Mark Masters Plays With Jazz Masters

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OUR MÉTIER / MASTERS: Borne Towards the Stars. 51 West 51st Street. Lift. Ingvild’s Dance. A Précis of Dialogue. Dispositions of the Heart. Obituary. Luminescence. In Our Time. Our Métier / Mark Masters Ensemble: Scott Englebright, Les Lovitt, tpt; Ryan Dragon, Les Benedict, Dave Woodley, tb; Jerry Pinter, t-sax/s-sax; Kirsten Edkins, a-sax; Bob Carr, bar-sax/bs-cl; Stephanie O’Keefe, Fr-hn; Anna Mjöll, voc; Ed Czach, pno; Craig Fundyga, vib. Sextet: Tim Hagans, tpt; Gary Foster, Oliver Lake, a-sax; Mark Turner, t-sax; Putter Smith, bs; Andrew Cyrille, dm / Capri Records 74150

Jazz composer-arranger Mark Masters, a graduate of Riverside City College and California State University, is also president of the board of directors at the American Jazz Institute in Los Angeles. He was, apparently, a trumpeter or trombonist (unspecified on Wikipedia or in the liner notes) who gave up active playing to become a composer-arranger back in the 1980s. In this very ambitious project, he has combined the soft textures of his own 12-piece ensemble (if one includes vocalist Anna Mjöll) with a hand-picked sextet that includes the well-known saxists Gary Foster and Oliver Lake (formerly of the World Saxophone Quartet).

The result is, as the publicity sheet describes it, “free-bop.” Yet the music has far more structure than the usual avant-garde you hear nowadays, and Masters admits that he wrote these compositions specifically for the musicians involved here. My lone caveat is that Mjöll is one of these breathy no-voice singers that modern-day left coast musicians seem to think are jazzy, so when I hear her in the ensemble I just tune her out. (Earth to Left Coast: it doesn’t matter if they swing or not, they’re just lounge singers with a beat, not jazz singers. Even Jackie Cain sang with a better tone than this when she blended her voice with the Charlie Ventura Orchestra. Thank you.) Otherwise, the compositions and arrangements are superb.

In a certain sense, Masters’ ensemble sound is like many of the cool jazz ensembles of the 1950s and ‘60s led by Allyn Ferguson (a sadly forgotten name nowadays), Clare Fischer or even Stan Kenton. It has a rich, mellow blend, achieved by having the trumpets play in their middle register much of the time and blending a French horn in with the trombones. The texture isn’t wholly original, but it is refreshing and enjoyable to hear, and Masters scores the, beautifully, using unusual chord positions to achieve his timbral blends.

Interestingly, Masters spots his soloists very carefully within the ensemble. In fact, the structure of the compositions and arrangements that command your attention; the solos, fine as they are, are icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Some of Lake’s solos sounded wrong in context to me; they’d have been fine within the WSQ, but not here, where he disrupts the harmonic balance. Otherwise, all is well. Order and form are the dominant features, and in this specific context Gary Foster works more congruently. Ingvild’s Dance is a cute jazz waltz, while A Précis of Dialogue is the most abstract piece on the album—and here, Lake fits in much better. We return to form and structure in the ethereal Dispositions of the Heart, and a bebop feel again in Obituary. We then move into an ethereal space with the odd melodic line and close harmonies of Luminescence, again marred by breathy-girl’s vocal. This one sounded like some of the spacier Sauter-Finegan scores of the ‘50s, though the rhythm coalesces in the second half.

In Our Time returns us to spaciness, here with an even more irregular beat and modern accents while the finale, which is the album’s title track, combines an outside-jazz sort of jazz waltz with 4/4. It is clearly one of the album’s highlights, and no vocal (thank goodness).

All in all, an impressive outing for Masters as a jazz writer.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Ethan Ardelli Discovers “The Island of Form”

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THE ISLAND OF FORM / ARDELLI: Agua. Les Calanques. The Serpentine Path. 5:55 a.m. Dunraven. Thanks for Something. Shangri-La Pearl / Luis Deniz, a-sax; Chris Donnelly, pno; Devon Henderson, bs; Ethan Ardelli, dm / Toronto Arts Council, no number

It has suddenly struck me how many jazz combos nowadays, particularly the ones I like most, seem to be led by Drummers: Matt Wilson, Ernesto Cervini, Devin Gray and, here, Ethan Ardelli. This is a far cry from the past, when usually the only drummer-leaders were really famous names like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich. When a former sideman-drummer eventually led a group, as Joe Morello did, it didn’t gain much traction and didn’t make recordings. Just a thought.

In the publicity sheet, Ardelli is noted for being “a cultural omnivore,” seeking out inspiration from a wide musical spectrum, “from foreign and art films to classical composition and music from around the world – in particular the music of Cuba.” Yet his Cuban influence is clearly filtered through his strong grounding in formal composition, which is all to the better. Ardelli’s music has form and structure; it says something; and it goes wherever his muse, and the muses of his talented bandmates, lead him.

In this, his debut CD, Ardelli gives us a fine mixture of influences, to which I might suggest also includes the music of Charles Mingus, another eclectic composer who constantly combined classical form with jazz orchestration. There are moments when alto saxist Luis Deniz goes out on limbs that he can’t quite climb back onto the tree from, so he just stops, but at least he has the good sense to do that. Pianist Donnelly seems to be a somewhat cool player with a good sense of structure, which counterbalances Deniz, while Ardelli—like the drummer-leaders mentioned in the first paragraph—pushes the rhythmic envelope with complex rhythms and patterns that underscore his quartet’s playing. It’s a good mixture.

Ardelli also has a fine ear for programming, contrasting somewhat uptempo pieces like the opening Agua with the slow, suspenseful Les Calanques, to good effect. In the latter, Donnelly’s gentle piano opens the proceedings, following which Deniz plays a lyrical, gentle theme above him while bassist Henderson fills in and Ardelli plays cymbal washes in the background. But the piece continues to accelerate in tempo, become louder and busier, bringing us to an ecstatic close.

Accretion starts out with Henderson playing alone, after which the leader falls in behind him and they again pursue a slow 4. Donnelly’s piano includes some enticing Monk-like chords, and indeed the ensuing melody also has a Thelonious sound about it. And once again, there is a gradual increase in tempo and intensity, built up largely through Deniz’ excellent solo. The Monk influence continues in the theme’s development as well. This is interesting music!

The Serpentine Path has a gentle, almost Bill Evans-like sound about it, except that its shifting rhythms and more chromatic harmonies are rather different from most (but not all) Evans pieces. Donnelly’s rich, deep-in-the-keys chords dominate a full chorus before Deniz comes in with a fine, sparse alto solo. When Donnelly returns, his playing is also sparse. This is the kind of “soft jazz” I enjoy: music with structure and feeling, not the drippy lounge stuff that seems to be dominating the landscape of late.

5:55 a.m. opens with a drum solo by the leader, quite busy in places, but eventually becomes a fairly lyrical piece in a medium-slow tempo. Once again, the tempo slowly increases as the music becomes more complex. By contrast, Thanks for Something is a fairly busy piece, again with some Monk influence (but less than in Accretion), while the finale, Shangri-La Pearl, again takes us into subtler realms, but again accelerates and becomes more emotional, using exotic chords. The only thing I didn’t like was the fade-out ending.

Otherwise, this is a tremendously interesting first CD from an immensely talented group.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Dirigo Rataplan’s New Album

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GRAY: Congruently. Rollin’ thru town. Trends of trending. Texicate. The Wire. Quantum Cryptology. What we learn from cities. The Feeling of Healing (for Steve Grover). Intrepid Travelers. Micro Dosage / Dirigo Rataplan: Dave Ballou, tpt; Ellery Eskelin, t-sax; Michael Formanek, bs; Devin Gray, dm / Rataplan Records RR001

Despite the odd name of the group, Dirigo Rataplan plays somewhat straightahead, bop-influenced jazz with irregular meters thrown in for flavor, but they’re a really good group: tight, creative and with well-scored arrangements that make them sound like more than just four musicians. All of the compositions on this eponymous CD were written by the group’s leader, drummer Devin Gray.

The opener, Congruently, displays the band at its best, with trumpeter Ballou and saxist Eskelin playing lines that run opposite each other for a while, then in unison, then in harmony, then back again. And the melodic line just keeps changing and shifting. In the second number, Rollin’ Thru Town, the band really deconstructs the beat after the opening lick, slowing the tempo down and playing four different rhythms, one for each instrument, that somehow dovetail and make sense. Harmonically, the band leans towards tonality but occasionally plays outside notes, not so much that they lose the listener in a knot of noise but enough to keep the mind engaged. One interesting aspect of this performance is the work of bassist Michael Formanek, who now follows Ballou’s rhythm, now Eskelin’s, before falling into a more conventional 4/4 to coalesce the band at about the 3:15 mark, which lasts to the end of the track.

Trends of Trending has a sort of irregular bossa-nova beat, only more jazzified, with the two lead horns playing the odd melodic line in harmony, sometimes in outside jazz counterpoint à la Ornette Coleman, pulling both rhythm and harmony apart in interesting ways. This one almost sounds like a jazz band on acid. Staccato hiccups from the two horns interject themselves during Formanek’s solo.

Texicate begins as the most obscure and deconstructed tune on the CD, with Gray playing soft but complex patterns on drums while Eskelin’s tenor sax ruminates in the foreground. Eventually, Ballou comes in to add commentary here and there. The two horns then engage in a sort of staccato, contrapuntal dialogue with the bass joining them underneath. Oddly, they all somehow coalesce towards the end! By contrast, The Wire, though also exploring irregular meter, begins almost straightforward by comparison, becoming more complex as it goes along. Eskelin has a nice outside solo and Ballou almost sounds like Don Cherry in his solo excursion.

Quantum Cryptology is a slow, mesmerizing sort of piece with a slightly menacing undertone. Eskelin and Formanek play the opening chorus together, and later on Ballou plays an a cappella cadenza using descending chromatics to fill the gap between sections, then doubling the tempo while Gray plays brushes and snare drum underneath.  Eventually, a three-way conversation is set up between trumpet, sax and bass, now playing arco.

What we learn from cities has two different tempi, a slow one for the two horns and a faster one for the rhythm section, which don’t exactly match up perfectly, making for some metric dissonance (so to speak). The horns eventually fall in line with the quicker tempo, things get louder and more hectic, and the city learning becomes a sea of noise. A slow, disconnected mood also imbues The Feeling of Healing along with some edge-of-the-strings bass playing and somewhat cacophonic (but soft) licks by the trumpet and tenor sax. The music continues to deconstruct itself, moving into a passage played by what sounds like a large gong with sandpaper rubbed against the drum head and soft plucked bass, with the tenor and trumpet playing soft, whining figures around it. It isn’t so much the sound of healing, to me, as the sound of illness. Surprisingly, the musicians sort of come together at about the six0minute mark, near the end of the composition…evidently, the healing process.

A slow, dirge-like feeling is also evident in Intrepid Travelers, which again moves from disconnected phrases to a coalescing melody with development. Micro Dosage begins with odd, scattered figures strewn about the soundscape by trumpet and sax over rhythmically displaced bass and drums, which eventually become a rather menacing but still out-there group lick which ends the album.

An utterly fascinating excursion by this very talented band.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Brennan & Pago Libre Out on a Limb

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GOT HARD / BRENNAN: got hard – FunPhare for the Common Sense. Randulin Variaziuns. GruyAIR. Lai Nair. Tü-Da-Do. ¿Nana? Tam Lyn. Fake Five. SHIKLOPER-BRENNAN: Robin. BRENNAN-DORAN-HÉRAL: got hard – a ma/thema/gical fortspinnung. / Pago Libre (Florian Mayer, vln; Arkady Shikloper, Fr-hn/Alphrn; John Wolf Brennan, pno; Tom Götze, bs); Alpentöne Biasorchester; Christian Zehnder, voc; Christy Doran, gtr; Patrice Héral, dm/perc / Leo Records CDLR 835 (live: August 19, 2017)

This CD is a bit of a different flavor from the free-jazz music of Ivo Perelman, being a set of what can only be termed third stream compositions by John Wolf Brennan, written for his own quartet Pago Libre, a guest vocalist, guitarist and drummer, and the Lucerne-based Alpentöne Biasorchester. Its miracle is that the music was composed and performed in just three months with only three rehearsals. Brennan must be thanking his lucky stars that it turned out as good as it did.

The first number sounded much like experimental big-band jazz of the late 1960s-early ‘70s, with multiple rhythm changes and very complex writing for the ensemble, while the second, based on a very Middle Eastern folk song from the Engad-Inn, according to the liner notes, “in the local Rhaetoromanic idiom called Vallader.” But it has the kind of hypnotic sound of much Indian music focusing on long drones sung by Christian Zehnder in an overtone mode with “kyrgarah deep sea diving voice: thrown in, violin, guitar and French horn. Eventually it moves from slow droning to a sort of loping, pseudo-R&B beat with fine solos from the principals.

By contrast, the Shikloper-Brennan piece Robin is a variant on the old Bee Gees’ disco hit Stayin’ Alive, greatly improved by swinging it with a jazz beat and rewriting the melody line. Shikloper plays the bridge melody while violinist Mayer swings behind him, then come solos by Doran and Mayer. We then get, as John Cleese used to say, “something completely different” in the outside jazz-classical composition got hard – a ma/thema/gical fortspinnung, which get a little wild to say the least yet somehow manages to hold together, featuring Doran, Brennan, and Patrice Héral. We then return to slow droning in the Celtic-inspired GruyAIR, which features what sounds like an accordion in addition to some interesting wind scoring. This piece got on my nerves with its incessant wordless yodeling against an accordion background, but the ensuing wind passage with violin was extremely interesting.

Lai Nair is a duet for Alphorn and bass, and a very fine piece it is, too, with interesting tempo changes and a sort of loping beat that propels it gently but firmly. Sadly, Tü-Da-Do begins with some really awful screaming-yodeling. Leave it to rock people to ruin the sound of yodeling like they’ve ruined folk and classical singing, but if you mind can shut out the awful sound of Zehnder’s voice there is some good music going on behind him. Well, at least the live audience thought it was hot poop. ¿Nana? begins with than noisy, inarticulate rapping by some noisy woman, moves into busy drumming with vocal interjections, then goes into a rock beat. Oh, how I hate rock music. You have absolutely NO idea how much I hate this crap…like the plague, and a plague it is in both the classical and jazz worlds. A pox on it. Yet there are some interesting interjections from Mayer, Shikloper and Doran that perk up one’s ears temporarily. Ah, but here comes our awful rock yodeler once more. A pox on him, too!

Following this is some kind of Celtic piece with bagpipes, followed by a fiddle tune. Apparently, Brennan is really big on the Celtic thing which, again, is not jazz, although the band does swing a little on the bridge. Happily the last piece, Fake Five, returns us to the true jazz world, with some interesting scoring and solos, though it closes out with some weird group yodeling.

The program, as noted above, is a bit uneven in quality but still mostly interesting, worth hearing for the outstanding compositions and arrangements it contains.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Far-Outside Jazz from Perelman & Mahall

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KINDRED SPIRITS / Untitled extempore improvisations / Ivo Perelman, t-sax; Rudi Mahall, bs-cl / Leo Records CDLR 840/41

Two and a half years ago, when this blog was still young and reaching out to readers, I took the plunge and reviewed a really interesting and far-out album by Ivo Perelman and the Sirius Quartet. As it turned out, this was one of a series of 18 jazz CDs that Perelman made with members of the string family, and now he is turning his attention towards playing wholly improvised duets with bass clarinetists. This 2-disc set with Rudi Mahall is the first of these.

Trying to describe Perelman’s style isn’t as easy as one may think. It would be easy, but not accurate, to pigeonhole him as one of those outside-jazz squawkers who just play random notes in order to impress those who know very little about music and/or wow his audiences. But Perelman is much more than that. He is a solid musician who understands structure, no matter how outré his playing seems to be. Outside jazz it may be, but unstructured slop it is not. His pieces, improvised into being, have direction and structure, no matter how wild they may sound. Perelman has a deep understanding of melodic and harmonic construction; he simply chooses to take them to their furthest limits in his playing. In this respect he is much more like Lennie Tristano than like Cecil Taylor. His music can be understood by the musically educated listener.

Which is not to say that it is predictable or, at times, even likeable. Perelman and his cohort on this set, Rudi Mahall, push each other through lyrical and jagged musical lines, mostly the latter, as they move from piece to piece. Recorded in a studio, there is little ambience; the two instruments are miked fairly closely, and the result is a set that jumps out of your speakers with the force of two reed juggernauts. Yet once one adjusts to their musical aesthetic, the music becomes irresistible to listen to. It is like watching two great abstract painters compete with and complement each other on the same canvas. Sometimes they play similar figures, sometimes they contrast with each other. I was stunned by Mahall’s ability, at times, to extend the range of his instrument into the “real” clarinet register. At first I thought it was Perelman playing up that high, but then I heard the tenor sax behind him. But don’t be so quick to judge, for at times it is Perelman who flies up into the soprano sax register while Mahall burps along genially in his normal low register.

The music is so dense that your ears do need a breather. I suggest taking a 10-minute intermission after the first CD. Yes, there is at least one piece on each of the two CDs that I feel go too far, sounding like Albert Ayler on LSD, and these put me off; but the rest of the album is really terrific, with some pieces sounding like modern classical music. Recommended to the adventurous!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Falletta Conducts Schreker

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SCHREKER: Prelude to a Drama. Der Geburstag der Infantin. Romantic Suite / Berlin Radio Symphony Orch.; JoAnn Falletta, cond / Naxos 8.573821

Franz Schreker, fêted in Germanic countries but not particularly well-known here in America, had an odd career and left an unusual legacy. A musical stepchild of both Wagner and Strauss, he wrote similar music in the years between 1903 and 1929, building up a solid reputation in Germany as an interesting composer. Taking his cue in part from both Strauss’ Elektra and Debussy’s Pelleas, he wrote intense psychological dramas about the dark side of human nature, of which his famous opera Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized, 1915) was a typical example. It is the story of the Genoan nobleman Alviano Salvago, an ugly dwarf with a heart of gold who only wants to be loved but knows he can never have a woman, so he donates his island paradise Elysium to the people—but Elysium is already being used by normal but debauched noblemen for their revels, and they resent it. Carlotta, the daughter of the Podestà, loves Alviano for his noble soul and tells him she wants to paint a picture of him as she views him. They fall in love but everything goes wrong. Count Tamare abducts and rapes Carlotta, Alviano rescues her, but when she comes to she keeps calling out Tamare’s name before she dies of her wounds and Alviano goes mad.

It was a forerunner of Berg’s even more lurid dramas and brought him both acclaim from artistic intellectuals and the scorn and hatred of the burgeoning Nazi Party. Once Hitler took over, Schreker was removed from his position as director of the Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin and then thrown out of the country. It was a shock his system could not take, and he died of a series of two strokes in March 1934.

The Prelude to a Drama (Vorspiel zu einem Drama) is an expanded version of the prelude to Die Gezeichneten. Like most of Schreker’s music, it is tonal and late-Romantic in feeling but with Scriabin-like chord positions and an undercurrent of menace. Falletta does a stupendous job with it, producing a performance nearly as great as that of Michael Gielen.

Interestingly, Der Geburstag der Infantin (The Birthday of the Infanta), dating from 1923, is a surprisingly cheery and even more tonal piece of music, more like the sort of thing you’d hear on your local classical music radio station. Needless to say, the Romantic Suite from 1903 also lives up to its title, being even less harmonically daring than the previous suite.

A bit disappointing, then, to those of us who admire the later, more adventurous Schreker, if a good introduction to his prodigious talents for those who like their music romantic. Falletta, as usual, does a great job with the music. About a dozen years or so ago, both she and Marin Alsop were good up-and-coming women conductors, but over the years Alsop, though apparently having a high-powered agent who thinks she’s great, has declined precipitously in the quality of her performances while Falletta has, if anything, become even better and more interesting over the years.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Harbison’s Requiem

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HARBISON: Requiem / Jessica Rivera, sop; Michaela Martens, mezzo; Nicholas Phan, ten; Kelly Markgraf, bar; Nashville Symphony Chorus & Orch.; Giancarlo Guerrero, cond / Naxos 8.559841

Classical requiems are an odd genre. Most of them are written (of course) for the living, but mostly to commemorate the death of someone important—either a major public figure, as in the case of the Cherubini, Berlioz and Verdi Requiems, or someone close to the composer, as in the case of the Brahms (Mozart started out writing his Requiem on commission for some dignitary but in his mind believed he was writing it for himself). Britten wrote his specifically for the horrors of war. I really don’t know what motivated the Fauré Requiem other than his statement that he wrote it as a form of “religious illusion…dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.” It’s interesting that Fauré’s Requiem is the softest and quietest of them all.

John Harbison apparently began writing his Requiem at about the time he was working on sketches for The Great Gatsby, like Fauré primarily for his own interest. It only became a focused work in 2001 when it was, for a reason not explained, commissioned by the Boston Symphony. In the liner notes, Harbison writes, “Ideally this piece is not coercively about how you should feel, but rather an offer of a place to be true to your own thoughts. I inscribed, as I wrote this piece over 17 years, the names of loved ones who died in that time, not to tell the listener about my reaction, but to remind myself that only living alertly in our own immediate lives gives us any comprehension of war, disaster, destruction on a wider scale.”

Interestingly, Harbison makes no mention of the 9/11 disaster that struck the very month the Requiem was commissioned. Just a thought.

The music is typical of Harbison’s aesthetic, modern but largely tonal with interesting harmonic twists and orchestration. The opening “Introit” is quiet and reflective, with interesting string and wind blends as well as a certain amount of counterpoint in the choral writing, which becomes very busy towards the end of the movement. Interestingly, the opening of the “Dies irae” has a certain Britten-esque sound about it. I heard a xylophone or marimba in the background. In the “Tuba mirum,” one hears odd trombone and muted trumpet figures (similar in orchestration to Gatsby, but used differently) as well as unusual rhythms in the choral writing.

The first vocal soloist one hears is mezzo Michaela Martens, in the “Quid sum miser.” She has an excellent voice, somewhat dark in timbre, solid and with both excellent diction and vocal control. The tenor and baritone also come in during this section, the former with a thin and overly-bright voice, the latter with a fine, rich sound. In the “Confutatis – Lacrimosa,” the music becomes very complex indeed, this time for the soloists against the orchestra. Soprano Rivera also enters in this section; her voice, too, sounded somewhat thin to me, but with an attractive brightness about it. Interestingly, however, they all blend perfectly in the “Offertorium.” The “Sanctus” has an almost Carl Orff quality in his use of rhythm. In the “Agnus Dei,” the tempo slows down as the violin and soprano voice play against one another before the chorus returns.

Throughout the work, Harbison’s compositional skill becomes ever more apparent. To a certain extent, the music is more cerebral than emotionally affecting, which is not to say that it has no energy or emotion, but rather that the complexity of the writing is what holds one’s attention. It is, however, an exceptionally fine piece, clearly one of his very best.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Mohajer Presents “Pictures of the Hidden”

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MOHAJER: Prelude / The Ives Collective / Reng / San Francisco Wind Ensemble / 5 Songs, Based on Poetry of Hafez / Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai, sop; Karolina Rojahn, pno / String Quartet / The Alexander String Quartet / Ballade in C / Karolina Rojahn, pno / Navona NV6180

Kamyar Mohajer is a composer who combines Eastern modality with modern harmony, counterpoint and polytonality. This CD presents a fairly wide range of works written for various combinations.

The first piece, Prelude, opens with a melodic and somewhat sad cello theme played by the Ives Collective’s Stephen Harrison, with violinist Kay Stern and violist Susan Freier joining him to fill in the harmonies and add counter-lines as the music progresses. This is a decidedly Romantic-sounding piece, with only brief touches of Eastern music in its melodic and harmonic construction.

By contrast, Reng is a rather jolly piece for wind quintet with a fair amount of Eastern harmony woven into it, played with brio by the San Francisco Wind Ensemble. Even more interesting, however, are the songs based on the poetry of Hafez: truly Eastern melodic construction yet still with an attractive melodic contour about them. Soprano Raeeks Shehabi-Yaghmai has a lovely timbre and good diction, but unfortunately a slow beat or wobble in her voice. The piano accompaniment is simple yet effective.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the wonderful Alexander String Quartet playing Mohajer’s piece for strings here—the first movement is yet another lyrical work balancing Western and Eastern elements in a lyrical, elegiac mode, while the energetic second is contrapuntal and more Western in scope. Yet it is in the third movement that Mohajer sounds to me at his most original: a rather amorphous theme in the beginning, leading into an uptempo passage with string tremolos beneath the lead violin which come and go, creating an unusual “ripple” effect in the music, later utilizing upward swoops by the violins against a quadruple-time tremolo base played by the cello. The final movement uses jagged, dramatic figures played against one another which builds into a sort of fugue. This is a very interesting piece!

The ending Ballade in C leans towards bitonality throughout due to Mohajer’s continually moving bass line, which explores unusual modes, and despite it balladic quality it has some dramatic moments within. The tempo also doubles, creating more tension within the piece, which builds to a climax, recedes to quietude, and then builds up yet again.

This is a very interesting album of unusual and largely accessible music.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Koukl Plays Lutosławski

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LUTOSŁAWSKI: Piano Sonata. Bukoliki (Bucolics). 3 Pieces for the Young. A Kiss of Roxanne. Winter Waltz. Folk Melodies. 2 Études. Inwencja (Invention), 2 vers. An Overheard Melody for Piano 4 Hands.* Miniature for Piano 4 Hands* / Giorgio Koukl, *Virginia Rossetti, pno / Grand Piano GP768

Giorgio Koukl, a pianist I admire nearly as much as the great Michael Korstick—both have fabulous articulation, a superb touch, and get to the emotional heart of the music they perform—pursues a more varied repertoire. As he once told me via email, “All the composers I like could be sitting around a Paris café c. 1930 talking about music and art.” In addition to Martinů, Kapralova, Tansman and Arthur Lourié, he now adds the name of Witold Lutosławski, a younger colleague and admirer of the great Karol Szymanowski. Yet somehow Lutosławski’s music still remains somewhat in the shadows while Szymanowski has finally, posthumously, received his just due.

This collection of Lutosławski’s piano works come primarily from new, corrected sources based on original manuscripts, including three pieces new to CD: A Kiss of Roxanne, Winter Waltz and the first version of Invention from an unedited Paul Sacher Foundation manuscript. This is especially true of the early (1934) piano sonata, which according to the notes Lutosławski wrote in pencil, providing “some very precise fingering, but when his wife Danuta subsequently overwrote the notes in black ink she omitted the fingering. Contrary to the composer’s wishes, the Piano Sonata was recorded for Polish Radio during the 1970s [he considered it over-Romantic, owing too much to Ravel and Szymanowski]. Furthermore, when it was finally published a decade or so after Lutosławski’s death, the printed edition was riddled with errors. Koukl has identified 73 of them, including the serious omission of one 16-bar passage as well as a number of other missing bars.” The only aspect of the sonata that I found too effusive was the (for me) overly-busy left hand, constantly running eighth-note passages beneath the already busy right-hand figures, but it is clearly good music if not in the composer’s mature style.

Interestingly, to my ears, Lutosławski’s mature style—heard in the Bucolics (1952) immediately following the sonata—also owes much to Szymanowski, but much less to Ravel. There’s also a bit of Bartók in it, particularly in the more insistent rhythms. The first of his Pieces for the Young is a blisteringly fast etude; I would never have been able to play this when I was young! A Kiss of Roxanne and Winter Waltz are fairly straightforward pieces, harmonically speaking, but still quite interesting.

The Bartók connection is even more strongly felt in the Folk Melodies (1945), and here Lutosławski introduces more irregular, asymmetric rhythms than even the Hungarian composer did in his own pieces. The two “Studies” for piano are absolutely remarkable pieces, and here Koukl plays with tremendous fire. Dating from 1940-41, they are bitonal works with hard-driving rhythms, which make the listener sit up and take notice. The two “Inventions” are also bitonal works, although rather quieter and somewhat strange in their form. An Overheard Tune, on the other hand, is a rather jolly piece, sounding very much like something Prokofiev might have written, and Miniature is a fascinating work which, like its predecessor, is written for piano four hands. In both of these, Koukl plays the second part to the young and evidently quite talented young pianist Virginia Rossetti, who matches Koukl phrase for phrase and accent for accent.

All in all, a very interesting album showing the wide range of Lutosławski in this, his small output of piano music.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Damrau Does Verdi Songs…And How!

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VERDI: Stornello. 6 Romanze: Lo spazzacamino; La zingara; Perduta ho la pace; Brindisi; More, Elisa, lo stanco poeta;+ Nell’orror di notte oscura;+ Non t’accostare all’urna.+ La seduzione.+ L’esule.+ Il poveretto.+ Brindisi (1st version).* In solitaria stanza.* Deh, pietoso, oh Addolorata.* Ad una stella.* Il tramonto.* Il mistero* / Diana Damrau, sop; *César Augusto Gutiérrez, ten; +Paul Armin Edelmann, bar; Friedrich Haider, pno / Profil PH14033

When Diana Damrau is on form, there is no soprano in the world who can touch her, but unfortunately, in recent years, a pronounced flutter has crept into her voice which borders on wobble. These recordings, made in 2005 and 2010, come from her pre-wobble period and thus are utterly delightful from start to finish.

Up until now, my favorite collection of the Verdi songs was the DG Eloquence CD sung by the late Margaret Price. Only 15 songs were on that disc, however, not 17, and one of them—the Ave Maria—is not present here. Price, as I’m sure most people remember, had a creamy soprano voice, almost plumy in tone. That was its chief glory, that plus her superb musicianship. But let me tell you, for the most part Diana Damrau leaves her in the dust. Damrau attacks these songs—sung in much higher keys, more like a soubrette-coloratura than like a lyric soprano. Maybe this is the sort of thing that took a toll on her voice down the road. But here, on this recital, you forget about the decline and revel in the glory of the voice, including all those fabulous trills. My God, Damrau had it all: a voice, fire, technique to burn and intense interpretation. Except for the somewhat careful-sounding Italian pronunciation, you could easily fool someone into thinking this was a Latin soprano (probably Spanish more than Italians, since most Italian sopranos, then as now, are exceptionally lazy and don’t develop a good trill).

Only in Perduta ho la pace did I really miss Price’s creamy sound and perfect legato. Damrau gives the song a dramatic interpretation, including a drop down into her mezzo range, but it’s not quite the same. Margaret Price was sumptuous, seductive, and luscious; Damrau gives these songs the ol’ Marisa Galvany treatment: full force ahead and damn the torpedoes. And if you are willing to sacrifice some of Price’s creaminess, it works wonders on the music and text.

With a few exceptions, Damrau takes these songs at a faster clip than Price: sometimes just a few seconds (Stornello), sometimes nearly a half-minute. And happily, pianist Friedrich Haider is right there with her, you might say her Armen Boyajian (Galvany’s voice teacher and frequent recital partner in the Good Old Days).

But as it turns out, Damrau—whose face and name are quite obviously selling this album—only sing the first five songs! The next six are sung by baritone Paul Armin Edelmann, whose smooth voice is delightful to hear if less intense than Madame Damrau (though he does sing with some dramatic inflection in Nell’orror di notte oscura). Tenor César Augusto Gutiérrez, has a brighter, more “oomphy” voice than Edelmann (but not quite as fine a tone), gets the rest of them. A strange arrangement! When this CD was first issued in 2011, the other two singers (and pianist) had their photos on the cover, but in this new incarnation only Damrau’s photo is on the cover, and her name is twice as large as the others. Looks like a bait-and-switch to me.

So…if you want the Verdi songs sung entirely by a soprano, you still need to get the Price CD, but believe me, those five Damrau songs are simply wonderful. Your choice!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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