Lazarev’s Fascinating Prokofiev

cover

PROKOFIEV: Violin Concerto No. 1.* Symphony No. 3. Chout (The Buffoon). Rêves / *Vadim Repin, vln; Simon Callow, narr; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Lazarev, cond / London Symphony Orchestra 0107 (live: London, November 28 & 30, 1997)

Here’s a strange release of 21-year-old performances on the LPO’s own label, with absolutely no explanation in the booklet as to why the long wait. Although I cannot say that Vadim Repin’s playing of the violin concerto can compete with Vadim Gluzman’s outstanding recording of the same work (plus the second concerto) for Bis, it is still a first-rate interpretation, and Lazarev’s conducting is crisp and energetic. At the time of this concert, he was principal conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, a post he held from 1997-2005.

I am still not convinced, even by this fine performance, that Prokofiev’s Third Symphony is a great piece of music. Lazarev does his level best, paying great attention to detail and pacing the music in a much more spacious manner than other conductors, but for me the music says very little. To me, it sounds more like a movie score, but not a terribly good one: his Ivan the Terrible film score is much better than this. The loud, blaring finale is a real hodgepodge of themes and orchestral explosions—sound and fury, signifying nothing.

On the other hand, the Ballets Rousse ballet score with narration, Chout (The Buffoon) is clearly one of Prokofiev’s best pieces, not only witty but well-written, with real connective tissue between its episodes, and although Simon Callow’s narration is a bit old-school-Shakespearean in tone, it works well in context. Lazarev again conducts deftly, making the most of his material, and in this case his effort is well worth it. One section sounded a bit like the polka from Shostokovich’s The Golden Age…I wonder if the younger composer got his idea for it from this? Indeed, as the work progressed, I was amazed by Prokofiev’s powers of invention in this work. (Why, oh why couldn’t he have done the same in his Third Symphony?)

We end, oddly enough, with the orchestral piece Dreams, one of the composer’s most impressionistic pieces. This, too, is conducted beautifully by Lazarev, with a wonderful grasp of opaque colors to limn its Ravel-like melody. All in all, then, an outstanding release, particularly for the second disc.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

The Halíř Trio Plays Granados & Dvořák

cover

GRANADOS: Piano Trio in C, Op. 50. DVOŘÁK: Piano Trio No. 3 in f min., Op. 65 / Halíř Trio / ArcoDiva UP 0203

In a nutshell, these are absolutely exquisite performances by the Halíř Trio, with which I was completely unfamiliar. The music flows from their fingers with a legato smoothness so complete that you’d think you were listening to a trio from 60 years ago, when musical subtlety and legato meant more than just slamming through the score. From the first phrase of the Granados Trio, they have you in their thrall and never let go. Moreover, their numerous large and small rubato touches give the music an extraordinary amount of color and atmosphere. It is simply an extraordinary performance, one that almost transcends criticism because it is of the sort that you just listen to and enjoy, not sit and analyze phrase-by-phrase (though that is certainly possible).

As for the music, the Granados Trio is quite charming; clearly not one of his most complex works, but well-written as usual. Yet the Halíř Trio plays it as if it were great music, holding the listener’s attention from start to finish.

The Dvořák Trio is an entirely different case; this is clearly one of the composer’s greatest pieces, and although Halíř doesn’t quite match the intensity of Trio Solisti on Bridge, they play it with their own particular sense of involvement and make even more, I think, of the more lyrical passages. I could say a great deal about their subtlety of inflection in this work as well, but I will leave it to the listener to discover these little treasures for themselves.

A short review, then, but a very positive one. I really wish this trio good luck in the future, and look forward to hearing them again on records!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Korstick’s Fascinating Rachmaninov

cover

RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 3.* Corelli Variations. Piano Sonata No. 2 / Michael Korstick, pno; *Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra; Dmitry Liss, cond / Oehms Classics OC 1896

Before we get into the meat of this review, a point of order regarding the spelling of the composer’s name. Is it Rachmaninoff or Rachmaninov? This is an interesting question because, as you know, Cyrillic does not really translate literally into English. During his lifetime, the famous Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin’s last name was variously spelled Schaljapin at times (mostly by the British). I had a long, knock-down, dragged-out argument with my “fellow critics” at a well-known classical review magazine over the spellings of various Russian names. They called me a heathen when I told them that, frankly, it doesn’t matter how many names are spelled in English as long as, when you read them, the pronunciation is right. Although this pianist-composer was generally spelled Rachmaninoff in English-speaking countries, Rachmaninov is actually closer to the correct pronunciation of his name. So there.

Happily, the music speaks louder than a name spelling, and in this program Michael Korstick has wisely chosen the deepest and most interesting of his four concerti. The best recording of it I’ve ever heard was by the phlegmatic, often brutal-sounding Vladimir Horowitz. It was his first concerto recording, made way back in 1930 with the Russian-British conductor Albert Coates. He had coached his interpretation with the composer, which I think made a great difference, because his playing is wonderfully atmospheric, muted in color rather than splashy and loud, which was his normal way of playing almost everything else. Rachmaninov was very pleased with his reading, which he felt was equal or superior to his own, thus I was interested to hear how Korstick approached this score.

He is superb. Like Horowitz, Korstick has a generally bright piano tone, though, unlike Horowitz, he can mute it wonderfully in the music of Debussy. Even better, Korstick’s way of binding the phrasing, a trait accumulated from decades of playing Beethoven, is superior to Horowitz. There are moments when he, too, plays with an exuberance that sounds wholly Russian, and this is to his credit, for this is Rachmaninov’s darkest and most Russian-sounding score. I was similarly impressed by Dmitry Liss’ handling of the orchestra, which also manages to replicate the muted colors that Coates drew out of the London Symphony all those decades ago. The important thing to understand is that Korstick does not just play the music as if he understands it; he plays it as if he loves it, and thus brings it to life. Yes, I still have problems with some of those virtuosic passages, which always sound to me superfluous in music of such general depth of feeling, but Korstick managed to make them sound less so. Needless to say, his technique is so good that can absorb all of these passages within the overall framework of the music, presenting them as an outgrowth of the music’s themes rather than as mere “filler.”

Korstick plays the second movement in a particularly dreamy manner, almost giving it his “Debussy touch,” which again works splendidly. The third movement, which is the sunniest and most exuberant, receives an appropriately energetic reading from both pianist and conductor.

I admit to not being as familiar with the Corelli Variations or the Second Piano Sonata as I am with the concerto. The former are quite interesting, again calling at times for what I feel is overdone virtuosity but generally good music. Korstick plays them with an easy swagger that suits the score. In the latter portion of the work, which alternates exuberant, virtuosic passages with light interludes of half and whole notes, Korstick makes an effective contrast.

The Piano Sonata, by contrast, seemed to me too much flash and glitter. Korstick tries his best to modify this via his sensitivity of phrasing in the quieter passages, but even here the music lacks character and interest. It’s the only musical let-down in this remarkable album, however, which I highly recommend for the concerto and the variations.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard

Nézet-Séguin’s Superb Poulenc

cover

POULENC: Piano Concerto in c# min.1 Concerto for Organ, Strings & Timpani.2 Stabat Mater3 / 1Alexandre Tharaud, pno; 2James O’Donnell, org; 3Kate Royal, sop; London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, cond / LPO 0108 (live: London, 1,3October 23, 2013 & 2March 26, 2014

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, one of the hot young conductors of our age, here tackles the entertaining yet meaty music of Francis Poulenc. It’s a good fit for him, since Poulenc’s music calls for energized, straightforward readings, and this is his forte. Pianist Alexandre Tharaud, equally effervescent, gives a fine reading of the piano concerto, which unfortunately sounds a bit too much to my ears like movie music in the first movement. The second and third movements, though quite witty, escape this allusion.

The organ & timpani concerto is an altogether more serious work, and I admit being impressed by Nézet-Séguin’s handling of the score. He draws an impressively dark sound out of the LPO, mirroring the menacing sound of the first movement, and even in the second, marked “Allegro giocoso,” there is an undercurrent of menace in the music. This is as fine a performance as the one by organist Maurice Duruflé and conductor Georges Prêtre, made under the composer’s own direction.

I was also deeply impressed by Nézet-Séguin’s wonderful performance of the Stabat Mater, a work I hadn’t heard before. His pacing and shaping of the score is quite masterful, and the LSO Choir sings with a wonderfully warm sound. The conductor really digs into the dramatic sections (i.e., the “Cujus animam”), with razor-sharp attacks by both orchestra and chorus. Sadly, soprano Kate Royal, considered just a few years ago an up-and-coming star, has developed a flutter in her voice—not quite a wobble, but a little too close for comfort.

In toto, then, a very fine album except for Royal’s contribution to the Stabat Mater. A word of warning to her: stop pushing your voice so hard! Thank you.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

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

Standard

Lester is Forever Young on Storyville

Young CD cover

LESTER YOUNG: FOREVER YOUNG / HANLEY-MacDONALD: Indiana (2 tks). V. YOUNG: (I Don’t Stand a) Ghost of a Chance. LEWIS: How High the Moon. L. YOUNG: D.B. Blues (2 tks). Lester’s Mop Mop Blues (2 tks). Lester Leaps In (2 tks). Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid. Medley: SHEARING: Lullaby of Birdland/L. YOUNG: Up and At’em. MERCER: Too Marvelous for Words. SHEARING: Lullaby of Birdland. GREER: Just You, Just Me. ARLEN-ROSE: It’s Only a Paper Moon. McLAUGHLIN: Speak. GREEN-HEYMAN-SOUR: I Cover the Waterfront. YOUMANS: Tea for Two. VAN HEUSEN-BURKE: Polka Dots and Moonbeams (2 tks). RUBY-KALMAR: Three Little Words (2 tks). G. & I. GERSHWIN: Oh, Lady Be Good (2 tks).  SHEARING: Lullaby of Birdland. STRACHEY-LINK: These Foolish Things. JOHNSTON: Pennies From Heaven / Lester Young, t-sax with various personnel (see below)/ Storyville SVL1038414 (live: Birdland, New York City, May 19, 1951; April 15, 1953; August 15, 1956; Storyville, Boston, December 15, 1953; Théâtre des Arts, Paris, November 1, 1956; Kongresshalle, Zurich, November 19, 1956; Olivia’s Patio Lounge, Washington D.C., December 8, 1956; Café Bohemia, New York, December 15 & 22, 1956.)

This marvelous 2-CD set consists of all live material by a mostly late-period Lester Young (part of CD 1 and all of CD 2 come from 1956), when he was still in command of his powers as an improviser. Rather than list all the various other musicians and muck up the header, I’ve inserted the back cover inlay which will tell you who plays what:

Young inlay

And here is the breakdown as to which tracks have which players:

CD 1: (a) tracks 1-4; (b) tracks 5, 6; (c) tracks 7-12, 14; (d) 13, 15 (Raney only)

CD 2: (a) tracks 1, 2; (b) tracks 3-6 (M. Davis on 6 only); (c) tracks 7-10; (d) tracks 11, 13, 16; (e) tracks 12, 14, 15.

As is often the case with live recordings from this period, there are the usual drawbacks—boxy sound and ambient surface noise—but in its favor is the excitement of hearing Lester in live settings, and wow, is he good here. If anything, the tight microphone placement makes his tone sound brighter and less “wheaty” (a term I coined for his sound many years ago), which is all to the better. Here, particularly in the opening Indiana, Young sounds like a gutsier, bluesier version of Stan Getz, which isn’t surprising since Young was Getz’ model. Trumpeter Jesse Drakes plays in standard bebop style, not bad at all if lacking a bit in imagination (although his turnarounds are fairly interesting), while pianist John Lewis, here in a rare bop outing, sounds fine if also a bit generic, using a few Bird licks here and there to pepper his playing. Even in a ballad such as Ghost of a Chance, Young plays with a bit of an edge that gives his ballad playing some guts, a trait that seems to have disappeared in many modern-day saxists’ approach. He sounds his most be-boppish in How High the Moon, and here Drakes plays a fine solo. In the trumpet-tenor sax chase chorus, Young thrown in two bars from Jingle Bells just for fun.

In the 1953 session at Birdland (where, ironically, Stan Getz is also announced as appearing later on), pianist Horace Silver drives the rhythm with tremendous verve, pushing Young into some of his most exciting playing. In Too Marvelous for Words, interestingly, he is much mellower and more laid-back in his approach.

Surprisingly, the session from Boston’s Storyville, made later the same year, has fantastically good sound, full and natural with no distortion and little surface noise. Unfortunately, pianist Gildo Mahones isn’t as good as either Lewis or Silver, but the mellow rhythm section of Connie Henry and Connie Kay glide like ball bearings, the sort of rhythm section Young loved, and he sounds relaxed and inventive in Just You, Just Me. Mahones is also outstanding on this track.

As one reaches 1956, Young is clearly mellowing his sound and approach. The musical ideas are still interesting, but ironically, some of the earlier grit is gone and he sounds more like Stan Getz than before—by which I mean his tone, not necessarily his musical ideas. Lester’s Mop Mop Blues is the famous Ames Brothers hit tune, played in a jazzier, less R&B style. The unidentified trumpet player is pretty generic-sounding, not as fine as Drakes, and drummer Gus Johnson drops a few too many “bebop bombs,” a style that Young particularly disliked. On the other hand, the underrated pianist Bill Triglia is quite interesting. The brief (1:36) version of Tea for Two is taken at a blistering tempo, but Lester sounds relaxed and mellow.

Unfortunately, the Zurich Polka Dots and Moonbeams is a bit too relaxed and mellow; Young sounds wholly uninspired here, playing remembered licks in a dull style. He wakes up a bit in Three Little Words, however, and this version of Lester Leaps In is pretty good. The presence of Miles Davis on Oh, Lady Be Good peps things up a bit, as does Rene Urtreger’s piano, and Christian Garros’ drum break is quite good, too. All things considered, however, the rather noisy-sounding set at Olivia’s Patio Lounge in Washington, D.C. with Earl Swope on trombone is considerably peppier; Young sounds wide-awake on this set, with a superior solo on this version of Oh, Lady Be Good. Swope plays a wonderful solo, as does the underrated Bill Potts on piano. Potts also sets up a rocking motion on this version of Mop Mop Blues that gets the toes tapping and Lester in a festive frame of mind.

“Symphony” Sid Torin, the famous bop DJ and live-show host of the late 1940s and 1950s, is paid tribute to in Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid, originally recorded by the Dizzy Gillespie big band. This version is relaxed and could almost have been titled Getting’ Cool With Symphony Sid. Young is in good form, though, his solo complemented by Swope’s. The later version of Three Little Words, featuring a blistering-hot Idrees Sulieman on trumpet, is also exceptional, and the final Indiana really jumps, thanks in large measure to the propulsive bass of Gene Ramey.

All in all, an interesting set of live Lester from late in his career, with the many high moments covering up for the few weak ones.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

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

Standard

The Tesla Quartet Debuts on CD

RAVEL: String Quartet in F. Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn (arr. Snyder). Menuet

Tesla-Quartet-WebCover-V3

antique (arr. Snyder). Menuet in c# min. (arr. Snyder). HAYDN: String Quartet in C, Op. 54 No. 2. STRAVINSKY: Concertino for String Quartet / Tesla Quartet / Orchid Music 10085

 This is the first CD by the Tesla Quartet, which has been performing together for a decade. It is due to be released on September 7.

The cornerstones of the album are the full-length string quartets by Ravel and Haydn, filled in with quartet arrangements (by violinist Ross Snyder) of brief Ravel piano pieces and the Stravinsky Concertino. The quartet plays with feeling, albeit with almost no vibrato except for a very, very light, tight vibrato on a few sustained notes, which unfortunately robs the music of some of its richness. By way of compensation, however, they have an impeccable command of dynamics and shading, so sensitive, in fact, that they seem to have five different shades between mp and pp. This works to particularly good effect in the Ravel Quartet, surely one of the great masterpieces of the genre. They create tremendous atmosphere in their playing, nowhere more so than in the floated ending of the first movement, and the finale (“Vif et agitè”), their razor-sharp attacks give the music tremendous vitality.

Their performance of the Haydn Quartet, played as much as possible with that ahistoric “straight tone,” again plays with light and shade in the dynamics, but here in particular I missed the warmer, more appropriate sound of the Kodály Quartet in their seminal set of the complete Haydn Quartets (or even the equally straight-toned approach of the Quatuour Mosaïques in their set of selected quartets, though they did not include any of the Op. 54 pieces). There’s a certain edgy sound in the forte high violin passages that I felt inappropriate despite their evident commitment to this music.

The short pieces transcribed by Snyder are charming if light, played with evident affection by the quartet, but to my ears one of the greatest performances included here is of the Stravinsky Concertino, a seldom-recorded work that, as Ross Snyder puts it in the liner notes, “rips the old styles from their ancient roots and thrusts them vigorously into the modern era.” This is a performance of tremendous energy that grabs the listener’s attention and does not let go.

An interesting debut disc, then, certainly worth hearing for the Ravel and Stravinsky.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

 

Standard

Renate Eggebrecht Digs Finnish Composers!

Layout 1

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

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Standard