Renate Eggebrecht Digs Finnish Composers!

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RAUTAVAARA: Variétude. AHO: Solo I (Tumultos). Sonata for Solo Violin. In Memoriam Pehr Henrik Nordgren. NORDGREN: Sonata for Solo Violin / Renate Eggebrecht, vln / Troubadisc LC 06206

German violinist Renate Eggebrecht presents here a program of music for solo violin by modernist Finnish composers. The Aho and Nordgren sonatas are world premiere recordings.

The program opens with the late Einojuani Ratauvaara’s Variétude, a strange piece that uses smeared tones to create a blurring of the tonality. The performer is also required to play several bowed chords and pizzicato passages and, at several points, two effects at the same time (bowed and pizzicato). It’s an interesting piece, but to my mind more effect than actual music; I wasn’t surprised, therefore, to learn that this was written as a competition piece for violinists. Virtuosic it most certainly is!

Next, we hear Kalevi Aho’s Solo I (Tumultos), and this is a much more structured and interesting piece. Here, too, Aho uses smeared tones in an almost microtonal manner, but in a fascinating context. The piece becomes increasingly busier and more complex as it proceeds.

The same composer’s solo violin sonata, which begins with a chaconne, is based more in tonality and, again, is superbly structured. Eggebrecht plays all of this music with passionate commitment and a strong, bright tone, very Jascha Heifetz-like in quality. The slow second movement is more tonal at the outset, although using pitch slides on the strings that sometimes blur its tonal center. The last two movements almost sound like a continuation of the second.

Pehr Henrik Nordgren’s sonata is much more “Nordic” in sound and feeling, capturing the cold, icy quality of Scandinavia in its edge-of-the-string sound and almost desolate, minor-key quality. Eggebrecht is truly outstanding in this piece, capturing the feeling of the work perfectly. Not too surprisingly, Aho’s piece In Memoriam Pehr Henrik Nordgren has much the same sort of feeling about it.

An interesting recital, to say the least! Well worth hearing, at least once.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Arturo Toscanini, Warts and All

Toscanini book

TOSCANINI: MUSICIAN OF CONSCIENCE / By Harvey Sachs (Liveright Publishing Corp., 2017, 923 pp.) List price $39.95 USA, available at discounts in online markets

When I got this book, I was indecisive as to whether I wanted to review it or not. Having had Sachs’ 1978 biography of the great conductor since it came out, I assumed that this new, larger book would have more information but was unsure of how much of it would give a different spin on Toscanini. In addition, I was a bit angry that, despite two emails from me to the publishers, they chose to ignore my requests for a review copy. I doubt very much that the reviewer for the New York Times, who admitted to having a hand in Joseph Horowitz’ trash-talking 1987 condemnation of the conductor, Understanding Toscanini, paid for his review copy, and he was only too glad to claim that Toscanini was indeed a prodigy but, in his view, this didn’t equate to musical sensitivity.

But as I read the book, I realized that I had to review it: to praise Sachs for his new, more conversational tone, which despite its extreme length made the book enjoyable to read (his earlier bio was more clinical, almost academic in style) as well as to react to much of what I read and to note a few puzzling omissions.

The short version is that Toscanini emerges here as a study in contradictions, even moreso than in Sachs’ earlier bio as well as in the previous books by B.H. Haggin and Robert Charles Marsh. Clearly the most offensive aspect of his personality was his aggressive, lifelong pursuit of women, mostly sopranos but also wives and girlfriends of his friends and professional colleagues. He didn’t care a whit if his wife found out or not, as most of the time she did, and his letters to several of them went well over the line from passionate expressions of love to vulgar pornography. If I had to read one more letter in which he was imagining fondling someone’s breasts with his “expert hands” or asking his paramour to send him her panties stained with menstrual blood to smell, I was going to puke. Apparently he was a musician of conscience but not a human being of conscience. Although I still admire and am frequently astonished by his masterful performances (more on those later), as a woman, he came down quite a few notches in my estimation as a person.

Nor was he, apparently, alone. In one brief moment Sachs admits that his great German rival, Wilhelm Furtwängler, also chased the ladies. Well, that was an understatement. Unlike the short, handsome, charismatic Toscanini, the tall, gangling, ostrich-like Furtwängler didn’t have women throwing themselves at him. The Nazis supplied him with a steady stream of paramours to excite his libido and keep him conducting in good ol’ Germany, which is the real reason he did not and would not leave his country to come and live in the U.S. to conduct the New York Philharmonic or, later, stay in Zurich with Friedelind Wagner when he was there with her during the war. Moreover, many of Toscanini’s friends, colleagues and relatives were also fooling around with other women constantly. The famed conductor believed an old adage that said a man should have an orgasm a day in order to remain virile. Apparently this was a trend that circulated in classical musical circles with pretty wide latitude back then (and probably now).

To his credit, Sachs now finally admits that, despite the heavy workload and his desire to go back to Italy during the World War to help boost his country’s morale, the real reason Toscanini left the Metropolitan Opera in 1915 was Geraldine Farrar, with whom he was going at it hot and heavy. Unlike the other lovers in his life, Farrar insisted that Toscanini leave his wife and marry her, something he was never, ever going to do. In one sense, it would have worked out well if he had: Carla Toscanini was an absolutely terrible manager of her husband’s money, converting his huge Met salary from dollars to Italian lire, which greatly devalued after the War, then setting up a Rube Goldberg-styled family foundation that also bled money. Farrar, much more practical and conscientious with a buck, would have kept his vast fortune from hemorrhaging. But the Toscaninis were a truly “Italian” clan, and in this respect she wouldn’t have fit in. (Toscanini tried desperately to stop his daughter Wanda from marrying Vladimir Horowitz because he was of both a different ethnicity and religion.) Sachs’ only omission in his description of the notorious Rosina Storchio affair was in not including the scandal that happened when, in the world premiere of Madama Butterfly, she brought out little Trouble in the last act. The audience burst into derisive laughter and hoots, yelling out, “Il piccolo Toscanini!”

But the Storchio-Toscanini affair really wasn’t funny, as none of them were funny. When Storchio gave birth, the baby had to be taken out with forceps on the head, which damaged the baby’s brain and left him mentally retarded for the rest of his life. Rosina was forced to raise a retarded son, to which Toscanini contributed some blood money to pacify his conscience, before moving on to more female conquests. Hr just didn’t care what happened to the women he had affairs with.

Sachs also, for some reason, omitted much comment on the Eugenia Burzio affair which, like Storchio’s, produced an offspring—a baby girl who was named Josefina. This was the same Josefina Burzio who sang in a performance of de Falla’s El Amor Brujo with the conductor in 1943. I can provide you with the full story if you’re interested. Another story that I think should have been included (told by an NBC musician on the radio program Toscanini: The Man Behind the Legend in the 1960s) was when he and the orchestra were sailing to South America for their 1940 tour. Some of the musicians spent nearly all day playing the on-deck slot machines, and the orchestra’s manager approached Toscanini and asked him if he would tell them to stop, as they were frittering away a fairly large sum of quarters. Toscanini stood and watched them for a couple of minutes, fascinated by the whirling cylinders that would then stop on three different icons, then turned to the manager and asked, “Do you have any quarters on you?”

One really interesting feature of this book is that it points out Toscanini’s fascination with jazz, which apparently began in 1921 when he toured America with the La Scala Orchestra. You’d scarcely think that an Italian classical musician who was also big on the German repertoire would be drawn to this music, but he was and he enjoyed it no end, though he admitted that the music’s basic style eluded him in its unusual looseness and flexibility of rhythm (not to mention the frequent improvisation). Sadly, Sachs leaves out the famous story where Horowitz brought his father-in-law to hear Art Tatum, who he thought was the greatest pianist in the world. (“If Tatum were white, no one would be saying that I am the world’s best pianist,” he once said, and he even had Tatum visit his posh New York apartment to play for him on occasion.) Sachs also leaves out the famous story of how jazz trumpeter Phil Napoleon, luckily attending a New York Philharmonic rehearsal when Toscanini was trying to get through Ravel’s Bolero, heard how the orchestra’s trombonist could not play the smears properly in his solo, and so recommended his good friend Miff Mole to play the part—which he did in the concert.

Having gotten these caveats out of the way, I can now concentrate on the many positives of this book. With so much to draw on from taped family conversations and the memories of the conductor’s late grandson Walfredo, we get a very different, fuller and more intimate picture of Toscanini. Once off the podium, he was a different man, no longer the “pig” (as he called himself) with “such a bad temper,” but a warm and gracious person, a genial host and generous to a fault with any musician or singer who ever performed under him (Carla had standing orders to give “loans,” most of which were never repaid, to any La Scala, Met or Philharmonic musician who came to her for a handout.) He helped set up a home for retired musicians, constantly conducted for free when he believed in the cause, and in 1933 was one of three major donors (along with Fritz Kreisler and Lady Ravensdale, not to mention dozens of lesser donors) who helped to buy a rare Guarnieri violin for the extremely gifted but ill-fated American violinist Guila Bustabo (the latter isn’t mentioned in the book). Yet he still had contradictions even there, taking a very hard line against friends and even lovers (like Ada Mainardi) who he felt weren’t fighting hard enough against Fascism, or Furtwängler, who he felt wasn’t fighting hard enough against Nazism, yet he conducted (for free) a memorial concert for Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, an iron-fisted dictator who shut down parliament and ruled in what he called “autofascism,” when he was assassinated in 1934, merely because he hated the Nazis. Again, a man of contradictions.

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Toscanini was also very affectionate towards his grandchildren, once surprising them (and the rest of the family) by playing songs from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the piano for them. Sadly, he was the only family member who was affectionate towards Vladimir and Wanda Horowitz’ daughter, Sonia, who otherwise suffocated from lack of love and attention from her cold, self-absorbed parents and committed suicide at age 40.

The book also goes into great detail on Toscanini’s many theatrical reforms. Everyone knows that he, like Gustav Mahler (who he admired as a musician but not as a composer), ended the policy of encores, but I wonder how many people know that it was he who insisted—even against the protestations of his close friend, the great Arrigo Boito—on installing a curtain that opened and closed from the middle to the sides of the stage to replace the old-style curtain that descended vertically from above. He was also instrumental in insisting on a sunken or hidden orchestra pit, like the one at Bayreuth. He fought for more actual drama in performances, favoring singers who could also act and forcing those who couldn’t to at least try to portray a character on stage (he was completely blown away by Feodor Chaliapin, who he considered the greatest stage genius of his time). In his third, last, and longest stint as general director of La Scala, he also tried to promote modern stage direction, even hiring the pioneer dramatic theorist Adolphe Appia to stage and direct a production of Die Walküre in 1926. And he was a constant champion of modern works, at least up until the late 1920s when, in his view, modern music was passing him by. Five operas Toscanini championed that did not enter the repertoire in his time were Catalani’s La Wally, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, Boito’s Nerone and Pizzetti’s Debora et Jaele. Sachs is correct in calling the last of these a poor pastiche of Pelléas et Mélisande (another opera than Toscanini championed that did enter the repertoire) and Parsifal, but I disagree with him on Nerone, a great musical (if not theatrical) masterpiece that is only now coming into its own. Of course, Toscanini’s Orfeo was not an orthodox version; he replaced the coloratura aria at the end of the first act with the same composer’s “Divinitès du Styx” from Alceste, as well as inserting some music from other Gluck operas into the score. When he presented it at the Met in 1910, he took the unusual move of writing the program notes to explain his thinking on this pastiche. Today such things would not be permitted, of course, but in his time such reworkings of older operas was commonplace (Mahler did the same in Vienna with other operas, particularly Weber’s Euryanthe and Die drei Pintos), and at least Toscanini had valid theatrical, if not musical, justifications for his changes and insertions.

Sachs also goes into some detail describing Toscanini’s input to the orchestration of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, a weak opera but by far the finest orchestral score of any of his operas (even including Turandot). Although Toscanini thought very little of himself as a composer, his early works are quite interesting (see my article on this side of his art); had he had the time to study composition further, I really do think he’d have produced something outstanding in time, but the man literally worked night and day, day and night, rehearsing, staging and conducting operas in addition to giving occasional orchestral concerts when he could. The Toscanini-Furtwängler “feud” is also cleared up, to a point, although in this book Sachs curiously omits revealing the machinations of Arthur Judson to help get rid of Furtwängler at the Philharmonic by having him rehearse the Beethoven Ninth that was promised to Toscanini (yes, Furtwängler did know it was originally promised to the Italian) , who arrived late during his first season due to prolonged shoulder and arm pain and thus took the performance over, unaware that his German colleague had done most of the rehearsing. Despite their vast differences in musical style, Toscanini had the highest respect for Furtwängler as a conductor because he was, in his words, a “serious musician” (the highest compliment he could pay to a colleague). Sadly, the feeling was not mutual in the orchestral repertoire, though, as Sachs points out, the two conductors got along very well in Wagner. At the 1931 Bayreuth Festival, Furtwängler was music director and in charge of Tristan while Toscanini was hired to conduct Parsifal and Tannhäuser, and the two men met frequently to discuss matters of style and interpretation, apparently with no friction. (They also both detested festival manager Heinz Tietjens, a real weasel who enjoyed playing one against the other.) And, according to Sachs, “Another incorrect legend is that Toscanini wanted the Philharmonic to have nothing more to do with Mengelberg. Various documents in the orchestra’s archives demonstrate that Toscanini stated emphatically and repeatedly that Mengelberg should be reengaged as a guest conductor.” But the fly in the ointment, in both cases, was again Arthur Judson, who also insisted on hiring Sir Thomas Beecham as a guest conductor against Toscanini’s express wishes (his contract stipulated that he had final approval over such matters). Judson also fought him on hiring Otto Klemperer as one of his trusted assistant conductors of the orchestra. Finally, Toscanini had enough. He was indeed getting older, and conducting three concerts per week was beyond his capabilities, but Judson was the main reason he left—which Sachs confirms in his telegram to Bruno Zirato when the latter expressed shock that Toscanini would come back to New York and directly compete with them by leading the NBC Symphony: “Was surprised at your surprise my acceptance radio proposal (stop) I feel no obligation to be courteous toward the Board of the Philharmonic and that boorish individual [Arthur Judson]. (p. 642).”

Incredibly, Toscanini’s explosive temper in rehearsals did not extend to either of the British orchestras he conducted. Adrian Boult (another conductor who idolized him) was apprehensive at Toscanini’s first rehearsal with his BBC Philharmonic in 1935, but no blowup ever came—nor did it come in future rehearsals. Indeed, Toscanini went to the unusual length of holding a press conference to praise the orchestra, something he never did before or after. There were also no blowups when he conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1952. To his dying day, he considered both organizations to be the “most intelligent” orchestras he ever led.

One of the most perceptive comments on Toscanini’s abilities as a conductor came from, of all people, his bête noir, Stokowski, who said in 1931 that he was struck by Toscanini’s “compelling rhythm—so subtle, so flexible and vibrant. His beat breaks every academic rule, yet is always clear and eloquent. But it is between the beats that happens something almost magical. One can always tell when he has reached the half-beat or quarter-beat or three-quarter-beat, even when he does not divide his beats, and it is this certainty and clarity of beat which create such a perfect ensemble when he conducts…His sense of harmonic balance is extraordinary (p. 498).”

In only one respect is the book incomplete, and that is in Sachs’ glossing over the NBC Symphony years…an even greater glossing-over here than in his earlier bio, despite a few tidbits from family records that are new. Sachs, like Haggin and many others, view Toscanini’s 1929-42 period as his best because it was the “most flexible” in rhythm and the most nuanced in rhythmic treatment. I agree with him that several of the NBC performances are quite stiff in rhythm, but we’re talking maybe 10-15%. The remaining 85% are quite marvelous, and to throw out the baby out with the bath water takes an incredible amount of nerve. I could give you a litany of Toscanini-NBC performances that were as great, if not greater, in nuance as well as orchestral control as his earlier recordings and performances, among them his very late recordings of some of the Beethoven symphonies, Strauss’ Don Quixote with Carlton Cooley, the 1953 Berlioz Harold in Italy, the 1954 Mefistofele Prologue, symphonies by Schumann and Mendelssohn, the Martucci piano concerto with Horszowski as soloist, even his broadcasts (especially the 1945 one) of the second act of Gluck’s Orfeo. Even in many (but not all) of the “stiff” performances there are things to admire that no other conductor has ever brought off as successfully. Moreover, I feel that some of the earlier performances are overrated. So many people think that his 1936 broadcast of the Beethoven Ninth with the Philharmonic is his best, but that is only true in terms of orchestral sonority, and much of that is disguised by the dull, lackluster sound quality. Brighten up that recording by boosting treble until you can hear the “bite” of the winds (a Toscanini trademark), and I think you’ll find that his 1952 studio recording is almost identical in phrasing and has much the same (if somewhat differently stressed) nuance. The same holds true of his 1936 Act I of Fidelio. Once past the overture, and until you arrive at the “Abscheulischer!,” it is no better a performance than his 1944 NBC broadcast; the difference is that the singers in 1944 were markedly inferior to their 1936 counterparts, and of course the dry, dull, boxy Studio 8-H sound works against it. I also don’t care much for the Salzburg Zauberflöte, despite mostly correct tempi, because Helge Rosvaenge had much too large a voice for Tamino and Julie Osvath was a clumsy, incompetent Queen of the Night. I appreciate what Toscanini wanted—a larger-than-normal soprano voice that could project menace—but Osvath was a terrible choice. (And, since he was always promoting Jewish artists, why on earth didn’t he hire Richard Tauber to sing Tamino?) Toscanini’s 1948 Verdi Requiem is just as flexible as the one he led in Queen’s Hall, London in 1938, but again, the 1938 soloists are perfection (this time, Rosvaenge was well chosen) while the 1948 singers are just pretty good. Yes, Toscanini made some mistakes: he conducted quite a bit of ephemera, his 1953 broadcast of the Beethoven Missa Solemnis is markedly superior to the studio recording, and he messed up both the Nutcracker Suite by adding notes to the “Waltz of the Flowers” and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred by chopping the score up. But as I said, an 85% batting average beats anything any modern conductor could accomplish.

The modern-day hatred of Toscanini’s musical style is based on three things. 1) He generally, but not always, conducted works at the outer edge of the score-permitted tempi, sometimes going over that edge in speed; 2) His focus on extremely clarity of orchestral texture led him to hear music both vertically and horizontally, which meant that sometimes his legato flow was transformed into a note-by-note progression of completely integrated and meticulously coordinated orchestral sound; and 3) his use of rubato and other modifications to the musical line were almost always subtle and not obvious, as in the case of his German and Austrian colleagues. Allied to this was the fact that he was an Italian peasant, thus looked down upon for reasons of class as well as ethnicity, particularly by Cultured Germans and Austrians, despite the fact that he modeled his performances, particularly in the first half of his career, on such Teutonic conductors as Hermann Levi, Hans Richter, Hans von Bülow, Fritz Steinbach, Richard Strauss, Felix Weingartner and Artur Nikisch (the latter a Hungarian, but music director of the Berlin Philharmonic). This allowed his critics to lambaste him for “insensitive,” “surface” readings that supposedly had no “soul.” Both Joseph Horowitz and his idol, cultural critic Theodor Adorno, a dour churl who hated not only Toscanini but American culture, actors, and jazz music, were thus able to accuse him of missing the point of this great and holy music by his insistence on orchestral clarity and an incredible sense of powerful, almost burning intensity. As far as I’m concerned, they can go fructify themselves.

Toscanini’s admirers were legion, including not only most conductors active at that time (including stylistic opposites such as Bruno Walter and Klemperer, his assistants at the New York Philharmonic) but also by quite learned musicologists (Sir Donald Tovey and Jacques Barzun), composers (including Stravinsky, Kodály, Debussy, Prokofiev, Copland and Roy Harris), literary men like Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig, famous soloists (Yehudi Menuhin, Jascha Heifetz, Rudolf Serkin, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, Emanuel Feuermann, etc.) and even physicist Albert Einstein. His only enemies, aside from Furtwängler, were German conductors Karl Muck and Clemens Krauss, British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, composers Edgard Varèse, Arnold Schoenberg and Virgil Thomson (because he didn’t conduct their music and, in fact, ridiculed Varèse’s scores), and a few members of the press who took it upon themselves to ridicule him for his Toscanini Treasuryinsistence on textural clarity and what they perceived as an “atmosphere of over-reverence” at his NBC concerts. Even Leopold Stokowski, who Toscanini came to hate for his preening podium manner and his gauche orchestrations of Bach, continued to admire him, though in this case the feeling was anything but mutual. Toscanini-hatred on a widespread level was a child of the 1960s, and started, in my view, upon the release of his performance of the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony in the 1967 boxed LP set, A Toscanini Treasury of Historic Broadcasts (LM-6711). Of course, it wasn’t just the Shostakovich performance than was lambasted: so, too, were his versions of the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes, Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante and the Sibelius Symphony No. 2. We were close to, but not quite at, the creation of the historically-informed movement in classical music, of which Toscanini was clearly also a pioneer.

Overall, however, this is a compelling biography of the great conductor and his family. You really need to read it to appreciate his many good qualities, but be forewarned that you will not be happy with his constant love affairs.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Jacob Greenberg in the Hanging Gardens

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HANGING GARDENS / DEBUSSY: Pour le Piano: Sarabande. Études, Book I: Pour les sixtes. Préludes, Books I & II. D’un cahier esquisses. BERG: Piano Sonata. WEBERN: Variations, Op. 27. SCHOENBERG: The Book of the Hanging Gardens* / *Tony Arnold, sop; Jacob Greenberg, pno /New Focus Recordings FCR 192

Pianist Jacob Greenberg, a longtime proponent of modern music, here presents a large program of Debussy with members of the New Vienna School tossed in for contrast. He begins with the Debussy Sarabande, then moves into the Berg Piano Sonata before presenting Debussy’s Pour les sixtes and first book of Préludes, then returning to the 12-tone material.

He has a nice style and touch, though he does not, to my ears, feel any of the Debussy pieces from the inside. Apparently, he is of the mindset that Impressionist music should be played objectively, as should the modern music he so clearly loves. This is evident from the way he plays the Berg Sonata—the same basic touch and feeling. He imparts a warm sound to the Berg but plays it with more outward energy than the Debussy.

Most of the Préludes go a bit better than the Sarabande or Pour les sixtes. As the cycle progresses, Greenberg seems to become more involved with the music, even using pedal a lot more (as in “Voiles”), which brings out the music’s color and mood very well. “Ce qu’a vu le vent d;oust” is played with considerable muscle and vigor. He does not, however, quite bring off the crescendo-decrescendo of “La cathedral engloutie” quite as well as Walter Gieseking and Michael Korstick did.

Greenberg does a fine job on the Webern Variations, however, and with Schoenberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens we enter a strange and mysterious world, thanks in large measure to the outstanding singing of Tony Arnold. My regular readers know how highly I esteem this great artist; she is the modern-day Bethany Beardslee with a sweeter timbre. Her musicianship, diction, musical style and interpretive qualities are virtually nonpareil nowadays—even better, in my view, than the outstanding Finnish soprano Anu Komsi, who I also treasure in her own way. Arnold and Greenberg prod and complement each other throughout this cycle in a way I’ve not heard before; even the famous recording of this music by Helen Vanni with Glenn Gould cannot best this performance in its subtle modifications of the musical line. This is a truly masterful recording of a great and, unfortunately, underrated work.

We then move on to Book II of the Préludes, which Greenberg also plays with some vigor, again occasionally missing the impressionistic side of things (i.e., “Ondine”) but largely successful. In essence, however, I personally feel that this set is most valuable for his performances of the more modern works, and especially The Book of the Hanging Gardens which is incomparably masterful.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Ruben Gazarian Conducts an Unusual Program

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ARENSKY: Quartet “Dem Andenken an P.I. Tchaikovsky” für Streichorchester. HINDEMITH: 5 Pieces for String Orchestra. SCHREKER: Intermezzo, Op. 8. Scherzo for String Orchestra. MENDELSSOHN: String Symphony No. 10 / Georgisches Kammerorchester Ingolstadt; Ruben Gazarian, cond / Ars Produktion 382530

Here’s a strange program juxtaposing the music of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy with that of Russian Romantic Anton Arensky, modernist Paul Hindemith and the somewhat unclassifiable late-Romantic Franz Schreker. The Arensky is, in fact, his own arrangement for orchestra of his String Quartet No. 2, dedicated to Tchaikovsky (whose name is spelled in the booklet as “Tchaikvosky”) a few months after the older composer’s death. It’s a lovely piece, alternating romantic themes with biting, double-time string figures, and I was struck by Gazarian’s well-measured pace, emphasizing the work’s drama over its romanticism, as well as his wonderful clarity of texture.

Gazarian brings a similar sensibility to Hindemith’s interesting, if somewhat dry, 5 Pieces for String Orchestra. Once again, clarity of texture is paramount in his reading (oh, how Toscanini would have loved this!), while Schreker’s Intermezzo, a much more emotional piece, grabs one’s attention in both its themes and its treatment. The same composer’s Scherzo is also lively and interesting, but goes on too long (and is too repetitive).

As usual, the Mendelssohn piece is not only extremely well-written but emotionally gripping, varying light and darkness in its contrasting themes. I tell you, the more I hear of Mendelssohn’s music, the more I’m convinced that he was a greater composer than Mozart—yet he doesn’t get quite the same adulation. His modulations are almost always unexpected and dramatic, and his sense of drama even higher, yet no one’s kids are listening to Mendelssohn in the womb!

An interesting program, then, of which the Schreker Scherzo is the only weak link, expertly conducted and played.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Christian Erny Plays Arthur Lourié

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LOURIÉ: 5 Préludes Fragiles. Valse. 2 Estampes. Intermezzo. Petite Suite in F. Gigue. Nocturne. Lullaby / Christian Erny, pno / Ars Produktion 382486

Arthur Lourié, the Russian composer with the French name, started out as an enthusiastic supporter of cultural life in the new Soviet Union but, like most Socialist and Communist societies, it began to erode people’s freedoms and opportunities early on, and by the early 1920s it had also eroded the arts. Lourié fled to France, where he became an assistant of Igor Stravinsky’s, and continued to write interesting works for the rest of his life, yet never achieved wide exposure or popularity.

All of Lourié’s piano music has been recorded by the great pianist Giorgio Koukl, but I was interested to hear how young Christian Erny approached them. As I noted in my review of Koukl’s performances, he stripped the music of much of its impressionistic character, clearly revealing its similarity to the music of Alexander Scriabin, who Lourié had known and heard prior to that composer’s death in 1915. Erny restores this impressionistic feeling, particularly in the 5 Préludes Fragiles, lovingly caressing each note and phrase with tenderness and warmth. His rich, deep-in-the-keys touch is perfect for this style, imbuing each piece with a warm glow. The notes of the third prelude fall on the ear like slow, warm raindrops.

Erny also introduces somewhat more rubato into the Valse, bringing Lourié’s aesthetic closer to Ravel than to Scriabin, but this, too, works in a different way. There’s a bit of a “danse macabre” feeling to the way he plays it which I found quite interesting. In the first of the two Estampes, he also does a nice job of suggesting the music’s fragmentary, somewhat deconstructive nature.

Indeed, if anything, Erny brings out not only the impressionistic side of Lourié but also his playful side, particularly in the Petite Suite. His Scriabin resemblance comes to the fore in the somewhat grotesque Gigue, with its incessant rhythms and louder sound profile.

All in all, an interesting disc. Although I still prefer Koukl’s “take” on the music, young Erny certainly has his own way with it, and it’s a very valid approach.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Morlot Conducts Modern Music & Ravel

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BERIO: Sinfonia for 8 Voices & Orchestra.* BOULEZ: Notations I-IV for Orchestra. RAVEL: La Valse / *Roomful of Teeth; Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Ludovic Morlot, cond / Seattle Symphony Media 1018

Ludovic Morlot, a conductor who blows hot and cold—I’ve liked some of his recordings but not all—gives us here a strange program of Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez and, of all people, Maurice Ravel. Of course I know Ravel’s La Valse, and have heard excerpts of Boulez’ Notations for Orchestra, but Luciano Berio’s wacky Sinfonia for 8 Voices and Orchestra was entirely new to me. In many ways, it’s typical Berio, using harmonic and rhythmic displacements to create a structure in which the listener feels that he or she has nothing to hold onto, and this time he produced a real kaleidoscope of sound. The music is certainly exciting, and the vocal group Roomful of Teeth sings with tremendous energy and enthusiasm, but at more than a half hour long, the music tends to overstay its welcome, often battering the ears with explosive brass-and-percussion explosions that seemed to me excessive and pointless. If you are a Berio fancier, however, you may find that it says more to you than it did to me. That being said, I did like the second movement (“O King”) in and of itself; it is quite atmospheric, and holds together better than some of the other sections. The third section, “In ruhig fliessender Bewegung,” uses a tune from the Mahler Fourth Symphony as a background to his mad deconstruction. It’s whimsical in a bizarre sort of way.

Boulez’ Notations has always seemed, to me, to be his best work, a tightly-written series of variations in serial form. Interestingly, Morlot performs them out of sequence, giving us the fourth Notation in between numbers one and two. It makes an effective contrast.

Most interest6ing of all, oddly enough, is Morlot’s performance of the Ravel, a waltz that deconstructs itself. He brings out even more detail in this performance than Ansermet or Toscanini, and the flow of the music is better than that of both conductors—a real waltz feel to the music.

An interesting disc, then, albeit one overweighed by the Berio piece. Definitely worth hearing his performance of La Valse!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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The Best Forgotten Violinist of All Time

Bustabo 1

Forty-odd years before Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg burst on the scene and four years before Ginette Neveu won first prize at the very first Wieniawski Violin Competition, a young firebrand with blazing dark eyes and an attractive Buster Brown haircut dazzled a Carnegie Hall audience with her performance of that very same Wieniawski’s second Violin Concerto. A year later, she gave her first solo recital at Carnegie Hall where she dazzled not only the audience but also conductor Arturo Toscanini, who was present. Jean Sibelius said, in 1937, that her interpretation of his violin concerto was just as he “envisioned it when I composed it.” Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and the lesser-known Otmar Nussio were so enraptured by her playing that they composed violin concerti specifically for her.

She should have become the defining female violinist of her time, a performer of smoldering intensity with a gut-level emotional approach that still astounds after more than 70 years. But instead, she became a pariah in the concert world, shunned and ignored, suffered a mental breakdown, bipolar disorder and died forgotten, a pauper.

Her name was Guila Bustabo.

Bustabo posterBorn Teressina Bustabo in Manitowoc, Wisconsin in 1916, she began playing the violin at the age of two. At three, she and her family moved to Chicago so that she could study with Ray Huntington at the Chicago Musical College. Huntington was so impressed by her that he arranged a private audition for her with Frederick Stock, music director of the Chicago Symphony. Stock recommended her to Leon Samétini, a former pupil of Eugene Ysaÿe, with whom she studied at age four. She made her professional debut at age nine with Stock and the Chicago Symphony, then moved east where she performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra and joined Yehudi Menuhin in Louis Persinger’s violin class as Juilliard. Then came her twin performances at Carnegie Hall, and it seemed as if her future was assured. Toscanini was so impressed that he was one of those who donated a large sum of money (Fritz Kreisler and Lady Ravenscroft was two others, along with several smaller donors) to help her acquire a rare Guarnieri del Jesu violin. In 1934 she toured Europe, including England (where she made her first recordings), and Asia.

But Guila had a dark cloud hanging over her life: her domineering mother, Blanche. And Blanche took it into her head that her daughter should take advantage of the numerous big-name artists deserting Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and the countries they conquered by playing in those venues the others refused.

Guila and Mom at Carnegie Hall

Bustabo, with her mother Blanche holding the wreath with her, after her first Carnegie Hall concert in 1931.

Guila was incensed, but she had already made the mistake of signing a paper making her mother her legal guardian and manager, and mom wasn’t about to give up on the Nazi-Fascist gravy train. She performed not only in Italy and Germany, but also in Austria after the Nazis annexed it in 1938 and then in the occupied Netherlands under the Nazi-kissing conductor Willem Mengelberg. Twice she tried to break free, but her mother hunted her down both times and pulled her back in. After the Second World War was over, Mengelberg’s cooperation with the Nazis led to a performance ban in his home country for five years, and Bustabo was arrested in Paris. General George Patton learned of her, listened to her story, and invited her to perform for his troops, but if it was known that she had played for the ardently Nazi conductor Oswald Kabasta, he might not have helped her. Later the charges against her were dropped, but her name was mud in liberal classical circles. As she later said, “Menuhin got away from his parents. He was lucky. I never got away from mine.”

Postwar, she revived her career in on-and-off fashion in Germany, performing and recording with such conductors as Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (the Dvořák Violin Concerto) and Nussio (the Brahms Concerto and Nussio’s own concerto). In 1948 she married Edison Stieg, an American military musician, but they divorced in 1976.

In 1964 she became professor of violin at the Innsbruck Conservatory, still playing occasionally. Since Blanche had spent most of the fortune she had made during the war years, she was forced to sell her Guarnieri violin so she could afford a little apartment near the Conservatory, from which she was forced to resign in 1970 due to bipolar disorder. She returned to the United States with both mom and hubby in tow, taking a position in the violin section of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra (where she occasionally played solo) for five years. While living there, her medical care was graciously provided free of charge by a physician and friend, Dr. Ralph Tieszen. Following her symphony stint and divorce from her husband, Bustabo continued to live in Birmingham, Alabama, where she died in 2002, forgotten and broke.

Bustabo 2Listening to Bustabo’s surviving recordings today, one can easily hear why she was so highly prized in her time. She played with a bright tone, using a bit more vibrato than her famous colleague Menuhin (probably the influence of the Ysaÿe method she learned in Chicago). Her technique was absolutely superb, and she almost always dug into the music in a way that still raises goose bumps on the listener. The only thing she lacked was a really tight spiccato, a technique in which one bounces the bow off the strings; hers was good, but not in the same league with that of Bronislaw Huberman. Her only really disappointing performance was the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Mengelberg; his tempi were so slow and his conducting so lackluster that it rubbed off on her. The rest of her recordings, small though their numbers are, show her to superb advantage. In addition to her commercial recordings (for Columbia) of the Paganini and Sibelius Concerti with German conductor Fritz Zaun, a live 1938 broadcast of the latter work with the New York Philharmonic under John Barbirolli has since been discovered, but not commercially issued.

You can hear this great artist for yourself on YouTube by clicking on the links below:

Paganini (arr. Wilhelmj): Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, 1st movement only (with Fritz Zaun)

bustabo_paganiniDvořák: Violin Concerto in a min., Op. 53 (with Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt):
I.   Allegro ma non troppo
II.  Adagio ma non troppo
III. Finale: Allegro gracioso ma non troppo

Brahms: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77 (1st movement only) (with Otmar Nussio)

Bruch: Violin Concerto (with Willem Mengelberg):
I.   Prelude; Allegro moderato
II.  Adagio
III. Finale: Allegro energico

Sibelius: Violin Concerto in d min., Op. 47 (with Fritz Zaun):
I.   Allegro moderato
II.  Adagio di molto
III. Allegro, ma non tanto

Nussio: Violin Concerto (1959) (with Otmar Nussio)

Wolf-Ferrari: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 26 (with Rudolf Kempe)

Encore pieces:

Sarasate: Habanera (from 2 Spanish Dances) (with Heinz Schröter)

Novacek: Perpetuum mobile (with Gerald Moore)

Happy listening…I think you’ll love her!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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