being much impressed by the opening track, which has heavy rock music overtones (ugh!), but they are clearly a first-rate aggregation. I really lost it when the flabby, whiny electric guitar solo started—that was when I skipped to the next track, an outstanding version of Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder. And one of the things that made it outstanding was how well the orchestra captured the Ellington sound…not at all an easy task, considering that his orchestra was, as he himself put it, “full of individualists.” This was particularly true of the rhythm section, which always had a somewhat “loose” sound to it. Duke never cared much for the “tight” sound that most swing and bop bands produced, and the Blair musicians do a great job here.

They also do a nice job with Johnny Mandel’s ballad, Emily, which opens with a lovely trombone solo (unfortunately, very few of the soloists are identified in the booklet by name, even though the full band is listed), backed by piano, before the band comes in behind them little by little. It’s pretty generic big-band scoring, but it’s played very well. They pick up the tempo once the sax section enters, and go on from there. Leader Ryan Middaugh’s Indra Kunindra also has some rock overtones, but this one has an irregular meter that seems to vacillate between 6/8 and a straight 4, and the melodic construction is quite interesting. There are also tempo changes, i.e. the shift to a ballad tempo for the piano solo, then back up to a rapid tempo, with both brass and reeds playing portamento to simulate the sound of Indian music, before a pretty wild alto sax solo. This is a highly creative piece, fascinating in its construction and flawlessly played by the band.

Jeff Coffin’s Espoo You is an old-fashioned blues swinger that could have been played by the first Woody Herman Herd (and probably would have been had it been written back then), with crisp, smooth playing from the sax section. Special guest artist Coffin, one of the few soloists identified, gets a nice spot on tenor, at times in counterpoint with an unidentified trombonist. Cubaneando is a pretty hip fusion of Latin rhythm with jazz, featuring a nice piano solo. There’s a really nice polyphonic passage with crisp brass playing against the lower reeds, and a band chant over piano-bass-drums, again with trumpet section interjections. There’s also a nice trombone section passage with saxophone counterpoint, again with screaming trumpets, in the penultimate chorus.

Sivan starts out with ambient water sounds over soft piano before moving into the orchestra playing what sounds like a straight 4 over 3. This one features very interesting scoring, with low trombones playing a cushion beneath a soprano sax solo before the piano takes over for a chorus. There is some very nice scoring in this one, too, particularly the brass-sax mixture, before the tempo relaxes for piano fills over an orchestral cushion. Cry Me a River opens with a bass solo before moving into a nice uptempo with a vocal by featured guest Christina Watson—and a good vocal it is, too! I was also delighted with their sensuous version (opening with solo trombone over a sax cushion) of Ray Noble’s exquisite song, The Very Thought of You.

The album wraps up with Atchafalaya, a delightfully quirky tune that starts with solo trombone, leading into the trombone section playing a rhythmic riff, with the trumpets playing a second melody in counterpoint above them, then adding the saxes and rhythm sections. A bit of handclapping over the rhythm section leads to yet another outstanding trombone solo (identified, finally, as Brian Entwhistle) before a flabby-sounding rock guitar nearly ruins the performance.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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The Bittersweet Life of a Great, Forgotten Jazz Singer

My journey of discovery into the great jazz artists of the past continues, it seems, on biannual pace. Among the forgotten names I have been fortunate enough to trip across over past decade or so are Dorothy Donegan, Rod Levitt and Lee O’Daniel’s Hillbilly Boys, but this discovery took me by complete surprise because I hadn’t even known that she existed.

And I’ll bet many readers of this blog don’t know that she existed, too.

In fact, before I go into who she was, I’ll give you her photograph, and I bet you STILL won’t know who she was:

midge-williams

A few hints. She was a major jazz singer of the period 1934-1941, a contemporary of such more famous names as Billie Holiday, Connie Boswell, Ella Fitzgerald and Mildred Bailey, and during that period she was actually more popular than Holiday, whose unusual, somewhat acidic voice didn’t much appeal to the general public. During her time in Berkeley, California, 1935-36, she met and greatly impressed Al Jolson, who featured her on his Shell Chateau radio show. After moving to New York later that year, she appeared on such popular radio programs as the Rudy Vallee show, the RCA Magic Key series, the Studebaker Champions Show, and Ben Bernie’s Show. Her beautiful, swinging voice led to a series of twice-weekly, 15 minute sustaining programs of songs for the NBC Blue Network. In early 1937, she did a weekly series of songs for the NBC Red Network. Clearly, she was at the top of her profession.

Give up? Her name was Midge Williams (real first name: Virginia, like her mother).

The fact that she has been forgotten was due to one bad career decision and bad health, which took her out of the limelight and put her into the shadows. She was only 32 years old when she died. And yet, her surviving recordings clearly show her to have been a major jazz singer.

The career that ended so abruptly and mysteriously was the product of her having been born into a musical family and hard work. From Wikipedia:

Williams came from a talented family. Her grandfather Joshua had been a music teacher, her mother Virginia Louise was a dance teacher, and her uncle Henry played the violin. She also had a half-brother named Lester Williams who worked as a jazz musician. Williams and three of her brothers formed a singing and dancing act called the Williams Quartette. The group performed regularly in churches and theaters in and around the San Francisco–Oakland area.

During performances of the Williams Quartette in the early 1930s, Roger Seguire saw the act and signed on to be the group’s manager. Seguire was a pianist with experience in Asia, and he booked the group for a tour of China and Japan. In 1933, the Williams Quartette went to Shanghai to perform at the Canidrome. In 1934, in Japan, Williams made the first recording of her career, singing jazz songs in both English and Japanese.

And there was something more in her background…a dangerous environmental hazard in her home town that possibly led to her later health problems. Though born in Oregon, her family moved to the agricultural town of Allensworth, California, where they had arsenic in the groundwater supply, and when promised new water sources were not provided, the economic hopes of the community began to falter. Many residents had to leave, but although her mother moved to Oakland in 1925, Midge and her brothers, John, Lewis, Charles, and Robert, remained in Allensworth. In 1929, the children joined her newly remarried mother and her uncle, Henry Singleton, in Berkeley, California.

rosie-the-redskinBut from 1933 onward, Midge’s career flourished. In addition to the venues mentioned above, she also sang at the Apollo and Savoy Ballrooms in Harlem and, in 1937, began a series of recordings for Brunswick-Vocalion with small groups of highly regarded jazz musicians. She had already recorded in 1936 with such big names as Bunny Berigan, Miff Mole and Teddy Wilson, but the lineup for most of the “Midge Williams and her Jazz Jesters” recordings were also very good. A great many of them were made with Brunswick-Vocalion’s hot new black jazz band, the John Kirby Sextet, both in its earlier incarnation with Frank Newton on trumpet and Pete Brown on alto sax as well as its “classic” lineup with Charlie Shavers and Russell Procope replaced them.

Listening to Williams sing is a revelation. Like Mildred Bailey, she had a very sweet, high, light soprano with pure intonation and a swinging style, but unlike Bailey she could also scat very well. What’s even more interesting is that her jazz and blues phrasing was taken straight from Louis Armstrong—one of the few female singers to copy Louis in that way. Among her surprisingly large number of recordings (they fill two whole CDs in toto) are the following gems, which I consider her best:

1) I Was Born to Swing (Lil Hardin Armstrong)
2) Dinah (Lewis-Young-Akst)
3) Alabama Barbecue (Benny Davis-J. Fred Coots)
4) Copper-Colored Gal (Cab Calloway)
5) What’che Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Swing? (Livingston-Neiburg)
6) Organ Grinder’s Swing (Hudson-Mills-Parish)
7) Rhythm Lullaby (Andy Razaf)
8) How Could You? (Dubin-Warren)
9) It All Begins and Ends With You (Froeba-Palmer)
10) The Lady is a Tramp (Rodgers-Hart)
11) My Newest Excitement (Schoebel-Mills)
12) I’m Getting Sentimental Over You (Bassman-Washington)
13) Fortune Tellin’ Man (Coots-Davis)
14) Walkin’ the Dog (Shelton Brooks)
15) The One Rose That’s Left in my Heart (McIntyre-Lyon-Rodgers)
16) In Any Language (Revel-Warren)
17) Where the Lazy River Goes By (Adamson-McHugh)
18) In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree (Van Alstyne-Williams)
19) Mama’s Gone, Goodbye (Piron-Bocage)
20) Rosie the Redskin (Al Stillman)
21) Love is Like Whiskey (unknown)
22) Oh! Miss Hannah (Deppen-Hollingsworth)
23) I’m in a Happy Frame of Mind (Rube Bloom)
24) Cow Cow Boogie (Benny Carter-Gene DePaul)

All of these can be found on the Classic Jazz Online website with the exception of the last, which I will discuss in a moment. In a nutshell, however, by mid-1938 Midge had good reason to think that she was at or near the top of the jazz world, but in the fall of that year she made a poor career decision. She accepted an offer to be the girl singer with Louis Armstrong and his big band. Surely, she must have thought that this would be the pinnacle of her career: after all, Armstrong was not only considered one of the greatest of all living jazz musicians, but his popularity was sky-high. Unfortunately, it took her out of circulation as a recording artist because she never made a single record with the band in the three years she was with them!

Williams-Armstrong

I think this had to be the decision of Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser. Although he managed other artists, Armstrong was clearly his big cash cow, and he probably didn’t want Louis to share record space with a female jazz singer who was clearly his equal. Under ordinary circumstances, this would have been a minor annoyance, but as it turned out, Williams almost immediately checker herself into a hospital after leaving Armstrong and was never heard from again…except for one appearance on the short-lived (one season) half-hour comedy show hosted by Jack Webb. In April of 1946, she appeared on the Webb show singing Benny Carter’s song about a stoned-high cowboy, Cow Cow Boogie, which Webb introduced on the show as “the blues”!!! (You can stream this recording on YouTube.)

And just as quickly as Midge Williams returned from oblivion, she went back to it. Nothing more was heard of her until it was reported, on July 9, 1952, that she had died of tuberculosis. TB was the scourge of jazz musicians in the late 1930s and early ‘40s: Charlie Christian, Jimmy Blanton, O’Neil Spencer and Benny Steckler had all died from the disease. But that was before penicillin was discovered, and TB patients were treated with sulfur drugs. Penicillin was indeed around after World War II, thus it is puzzling that Williams couldn’t have been treated with the drug.

midgewilliamsThus was the sad coda to the life and career of this extremely talented singer. True, the very concept of jazz singing changed considerably with the emergence of such high-flying scat artists as Anita O’Day, Betty Carter and later Ella after the War, but this doesn’t detract from her high level of accomplishment. You really need to hear Midge Williams’ lovely voice and effervescent style; you’ll be amazed and delighted.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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New Recording of Medtner’s Complete Violin-Piano Music

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MEDTNER: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Sonata Epica (No. 3). 2 Canzonas & Dances. 3 Nocturnes / Nikita Boriso-Glebsky, vln; Ekaterina Derzhavina, pn / Profil PH17087

This is not the first, or the only, recording of Nikolai Medtner’s complete works for violin and piano, but it is indeed a very fine one. As the booklet of the Laurence Kayaleh and Paul Stewart release on Naxos (a 2008 release) put it, “The piano works of Nikolai Medtner are finally achieving the recognition they merit, but not so his compositions for violin and piano. A great pity, for…Medtner’s scores are unique: distinctly Russian, unabashedly unique and full-bodied, yet intellectually devised and highly disciplined, every note and detail given a purpose.” The best I can describe them in one sentence would be that they are like a combination of Rachmaninov and Brahms, mixing the Slavic emotion of the first with the rigorous construction of the second.

There is also considerable charm in this music, for instance the central movement “Danza” of the first sonata, which has the kind of liveliness one generally only heard in those Brahms works influenced by Gypsy music (of which he was very fond). The massive second sonata (it runs 40 minutes) is Medtner pushing his composing skills to the maximum. Everything holds together compositionally, yet he still takes you on a roller-coaster ride emotionally and intellectually, pushing the boundaries of what a Romantic Russian violin sonata should sound like. And, surprisingly, he manages to keep a light tone in the second movement, despite its length and complexity.

But it’s the third sonata, subtitled “Epica,” that is the most gripping of the three. It’s also the longest, clocking in at 45 minutes. Yet Boriso-Glebsky and Derzhavina hold your attention with their tightly-organized performance, tying all the loose ends together. The opening of the fourth and last movement is surprising and dramatic, leading into an extended and fast-paced discourse between the violin and piano. The two Canzonas and Dances are lighter fare, but no less interesting. I particularly liked the dance No. 2, with its almost Bohemian swagger.

The nocturnes are very unusual for their genre, being less “nocturnal”-sounding and more lively than one would expect, with several fast passages of great difficulty for the violinist.

Comparing these new Boriso-Glebsky/Derzhavina performances with those of Kayaleh/Stewart (I haven’t heard the others), one hears a good emotional connection in the playing of both duos, with the pianists being particularly alert to dynamics and forward momentum. The only real difference is that Kayeleh and Stewart relax the tempo more in the lyrical passages, giving the music a bit more breadth in phrasing—one might say a Menuhin approach compared to a Heifetz approach. But these are the kinds of pitfalls that we critics are sometimes forced to fall into. Making comparisons can be valid if the performance under review is significantly superior to other versions, and often nowadays—particularly in chamber music—this just isn’t so.

Thus the readers of this review can indeed choose to obtain either set with confidence, although for me this new Profil release is the more exciting. It also combines all of Medtner’s violin-piano works in one 2-CD set while the Kayaleh/Stewart duo breaks them up into separate releases (and also includes Jascha Heifetz’ violin-piano arrangement of the first Fairy Tale Op. 20).

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Attacca Quartet Members Play Weinberg

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WEINBERG: Piano Quintet. Sonatine for Piano. Cello Sonata No. 2 / Attacca Quartet; Jeanne Golan, pn; Andrew Yee, cello / Steinway & Sons 30072

It is most heartening how the music of Mieczysław Weinberg (sometimes spelled, and pronounced, Vainberg) has become more and more standard repertoire in the past dozen or so years. Starting from a point of being virtually unknown in the West, he has become one of the most revered composers of his era, and although he may not yet be on everyone’s radar as a standard repertoire artist, he has clearly made significant inroads in that direction.

This new release by members of the Attacca Quartet struck my ears as a bit unusual. They play the great Piano Quintet with tremendous emotional energy and style, but use such a fast, light vibrato that it resembles straight tone. This works in the music’s favor in the more agitated moments of the score, but in the more lyrical moments the string quartet sound is thin and a bit harsh. Only Andrew Yee’s cello imparts any real warmth to the sound. Of course, they are not alone in this sort of approach; ever since the Alban Berg Quartet pioneered this modern string quartet sound in the 1970s, it has become something of a favored approach by many string quartets over the past decades. The violins in particular sounded particularly thin to my ears. This cannot be attributed to the recorded sound, which is quite natural.

Once past this oddity of sound quality, however, this is clearly a gripping performance of the work. The quartet, and pianist Jeanne Golan, attack the music with almost ferocious energy, which keeps one’s rapt attention. Not a note or phrase goes by without an almost palpable connection to the spirit of the work, which is clearly one of Weinberg’s masterpieces. The extreme mood swings of the piece—a typical Weinberg device—give the music a feeling of an interior conversation that the composer was having with himself while writing it.

By contrast, the piano Sonatine is almost jolly, particularly in the first movement, and Jeanne Golan plays it extremely well. She has a nice feel for the contours and structure of the music, giving a lovely performance with a light touch. In the second movement “Adagietto,” Weinberg becomes introspective, almost moody, and Golan captures this well.

The Cello Sonata No. 2, featuring both Yee and Golan, is predictably superb. The cellist’s rich, warm tone and passionate playing is matched by Golan’s alternately energetic and heartfelt pianism. Once again, Weinberg becomes very intimate in his feelings, and thus very introspective, in the work’s slow movement, and in the finale (“Allegro”) he somehow manages to maintain this feeling of intimacy despite the quicker tempo, using folk-like rhythms to propel his quirky themes which always seem to be tonal yet modal at the same time.

Despite my reservations about the violinists’ tone, this is clearly an outstanding release, recommended for all of the performances but especially the Cello Sonata.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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The Quince Ensemble Explores Their “Natal Home”

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MOTHERLAND / LYONS: Bone Needles. STEENBERGE: The Four Winds. HAXO: 3 Erasures. JOLLEY: Prisoner of Conscience / Quince Ensemble: Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, Liz Pearse, Carrie Henneman Shaw, sop; Kayleigh Butcher, mezzo / New Focus Recordings FCR203

The Quince Ensemble is a female vocal group that calls itself a “contemporary treble vocal ensemble.” Originally a quintet, two of the original members left the group as their performance schedules became more demanding, at which point Carrie Henneman Shaw of Ensemble Dal Niente joined to make up the current quartet. This is their third album.

The opener, Gilda Lyons’ Bone Needles, is a chilling, sharp-edged a cappella piece that sounds a bit like Meredith Monk on acid. Lyons writes that the piece was inspired by watching Nicaraguan women repairing fishing nets with long needles made of bone. The music sticks to relatively simple figures, but moves them around within the vocal quartet to create interesting rhythmic and vocal counter-lines.

Quince Ensemble

L to R: Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, Carrie Henneman Shaw (back), Kayleigh Butcher (front), Liz Pearse

Interestingly, however, the second work on this disc, Laura Steenberge’s The Four Winds, is scored more conventionally for the four voices in harmony and uses melodic, largely tonal lines. The text refers to “the imagined past, when the north star was first discovered and the cardinal directions invented.” The quartet, interestingly, sings this with straight tone, yet manages to sound like humans singing and not like a MIDI. They have excellent diction in their middle and low ranges, but above the staff the words are difficult to understand without the text (printed in the booklet). In the second piece of this suite, “Howling like a jackal, moaning like an owl,” Steenberge forsakes lyrics to present another take on Meredith Monk’s groundbreaking vocal style, including long-held notes in the mid-range where the voices cross as well as sing very close chords to create an eerie mood (the owls). Monk-like percussive effects are also heard in the third piece, “North, East, South, West,” which mostly stays on the home tone of G, while in “Pneuma” the quartet combines occasional a cappella singing with harmonica-playing in long-held lines. This has an almost Pauline Oliveros-like quality about it, though it is more tonal and attractive. Kind nutty in a good way! The finale, “Red Giant, White Dwarf,” uses excerpts from a science book which Steenberge has recombined in her own fashion. (In the line, “The solar winds blow away much of its mass,” the quartet pronounces “mass” as “mawse,” which I didn’t much care for.) Just think of them as a sort of celestial Andrews Sisters!

Emily Corwin’s Erasures was created—believe it or not—by erasing some words from a Teen Vogue magazine article, then setting the remaining words to music. The effect is pretty surreal, with the quartet singing, “I, grime, in between small hearts alike – pristine a machine a beautiful thing without a little, like shallow, like clear light through an empty water” etc. Again, the music is primarily tonal yet with modern harmonies mixed in, and I really liked the way the quartet got into the words and music here, evidently enjoying themselves while singing it.

Jennifer Jolley’s Prisoner of Conscience is a deeper and more serious work, concerning the efforts of a group with the rather strange name of Pussy Riot to combat the reign of Vladimir Putin as president of modern Russia. After releasing a “punk prayer” titled “Mother of God Drive Putin Away,” they were sentences to two years in a penal colony. The text was written by someone named Kendall A. Again, the music is largely tonal, the first piece set in G minor and using repeated contrapuntal figures which occasionally overlap and use counterpoint. Each of the eight pieces is separated by spoken lines about the fight for freedom. Where I draw the line is in Jolley’s last line in her description of the piece, comparing President Trump’s fight against the Global Socialists and their attempt to frame him as a Putin ally by disseminating fake news to what Putin has done in his country. Happily, however, this sentiment is not stated in the words of this piece, which is not only a marvelous piece of music but a strong condemnation against a true monster and an enemy of his own people (as is the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, who would have made a much better analogy). And the quartet’s performance is as good as the music they sing.

The Quince Ensemble is clearly one of the premier contemporary vocal groups of this or any other era. Their voices are not only pure but attractive, and they know how to use them to maximum effect.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Modern Flute Music by the Pavan-Canale Duo

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MESSIAEN: Le merl noire. BOULEZ: Sonatine. MARTIN: Ballade. JOLIVET: Chant de Linos. MUCZYNSKI: Sonata for Flute & Piano / Pavan-Canale Duo: Chiara Pavan, fl; Eugenia Canale, pn / Sheva Collection SH181

In a nutshell, this isn’t your father’s flute recital. Nothing here is goopy-pretty in a way that sounds like “Lo, Hear the Gentle Lark” or anything close to it. The Pavan-Canale duo jump right in, all four feet landing on the dissonances of Olivier Messiaen’s Le merl noire (a piece I was not familiar with) and go on from there to challenge the listener while playing with exquisite taste and sensitivity.

If those words seem incompatible with dissonant modern music, you haven’t heard this duo. They do not de-emphasize the music’s strength by softening its contours, but they do approach each piece with the sense that this is music and not cheap effects meant to startle the listener. By doing so, they present the best side of each piece presented here, and in turn the music as well as the playing stays with you long after each piece is over.

This approach works particularly well in the Sonatine by Pierre Boulez, a dry, academic composer whose music generally holds no appeal for me. The way Pavan and particularly pianist Canale bind their phrases at least makes an attempt to make lemonade of this lemon. True, this may not be a piece you’ll play very often, but it’s not from a lack of commitment from this duo. Pavan, in particular, sculpts her phrases like a master artist, throwing light and shade on its angular construction. Even in the busiest and most angular passages, the duo plays with style and flair.

By comparison with Boulez, Frank Martin’s Ballade for flute and piano is a treat to the ear. He was such an interesting composer, and for whatever reason still pretty much ignored in the United States. This is outstanding music, and played to perfection by the duo. The lyrical sections of this ballade are particularly interesting, and played with great commitment.

André Jolivet’s Chant du Linos is even more lyrical; albeit still modern (it was written in 1944), it has that French sensibility about it that is immediately apparent in the amorphous harmony and sensitive treatment of themes. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have its dramatic moments, because it does, and these, too, are played well by the Pavan-Canale Duo. Canale, in particular, does a remarkable job with the piano part, and Pavan soars on her instrument with ease.

We then reach the largest piece on this disc, Robert Muczynski’s four-movement flute sonata of 1961. This, along with the Jolivet, may well be the most attractive piece on this disc. Muczynski alternates between rhythmic and lyrical movements with ease, exploring the full range of the instruments. It is also, unlike the Boulez piece, tightly-written and quite attractive in places, particularly the lovely slow movement. It is also the best known work for flautists, and the duo plays it here with a fine, unfussy style. The last movement is actually quite delightful, dancing along as if on point, and the duo plays it with tremendous energy.

This is a splendid recital disc, and a fine introduction to this talented duo.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Catalin Serban Plays Bell-Like Music

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DES CLOCHES SONORES / ENESCU: Suite No. 2 in D, “Des cloches sonores.” SCHUBERT: Sonata No. 18 in G, D. 894. SCRIABIN: Sonata No. 5 / Catalin Serban, pn / Dreyer Gaido 21107

Catalin Serban, a Romanian pianist now resident in Berlin, presents here a CD of music which he claims contains the sonorities of bells. I have my doubts about the Schubert sonata, but this is what he writes in the booklet (in German…I had to use Google Translate):

In search of exciting contexts and juxtapositions of works and composers who have occupied and inspired me for a long time, I present these three compositions – stylistically completely different, but united by bell-like motifs and sounds.

George Enescu’s Suite Op. 10 No. 2 even bears the name “Des cloches sonores” (Eng. “Ringing Bells”), and the bells are unmistakable in all four movements of the suite in very differentiated dynamic and atmospheric tones.

The G major Sonata Op.78 D 894 by Franz Schubert is a piece that I’ve been familiar with for a long time. For my interpretation of the famous first movement very impressive was the contemplation of the long, extended chords – sounds like of distant bells in a quiet, intimate landscape.

The impressive conclusion and climax of the Sonata No. 5 Op. 53 by Alexander Scriabin uses the very delicate harmonies and single tones of the beginning, which differ from
unfold the distant sounds of bells to an overpowering, massive carillon.

He is certainly an enthusiastic performer. The opening of the Enescu suite is filled with a massive, ringing sound, and even the quieter moments later on have their allusions to bell-ringing. The music is pleasant, not bad by any means (I don’t think Enescu was capable of writing a poor piece of music), but more of a pleasant diversion than music with depth. I did, however, like the descending chromatics and unusual key changes in the second piece.

Thi Schubert sonata is an especially impressive performance of music that too often sounds rambling and disconnected. Serban uses more pedal than most other interpreters I’ve heard, as well as a gentler touch at the keyboard, which results in some wonderfully atmospheric effects. And he does indeed create bell-like sonoroties here, which I can’t recall hearing previously. Like Haydn, Schubert’s sonatas do not “play themselves” easily; it takes a skilled interpreter to make it sound coherent. The only performance I’ve heard that comes close to this is the one by pianist Daniel Shapiro, which I reviewed on this blog some time ago.

His performance of the Scriabin sonata is likewise very finely chiseled, although in this instance I felt that he missed making the extreme dynamic contrasts that this music calls for. It’s a more Germanic than a Slavic interpretation of Scriabin, if you know what I mean. The phrasing is beautifully bound, and he certainly does not lack for enthusiasm, so in those respects it’s a good performance, but I missed some of the edginess that Ruth Laredo and Garrick Ohlsson brought to the music. Note, for instance, the explosive passage beginning around 3:32; he gets the volume right, but the music just misses sounding explosive. Just my personal taste, however. Taken on its own merits, it’s certainly a good reading of the score.

An interesting disc, then, and a fine introduction to this young pianist.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Lewis Wright’s Unusual Jazz Duets

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DUETS / WRIGHT: Fire & Flow. Fortuna. An Absence of Heart. Ono No Komachi. Tokyo ‘81. Sati. Kintamani / Lewis Wright, vib; Kit Downes, pn / Signum SIGCD 529

There isn’t much in the way of liner notes for this CD by jazz vibist Lewis Wright—only the following statement:

There is limited material for vibraphone and piano (especially for improvising musicians), which has the potential to be so rhythmically interesting and polyphonically grand. I set out to compose pieces that showcase the instruments and are built around the language of the musicians. The right pianist, who can speak in this particular dialect of improvisation and has similar taste in the moment, was an obvious choice. Kit and I have known each other and played together since childhood and we share many influences, musical and otherwise.

Not much at all in the way of description, but listening to this CD is certainly an experience! It begins as sort of ambient jazz, with just the piano, and when Wright first enters you think it will continue in that vein; but by the 40-second mark the music increases in both volume and complexity. It’s tonal, but with many key changes and little figures played outside the tonality, which gives the music an unsettled feel to it, no matter how many chords Downes plays on the piano to try to “ground” it. And off they go into their own little musical universe, listening carefully to each others’ cues and following-the-leader down a musical rabbit hole. Even when Downes goes off on his own solo, he is locked into a high level of inspiration, listening to himself and creating entirely new music—whole cloth out of little snatches of harmony. Upon Wright’s re-entrance, he is off to the races, chasing his metaphorical White Rabbit in and out of little doors into his own personal Wonderland.

Nor do they coast or relax in the following track, titled Fortuna. Downes sets up a lively 6/8 sort of jig and Wright dances in and around it, again tonal but not-quite-settled. This is music of both inner and outer inspiration, just going with their own flow. Wright plays serrated eighths against Downes’ chunky 3/8 block chords, and they just keep on pushing each other as the track goes along.

We finally reach a somewhat restful track in An Absence of Heart, where the high energy of the opening numbers is turned into reflection. The invention is clearly still present—this is music improvised into being—but the relaxed pace leads to more attention to harmony and less on rhythm. The same is true of Ono No Kamachi, which is the closest thing to a memorable tune so far on this disc. The sparseness of the lead line almost has a Bill Evans-type feel to it.

With Tokyo ’81, we are back to an uptempo and more pointillistic invention between the two musicians. This one gets very busy indeed, with the two percussionists (for that is, after, what instruments they are playing) getting into some amazing improvised counterpoint. Sati is a sad little jazz waltz, sounding almost French (like something Claude Bolling might have written), in B-flat minor, really a lovely piece that should become a jazz standard.

The somewhat brief album concludes with another ballad, Kintamani, but this one is less definable melodically or harmonically despite a nice little tune in the middle eight. Taken all together, this is an interesting CD, beautifully conceived and executed, of improvised music at its best.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Quatuor Joachim Plays Szymanowski & Ravel

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SZYMANOWSKI: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2. RAVEL: String Quartet in F /Quatuor Joachim / Calliope 1747

The Ravel String Quartet is a fairly common staple item in the repertoire of many chamber groups; the Szymanowski, not nearly as much, though there are several other recordings available (the Goldner Quartet on Naxos, Royal String Quartet on Hyperion, Carmina Quartet on Denon, Camerata Quartet on Dux and Maggini Quartet on ASV). Here are all three works, with the Ravel sandwiched on the disc between the two by the Polish composer.

Interestingly, Quatour Joachim’s performance of the first Szymanowski quartet contains a good amount of portamento. I looked at the score (click here to open or download) and saw phrase markings that may indicate this, but it’s not clearly specified as such. In other respects, however, the group’s performance is very much in the tradition of most modern string quartets in that they maintain a steady tempo with no effects not marked and a lean string sound. Taken on its own merit, however, the performance conveys Szymanowski’s unusual sound-world with great feeling, and that is what matters most. Too many performers seem to take the view that modern music should be played objectively; Szymanowski was not an objectivist composer. All of the tempo changes and such markings as Poco rallentando, Avvivando, Meno mosso and A tempo risoluto are scrupulously observed.

They take the same approach to the Ravel Quartet: steady rhythm as marked, good inflections but nothing added that is not spelled out or suggested in the score. I found it interesting, however, that they play with a slight “press” forward in rhythm, which is generally more idiomatic in German and Slavic quartets than in French scores. It certainly does hold your attention, however, and does not come across as too glib. An excellent example of this is the fast second movement, which has a fine balance in dynamics while revealing the structure of the piece quite clearly, with genuine delicacy towards the end, and there is indeed some warmth in the slow movement. The last movement fairly explodes with energy.

The second Szymanowski quartet, even more mysterious than the first, is played with equally great feeling and attention to detail. Particularly weird and different is the second movement, which alternates moments of transcendent impressionism with fleeting pizzicato. If anything, however, the last movement is even odder, with what I would call crushed chords coming and going while the musical thread of the music again alternates mood and tempo.

An excellent disc. I compared these performances to the ones with the Goldner Quartet, and found them much more detailed and interesting.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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