A 1974 Liederfest at Salzburg

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SCHUMANN: Spanisches Liederspiel. BRAHMS: Liebeslieder Waltzes / Edith Mathis, sop; Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo; Peter Schreier, ten; Walter Berry, bar; Erik Werba *& Paul Schilhawsky, pno / Orfeo C 953 181B (live: Salzburg, August 25, 1974)

The tape from which this CD was made came from a somewhat intimate lieder evening late in the 1974 Salzburg Festival. As noted in the booklet, end-of-festival concerts such as this tend to be poorly attended as the audience that came for the opera productions have mostly already left, yet the Wiener Zeitung gave it a glowing review. Here it is at last in a commercial issue.

Neither set of songs call for deep interpretations. Schumann’s Spanish Song Book, of which I was formerly unaware (having been immersed in the Wolf version for so many decades), consists of light songs clearly written for entertainment value. Of the nine songs, only two are solos, “Melancolie” for contralto and “Geständnis” for the tenor, the rest being duets and quartets. The star singers involved worked hard to blend their voices though Edith Mathis’ heady, vibrant voice has a hard time fully blending with the smooth tones of the other three. I’m not saying this as a criticism of Mathis, whose singing I’ve greatly admired over the decades (much more so than her counterpart in light soprano roles at the time, Helen Donath, who to me was a singer without much purpose). When she gets a long solo stretch, as in the duet “In der Nacht” with Peter Schreier, she sings expressively indeed, but blending with other voices was a problem for her just as it was for such similarly “heady” sopranos as Marcella Sembrich, Gré Brouwenstijn and Cristina Deutekom, all of which I admired yet none of which could drain the vibrato from their voices even in soft passages.

There’s nice natural “space” around the voices that aids in the listening experience. I have it on good authority from someone who heard him in person that Schreier’s voice was very small, yet in an intimate setting such as this he seems to have no problem holding his own against such larger voices as those of Fassbaender and Berry, both of whom sang Verdi and Wagner in addition to Mozart. The two solo songs are clearly the highlights of the set, with Fassbaender sounding quite imperial and commanding with her big, powerful mezzo voice and Schreier’s great intelligence in phrasing making much of “In der Nacht.” It should, perhaps, be pointed out that Erik Werba was a particular favorite of Schreier’s. “Botschaft” is particularly well suited to Mathis’ voice with its leaps and scale runs.

This performance of the famed Liebeslieder Waltzes reminded me of the live version from the 1960s with Heather Harper, Janet Baker, Peter Pears and Thomas Hemsley, accompanied by Benjamin Britten and Claudio Arrau, except that, this being Vienna, they take some of the music at a slower clip and introduce more rubato into the proceedings, which damages the structure of the series somwwhat. Schreier’s voice is prettier in tone than Pears’ if not as richly blended. Much to my surprise, Mathis seems to blend a little better here than she did in the Schumann cycle. The quartet does a particularly wonderful job with “Ein kleiner, hübscher Vogel.”

An interesting release, then, recommended for fans of the solo singers.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Lester Leaps In – But Can You Find Him?

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LESTER LEAPS IN / YOUNG: Lester Leaps In. Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid. D.B. Blues. MASCHWITZ-STRACHEY: These Foolish Things. RUBY-KALMAR: Three Little Words. JOHNSON-BURKE: Pennies From Heaven. VAN HEUSEN-BURKE: Polka Dots and Moonbeams. HANLEY-MacDONALD: Indiana. YOUNG-WASHINGTON: A Ghost of a Chance. FINCKEL: Up an’ Atom. TRAD.: Blues in G. YOUMANS-CAESAR: Tea for Two / Lester Young, t-sax with various personnel as listed below / Storyville/High Res Audio 2XHDST1117,  available as a FLAC lossless download HERE.

This fine but maddeningly elusive CD features extremely interesting live performances by Lester Young from the period 1951-56. It is ostensibly issued by Storyville Records, but you can’t find it on their website because they’re not distributing it—they merely gave High Res Audio the license to issue it. It appears to be culled from other Storyville CDs by Young, but this version of Lester Leaps In, for one, is considerably different from the one on Storyville’s own 2-CD set issued earlier and reviewed on this blog. Thankfully, High Res Audio provided a copy of the booklet online or I’d never know who was playing what; the inlay from the CD is reproduced below so you can tell who the musicians are:

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Judging from the sound quality, High Res Audio does pretty much what I do to clean up defective old records: they remove as much extraneous noise as possible, boost the treble so that the recordings sound brighter and more natural, and then add a judicious amount of reverb. This gives these old broadcasts a sound not unlike Norman Granz’ Clef (later Verve) records of the late 1940s-early ‘50s. These included Charlie Parker’s best-sounding commercial recordings as well as the spectacular and long-running Art Tatum series. Where High Res Audio’s more sophisticated equipment is an improvement on mine (I just have a little $50 computer program) is in removing the artifact noise without leaving any sonic residue. Indiana sounds particularly good and natural.

As to the performances, they are very good Lester Young if not quite as consistent as his earlier recordings (from the Count Basie period through at least Blue Lester) or the 1952 studio recordings. He plays very nicely, and in fact I’ve never heard his tone sound as good as it does here, but he sometimes seems to coast through tunes, i.e. These Foolish Things, while playing in a much more innovative way on others (such as Three Little Words). One person who really impressed me was trumpeter Jesse Drakes (misspelled here as Drake). Drakes (1924-2010) was a trumpeter who had hung out at Minton’s Playhouse in the early 1940s and later studied music at Juilliard. After playing with such fine musicians as Sid Catlett, J.C. Heard, Eddie Heywood and Sarah Vaughan, he became Young’s trumpet player of choice in his early-‘50s small groups. I really liked his crackling tone and sparkling if not wholly original bebop lines. Drakes later joined King Curtis and played more R&B than jazz. There are no photos of him available online and no one knows exactly when he died; his body, already decaying, was found in his New York apartment on May 1, 2010. (Yeah, I know, too much information.) Interestingly, there are a few hints of R&B style in Young’s solo on this one.

Up an AtomHigh Res Audio apparently doesn’t have a pitch corrector, because there is consistently wavering pitch throughout A Ghost of a Chance which gets on your nerves pretty quickly, despite the fact that Young plays very well on it. Up an’ Atom, attributed to Young, was actually written by Eddie Finckel for the Gene Krupa band (see record label).

All in all, a good if not indispensable Lester Young album. Though if you want to hear him in fairly good sound it’s worth getting.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Schreier Turns Mozart Lieder Into Schubert

Schreier Mozart

MOZART: An Chloe. An die Hoffnung. An die Einsamkeit. Das Lied der Trennung. Wie unglücklich bin ich nit. Dans un bois solitaire. Lied zur Gesellenreise. Die ihr des unermesslichen Weltalls Schöpfer ehrt. Die betrogene Welt. Die Zufriedenheit. Die Verschweigung. Komm, liebe Zither.* Das Veilchen. Das Traumbild. Abendempfindung. Sehnsucht nach dem Frühlinge. Im Frühlingsanfang. Das Kinderspiel. Die Zufriedenheit.* Lied der Freiheit / Peter Schreier, ten; Erik Werba, pno/*zither / Belvedere Edition 08022

As a follow-up to their reissue of Peter Schreier’s superb recording of Brahms’ Die Schöne Magelone, Belvedere Edition has released this album of Mozart lieder. Unlike the former, which was recorded in the studio in 1997, this album comes from a live recital in Salzburg in 1978 when the tenor was still at the height of his powers. This is immediately apparent from the opening track, An Chloe, where his voice sounds more easily produced, less reliant on art and more “open” in his approach—which is not to knock the Brahms cycle, which is magnificent, only to emphasize the fresher quality of his voice.

The performances also benefit from the live setting in that Schreier sounds more relaxed and therefore more able to introduce subtleties into his singing. I really love the more modern CD of Mozart songs by the somewhat little-know tenor Werner Güra with Christoph Berner playing fortepiano: they have a spontaneity about them that I find irresistible, and sound almost as if he were singing popular songs of the 18th century. Schreier is immeasurably more artistic, but in a certain sense the approach reflects an earlier, pre-historically-informed style. Now, my readers know that I dislike a lot of HIP performances, but when the result sounds natural and unmannered, I respond to it very well, and that was my reaction to the Güra disc. Nonetheless, one wonders if approaching Mozart songs as if they were by Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms is really what Mozart had in mind. His music had a simpler, more direct feel, albeit with bel canto sensibilities (listen to the old recording of tenor Alessandro Bonci’s Das Veilchen for an example of what I mean), yet a few songs into this recital and you’re hooked by the way Schreier sings them. It’s a very different sort of aesthetic, like Jon Vickers singing Purcell; perhaps not authentic, but the way it comes out is great in its own unique way.

A good example is his performance of Das Lied der Trennung. Taken at a more relaxed tempo than we’re used to hearing it today, Schreier also introduces little rubato touches—not enough to damage the line, but you keep wondering if this is what Mozart had in mind. Yet you still respond to it because it’s just so damn artistic.

I should also point out Schreier’s similarities to and differences from Fischer-Dieskau. Whereas the great baritone sometimes over-accented words in an effort to make the text sound as if it were being presented by a great poetry reader, Schreier consistently maintains a more legato line. This may seem a small thing, but a side-by-side comparison of the two singers shows how this makes the music sound a bit different. Within the limits of his small voice, Schreier also “opens up” more, for instance in Dans un bois solitaire. My sole complaint is that he doesn’t sing the mordents in Die Zufriedenheit very well, surprising for a tenor who specialized in Mozart.

So this may be non-authentic Mozart lieder, but it’s certainly very interesting.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Schreier’s “Die Schöne Magelone” Reissued

Brahms Schreier

BRAHMS: Die Schöne Magelone / Peter Schreier, ten; András Schiff, pno; Gerd Westphal, narr / Belvedere Edition 08001

Belvedere Edition is an indie label that apparently deals in reissues, like its cousin Brilliant Classics, and here they have given us a fascinating performance of Brahms’ song-cycle-with-narrator which is the closest he ever came to writing an opera. Considering the very high quality of the music, I’m surprised that no one has thought of orchestrating it and putting it on as a monodrama, except that I’m frightened to think what some idiot director nowadays would do with it.

My preferred version of this work was the 2013 recording by the great tenor Daniel Behle with pianist Sveinung Bjelland, an album that includes the piece two ways: first, just the songs without any narration (plus extra songs), then the songs with abridged narration on a second CD. This particular recording, originally made in 1997 and first issued by Belvedere in 2015, only includes the work with the narration, but all of Tieck’s prose is included. This, of course, can be heavy going for the non-German-speaking listener. This is one instance where I firmly believe that the narration should be given in the vernacular of each regional audience.

Those who have heard the Behle recording will know that his voice is much more beautiful than late-period Schreier, whose somewhat dry, sandpapery timbre became a bit drier with age. They will also know that Behle interpreted the songs quite well, but in this respect Schreier had the edge. He sang every song just a bit slower than Behle, yet within that time-frame one hears just that much more subtlety and “acting with the voice, and much to my surprise his voice retained the ability to “ring” in the upper register. Yes, he had a very small voice, but what he did with it is almost uncanny. Of course, the sonics helped him here: both he and narrator Gerd Westphal, who did an absolutely beautiful job, were absolutely swathed in reverb. But no matter: it’s the aesthetic result that matters, and here we have the classic argument of the less naturally attractive voice giving the deeper performance.

This is not in any way to demean Behle’s achievement. His recording is very fine, and by abridging the spoken narration he managed to fit his performance onto one CD, the second disc comprising just the songs without narration plus six extra Brahms lieder. Because of the slightly slower pace plus the complete narration, Schreier and company needed to spread it over two CDs to get it in, running 97 minutes (nearly 20 more than Behle).

The piano accompaniment is also a bit different. Schiff, as we all know, is primarily a very lyrical pianist who tries to make the piano “sing” in the manner of Alfred Cortot, though he doesn’t quite have Cortot’s warm, deep-in-the-keys touch. He caresses each lyric phrase lovingly without slipping into pathos or bathos. Due to his approach, plus the very nice, soft-grained approach to the narration, the whole work greets the ear lovingly, and Schreier enlivens most of his phrases with his customary rhythmic incisiveness.

Indeed, despite the length of the performance, I really enjoyed it because of its overall warmth of the narration and Schreier’s wonderfully detailed singing. This one is a gem.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Christopher Trapani’s “Waterlines”

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WATERLINES / TRAPANI: Waterlines: 5 Songs About Storms & Floods / Lucy Dhegrae, voc; Talea Ensemble; James Baker, cond / Passing Through, Staying Put / Longleash / Visions and Revisions / JACK Quartet / The Silence of a Falling Star Lights Up a Purple Sky / Marilyn Nonken, pno / Cognitive Consonance / Didem Başar, quanûn; Christopher Trapani, hexaphonic el-gtr; Talea Ensemble / New Focus Recordings FCR 200

Christopher Trapani is a composer who enjoys working in microtonal and other non-traditional tuning systems. His music uses a wide range of instruments that can produce such sounds, particularly strings (and, in the opening work, the human voice) as well as his “hexaphonic” electric guitar and the quanûn, in fact two quanûns, the second a microtonal instrument devised by Frenchman Julian Jalâl Eddine Weiss. This quanûn uses a system of 15 accidentals based on a Pythagorean system in each of its strings. Pretty out-there stuff!

In addition, the opening work, inspired by the devastation that befell New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (caused, at least in part, by FEMA’s ill-advised decision to break the levees, which poured thousands of gallons of water on an already-flooded city), uses the inspiration of Delta blues records made in the late 1920s in the aftermath of the 1927 Mississippi River flood. The end result is a strange mixture of the blues, with its bent notes within an essentially diatonic scale, sung against the sliding microtonalism of the Talea Ensemble. The opening song, I Can’t Feel at Home, sounds only somewhat strange through its first half, but the downward gravitic pull of the shifting harmonics eventually affect one’s mood and the character of the music. By the second song, Wild Water Blues, we clearly aren’t in Kansas anymore. I was a bit put off by what seemed to me a bit of rock influence, but the music clearly encapsulates a feeling of panic and helplessness in the midst of disaster. Trapani cleverly vacillates between tonal, blues and microtonal modes throughout the suite; in Poor Boy Blues, he tosses in a lick from Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer. In Falling Rain Blues, he introduces a sound like an old 78-rpm record scratch in the background of the opening music. It’s a very interesting piece. Singer Lucy Dhegrae has a pure soprano voice with good diction, but clearly doesn’t sound like a Delta blues singer despite her blues inflections.

The short piano trio, Passing Through, Staying Put, uses downward chromatic string portamento against the piano, playing four-note chords using “voice-leading principles.” It’s interesting music but not particularly cogent to my ears. In the string quartet Visions and Revisions, microtonalism seems to meet a bluegrass sensibility, based on a Bob Dylan song titled Visions of Johanna. Essentially, the music sounds like a string quartet that is falling apart, with the players trying desperately to replace the strings as they break.

Next comes the atonal piano piece, The Silence of a Falling Star Lights Up a Purple Sky, its strange progression somehow meant to convey the sadness felt in the death of country legend Hank Williams. The pianist apparently plays a prepared piano, as there is a lot of string-twanging involved.

Cognitive Consonance is a tighter-constructed piece, written for a diverse group of instruments including the afore-mentioned quanûns (one the standard trapezoidal zither, the second the “prepared” microtonal instrument) and Trapani himself on “hexaphonic electric guitar.” The music sounds somewhat disjointed because of the microtonal base but is in fact very well- constructed. A third of the way through part 2, “Westering,” the music takes on an almost Indian feel. This is an exceptionally creative piece, and I really liked it.

A strange album, then, with some really remarkable music in it. Definitely worth hearing!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Joining Stéphane Spira in his New Playground

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NEW PLAYGROUND / SPIRA: Peter’s Run. Gold Ring Variations – New York Windows intro. New York Windows. Underground Ritual. Nocturne (Song for my Son). New Playground. Kaleidoscope. Solid Wood / Stéphane Spira, s-sax; Joshua Richman, pno/Fender Rhodes; Steve Wood, bs; Jimmy MacBride, dm / Jazzmax JM80403

Stéphane Spira is a self-taught musician. He pursued an engineering degree, spent some time as an engineer in Saudi Arabia, then headed back to his hometown of Paris to pursue music full-time. Quite an interesting background!

A traditionalist, Spira’s music and playing are both very centrist in style, but great fun to listen to. He is not, however, so much a swing or hard bop player as sort of a ‘60s cool-school sort of guy, and his compositions employ several of the traits one hears in a lot of modern jazz nowadays, i.e., somewhat modal construction and amorphous melodic lines, but lyricism and swinging are prominent features of both his writing and his playing.

Indeed, Spira’s tone is one of his finest features. I’ve heard a great many soprano saxists in recent years, but none who play the instrument with the liquid richness that Spira draws from his instrument. Just listen to him in the Gold Ring Variations, for instance, and you’ll be struck by the richness of his sound, almost like an alto sax. And on this track he is particularly inventive. In addition, the relaxation of his playing rubs off on his bandmates; only pianist Richman gets really busy in his solos, although not so much that he spoils the delicate balance that is set up.

Indeed, as one listens to this CD, one is not so much aware of individual compositions so much as what seems like a continuous flow of music that is interrelated, like a suite, and it is this conception that imbues all of the music, although Underground Ritual and New Playground have their own sort of funky jazz vibe that I liked very much. Oddly, the one thing I did not care for was Wood’s bowed solo in Nocturne; not that the note-choices were poor, but his tone sounded a bit sour to me. I did, however, like all of his pizzicato solos. Solid Wood, the most uptempo number on the CD, makes a fine finish.

A very nice album, perfect for summertime jazz listening.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Danny Bacher is Back!

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STILL HAPPY / BURKE-LESLIE: Getting Some Fun out of Life. BRIAND-SABAN: Laughing at Life. BACHER: In Spite of This, I’m Still Happy. Joie de Vivre. BERLIN: Shakin’ the Blues Away. WHITING-MERCER: Hooray for Hollywood. BERNSTEIN-COMDEN-GREEN: Lucky to Be Me. JOBIM-DeMORAES: This Happy Madness. BROWN-HENDRICKS: Joy Spring. MOROSS/LaTOUCHE: Lazy Afternoon. ARLEN-KOEHLER: Get Happy. Medley; BEIDERBECKE: Cloudy/REINHARDT: Nuages / Danny Bacher, sop-sax/voc; Charles Carnicas, tpt/Fl-hn; Harry Allen, t-sax; Allen Farnham, pno; Dean Johnson, bs; Alvester Garnett, dm; Rolando Morales-Matos, perc / Whaling City Sound WCS110

When I reviewed Danny Bacher’s previous CD, Swing That Music, in May 2016, I begged him to never change his repertoire or lose his enthusiasm for jazz. We desperately need more people like him in the jazz world to provide a light, fun alternative to all the heavy and serious material out there.

He surely has. In case you haven’t heard him, Bacher is a jazzier, more swinging version of Harry Connick, Jr. He has a nice, light tenor voice, can scat like mad, and in addition plays an absolutely wonderful soprano sax. I’ve flirted with the thought that he and Chloe Feoranzo should do an album together. What do you think, Danny, hmmm? And remember, she can sing in addition to playing wonderful clarinet and tenor sax.

On this album, Bacher’s back-up band is even hotter and more inventive than his previous one, and that’s saying quite a lot. The band and Bacher kick into high gear right off the bat with Getting Some Fun out of Life, and even when he brings the tempo down in Briand’s Laughing at Life, he keeps right on swinging. I absolutely loved Allen Farnham’s arrangements on this disc, with co-arranging assistance from Bacher; they have a nice form while keeping the solo spots open. Bach’s soprano is first heard on this second track, and he sounds nothing like Sidney Bechet or Coltrane, but rather more like Johnny Hodges from the years when he played soprano (which, unfortunately for jazz, he stopped around the mid-1940s because it was too hard for him to keep the “fish horn,” as it was referred to in those days, in tune while playing on the road with the Ellington band).

Bacher adds so many little touches to his vocals (little grace notes and turns, among others) that you just have to hear them to appreciate his jazz chops. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard him singing Shakin’ the Blues Away, one of my all-time favorite Irving Berlin songs (strangely, misattributed in the album inlay to someone named “Chuck,” but sorry, it’s an Irving Berlin song, recorded in 1927 by both Paul Whiteman and vocalist-drummer Tom Stacks with the Cliquot Club Eskimos). Bacher slows it down from its originally fast tempo to a medium clip, but it still swings, with a wonderful plunger solo by Charles Canricas, a nice tenor solo by Harry Allen and Dean Johnson on bass.

And I absolutely loved the way Bacher updated the lyrics to Hooray for Hollywood to reflect our more modern “sin city” while still making us laugh. He also does a very “cozy” version of Lucky to Be Me, and his bop original Joie de Vivre features scat vocals-with-trumpet that are simply infectious, and I loved the way trumpeter Carnicas picked up on the last lick in Allen’s solo to launch his own. Interestingly, Bacher’s scat vocal on this one sounded amazingly like Ella Fitzgerald, while in Lazy Afternoon he seems to be channeling Sheila Jordan!

There are more ballads on this album than there were on his earlier album but, as I say, he and the band make them swing, which is the important item to consider. Clifford Brown’s Joy Spring is shifted a bit in rhythm from a sort of calypso-bop piece to a swing tune, but is wonderful nonetheless. Get Happy is given a calypso-beat treatment. Bix Beiderbecke’s spuriously-attributed tune Cloudy leads into a beautiful, wistful rendition of Django Reinhardt’s famous Nuages to wrap things up. What more can I say? It’s a Danny Bacher album, and it’s wonderful!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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