Hartmut Rohde Plays Josef Tal

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TAL: Suite for Viola. Perspective. Viola Sonata.* Duo for Viola & Piano* / Hartmut Rohde, vla; *Christian Seibert, pno / Avi 8553914

Although composer Josef Tal was a pupil of Paul Hindemith and lived almost to the age of 100 (1910-2008), he is not well known outside Europe. Violist Hartmut Rohde, who met Tal at the age of 94 and here plays several of his works, hopes to correct that. As Rohde puts it in the liner notes, “Our encounter was like a journey into an unsettling past, marked by a great number of hardships and upheavals he had personally endured. It also offered a revealing glimpse into the outlook of composers in Israel, as well as previously in Germany – even into compositional approaches from many eras he did not live through himself.”

Tal and Rohde in 2004

Tal and Rohde in 2004

The opening Suite for Viola was one of Tal’s earliest works, written in 1940. The melodic and harmonic language spoken here is so obviously modeled on Hindemith that it might be a piece by that composer, but at least it’s a good, solid work, well thought out and having an interesting musical progression. Rohde has a rich, full tone and plays with considerable energy and feeling, which also helps one get close to the music. The third-movement “Tango,” with its unusual bowing effects, is clearly the most original and un-Hindemith-like movement in the suite.

Perspective, from 1996, is an even more tightly-written piece and shows Tal’s development, moving somewhat away from copying Hindemith. The music is much more atonal despite its tight structure, as Rohde puts it, almost like a passacaglia, The Viola Sonata, from 1960, is perhaps the strangest work on this disc, having a dark, mysterious feeling about it, projecting an almost sinister mood. Eventually, the music doubles in tempo and becomes more agitated. Here, with a piano accompaniment, Tal was able to create a call-and-response, sometimes in counterpoint, between the two instruments.

By contrast, the Duo for Viola & Piano is a very objective piece, almost like late Stravinsky, with odd stops and starts, juxtaposing jagged lines against lyrical figures and long-held notes. Just  before the five-minute mark, after a long pause, the music goes through several more and different moods and phases; it almost sounds schizophrenic in structure, yet somehow Tal managed to pull all the pieces together before the finale.

This is a very interesting recording, well worth your listening time.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Cheung Explores “Cycles and Arrows”

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CYCLES AND ARROWS / CHEUNG: The Real Book of Fake Tunes (for flute and string quartet) / Claire Chase, fl; Spektral Quartet / More Marginalia / Atlas Ensemble; Artjom Kim, cond / Assumed Roles / Maiya Papich, vla; International Contemporary Ensemble; Karina Canellakis, cond / Bagatelles / Winston Choi, pno; Spektral Quartet / Après une lecture / Ernest Rombout, ob / Time’s Vestiges / International Contemporary Ensemble / New Focus Recordings FCR 215

Like many modern composers, Cheung’s music is edgy and spiky, more a linkage of progressive harmonic movement than any real attempt to present a lyric line, but unlike so many others he understands musical development. Thus, even in the startling opening section of The Real Book of Fake Tunes, there is musical substance beneath the effects. In the second piece, the flute is pitched in its lower register, creating a haunting effect as the strings play around it. The music continues to progress this way through each of the five pieces in the suite.

The problem I had with the next piece, More Marginalila, is that it still sounded like the preceding five pieces, which made me wonder if Cheung had anything more to say than this spiky but similar style. This is a trap that many modern composers fall into: once they’ve found acceptance and praise for sounding “edgy,” it’s all they have to say.

Taken on its own merits as a sort of hard-edged background music, however, the album is interesting. Cheung’s music is intellectually fascinating, if a bit narrow in scope, although he does present us with some slower tempi in the Bagatelles, and Après une lecture is a fascinating oboe solo piece. The finale, Time’s Vestiges, is more complex than many of the other pieces, using counterpoint in an interesting way as well as string portamento effects.

In short, a fascinating disc, worth hearing at least once.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Agudin’s Splendid New “Emperor of Atlantis”

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ULLMANN: Der Kaiser von Atlantis / Pierre-Yves Pruvot, bar (Kaiser Overall); Wassyl Slipak, bs-bar (Death/The Loudspeaker); Anna Wall, mezzo (Drummer); Natalie Pérez, sop (Bublkopf); Sébastien Obrecht, ten (Harlequin/Soldier); Orchestre Musique des Lumières; Facundo Agudin, cond / IBS Classical 532018

For many listeners, Viktor Ullmann’s post-modernist opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis is not only an acquired taste (and one they don’t generally like, as it is written in a harmonically spikier language than even Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) but, worse yet, is considered passé because it is a specific reference to the Nazi-Fascist era and their joint persecution and murder of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals (although it is only the Jews who are the recipients of attention in the post-Nazi era). This is undoubtedly true to a point, but it easily applies to every Communist and Socialist system that has existed even to the present day, whether Russia (the USSR and Putin-Russia), Iran, Communist Cuba and China, or Socialist North Korea and Venezuela. Our “enlightened” modern-day “Democratic Socialists” here in the United States think they can do it better, but fail to recognize that every Socialist or Communist system has turned into an economic disaster and a dictatorship. But of course, they’re more than happy to BE the dictators because they have “compassion” whereas the others didn’t. Hardy har har. Talk to artists such as pianists Giorgio Koukl, Michael Korstick or Sophia Agronovich, who grew up in Soviet or Socialist dictatorships, about how wonderful these systems are. They’ll put you straight in less than a New York minute.

Thus there aren’t many recordings of this opera, which I happen to like very much despite its reliance on a parlando style and lack of arias, because 1) it is sung drama, and very good sung drama at that, and 2) Ullmann was a really good composer. The personal side of Ullmann’s tragic ending, being put to death in a concentration camp (along with his librettist, Peter Kien) in 1944, is in a sense superfluous to whether or not Der Kaiser is a great work of art or not. Any true work of art stands or falls on its own merits, and this opera , being an allegory of totalitarianism, is as valid in its own way as Verdi’s Nabucco or Deems Taylor’s The Emperor Jones (though the latter, to me, is pretty junky music).

The reference recording of this opera is the old Decca recording with Walter Berry, Franz Mazura, Iris Vermillion, Christiane Oelze and Herbert Lippert, conducted by Lothar Zagrosek, and while I recognize that Lippert is a far superior tenor to Sébastien Obrecht, whose voice is wobbly and a bit harsh-sounding, and Oelze’s crystalline soprano is in a class by itself, Zagrosek’s conducting—and the performance in general—sounds merely perfunctory whereas this one has fire and drive to spare. I happen to own a performance in English from the Cincinnati Opera back in the late 1990s with Thomas Goerz, Brian Leerhuber, Mark T. Panuccio and Allyson McHardy, conducted by Patrick Summers, that is equally intense, but except for Panuccio and McHardy, the sheer singing ability of this cast is superior. Yet that English performance, being live, also has an edge to it similar to this performance. Aside from Obrecht, the only voice I find somewhat problematic on this release is that of mezzo Anna Wall, who has a prominent flutter-vibrato, but it’s not nearly as bad as that of the late Pilar Lorengar.

Interestingly, even with Wall’s flutter, conductor Agudin manages to get the singers to blend beautifully, as in the short sections titled “Schau, die Wolken” and “Komm, Tod, du unser werter,” the latter based on the Lutheran hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Ensemble blend is not something stressed very often in modern-day opera or oratorio performances, and I for one was thrilled to hear it. It is the mark of conscientious artists who care about musical values.

But, as I say, it’s the overall dramatic quality of the performance that hits you hard, particularly in the deliveries of the Loudspeaker (Wassyl Slipak, who has such a dark, deep, resonant voice that it put me in mind of the late Gottlob Frick) and the Emperor (baritone Pierre-Yves Pruvot), and even in the dramatic capabilities of Wall, whose voice, to be honest, is not any less fluttery than that of Iris Vermillion on the Zagrosek recording. The performance is broken up into 26 small sections on the CD, but considering that this is a one-act opera of continuous music, I see absolutely no purpose in this. Also please note that this recording is nearly eight minutes shorter than Zagrosek’s, and you’ll get a good idea of the tighter musical momentum that drives it.

The lean sonorities of the score, with its Weill-like focus on trumpets and high strings and winds, are well served by the Orchestre Musique de Lumières, and passages sung by the Loudspeaker are given a nice loudspeaker-like reverb that make it sound realistic. All in all, an outstanding production despite my few caveats noted above. I highly recommend it!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Greg Diaz’ Wonderful Jazz Orchestra

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BEGIN THE AGORA / EUBANKS: The Navigator. DIAZ: Circadia. Frank Blank. Begin the Agora. MEDLEY: NEVILLE/DIAZ-CRAWFORD/HAWKINS/JOHNSON: Brother John/2nd Line Strut/Iko  / Greg Diaz & the Art of Imagination Jazz Orchestra: Jesus Mato, Doug Michaels, Seth Merlin, Kevin Wilde, tpt; Russell Freeland, Jason Pyle, Tom Warfel, tb; Michael Nunez, bs-tb; Ismael Vergara, Manny Echazabal, a-sax/cl; Greg Diaz, t-sax/cl/voc; Scott Klarman, t-sax; Mike Brignola, bar-sax; Eero Turunen, pno/kbds; Christian Davis, gtr; James McCoy, bs/el-bs; Matt Calderin, dm/perc / AOI Group 001, available at http://www.reverbnation.com/gregdiazandtheheartofimagination

This is the debut CD of tenor saxist/clarinetist/vocalist Greg Diaz and his Art of Imagination Jazz Orchestra. A native of Florida, Diaz studied at Miami Dade College and is now Professor of Jazz Voice at the same city’s Community College. His credits include performing with Phil Woods, Ira Sullivan, Tito Puente and such pop performers as Ben E. King, The Temptations and The Lettermen.

For once, his group’s name actually reflects the music within. Diaz’ compositions and arrangements are fresh and inventive; they don’t fall back on tried-and-true orchestration or compositional devices. The opener, Kevin Eubanks’ The Navigator, features an unusual, bouncing theme played by saxophone with guitar, and only occasionally does one hear standard orchestration in his use of the trumpet section. Moreover, guitarist Christian Davis is a jazz player and not a misplaced heavy rock musician out of his depths. Every soloist is original and has something new to say; his own tenor solo avoids many of the clichés one hears in others’ work nowadays. Although his own composition, Circadia, harks back to some of the things that were done in the 1960s, it too presents a fresh melodic line and interesting scoring. Davis has another fine solo in this one as well as the leader.

Yet the most interesting of the early tracks is his medley of a medley of a tune by the Neville Brothers with originals. The modern-day New Orleans backbeat gives the music a nice kick, and Diaz’ vocal is simply wonderful. The solos take on a bluesier feel in this one, but it’s still jazz-based. By contrast, Frank Blank is a swirling uptempo piece reminiscent of some of Woody Herman’s more inventive scores, yet original in its treatment. The trombone section gets a nice workout in this one, too, as does lead trumpeter Jesus Mato, playing in his best bop style.

The finale on this all-too-brief CD, Begin the Agora, has sort of a fusion sound to it but uses a backbeat that plays against the simple but intriguing melodic line. The rhythm changes completely once Diaz begins his solo, adding more interest to the tune. Unfortunately, Davis plays a rock-style solo here; a pity, as it ruins the performance. Oh, these people and their attachment to rock crap! Happily, Diaz’ own solo restores a jazz feel to the piece, and is very fine. The ride-out chorus is also pretty interesting.

A good first album. I hope to hear more from this band in the future.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Alberto Pibiri Honors the Jazz Legacy

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JAZZ LEGACY / PIBIRI: For Oscar. Walkin’. My Sunshine. New Bossa. A Blues. Kiss Kiss. PIBIRI-JORDAN: Be Free .2 PIBIRI: For Sure.2,3 PIBIRI-WAKS: Oh Yeah!1,2 PIBIRI: It’s Me / Alberto Pibiri, pno; Paul Gill, bs; Paul Wells, dm; Adrian Cunningham, t-sax/cl; 1David Stryker, gtr; 2Sheila Jordan, 3Jay Clayton, 1Miriam Waks, voc / Alberto Pibiri Music APM 10012

Here’s a wonderful new CD by an up-and-coming jazz pianist who idolizes Oscar Peterson but has his own style as well. Even as a classical piano student in Italy, he loved Peterson so much that he’d often play his music in concerts. According to the publicity sheet, “He met Sheila Jordan at one of his workshops in France and she was so impressed with Pibiri’s musical talents that she not only became his main mentor but sponsored his artist visa so he could move and perform in the United States.”

Indeed, the opening track on this disc is titled For Oscar, but to my ears it sounds more like a modified boogie-blues, which was not Peterson’s normal style; it almost channels the New Orleans piano sound of Alan Toussaint, but it’s creative and infectious, and his rhythm section swings beautifully behind him. Walkin’, a more sedate tune, sounds like a swing number from the 1940s and features the low chalumeau-register playing of clarinetist Adrian Cunningham, cool and liquid. My Sunshine is a slow ballad, starting out in 3/4 but moves into a standard 4 for the “development” section, which features bassist Paul Gill in a wonderful double-time solo. Pibiri’s own solo swings with charm and invention, sounding more like Peterson in a relaxed mood than even the opening track before moving back to 3 for the final chorus.

New Bossa is another Peterson-influenced performance, here channeling his inner Jobim; Cunningham, switching to tenor sax, channels his inner Stan Getz. This one also features a really nice drum solo by Paul Wells. And Pibiri really pulls out his Peterson chops on A Blues, an uptempo romp that he plays superbly. Kiss Kiss is an uptempo swinger, again featuring Cunningham on clarinet.

The great Sheila Jordan sings on Be Free; she still has the sweet, youthful sound from her youth and her communicative abilities remain intact, but here she has an unsteady wobble. Yet her scat vocal with Jay Clayton on For Sure is superb with no wobble, one of the highlights of the album, as is Miriam Waks’ peppier, more outgoing vocal on Oh Yeah! On the latter, Cunningham switches from his Stan Getz style to a more aggressive R&B style, with good effect and fine imagination. The disc ends with the relaxed ballad It’s Me, played with just the right touch and forward nudging of the beat by Pibiri.

Overall, a nice CD. Great summertime jazz listening!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Neeme Järvi Does Stenhammar

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STENHAMMAR: Romeo and Juliette Suite. Reverenza. 2 Sentimental Romances.1 Sången2 / 1Sara Trobäck, vln; 2Charlotte Larsson, sop; 2Martina Dike, alto; 2Lars Cleveman, ten; 2Fredrik Zetterström, bar; 2Norrköpings Musikklasser Children’s Choir; Gothenberg Symphony Orch. & Vocal Ensemble / Bis 2359

I’ve mention before that Neeme Järvi must be counted as one of the greatest conductors of our lifetime, and as CD follows CD I become more convinced of this. Like a handful of others in our time, such as Michael Gielen, Marc Minkowski, Riccardo Muti and, more recently, Marc Albrecht, one notes their complete and total emotional commitment to the music they present, their emphasis on musical structure and their use of imagination in their conducting. This disc of pieces by late-Romantic Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar, who was only 56 when he died in 1927, is yet another triumph for him.

And it’s not as if every piece on this CD is a gem; the point is that every performance is a gem. It starts out with Stenhammar’s incidental music for an impressionist staging of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in which the pared-down scenery and stylized staging were inspired by the Neo-Renaissance movement of the early 1920s. Järvi presents a convincing performance of this lightly-scored music, constantly nudging the beat forward subtly even in the slowest, most delicate passages. It should be noted that this suite was not compiled by the composer, but by Hilding Rosenberg, in 1944. Interestingly, the Gothenberg Symphony adapts itself to Järvi’s characteristic sound, which is a sort of pared-down cousin of the late Georg Solti’s sound, i.e. a fully homogenized blend of sections that are nonetheless heard clearly in perfect balance. The music in this suite is atypical for Stenhammar, being more resolutely tonal and using Renaissance music as a model for his creation. Stylistically, it bears a certain resemblance to the more delicate passages in Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust.

The Romanza for violin and orchestra, originally the second movement of his orchestral Serenade of 1911-13, is a very pretty piece with some features of interest but not a particularly great piece, yet solo violinist Sara Tröback does an excellent job and, again, Järvi handles the music’s delicacy excellently. The same may also be said for the 2 Sentimental Romances. This is the kind of music you normally hear on your local classical music stations.

But the greatest piece is saved for last. Sängen, a symphonic cantata written in 1921, is much more in Stenhammar’s normal, mature style, which was a Romantic aesthetic influenced to a great extent by such composers as Mahler and Scriabin. Though still basically tonal, the harmonies constantly shift chromatically, building up tension and releasing it in a superbly crafted piece. Not a note or gesture is wasted. The text, written by the younger composer Ture Rangström, is sort of an expanded version of the Hymn to Music, creating a mythical figure whose name can mean both song and singing. Of the four soloists, only tenor Lars Cleveman has a somewhat hard-sounding voice, but he can still sing, stylistically and interpretively, and the others are simply wonderful. (Järvi, like Gielen, Minkowski and Albrecht, has a great ear for vocal soloists.) As usual, he brings out the best in the music, conducting with absolute passion; he once said that conducting keeps him young because it is always a journey of discovery that leads him to the heart of every piece. Fortunately, Bis was generous enough to provide me a hard copy of this SACD disc, which reveals much more depth of sound than I usually get from my normal MP3 downloads, and the 3-D effect that Järvi creates in this music is truly astounding.

In all, it’s an interesting disc, primarily for the Romeo suite and Sängen, which are gems.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Cruz-Romo’s Superb “Forza”

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VERDI: La Forza del Destino / Gilda Cruz-Romo, sop (Leonora); Joy Davidson, mezzo (Preziosilla); Franco Bonisolli, ten (Don Alvaro); Kostas Paskalis, bar (Don Carlo); Sesto Bruscantini, bar (Fra Melitone); Cesare Siepi, bass (Padre Guardiano); Manfred Jungwirth, bass (Marchese); Axelle Gall, mezzo (Curra); Kurt Equiluz, ten (Trabucco); Georg Tichy, bar (Un Chirugo); Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, cond. / PUCCINI: Tosca: Recondita armonia; E lucevan le stelle. Madama Butterfly: Dovunque al mondo; Bimba dagli occhi; Addio, fiorito asil / Franco Bonisolli, ten; unidentified bar, sop, cond / Opera Depot OD 10992-3, available at operadepot.com (Forza live: Vienna, September 29, 1974)

Unlike most of his famous operas, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino has not fared well on records. Perhaps the best overall performance was the first recording, made in 1941, with Maria Caniglia, Ebe Stignani as the finest of all Preziosillas, Galliano Masini, Carlo Tagliabue and Tancredi Pasero, conducted by Gino Marinuzzi, but the orchestra plays sloppily and the recording is, sadly, abridged. My own personal favorite performance, up until now, was a live performance from the San Francisco Opera in 1979 with Leontyne Price, Judith Forst, Veriano Luchetti, Renato Bruson and Martti Talvela. Kurt Herbert Adler, a good, experienced music director, conducts a relatively low-key performance, emphasizing the music’s tragedy and darkness rather than its energy, but it works very well in context.

Cruz-Romo as Leonora

Cruz-Romo as Leonora

This surprisingly clear, clean live tape from Vienna in 1974 is an entirely different kettle of fish. Young Riccardo Muti drives a completely idiomatic performance from start to finish, if not quite in the manner of Toscanini at least in the tradition of Marinuzzi or perhaps Gavazzeni. The star of the show, despite the presence of other stellar names, is soprano Gilda Cruz-Romo, a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera in those years who, for whatever reason, never made a single commercial recording, thus souvenirs like this are all we have to remember and treasure what a fantastic artist she was. Cruz-Romo possessed a good-sized lyric spinto that could also, surprisingly, scale itself down to sing Madama Butterfly at times (yes, I heard her sing it in a Met broadcast). In addition to having a good “cut,” the voice was also very beautiful and she possessed a fine trill, something most of her Italian sisters did not have.

Bonisolli

Bonisolli

The rest of the opera is also cast from strength. Tenor Franco Bonisolli had an overweening ego the size of Mount Everest, but unlike his kissin’ cousin Franco Corelli, he sang musically and cleanly and at least tried to present a character onstage. Most people only remember baritone Kostas Paskalis from his one commercial opera recording, the Carmen with Grace Bunbry and Jon Vickers (which I, and a few other critics, thought was absolutely wonderful, but which many thought was somehow sub-par); here, he is a vital and compelling Don Carlo. Basso Cesare Siepi can’t really compare vocally with Martti Talvela as Padre Guardiano, but he’s in surprisingly fine voice for this late date—less wobbly than in the 1950s (his Forza recording with Tebaldi was awful) through the mid-1960s—and interpretively he is superb, with a solid low F at the end of the Guardiano-Melitone duet. Joy Davidson is an excellent Preziosilla with a good cut up top and juicy low notes (shades of Ebe Stignani!), and something that neither Stignani nor Forst had, a good trill (I’ve never heard those trills in her second scene before), though I never liked Preziosilla’s scenes. Yes, I know Verdi was trying to lighten the mood in this otherwise dark opera, but the music goes in one ear and out the other, and it’s too long.

But—and this is the real crux of the matter—Muti pulls the structure of the music together better than anyone, including James Levine, who I heard conduct it in person (with Martina Arroyo, Joanne Grillo, Jon Vickers, Matteo Managuerra, Gabriel Bacquier and Bonaldo Giaiotti, a damn near Golden Age cast) as well as on the even duller RCA recording with Price and Domingo. The only other conductor who comes close to this was young Valery Gergiev, on the outstanding DVD production of the opera, but Muti is even better. He even gets the voices in the muleteer-Preziosilla scenes to blend together like madrigal singers. Even journeyman baritone Georg Tichy sounds good in his bit part. This, folks, is the best-conducted Forza you’ll ever hear in your life. Trust me on this!

Angel Esquivel

Ángel Esquivel

Cruz-Romo sings an absolutely no-holds-barred Leonora, not quite as sumptuous in tone as Arroyo or Price but ten times more intense than either, like Caniglia in overdrive with an even better low range. She pulls off a perfect messa da voce at the end of “Madre, pietosa vergine” the likes of which I’ve never heard before (sadly, Rosa Ponselle never recorded this scene), and manages to float her high notes, particularly in “La vergine degl’angeli” which sounds like a silver halo overhead. Good God, what an artist this woman was! In a 1980 interview published online, Cruz-Romo made it clear that she was “lucky” that all her vocal excellence stemmed from her teacher, baritone Ángel Esquivel: “Teaching is an apostolic job,” Cruz-Romo said.Not everybody can be a teacher…He was not only a teacher, a great teacher, he was a great artist himself, he was a gentleman, and for me he was the father, the adviser, the friend, even a companion.” Esquivel’s career was mostly in the 1910s and ‘20s, and he recorded several Mexican and Spanish songs for Victor in the acoustic era; you can listen to his artistry here.

As for Bonisolli, he combines Italianate passion with fine vocal acting and phrasing that is, to my ears, unique in this role.  Not quite as lyric as di Stefano, he is also not as brusque in his vocal attacks as Tucker or del Monaco, but somewhere in between. Some of his singing is quite astonishing, almost as if he is giving a dramatic reading of the words rather than “just singing” in the conventional sense. He holds the high B-flat in “O tu che in seno agl’angeli” a shade longer than the score directs, but is absolutely chaste compared to that pig Corelli (absolutely the worst musician I ever heard sing tenor…a great voice but nothing between the ears). “Solenne in quest’ora” is sung a bit loudly, not quite as subtle as Luchetti and certainly no match for Vickers, but also has great feeling in it, and he doesn’t milk the high notes as much as Corelli or even Jussi Björling did (in his studio recording of the duet—he never sang the role onstage). Paskalis’ reading of “Morir! tremenda cosà…Urna fatale” is almost on a par with the great Leonard Warren in intensity, and throughout this scene Muti pulls the music together brilliantly and provides orchestral detail that others miss. There is also an extra intensity in “Sleale! Il segreto!” that other conductors (and singers) miss, e.g., the sharply-etched cello triplets in the background (alas, this was one of the scenes omitted from the Masini-Marinucci recording). Even the chorus sounds exciting! Sesto Bruscantini, here in his late years, is a shade fluttery as Fra Melitone but still quite good.

“Invano Alvaro…Le minaccie” is also superb; Bonisolli has a “bite” in his voice here that reminded me of Giovanni Martinelli, and Paskalis is appropriately menacing. Needless to say, Cruz-Romo sings the messa da voce at the beginning of “Pace, pace mio Dio” perfectly, as she always did, and accents the words beautifully, becoming incredibly passionate towards the end of the aria. The ensuing duet with Don Alvaro is equally passionate, the final trio simply radiant. Cruz-Romo’s soft high note is plucked out of the air, almost as perfectly as Ponselle sang it in her 1928 recording.

The excerpts from Tosca (an opera I couldn’t care less for) and Madama Butterfly by Bonisolli, unlike the complete Forza, are recorded from audience level with a personal tape recorder, so the sound is not optimum. Bonisolli sings well, but there is some strain in the voice not evident in the Forza, and at this point his style had become sloppier and he was hanging onto his high notes much longer. The conductors in neither performance are named, nor are the baritone and soprano in the Butterfly excerpts. The latter also have an overly-bright, brittle sound. I couldn’t identify the snarling, wobbly baritone at all. The soprano has a firmer voice with a nice, girlish sound and very musical styling, but with the sound distorted like this I couldn’t tell who it was. Opera Depot, however, features a 2-CD set of excerpted Bonisolli performances, and it looks as if these same tracks are on there, naming Jeanette Pilou as Cio-Cio-San and Eberhard Wächter as Sharpless (no conductor, from Vienna in 1977). I’ll bet that’s who they are.

And here’s the best part: for this week only, this recording is available at Opera Depot as a FREE download just for signing up to receive their email announcements. Believe me, it’s worth it. This is a Forza for the ages.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Delan Sings Dickinson Songs

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A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT / COPLAND: 8 Poems of Emily Dickinson. HEGGIE: Newer Every Day. GETTY: 4 Dickinson Songs. TILSON THOMAS: Poems of Emily Dickinson (selections) / Lisa Delan, sop; Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille; Lawrence Foster, cond / Pentatone 5186 634

Lisa Delan, a fine concert soprano who is also part of the Gordon Getty Foundation, presents here a multi-composer program of songs based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson. The surprises here, to me, were the songs of Jake Heggie and Michael Tilson Thomas; I hadn’t known that the latter was a song composer at all.

As usual, Delan’s voice has a very sweet tone, outstanding interpretation and good diction, although the slight flutter in her voice takes some getting used to. (I say this only to inform those who may not have heard her, not as a condemnation.) Conductor Lawrence Foster, whose tempi tend towards the slow side, is nonetheless fully in his element here, bringing out the crystalline clarity and simplicity of Aaron Copland’s orchestration, particularly in the opening song, “Nature, the gentle mother.” Some of the settings, such as “Going to heaven,” struck me as a bit glib, but that was Copland’s style at the time.

Jake Heggie, a composer I generally dislike, has written some very fine music for the Dickinson songs here (“Silence,” “I’m Nobody! Who are you?,” “Fame,” “That I Did Already Love” and “Goodnight”), and although Delan’s high range seems a bit stretched beyond its limits in “Fame,” she does an excellent job on them. The last song is particularly lovely in form and expression. I recall hearing a Dickinson song cycle from around 2000, recorded on a small label by Renée Fleming, that wasn’t nearly as good as this.

Yet as good as the Heggie and Copland songs are, Getty’s little cycle (it runs less than seven minutes) is even better, and his orchestration of these pieces even outdoes his piano accompaniments. Delan’s singing is just as good here as on her earlier, piano-accompanied recording (Pentatone 5186 459), but the orchestra gives the sound more depth and color, and Foster conducts them with great feeling.

Tilson Thomas’ cycle is considerably more modern, and spikier in harmony, than any of the preceding songs, yet the melodic lines sung by the soprano are tonal and somehow fit into the surrounding texture. This is especially evident in the fairly long orchestral introduction to “The Bible,” a song evidently inspired by the Age of Enlightenment as well as by the Universalist movement in New England at the time. Tilson Thomas’ setting, however, is marvelous, holding one’s interest from start to finish, and in toto this cycle is fascinating in a sort of echt-Hindemith style. A pity, then, that it was not recorded complete, particularly since there was obviously room on the CD to include further songs from it.

One thing that struck me was how well-programmed this music was, starting from the simple, lyrical music of Copland and working its way towards more complex settings. This gives the recital a feeling of progression that is seldom achieved. A very fine CD!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Steven Taetz Delights in Charming New CD

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DRINK YOU IN / LICA-TAETZ: Drink You In.3,5,8 JOHNSON-TAETZ: Meet Me in Montreal.1,8 TAETZ: Lately.6 JURECKA-TAETZ: Other Side of the World.3,7,8 SONDHEIM: The Little Things You Do Together.4,5 BRAZDA-FREEDMAN-TAETZ: Forgotten How to Say Goodbye.2,6,7 COHEN-ROBINSON: Everybody Knows.4,5,8 BART: Oom-Pah-Pah.LAUREN-TAETZ: We Never Kissed Goodbye.5,6 DeLUGG-STEIN: Orange Colored Sky. TAETZ: So This is Love3,6,9 / Steven Taetz, 1Sonia Johnson, 2Tia Brazda, voc; 3Kevin Turcotte, 4John Macleod, 4Steve McDade, tpt; 4Rob Somerville, tb; 5Drew Jurecka, a-sax/cl; 4Pat La Barbera, t-sax; 4Bob DeAngelis, bar-sax; Ewen Farncombe, 6Adrean Farrugia, pno/cel; 7Carissa Neufeld, vib; 8Nathan Hiltz, gtr; Søren Nissen, bs; Ernesto Cervini, 9Andrew Miller, dm; strings & 1bandoneon / Flatcar Records (no number)

I generally run from jazz-lounge singers like the plague—and trust me, I get a ton of their CDs on spec to review, and turn 98% of them down—but Canadian Steven Taetz sings out most of the time, his backup band really swings, and let me tell you, the title track is an instant classic, funny as well as hip. If this doesn’t suck you in, you have no sense of humor and no appreciation for really hip lounge jazz.

In addition to his songwriting skills, Taetz has a very unusual voice, particularly in the jazz world: a very high, light tenor with an extensive high range and no touch of the baritone about it. Think of a very hip-sounding Dennis Day, or Wayne Newton in his younger days, and you’ll have some idea of his sound. It could almost be confused, in the first track, for a mezzo-soprano, but when you hear him sing along female singer Sonia Johnson in Meet Me in Montreal you can tell the difference. (With training, Taetz could easily sing those high tenorino roles in Italian operas.)

I was also happy to hear that Taetz doesn’t lay too heavily on the ballads, the bane of my existence as a jazz reviewer, and when he does sing one, i.e. Lately, his delivery sounds eerily like the late Chet Baker, in my mind the greatest of all white jazz balladeers. And it’s not just that Taetz has a great natural sense of jazz time in his singing; it’s his phrasing, too. Listen to the phrase, “Tell me, lover, where are you?” in the latter song, for instance. His voice rides the beat with unerring jazz feeling. Taetz is truly hip. I could listen to him sing all night long.

True, his isn’t a groundbreaking style—it’s the tried-and-true style harking back to Sinatra or Mel Tormé—but he’s so good at it, it doesn’t have to be, and his backup band is consistently swinging and hip, including a delicious Charlie Byrd-like guitar solo on Other Side of the World all those Chet Baker-like trumpet solos here and there. And the tight rhythm section. The little pauses he inserts between notes on The Little Things You Do Together are just perfect, and as good an example as any of why I love his delivery. His duet partners, Sonia Johnson and Tia Brazda, are also quite good, Johnson having the better voice but Brazda the hipper delivery.

Taetz gives us a different spin on Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows, upping the tempo and giving it a jazz swing, and Lionel Bart’s Oom-Pah-Pah is given the Django Reinhart-Stéphane Grappelli Hot Club treatment with Nathan Hiltz on guitar and a sadly unidentified hot violinist. [Update: Ernesto Cervini, the media publicist for this album as well as one of the drummers, has informed me that the violin solo is by Drew Jurecks, who produced the album and plays ALL of the strings on it.] Honestly, Taetz can outswing Harry Connick, Jr. any day of the week. Taetz also channels Nat “King” Cole in his cover version of Orange-Colored Sky but does it his own way, singing out a bit more and giving the song a triplet feel in the rhythm section.

Drink You In is scheduled for release on September 28. Look for it, buy it, enjoy it. This disc is a sheer delight from start to finish.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Brecker Gets Together With the UMO Jazz Orchestra

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TOGETHER / HOLMQUIST: One Million Circumstances. Summer and Winter. All My Things. My Stella. Always Young. EVANS-LIVINGSTON: Never Let Me Go. COREA: Windows. Crystal Silence. Humpty Dumpty / Randy Brecker, tpt with the UMO Jazz Orchestra: Teemu Matsson, Timo Paasonen, Mikko Pettinen, Tero Saarti, Jakob Gudmundsson, Janne Toivonen, tpt/fl-hn; Heikki Tuhkahnen, Mikko Mustonen, Juho Viljanen, tb; Mikael Längbacka, bs-tb; Ville Vannemaa, a-sax/s-sax/cl; Mikko Mäkinen, a-sax/s-sax/cl/fl; Teemu Salminen, t-sax/cl; Max Zenger, t-sax/fl; Pepa Pävinen, bar-sax/fl; Mikel Ulfberg, gtr; Seppo Kantonen, pno; Juho Kivivuori, bs; Markus Ketola, dm / Mama Records 1056

Trumpeter Randy Brecker was contacted by Mats Holmquist, leader of Finland’s UMO Jazz Orchestra, about collaborating on this project, and readily agreed. By and large, the charts are generic modern big-band style, nothing particularly innovative in form or orchestration, but Brecker is absolutely outstanding.

From the first notes of his first solo on One Million Circumstances, Brecker is clearly operating on DC current while the band coasts smoothly along behind him. Nothing he plays is trite or uninteresting; every solo crackles with brilliance and innovation. He sounds 30 years old all over again. Yet the effect is rather like listening to Freddie Hubbard on a really hot night playing with a cool-school orchestra. Granted, the band’s ensemble is tight and the soloists are not uninteresting—even pianist Seppo Kantonen plays well-crafted and interesting lines—but the music is just too cool for what Brecker is doing. Yes, there are some interesting ensemble passages in these arrangements, but again, they’re pretty routine whereas Brecker is anything but.

In Summer and Winter, we hear a pretty good trombone solo by Heikki Tuhkanene, and Mikko Pettinen is also heard on trumpet, yet once again it’s Brecker who steals the show. Even his relaxed, rather low-key flugelhorn solo on Never Let Me Go is the most interesting part of this track. The arrangement of Holmquist’s All My Things has some interesting features, including staccato trumpet figures played rapidly against the lead line, yet time and again the greatest jazz playing on them is by Brecker. My Stella, as it turns out, is really Victor Young’s famous song Stella By Starlight rearranged by Holmquist. Again, the arrangement has some interesting features about it, but the orchestra’s playing is so cool and emotionally detached that, again, it’s Brecker who stands out.

A somewhat mixed bag, then; recommended for Brecker fans.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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