Gringolts Plays Stravinsky

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STRAVINSKY: Pastorale for Violin & Winds. Le Baiser de la Fée: Ballad; Divertimento. Pulcinella: Suite Italienne. Apollon musagète: Variation d’Apollon. Violin Concerto.* Élégie. Tango (arr. Dushkin) / Ilya Gringolts, vln; Peter Laul, pn; Casey Hill, ob; Scott MacLeod, Eng-hn; Juan Ferrer, cl; Steve Harriswangler, bsn (Pastorale); *Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia; *Dima Slobodeniouk, cond / Bis 2275

This is the second volume of Ilya Gringolts playing the violin music of Stravinsky. The music presented here is largely relaxed and relatively tonal; the Pastorale originally dates from 1907 (arranged in 1933) and of course, the excerpts from The Fairy’s Kiss and Pulcinella are adapted from earlier music (Tchaikovsky and Pergolesi). It’s interesting to hear the latter arranged for violin and piano, but by and large I like the full orchestral version better. Gringolts is a fine violinist with a lovely tone and nice styling, but not individual enough to give you more than what is in the score.

He does, however, provide great energy in the fast movements such as the Tarantella and Danses suisses, accenting the rhythms perfectly.

Gringolts’ performance of the Violin Concerto compares favorably to the old recording by Arthur Grumiaux in its lift and stylishness, but surprisingly, conductor Dima Slobodeniouk doesn’t seem to get into the spirit nearly as well as Frieder Weissmann (Grumiaux’s conductor) or especially Christoph von Dohnányi, who gave a splendid performance of it a few years back with the excellent Gil Shaham. It’s a curious combination of warmth and humor (Gringolts) and cool efficiency (Slobodeniouk). Only in the last movement (“Capriccio”) does the conductor seem to finally wake up and realize what good music this is.

I was impressed by Gringolts’ sensitive performance of the Élégie for solo violin—a masterful job. And in the Tango, he and pianist Peter Laul give a sensuous, relaxed performance, one of the best on the CD.

Overall, an interesting disc to hear if not a vital one to own.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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David Alan Miller Conducts Modern American Works

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RUGGLES: Sun-Treader. STUCKY: Second Concerto for Orchestra. HARBISON: Symphony No. 4 / National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic; David Alan Miller, cond / Naxos 8.559836

Although John Harbison’s name tops the credits for this CD, it is pretty equally divided between three American composers, Carl Ruggles, Steven Stucky and Harbison. Indeed, it starts out with one of the most difficult pieces in the orchestral repertoire, Ruggles’ Sun-Treader, which the NOI Philharmonic plays with considerable energy and verve. Though it’s hard to beat Michael Tilson Thomas’ classic recording with the Boston Symphony, this version (and the recent issue by Michael Gielen) come close. This recording has a great deal of hall resonance around the orchestra, yet the incisive, biting quality of Ruggles’ orchestration comes through clearly.

I was interested to hear the Stucky concerto, in part because I was unfamiliar with it. It begins with swirling winds, to which biting brass and tympani are added for punctuation. The liner notes indicate that, in this work, Stucky worked out anagrams to pay tribute to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, its conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, and various musical friends of his, but in all honesty you don’t need to know this in order to appreciate the music, which is colorful and imaginative. A variety of themes criss-cross one another, sometimes in contrasting rhythms, while an undercurrent of repeated triplet figures play beneath them; the music swirls and eddies its way about, yet Stucky maintained complete control of the proceedings, managing to hold everything together in a well-ordered progression despite all the various aural busyness going on. Miller keeps this complex and difficult music under perfect control, producing a performance of great energy as well as musical integrity. The long (13:47) second movement is simply remarkable, turning the swirling figures of the opening into a theme that he develops and re-orchestrates in various ways. There’s a fascinating section in the midst of the movement for the four horns, playing against one another, while the strings and winds play swirling figures. Eventually, the music relaxes and we get a languorous melody played by a solo cello which is then given to the cello section and developed by the winds.

The third movement Finale is almost like an American version of Bartók’s “Game of Pairs” from his famous Concerto for Orchestra. Stucky is clearly enjoying himself, tossing short snippets of themes around and somehow managing to make them stick together. It’s quite a piece, and Miller’s conducting brings out the work’s best features while giving the listener an exhilarating ride.

The Harbison symphony, though a fine work in its own right, is lighter fare than the previous two pieces. This is not to say that it is a “classics lite” trifle—it clearly is not—only that here the pounding rhythms of the opening movement, and Harbison’s use of scurrying themes, seem more designed to impress the listener. Like Stucky, he uses contrasting figures almost repeatedly, but they are more overlaid on each other and less clear in their intent, as if he were trying to overwhelm one with complexity at the expense of expression. He plays with timbre in unusual ways, e.g., the bell tones in the second movement and the sudden pauses in the music, and his language is bitonal in many places, but for me, personally, it wasn’t music that stuck with me (no pun intended). It therefore didn’t surprise me to learn that the symphony was commissioned for the Seattle Symphony’s centennial celebration; many a work written to commemorate a specific event or anniversary tends to be somewhat splashy. But of course Harbison, whose music I generally like, is always a fine craftsman, and if the symphony is lacking somewhat in depth it clearly has dazzle and ingenuity on its side. It’s a bit like listening to Beethoven’s cantata Die Glorrische Augenblick or Verdi’s Hymn of the Nations, a good work but not really a great one. I did, however, enjoy the swinging string writing in the third-movement “Scherzo” with its jazz inflections, generally a Harbison trademark, and in the fourth movement, “Threnody,” he temporarily abandons this style to produce a deeply-felt work that I found moving and impressive. Conductors may wish to program this movement separately; with its haunting theme and superb development, it stands apart from the rest of the symphony because it is so much more than an “effect” piece. The last of the five movements tends to vacillate between genuine expression and lighter, splashier themes. Sorry if I sound negative here, but I have to be honest.

In toto, however, this is an interesting disc, exceedingly well played and conducted. Recommended particularly for the Stucky piece.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Mena Continues His Ginastera Series

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GINASTERA: Piano Concerto No. 1. Variaciones Concertantes. Concierto Argentino / Xiayin Yang, pn; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; Juanjo Mena, cond / Chandos 10949

In this, the third installment in Juanjo Mena’s series of Ginastera’s orchestral music, he moves backward in time from the second piano concerto (Vol. 2) to the first, written in 1961 in memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky (it was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation). It is no less powerful or innovative, however, and in fact I seriously doubt that Koussevitzky, a musician of limited gifts, could have done it justice. Jagged rhythms such as these were beyond his capabilities, but he probably would have assigned it to his associate during the 1940s, Leonard Bernstein, to conduct. It’s unusually constructed, with the orchestra playing atonal harmonies within its Stravinskian framework, and the piano acting as a commentator on the ongoing proceedings, filling in lines and textures rather than creating an independent solo around which the orchestra coalesces. Moreover, the remaining works on this disc go even further back in time: the Variaciones Concertantes date from 1953 and the Concierto Argentino from 1935.

Pianist Xiayin Yang has the requisite technique for his part as well as a good grasp of musical style and phrasing, and the BBC Philharmonic plays with exceptional fire and energy. Most interesting among the concerto’s four movements is the “Scherzo allucinante,” taken at a relatively slow pace for a scherzo and focusing on sparse flute and other wind instruments weaving their way around the piano, which here assumes center stage, creating odd rhythmic figures that eventually increase the tempo and energize the brass and percussion into action around it. The “Adagissimo” movement follows closely on its heels, and again Ginastera creates an unusual structure, largely instrumental in its first 1:41, with an alternation of forlorn winds and explosive orchestral moments before the piano enters. Soft, high, mysterious strings end the movement along with the piano. The finale, “Toccata concertata,” is built around an energetic and aggressive rhythm, again pitting high winds (and percussion) against the soloist.

The Variaciones Concertantes inhabit an entirely different sound-world, beginning with a lovely cello solo. As the notes indicate, this piece is as much a concerto for orchestra as a set of variations, and the opening theme is delicate and sparsely scored. The first variation features the flute, and is energetic and also mostly tonal. Then comes the variation for clarinet, bouncy and energetic in a quick 3/8 tempo. The viola variation begins with a solo, ruminative and using modal harmony, before soft winds underpin the instrument. This is followed by an energetic and highly rhythmic variation for the trumpet and trombone sections, lasting but 35 seconds, before the violin gets its turn in an almost jig-like movement. A pastoral interlude follows, highlighted by both winds and horns, which leads directly into a lovely contrabass solo in the same mood. The final variation, in the form of a rondo, is energetic and features the whole orchestra.

Interestingly, the early Concierto Argentino sounds even a bit more modern than the previous (later) work, although it is more clearly based on Argentinean music and rhythms. In this piece the solo pianist plays an opening solo that sounds like a classical version of barroom music. Yet, interestingly, Ginastera manages to weave the disparate parts of this music together to create a whole cloth, which unfolds in its own grand manner. In this work, despite his brilliant technique, I felt that Yang’s playing was all surface and didn’t get under the skin of the score, though Mena does his best from the podium.

Another excellent CD of Ginastera’s music, and a must-have for admirers of this great composer.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Rolf Martinsson’s Exuberant Music

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MARTINSSON: Open Mind. Orchestral Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson.* A.S. in Memoriam. Concerto for Orchestra+ / *Lisa Larsson, sop; Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra; Andrew Manze, +Sakari Oramo, cond / Bis 2133

The music of Rolf Martinsson—particularly the first selection on this CD, Open Mind—is brash and powerful, coming at you like a sledgehammer. But more importantly, it is well-written music, with a beginning, a development, and an ending.

I would think that most classical composers realize this before they put pen to paper, but you’d be surprised (well, maybe you wouldn’t be) how many modern compositions I hear that don’t seem to have a clue as to their identity, let alone direction. It is the bane of many modern composers that their music is so “diverse” in style that it isn’t even coherent; or, if it is coherent, it doesn’t say much of anything. Cheap effects that startle the ear seem to be all they have in mind.

Martinsson is different. Open Mind, after its brash opening, has lyrical episodes in a tonal style that contrast effectively with the more explosive and dramatic. He knows exactly what he is about and what he is trying to accomplish; his music reminds me, in many ways, of the kind of scores that such composers as Walter Piston and Easley Blackwood were writing in the 1950s: music that had modern harmonies but also had form and structure. In this respect, he may be heard as a retro-modern, if such a thing exists. Effect for its own sake is not his thing. It is music of great exuberance but not intended to be a continual assault on the senses. The composer himself describes his composing method as follows:

I use the piano as my initial sound source, never a computer. I write down the music by hand in short score and then enter the music into my computer, play it back and refine it as to form, time, timing and tempo. When the piece is complete I print out the musical file and use my pencil again in order to orchestrate the work by hand. For me, a computer mouse and “copy & paste” can never replace the sense of shaping each note by hand. When the handwritten score is complete, I enter everything into my computer adding dynamics, articulation and other important information. Then I print out the score for proof reading and extract the parts. This may seem an old-fashioned way of working but it is the only way in which I feel that I can maintain total control of my work at every stage.

I did, however, detect a certain sameness of approach in both Open Mind and the first of his Orchestral Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson. Soprano Lisa Larsson has a bright, high voice with an incipient wobble (too many singers today have this defect, lamentable because it is correctable), but her timbre is very pretty and her diction good in her middle and lower ranges. Above the staff, consonants disappear, which is a pity because her English diction isn’t all that bad. The song cycle is continuous, not divided into separate songs, and this I found quite interesting since it gave Martinsson the opportunity to write music that develops from song to song, based on similar material which interconnects. Yes, some of the songs can be performed by themselves outside of the cycle, but they gain immensely in interest when heard all together. With a better soprano—meaning one without a wobble and clearer diction, such as Anu Komsi, Tony Arnold or Danielle de Niese—this could easily become a repertoire staple. It’s that good. As the cycle progresses, Martinsson’s music becomes more diverse as well as more lyrical. He has an excellent feeling writing for the voice and knows what he is about. “A Soft Sea” and “If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking” are so beautiful that it could easily have been written by Samuel Barber in his prime. Yes, that is a compliment, as I consider Barber one of the greatest song composers of all time.

A.S. in Memoriam, written to commemorate Arnold Schoenberg and particularly his early masterpiece Verklärte Nacht, is remarkable in its ability to capture the spirit of the original piece while maintaining Martinsson’s own originality. First written for 15 strings, this full orchestral arrangement was dedicated to the great Neeme Järvi, who gave its world premiere with the Gothenburg Symphony. Happily, this piece has made the rounds with various conductors (among them Alan Gilbert, Andrew Manze and Mario Venzago) and orchestras (the Philharmonia, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic), as well it should.

The Concerto for Orchestra (2008) was composed for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and premiered by them with the conductor on this recording, Sakari Oramo. The first movement is very lyrical and resolutely tonal, written in a style that might almost be called neo-Romantic. It completely lacks the superficiality of many such compositions in that style nowadays, however; Martinsson puts real meat on his bones, so to speak, creating a work that seeps into the listener’s system as it progresses. At about the six-minute mark in the first movement, some Stravinskian neo-classism enters the picture, followed by powerful orchestral chords and a more stoic version of the original theme. The final section of this movement lives up to its title, “Con forza.” The second movement has considerable energy and emotion behind it, in the tradition (but not the exact style) of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The middle section, quite fast, opens with energetic string tremolos before moving into swirling triplets. The slow third movement, “Amabile e dolcissimo,” has an ethereal sound to it, almost mysterious in feeling, before moving into the surprising “Tumultuoso” section at 6:26. This is built around more string tremolos, biting brass and pounding tympani. Martinsson also uses some unusual syncopated figures here, including (at one point) quarter note triplets over a standard 4 tempo.

This is clearly exceptional music, very well performed for the most part and excitingly recorded.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Rediscovering Hugo Alfvén

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ALFVÉN: Symphony No. 1. Drapa, Op. 27. Midsommarvaka / Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Łukasz Borowicz, cond / CPO 555 043-2

Known in America (and much of Europe) primarily for his light works such as the Swedish Rhapsodies and Midsummer Vigil (the latter presented on this disc), Hugo Alfvén nonetheless wrote some really serious music in his life, and the first symphony presented here is surely one of these. A work with real meat on its bones, it is thematically interesting, well developed, and surprisingly dramatic—at least, in the skilled hands of conductor Łukasz Borowicz, who gives it an impressive reading here. It is at least as good a work as Dvořak’s famous Ninth Symphony, with varied themes and tempi; it’s a shame it’s not better known in the United States.

Indeed, if anything, the first movement is so chock-full of interesting melodies that by the time its 15 ½-minute length is over, you may be forgiven for wondering if Alfvén hadn’t written two linked movements. He sticks to a lesser number of themes in the slow movement, knitting the music together skillfully. The third movement immediately wakes you up with its cheerful, supercharged introduction, and skillfully weaves tunes that sound like Swedish folk melodies—but not all of them. Again, Alfvén moves skillfully between major and minor, going back and forth with alacrity as he weaves his way through the movement. It has a surprising trio section at half tempo before picking up steam once again.

The fourth movement is also in a chipper mood, again contrasts different themes, but to my mind isn’t as serious a piece of music as the first three movements, but it does pick up steam and become more serious in the last minute.

The tone poem Drapa is a fairly interesting piece, although less varied in its approach as the symphony. Written as a memorial to King Oscar II, it combines the ceremonial with the pastoral. The CD ends with a particularly vigorous and non-sentimental reading of Alfvén’s most famous and popular piece, his Midsummer Vigil. I’ve always like this piece, but in this instance I think Borowicz could have scored more points by relaxing the tempo so that it didn’t sound so stiff and fast.

An interesting take on one of Sweden’s most famous composers.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Lili Boulanger’s Fascinating Choral Works Revived

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BOULANGER: Prelude in Db. Soir sur la plaine. La source. Pendant la tempête. Les Sirènes. Renouveau. Sous-bois.  D’un vieux jardin. D’un jardin clair. Cortège. Soleils de Septembre. Pour les funérailles d’un soldat. Psalm 24. Vieille prière bouddhique. Hymne au Soleil / Antonii Baryshevskii, pn; Orpheus Vocal Ensemble; Michael Alber, dir / Carus 83489

According to the album cover and booklet, only the Soleils de Septembre is a first recording, but I’ve only heard a few of the pieces on this disc. I would think that most readers of this blog have heard at least some of Lili Boulanger’s music; if you haven’t, you need to do so forthwith. Yes, she wrote in the opaque French impressionist style of Debussy and Ravel, but her own “voice” was entirely her own. She used more syncopation than the other composers, and also more varied tone clusters, to create her own world, and within it she reigned supreme until her tragic death at the age of 25. It has always bothered me to some extent that music educators point to Franz Schubert as the greatest composer who died at the youngest age, apparently relegating Lili to a position of unfulfilled promise. This is clearly not so. Like her music or not, she was a fully-formed composer from the age of 19 onwards—unlike Schubert, who really didn’t find his voice until he was in his mid-twenties. The difference is that Schubert wrote music continuously, some of it banal and uninteresting, whereas Boulanger wrote when and what she desired.

With the exception of the solo piano Prelude in Db, D’un vieux jardin and Cortège this album focuses on her short choral works. They are not as profound or as complex as her orchestral pieces or cantatas, but they are perfect miniatures with surprising and unexpected modulations and turns of phrase. Here, they are given a float-in-the-clouds treatment by the Orpheus Vocal Ensemble and the various soloists within that group, and the effect is magical. The solo singers are soprano Clémence Boullu, Sonja Bühler and Catherine Witting, tenors Joachim Streckfuβ, Davide Flor and Jo Holzwarth, mezzos Friederike Schorling, Anne Bierwirth and Bernadette Beckermann, and baritone Christos Pelekanos, and they all do a fine job despite the fact that they all have “chorus voices” and are not as full-bodied as legitimate oratorio soloists.

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Lili Boulanger

My sole complaint was that, with so many works in similar tempi and mood, the ensemble did little to vary their approach, making each piece sound virtually alike. They used a very narrow dynamic range and seldom let themselves go emotionally in the music, a fine exception being Pendant la tempête, played and sung with good energy. Of course, Boulanger herself never expected that nearly 80 minutes’ worth of her choral pieces would be programmed in this sequence, nor were they intended to be. With so few of these pieces currently available on CD, it’s great to have them all available like this, but I have the feeling that her older sister Nadia, who recorded a few of her instrumental pieces, would have given the music greater variety. The recording I have of Psalm 24 by the Elisabeth Brasseur Chorale with the Concerts Lamoureux Orchestra conducted by Igor Markevitch (under Nadia Boulanger’s direction) has more energy than the version presented here. Perhaps, as in the case of Psalm 24, the musical presentation would have benefitted from the use of an orchestra in at least some of them, rather than piano-accompanied performances. This is largely due to the fact that, perhaps at the direction of Michael Alber, pianist Baryshevskii mostly plays in a soft, tinkling manner except for La tempête and the solo Cortège.

Still, we must be grateful for any new release by this outstanding composer, and the newly-recorded Soleils de Septembre is a lovely piece, perhaps a shade too lovely with its lack of dynamic inflections. On the other hand, I was very impressed by Pour les funérailles d’un soldat with its references to Berlioz’ “March to the Scaffold” from his Symphonie Fantastique. This highly imaginative piece clearly shows Boulanger’s individuality as a composer; a piece like this could not have been written by Debussy, and would surely not have been written by Ravel, who despised Berlioz’ music. The Old Buddhist Prayer is yet another interesting piece (also recorded by Markevitch), and here the approach of the chorus and pianist are fully appropriate. The program ends with her Hymn to the Sun, with its Debussy-like harmonies constantly shifting, not only from minor to major but even in the chord positions underneath. This is another piece that was new to me, and it’s performed with a bit more energy than many of the others.

An interesting disc for the most part, with four outstanding pieces and interpretations I’d not heard previously.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Holloway’s Fascinating Chamber Works

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HOLLOWAY: Trio for Clarinet, Viola & Piano. Trio for Oboe, Violin & Piano. Viola Sonata / Oliver Pashley, cl; Henrietta Hill, vla; Reese Webster, ob; Rebecca Raimondi, vln; Alessandro Viale, pn / Sheva Contemporary SH208

British composer Robin Holloway, who was the tutor of Peter Seabourne, has had pretty much an outsider’s position in British music. By his own admission, “As a young composer, I wanted to be a Modern among the Moderns. Now I don’t want to shock anyone – I want to please, to stir, to delight, to move and invigorate.”

Most of Holloway’s pieces I had heard prior to this release, however, seemed to me very well constructed but not openly pleasing or delightful—but those were orchestral works. On this CD, in these chamber works, I found Holloway’s work to be exactly as he describes it above. The 17-minute, one-movement Trio for Clarinet, Viola & Piano, for instance, uses simple, attractive themes which Holloway develops in a clear and relatively easy-to-follow fashion. None of this is meant to imply that his music is so simple as to be uninteresting; God knows we have enough of that around nowadays. On the contrary, it is music of considerable variety and not a little bit of wit, as if Holloway was telling you a fairly long and complex joke or anecdote with little side-jokes and innuendo. I had a smile on my face from start to finish. Even when he throws in a few out-of-tonality chords, he does so in a delightful manner. There is also considerable space in this music; much of it is a dialogue between the two upper instruments, with occasional commentary and interludes by the piano. Eventually, the various threads of the music are remixed and include “snatches, not present first time round, of what has been presented since.” It’s a very clever piece, then, but not one that overdoes cleverness to the point of cuteness.

The Trio for Oboe, Violin & Piano, though equally attractive, is written in a different style. Here, the three instruments interact with each other from the start, in a more conventional manner, with a melodic line that is quite attractive and more lyrical in nature. Interesting harmonic movement is the key to this piece, the theme morphing and changing as it progresses. Here, too, the work’s four movements are somewhat split up, only the third and fourth played without a break. Holloway becomes spikier in his musical discourse through the second-movement “Adagio espressivo,” in which the theme is broken up by pauses and different changes of mood. There is a whimsical passage in which the violin plays pizzicato behind the oboe. In the third movement Scherzino, Holloway reverts to the playful mood of the first trio, but in a faster tempo and with a different way of splitting up the musical line between the three instruments. He also plays quite a bit with syncopations in this movement: there’s a certain similarity to the chamber music of Françaix here. The fourth movement, slow and a bit somber, closes out the work.

Holloway’s sonata for solo viola, another very lyrical piece, uses what Holloway describes as “scordatura tuning,” with the instrument’s bottom string “lowered a semitone to B,” which results in a “duskier and richer” sound. It’s also cleverly written without trying to sound clever: the first movement uses a four-note motif “in ever-widening melodic contours” while the second is a “whirlwind scherzo” played mostly in tremolos except for the trio which uses “chunky double-stops” within a more lyrical theme. Violist Henrietta Hill nonetheless does a terrific job in this piece on this very different instrument. The third movement uses the same four-note motif as the first, but creates a continuous melody out of it, at one point giving the soloist a melodic line above with plucked notes in the lower range. The final “Allegro amabile” has the violist play as “two voices in dialogue: a blithe courtier and a bashful courted one (perhaps).” Here, as in the oboe trio, the final two movements are linked, and there’s a remarkable passage using real jazz rhythms that I especially liked.

This is a splendid disc, one that I’m sure will make any listener a Holloway fan!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Gloria Coates’ Microtonal Music

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G. COATES: Piano Quintet / Kreutzer Quartet; Roderick Chadwick, pn / Symphony No. 10, “Drones of Druids on Celtic Ruins” / CalArts Orchestra; Susan Allen, cond / Naxos 8.559848

American-born Gloria Coates, who has lived mostly in Europe since 1969 (when she was 31), has tirelessly promoted American music in both England and Germany. She also taught for eight years (1975-83) at the University of Wisconsin’s International Programs. Her composition style is resolutely modern, using close chromatics and microtonalism. Yet she also favors a lyric line amidst this sound-world, which makes her music flow smoothly even when the harmonies do not. I found it interesting that the same forces that recorded Jeremy Dale Roberts’ music for Toccata Classics—the Kreutzer Quartet and pianist Chadwick—also played her quintet on this Naxos CD. It turns out that this group premiered the quintet at the Gasteig in Munich in the summer of 2015.

As I mentioned in my review of the Roberts disc, these forces play with considerable emotion and attention to detail, which forces the listeners’ attention. They also understand the structure of the pieces they play and bring out extraordinary clarity. I was fascinated by her use of microtonalism, making her work resemble, to a surprising degree, the music of Julián Carrillo, who I wrote about in January of this year. The liner notes make no mention of Carrillo as an influence, however, but rather say that she was already writing music “with overtones and clusters at age nine,” and cite Alexander Tcherepnin and Otto Luening as “important mentors.” The only small complaint I had was that each of the four movements were in the same tempo and basic mood; a bit of variety would have been welcome. Taken on its own merits, however, it is extremely interesting and well-written.

The Tenth Symphony, titled “Drones of Druids on Celtic Ruins,” was commissioned in 1989 by the Erding (Bavaria) Ministry of Culture. It occupies the same chromatic world as the quintet (and much the same tempi) while using a conventional symphony orchestra playing in an unconventional manner. Even the trumpets are called on to play chromatic smears and microtones in the framework of this piece. She does use a considerable variety of orchestral color, however, and in this work varies the rhythm of the individual instruments and sections, though strings are conspicuous by their absence. The music here is scored primarily for brass and percussion…the second movement, in fact, is all percussion, nearly 12 minutes of it.

An interesting disc, then, worth hearing at least once.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Revisiting Reinhardt’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM / Ian Hunter (Theseus); Verree Teasdale (Hippolyta); Hobart Cavanaugh (Philostrate); Dick Powell (Lysander); Ross Alexander (Demetrius); Olivia de Havilland (Hermia); Jean Muir (Helena); Grant Mitchell (Egeus); Frank McHugh (Quince); Dewey Robinson (Snug); James Cagney (Bottom); Joe E. Brown (Flute); Hugh Herbert (Snout); Otis Harlan (Starveling); Victor Jory (Oberon); Anita Louise (Titania); Mickey Rooney (Puck); Billy Barty (Mustard Seed); Nini Theilade (prima ballerina); Ben Bone (Set designer); Bronislava Nijinska (Choreographer); Erich Korngold (Music director); Max Reinhardt, William Dieterle (Directors) / Warner Entertainment DVD or Blu-Ray

Both in 1935 and today, Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has received mixed reviews—many of them bad. Top on the critics’ hit list were singing pretty boy Dick Powell as Lysander and 14-year-old Mickey Rooney as Puck, although 16-year-old Olivia de Havilland in this, her first movie, also came under criticism. The serious theater critics—the Shakespearians—complained that Warner Brothers didn’t take the movie seriously enough to cast real trained actors in the roles, while the “lowbrow” critics thought it too long, too wordy and pretentious.

The movie didn’t do well at the box office at all. Several theaters in Warner’s network canceled the film even before it played because they believed no one would come to see such an “artsy” movie, even with James Cagney and Joe E. Brown, the most popular film comedian of that time, in leading roles.

Watching it again today, we can see these faults as well, but we have to realize that all of the cast members were Reinhardt’s personal choices, and he personally worked with them on both their delivery of lines and physical gestures (through co-director William Dieterle, since Reinhardt spoke no English at the time). So why did he do it?

The answer is that he wanted it to be a comedy that people would enjoy and laugh at as they did in Shakespeare’s own time. And let’s face it, if you just view the movie as is and take everything at face value, it is very funny. The presence of such obviously trained actors as Ian Hunter, Hobart Cavanaugh and Victor Jory shows that Reinhardt fully understood what he was doing. If you read the play, it’s obvious that Puck, or “Robin Goodfellow,” is a hyperactive, over-zealous pain in the butt, which is exactly how Rooney played the character. More importantly, the acting style of the cast reflects contemporary stage and vaudeville styles of the time.

And Shakespeare himself clearly did not have “trained Shakespearean actors” for his own productions. As much as we can glean from old records, the actors of his time could scarcely be called “trained” at all. Most of them were comics who played in traveling farces for the populace. It was probably much harder for him to find serious actors who could do justice to his dramatic roles than comedians who could play in his farces.

Reinhardt must also have viewed Lysander as a bit of a “twit,” as the British say, because Dick Powell, after two days’ shooting, realized he was all wrong for the role and begged to be replaced. Reinhardt would have none of it. He wanted to contrast the more reserved Demetrius (Ross Alexander) with the shallow fool who Hermia had fallen in love with. One scene in the film tells you everything you need to know about Reinhardt’s approach. In the forest, when Lysander has been enchanted with a magic flower to fall in love with Helena, all four Athenians start talking and arguing at the same time. The lines are lost—you can’t really make out a word—but the effect is hysterically funny. Although some of the female dancers, as a corps, aren’t in synch during their group scenes (particularly the running-up-the-clouds sequence), most of Bronislava Nijinska’s choreography works pretty well…but she clearly wasn’t as great as her brother.

The movie’s style, ironically, has never been criticized except for those who wished it had been filmed in color. There are several publicity photos in color (see below) to give an idea of how the film might have looked that way. The special effects, such as fairies emerging from a bed of fog to run up a string of clouds into the sky, or the nocturne scene in which Oberon spreads his cape to create a fantastic effect across the entire screen while ballerina Nini Theilade does some magnificent dancing, are still effective to this day. And for classical buffs, a bit of trivia: the horn player in the Nocturne is Alfred Brain, the brother of Aubrey Brain and uncle to Dennis Brain. Although he was normally contracted by M-G-M to play film music, Reinhardt insisted on using the full Los Angeles Philharmonic in the picture, thus Alf got to play the nocturne.

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midsummer-night-s-dream-cagneyIf you can accept some of the eccentricities of Reinhardt’s direction of his characters, the movie still holds up very well today. I personally find it much funnier (especially the play-within-the-play of the laborers doing the old Ovid tragedy Pyramus and Thisbe as a real botch job) than the later Hollywood remake, and the film moves at an excellent pace. The DVD uses the fully restored version of the film, with an “Overture” and “Epilogue” in which music plays as patrons entered and left the theater as well as fully restored scenes that weren’t shown on television until the late 1990s on TBS. Also included as extra features on the DVD release are introductions to the film by key members of the cast, a “studio cafeteria” scene with Joe E. Brown, the original trailer for the film, a Vitaphone short showing Reinhardt on the set and Erich Korngold at the piano arranging the music, and an absolutely awful 1934 short titled Shake It, Mr. Shakespeare in which actors, singers and dancers attempt to bring the Bard up-to-date by doing shimmys and eccentric dances and singing swing tunes. All in all, an interesting film that was indeed ground-breaking in its day.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Noah Preminger Digs Chopin!

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CHOPIN: Nocturnes: Op. 27, No. 1; Op. 9, No. 2; Op. 62, No. 2; Op. 32, No. 2. Preludes: Op. 28, Nos. 2, 24, 8, 6 & 9. Etude, Op. 25, No. 7 / Noah Preminger, t-sax; Nate Radley, gtr; Kim Cass, bs; Rob Garcia, dm / Connection Works Records (no number)

Well, here’s something completely different: modern jazz interpretations—and that is exactly what they are, interpretations—on themes by Frydryk Chopin. A far cry from the similar approach given to famous Chopin pieces back in the late 1930s by the John Kirby Sextet, Preminger and his talented quartet, which goes under the name “Dead Composers Club,” give here the first of a planned series of albums dedicated to exploring the music of older composers through the eyes of contemporary jazz musicians.

Whereas the Kirby band played the melodies somewhat straight, Preminger does no such thing. He hints at the original melodic line but redistributes the beats and almost immediately begins improvising on them. The result is a strangely forlorn-sounding album in which mood and invention override the original structures. Even in as famous a piece as the Op. 9, No. 2 nocturne in Eb major, notes are eliminated from the basic melody and a swinging pulse drives the music forward. The Prelude Op. 28, No. 24 in d minor, taken at a brisk 6/8 rhythm, is given almost in shorthand before Nate Radley’s guitar solo switches briefly to a straight 4 and takes the music out on a limb. Preminger and his fellow musicians have so completely internalized these pieces that they can do almost anything with them and still come up with inventive surprises.

Interestingly, despite all their melodic-rhythmic alterations, they generally respect Chopin’s original harmony. Preminger plays “outside” a few times on the album, but for the most part he stays firmly in the written key(s). yet he and his band prove that you can still say quite a lot that is new in conventional tonality if you have the imagination to do so. You simply can’t take anything for granted as you go through the tracks on this album; each number is a constant surprise.

In the Etude Op. 25, No. 7, the band takes the music into an irregular meter, completely shifting its melodic contour into new shapes. The Prelude Op. 28, No. 8 is one of the wildest pieces on the entire set. Preminger alludes to the melody in its original tempo as the top line, but the bass plays a wild running figure in quadruple time beneath him with the drums, and the quartet really takes a ride on this one!

And here’s the most amazing thing: in nearly every instance, the Preminger quartet’s interpretations of these Chopin themes are actually an improvement on the original music. No, I’m not kidding. After putting up for a half-century plus listening to Chopin’s music, I’ve come to the point where I collect it but rarely listen to it because its patterns are so regular that after a few listening you know exactly where the music is going, and where it goes is usually into la-de-da soft relaxing zone-you-out-mode, and my regular readers know by now that I generally hate that kind of music. By removing the comfort zone of this music, Preminger has tapped into an entirely new way of looking at Chopin’s music: as themes to be improvised upon, not as museum pieces to lull you into a semi-comatose state. It’s wonderfully bracing. Even at his most relaxed, i.e. in the Nocturne Op. 32, No. 2, Preminger and Co. consistently pull the rug out from under our expectations of how this music “should” sound. It’s like listening to John Cage with real music inserted into his crazy funhouse structures.

This is absolutely one of the most imaginative and interesting jazz releases of the year, right up there with Preminger’s previous release, Genuinity, which I reviewed in March.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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