Nilsson’s 1958 “Tristan” Reissued

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WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde / Birgit Nilsson, sop (Isolde); Wolfgang Windgassen, ten (Tristan); Grace Hoffmann, mezzo (Brangäne); Erik Sædén, bar (Kurwenal); Josef Greindl, bass (King Marke); Josef Traxel, ten (Steersman); Fritz Uhl, ten (Melot); Hermann Winkler, ten (Shepherd); Bayreuth Festival Chorus & Orchestra; Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond / Orfeo C 951 183 (live: Bayreuth, July 26, 1958)

This is a reissue of Birgit Nilsson’s 1958 Bayreuth Isolde, which was not her first there: she sang it at Bayreuth the previous year, also with Wolfgang Windgassen and Grace Hoffmann, but with Hans Hotter as Kurwenal and Arnold van Mill as King Mark. It was previously released in 2009 on Myto Historical MCD 00186. As is usual with Orfeo, they use the best source tapes and then clean up as much hiss and ambient noise as they can, so the sound is probably superior (I’ve not heard the Myto release, however).

I was really looking forward to hearing this because it presents relatively young Nilsson. She was “only” 40 at the time and, despite having been singing professionally for more than a decade, her big, cutting soprano voice had only put her in the Wagnerian repertoire for about three years at this point. Previously, she had been singing a lot of Italian roles such as Lady Macbeth, Aida, and Tosca, the latter in a performance (if you can believe it) with the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, who was blown away by her voice. In addition, I’ve always been a big fan of Wolfgang Windgassen, in my opinion one of the three greatest Wagnerian tenors of the 20th century (the other two being Lauritz Melchior and Siegfried Jerusalem, though I also have a soft spot for Set Svanholm and Jon Vickers in the few Wagnerian roles he sang). I was not disappointed by the two leads. Nilsson actually sounds more dramatically engaged here than in her studio recordings of the opera, even the first one made only two years after this with Fritz Uhl, the Melot of this performance, as her Tristan, and her voice is unfailingly fresh and steady in emission. Grace Hoffmann, our Brangäne, is also in fresh voice, and I was delighted to see that the excellent Swedish baritone, Erik Sædén, was cast as Kurwenal.

The problem, surprisingly enough, is conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch. His tempi are just fine—nothing drags here—but there’s very little emotional engagement by the orchestra. This was a big disappointment for me, since Sawallisch developed into an outstanding conductor over the years. It’s not that anything is badly played. He observes all the dynamics and phrase markings in the score. But he lacks the emotional commitment one heard from the best Tristan performances and recordings, such as Fritz Reiner (with Flagstad and Melchior from 1936), Hans Knappertsbusch (a surprisingly white-hot performance with Helena Braun and Günter Treptow from 1950), Wilhelm Furtwängler (the most sensuously-conducted Tristan, from 1952 with Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus), Karl Böhm (the 1973 Orange Festival performance with Nilsson and Vickers) and Daniel Barenboim (both his live and studio versions with Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem). Of course, the singing actors are the center of the show, but without an equally intense frame for their work, the music lacks something.

Of course, we’re not watching the performance here, only listening to it. Had this been a video, it might well have added to the experience, particularly since this was given during the Wieland Wagner Era at Bayreuth. But taken simply as an aural document, the orchestra has a certain detachment from the drama. There are moments when Sawallisch seems to wake up, but he never quite reaches a point of full commitment.

Mind you, the singers do whip up a storm of their own…just listen to the singing after Tristan and Isolde take the love potion near the end of Act 1, or the “Isolde! Tristan!” portion of the great love duet in Act 2. But Sawallisch just isn’t quite there. Yes, his conducting at the beginning of the second act is fast-paced, as it should be, but the energy level is set on medium. Sædén’s bright voice is most welcome as Kurwenal, and he, too, sings in a lively manner. Greindl is very good as King Mark, though of course he always had a slight wobble to go with his dark-toned bass. His long monologue at the end of Act 2 is well-interpreted, and everyone’s voice sounds good bouncing off the famous Bayreuth reverb. Windgassen is surprisingly moving in Act 3, and in even finer voice than in his 1966 recording with Nilsson and Karl Böhm (another excitingly-conducted performance). One of Sawallisch’s better moments is when he whips up an orchestral storm at the moment when Tristan realizes that Isolde is coming.

This will surely appeal to Nilsson completists who want everything she recorded, but personally I’d go with either of the later Böhm performances, though the Orange Festival recording, given in an outdoor stadium, suffers from wind blowing across the microphones.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Nilsson’s Live 1960 “Aida” Interesting, Exciting

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VERDI: Aïda / Birgit Nilsson, sop (Aïda); Pier Mirando-Ferraro, ten (Radames); Giulietta Simionato, mezzo (Amneris); Cornell MacNeil, bar (Amonasro); Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass (Ramfis); Agostino Ferrin, bass (King of Egypt); Giuliana Matteini, sop (Priestess); Piero de Palma, ten (Messenger); Teatro alla Scala, Milan Orchestra & Chorus; Nino Sanzogno, cond / Opera Depot OD 11163-2 (live: Milan, April 21, 1960)

In this, the year of Birgit Nilsson’s centenary, a great many live and studio recordings and DVDs are being reissued and rehashed to celebrate her legacy. This live Aida, originally issued by Opera Depot in 2014, is being made available this week only for free download on their website (https://operadepot.com/). Grab it while you can.

With Nilsson, voice per se was never the problem. Although she, like anyone else, had her off days (in her case, it wasn’t so much a wobble she picked up as it was much as singing under pitch and not being able to sustain her phrasing), for the most part the voice was a steel piledriver. I’m told that such Slavic screamers as Guleghina could match her to some extent in volume, Nilsson didn’t have to scream to fill an opera house. Hers was probably the largest dramatic soprano voice in history, even surpassing such legends as Eva Turner and Kirsten Flagstad. When Nilsson hit a high B-flat or C, it sounded like lunchtime at the boiler factory. Her real problems came in producing a soft tone (it was never really soft, just softer, which is not the same thing) and in matters of interpretation. In most of her performances, no matter how great the voice, interpretation of the character was often a drawback. No one could match her volume or intensity as Turandot, for instance (I saw her sing the role in 1974 and she was still magnificent of voice), but Lucille Udovich, who also had a fairly big voice, surpassed her stylistically in the role, as did Inge Borkh. Her late performances of Tristan und Isolde (from 1968 through the mid-1970s) were much better for her, interpretively, than her earlier forays into the role, even if the volume was beginning to recede towards the end of that period. On recordings, at least, her Elektra in Strauss’ opera is undoubtedly her most satisfying role, both for voice and interpretation.

This 1960 performance of Aida catches her in generally exemplary voice (a few unsteady notes towards the end of long phrases) and outstanding interpretation of the beleaguered Ethiopian princess. She responds to the live setting at La Scala with a most sympathetic reading, far superior to her 1965-66 EMI studio recording with Grace Bumbry, Mario Sereni and the king of tenor pigs, Franco Corelli. Just don’t expect her to sing the high C in “O patria mia” softly, though she does sing the high B-flat at the end with as much of a floated tone as she could muster.

Her fellow singers are also quite interesting. Giulietta Simionato, who had a voice nearly as large as Nilsson’s, sings up a storm here despite the fact that she is a little unsteady at times. Nicolai Ghiaurov is simply magnificent as Ramfis, and American baritone Cornell MacNeil is in his early prime, quite exciting and not nearly as woolly or wobbly as he became in later years—though once you’ve heard Leonard Warren sing this role, everyone else sounds somewhat tame by comparison.

Yet perhaps the most interesting singer, at least to me, is tenor Pier Mirando-Ferraro. Record collectors know him only from his one complete studio performance as Enzo in La Gioconda in Maria Callas’ 1959 stereo version of La Gioconda. He was in very poor voice for that recording, thus everyone thinks he was a terrible tenor, but I saw him sing Verdi’s Otello at the Newark Opera in 1975 and he was absolutely magnificent: a big, cutting voice with power to spare, ring up top, and superb phrasing. This performance catches him at a midway point. The voice is indeed large and cutting, and on key, too, but his mid-range has a bit of a flutter and his phrasing is more muscular than subtle. Even Aureliano Pertile sang the role with a purer legato on his studio recording of the opera, not to mention such masters of legato phrasing as Jussi Björling and Jon Vickers. But he is a commanding Radames, terribly exciting and nearly able to match Nilsson without having to go into overdrive as Corelli did (Corelli had a good, bright spinto tenor voice, but it was just a little over half the size of Mirando-Ferraro’s). If I seem to be nit-picking, it is only because I heard him better, but for those who think he always sounded as bad as he did on that Gioconda, this performance will be a revelation. Just listen to the way he sings “O Re, pei sacri numi” in Act 2 and you’ll have a fair facsimile to what I heard as Otello in 1975. He does try to sing softly in the tomb scene, but in 1960 he didn’t yet have that in him.

Nino Sanzogno, pretty much a journeyman conductor, does a credible job. He neither drags out nor distorts the music, and runs a fairly tight ship. The sound quality is a little odd. Although it is remarkably clean-sounding, with no tape hiss or distortion (and only a couple of brief drop-outs), I feel that whoever cleaned up the sound went a little too far. It doesn’t harm the voices too much, although we get only a little bit of hall resonance around them, but the orchestra sounds oddly cramped. In soft passages, particularly for the strings and in the soft, offstage singing of the Priestess at the beginning of Acts 2 and 3, the sonics are odd indeed. Not seriously, mind you, but be forewarned.

All in all, then, a pretty exciting, almost gut-level Aïda, with some surprisingly good moments, an excellent document of Nilsson singing the title role in her prime and some very fine moments from Mirando-Ferraro. Even if you miss getting it for free, it’s well worth the modest investment Opera Depot is asking for it. Just one glitch: on the album cover, tenor Piero di Palma is erroneously listed as singing the Priestess and Giuliana Matteini the Messenger!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Panos Demopoulos Explores Nina’s Clock

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NINA’S CLOCK / DEMOPOULOS: White O’Clock: Bad Hand. Two O’Clock: The Life Bone. Three O’Clock: Acts of Heinous Violence. Nina’s Clock: Glasgow Was. Plenty O’Clock: Leggy Pegs. One O’Clock: Then. Eight O’Clock: Careful Dominoes. Midnight: Haemon Must Pass. Fair O’Clock: The Chief and Purple Knife. Eleven O’Clock: Homebound Hiss. T. MONK: Blue Monk (Monk O’Clock: Blue Tonk) / Panayiotis Demopoulos, pn / Métier MJD 72405

Now, this is an artist bio, from the booklet, written by Panayiotis Demopoulos:

Panos Demopoulos is a pianist/composer based in Kozani, Greece. Currently, in 2018, he shares his time between being vice-mayor for culture (really), chairing a historical library board, writing music and writing about music, raising his daughters and spending as much time as he can with friends. He holds a PhD in music composition to the point of dropping it daily and is an improvisation and music notation buff. Nicola Harrington, a Scottish organist, agreed to marry him, live with him and have his children.

His motto is “perhaps.”

And if that isn’t strange enough for you, here is his description of this album:

Not an accurate account, but true.

I arrived at Macclesfield around white o’clock; my bad hand was in pain. At two o’clock I met with Valerie and she gave me a sandwich, a life bone. Around three o’clock I visited the train station toilet and performed various acts of heinous violence on account of the life bone being a death bone and then we got to Nina’s with Steve: her clock was the same as the one at Nicola’s house in Glasgow, both made in the 1890s or by people with bad teeth at any rate. After plenty o’clock drinking tea and chatting with Steve about music, my legs had gone dead like leggy pegs as my daughter calls them.

Then, for some reason, I thought that it was still one o’clock. We went to a dark private school concert hall where we recorded this disc until eight o’clock, one track after the other like careful dominoes and listened to the recordings till what felt like midnight when, always, Haemon must pass.

So, at fair o’clock, we went to the pub to meet with the chief and purple knife, or so said the sign, and we talked about the music we made with Steve and his friend. Around eleven o’clock, in Steve’s car, whilst he was out in the petrol station shop getting something to eat, I heard my homebound hiss go at me again with Bs, C sharps and Gs. This is not in the disc. And as I got into bed, reading a National Geographic special on the Incas (who never wrote anything down), with Nina’s clock chiming downstairs, I still could not get Wagner (who wrote everything down), out of my head as he was jumping the monk o’clock blue tonk.

Day was over at night o’clock. I made more music sleeping but did not record it.

Tell me this guy’s not “out there” somewhere!

The music, though improvised, is not always like jazz, though it does involve occasional syncopation. The music is largely tonal and somewhat tuneful, but not in the conventional sense. Demopoulos, like Charles Mingus back in the early 1960s, just sat down at the keyboard and talked to himself through tones. He may or may not have had a few general ideas in mind before he started playing (I suspect that he worked some out in advance, but not all). His mind moves from idea to idea, somehow tying them all together. As in the case of any improvised music, sometimes the ideas work and sometimes they don’t, but he is a risk-taker. The second piece, Two O’Clock: The Life Bone, has a funky beat much jazzier than the first; here, Demopoulos sticks primarily to rhythmic variation like the old boogie pianists.

Three O’Clock: Acts of Heinous Violence is, quixotically, a very quiet piece, its story told almost by metaphor. Demopoulos meanders over the keyboard, occasionally slamming out a loud chord, whether in frustration or as punctuation I’m not certain. He sounds, at times, like a cat walking across a keyboard. By 2:40 into the piece he is assaulting the piano with some vehemence, but then backs off to play soft chords between his angry moments. The music then becomes busier, with high, repeated Es in the treble. Nina’s Clock is more of a ballad, surprisingly tuneful in a Bill Evans-like vein…yet with quirky little chords tossed in, and later, a quite violent passage in quadruple time.

Plenty O’Clock: Leggy Pegs starts in the extreme upper register of the piano, the keys seldom played because they almost sound like a toy instrument, but this was probably his intention. He also plucks and dampens the inside strings of the piano for effect. The rhythm in this piece is almost like Latin music. Wow, is this guy out there! One O’Clock: Then sounds like an extension of the previous piece, in the same key and tempo (and also playing the inside strings, as well as the body of the piano) but with more outré variants and more complex rhythms.

Eight O’Clock: Careful Dominoes is a very strange piece, again featuring Demopoulos playing the inner strings, this time in rapid rhythm with very rapid notes and a more percussive (but not syncopated) effect. At one point, it sounds as if he has placed a piece of paper between the piano strings. Weird! Midnight: Haemon Must Pass is slow and spacey, as is Fair O’Clock: The Chief and Purple Knife, although here he does not play the inside of the instrument.

I’m not sure what on earth Demopoulos did or is playing on Eleven O’Clock: Homebound Hiss, but it sounds like purposeful electronic distortion of the studio and his sound. There is an ominous electronic hum/crackle constantly in the background, and his piano also sounds electronically distorted (in addition to a fair amount of reverb) as he picks out his notes one at a time, creating space around the hum.

We end with Demopoulos performing Thelonious Monk’s famous Blue Monk in a chipper, upbeat tempo, here almost consistently plucking the strings of the piano with his right hand while the left plays occasional bass notes. Yes, it swings, and yes, he improvises.

No two ways about it, this is one strange CD!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Miguel Harth-Bedoya Takes a Different Look at Mussorgsky & Prokofiev

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MUSSORGSKY-GORCHAKOV: Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Gorchakov). PROKOFIEV: Cinderella: Selections / Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra; Miguel Harth-Bedoya, cond / Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Records (available from the FWSO website or as digital download as of June 1, 2018) (live performances: February 2-4, 2018 [Mussorgsky], April 7-9, 2017 [Prokofiev])

This is a different sort of recording of the well-known Mussorgsky Pictures and the not-so-well-known Prokofiev Cinderella. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya has chosen, in the first, the lesser-known but more distinctly Russian orchestration of Sergei Gorchakov, which as he puts it in the liner notes, keeps in “the so-called ‘wrong notes and rhythms’ from the original piano score, as well as including all the movements.” This version was also recorded by conductor Grzegorz Nowak with the Royal Philharmonic. The orchestration is darker, with more explosive moments and less textural subtlety than Ravel’s, and it does indeed present us with a very Slavic feeling without resorting to the kind of tawdry effects in the more famous (but, for me, less palatable) Shostakovich orchestration.

Harth-Bedoya presents us with a powerful, fairly straightforward reading of the score. He is not without delicacy when called for, i.e. in “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua,” but the overall tautness of his reading has less flexibility than even the very powerful versions of the Ravel version by such masters of orchestral texture as Rodziński and Toscanini. That being said, it is not out of line with the kind of straightforward conducting one heard from Yevgeny Svetlanov or Kiril Kondrashin. It’s certainly exciting, to say the least.

In his own arrangement of selected numbers from Prokofiev’s Cinderella, Harth-Bedoya tries to tell the story in a more linear fashion than the composer’s own suites (three of them, Opp. 107-109). As he puts it, “I selected movements from the original ballet score to recreate the tale of Cinderella in chronological order. Each of the three acts help maintain the arch of the story: act one takes place at Cinderella’s home and ends with her departure to the ball. Act two takes place at the prince’s palace where he and Cinderella fall in love. This act ends with the fabled 12 strikes of midnight. Finally, act three, back at Cinderella’s home brings the reunion of the lovers bringing the end of the ballet.”

Perhaps because I was not familiar with this score (though I know other Prokofiev ballets, The Prodigal Son and Romeo and Juliet being my two favorites), I was really taken with his reading here. This may also be due to the fact that the music itself is gentler in nature and less given to smash-crash-bang as the Mussorgsky is, and as I said, Harth-Bedoya has a good feel for lyrical episodes. And, of course, Prokofiev’s more modern musical language, quite subtle at times, adds to the music’s charm. Yes, I still had the feeling that some of this music could have been performed more subtly than it is here, but giving a bit of tautness and musical “muscle” certainly reveals more of the score’s structure. Only in the “Shawl Dance” did I feel that he was rushing things a bit too much, creating surface excitement without capturing the music’s evident charm. Cinderella is really rushed through her episodes here…apparently trying to get everything in before the clock strikes midnight!

The orchestra plays very well technically throughout, with flawless technique and a rich orchestral blend, but I was a bit disappointed by the somewhat opaque sound, which I felt cut back too much on the brightness of the music. By boosting the treble by 3 db, I heard things that were inaudible otherwise, such as light cymbal work and inner wind figures, which Harth-Bedoya clearly brought out in performance. Whether this was due to the microphone placement or post-recording mixing, I don’t know, but I have the feeling he wanted these things heard or he wouldn’t have lavished such care on these small but important details. The brass and winds, in particular, benefit from the brightening of sound as well, giving the music a more Russian sound profile in the tradition of Svetlanov. This is particularly noticeable in the section of the Prokofiev suite titled “Midnight”—a most ominous and crashing coming of midnight at that! Had I been Cinderella and heard a clock strike midnight this way, I’d have fled for my very life! Yet even in the soft wind passages of “The Morning After the Ball,” greater clarity of texture is important. Astringent winds were always a key feature of Prokofiev’s orchestral works.

Overall, then, an interesting album for the conductor’s choice of orchestration in the first work and sequencing in the second. I have a feeling that other conductors, hearing this release, would possibly want to opt for his arrangement of the latter score, which I found to be musically quite effective.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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The Far-Out Jazz of Angelika Niescier

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THE BERLIN CONCERT / NIESCIER: Kundry. Like Sheep, Looking Up. 5.8. The Surge / Angelika Niescier, a-sax; Christopher Tordini, bs; Tyshawn Sorey, dm / Intakt CD 305 (live: Berlin, November 3, 2017)

This CD is a blast from the past in many ways, particularly the late 1960s when such avant-garde saxists as Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, late John Coltrane and Joseph Jarman ruled the roost. I never cared much for Ayler (too fragmented in his musical thinking and undisciplined in his improvisations for me), but early Sanders was very interesting and Coltrane, before he went off the deep end, was fascinating.

NiescierNiescier has much the same kind of fascination in her musical construction and improvisations as Coltrane and Sanders (who, when he first appeared, was hailed as “the greatest tenor sax player in the world” by Ornette Coleman). She comes at you from the very start of Kundry like a freight train, exploding with what sounds at first like a free-form bevy of notes, but as the music continues you begin to realize that there is a method to her “madness.” YOU may not know where she is going or what she’s doing, but SHE knows, and eventually the maelstrom of notes clears up, straightens out, and we reach the melodic construction of the tune at about the 7:30 mark, by which point bassist Tordini and drummer Sorey begin exploding themselves, eventually reaching a very rhythmically complex bass-drum duet (and then a drum solo) of fascinating proportions. More importantly, they swing, which is something you cannot say of all European jazz musicians, even today.

Indeed, as the track evolves, one hears Tordini playing in harmony to Niescier’s melodic line, and when she begins to deconstruct her own melody he plays fascinating counterpoint in the manner of Charlie Haden in the old Coleman quartet. Like Sheep, Looking Up opens with the bassist playing very high bowed notes on his instrument and Niescier playing long, distorted notes on the saxophone. This almost sounds like an extempore composition, made up on the spot based on a few sparse notes and ideas, with Sorey using cymbal washes and what sounds like mallets on his bass drum. At 5:57, however, the music picks up more of a regular pulse as Niescier moves into a more melodic line, albeit still with occasional distorted notes, later adding 16th-note flurries. Yet the extempore nature of the music continues. This is truly an imaginative piece that holds your attention, even when things sound fragmented, because it’s always going somewhere interesting.

The piece titled 5.8 is exactly that, music written in 5/8 time. It has an almost Latin feel to the rhythm, and here Niescier is a bit more lyrical and less experimental, at least in the opening. Very soon, however, she is playing incredibly varied figures above the main beat, stretching things out in new directions. Her playing again becomes increasingly complex in an atonal sort of way as well as emotionally powerful and inventive before suddenly getting quiet at the five-minute mark, a lull in which she plays repeated fluttering, serrated figures on the alto, then drops out entirely as the tempo relaxes for a bass solo of great imagination. Following this, Tordini and Niescier again play in imaginative counterpoint, the bassist here leading the saxist, before the piece suddenly ends.

The final piece, The Surge, is exactly what you would expect from the title, wild, imaginative music based on serrated figures played by the leader with the rhythm section falling in behind her. She then varies the rhythm subtly, shifting meter and stress beats around in an interesting fashion, before exploding in flurries of notes similar to Coltrane’s “sheets of sound.” The piece eventually becomes a maelstrom of sound, the trio backing her wild explorations with quite fiery playing. Warning: This is not jazz for relaxation or meditation!

Quite an album. My only complaint was its brevity, clocking in at a mere 40 minutes—but a more intense 40 minutes of music you’re unlikely to hear anywhere else!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Unusual Starker Recordings Reissued

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HINDEMITH: Cello Concerto / János Starker, cello; SWR Radio Symphony Orchestra, Stuttgart; Andreas von Lukacsy, cond / PROKOFIEV: Sinfonia Concertante for Cello & Orchestra.* RAUTAVAARA: Cello Concerto No. 1+ / János Starker, cello; SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden & Freiburg; *Ernest Bour, +Herbert Blomstedt, cond / SWR Music 19418CD

This unusual release features the late János Starker in a program of 20th century cello pieces that I hadn’t known he had made. All of them date from the 1970s (the Hindemith from 1971, the other two from 1975) and display Starker’s virtuosity in full bloom.

Although I disagree with the statement in the booklet that “Among the legendary cello virtuosos of the twentieth century, such as Casals, Mainardi, Feuermann, Piatigorsky, Fournier, Shafran, Navarra, Rostropovich or Tortelier, he was the most flawless, without equal in the way he constantly combined technical perfection, concentrated culture, exciting expression and objective conception”—in my view, Feuermann was his equal in this and in addition had a more beautiful tone and more feeling in his playing—there is no question that he was an eminent cellist, more technically adroit than Casals, Piatagorsky and even Rostropovich.

I also found it interesting that Starker considered the Hindemith piece to be “the best cello concerto of the twentieth century; the best constructed, with superb musical material, fabulously orchestrated; much better written than Shostakovich, Prokofiev and all the others.” He plays it with his patented cool tone, but also with superb forward momentum and his flawless technique. His cello practically soars through the music, and although I felt that conductor Andreas von Lukaczy provided a background that was at times too loud and splashy for the music, it certainly does not lack in excitement. Indeed, Lukaczy’s intense reading of the orchestral score helps offset Starker’s cool but beautiful reading.

Interestingly, even with a different conductor (Ernest Bour), the performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony Concerto is much like the Hindemith in its brisk, no-nonsense orchestral contours and dark, pensive cello playing. The question then arises: Is Starker’s approach, musical, well-articulated but emotionally cool, appropriate for this music? Hindemith was pretty much a neo-classical composer, but Prokofiev was Russian to the core and generally liked more effusive readings of his music. I prefer Rostropovich with Seiji Ozawa and the London Symphony, even though Slava’s technique was not as spotless and he used both portamento and a slightly wider vibrato. Nonetheless, Starker and Bour bring out the structure of the piece very well. Their reading of the second movement, “Allegro giusto,” is particularly outstanding, and I liked the wit and sparkle with which they played the last movement, a real gem.

Rautavaara’s first and most often-played Cello Concerto is singularly unusual in construction, using angular lines that almost sound as if the cellist is “sawing” at his instrument in the opening. Staccato wind and brass triplets, along with arpeggiated flute, are heard behind the soloist as the music becomes more lyrical though never quite melodic in the conventional sense. Ominous low string tremolos and piercing high winds give the music an odd feel. Here, Starker’s cool but perfectly controlled playing is perfect for this Nordic music.  And, for once, the conductor, in this case Herbert Blomstedt, is more sensitive to the music’s varying moods. He is certainly dramatic when he needs to be but does not stay in one mood or color throughout. This variety of approach would server Blomstedt well in the 1980s, when he made his now-classic set of Carl Nielsen’s Symphonies with the San Francisco Orchestra, and to a certain extent it relaxes Starker as well. The cellist plays with a bit less tension and more sostenuto here than he did in the Prokofiev piece, with excellent results, though in the development of the second movement the soloist’s music sounds more like an extended cadenza with orchestra than a cello concerto in the traditional sense. In the third movement, the music has more of a forward pulse and the structure, if not more traditional, is more regular in its classical form—though the ending sort of fades away, and does so rather abruptly.

Despite my slight misgivings about the Prokofiev, this is a fascinating CD and one worth exploring, particularly for admirers of the cellist.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Szymanowski’s Early Songs in a New Release

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SZYMANOWSKI: 6 Songs, Op. 2. 3 Fragments from Poems by Jan Kasprowicz, Op. 5. Łabędź (The Swan), Op. 7. 4 Songs for Voice & Piano, Op. 11 / Rafał Majzner, ten; Katarzyna Rzeszutek, pn / Dux 1369

These are not the only recordings of Szymanowski’s Op. 5, but otherwise I was unable to track down alternate versions of the other early songs on CD. Most Szymanowski songs available are later ones, i.e. his Love Songs of Hafiz, Op. 26, the Op. 22 Buntelieder, the Op. 49 Children’s Rhymes and his Kurpie Songs Op. 58. If the material presented here is not the full flowering of his great genius as a composer (he wrote them between the ages of 18 and 22), they are nonetheless interesting, since they seem much closer in feeling and construction to contemporary Russian songs—Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov—than to any of Chopin’s output.

Yet this is not to say that they are not original; on the contrary, though their feeling is closer to Rachmaninov in melodic structure, his surprising and interesting use of chromatic movement is not. He was already feeling his way towards an entirely new aesthetic, even different from, say, the songs of Rachmaninov’s younger colleague Nikolai Medtner. They also call for a much wider range from the tenor than either of those composers, often dropping into the low range and generally avoiding a consistent exploitation of the upper range, which a feature of Russian songs of that period.

Sadly, the booklet has no texts at all, not even in Polish. Happily, most of the texts are available, most in Polish only but some translated to German, on Enily Ezust’s magnificent LiederNet Archive (http://www.lieder.net/lieder/get_settings.html?ComposerId=5907). I would once again urge all lovers of art songs to PLEASE donate a few dollars to her website. It is a treasure-trove for those of us who cherish and value art songs in any language by virtually all composers, major and minor. Google Translate does a credible job of providing the English texts of these songs using Emily’s website as a source.

Tenor Rafał Majzner has a slightly nasal but otherwise attractive timbre, and he does a credible job of modulating his tone to give expressive interpretations of this material. It’s difficult to tell if his voice has real power or resonance or if this is just the result of close miking and enhanced reverb, which one can clearly hear on the recording (and which I felt was a bit too much), but he draws your attention to the words and music, which is what he is supposed to do, and his diction is as clear as a bell. High praise also goes to pianist Katarzyna Rzeszutek, whose crisp, incisive attack and sensitive phrasing make a perfect match for Majzner’s well-modulated voice. As the songs progress, we hear the piano accompaniment becoming more and more complex (such as in “Rycz burzo,” the last of the four Op. 11 songs), and she takes it all in stride, making the difficult sound easy.

It almost boggles the mind that Szymanowski struggled constantly throughout his career to have his music played and heard while lesser composers skated to classical popularity. Granted, his later music, which evokes both Debussy and Scriabin (one of his musical idols), is modernistic and somewhat difficult for average audiences, there were other composers who wrote in a similar vein who received international accolades. I still think it was because he was Polish. Composers of that nationality were almost expected to write more easily digestible music, and that Szymanowski would not do. Great art is almost always created in a vacuum. We tend to forget that Béla Bartók was not appreciated as a composer until relatively late in life, and then only due to the exposure given him by such well-known musicians as Benny Goodman, Fritz Reiner and Artur Rodziński. Szymanowski had no such champions; when Carol Rosenberger recorded his piano music in the mid-1970s, it was virtually unknown in the West. Most of the pieces she played were no longer in print, and many had never been published outside Poland.

There is an almost consistent Slavic feeling of melancholy in most of these songs, too, which was guaranteed to make them unappealing to listeners looking for beautiful melodies and upbeat moods. Nonetheless, for those who love Szymanowski’s music as much as I do, this is a fascinating and valuable release.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Fauré’s Complete Songs Issued by Atma

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FAURÉ: Le papillon et la fleur. L’Aurore. Rêve d’amour. Ici-bas. Notre amour. La fée aux chansons. Aurore. Noël. La Rose. Vocalise-Étude. Arpège. Mélisande’s Song. Prison. Soir. C’est la paix. Mirages / Hélène Guilmette, sop / Seule. Au bord de l’eau. Les Berceaux. Les presents. Le Don silencieux. La chanson d’Eve. Le jardin Clos / Julie Boulianne, mezzo / Mai. Puisque j’ai mis la lèvre. Dans les ruines d’une Abbaye. Sylvie. Hymne. Barcarolle. Nell. Le voyageur. Poème d’un jour. Fleur jetée. Le pays de rêves. Les roses d’Ispahan. Clair de lune. Larmes. Au cimitière. Shylock. La bonne chanson. Le parfum impérissable. Sérénade Toscane / Antonio Figueroa, ten / Tristesse d’Olympio. Les Matelots. La chanson de pêcheur. Lydia. Chant d’automne. L’absent. Aubade. Tristesse. Après un reve. La rançon. Automne. Le secret. Chanson d’amour. En prière. Nocturne. Spleen. Sérénade du bourgeois gentilhomme. Cinq melodies de Venise. Dans le forêt de Septembre. La fleur qui va sur l’eau. Accompagnement. Le plus doux chemin. Le ramier. Chanson. L’horizon Chimerique / Marc Boucher, bar / Puisqu’ici-bas. Tarentelle / Guilmette & Boulianne / Pleuirs d’or / Guilmette & Boucher / Madrigal / Guilmette, Boulianne, Figueroa, Boucher; Olivier Godin, pn / Atma Classique 2741

One of the problems of getting a complete set of songs by a single composer, particularly nowadays, is that there always seems to be at least one singer in the mix who has a defective voice. I should get this out of the way quickly and point out that the fly in the ointment here is Canadian baritone Marc Boucher, who has an uneven, loose vibrato and occasional strain and nasality in his high notes. He is an interesting interpreter, so he has that in his favor, whereas the wonderful soprano Hélène Guilmette doesn’t appear to interpret much at all, but for my taste he gets way too many of these songs to sing. In some of the faster songs, i.e. Les Matelots, his voice doesn’t wobble too much because he doesn’t have that many sustained notes to sing.

The other three singers, happily, have wonderful voices, particularly tenor Antonio Figueroa, whose tone and light, quick vibrato sound remarkably like the old French tenors of long ago. He is also a master of vocal coloration and interprets his songs wonderfully. Being familiar with Guilmette from other recordings, I knew how good her voice was, but I was surprised and delighted by mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne, whose voice is also pure and beautifully placed and whose legato, like Guilmette’s, is superb. Her vocal timbre reminded me of young Marilyn Horne, and her interpretations are less generalized that Guilmette’s.

Nonetheless, considering that there are only four singers on this set, you have to wonder that Atma Classique couldn’t locate a better baritone. Canada seems rife with them nowadays. Russell Braun would have been a first-class choice. Perhaps he wasn’t available.

As for the songs themselves, they cover virtually the full range of Fauré’s career, from his Op. 1 to Op. 106. Naturally the early ones, written when he was only 26, are more derivative stylistically than his later works—Lydia is particularly repetitive and boring—yet even in this early sequence you run across occasional gems likes La chanson du pêcheur with its interesting use of harmony and narrative style, and L’absent is quite a dramatic song, with contrasting sections and a non-repetitive melody. Despite his not having much of a voice, Boucher nonetheless does a fine interpretation of the famous Après un reve. The duets sung by Guilmette and Boulianne are simply exquisite. The second of these, Tarantelle, also gets some pretty nifty coloratura duetting.

Indeed, as the album progressed, I found myself enjoying it more and more, even when Boucher was singing because, despite his vocal flaws, he is a sensitive interpreter. Maybe I’m getting old, but I really enjoyed this set overall. Much of it has to do with Fauré’s genius; quite a bit of credit also goes to pianist Olivier Godin, who is consistently engaged and excellent throughout. By the time we reach the song cycle La bonne chanson, we’ve reached Fauré’s mature style, with much more interesting chord changes being the norm rather than the exception, and Figueroa sing it beautifully.

The album comes with lyrics to all of the songs, but in French only. Still, this is a set you’ll probably want if you’re a Fauré fancier, even if you have several of these songs by other artists.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Jeremy Dale Roberts’ Unusual Chamber Music

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ROBERTS: Capriccio for Violin & Piano / Peter Sheppard Skærved, vln; Roderick Chadwick, pn / Tombeau for Solo Piano / Roderick Chadwick, pn / String Quintet / Kreutzer Quartet; Bridget MacRae, cello / Toccata Classics 0487

The fascinating music of Jeremy Dale Roberts (1934-2017) “steered a path between traditional tonality and modernism,” and it shows in these wonderful chamber works, of which the half-hour Tombeau for Solo Piano (1966-69) makes its first appearance on records. I was immediately struck by his music’s interesting contours, using wide intervallic leaps within an otherwise melodic framework, in the Capriccio which opens this disc. It is clearly not a capriccio in the traditional sense; there is nothing lightweight or frivolous about it. It is, in fact, very serious music, and at times when the violin is playing those wide-ranging figures the piano chimes in to temporarily disengage the music from its somewhat tonal base. It’s difficult music to describe, however, mixing neo-classic Stravinsky, modal harmonies and somewhat Berg-like figures in a unique tapestry of sound. A pupil of Priaulx Rainier, Roberts was also inspired by Szymanowski and Bartók. Even in the last third of the piece, when the tempo picks up and the music becomes busier, there is more of a dark quality to it that anything capricious. Violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved clearly has a gorgeous tone as well as perfect technical command of his instrument, and happily pianist Roderick Chadwick is clearly on the same emotional wavelength.

Interestingly, the slow, mysterious opening figures of the Tombeau almost sound like a second movement of the Capriccio, except, of course, there is no violin. As the music progressed, it became clear to me that this particular type of musical evolution was Roberts’ personal style, and once again the spiky harmonic language and dark emotional content of the piece grabs the listener strongly. Here, Roberts used not only wide leaps in his melodic figures but also odd triplets that give the music a more angular character than in the Capriccio. There is also a brief passage of rumbling bass notes in what can only be described as a “galumphing” rhythm. The music then becomes considerably busier, but no less dark, with ominous-sounding trills in both hands, particularly the bass. Chadwick breaks down the composition thus in the notes:

…there is a Tombeau here, in the form of a central elegy, but it is surrounded by a sequence of five Studies and four Variations. Even so, in accordance with the composer’s wishes, Tombeau is presented here as a single track. For all the difficulties, there were obvious attractions, too: the fabulous barrage of Study 1 (2:11), the homage to our mutual hero Szymanowski in Study 2 (7:31), Schumann’s more submerged presence, the fascinating collage finale (25:14), all parts gravitating towards the all-too-human machinery of the Tombeau at its centre (15:03).

Violinist Skærved, who is also a member of the Kreutzer Quartet, explains in the liner notes that after three of their four members recorded Roberts’ string trio Croquis in 1982, the composer promised them a string quintet, but added, “It’s going to take a long time, and you will have to be patient, but it is on its way.” A long time, indeed! It wasn’t written until 2012 and revised in 2014. It inhabits the same sound-world, more lyrical at the outset before diving into his dark world. As Roberts said of this work, “it was such a long time coming, that I simply gave voice to it; I have no real understanding of how or why it emerged – although I may have a clearer sense of the coup de foudre (love at first sight) which initiated it.” A remarkable succession of moods and figures in varying tempi come and go. In the first movement, divided into three sections titled “The Caller on the Shore – Moments of Being – Dance on the Shore,” which lasts nearly 20 minutes, there is even a sort of folk dance rhythm towards the end. In “The Meeting,” the music begins slowly and mysteriously, with moments of silence that disrupt the musical flow. Much of this music was inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf, particularly To the Lighthouse and her posthumous essay A Sketch of the Past. Roberts wrote that “The death which occurs in the interval between Part I and Part II recalls that of Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf ’s Novel. The silencing of the viola and the resulting hole in the musical texture trigger the reactions and eventually the outcome which form the narrative of the second part.”

This is fascinating modern music, emotional and moving, played with great technique and commitment by the Kreutzer Quartet and guest cellist Bridget MacRae. Well worth seeking out!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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A Portrait of Mark Murphy’s Brilliant Genius and Bittersweet Life

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THIS IS HIP: THE LIFE OF MARK MURPHY / Peter Jones. Equinox Publishing, London, 262 pp. $29.95/₤25.00

About a decade ago, my partner was reading through Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz and ran across the entry on Mark Murphy. “Have you ever heard him?” she asked. “It says here he was one of the greatest jazz singers ever.” I ran through my memory banks, at that age already a bit foggy when it came to things long ago. “I think I did, but I don’t remember him. I guess he didn’t impress me much.” “Well,” she countered, “maybe you should check him out again.” So I did, and was completely blown away.

After doing some digging into his recordings, I learned that there were really two Mark Murphys: the singer who tried hard (too hard, in fact) to compete with Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett doing energetic but somewhat kitschy versions of pop tunes, and the jazz singer who took the art form to an entirely new level. But although the latter Mark Murphy made a brief appearance on two Riverside albums in 1962, he then moved to London where he started recording kitschy pop arrangements all over again. It wasn’t until he was about 40 years old, in the early 1970s, that the “real” Mark Murphy emerged once and for all—out of sight and out of mind of an American jazz public who had come to love Mel Tormé, Jon Hendricks and, a few years later, Al Jarreau.

And it wasn’t just me who overlooked him. He purposely flew under the radar because, due to his sensitive nature; he really couldn’t handle fame. One commentator wrote this on the YouTube posting of “Mark Murphy’s Greatest Hits”: “Mark Murphy’s virtuosity matches that of Old Blue Eyes himself! And to think that I never got into him until recently (I’m seventy-one years old for heaven’s sake!): this is incredulous to me because I long considered myself an authority on all things music related.”

Peter Jones has done yeoman’s work in piecing together Murphy’s life, which wasn’t easy because his subject didn’t give that many autobiographical interviews during his life and tended to fudge the truth or, at times, misremember things. The portrait that emerges reveals many fascinating and painful details. A shy, hypersensitive boy given to crying fits in school and a complete lack of interest in his father’s favorite hobbies of hunting and fishing, he grew up a duck out of water. It was only through his discovery of jazz that he really came alive, but he had a hard time establishing himself because every time he was given an opportunity to establish himself on records he tried to pull a Sinatra-Bennett act by including as many if not more pop tunes sung in a pop style that was too much over-the-top. And, because of his hypersensitive nature, you couldn’t talk him out of it. The smallest thing would set him off emotionally and he would either blow up or withdraw. He went through several agents, firing them left and right when things didn’t pan out, and even fought with such outstanding arrangers as Ralph Burns and Bill Holman because everything had to be his way or the highway. In short, in terms of both career management and artistic direction, Murphy partly sabotaged his own fame. He was never as well-balanced emotionally as his fellow iconoclast, the great Sheila Jordan, who took defeats in stride and worked a full-time job as a secretary in order to sing where and when she wanted. Murphy insisted on living off his meager earnings as a jazz singer, and thus spent most of his life in trailers, seedy hotels, and sometimes (for weeks, not days) on the couches of friends and supporters. One friend of his, Roger Treece, is quotes as saying, “Mark was probably the least [well] adapted human being that I’ve ever met to living in this world. Getting along in the everyday practical world was something that he seems to have a singular inability for.”

It also didn’t help that, as he reached maturity, he realized he was gay. The 1950s and ‘60s was not a time to be out of the closet, particularly in the jazz world where being macho was considered the only sexual orientation. Not only Murphy, but also Jimmy MacPartland, Billy Strayhorn, Ralph Burns and Cecil Taylor had to hide their sexual proclivities, and this, too, affected his personal interactions and career.

Put it all together, and you have a portrait of a man who came of age during the Beat Generation, idolized writer and poet Jack Kerouac (he often said that Kerouac’s prose sometimes doesn’t make sense as literature because he wasn’t trying to write coherent sentences, he was riffing on words the way a jazz musician riffs on a tune), and lived his life accordingly. In short, his mistrust of almost everyone in a position of power to help him—the Beat resentment of “The Man”—was his own personal mantra. In a sense, however, this mindset was crucial to who he was as an artist. He sang spontaneously because he lived spontaneously; his entire life was a riff. Having lost his hair in his late 20s, he wore wigs for the rest of his life, which his friends and colleagues described as awful. One time, friends of his got together and made him buy a really great-looking wig that suited his perfectly and naturally. Within a couple of weeks, it looked like a ratty dust rag; no one knows how he made it look so awful. But Mark didn’t care; he went back to his plastic-looking cheapo wigs, and was happy.

After the death of his partner Eddie O’Sullivan from AIDS in the mid-1980s, Murphy was often adrift emotionally and in a practical sense. He felt more alienated and alone in the world. Happily, Sheila Jordan always seemed to pop up when he needed her most, bless her, and he was extremely fortunate to have Cindy Bitterman, a former model who had dated Frank Sinatra in the early ‘50s, discover him, completely understand him and his style, and be there to offer him emotional and professional support, sometimes in person but just as often in long, late-night phone calls.

Considering the fact that Murphy was a perennial nomad for whom his work (both singing and teaching) was pretty much his entire life, this could have been a dull recitation of “and then he sang, and then he recorded,” which of course it is to a certain extent, but Jones dug as deeply into the man and his mission as he possibly could to produce a book as fascinating and diverse as a Mark Murphy performance. We get detailed descriptions of his jazz vocal classes, for instance, in which he went against the academic grain of trying to turn everyone out the same and instead focused on each individual singer. Murphy could analyze a young singer’s strengths and weaknesses in seconds, like a brilliant doctor who could diagnose a patient after just one office visit. The suggestions and corrections he gave to them were always positive; he never tore anyone down except, as he said, those who “weren’t serious about it.” That he could not abide. He could loosen up their stage demeanor, prod them to go out on a limb when singing, and stress the need for perfect voice placement and diction, because they would “need everything they had to sing jazz.” Murphy often told the press that he was self-taught, but that wasn’t true. He studied both voice and drama in college before embarking on his 50-plus-year career.

The book is full of great black and white photos, some unfortunately not as clearly reproduced as others, but all giving the reader a good indication of Murphy through the years. I really appreciated the fact that the hard cover is laminated and doesn’t have one of those crummy “dust covers” that always fray over time. There are also two outstanding appendices in which Jones analyzes Murphy’s style and approach to singing and teaching in great detail without going too deeply into technical musical analysis, a full discography, end notes and, yes, an index of names. Considering its modest price, this is an incredible bargain, and hopefully it will make new fans of those who have never heard Murphy sing. There is no question in my mind that he, along with Louis Armstrong, Dave Lambert, Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks and Mel Tormé (who Murphy often feuded with because he thought Mel emotionally shallow as an interpreter), was one of the most important, outstanding and original male jazz singers in the history of the music.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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