“Baby” Sommer Throws a Jazz Party

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BABY’S PARTY / SOMMER: Apéro con brio. First Shot. Flinke Besen. Second Shot. A Soft Drink In Between. Inside-Outside-Trip. Third Shot. A Little Nap In Between. WEATHERLY: Danny Boy. ELLINGTON-MILLS: In a Sentimental Mood / Günter Baby Sommer, dm/Jew’s harp; Till Brönner, tpt/fl-hn / Intakt CD 303

Whoever came up with the title of this CD—and somehow, I doubt that it was Baby Sommer—ought to be fired. I, for one, associate the term “jazz party” with a sort of freewheeling jam session, either of an ensemble of all-star jazz musicians (like the Harry Edison-Lionel Hampton-Art Tatum-Barney Kessel-Buddy Rich set) or a big band playing open charts, like Duke Ellington’s “Jazz Party” album from c. 1959. This one is comprised of thoughtful jazz, freely improvised to be sure but rebuffing the concept of “party” music, played by just two musicians, trumpeter and flugelhornist Till Brönner and veteran drummer-composer Günter “Baby” Sommer.

I made comment regarding Sommer’s talents in an earlier review, remarking that his style of jazz seemed to include “elements of swing, bop, free-form, marching band music and a touch of Spike Jones.” The same is true of this unique set, perhaps even more free-form than before, reminiscent of the kind of jazz played by the once-famous Art Ensemble of Chicago (who I actually saw in person once, in Chicago, playing at the art museum there back in the early 1980s).

Although each of these pieces has a title, and all are credited to Sommer as composer, I have no idea how much of it was pre-conceived. Perhaps a few themes were thrown out into the ether for Brönner to improvise on, with Sommer backing him in his unique style; it’s difficult to judge, particularly since this album came to me for review with no liner notes. Clearly, the free jazz arrangement of Danny Boy is the only piece in which Brönner plays the melody straight while Sommer improvises somewhat wildly and imaginatively behind him. Following the full statement of the melody, Brönner goes off on a most interesting improvisation, not quite as free-form as the drummer. One of the things I admired most about the trumpeter’s playing was how he managed to create actual musical structures out of thin air, not just splattering notes into the ether and hoping some of them would stick to the wall or whatever as many other “free jazz” musicians like to do.

Indeed, Brönner manages to create clear-cut, logical musical lines even in such a piece as Flinke Besen, the melody (such as it is) being just a few notes set to a certain rhythm (and in this one, Sommer clearly shows off his marching-band style with some nifty snare drum work). In addition, Brönner manages to follow Sommer’s quick changes of rhythm to inform and shape his own solo. This is jazz playing at a very high level of artistry; there is absolutely no pandering here to popular jazz tastes.

I was a bit taken aback to hear the twang of a Jew’s harp in Second Shot replacing the drums, but Brönner is unfazed by it, playing a sparse but lovely muted solo reminiscent of Miles Davis. In A Soft Drink in Between, Sommer replaces the Jew’s harp with chimes, gong and timpani, creating an odd, mysterious backing for Brönner’s playing, here given through a tape-loop device that reverbs his notes. He is able to play against the tape-delayed playback of his own notes to create yet another developing musical structure. Later on in the track, Sommer switches to playing the Kalimba or thumb piano. It’s quite a wild ride, but not quite as wild as Inside-Outside Trip, on which Sommer makes wordless vocal sounds while pounding out asymmetric rhythms on his bass and tom-toms. When the trumpeter enters, playing stifled, slurred notes with a mute in, Sommer ups the rhythmic complexity and falls in line behind him.

By contrast, Third Shot almost sounds like a straightforward bop number, albeit one played by tuned timpani (shades of Vic Berton!) and trumpet, while A Little Nap in Between features Sommer on snare and cymbals, with occasional bass drum thumps, while Brönner creates his own well-sculpted lines in the foreground. On Der alte Spanier, the duo sets up their most swinging and complex rhythm on the CD, and Brönner really gets creative.

The closer is Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood, played in a most un-sentimental manner, with Sommer all over the drums: snares, cymbals, bass, woodblocks, snare rims, you name it. This is a “jazz party” for smart jazz listeners only; neophytes and Swing Kids need not attend!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Rangell Plays Ives & a Few Other “Modernists”

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FROM THE EARLY 20th… / NIELSEN: 3 Pieces, Op. 59. ENESCU: Carillon Nocturne. SCHOENBERG: 2 Pieces, Op. 33. IVES: Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860” / Andrew Rangell, pno / Steinway & Sons 30100

Here’s another interesting piano recital issued by Steinway & Sons, this time a collection of early 20th-century works. Ives’ massive “Concord” Sonata, of course, occupies the largest section of this disc, and only New York City concert audiences of the early 21st century would still consider Carl Nielsen to be too “avant-garde” for them, but by and large this recital lives up to its title.

Unlike Zhenni Li, Andrew Rangell does not play his music in a subjective, moody style, but rather objectively and tersely, emphasizing the music’s structure. This works particularly well in the Nielsen pieces, which as it happens I had not heard before. These were clearly written in his prime, after the String Quartet in F and the Fifth Symphony, containing many of the same somewhat Stravinskian harmonies and rhythmic devices, but filtered through his own personal aesthetic. Rangell does an excellent job bringing this out in the music. In the last piece, Nielsen revels in some mirror-image writing, creating a somewhat lumbering bass line and having the right play in the opposite direction!

George Enescu’s Carillon Nocturne is a bitonal work in which he emulates bell effects. These are attenuated by the fact that the two hands are not always entirely in synch, which creates a sound like bells playing against one another. Rangell’s approach to the two Schoenberg pieces, interestingly, is close to the way Li played Schumann: a bit of rhythmic “play” in the music which emphasizes the atonality in a different sort of way.

Like most modern pianists, Rangell interprets the Ives sonata with a more naturally pianistic feel and legato flow to it, considerably different from the composer’s own interpretation and that of his favorite interpreter of this sonata, John Kirkpatrick. Of course, the sonata can take several different interpretations, as witness Donna Coleman’s superb recording of two decades ago, and Rangell is fully up to the music’s almost grotesque technical demands. Nonetheless, by bringing its rhythmic feel more in line with the Schoenberg I believe that Rangell is on the wrong track. This robs the music of its quintessentially “American” feel and flow, which was meant to be almost anti-European tradition. You be the judge, however; you may feel entirely different about it. I am just giving you my perspective based on my years of experience in hearing and evaluating this score. Certainly, Rangell does a good job of bringing out the music’s structure somewhat better than Ives and Kirkpatrick did. And there’s an interesting alternative ending: in the last movement (“Thoreau”), in place of the alternate flute part, Rangell whistles the flute line along with his own playing.

All in all, however, an interesting program, well executed in a thoughtful manner.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Zhenni Li is “Melancolie”

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MELANCOLIE / LOURIÉ: Préludes fragiles, Op. 1. SCHUMANN: Piano Sonata No. 1. BARTÓK: 2 Elegies / Zhenni Li, pno / Steinway & Sons 30097

Young pianist Zhenni Li presents, here, a fascinating recital by two 20th century composers and one famous name from the 19th. Although I was pretty familiar with Arthur Lourié’s music, the Préludes fragiles, which was his Op. 1, were new to me. The music certainly lives up to the album’s title; the music has a melancholy Russian feel to it; yet already one can hear Lourié reaching for a new and different style, based partly on Scriabin and partly on such late Russian romantics as Medtner and Rachmaninov.

Li is an extremely expressive artist. She understands not merely the notes on the page but how they should progress, one following the other, to make coherent musical statements. Thus even in pieces that have a lot of “space” between the notes (such as the third of Lourié’s five preludes), she manages to “lead” the ear to connect the phrasing and complete the musical structure. This is a very high level of artistry, and although I was not (to be honest) entirely fond of each of the preludes, I was intrigued enough to keep listening due to her phrasing and personal involvement in the music.

Her treatment of Schumann’s first piano sonata is also quite sensitive and rather different in phrasing from the recorded performances of Barbara Nissman and Shura Cherkassky (two of my favorite pianists). She presents us with a sort of smoldering undercurrent that reaches deep inside the notes. It’s hard to explain; you just have to hear it, particularly in the quick second movement where surface glibness is all that most modern keyboard performers give us. In her hands, this movement becomes almost like a fantasy in which the composer’s mind wanders through various moods and images, portrayed vividly by this gifted and imaginative artist. In the scherzo, she emphasizes the odd, lopsided rhythm in a way I’ve never heard before, and in the finale she also induces a bit of deconstruction to emphasize the “melancholy” feel of the music over its structure.

Likewise, Bartók’s Elegies are played in a similar style. This may not be the way the composer conceived them, but as long as you are listening to Li play them this way, they make perfect sense.

All in all, a fascinating album, one that points to an artist with a deep emotional commitment to the music she is playing.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Krivda and Swing City Rewrite Jazz Classics

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A BRIGHT AND SHINING MOMENT / FURBER-BRAHAM: Limehouse Blues.1,3,5 KRIVDA: Roses.1,3,5 On the Road 2,4,7A Bright and Shining Moment.2,3,6 Easter Blue. 2,3,6 Hangin’ With the Hoosiers.1,3,5 The Good Lady.1,3,5 G. & I. GERSHWIN-HEYWARD: Summertime.2,3,6,7 G. & I. GERSHWIN: The Man I Love.1,3,5 CARMICHAEL: In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.1,3,5 Little Old Lady. The Nearness of You.1,3,5  Two Sleepy People.1,3,5  TIZOL-ELLINGTON: Caravan.1,3,5 McRAE: Dream of Life.1,3,5 ELLINGTON: The Mooche1,3,5 / Ernie Krivda, t-sax & Swing City: Steve Enos, tpt; 1Chris Anderson, 2Gary Carney, tb; Joe Hunter, pno; Lee Bush, gtr; 3Marion Hayden, 4Bryan Thomas, bs; 5John Bacon, 6Rick Porrello, 7Ray Porrello, dm; 8Marshall Baxter Beckley, voc / Capri Records (no number)

 Tenor saxist Ernie Krivda is a veteran with nearly a half-century of professional experience behind him, his most memorable gig coming in 1970-75 when he led the house bands at Cleveland’s “Smiling Dog Saloon.” Despite the cheesy name of this (cough, cough) establishment, it turns out that Krivda and his musicians were the opening act for some of the biggest names in jazz, thus he got to hear Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Stan Getz, Elvin Jones, Eddie Harris, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, Ahmad Jamal, Sonny Stitt, Freddie Hubbard, Cannonball Adderley, etc. etc. Even if your opinion of Hancock and Jarrett is as low as mine is (great technicians who basically say nothing), it’s still an impressive array of star names. Krivda never forgot one comment by Getz that you could read all the books on music, attend a million lectures etc., but if you don’t play with people who are better than you, you’ll never grow.

In these recording sessions from 1998 to 2002, Krivda jams with some of the peppiest and most original jazz players I’ve heard in a long time, but none better than the leader himself. His tenor style is wholly unique: he plays in staccato notes, improvising almost as if he were a percussionist playing the vibes or marimba rather than a reed instrument. I was also knocked out by his arranging abilities; even a tune as old and hoary as Limehouse Blues takes on new life in his chart, which almost sounds like the kind of things that Shorty Rogers wrote for Stan Kenton back in the 1950s, yet with a few new twists. Trumpeter Steve Enos, who plays in a surprisingly similar staccato style (try saying that four times real fast!), almost like Max Kaminsky in his prime, is shown to good advantage on Krivda’s lovely original tune, Roses, which sounded to me a good deal like the kind of original tunes Kaminsky played with Bud Freeman’s Summa Cum Laude Orchestra back around 1939-41. Come to think of it, Krivda’s own playing also includes some elements of Freeman, albeit mixed with a generous portion of Stan Getz and, yes, a little Sonny Stitt. He learned his lessons well.

His arrangement of Summertime moves the tune far away from its “slow and easy” tempo; this one is uptempo and strongly accented, featuring a powerful blues-shouting vocal by one Marshall Baxter Beckley. Back to a Krivda original, On the Road is a relaxed piece in a loping beat, alternating dotted-eighth-with-sixteenth and triplet figures played by the bass. Again, one notes his proclivity for actually writing melodies and not just “vamp head tunes,” as too many musicians nowadays do. Pianist Joe Hunter plays a relaxed, sparse solo on this one, rolling triplets behind the band’s vamps in the following chorus. A Bright and Shining Moment sounds the most like an old swing tune, really uptempo with some Gene Krupa-like tomtoms in the opening. Krivda really cooks on this one, showing off his staccato virtuosity with aplomb. I didn’t much like the bass solo, though: an electric instrument (which doesn’t fit this style) played with a really “cheap” tone and predictable licks.

The Gershwins’ nice but rather done-to-death ballad, The Man I Love, is given a nice treatment if somewhat less innovative as some of the preceding tracks. It starts in ballad tempo but quickly moves into double time. You could almost see that coming, but at least the solos are good, particularly Krivda’s gutsy playing. I particularly liked the ensemble passage following his solo where the melodic line is rewritten as a background vamp. We return to the slower tempo for the rideout.

Hoagy Carmichael’s famous, rather “gaga” song, In the Cool. Cool, Cool of the Evening is given a nice treatment, again sounding a bit like Shorty Rogers, but here more like his Giants than like the more complex charts he wrote for Kenton. The staccato brass chords behind the first four mars of Krivda’s solo were a nice touch. On the ballad Easter Blue, Krivda surprisingly sounds a bit more like Coleman Hawkins than Freeman and Gary Carney plays a nice trombone chorus. The Tizol-Ellington Caravan gets more of an uptempo than a Middle Eastern treatment, again with pounding tom-toms leading the charge. Krivda is at his staccato best on this one. On Carmichael’s Little Old Lady, bassist Hayden is off-pitch—some notes sharp, others flat. The arrangement throws in a lick from Jeepers Creepers as a bridge. Carmen McRae’s Dream of Life was, for me, one of the few disappointments of this CD, a “nothing” tune played in a drab arrangement, although Anderson’s trombone solo is excellent and the leader pretty good as well.

Hangin’ With the Hoosiers, a contrafact of Indiana, moves rather stiffly at first but soon picks up momentum and inventive solos. On this track, Hayden’s solo is excellent, as is Krivda’s and the writing. I was rather surprised to hear Ellington’s The Mooche, a tune dating back to his “jungle band” days of the late 1920s. Krivda and Swing City miss the funkiness of the beat somewhat—John Bacon plays the kind of rolling triplets on snare drum that one associates more closely with Jelly Roll Morton’s “stomp” rhythm than the funky, syncopated woodblocks that Sony Greer played with Ellington—but it’s still nice to hear. The Nearness of You is taken very close to its original ballad tempo as recorded by Glenn Miller, but there’s more of a jazz kick to the proceedings. The tom-toms return for the opening of The Good Lady which, although an original, is another contrafact, this time on Oh, Lady Be Good with a lick from A-Tisket, A-Tasket thrown in for good luck. We wrap up the set with a very creative arrangement of Two Sleepy People, featuring Krivda’s tenor playing the melody along with the bass two octaves lower.

In toto, an interesting and creative take on the swing era, surely much better than the pathetic-sounding “swing” band of banjoist Glenn Crytzer. Krivda learned his lessons well.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Rich Halley Performs Jazz “Literature”

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THE LITERATURE / DAVIS: Little Willie Leaps. MONK: Misterioso. Brilliant Corners. SANTAMARIA: Chano Pozo. COLEMAN: Broad Way Blues. Law Years. RODGERS: High Powered Mama. ELLINGTON-MILLS: Mood Indigo. A.P. CARTER: Motherless Children. MINGUS: Pussy Cat Dues. RA: Kingdom of Not. BRANCH-HILL: Someday You’ll Call My Name / Rich Halley, t-sax/clapping; Clyde Reed, bs; Carson Halley, dm/clapping / Pine Eagle 011

In this new release, tenor saxist Rich Halley and his trio pay tribute to some of his seminal influences, what he refers to as the “literature” of jazz. Most of the pieces I knew, but was unfamiliar with Mongo Santamaria’s Chano Pozo, the two Ornette Coleman pieces chosen here and Sun Ra’s Kingdom of Not. Interestingly, the album also includes three early country tunes, Jimmie Rodgers’ High Powered Mama, the Carter Family’s Motherless Children and Someday You’ll Call My Name.

Yet in paying tribute to these great and not-so-great (Sun Ra) jazz figures, Halley does not give us predictable rehashes of this material. Rather, this is very modern, “outside” playing, highly creative and taking the music into new realms. Even Monk’s Misterioso sounds entirely new and different here; Halley evidently feels that this older material is only to be used as a point of departure, not to fully reference the older music in such a way that it sounds predictable.

The result is an album that cooks from start to finish, keeps the listener involved, and gives us playing in all of the tracks that is closer to early Pharoah Sanders than to Arthur Blythe, for instance. Nor is Halley the only creative mind in this trio: bassist Clyde Reed’s solos, particularly in Misterioso, are also edgy and creative, taking the music into new realms that the composers (in this case Monk) might never have imagined themselves.

Chano Pozo, though clearly featuring Latin-styled drums, comes across more like a successor to Sonny Rollins’ St. Thomas than like anything the legendary Cuban drummer played with the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra. Carson Halley continually varies and subdivides his beat in such a way that it sounds like a cross between Cuban and calypso music. Interestingly, Coleman’s Broad Way Blues is played with a combination of a calypso and country blues sort of beat, taken into realms beyond one’s imagination. This is great and highly imaginative playing, and Reed also gets into the act on this one.

Rodgers’ High Powered Mama tries to behave itself and stick, more or less, to the country blues sort of beat and style of its composer, but Halley thinks too much outside the box to allow it to stay entirely in that sort of feel. He also sticks pretty close to the original tune and tempo of Ellington’s Mood Indigo, except for the different stresses on the beats. Brilliant Corners bears a closer resemblance to the original than Misterioso did, though Halley takes the middle theme, and the development of the theme, at much faster tempi. The Carter Family’s Motherless Children is made to sound almost like a hoedown rather than like a sad song, with lots of percussive fun from Carson Halley and Reed’s bass. I’m not sure that Charles Mingus would recognize his Pussy Cat Dues from the frantic, wild introductory section, though it eventually does come back down to earth and follows the tune pretty well. Kingdom of Not, composed by Sun Ra (real name: Herman Sonny Blount, a swing pianist who played in Fletcher Henderson’s last band before he decided he came from outer space), sounds as much if not more like a country hoedown piece as the “real” country tunes on this album, particularly Someday You’ll Call My Name, into which Halley throws a few tenor sax squeals.

Halley wraps up this odd and challenging set with Ornette Coleman’s Law Years, played in an appropriately outside style all the way, a wild and crazy performance with Carson bashing away on the drums. Hey, y’all, thanks for comin’ and drive home safely, y’hear?

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Gordon Getty’s New Album of Choral Works

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GETTY: The Old Man in the Night. The Old Man in the Morning. Ballet Russe. Shenandoah. There Was a Naughty Boy. Those Who Love the Most. Beauty Come Dancing. For a Dead Lady. The Destruction of Sennacherib. Cynara. La Belle Dame sans Merci / The Netherlands Radio Choir & Orchestra; James Gaffigan, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC 5186 621

Gordon Getty has long been one of my favorite contemporary composers, which many of my readers—knowing my proclivity for modern music that is harmonically spiky, bitonal or atonal—may find surprising. But as I’ve said many times before, my criteria for judging new music is not how spiky the harmonies are but whether or not the music is well-constructed and says something, regardless of the tonal base, and too many modern composers just write “sensational” music that really doesn’t develop or say anything.

Fortunately, Getty was musically trained the old-fashioned way, not meaning simply that he writes tonally but meaning that he learned how to create themes and develop them logically, and this is what one hears in this excellent new collection. As in the case of his solo vocal music, Getty is particularly adept at writing for voices, even in choral settings. Unlike his song cycle of Emily Dickinson songs, The White Election, which was purposely written in a simple strophic manner to simulate Dickinson singing and playing the piano herself, the harmonic language of these works is more sophisticated, like that of his excellent opera Usher House.

Interestingly, some of these pieces are set to poems by Getty himself such as the first, The Old Man in the Night, the longest and most complex piece on this album. The text concerns two men at opposite ends of their lives, which Getty claims are his own young and old selves (he is now 80…hard to believe, considering the youthful enthusiasm of his composition style). The Netherlands Radio Choir is a fine group of singers but not very clear in their diction; without the lyrics printed in the booklet, I wouldn’t have a clue what they were singing. Only a few consonants are clearly articulated (mostly from the women, not the men), which leads to a confused muddle of sound rather than a succession of words. On the other hand, James Gaffigan is an excellent conductor, bringing out the power and sweep of Getty’s music superbly, and the orchestra plays with commitment and drive behind him.

Although a separate piece with a different text, The Old Man in the Morning almost sounds like a second movement to the first piece. No, the music is not exactly the same, but the mood, the rhythm and the feel of the music make it sound like, perhaps, an early draft of the first piece, at least musically speaking. By contrast, Ballet Russe, set to a text by John Masefield that begins, “The gnome from the moonland plays the Chopin air, the ballerina glides out of the wings, like all the Aprils of forgotten Springs.” Perhaps a bit more variety in dynamics contrasts could have been put into the music, but again, it is very effective in its own way.

The fourth piece is Getty’s arrangement of the famous tune Shenandoah, and it is one of the finest I’ve heard of that over-performed tune. Here, too, Getty’s orchestration is particularly varied, using light textures and a transparent sound palette. John Keats’ There Was a Naughty Boy is set to rapid strophes, highly rhythmic with irregular beats and accents. The orchestration in this one is also quite original. Those Who Love the Most, based on Sara Teasdale’s poem, is a broad adagio with soft horn and trombone textures sprinkled with glockenspiel and piano.

Beauty Comes Dancing, based on another original poem, is a lilting waltz featuring a solo violin (possibly played by concertmaster Joris van Rijn) and, later solo clarinet, again with irregular metric divisions of the beats and harmonic shifts that add interest. For a Dead Lady begins as a waltz, not quite as elegiac in mood as you’d expect, which morphs into 4 with continually changing accents, often pitting two different meters (chorus and orchestra) against each other.

I was particularly impressed by Getty’s very dramatic setting of Lord Byron’s The Destruction of Sennacherib with its powerful rhythms and aggressive brass chords—quite different from everything else that had preceded it. Musically and dramatically, this is clearly a masterpiece, and should be performed regularly by American choruses. Without going into too much detail, the music is built around similar lines as the preceding pieces but geared towards a more dynamic aesthetic. I was blown away by it!

Getty’s setting of Ernest Dawson’s Cynara also uses a dark-sounding orchestral palette, and has an undercurrent of menace about it (mostly achieved via downward minor-key passages played by both the cellos and violins), but at a slower tempo and quieter volume. He is such a diverse composer that he knows, at this stage of his career, exactly how to gauge effects without making them sound contrived. I recommend this piece, and the preceding, to young contemporary composers as an example of how to be creative without being formulaic. This piece also includes a contrasting central section that is quieter, reflecting the words at that point, before becoming more aggressive and powerful.

The album concludes with Getty’s setting of Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci and here we encounter another, entirely different sort of setting, dramatic and strophic, with pregnant pauses in the music for emphasis. The diminuendo effect at the two-minute mark is an interesting touch, although the chorus doesn’t quite bring it off as effectively as they could have. The sort of downward, minor-key passages one heard in the previous work are here assigned to the harp as well as the violas and violins, and used much more judiciously. The bitonal chord assigned to the chorus just around the six-minute mark also adds interest and makes the music highly effective.

This is clearly one of the finest collections of Getty’s music extant, and I’m deeply grateful to Pentatone Classics for recording and issuing it. Even with my few caveats regarding the performance, it is a fine achievement all round.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Jansons’ Magnificent Schubert Ninth

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SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C, “Great” / Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Mariss Jansons, cond / BR Klassik 900169 (live: Munich Herkulesaal, February 1-2, 2018)

The Schubert Ninth Symphony has been done to death so often over the past 80 years that I rarely if ever deign to review a new recording of it, but Mariss Jansons, a conductor who is either brilliant or routine, is so evidently into the music here that I found his interpretation irresistible.

To begin with, it’s nice to know that Arturo Toscanini, who always felt that the “slow” introduction to this symphony was taken too slowly, was finally vindicated when the autograph score was consulted and it was discovered that the opening section of the first movement was not in C tempo, which is 4/4, but in “cut time” (¢), which is 2/2. It makes a great deal of difference, and thus pretty much nullifies every old recording of the symphony that took the opening section at half the prescribed tempo.

But that’s not all. Jansons brings out details in the score than even Toscanini didn’t do as clearly, such as the “bouncing” horn triplets in the first movement, which, when heard, give the music an entirely different character. Moreover, Jansons “punches” the rhythmic accents of the brass with such felicity that the music almost steamrolls along. The timpani, too, is clearly recorded and strongly emphasized. The result is a first movement that makes a far greater impact than usual in recordings of this work. His phrasing is unconventional, but it works brilliantly.

The jauntiness of rhythm continues apace in the second movement, wherein Jansons uses some finely-judged moments of rubato at the ends of choruses. He also slows down the broad themes in the middle just enough to give the music breadth without sacrificing forward momentum, almost suspending time in places. He also introduces some interesting tenuto into the third movement, which make great musical sense while still propelling the rhythm, and the way the flutes emphasize their downward grace notes again works well in his overall concept. Just before the trio section, he slightly increases the tempo, which gives the soft syncopated string figures an extra bit of insouciance. Honestly, it’s like hearing the symphony for the very first time; you discover things in it that escaped you in previous readings.

Initially, I felt as if Jansons was taking the fourth movement too slowly—it runs nearly 17 minutes as compared to Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 14 and a half—but once again, rhythmic accents buoy the momentum in such a way that the movement just sort of bubbles along over the peppy rhythmic triplets played by the cellos and basses, and in doing so Jansons creates a momentum that has great propulsion but doesn’t sound frantic. Once again, he introduces some brief yet surprising moments of rubato, and manages to keep the momentum up. At the end, in the famous (or infamous) passage where the basses are asked to play their quarter note passages with a slight hold or tenuto over the notes, Jansons does so without the overdone exaggeration that Toscanini used in his 1941 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra. At this juncture, I really need to put in a good word for the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, which follows his directions flawlessly in what must have been, for them, a slightly eccentric reading of this timeworn symphony. This is quite clearly a world-class ensemble. He does not play the final chord as a diminuendo, as Tennstedt and Harnoncout did. Tennstedt told me that the so-called accent mark over the last chord, in the manuscript, is clearly too long and was thus intended to be a diminuendo, but the jury is still out on that and, although he and Harnoncourt brought it off successfully, it is not in my view a necessary feature of a normal performance of the symphony.

For Jansons, then, this music is obviously a journey and not just a sequence of oft-played phrases. In my view, it goes straight to the top of stereo or digital recordings of the work, as much a groundbreaking reading as were Toscanini’s performances back in the 1940s.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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